Monday, January 30, 2017

Breaking Eggs & Rules with Nicole Walker

Since Nicole's beat for this column, aside from eggs, is breaking the rules, in which she asks other cool kids about how they break the rules, and since she has a new book, Egg, coming out from Object Lessons (Bloomsbury) in March, I thought I'd, uh, like, break the rules and grill her instead. (Also really trying to avoid kitcheny puns.) (Also: can you grill eggs? I am guessing not.) --Ander


Ander Monson: Like with your Micrograms, the one New Michigan Press published last year, this is a small book in size, if not ambition. Is the appeal of little essays and that of little books like that of little eggs? Or eggs? I'm wondering how this strand of your work feels against the longer form stuff (long essays, memoir, etc) you do. (Or if this is kind of the fork of your work that your poetry used to occupy?)

Nicole Walker:

On Tiny Things: An Essay

I do think the mini essays began with the microcosm project and the tiny essays from that project that became Micrograms. Those essays were pointedly small, little bits of evidence that the tiny makes an impact on the large. The tiny essays interrupt the longer ways, causing trouble. I'd say the mini-essays are trouble makers. Not really occupying the space of poetry, since my poems start from a different place, but little irreverent bubbles that pop in the slow heave of the longer essays. In writing Egg, that idea metastasized. Matryoshka dolls became an organizing principle. One idea inside the other.

Ander: I think I mentioned to you in an email that one of the things I really like about this work (and your work in general) is the sense of movement, by which I mean the velocity of sideways (or as Athena calls it, "sideward," since "forward" and "backward") movement. That's usually thought of, I guess, as associative or lyric, that flicking from one gear to another. I mean, you can look at most of the essays and just find a paragraph like on 13:
When Rebecca paints, she paints with oil, not egg tempera. She paints in her studio, while in her kitchen she makes a lemon cake into which she has folded four binding eggs. She plans to share the cake. She takes the cake to the gallery owner. The gallery owner offers the prospective buyer a piece of cake. Rebecca doesn’t tell her about her eggs, the number of them or how many she has cracked. She doesn’t mention her kids. No one needs an artist who also has a brood. It’s no one’s business what we do with our eggs; that’s why their shells are opaque. No one is allowed to look in. No one’s looking back. But everyone is thinking, inside, inside, inside. That’s where the art lives. There’s a whole lot of potential in that egg. Everyone wants to hold it. Everyone loves the beginning of something even if they don’t know where the beginning will go. Eggs are the beginning because they are air and because they are glue, which is how we’ve kept it together, off and on, for so long. Alternating currents. Silence and speech. Uterus full and uterus empty. Potential potential potential. Chicken.
and we're just flying from one thing to another. We're shifting grammatically, in location, in subject, from narrative to associative to expository to metaphorical then just back to the stinger of "Chicken." I mean to say you do a lot of work in a small--egglike, perhaps--space. I'm not sure if there's a question buried in this comment except to ask you to talk a bit about how you think of your essays as moving things.

On Speed

These Object Lessons titles are so diverse: Hood, Driver's License, Tree, Earth. Earth! How are you going to fit a book about Earth in 130 pages? This is why I feel like Object Lessons is a great form for me. I love the constriction--like iambic pentameter but used like Gerard Manley Hopkins. A kind of sprung Object. I couldn't fit all there was to say about egg but I could take a number of themes about egg and try to tie them together. That theming and tying happens pretty fast, like threads of egg in egg drop soup. You want them to come together but to retain some of their individual strands. Right temperature and whisking are required.

Ander: Seems to me that this book expands the palette of the series quite a bit. In its methodologies, for sure. How did you understand the assignment of the Object Lessons series and this book's role within it? I'm wondering what kind of permission that gave you (or how you wrote against how you thought of how the books in the series work)?


On Trying To Be Someone Else and Failing

I like to break the rules. At some point even, I was mad at the rules. How was I supposed to write the history of the egg from the beginning of time, which is how I understood the project at first. The first OL I read, Golf Ball, really did go into the deep history of golf. I'm not a historian! I'm like an egg-drop-soup-making-interrupter. After banging my head against the wall for some reasonable amount of time, I realized I could only write the Egg book I could write. The cool thing about the OL series is that they have literature scholars, artists, and regular writers writing these. The idea behind the OL series is that who holds the object shapes it. I got the egg. I tried not to break it.

Ander: Can we discuss frittatas? I've never understood why anyone would knowingly make or eat a frittata when you could have an omelet. I've sent back "omelets" that I've ordered that showed up as frittatas because frittatas always seemed to me like half-assed omelets. They lack the apparent care and contrast between wrapper and wrapped, and that pleasing feeling of secret reveal that you get with an omelet when you get inside. Instead they just become a jumble, which seems somehow to me graceless. (Though I admit I am an enthusiast for hashes, which I recognize might seem counterintuitive, but then as you know my tastes in food are not always all that consistent.) You, though, who should know better (and possibly do), seem to prefer the frittata to the omelet, or at least you write more about cooking them. So: why frittatas? Is the benefit of the frittata just convenience, that you can feed a group much more easily or quickly with the frittata? That it's less fussy? That it wears its chaos better? But then what about constraint? Are we still talking about egg dishes or the book?


On Frittatas

One of the first things I cooked for Erik when we first started dating was a frittata. Or a fake frittata in that I used leftover pasta, like broccoli and sausage linguini, added a couple of eggs, added the mixture to a pan, flipped it (tricky!) and then took it with us camping. Erik sat at the picnic table, the one time in our relationship where we had a picnic table while camping, and took a bite and asked, "where is the sauce?"
     The next frittata of our relationship was in Venice Beach at a restaurant where they roasted fifteen kinds of vegetables, including your most favorite mushrooms. They cooked the veggies with eggs in the pan. Flipped it (tricky!) and served it. Erik shared it with me. Never once did he suggest it needed sauce.
     The most recent frittata I made I just whisked up some eggs and cooked them too fast in a pan. I flipped the egg mixture. It wasn't tricky because the eggs had dried out over the too-high heat. The texture was more shell than albumen and yolk. I should have found some sauce. Erik would have used ketchup.

Ander: I'm going out of order now, but it doesn't feel right to just interject new questions in among the old. I hear what you're saying about constraint, though. One thing I really like about this book is how relatively uncooked-seeming some of the parts of it are, not normally an aspiration for the book, but you include big chunks of people's stories—Margot's and Tanya's, just to name a couple obvious ones—as quotations. In this way a lot of the people in your life show up here in the book in citation or in narrative (I see I make a brief appearance too). I recognize lots of stories in here that I've heard in various conversations with you before, which is a cool insider effect for me personally and I'm sure many other people in your life. Is there something in your approach to nonfiction--or just to Egg--or to eggs or cooking that for you is essentially collaborative or social?


On Using People's Stories Verbatim in a Book You're Supposedly Writing

I had three reasons why I wanted to use other people's stories in the book. 1) The eggs are a metaphor for story and internationality. Eggs are glue. Stories are glue. Eggs are international. Stories are international. 2) I only know so much about eggs. I wanted to know what other people knew about them. How they figured culturally in their lives. How eggs described their families. Once I got those stories, I wondered why would I change them. They're little gifts, perfectly packaged already: like eggs. And 3) This book is about friendship and how you make it, lose it, if you're lucky, get it back. I thought that the stories people shared with me solidified, like a wood-smoked-veggie frittata, our friendship. Oh, and 4, if I can have a fourth reason, sometimes, I get tired of hearing myself make eggy metaphors and looking for cliches that feature the breakiness of eggs.

Ander: I should also admit here that though you've instructed me many times how not to ruin scrambled eggs by cooking them too quickly over too-hot heat, I don't think I've ever once had the patience to do it that way, so I feel like I'm missing out on something for sure. What's wrong with me? I did, however, internalize and now use a little lesson that Heather Price-Wright gave me from her dad about making omelets, how you don't actually need to use milk in the mix, how actually a couple tablespoons or two of water, mixed vigorously, actually does better. I'm not sure it actually does better for me but I no longer use milk making omelets. God damn these questions are getting me hungry.


On What Should We Eat for Lunch

Last night, after we bought a new car, which I regret (only because I hate buying anything, except groceries), we came home from our friends' house. Erik cleaned out the garage to make room for the new car, which I regret buying (because it barely fits in the garage. Truck.) and I prepared the batter for a Dutch Baby (4 eggs, 1.5 cups flour, 1.5 cups milk, pinch of sugar, splash of vanilla, tiny bit of salt) which I would make in the morning for the two kids extra we had since apparently on the  Saturday after regretful purchases, one hosts a sleepovers. I thought I'd read in some cookbook that making the batter the night before would lead to better babies but maybe that was crepes because the Dutch Baby didn't puff as it was supposed to. Flat as a pancake, it came out of the cast iron pan. We ate it with lemon and powdered sugar and my daughter Zoe said it was delicious anyway. "It tastes like lemon squares," she said.  But now I'm out of eggs and there are still 4 kids here, 1 garage-cleaning husband, and me to feed lunch. I think I'll make quesadillas.

Thanks for breaking the rules, Ander Monson. I hope you also noticed that never once did I use the word "Eggcellent" or "Eggstatic" or "Eggsquisite" in the book. I'm grateful too for your restraint.


Nicole Walker is a professional eggcentric, eggsayist, and eggalitarian. She's a reggular columnist on this site and a mustache aficionado. She's 93 letters deep in her Letters to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey series. You can read em at her blog or in Ducey's official mail.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Ander Monson on David LeGault, Obsession, and The Bad Idea Essay

Well damn, I see it's Wednesday night and the post we had queued up for this week has not yet appeared. Will emailed to say he was working on it, whatever it is. I could probably head over to the Essay Daily folder and check the calendar to see what it is, and if I could be helpful, but I'm choosing not to, instead am going to fill this gap, this little silence with an essay. That comes out of reading a couple books at once and thinking about a project I'm working on called March Fadness.

I've been reading two forthcoming books at the moment, kind of switching back and forth between them, which is a habit that I'm never sure is healthy or productive or idiosyncratic or just wackadoo, scattered, and lame-o. One's Yiyun Li's Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life—named after the title essay, originally published in A Public Space, that later appeared in Best American Essays. It's a great essay, one of the ones that's stuck with me most in the last few years, and you should read it. The other is David LeGault's One Million Maniacs: Beanie Babies, Killer Cars, and the Power of Collectibles (to which: preorder this bad boy now; it's great). Reading it I've been thinking of writing to David—he's a former student of mine and a very fine essayist. He's also an Upper Michigander which doesn't hurt, and he lives out of the country doing something I don't understand.

I've been reading his book since the publisher (a guy I was introduced to as someone who graduated a ways back from U Arizona's MFA program which I'm directing now, though after trading a couple emails it turns out that he didn't actually graduate but did have a lot of cocktails with Joy Williams, who was teaching here at the time, which he estimates probably amounted to the same education) sent it my way for a blurb. So I've been thinking about the book, which I read a few years ago in draft form but which is way better now (nice work, David, making this thing really come together: it does). And what to say about it, whether to go descriptive and save the publisher some jacket copy or go hysterically positive (never a bad idea) or grandstand (usually a bad idea) and carve out whatever aesthetic space I feel like I occupy along with the book. Don't worry, I'm trying real hard not to do the latter. But I found myself thinking a lot about the book. I ended up teaching it in my nonfiction workshop this semester, and it comes right out of a grad seminar I taught in the fall on The Collection as a literary thing).

LeGault's book is an exercise in obsession. It's also about obsession, and is alternately hyper perceptive and pleasingly dorky about its subject matter. By subject matter I mean its obvious subject matter, being obsessions with: used 10,000 Maniacs CDs (in his role as used CD buyer for Half Price Books in Minneapolis, at some point he decides to accumulate 100 copies of their CDs, hence the title), Beanie Babies and their weird economy, with silence and snow and love and children's game shows and famous screams, with distance running and books and killer cars, with latrinalia (bathroom graffiti), and what we call a culture and its many opportunities for individuation and accumulation that it offers. But I mean also the subject matter of the self, not just the instrument of memoir (to cite Patricia Hampl) but here also (how could it not be with such glittery accumulations?) its subject. The subject of any collection worth its salt must be—eventually—its collector. That is its motivating force and its primary energy, especially the more esoteric it becomes.

Collecting, as any even half-assed collector will tell you, becomes quickly a very powerful compulsion, almost erotic in its pursuit and payoff as a collection builds and crests and nears completion. (And completion, for the collection, is simultaneously its natural end and its own extinction: one does not really desire completion in this sense, but of course all of our energies are angled toward it.)

Anyhow, LeGault's is a really good book, and one that any obsessives (and what are essayists if not born obsessives) might want to check out. It comes out from Outpost 19 next fall. I'm definitely going to finish a blurb for it, something that I could probably have used the time I'm putting into this essay into instead. But I'm here talking to you about it instead. I guess I kind of feel like reaching out to you to tell you about it and my experience reading it, and the pleasure it gave me—that instead of writing what amounts to a kind of marketing copy (or at least a nice set for the book to spike home), or doing a favor for a friend and someone whose work and self I admire—instead of that I'd rather write to you about that book. (You may perhaps sense in the idea something of that Yiyun Li book too: while this is being written in just one sitting I'm not a fool; lots of energies are coursing through my thinking about these books.)

Anyhow, I want to talk a bit about the essay "On Excess," from One Million Maniacs. It belongs to a subgenre of essay I'm rather fond of called the Bad Idea Essay (which I think I think I just made up or maybe just forgot its referent and thought myself original: back-pat/laceration?). It begins (and here you can get the immediate sense of how it fits into the subgenre):
I attempt to eat a three-and-a-half pound, seven-patty cheeseburger
Great. This is totally a bad idea. But we want immediately to see where it goes. (Thus conflict's built into the Bad Idea Essay.) Crucially, though, it continues
so that it can be named in my honor. 
and here we've doubled up our subjects: task and honor, and how often these things go together in our lives and stories. How much of what we think of as masculinity is tied up in the stupid seeming unseparatability of these things at times? The essay, as my students pointed out, traffics in vulnerability and the occasional bout of self-laceration as LeGault recounts a time when he ate a giant bucket of movie theatre popcorn and came home to eat a meal his wife had made from scratch without telling her, choosing to choke it down rather than admit his failings: "I'm a fatass, and even worse, a liar." The wife, Michelle, is also present for the massive-burger-eating challenge, adding more stakes to an already high-stakes event. Self-image and how his own wife sees him (or how he fears his wife sees him) are now also on the table along with the 7 patties and the buns.

I'm reminded in the Bad Ideaness of this essay of a story my friend Sean (also, perhaps unsurprisingly, also a marathoner, as obsessives often are if they discover that kind of outlet for their energies) told me about going to his parents' cabin somewhere in rural Tennessee and getting there before they did and deciding to just take one of everything in their medicine cabinet. Now that's a god damn bad idea, I think. And a great idea for an essay. We do not want to be Friend Sean, but we do want to see What Happens to Friend Sean. We want to read about the sort of person Friend Sean Must Be To Do Something So Dumb / Great. Already we are interested in the outcome of his Bad Idea. The great thing about a bad idea is that it sets a bar that the essay must clear to be successful: one must transcend the badness of the idea to get to Something Good for it to work.

Of course this is a mandate for all essays and all pieces of written art. But if you start with a Good Idea it's easy to forget what you have to transcend to really make it go. Sometimes a Good Idea is so self-obviously good that it's actually pretty hard to make the essay good, or live up to the idea. In a Bad Idea essay one's job is to live it down. Or transform it. That's always what we're after: transformation. Swerve. Some movement, even if it's a sexy little wiggle as it tries to work its way into a too-tight dress and doesn't make it all the way and splits its seams and becomes something else, the collision of two things: ambition and transcendence.

I don't want to spoil the essay. I will spoil Friend Sean's essay, which is Unwritten because the outcome of the experiment resulted—simply—in diarrhea—which continues to be one of the few words I cannot spell on the first try. I don't want to say there's not a good essay to be written out of or about bouts of diarrhea (perhaps Michael Ives' "Excerpted from The Dark Burthen" in that special Seneca Review anthology might qualify—and you already know whether you'll go seek that out or not from my description of it), but there aren't probably very many. Maybe Sean will write that essay someday. But he didn't. And at any rate, David LeGault has written his Bad Idea essay (perhaps one could describe most of the essays in the book as Bad Idea essays now that I think about it, and I can feel my blurb writing itself), and finished it. Of course this is also a guy who ran a marathon with me--Grandma's in Duluth, MN, the first one I ran--and it turns out, he told me only later: he didn't train for it. That took most of the edge off my pride in beating his ass at said marathon. So you get the idea. LeGault is kind of a Bad Idea aficionado, but he's an essayist who's figured out how to follow a Bad Idea long enough until it becomes Kind of a Great Idea, Really. You should try it yourself and see where it will take you.

I was planning on writing more about Yiyun Li here, whose essay—and book—invites the kind of writing to I'm doing here (sort of) to David and to you, but I'll put that off for another time: a little later this spring I'll check back with you on that. That's also a book you should preorder now. In the meantime, Dear David, I'm writing here because your book told me or revealed or maybe just flat-out resonated something about my life, which felt good. I hope this kind of resonance is what in part this space is about. It's what our first anthology is about, most definitely. That too you may want to check out in 6 weeks.

And I was meaning to talk more about March Fadness, the sequel to last year's March Sadness, about which I wrote a bit here last spring. All I can say is that you should give this year's tournament/festival of essays and one-hit-wonder songs a read. Start with Brandon Alva's essay, "The Hammer People Need Towels," which went up today as a kind of prelude to the tournament (which begins in earnest 3/1; play-in games begin 2/1). I'm pretty sure March Fadness and Sadness qualify as Bad Idea essay collections on their own, or maybe just machines for memory, but we'll have to see.

These are pretty dark times. Read books for light. Start with these.


Ander Monson is one of the caretakers of this site. Rock and roll.

Monday, January 16, 2017

In conversation with Albert Goldbarth, via many postcards

You'll find a longer preamble to this back & forth in the post just previous, but the quick low-down:

Last summer, when we heard about Albert Goldbarth's new collection—The Adventures of Form and Content—dropping this month, right now in fact, we knew Essay Daily had to commemorate the event, but how? An interview was suggested, and though Goldbarth famously doesn't do interviews, we settled on a compromise: fans would send questions via postcard, and he would reply as he saw fit. And here we are. 

We received a bunch of postcards from all over, some signed, many anonymous, and—due to the constraints of time and temperament—winnowed the lot down to just a handful, which were forwarded on. The replies arrived in a High Priority USPS envelope just last week.

So here it is, Essay Daily's all-inclusive, snail mail, six-months-in-the-making conversation with Albert Goldbarth, cobbled together, a bit frayed 'round the seams, but altogether not too shabby for a Monday morning:

Somewhat embarrassing here, but rather than Postcard it up, I just included a couple questions of my own in my last letter to Goldbarth:
Were you ever tempted to pull a Nicholson Baker and call Griffin a novel? And, are there any contemporary essayists you'd like to see get more attention? 
Despite my not quite playing my own game, he was good enough reply.

Craig Reinbold edited, with Ander, How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader (Coffee House Press, 2017). He also curates this site's Int'l Essayist series.

As for Albert Goldbarth,

Preamble to a coversation with Albert Goldbarth

Maybe it was this line that did it (?): 
“Earlier, I said, ‘in a trough between crests’—sea imagery. I mean in part that dark, as it grows deeper, takes the world away, and a sleepless body will float all night in horrible separation from what it knows and where it’s nurtured. Freedom is sweet; but nobody wants to be flotsam.” 

or this one: 
“But all that’s the future. Life is never the past, the present, or the future. Life is moments the size of the Thailand bumblebee bat that weighs less than a penny.” 

Probably it was this: 
“At the foveal pit in the eye in the back of the eye in the back of the pineal gland, everybody Quixotes.” 

Everybody Quixotes. Of course they do. But few better than Albert Goldbarth. 

It's a rare thing to read a writer and think, truly, Whoa, to dig a book from the pile so unlike all the others—but it happens, occasionally, this unearthing of some rare and mysterious thing unlike any other thing and the decision there and then to tie your heart's strings to it. So it is to fall in love, and so, years ago, I fell in love with Goldbarth's collection Many Circles, or I fell in love with Goldbarth himself, as it's hard to figure where persona/person end/come together. Then I fell in with many of his other books. I'm probably not alone. 

When the news hit us that Goldbarth would be dropping a new collection this January—The Adventures of Form and Content—we knew Essay Daily had to commemorate the event, but how? An interview was suggested, but Goldbarth doesn't do interviews, except this one, in which he says he'll never do another interview. I felt like a schlubb even asking, but it was easy enough, actually: Goldbarth really doesn’t dig interviews, but our appreciation of his work is as genuine as it gets, and he gets this, I think, and anyway I suspect it’s not interviews he hates so much as the regurgitation of his work for the sake of some bored-to-tears blather, the post-reading Q&A, talk for talk’s sake, the mindless mastication of his poems and essays until the nice raspberry flavor has been leeched and you’re left chewing day-old gum. Nobody likes day-old gum. 

The back-and-forth, the repartee, I daresay, he quite enjoys. And so here we are. 

The genesis of our participatory conversation with Albert Goldbarth is below. Questions and replies are in the next post. Enjoy. 

Thanks, Albert.


September 10, 2016

Hi Mr. Goldbarth,

Craig Reinbold here, once more, c/o Essay Daily. We've corresponded a few times regarding the Daily's forthcoming anthology, of with you are a part, but I'm writing today with a different project in mind. Jeff Shotts at Graywolf recently got in touch with Ander and I (Ander being the chief around here) to see if we'd be interested in doing something to commemorate the release of your new book, The Adventures of Form and Content, this upcoming January.

The first, obvious thought was to see if you'd be up for an interview—though Shotts warned of your antipathy towards interviews, and he directed me to an anti-sort-of-interview you did for an interview website, during which you let fly, "for that matter, kill your interview website, and launch a new one devoted to reprinting the work of unjustly neglected poets of the past, or unjustly neglected poems by living poets: give work that's passing into obscurity a new hold on life: let poems of merit speak for themselves (not serve as an excuse for webchatter), and allow fresh light to strike masterful writing that's headed otherwise into the darkness." Well, shit. Well, actually that's more or less what we do at Essay Daily, featuring writing and conversation by and about essayists living and dead, so maybe we're not totally missing your mark.

Give work that's passing into obscurity a new hold on life. Fucking a.

Anyway, maybe you'd be up for some sort of interview, or at least a pre-interview parley? And to be honest, when I say interview, I mean conversation. For me, your essays do stand on their own, and I'm not excited about digging into or tearing them apart looking for something beyond the absolute thrill and sense of playfulness and wonder I get from reading them. If anything I'm a sucker for the essayist himself, which may not be any better, I suppose, but do you know what I mean? In so much as the essay is a brain on a page trying to get at the heart of something (a thought/question/obsession), we read essays because we're interested in/fascinated by that particular pulsing brain. E.g. Can you tell me what exactly you're trying to say with your use of white space in... I hear you read science fiction? Have you read any Liu Cixin? Any thoughts? What'd you think of The Martian? I’m less interested in picking your brain than in just hanging out a bit, here, in letters.

If you're up for it, maybe we could converse, like this, a bit, and I'd scan these letters and put them online via Essay Daily, and that might be a good time? I've also thought it might be fun to collect questions (or comments, or whatever) from writers at large, all over who knows where, via postcard, and then forward these postcards to you and you could respond or not and we could pair your response or non-response for fans to check out. It'd be fun to bring in other brains, I think.

An idea, maybe a little wobbly, out there for your consideration. Any thoughts, about any of this?

I'll wind down here, and await whatever response you might have.

But quick: in response to your give work that's passing into obscurity a new hold on life comment, I'd like to share a poem by Julie Marie Wade, a Daily contributor. I don't really know if this poem is passing into obscurity or not, but maybe that's not important? She ended an essay with it a few years ago, and it's stuck with me, and I'd love to share it with you:

For my mother

Here, on the Atlantic, sunrise
the reversed syntax of my Seattle youth:

I marvel, still young, at what
it means to have been

to see at last the

to read—for the first time—
whole chapters of my life

as an aside.



Monday, January 9, 2017

Riding the Wave: Marcia Aldrich on Diversifying the CNF Anthology

Riding the Wave: Marcia Aldrich on diversifying the CNF anthology

I practically bounded up the stairs to class on my first day of creative nonfiction teaching practicum. Over a year of trying to excite listless students about rhetoric and composition, I had compiled a mental catalogue of all the essayists I wanted to teach—a smattering of writers from lit journals, anthologies, online publications, and their own books. As I waited in the classroom for the rest of my cohort to arrive, I wondered how I might go about compiling these works for my future students. Would it be best to assign several essay collections, as an instructor would in a survey class? Or might it make more sense to simply upload scans of particular essays to Canvas? My questions were answered fairly quickly by my professor, who entered the room with cumbersome armfuls of books.
     “You’ll need to choose a textbook,” she said, slamming down the fat stack of options on her desk.
     “Can I assign PDFs?” I asked.
     She scrunched her face in skepticism, and I understood my question was entering an uncomfortable grey area. And I get it. There are lots of reasons why asking students to purchase a physical book is a good idea—it supports the anthology market, and encourages students to read beyond the scope of whatever’s assigned in class. So I scoured countless tables of contents for the essays I wanted to teach, finding less than fifty percent of the writers on my list—and this was if I chose to assign my students multiple books. I ended up reading every anthology I could get my hands on, weighing the pros and cons of each. I compromised by choosing Lex Williford and Michael Martone’s Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction. I don’t love it, but Touchstone housed essays by more than four writers on my list, and I supposed that new students could benefit from knowing some of the bigger names in the genre. I filled out the rest of my curriculum with readings from the big blue book along with (I admit) a few supplements. It certainly does the job, but, at least in my mind, it’s far from ideal.
     I realize I speak from a place of limited teaching experience, but as a person who has read and researched a vast quantity of essay collections in the last six months, I feel justified in voicing my concerns about the creative nonfiction anthology in its current state. The first is age. Most anthologies focus on the history of the genre, or claim to be “contemporary” while still including essays written forty or fifty years ago. Even the newest essays in Touchstone are now nearing a decade old. Not to say that the writings of folks like Thoreau, E. B. White, or Edward Hoagland aren’t important, or necessary—only that these works have already been anthologized multiple times and, one could reasonably argue, no longer speak (directly, anyway) to the questions of our time. Besides, whole university classes are devoted to the study of Montaigne and of the great (mostly white and male) writers of the 20th century. What I really want is an anthology that properly defines the genre as it currently is, not as it was ten, twenty, or even a century ago. I want students to leave my classroom seeing the essay as conduit to an ongoing conversation in which they themselves can take active part.
     The ethos of the essay is like that old adage about the rolling stone; the essay is constantly in motion, in flux—so much so that’s if often difficult to pin down what exactly that is in the present moment. The Best American series does a decent job of encapsulating the spirit of the essay in a given year, but by necessity excludes essays published in books. The narrative essay, too, is typically prioritized over other forms in these collections, rendering most anthologies less than ideal for exposing a class to the range of what the essay can do.
     Don’t get me wrong—I love my well-worn 1995 edition of Lopate’s Art of the Personal Essay, which is itself proof that an anthology is simultaneously emblematic of a time and also timeless. I value my copies of Oates, D’Agata, and yes, even Touchstone—they’re excellent anthologies. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t important work still to be done. The general lack of diversity in the voices represented in the creative nonfiction anthology—more than fifty percent of the authors represented are white and male in each of the collections above—is shocking. We anthologize few women, even fewer writers of color, and there’s simply no getting around that fact. We can, and should, do better.
     Luckily, many writers share these same concerns. Enter Marcia Aldrich, former editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, accomplished essayist, and author of two books, Girl Rearing and Companion to an Untold Story—winner of the 2011 Associated Writers and Writing Programs Award in creative nonfiction. Aldrich is the curator of a new anthology of female voices, which seeks to address these issues. It’s called Waveform, and it looks awesome. —Zoë Bossiere


Zoë Bossiere: So Marcia, let’s start with you. Tell me a little about yourself as the editor of Waveform.

Marcia Aldrich: Sure. Being an editor has always played an intermittent role in my writing career, but it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to take on the editorship of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction that editing became a major component of my daily life, part of my identity and vocation. As editor, I read hundreds of submissions and was responsible for the shape and content of the issues. My concern then was to make sure that the issues represented as much diversity as was possible based on the submissions we received. I didn’t want to create issues that shared the same thematic concerns or formal ideas about the shape of the essay. I wanted to avoid sameness; I wanted range.
     It didn’t take long to see that Fourth Genre, and creative nonfiction in general, attracted a great number of women writers and many of them were under-recognized. I was consistently impressed by the quality of writing I received, and especially impressed by the level of writing from women, though I hasten to add I was anxious about how few submissions from writers of color, both men and women, we received.

ZB: What inspired you to compile a collection of women’s essays?

MA: Well, my editorship at Fourth Genre coincided with the rise of VIDA, a non-profit feminist organization committed to creating transparency around the lack of gender parity in the literary landscape, which has since evolved to expand its focus to race, sexual identity, and disability as well. In 2010, VIDA found that The New York Review of Books covered 306 titles by men but only 59 by women. Spurred by the VIDA Count, we at Fourth Genre did our own count and found that we had always, from our inception, been a welcoming place for women nonfiction writers and were bucking the larger trends of disparity reported in the VIDA Count.
     During my career, men have dominated the field at every level—as editors, reviewers, educators, and as published writers and award winners. There are so many articles documenting this domination that I wouldn’t know where to begin citing them. My idea that something needed to be done to shine a light on the wealth of women nonfiction writers originated back in 2010. Women writers needed to become editor-activists. I remember having conversations with several women nonfiction writers about the lack of an anthology of contemporary women writers of nonfiction. We would all shake our head and agree that such a collection should exist, but because of my full-time job as editor, teacher, and writer, the time then wasn’t right for me to take on such a project.

ZB: When did you decide it was the right time?

MA: The idea for Waveform began in the fall of 2015 through my conversations with Jill Talbot, a wonderful essayist and memoirist and general thinker and practitioner of creative nonfiction. In the course of our exchanges it emerged that we both thought it was time, more than time, for a collection to be published of contemporary women essayists, and we decided to take on the project together. We wanted to create an anthology of contemporary women essayists that emphasized their innovations in writing. We saw the anthology as a corrective to some existing anthologies that are organized by subject, especially by women’s experiences. We believed that those experiences and themes, that content, would still be there in the writing we chose, but that it was time for an anthology that pointed to and celebrated the formal accomplishments of women essayists.

ZB: I feel like I’m constantly reading great new work by female essayists. How did you decide who to include in the collection?

MA: Jill and I began by mapping out the range of essays we were reading in the field, creating a spectrum of types of essays. We wanted variety, to give a taste of some of the manifestations of the essay we were seeing: lyric essays, narrative essays, hybrids of research and personal essay, memoir, flash essays, immersion journalism, segmented, advice column as personal essay, graphic, meditative, the list essay. The categories themselves felt almost limiting, but these gave us a rough grid to make sure we weren’t falling into a pattern of sameness.
     Then we came up with a big list of writers to invite to submit. Some of them turned us down for all sorts of reasons which was disappointing, and others submitted. And here was the  hard thing—we had to refuse essays we had invited. We rejected essays for the usual variety of reasons; mainly we received too many essays of the same sort. This happened at Fourth Genre, where we’d receive four essays about wrestling in the same month and they were all good in their own way but we could only publish one essay on wrestling. Our guiding principle in composing the anthology was quality and range, trying to give a sense of the richness of the essay as women were writing them. In the end we had a fully fleshed out proposal and the beginnings of a table of contents that featured mostly new essays. Some of the writers we hoped to include were willing to let us reprint one of their essays, and so we began to fill out the contents with a few important reprints. Then we began submitting our proposal, coinciding roughly with the AWP annual meeting in Minneapolis.
     There, I approached many editors and agents, emphasizing how Waveform championed women who were shaping the landscape of the essay. To differentiate my conception, I pointed out Wendy Martin’s The Beacon Book of Essays by Contemporary Women, published in 1996 and a landmark precursor of sorts, which offers a thematic approach with sections such as “Generations: Essays on the Family,” “Inside Passages: Essays on Self-Identity,” “Breaking the Silence: Women confront Repression and Violence,” “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Choices.” Wendy Martin, the editor, had an intent very different than mine—she compiled essays around themes that represented women’s experiences since 1945. In other words, she was much more attuned to the experiences represented than the form or development of the essay itself. I wanted to depart from a thematic or subject driven approach and instead highlight the way writers interact with subject through elements such as style, voice, tone, and structure, and allow the subjects to fall where they fall.
     When I began working on Waveform, I thought the project would be commercially viable because of the roster of writers and the recent attention to the rise of female essayists. However, the responses I received from commercial presses, while phrased slightly differently, were all concerned about the marketability of such a book. The absence of a thematic hook, namely “women’s experiences” made the book not “readily marketable.” It didn’t have a “take” on being a woman other than being essays written by women essayists. Treating the women writers as writers and focusing on the diversity of narrative approaches was viewed as a hindrance to sales rather than a strength.
     It was around this time that Jill unfortunately had to drop out of the time-consuming project. I resolved to go forward with the book since I had returned from AWP favorably impressed with University of Georgia Press, especially the director, Lisa Bayer, who was enthusiastic about the need for such a collection and understood, supported, and was genuinely excited about my approach. We both felt a responsibility to create an anthology that delivered on diversity. Even so, I want to note that Waveform presents some of the women who are shaping the essay today. By necessity only a relatively small number of contributors could be included.

ZB: I’m intrigued by what you’ve said about Waveform subverting what most people might expect a collection of essays written by women to look like, and refusing to be centered around "thematic female experience.” With that in mind, how little or how much does feminism factor into this collection in terms of ideology or subject matter?

MA: Feminism as activism has played a major role in my motivation to put this collection together and undergo the long labor of bringing it to realization. Feminism strives for equality of opportunity and treatment. We do not live in a genderless world. The position on the page, the caps and bold designation of this headline from the summer Olympics captures the power dynamics that are still in force in gender relations:
IN 100 FLY
Ledecky sets world record
in women’s 800 freestyle
In the fall of 2015 I undertook an informal survey of The Best American Essays series to ascertain the count of men to women selected for inclusion. The worst ratio fell to the year 2002 when Stephen Jay Gould was the judge: of the 24 essays selected only 4 were written by women. Those numbers were not as unusual as you might think. Edwidge Danticat stands alone in the whole series in selecting 13 essays by women out of 24.
     To be conscious of gender is to be a feminist. Women writers are still under-studied, under-represented, and under-recognized. The making of Waveform grows out of my wanting to do something about that imbalance. However, the workings of feminism in Waveform do not dictate subject matter. I wasn’t interested in publishing essays whose content fit gender norms and expectations, to tell a particular story.  I was motivated to put this collection together to assert that women essayists aren’t just blending into a male-shaped tradition—they are actively defining the landscape of the essay in our time.

ZB: So in light of all that women have contributed to the genre, both historically and in recent years, why do you think a contemporary anthology of women essayists like this one hasn’t been available until now?

MA: That’s a very good question and I can only speculate about some of the factors to explain why a book like Waveform wasn’t published sooner. I think it has to do with the relative newness of the genre’s popularity and how long it takes to build a readership. Perhaps there hasn’t been sufficient momentum to publish a more specialized anthology like Waveform.
     I remember the excitement in 2007 when the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to Present came out. For many of us essayists its appearance solidified the sense that creative nonfiction was becoming more popular. It also gave us a less expensive alternative textbook that didn’t cover the history of the essay but focused on contemporary manifestations.
     While I was assembling Waveform, I heard from multiple writing instructors that, as much as they liked and used Touchstone, they regretted that the collection did not include enough diversity in its selection of writers, and they had to supplement its offerings. And I concur. I would say that even in the ten years since Touchstone appeared, writers as well as readers have become pro-active in demanding that our publications be more representative. And I think that’s a good thing.

ZB: It’s an unfortunate truth of the industry that anthologies, even good, necessary anthologies, are notoriously difficult to market. How would you say Waveform fits into the current spectrum of nonfiction anthology offerings?

MA: The AWP lists more than eight hundred graduate and undergraduate writing programs, and that doesn’t include the range of creative nonfiction courses that might fall outside the domain of a program. Many of these writing programs offer classes in creative nonfiction, tracks and specializations, and they publish literary journals which include creative nonfiction. The addition of creative nonfiction is a fairly recent development, but over the last 25 years creative nonfiction programs have been the fastest growing of all graduate writing programs.
     Matching the growth in programs and classes, there has been a burst of publishing interest in all areas of creative nonfiction, from literary journals adding creative nonfiction to their roster, to the rise of Brevity, the online journal specializing in nonfiction under 750 words, to journals like Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Creative Nonfiction, and Under the Sun. The birth of Essay Daily is another marker in the widening of interest in the genre, a sign that people don’t just want outlets for their own essays but want to read about developments in the essay. Online journals like The Rumpus and Guernica, to name just two of a burgeoning group, have given writers new opportunities for publishing essays, many with special interests such as the environment or place or women.
      The publishing world has been catching up to the interest in all forms of creative nonfiction. There are several nonfiction anthologies that highlight the diverse range of the essay but do not focus on gender. These anthologies attest to the enthusiasm for creative nonfiction and the market demand to provide more diverse teaching materials in the classroom. It’s as if the place of the essay has been secured and now we can focus on more specialized points of entry, such as the use of the second person, hybridization, or our debt to Montaigne. What has been missing is an anthology focusing on the contemporary essay written by women. What has been missing is Waveform.

ZB: Your anthology comes to us on the cusp of the new year, rising from the ashes of 2016, one of the most fraught and violent years in recent history. What makes now a particularly pertinent time for a collection like Waveform, of female essayists?

MA: To quote Natalie Shapero of The Kenyon Review:
The literary essay is having, as they say, a moment. Here at Kenyon Review, the number of nonfiction submissions we receive each year has been steadily on the rise and I suspect that other journals would report the same. With that increasingly large pool of submissions, we’re also seeing a trend toward formal adventurousness, with many essayists shrugging off linear structures to play around with associative leaping, lyricism, and lists.
Shapero identifies two important features of the essay in the current moment: the ascendancy of the essay and the rise of stylistic innovation. But I’d add a third important feature to Shapero’s list—the rise of the female essayist. In review essays, editors and writers are singling out the arrival of women essayists and identifying the hallmark of the form: its versatility and range. It is, on one hand, short-sighted to speak of the arrival of women essayists since women have been writing essays brilliantly for a long time, but it is true that attention is being paid now to what women are currently creating in the form.
     In October of 2014, The New York Times posed a question: “Is This a Golden Age for Women Essayists?” In her answer, Cheryl Strayed noted, “Essayists who happen to be women are having a banner year.” And it continues. Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams and Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist have been listed on The New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list. And let’s not forget the impact of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir, Wild. Meghan Daum’s Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion was the winner of the 2015 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction. Margo Jefferson won the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Negroland. I’m limiting myself here to naming a few writers I was lucky enough to include in Waveform, but I could go on and on listing the recent accomplishments of women essayists, culminating in the Nobel Prize awarded to the nonfiction writer Svetlana Alexievich.
     This conversation, this cultural moment, is an important one, and one that requires our effort to bring attention to the extraordinary writing being done by women. There is work to be done. Still. And one of the best ways to bridge the gap is to shape the literary conversation through writing and through editing.

ZB: Other than commercial success, what are your hopes for the book? For its readers?

MA: Well, let me first say that I do hope that readers will find Waveform and that it will have an impact upon the way we think about the contemporary essay. It’s daunting to publish a book, and even more daunting without the publicity machine of a commercial press behind it. It’s very hard to get the word out, to garner reviews, to build interest. I am grateful for all the help I can get in bringing Waveform to a larger audience. I am especially hopeful that it will be an attractive choice for course adoption.
     I am an avid reader of The Best American Essays. I look forward to its appearance each year and I’ve used various volumes in my classes. But as much as I admire the collection, I almost always lament the lack of stylistically innovative work, work that I routinely find in the literary journals I read. As fine as the selected essays are, they often fall within a traditional and recognizable style. With Waveform I wanted to gather a more representative group of essays that span the spectrum of what we’re encountering in the field. I wanted to depart from a thematic or subject-driven approach and instead highlight the way particular writers interact with subject and circumstance through writerly elements such as style, voice, tone, structure, allusion (all the fun stuff) and allow the subjects to fall where they fall, and, I might add, to surprise the reader.
     Being a woman cannot be checked at the door. I felt certain that without scripting a subject matter for the anthology, the writers would give us much to ponder about what it is like being a woman in the twenty-first century. I am proud of the fact that women weren’t obligated to foreground gender, to directly address issues about being a woman. If they do, it is because that is where their interests lie. Women are writing as writers, and yet I also want to claim that imbalance in publishing exists and that these women essayists deserve more recognition than they’ve received. Waveform is a showcase not just for the justifiably prize-winning writers but for the less known writers as well.
     One purpose of the project is to highlight experimental and traditional work by women essayists—that is, to celebrate the essay in as many forms as the book could publish. Some readers will gravitate to the essays that follow traditional arcs of narrative pleasure; some will prefer the essays that purposefully play with various kinds of narrative form. Some of the essays are even rather hard to classify, like Sonja Livingston’s “Light, from Faraway Places.” I wanted a book organized around the fluidity of forms and representing the range of the kinds of essays we are encountering in the contemporary essay landscape. I hope readers will gain a more nuanced appreciation of the essay as it is being written today by women.

ZB: Well said. Thank you. One last question: Why Waveform as the title?

MA: I chose Waveform because it suggested the larger movement of many women bringing essays into being, building on the energy and daring of other writers, adding their writing to what is bigger than any one writer, to any one manifestation of the essay. By necessity only a finite number of contributors could be included, but behind and beside each woman included there are many more equally deserving writers. All deserve a wide readership.


Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton.  She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on Haze, a narrative of marriage and divorce during her college years. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women published by The University of Georgia Press.

Zoë Bossiere is a student at Oregon State University, where she teaches intro writing courses and serves as Editor in Chief of 45th Parallel. She is currently essaying her parents' adventures in the 1984 Hungarian traveling circus. More here and here.

Monday, January 2, 2017

On Abstract Text and the Concrete Object: An Interview with Amaris Ketcham

"The graph, like the photograph, has an air of authority, authenticity to it. The audience interprets these as factual documents first, without questioning them."

Amaris Ketcham teaches interdisciplinary courses at the University of New Mexico. Her creative work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, the Los Angeles Review, Rattle, and the Utne Reader, and is forthcoming in the Kenyon Review. We featured a preview of Ketcham's essay "Recorded Lightning," from Creative Nonfiction, back in February.

Excerpt from "Recorded Lightning"

SM: “Recorded Lighting” is a piece you’ve defined as a concrete essay. What do you think this old poetic form has to offer a modern reader?

AK: I used the term “concrete essay” to describe that piece because instead of combining text and image—the way, say, Claudia Rankine does, or Bianca Stone—the text becomes the image. It’s something that I probably first saw in poetry, then hand-lettered design.

When I was a teenager, I got my first position as an editorial assistant at a literary magazine. I remember trying to typeset someone’s concrete poem that was in the shape of a Venus figurine. We’d gotten a hard copy and I had to mark up the page, measuring the distances, and then try to get the tabs in QuarkXPress to cooperate. The whole time I was very nervous about messing up this person’s art.

I think that in a way, text is the most abstract form of art. Say you have an apple, then a very realistic drawing of that specific apple, then a more simplified drawing of an apple, then maybe a one-color logo of an apple, then the printed word “apple”—each time you are taking a step down a representational line, from the object itself to ideas of the object. There is no real “appleness” to the written word “apple,” which itself is an abstraction of the spoken word “apple.” You don’t know what other people see when they read a word—but if you were looking at an image of an apple, then you are both seeing that apple. So when you create a concrete poem or essay, you are taking a step backward down the representational line, combining the totally abstract text with the simplified image of an object.

"Easter Wings" by George Herbert

SM: Your article “Wintering Habits of the White American Male, Age 34,” follows the structure of an academic essay. “How to Determine Truth” interrogates three diagrams you’ve made to measure and represent your memoir in terms of its “factuality.” Do you consider these “hermit crab” structures? Are there differences in the way a concrete essay engages an audience vs the way a hermit crab essay might? Or do you think their modes are more similar than different? Which essay form is maybe most like a pie chart? A scatter plot? A magazine spread?

AK: I think that you could call “Wintering Habits of the White American Male, Age 34” a hermit crab structure, because it is a fictional text that appropriates the style of an academic article. It’s odd to call that piece a short story because there isn’t any narrative to it, or any real reliance on chronology the way that a story values time, cause and effect, or plot above all else. So it’s a fictional essay, which was something I was thinking about after reading some collections of Jorge Borges’s fictional work. I wonder if you would call his fictional essays hermit crab stories because they make a home out of the essay structure?   

You can tell all kinds of stories with graphs—and they don’t have to be true stories, either. The graph, like the photograph, has an air of authority, authenticity to it. The audience interprets these as factual documents first, without questioning them. I think that people question “creative nonfiction” more than they question a photograph or a scatterplot—probably particularly because that pesky adjective “creative” can lead people astray. In “How to Determine Truth,” I was playing with the idea of a graph as a storytelling image that a person constructs and can manipulate to tell whatever story they want.

Ketcham's scatterplot from "How to Determine Truth"

SM: This is something I’ve wondered too—How much of what a hermit crab essay borrows has to do with design and how much has to do with genre? The first element signals and enables the second, as you describe, in the way a footnote functions in an academic article as compared to in a lyric piece. I must admit I’m a little tired of the term “hermit crab” which defines such a limited relationship text might have with a form. But I like that the gesture of an essay could be a kind of home re: crabs—a structure that gives shape—especially because the essay is a thing interested in subjectivity instead of universal truths. Kerry Howley seems to be playing with just this idea in Thrown, by writing an immersion narrative using the perspective of her fictional persona. Do you think the essay really is more like a form or a gesture than a fact-based genre like “nonfiction”? Are there other folks you see working in this space between genre and form?

AK: I’m not sure what the history of the term “hermit crab essay” is. Did it come from Judith Kitchen? One of the aspects of the term that I do like is the “readymade” implication of the finding and repurposing a “shell” or a form. It has the potential to give an ordinary object a new meaning. How much of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (a urinal purchased at a hardware store and placed on a pedestal) is there, in say, “The Heart” by Jean-Claude Silbermann (which reads as though it is instructions for preparing a heart and can be found in a book of surrealist games). I don’t think the term has to do with genre so much as the epistolary act of borrowing a form, whether that form is a letter, a chat window, a newspaper clipping, a set of instructions, or any other kind of document. 
And while we talk about “essay” as a noun, or a genre, or a type of creative nonfiction writing, it’s important to remember its roots as a French verb. An essay is a process as much as anything. That act of exploration. The attempt to derive meaning or insight from life. I’m not sure that the content or the form is as important to the essay as the method.  

 "The medium performs a constant balancing act between valuing information enduring through time or valuing information traveling through space."

SM: How do the various contemporary mediums available for reading—from the smartphone to the book—influence the ways you design and write?

AK: I think that the medium does influence the way that I—or anyone for that matter—design or write because the medium changes the way information travels. The medium performs a constant balancing act between valuing information enduring through time or valuing information traveling through space.
            For instance, we have petroglyphs lining a basalt escarpment across the river from where I live. The people of the Middle Rio Grande carved these petroglyphs about 700 years ago. Early Spanish settlers added crosses and other images about 400-500 years ago. Now new Rio Grande people and their suburban homes surround the area. These messages have endured for centuries and they will likely last for several more centuries. But, the petroglyphs don’t travel through space. If you want to see this art, these messages, you have to travel to them.
On the other hand the internet has the ability to cover much space—the whole world in seconds—but information distributed via the web does not last long. For one, the audience doesn’t spend the same amount of time with it; they’re flipping between tabs on the computer, skimming-scrolling the smartphone while on the bus. If they are looking at your work on a phone, the audience is transporting the work into many different contexts, each of which alters their perception of it—this is in essence the same argument that Walter Benjamin was using in the 1930s to talk about mechanical reproduction of images altering its value, from hidden, cult, ceremonial art to valuing exhibition first and foremost. John Berger later drew on these ideas to say that modern production (such as television) destroyed the authority of original art, that contemporary media had made images “ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, and free.”
But the internet has an additional layer of ephemerality. Is a digital medium ever truly fixed? Each time you open a jpeg on your computer, you corrupt the file a little more. Information on a web page does not even outlast its leased domain name—edits are continual; hackers are perpetual. Wikipedia may go belly-up: online, our national histories may not exist tomorrow.
Even though it seems more stable, print doesn’t last forever either. You might have something printed in a literary magazine and you read through your contributor copy then put it on the shelf. The book-artifact will begin its slow decomposition on the shelf, its organic compounds will begin to break down, and it will smell of vanillin. The glue will weaken and the signatures will fall out, the edges of the pages will crumble to the touch… Some relative may find it in a few decades, open to your page and inhale.

Ketcham's chart from "How to Determine Truth"

SM: It seems that a lot of environmental art is built to demonstrate that process of decay and ephemerality. But the artists I know who do this expose objects to the elements much more often than they do texts. This may be because texts and their usual materials deteriorate rapidly outdoors, but I’ll say it’s also somehow more difficult for me, as a viewer, to witness a text deteriorating than to watch an object decay. Clare Dolan of the Museum of Everyday Life, who I interviewed this summer, once curated an anti-preservation exhibit that seemed to poke at this inclination to preserve texts. Her show also functioned like a protest when curated inside a Book and Paper Arts program. Borrowed forms often also feel like a kind of small revolt that uses constraints to further an essaying gesture. I sense this gesture in many examples of your work too. Have you ever made a text that you intended to endure, or expected to decay rather than to travel? Do you think there an inherent contrarianism behind concrete and hermit texts?

AK: I’ve seen some work, too, that plays with that kind of decay—or perhaps “mutation” would be a better word—of work in the “wilds” of the internet. One that I remember asked the question, what happens to a wiki of Crime and Punishmentwhen you invite people to rewrite Dostoyevsky? Of course, the text changed drastically. 
My personal website has been hacked a few times, so that might add to sense that pieces composed or published online are so subject to digital decay. It seems like anytime you compose or create for work for a digital system it can suffer from what might be environmental decay (hackers, loss of quality due to compression, etc.) or technological limitations—the limitation of newer technology to have a reverse compatibility with the older model, where the newer system doesn’t have the ability to decrypt or decode the original (consider: making art that ran on floppy disks, composing an essay on Google maps, etc.). I had a moment of inspiration a la John Cage the other day when I was working on a drawing, scanned it, opened it in Photoshop, and some kind of glitch took over. Each time I clicked on anything in the program, the glitch ran again, and an entirely new distortion of my image would appear. I took a few screenshots of my favorite results, but I think that to exhibit it, the glitch would have to be active so audience could participate with the performance. 

"It will be interesting to see whether (and how) editing as art takes off in the “post-truth” era."

SM: You’ve published stories, essays, and poems. Do you think that the possible relationships between design and text shift within the constraints of different literary genres?

AK: The expectations and constraints of the different genres can create different ways to experiment with the design of a work. A footnote (which is an object of text layout design) means something different in nonfiction than it might in fiction or poetry. Lately I have been thinking that there is a design aesthetic that we are starting to see with the editing process—there’s John D’Agata’s beautifully designed book, The Lifespan of a Fact. The artist James Bridle compiled all the edits to the Wikipedia page on the Iraq war into a 12-volume set. There is even something beautiful about looking at Gordon Lish’s edits to Raymond Carver’s work and reading what has been removed. It will be interesting to see whether (and how) editing as art takes off in the “post-truth” era.  

Ketcham's pie chart from "How to Determine Truth"

SM: You’ve studied anthropology, writing and design and now teach in an interdisciplinary program in New Mexico. Do you prompt your students to compose texts that use other media? Do you have tips for educators who are interested in teaching writing that engages with other disciplines?

AK: In a number of my classes, I require students to present a photo essay to the class before they begin working on their creative nonfiction essays. It forces them to organize their thoughts, creating an outline of what they will say before they sit down to write, and it forces them to think visually: “What does an establishing shot look like for this essay? Why would I choose to frame a close-up on this person/object?” It allows them the opportunity to hear what kinds of questions the audience has about their work based on this initial glimpse.

I would recommend team teaching with someone in a discipline housed on the opposite side of campus. This year I co-taught a class on reading and writing the landscape with a paleontologist. It was wild to listen to him talk about how to make observations of the landscape, and think—wow, that’s basically the same thing I do, but in different terms, and of course, with completely different outcomes.

Sarah Minor curates the Visual Essay series here at Essay Daily, previously featuring folks like Kristen Radtke, Marian Bantjes, and Bianca Stone