Monday, March 27, 2017

Cheryl Pappas: Learning To See Again, with Annie Dillard

If you are like me and you check your smartphone about 80 times a day, then you, too, might need a gentle reminder that there is an unseen universe in the woods down the street from your house. Annie Dillard’s 1974 essay “Seeing” has much to teach us, not only about looking up from your phone and noticing the natural world but also about how we as writers can use language that keeps the reader’s attention.

In the beginning of her essay, Dillard writes of the wisdom of cultivating a “healthy poverty”—of finding treasure in small things, whether it be a found penny or the sighting of “a tremulous ripple thrill on the water” or a “muskrat kit paddling from its den.” This sets up the discourse for the rest of the essay, in which we learn how she stalks for such treasures in nature and how she values different ways of seeing.

For Dillard, there are two ways to see. The first is to stay alert and hungry for a thrilling sight, such as “antlion traps in sandy soil, monarch pupae near milkweed, skipper larvae in locust leaves.” “It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes open,” she writes. The goal is to appreciate every detail and to name what she sees. The second way is to unfocus her eyes—to deliberately relax her vision—in the hopes of seeing something deeper. She does this one summer night when she’s at Tinker Creek, trying to catch a glimpse of at least one shiner fish as it pops out of the water, its silvery skin flashing with light. She notices that this rarely seen display was “always just happening somewhere else, and it drew my vision just as it disappeared.” But when she blurred her eyes, she “saw a new world. I saw the pale white circles roll up, roll up, like the world’s turning, mute and perfect, and I saw the linear flashes, gleaming silver, like stars being born at random down a rolling scroll of time.” This kind of seeing is spiritual, poetic. As her vision is elevated, the language she uses to describe the experience is elevated to poetry. “Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed in air like light . . . I was ether, the leaf in the zephyr; I was flesh-flake, feather, bone.” The sentences and then the phrases become progressively shorter, as if her language were breaking up into pieces. It’s as if she’d been transformed into a particle.

I have always wondered—or, more honestly, I used to wonder—what it is like for people who were once blind to gain sight. Is it a shock to the system? Dillard, it turns out, is also fascinated by how the newly sighted experience the world, and she greedily wants to see it through their eyes—just to try it. She recounts the reactions of the formerly blind, as recorded in Marius von Senden’s book Space and Sight: “[T]he newly sighted see the world as a dazzle of color-patches.” In other words, every form is flat and has the same value, whether near or far. She speaks of a little girl who is astonished by the world, and when the girl visits a garden, she “‘stands speechless” in front of a tree, which she “only names on taking hold of it,” describing it as “‘the tree with the lights in it.'” After Dillard finishes the book, she sees the color-patches, too, and treasures this new vision. But she cannot keep looking this way: “I couldn’t unpeach the peaches.”

Seeing is not easy. Dillard writes that seeing is an effort that is “really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle; it marks the literature of saints and monks of every order.” Here, toward the end of the essay, she has emphasized the “vision” in “visionary.” She is a spiritual seeker, who knows that “although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought,” and “although [illumination] . . . comes to those who wait for it, it is always . . . a gift and a total surprise.” Dillard ends her essay with such an ecstatic, surprising vision: she sees a tree “with lights in it” at her own Tinker Creek: “I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame.” After its lights die out and normal vision returns, she tells us that “the vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”

What a gift, indeed! Dillard’s essay sheds light on how sheltered my sight has become. My poverty, it seems, is the unhealthy kind. When my vision gets unfocused, it’s because I’ve been looking at the screen too long, not because I’m making a mystical connection to the universe. As a child, I remember, I would often wander alone in the woods behind our house to look for a clearing in the forest, to feel the scaly bark of a birch tree, to touch the silky skin of the forbidden ladyslipper. I was, like Dillard, looking for—and waiting for—treasure and surprise, but with a childlike wonder. Which is why her essay strikes such a deep chord with me, a chord that is mournful, too, because I’m not sure how often I’ll take such walks anymore. It’s been years. But now, at least, if I do, I have her visionary words to accompany me.

What can Dillard teach us about writing? To start, as every great writer does, Dillard gives us intricate details: “Where Tinker Creek flows under the sycamore log bridge to the tear-shaped island, it is slow and shallow, fringed thinly in cattail marsh.” It’s not just a log, but a sycamore log; not just an island, but a tear-shaped one. And when lying on her bed after a long walk, she notes that she’s “spinning 836 miles an hour round the earth’s axis.” As political discourse by this country’s leaders becomes sodden with vagueness, writers would do well to name everything, with accuracy and specificity. Dillard’s writing is flush with facts, and that is why it is intellectually so satisfying to read her work, especially now.

But facts alone are ultimately unsatisfying; we could all learn so much from her poetic voice. In his incomparable anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate notes in his introduction to “Seeing” that Diallard first trained as a poet before turning to essays. Her use of imagery makes this clear: she describes water turtles as “smooth as beans,” two words that make smooth sounds. We see it in her startling phrases, such as the one mentioned above, “I couldn’t unpeach the peaches” and in such sentences as “Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.” Her sentences have a rhythm that beautifully go beyond the declarative structure, like this one, in which she describes repeatedly watching groups of red-tipped blackbirds rush from an Osage orange tree: “Finally I walked directly to the trunk of the tree and a final hundred, the real diehards, appeared, spread, and vanished.” She could have set off the phrase “the real diehards” by em-dashes, but that would have been too emphatic; instead, she knows that the commas alone are enough to give us a landing to rest on before the precipitous “appeared, spread, and vanished.”

Her sentences move like a stream and then, all of a sudden, the water hits a rock. Like this: “It’s one of those nights when I wander from window to window, looking for a sign. But I can’t see. Terror and a beauty insoluble are a ribband of blue woven into the fringes of garments of things both great and small.” The line “But I can’t see” is one of those rocks in the stream. We teach the reader to pay attention by always keeping the language awake.

Conversely, but equally moving, is how much repetition there is in the essay. Within the span of two pages, she writes “It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes open”; “I still try to keep my eyes open”; and “One more reason to keep my eyes open.” What is she doing here? She is underscoring her repetitive process of looking by repeating the idea.

We could also steal Dillard’s technique of moving from micro to macro. In the same paragraph in which she writes of seeing two million light-years to the Andromeda galaxy, she tells us of how she took in some amoebae from the creek as pets, which look like “chips of sky in the bowl.” The effect of such a range is that it awakens our imagination. It follows William Blake’s directive: “To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower / Hold infinity in the palms of your hand and eternity in an hour.”

Dillard could not have known when she wrote this essay how many of us would need a vivid reminder of the value of looking for this kind of treasure in the world. For me, my smartphone has become a talisman; I am none the richer. It will not help me become a better writer. Dillard offers me a map to go by, starting with my own backyard.


Cheryl Pappas’s work has most recently appeared in Tin House and Mulberry Fork Review. She lives in Boston and is an editor at the Harvard Art Museums. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars. Her website is

Monday, March 20, 2017

Ori Fienberg: Prolegomena to Any Future Five-Paragraph Essays

One of the first published mentions of a “five paragraph essay” occurs in Charles Sears Baldwin’s Composition, Oral and Written, published in 1909. Through the 60s and 70s it gained momentum, and over the last thirty years it achieved a stranglehold on high school English and college Composition classes, which has resulted in an inevitable backlash against this seemingly new form. But this new form has ancient roots in the classical argument. It’s a throwback to a time before the scientific method, when logic was a humanistic pursuit, rather than a mathematical function. Aristotle’s A Natural History of Animals functions in this way: Aristotle attempts a rudimentary taxonomy, wherein he calls on his powers of deduction to infer, for instance, that fish must sleep, though they can’t close their eyes. In some cases he’s observed the animal in question, but he also includes unlikely animals that he only knows of by report, such as an animal that never eats, and a species of immortal crabs “that slough off their old-age”. For these, logic falls apart and instead we experience the animal kingdom as Aristotle wants it. By displaying his yearning for deviant animals that make for a stranger world than the one he has seen, his dubious inclusions show another side of Aristotle the man. But we’re far removed from the time of the classical argument, and as a pedagogical tool the modern five-paragraph essay strains out these deviations to reflect industrialized, standardized realities. Still, while it serves a rigidly utilitarian role in high school English and college composition classes, and thus is spurned by the literary set, with nuanced deviation the five-paragraph essay becomes an intriguing personal essay form to explore the permeable nature of arguments, experience, and stories.

It’s easy to see why the five-paragraph essay is resented: it plays a vital role in bureaucratic educational indoctrination. Reproducing the rules of the form results in the reward. There are required components: an introduction that hooks the reader’s attention; a thesis, perhaps containing a concession; then concession, evidence and arguments; finally a conclusion must restate the thesis, but not exactly, while also offering opportunities for further thought. Beyond the required components lies a formidable set of rules and conventions. First-person narration is frowned upon; personal experience may make an appearance in the introduction, but rarely beyond it. Unambiguous language preferred and digression, strongly discouraged. Avoid clichés. Present an unbiased argument, but convince the readerwhen written within the arena of standardized testing, not only are forms and convention rewarded, but also puffery: the more multi-syllabic words the better. It’s no wonder that many students resent having to write them, and many instructors, often technical and/or creative writers themselves, dislike teaching it, and opt for other forms in their own writing. Whether mastered or not, the form is soon discarded by the majority of writers, but I’ve always been conflicted. In many ways, I enjoy the rules and feel they have merit; the bevy of restraints calls up a relationship to set forms of poetry, like a sonnet or a sestina, and I even have a fondness for some of its inevitabilities.

Not only are these rules utilitarian, they’re patterned, combining organic and planned elements. Early in high school, when I was struggling to make a thesis statement, my Dad once told me “it takes three trees to make a row”. Two trees do not invoke a pattern, but three trees indicate planning for a well-landscaped essay. Aristotle raises a variant when he reminds his readers of Musaeus’ observation about eagles and birds that lay three eggs: “That lays three, hatches two, and cares for one”. It’s a naturalist observation in a proverbial presentation, and it can be seen at the root of a five-paragraph argument: we must present three points to make a pattern of evidence, and despite our best intentions to love and take care of them equally, often one is weak, included to meet the form, while another is dear, perhaps the impetus for the argument, the central tree, or the story we want the reader to remember. We must always start with laying our eggs, or the planting of our trees, and by the time we finish they should be hatched/grown, and the form ensures proper mulching, or a good nest. For a class, to learn a form, perhaps the rules are best. When we reach beyond that, when we mix metaphor, or deviate from a pattern we risk failure, but risk is necessary to push the five-paragraph essay past its utilitarian roots.

The five-paragraph essay can be fertile ground for more personal and creative writing. Deviation is also logical. It’s part of our nature. In the pedagogical five-paragraph essay all restless metaphor must be rounded up and domesticated. In the personal five-paragraph essay they can be allowed to roam. Instead of a canned introduction, three pieces of evidence, and a conclusion-paragraph, it’s the form of all stories: a prologue, beginning, middle, and an end, with denouement. A wedding, three stories, and a funeral; trauma, three therapists, and an epiphany; parents, three girlfriends, and a wife; a job, three investments, and retirement: each is a five-paragraph personal essay. In many ways it’s a more honest, a guileless form: the epiphany is brought to the fore, in the first paragraph, the intrinsic argument offered immediately for consideration, rather than buried later in the essay. The real argument is in life, and it’s too hard to live without some structure. There’s too much evidence, too many contradicting stories.

It’s a delicate balance. There are the weaknesses and trauma that are really our strengths. The exceptions that are the rule, and the endless concessions we make and remake to ourselves, to those we love, and to those with whom we disagree simply so we can keep going. In a braided essay, we must hope that the braids unite, but it’s impossible to do justice to all the strands without tangling. The expository essay brazenly assumes its expertise. Dear Lord, save us from the epistolary. How heavy the crown if life were told in sonnets? What use a couplet when describing an extended period of bachelorhood? There’s nothing to stop a personal essay from going on indefinitely, but a five-paragraph essay must stop eventually. And whether narrative, descriptive, persuasive, or expository, all it takes is a more whimsical landscaper to combine pattern, personhood, and poetics to bring new purpose to the five-paragraph essay.


Since graduating from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, Ori Fienberg's poetry has appeared in dozens of journals including 2Riverview, Entropy Magazine, Flyway, Mid American Review, Pank, and Subtropicsbut he has never had an essay published, till now. This writing was made possible through support from the Lava Step Collective at You can find more of his writing online at

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Digesting Texas, And Other Pursuits of a Fusion Medievalist: A Conversation with Irina Dumitrescu

I describe books with food metaphors. The reading experience is sweet, sometimes too sweet. It can be bitter or too bitter. Sensations of taste are my go-to vocabulary for describing the sensations of literature. In her essay “Tasting Texas,” Irina Dumitrescu writes, “The early medieval monks whose scribbles I spend my days studying imagined reading to be like eating. Books were to be tasted, slowly savored in the mouth.” “Tasting Texas” was an essay of many flavors, full of savory language from a writer who seems to regard cooking and literature as expressions of the same human impulse. My excitement about this connection between taste and words hasn’t waned, even after I asked Irina if she ever mentally pairs flavors and books, and she looked amused. “Oh, interesting,” she said. “I don’t really think of books as things I eat.” Fair enough. In “Tasting Texas”: “…We live in base and literal times, and so I read new places by eating my way through their strip mall sushi, their street tacos and dumplings, their hole-in-the-wall falafel joints.” Literal food always wins.

When I spoke with her, Irina described “Tasting Texas” as her first official foray into creative writing and the personal essay:
I certainly didn’t think of myself as a literary person, because I wasn’t a writer of fiction. I was working my first job at Southern Methodist University when I heard about a sausage festival that happens every year in New Braunfels, Texas. It’s the annual Salute to Sausage, the Wurstfest. I heard about this and I thought: I have to go. Because I was living in Dallas, I wanted to explore Texas and find out about its culture. My colleague Willard Spiegelman, who was editor of the Southwest Review for a long time, stood in my office door and said, “If you write about it, I’ll publish it in the Southwest Review.” I had no idea what the Southwest Review was. I just thought okay, I’ll go on Ebay, buy a dirndl, have it fitted. Two friends jumped in the car with me and we drove for four hours to New Braunfels.

And then I wrote about it, and I wrote about it in a very satirical way. Willard was just brilliant, because he gave me a two-sentence response. He said something like, “This is nice, but who is this person? How has she changed?” It was this really laconic, economical response. I rewrote the whole essay and made it much more personal. It became about ways of adapting to places through food, and the feeling of being at home or not being at home in different geographic places. And about the mixture of cultures in Texas, and the difference in food at these odd festivals. I think it was a much better essay and it was no longer as much about making fun of this strange event as it was about discovering the quirkiness of the place.
Irina is an active medieval scholar, and a significant portion of her writing is published in places like The Chaucer Review. But since “Tasting Texas,” her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Southwest Review, The Yale Review, and subsequently Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen. She’ll be judging the 2017 Spring Essay Contest, at my request, for the literary journal Sonora Review. I asked Irina how her personal essays fit into the larger body of her work.
There are some creative writer-scholars who do the scholarship here, and then they do the creative writing there, and they remain two very separate activities. For me it became very important to blend them, to dissolve the borders between them. 
One thing I noticed was that even when I wrote creatively, I always wrote as a medievalist. I had all kinds of metaphors and ways of looking at the world that came from medieval literature. I didn’t leave the scholar behind when I was writing. I’m very interested in culture, and I’m interested in food not only as something that is delicious and that we eat but as a key to culture. I found that the powers of analysis I honed in my academic career could be turned to other aspects of culture.

I also realized that I really enjoy thinking of my academic, scholarly writing as creative writing, which is in fact something my dissertation advisor has always done. She writes very beautifully-crafted scholarly essays. They’re gorgeous pieces of literature as well as scholarship. Now I’ve started experimenting with that too. In ineffable ways I’m influenced by my other writing and my other reading. It helps me see different things in medieval literature, perhaps to think a little more poetically about it. But it’s hard to pin down exactly how my creative work influences my scholarship.
Even visiting Wurstfest, Irina didn’t leave her medieval sensibilities behind:
New Braunfels had all these strange mixtures of Pagan and Christian, like the Church of Peter and Paul, which had an oak tree in the yard. This oak tree was mentioned in the visitors’ guide to New Braunfels. I think a lot of non-medievalists would not notice how strange that is, because the oak tree was often dedicated to Thor. It was a place of pagan worship in early medieval Germany. There’s a story about Boniface, who was an English missionary to the area of Germany where I now live, felling a big oak tree that had been a favorite place of worship for pagan Germans. This was a miraculous event that convinced a lot of the pagans to believe in Christ. In this town you had the church, and that they advertised its oak tree, so you could see them combining two very old religious symbols in one place, probably without even knowing what they meant. But I knew…I mean, it’s pagan! It’s a pagan oak tree! 
One question for me has always been how cultures are fused. Or how people who go from one culture to another dominant culture bring some part of their older identity, whether it be language or cooking or a style of dance. I’m very interested in these moments of translation. It’s behind a lot of my academic work, and it’s also true of my interest in fusion foods. I’ll never be the person who writes about the proper way to make soufflé or an authentic pho. It’s not going to be me who writes a piece on the true and only way to make some dish. That to me is the least interesting question in the world. I’m always interested in the inauthentic, the improvised, the mish-mashed, the not-very-elite version of whatever it is.

Even though I was formed in Englis
h—I had most of my education in English, most of my communication was done in English—English is my third language. Romanian is my first language. And I suspect that there is some kind of a Romanian accent at the sentence level in my writing. I try very much to Anglicize it, to cut up those sentences and make them nice and Anglo Saxon and short. But inside, there is this East European sentence that just wants to go on forever! So that’s a central question for me, how you get mixes and infusions and accents in all kinds of creative work.
Irina’s emigration experience count is up to four now, and she writes poignantly about the experience of shifting geographies. “Show me what you import, and I’ll show you who you are,” Irina writes in “The Things We Take, The Things We Leave Behind,” thinking of the small, personal, inexpensive products she and other ex-pats wanted most from distant places. “You do not miss the luxuries of home but the ordinary accompaniments of your former everyday life, the things you used to take for granted, the things it feels most unjust to have to go without.”

When we leave someplace, especially under duress, what we take is mostly the weightless contents of our minds. In “Terpsichore,” Irina recounts the story of a young man who, at age 17, learned to ballroom dance from his fellows in a Romanian prison. It’s a gesture that could be interpreted as hope, to garner this knowledge with some faith in its usefulness: “He dreams of existence beyond space or prisons or politics.”

“I was thinking about transportable culture,” I told Irina. “If you learn to dance, that plays out so differently if it’s happening in a prison or in a classroom or on a different continent. What you bring with you is in your mind, because you could not bring most of everything else.”
On the one hand, there is a lot of culture you can transport, as you pointed out. That’s what you can take with you. On the other hand, when you move, you’re always confronted by the fact that you can’t take it with you perfectly, because you always need some ingredients. You know, I’ll never have tomatoes the way tomatoes were in Romania when I was a child. They’re very hard to get, even in Romania today. Most tomatoes don’t have tomato taste anymore. This is one of those things that drives me nuts. You can make the tomato salad, but most tomato salads won’t taste like anything. You might have a distant memory of what you want to achieve and you might know how to achieve it, but if you don’t have the ingredients, you can’t have it.

And the same is true for dance, for example. You might need musicians. Your dancing is going to be limited to some extent by the quality of the music and the engagement of your audience. In literature it’s similar. I think it’s the great tragedy of ex-pat writers that, if they’re interested in writing for someone, they now have a very limited someone to write for. That’s also true for imprisoned writers, of course, people who are writing to survive or writing without the knowledge that there will be an audience for their work. But I like to communicate. I like to imagine someone reading my work, so I think it would be difficult to write and know that people won’t get your little allusions, or your jokes, or even the rhythm of your language.
In “My Father and the Wine,” Irina writes about her parent’s quest to recreate Eastern European alcohols through home wine-making and distilling. Canadian counterparts simply would not do. The craving seemed so specific, but the methods so inexact. I recounted to Irina the story of a friend who has a small business selling hot sauce. He wanted to avoid the artificial stabilizers and colors that normally go into the commercial product, but nuanced flavors are hard to mass produce. “Now I understand why they use those things in hot sauce,” he told me. “Every batch is different. Good, but all different.” Even with the knowledge, even with the ingredients, there are still no guarantees.
That’s actually one of the wonderful things about thinking about culture as performance rather than as product. This is more the academic me speaking, but I think it works for cooking and for dance and for literature too. I like to think about recipes or choreographies or even literary texts as scripts for performance. The performance might be carried out in different ways at different times, depending on who is performing, who is there (or not there) to watch the performance. More and more, I look at literature that way too, as something that can be played out in different ways at different times rather than something that’s read and interpreted.

Writing creatively really helps, because people write to me and tell me their reactions to my work. I can tell that they have different reactions and they connect to different things. One of the beautiful parts of doing this kind of writing is it teaches you that you don’t necessarily know what the reader will get from it. You put it out into the world, but the reader will then take parts they connect with, or the parts they have a very negative reaction to, or they’ll misread your work in some way that suits their purposes. That’s all legitimate, I think. As long as they don’t take you to court! Once it’s out there, it’s theirs. It’s not yours any more. That helps me a bit with my scholarly work as well, to think of texts as possibilities rather than as enclosed, complete, gem-like creations. 
The cool thing about technology today is that if you publish something online, you can see what people quote. People take little pictures of the text and put them on Twitter, and I find it so fascinating to see what they respond to. I had an essay in Zócalo Public Square in which I talked about prison writing, and I had a line in there which I googled so many times while writing because I was sure I had stolen it from somewhere. Anthony Carnevale had written, “You can’t be a lifelong learner if you’re not a lifelong earner,” and I wrote in response, “Things often sound true when they rhyme.” That line was quoted on Twitter a lot. It was funny to me because when that line came to my head, one of these tiny little bon mots, I was sure I had stolen it. It was too good to come from my head! But then it was really interesting to see that’s what people latched onto as well. My natural, organic style is to pile on, but I think there’s a real power to short things. I found that an interesting exercise in reader response.
Irina tells the story of her creative writing experience as quite a winding path. “I had a Romanian immigrant’s relentless pragmatism,” she writes in the Zócalo essay (entitled “‘Frivolous’ Humanities Helped Prisoners Survive in Communist Romania”). “At the University of Toronto I fell in love, against my better judgment, with English literature, and switched majors.” Time and experience opened up the world of creative nonfiction.
The one class I quit in undergrad was my Creative Writing class. I had to find my own way to it, I think. I did take a creative writing class in Berlin at one point when I was really blocked in my scholarly writing. It was offered by Clare Wigfall, a British short story writer who lives in Berlin. She did it beautifully. She would assign us these very creative prompts to do in class. I wasn’t used to writing any kind of fiction, but stories came out that I couldn’t even imagine, just because of the creative structure of the course. 
I remember that after one of those classes, I was having lunch in a Thai restaurant and I just started writing. I wrote in a fury for several days, and that was “My Father and the Wine.” It didn’t come out of a prompt, and it had no relationship to any of the prompts we were doing, but somehow doing them just opened a floodgate in me and this entire essay came out in one piece. 
I find it much harder to force creative work to suit deadlines or a particular kind of timeline. I’m finding it necessary to be protective of my very slow process. Usually that means a lot of thinking about things, and when I’m ready to write, the essay comes out super-fast. It also comes out in very close to final form. I edit on a line level, but I don’t change a lot. Up until that point, it often just takes me time. And sometimes I’ve found I can’t do it according to somebody else’s timeline. I can with academic work. At this point, even if it takes a couple of days to get into a scholarly article, I can sit down and start to slam it out on schedule, or write a draft and revise it later. But creative work needs to be fermented properly. You don’t want the pickle or the kimchi before they’re ready!
I asked Irina to talk more about the concept of reading with which we began, the monastic idea of reading as savoring.
The metaphor of rumination was used widely in medieval monastic culture. The good reader would spend a lot of time on one book. They would not have the internet, and they would not get a new book every day from Amazon the way I do. Monks would spend a lot of time with a book of scripture, or the church fathers, or the Psalms, which they would sing. The ideal was that they would engage with those texts at a very deep level. It was a kind of reading that most of us probably can’t even imagine, because we tend to read fast, we tend to read once, and we tend to read a lot of different things. They would really ruminate over the text. They would also read aloud or subvocalize it. You would actually have the words in your mouth. And the process was compared to the digestive processes of cows, which digest and re-digest the food several times. I’m not an expert on bovine digestive processes, but this was a major metaphor for reading that medieval writers played with—that you would chew over the writing, over the food, over the text, a long time.

And then you would incorporate it. It would become part of you, because when you read very slowly and very intensely and often out loud, you remember a lot, and it no longer becomes a text you cite. It becomes a text that’s just part of you. You might even use words or little snippets that sound like that text without necessarily thinking, “I’m making a reference to that text.” This happens a lot with the Psalms, because monks were singing the Psalms on a regular basis. It got to the point when the Psalms were part of their vocabulary. It no longer was a separate text in the way we might think. Maybe this is like the difference between someone who’s acted a lot of Shakespeare and someone who just reads him in school.
Maybe thinking of literature as something to be tasted is too superficial, at least by monk standards. Tasting, after all, is only the first and easiest step in a complex process. Digestion is more subconscious, as words and stories become part of an individual. Irina traces these influences through both art and scholarship with her most persistent questions:
How art shapes us, and how art makes us into who we are, and how art forms our inner lives. How we learn to have certain emotions through art. I’m interested less in how we express ourselves through art than in how we learn to be who we are through creative work, whether it be writing or dance or music. Or food, of course.

Irina Dumitrescu teaches medieval literature at the University of Bonn. She is the editor of Rumba Under Fire: The Arts of Survival from West Point to Delhi (Punctum Books, 2016), a collection of essays and poems on humanities in times of crisis. Her essays have appeared in Longreads, The AtlanticThe Yale ReviewSouthwest ReviewPetits Propos Culinaires, the Washington Post, and Zócalo Public Square. Irina’s work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the James Beard Foundation’s MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, has received the McGinnis-Ritchie Award for nonfiction, and been reprinted in Best American Essays 2016.

Abby Dockter is an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction. Her writing appears in The OWL literary journal, the University of Arizona's Institute of the Environment news feed, and deep in the Mesa Verde National Park website. She enjoys long, dry archaeological reports, and usually hikes with poetry.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Wren Awry: Sin City Notebook

“A modern city, however, is not only a place, it is also in itself … a series of images, a circuit of messages. A city teaches and conditions by its appearances, its facades, and its plan.”
-John Berger, “Ralph Fasanella and the Experience of the City,” About Looking

“I stand in another world.
Not the past not the future.
Not paradise not reality not

a dream.”
-Anne Carson, “Wild Constant,” Float

 I want to write a smart essay about Vegas, I scribble in my new notebook, But all I’ve been able to grasp on to are fragments.
It’s 7 am, the end of December 2016--holiday season, and that strange, eye-before-the-storm stretch of time between Trump’s election and inauguration--and I’m sipping Keurig coffee in my room at the Golden Nugget, trying to get a few words down before a day of visiting my grandmother and hanging out with my parents and partner.
My grandmother lives in downtown Vegas--she lived here with my grandfather until his recent passing, and I visit at least once a year. Each trip, I’m curious what I could essay about this heterotopic, high capitalist wonderland, but I always put it off--I’m not a Vegas expert, I don’t know the history or sociology of the city, can’t speak for daily life here. I’m also concerned that I’ll be too critical--I don’t gamble, I dislike capitalism, and loud noises make me jump; I’m exactly the sort of person who loathes Vegas (and yet, coming here year after year, I’ve developed an odd affection for the city). Maybe it’s my dear grandfather’s death, the way the election jarred me, or how I’ve become more comfortable with my role as a poet, and the symbolism and associative leaps that role entails, but suddenly everything feels more pressing, more visceral, and this trip I decide, finally, to give writing about Vegas a go. I buy a cheap, spiral-bound notebook at the 24 hour Walgreen’s, and start to fill it.

I write about a commercial playing in the Golden Nugget for Jerry Seinfeld’s upcoming Caesar’s Palace show: “We go out,” Seinfeld says--pacing a stage, microphone in hand-- “To forget how much our life sucks.” I write down a line from Joan Didion’s essay “Marrying Absurd”--“Almost everyone notes that there is no ‘time’ in Las Vegas, no night and no day and no past and no future”--and follow it with a comment about visiting the Clark County Museum: In the outdoor ghost town, a wooden covered wagon, its white paint chipping, stands in a field of creosote. Subdivisions spread out in the background, and behind them stand red-hued, rocky mountains, the whole scene a picture-postcard of Manifest Destiny. I recall how, once, flying into Vegas, I flew over the Hoover Dam, and the iodine blue waters of Lake Mead. There are islands in that lake that don’t look like islands, but like the tops of drowned mountains, sunken in the rush to feed this thirsty metropolis. I admit that, out at a fancy restaurant with my family, I order a French Revolution cocktail, $11: “That’s perfect,” my partner says, “You love the French Revolution.” In my excitement I agree then, moments later, correct him, “No, no it’s the Paris Commune, not the French Revolution, that I like.” But the drink has arrived, pink and fizzy and served in a champagne glass, a hibiscus flower suspended in the bubbly. Taking a cocktail sip, smearing butter on a piece of sourdough bread: this is where my anti-capitalist critique of Vegas falls apart; I am seduced, time and again, through my taste buds.
I also journal about spending time with my grandmother: We’re working on a crossword puzzle together. She points to 12-down, which reads, “____ Enchanted, 2004 Blockbuster.” “I don’t know these newfangled clues,” my grandmother tells me, her coral lips cracking into a smile, “They aren’t in any of my crossword solvers, either.” “It’s Ella Enchanted,” I say--I remember seeing that movie in theaters as a teen. I scribble “E-L-L-A” in the puzzle squares. 14-across reads “Famous 20th century golfer.” My grandmother was a golfer--she and my grandfather belonged to a country club back in the Midwest--so I’m sure she knows.  Seconds later, she gives me a name. I check it against the number of letters--it is, of course, correct.
Las Vegas is good to my grandmother--she frequents the same casinos regularly and has made friends with servers and bartenders that staff the casino restaurants. These friends care for her--driving her to appointments when she hurts her hip, checking in about her needs when they hear my grandfather has died.
From my grandmother’s apartment, I can see the Trump International Hotel. Two months ago, in October 2016--before the third presidential debate--the Culinary Workers Union built a “wall” of taco trucks outside it in protest, both of Trump’s position on immigration and his unwillingness to recognize unions in the hotel.

            One morning, I take off by myself, leave the Golden Nugget and walk south through the Fremont Street Experience--four pedestrian blocks of casinos and souvenir shops watched over by Vegas Vic, that iconic neon cowboy who is so often a metonym for the city as a whole. At night, animated Bon Jovi and Beatles light shows illuminate the Experience’s LED sky, and zip liners slide on steel tendons above daiquiri-swilling crowds; but in the morning Fremont Street is quiet, populated almost exclusively by panhandlers with clever signs (one reads, simply, “Fuck you”--I smile at its brashness) and men nursing beers purchased from the 24 Hour Walgreens.
The Fremont Street Experience ends at Las Vegas Boulevard, but the street keeps going, and so, on that morning, do I. I pass under the neon archway that announces the beginning of the Fremont East District, an enclave of hip bars and restaurants: The Smashed Pig, Beauty Bar Las Vegas, Le Thai. Vintage neon signs rise from the median, including two of my favorites: a martini glass with an olive the size of my face; and a glittering, scarlet-red high heel. The high heel is posted outside of the El Cortez, the oldest casino in Vegas.
The El Cortez is a dim-lit throwback to when downtown was the heart of Vegas--before the Strip, two miles south, tempted away the tourists with its themed casino-resorts, faux Eiffel Tower and cartoonish volcano that rumbles and explodes on the hour. It’s my favorite casino in downtown--I like the dark wood paneling and that, once, when I stayed here, there was a roll-top desk in my room. Run for a time by infamous gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, the casino feels like a time capsule--I can imagine Joan Didion posted up at the lobby bar, sipping a martini and scribbling down notes for “Marrying Absurd”: “Las Vegas is … bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies’ room attendants with amyl nitrate poppers in their uniform pockets.”
Atomic Liquors, the oldest free-standing bar in Vegas, is a few blocks south of the El Cortez. A neon sign advertises “Liquor and Cocktails,” the yellow arrow below it pointing to a building with a gray-stone facade. The bar opened in 1952 and, throughout that decade, patrons scrambled onto the roof to watch mushroom clouds rise from the nearby Nevada Test Site. I know how environmentally dangerous the testing was and continues to be[1], and how it represented the specter of Cold War nationalism. I admire the anti-nuclear activists who walked on to the Nevada Test Site throughout the second half of the 20th century, risking arrest in a struggles against war, and against poisoned bodies and landscapes. And yet, I admit to myself, watching that atomic spectacle from the roof of the bar, cocktail in hand, must have been beautiful. In “Marrying Absurd,” Didion calls Vegas “the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements” and this bar, where militarism and Cold War fears melted into entertainment, feels emblematic of that.[2]
South of Atomic Liquors, the hip stores and tourist spots disappear, and Sin City shows its seams. I walk past abandoned motel after abandoned motel, trash shored up in the bushes along the cracked sidewalk, houseless individuals asking for spare change and huddled on stoops in front of boarded up businesses. I photograph a vacant lot with the Stratosphere rising behind it and an image of Edgar Allen Poe--a favorite icon of my birth father, who died from the effects of sadness at fifty--painted onto an electric box. I’m walking through the Las Vegas tourists rarely see, the people and neighborhoods that aren’t shiny enough to be commodifiable or put on display. At least, I think I am.
I see a sign up ahead for a bakery, and a donut or cookie sounds good, so I decide it will be my destination. But, crossing Fremont Street, I see that the bakery is no longer open--it, like so many of the neighborhood businesses, is abandoned. I pivot and head north, back towards the Fremont Street Experience and my family, walking on the side of the street with all the shuttered motels. Their signs remain--they have whimsical names like the Desert Moon and the Peter Pan. The buildings are gated and boarded up, but when I look closer I noticed that they’re also covered in murals. Fake doors and windows have been painted onto plywood boards covering the actual doors and windows of the motel rooms, and bespectacled cats and dogs peek out of the false frames--a motif that repeats itself for blocks, on motel after motel. In the courtyard of one, two semi trucks are welded together
into a spectacular piece of public art, foregrounding a spray-painted sign that reads “Life Is Beautiful.” It seems a strange message in this stretch of the city, and I--ever the anarchist--wonder why artists are painting abandoned motels, making huge sculptures in their lots in an attempt to attract tourists, instead of breaking them open and refurbishing them into homes for Vegas’ houseless community.[3]
“Las Vegas seems to exist only in the eye of the beholder,” Didion writes, and I, the beholder in question, cannot stop seeing the cracks on Vegas’ shiny facade, the discord beneath the pinging of slot machines and the rock bands playing on Fremont Street stages.

            The Writer’s Bloc bookstore has a defunct printing press (“We’re working on it!” one of staff people tells me) in the front window and a curated selection of small press books and best sellers in the back. It also has a bunny rabbit named The Baron--who I was invited to pet but not hold--and a children’s section replete with toys and piles of books. It’s the kind of place I’m prone to hiding in and I go there again and again during my week in Vegas, sometimes with family and sometimes alone, sometimes just to run my hands along the spines of books that I have no intention of buying.
It’s at The Writer’s Bloc that I pick out a copy of Anne Carson’s Float--a Christmas gift from my parents. I audibly squeal when I see it on the shelf in the New Books section and, later, reading the collection of chapbooks in my hotel room, I wonder what Carson--classicist and poet, student of that which rises and falls--would write about Vegas (from her Float chapbook “Maintenance”: “4. Replace the lightbulbs we have hundreds better still turn the lights off.” ) It’s at The Writer’s Block, too, that I read a small card they have on display about Joan of Arc:
After Joan of Arc was posthumously pardoned, she became the focus of one of the outbreaks of cash-in memoirs. Ma semaine avec Joan (My Week With Joan), written by Gilles de Rais, chronicles his time with Joan during the Siege of Orleans. The idea that there might have been any romantic spark between the legendary Joan of Arc and creepy, unpleasant Gilles, who had been a low-level squire in the campaign, captured the imagination of the world.

I take a picture of the card, and tweet it. Will Slattery, Essay Daily’s managing editor and a fellow lapsed Catholic, replies with, “‘Creepy, unpleasant Gilles de Rais’ is maaaaaaybe just a bit of an understatement”--de Rais was a confessed child serial killer and one of the possible inspirations for the fairy tale Bluebeard. I explain that The Writer’s Block hosts creative writing workshops for children--I’ve seen flyers for them around the shop, and “creepy and unpleasant” might be an attempt to keep that particular bit of history PG. Still, when I attend Christmas Eve mass at my grandmother’s church, St. Joan’s, a few night later, Perrault’s Bluebeard keeps sneaking into my thoughts between prayers.
            I return to The Writer’s Block one afternoon with my cousin Katie and both of our partners. The shopkeeper offers us free baked goods, a holiday gift to the store from a nearby coffeeshop, and Katie--who is as bubbly as I am awkward and shy--strikes up a conversation with him. He turns out to be Scott Seeley, one of the bookstore’s co-owners. Seeley tells us the history of The Writer’s Block--he moved to Vegas several years ago from Brooklyn, with his husband, Drew Cohen, and opened the shop in 2014; it’s the only independent bookstore in Vegas. He tells us, also, about Codex, the shop’s education program--they offer free writing classes for youth ages 5-18, school field trips at the store, and events and book groups for adults.
“We have the workshops in the back space. Have you seen it?” he asks and when we shake our heads no, gestures for us to follow him.
The five of us walk through a portal-like tunnel of trees--Seeley’s tall and stoops so as not to be hit by faux-branches or get a faceful of fabric leaves. He ushers us into a back room, well-lit with big wooden tables. “This is where our workshops are,” he says, pointing to a raised area straight back, “And that’s the stage where we have performances.”[4] I imagine the room full of kids, hard at work on comic books, poems and short stories. I teach creative writing to elementary schoolers in Tucson, and I’m in awe of the work they produce, how children’s vulnerability so often leads them to write in such fresh and startling honest ways.
Seeley points to a shelf of student anthologies, perfect-bound volumes printed on the store’s Espresso Book Machine. He pulls a few down, excitedly telling us about them, the stories they contain and who drew the covers. I want to ask if I can sit down and thumb through them, but Seeley needs to get back to the front of the shop, and the five of us need to leave if we’re going to be on time for family dinner. We exit back through the arbor of trees into the bookstore and, thanking Seeley, go on our way.
As we walk north up Fremont Street, towards the casinos and neon lights, I decide that next time I’m in Vegas, I’ll return to The Writer’s Block, conquer my shyness, and ask if I might sit in that back room for a while, flipping through kid- and teen-written anthologies. I wonder what I’ll find in those pages, what those young wordsmiths will teach me. I’m guessing there will be small glimmers of everyday Vegas, the city that exists alongside the city’s glitz: a city of boring homework assignments, hard days, and simple joys that isn’t glamorous enough to be written up in guidebooks and gangster biographies, or noticed by the tourists who fuel Sin City’s economy.

If words are veils, what do they hide? What difference does it make to see a wharf building as a cathedral for ten seconds or two months or a year, to see Apollo, the god of healing and truth, as a murderous pun?
-Anne Carson, “Cassandra Float Can,” Float


Wren Awry teaches creative writing to elementary schoolers via the University of Arizona’s Writing the Community Program, is an editor at Tiny Donkey and Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness, and has writing at or forthcoming from, Rust + Moth, Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness, Fairy Tale Review’s Fairyland, 1508, and Ghost City Press.

[1] The impacts of nuclear testing in Nevada and surrounding states remain: Rates of leukemia and cancer in communities downwind from the test site have skyrocketed, and 300 million curies of radiation are estimated to have been left behind when testing ending at the site in 1992, radiation that’s currently leaking into the water table.

[2] Didion also writes, of Vegas, that “the sense of what happens there has no connection with ‘real’ life” and is “divorced from some historical imperative.” Of course, this is an illusion: Las Vegas was built on stolen Paiute land and, for decades, coal from Black Mesa, in the Navajo Nation, helped power its brights lights and pinging slot machines. Mining on Black Mesa has led to an increase in black lung and other diseases and had forced residents from their ancestral homelands.

[3] Later, I will learn that the motels were exhibition spaces for the Life Is Beautiful festival, a celebration of music, art, and food that sprawls across downtown each September. A section of the 2017 Life Is Beautiful website reads, “And because it’s not all about you all the time, book with Hotels for Hope and a donation will be made to Project 150, giving homeless, displaced and disadvantaged high students the tools they need to succeed and graduate.” Project 150, and Life Is Beautiful’s support of it, seems like a worthy thing, but it doesn’t erase the fact that people who are houseless or have recently been released from the city jail are resting in front of chain-linked motels with boarded up doors and windows--shelters they cannot access, shelters that have become canvasses instead of homes in this city of glint, of gleam, of surfaces.

[4] Students for each class are chosen by lottery. There are whimsical classes, like “Build Your Own Theme Park” and “Fantasy Newspaper,” and also classes on blogging, speculative fiction, and a high school writing workshop.