Monday, May 21, 2018

On ATTN:, attention, Aditi Machado, Harold Abramowitz and Andrea Quaid, and What's Gonna Happen on June 21, 2018

If you're a regular reader of this space, you know about our upcoming project, What Happened on June 21, 2018, in which we're inviting as many people as possible (writers, nonwriters, artists, amateurs, pros, collagists, musicians, whatever) to pay attention with us to a day in June.

While you don't need to register your interest via the google form, we'd love to have you do so in order to plan better.

Really, all you need to do is wake up on June 21 and write about what happens that day, however you understand that question. When you're done, give it a good edit, and send it in to us. (We'll collect these submissions via a google form.)

We'll publish as many of them as we can. We're guessing these will run through, at least, July.

This endeavor comes out of a handful of texts: Christa Wolf's One Day a Yeara special issue of Le Nouvel Observateur featuring 240 writers writing about what happened on April 29, 1994; a brief Nicholson Baker essay reproduced here for that project; and, I suppose, I'm also thinking of some of Juliana Spahr's day poems like this one. While that special issue of Le Nouvel Observateur was a who's who of literary 1994 (click to expand)—

—we're interested in a more democratic, anyone-can-play approach to trying to take a bite out of one day this coming June. So whisper the idea into anyone's ear.

While talking about the project with my friend Farid Matuk he turned me onto the only two issues of an occasional magazine called ATTN:—

—that published an issue devoted to July 31, 2015 and one on April 25, 2016. It appears to be ongoing, but a new one hasn't arisen in some time. To get a copy you'll have to buy one (though they look hard to find...) or, as I did, head on down to your local totally kickass international poetry library (I'm sure you have one where you are, right?). I'd recommend buying a copy or a subscription, and maybe they'll keep this project up.

(Attn ATTN: folks: perhaps you'd like to join us in June? You seem to like an occasion for art.)

The project of ATTN: is similar to ours in its open-endedness, though ATTN: is oriented toward poems and collage-style lo-fi art. Still, it includes a number of what I would call essays, including a lovely piece by Aditi Machado, which I'll reproduce here (click to expand):

I love that it's handwritten—so personal, which is always welcome in an essay, and yet so few of our essays are handwritten or hand-drawn (this one's an exception)—but also because it's going right at some of the questions of attention that interest me: what attention is (especially when it's paid, as we say in our odd turn of phrase, over an extended period) and what relationship it has to perception. What the relationship is between the subjective and objective, which is to say the central question of the essay, being the relationship between self and world or I and eye. Machado's assembly of quotations helps track one way through these questions, and I'd recommend you spend some time with it.

I also liked, for only some of the same reasons, this essay by Harold Abramowitz and Andrea Quaid (click to expand):

What is there to say about a day? Does the act of trying to say or think or observe something about a day change the day? "Maybe today was about what we are doing right now, I don't know," they say (it's unclear who is saying what, this being collaborative—and that uncertainty starts to push a little on some of the tenets of nonfiction or the essay in ways that feel worth exploring further). What is today about? What is the point of a day, or of today, or of any day? Is "this day…like a little world"? Is it "like leaving the world alone?" Well, let us find out.

Will your day intersect with the days of others who may be writing or thinking about the contents of that day? How will your days collaborate? How will all our days collaborate? Will they be punctuated by tragedy? (Surely—though the tragedies may or may not register for all or even any of us if they are quiet or far enough away.)

Here's another contribution to the first ATTN: by, I think (it's hard to tell—attribution is not a primary focus of this project) Donald Guravich:

It's hand-drawn and awesome. And I'll include only one more, this one from the second issue, on April 25, 2016, by Craig Dworkin, which collages news and happenings on a number of levels, sort of in the style, perhaps, of Harper's "Findings" feature:

By reprinting these and directing your attention (or your attn:) to them I mean not to suggest that these are modes you should be inhabiting, but that these are a few of the many opportunities for attention that a day can offer. So think about joining us: it's about a month away. We'll remind those of you who indicated your interest in the form the week before, and if that's not you, still you should feel free to play along. That's the nice thing about a catchy song—it spreads, invites a mass accompaniment.

Abramowitz and Quaid sum it up: "Wow, I think to myself, this is hard to do." Yes, exactly, I think to myself, which is why we should do it a lot more often. Starting on June 21.

Monday, May 7, 2018

What is an Object? 14 Object Lessons Authors on their Objects


We can point to an object only because we perceive it as separate from other things, apart not only from other things in the object-world but also living beings. Yet glass troubles these simplifying distinctions. As an object, glass showcases other objects and often allows us to see them with more perspicuity. So, the purpose of glass is not to be perceived. Think of the camera lens, the microscope, or eyeglasses. But, crucially, glass also turns people into objects. Whether capturing us in the reflection of a mirror or distilling our very selves into an image crystallized by a camera lens, glass gives us the startling glimpse of what it might mean for us to be inorganic, for us to not be unique, for us to, in fact, be objects ourselves. —John Garrison, Glass


I liked the difficulty of defining my object. The word luggage refers to so many different things (suitcases, trunks, backpacks, etc.), but it also refers to the contents of these things, and that could be anything. So as I wrote, I found that I was really interested in the idea of luggage because what my object is, materially speaking, became less and less clear. But that uncertainty—and the fact that the word brings with it so much (no pun intended)—became part of the book: how luggage is about language and how it is a figure for concepts like secrecy, ownership, and displacement. —Susan Harlan, Luggage


Whale song is about as far away from an object as you can get. Its transience as sound is matched only by the unreality of the sounds themselves—uncanny, haunting announcements that whatever cetaceans are saying to each other will probably always exceed our attempts at understanding, consumption, capture. Is it this lack of objectivity that placed whale recordings at the heart of two such important artifacts of human history, the 1972 LP Songs of the Humpback Whale, the largest pressing of any recorded album in history, and the Voyager Golden Record, currently traversing interstellar space in hopes of reaching an alien intelligence? —Margret Grebowicz, Whale Song


How much butter can an egg yolk hold? Separated from its white brethren, the yolk sits eyeballing in my hand. In between its proteins I promise to situate fat—whisk in whisk in whisk in the butter slowly. What does it mean to split an atom? The fusion of bĂ©arnaise.
     Outdoors, it’s early for blue bird eggs but still one sits, eyeballing, in the middle of a nest. In between the cracks of shell, an egg-tooth promises escape. I can’t promise much to this new situation except to keep my eye on the break, to blink into being this nuclear baby bird new. —Nicole Walker, Egg


Benjamin states that any object, artistic or natural, endowed with “aura,” looks back at you. The idea came alive with a vengeance as I was writing Rust. Teeming orangey-red blotches began staring at me, demanding, imploring, threatening. Rust dissolved the world into myriads of shells, hollowing or corroding the fullness of things. Increased paranoid-critical activity helped, like forcing Japanese friends on a Tokyo-Kyoto train to hallucinate rusty metal in the landscape. The solution to the dissolution was to combine Hegel’s dialectics of nature and Ruskin’s aesthetics. Rust once integrated to my regular blood-rhythms, the wonderful irritability of the object redeemed the restless world. —Jean-Michel RabatĂ©, Rust


In writing Silence, I did not anticipate that readers would object to my premise that silence is an object. Thingifying what might be viewed as an abstraction is obviously related to Hegelian and Marxist thinking on Verdinglichung, reification, especially since I begin with the commodification of silence, but I resist the notion that silence is, in fact, an abstraction. Simply because silence names something above and below the capacity of our senses to apprehend it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The last century or so has extended the universe of objects to the infinitesimal, even down to the level of sub-atomic particles. We clearly no longer demand confirmation by our senses of objecthood. My book catalogues some of the ways—in science, art, politics, religion, law—that we treat silence as an object of inexhaustible utility. So don’t object to silence as an object. —John Biguenet, Silence


What did I discover, approaching the tree as an object? That there are the several things we’ve given trees to do: to shelter, to feed, to fuel. That there are also the many things a tree will do as well as other objects: if you drop one from an airplane, for instance, it will fall to the earth (a tree falling to the earth would be a prodigy, a sign, a terror, but in certain respects also unremarkable). And that beyond these lie all the secret ways the tree has of being, of happening, of doing world, which are numberless. —Matthew Battles, Tree


Because a tumor is the object that is us, I was forced to ponder relationships between self and object. In the case of a tumor, an individual and an object are made of the same stuff. Even when that’s not the case, though, an object’s meaning is delineated by how we interact with it. The word object comes from the Latin meaning to oppose or to put in the way of. An object becomes consequential or evocative when it gets in our way, when my response and someone else’s response has something in common—when we create culture out of objects. —Anna Leahy, Tumor


The burger is a private experience that the hand delivers to the mouth. But the “Burger,” long the “All-American” meal, has always contained an element of instability to it—and not only because it can rot. Named for a city that did not originate it, a form and a method of presenting flesh that often relied on disguise, in the twenty-first century it achieved the apotheosis of not being what it is presented to be, the burger with everything but the meat. I see the hamburger as a modernist aberration, albeit a very successful one, in the long tradition of shaping protein food items into single-portion meals. It’s replacement? The everyday object of burgerness. —Carol J. Adams, Burger


In Doctor, I dissected common perceptions of doctors—from children’s games to mainstream movies, hospital slogans to corny jokes—to reveal a more accurate version. I aimed to demystify the profession, but I also worried that providing an unfiltered look at doctoring might not be such a positive exercise. Did readers really want to know what doctors thought and said and did behind closed doors? I asked a non-doctor friend, who read an early draft, if it was too dark. She replied, “Funny you should ask, because reading your book triggered a memory. My stepfather is a psychiatrist, and my aunt is an actress who never really ‘made it’ and has been in therapy for years. Once, at a family dinner, my stepfather made a half-joke that while his patients are talking about their problems, he’s thinking about what he’s going to eat for dinner. My aunt became enraged and stormed out of the room. I thought it was hilarious. So I think you’ll have two kinds of readers.” Opening up something secret to a general view is a gamble, and the doctor is an object that risks cutting both ways. —Andrew Bomback, Doctor


As I wrote, I thought about Jeanette Winterson’s formulation of culture writing as a way to object, as a verb. My book objects to white supremacy, racism, murder, torture, and imprisonment. It objects to the weaponization of garments against vulnerable people. After the book was published, I objected to the way some critics and interviewers tried to exploit it to confirm their own biases. “What you’re saying is that hoods are sinister and dangerous, right?” I’d say: This book is about knowing the difference between a Klan hood, an executioner’s hood, and a hoodie. They’re not at all the same thing. The conflation is, itself, white supremacy at work. —Alison Kinney, Hood


When it comes to the things our minds imagine and our hands fashion, "fake" is a matter of intention, effect, and perspective. Unfortunately, as culture verbally conflates the artificial, the faux, substitutes, imitations, and cheap plastic crap with fraud, it comes to the same intellectual confusion too. That which people dislike or distrust they feel free to call fake so as to discard from objective reality as easily as they do “fake” objects from their perceived reality. The problem is that objective reality doesn’t work like that. It cannot be altered to fit our world view, nor can it be escaped. —Kati Stevens, Fake


When the object blurs after you stare at it too long, go out into the world and beat around for stories. “I know it’s strange to ask a stranger this, but what is this object?” “How does it rub up against what you personally want?” “Has it heard you crack up? sob? swear?” “How do you hold it?” “What hole would it leave?”
     Ask homeless people. Pantomime across languages. Make people you know ask people they know. Learn how the object manufactures experiences. Learn how experiences manufacture the object. The object is not an inkblot; neither is it a blank slate. —Meredith Castille, Driver’s License


I don’t weave, sew, knit, or crochet. I don’t collect blankets or quilts. But of all objects in the world, I chose blanket. I don’t recall how that came to be, except I know there were no other object contenders. It was always blanket. There’s something to be said for a little indifference before the object, a kind of anamorphic gaze onto its plane and contours. To write about blankets was to encounter philosophy and physics, memories and grief. Language is overcome with blanket metaphors. Writing brought me to the material object. And now I see blankets everywhere—folded, stacked, draped. And the word itself stirs me. —Kara Thompson, Blanket

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

What’s So Normal About This, Anyway? On The Spirit of Disruption and The Normal School Nonfiction Series


On The Spirit of Disruption and The Normal School Nonfiction Series


Steven Church 


In the late 90’s, after two years of putting my BA degree in philosophy to work fixing toilets and shoveling snow as a maintenance man in a Colorado ski town, I headed off to graduate school to study fiction writing because I liked short stories. Little did I know that the golden age of the short story was waning and the “lyric essay” was already making its first splashes in the (often frighteningly) small literary nonfiction pond, nor did I understand then how the essay form would end up shaping so much of my professional, editorial, and artistic life.
     The truth was at the time I didn’t know Montaigne from Montell Jordan, and I thought all “creative” nonfiction was nature writing. But I would soon discover that I loved Joan Didion and Bernard Cooper, Truman Capote and Tobias Wolff, David Foster Wallace, Lauren Slater, David Shields, Lia Purpura, and Lawrence Weschler, as well as some of those aforementioned nature writers. I’d discover that I loved books that didn’t fit easily into “normal” literary classifications, even if I wasn’t entirely sure what those literary classifications were.
     At that time the term “lyric essay” seemed dangerous, revolutionary, and exciting, as if it marked the advent of something new in literature. The lyric essay itself as a form or mode of writing was not necessarily new, as both its prophets and detractors often tried to remind us. The movement to embrace lyric essays, to reclaim modes of nonfiction writing from the grips of other genre and sub-genre classifications, to carve out a space for the unclassifiable within the academy, however, did seem new—as if we were all intrepid deputy explorers setting out across the frozen tundra or hacking through verdant canonical jungles, planting flags in anything that seemed to fit under this maddeningly wide and colorful umbrella of the lyric essay. Armed with new terms and new permissions we claimed territory in poetry, fiction, art, film, philosophy and other disciplines. We kicked in doors and knocked down walls. It was exciting.
     Perhaps also empowered or at least emboldened by this excitement surrounding the genre, by these new permissions and this spirit of wonder, exploration, and disruption of the norms in nonfiction publishing, Matt Roberts, Sophie Beck, and I formed (along with several friends) a collaborative writing group focused on prose writing, the spirit of principled disruption, and fun. This writing collective became a lifeline for us and other writers who’d graduated from the relatively comfy and supportive nest of our MFA program; and we supported our artistic selves by hosting themed readings, publishing a chapbook, and collaborating with visual artists.
     There was this undeniably fun energy that we all desperately needed, the same energy that would eventually, several years later and with the financial and institutional support of Fresno State (where I landed a teaching job), end up being the driving force behind the founding of The Normal School: a Literary Magazine.
     When we launched the print magazine ten years ago, we chose the name for a couple of reasons. First, we liked the sound of it and the dubious authority it suggested, the way it seemed to be telling you what was “normal,” while also inspiring the question, “What is ‘normal’”? The title has an ironic shimmer that both critiques the idea of “normal,” while also celebrating it and trying to redefine it. We liked the multiplicity and tension that exists in the title, and that it seemed like we were taking ourselves really seriously, even if we weren’t in a lot of ways. We liked the disruption of expectations. Finally, our host institution, Fresno State was founded on Sept. 11, 1911 as the Fresno Normal School; so the title hearkens back to the history of an institution founded to train local teachers who were schooled in the “norms” of knowledge and education. We tried to internalize an aesthetic of honoring and embracing history while also challenging what is considered “normal” today.
     In terms of nonfiction content for the magazine, we wanted the lyric essays, the recipes, lists, maps, collages, collaborative pieces, experimental essays, speculative essays, and essays that other magazines ignored or rejected; we wanted the experimental “boundary pushing” essays and the trouble-making essays, political essays, music essays, true crime essays, and even the straightforward memoir, journalism, criticism, and other subject-driven nonfiction. We wanted it all and we wanted to throw them into a conversation with each other—and that’s how we’ve always thought of the magazine, as a conversation on the “norms” of literary publishing.
     At least once a year it seemed, we also schemed and dreamed about publishing books and, to be sure, many people asked if we’d ever get into that “business.” We wanted to do it, but we wanted to do it the right way, the Normal way. We wanted it to be largely independent with an eye toward competing with the “big” presses and we wanted the books to pay attention to design. We wanted it to be West Coast; and we wanted the books to be affordable and unique titles that embodied the same spirit as the magazine.
     The first foray into this world of book publishing has been an anthology of essays collected from the first ten years of publication. The Spirit of Disruption: Selections from The Normal School, which will be released August 1, 2018 by Outpost 19. This anthology collects 28 groundbreaking essays from a diverse, accomplished group of contributors to the magazine and combines the essays with original reflections from the writers. Our list of contributors includes Ander Monson, Elena Passarello, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Rick Moody, Jericho Parms, Dinty W. Moore, Silas Hansen, Joe Bonomo, Brenda Miller, Patrick Madden, Jerald Walker, and many more.
     Because I’ve really enjoyed working with Jon Roemer at Outpost19, we decided to take the plunge even further into publishing, and our next venture is The Normal School Nonfiction Series for which I’ll serve as the Series Editor. This partnership seeks to publish books that embody the spirit of the nonfiction that we’ve celebrated for ten years in the magazine. We are particularly interested in immersive and reportage-based writing, socio-cultural and political criticism, pop culture analysis, and essayistic prose that artfully blends the personal and public. We are interested in lyric essays, hybrid nonfiction, research-driven memoir, and the sort of engaging and eclectic nonfiction writing we regularly publish in The Normal School; and we also hope to publish books by diverse, historically under-represented, and/or marginalized voices
     At the magazine we’ve always appreciated what I’ve often come to think of, somewhat ingloriously, as “messays,” or pieces of nonfiction writing that, again, don’t necessarily conform to traditional definitions or expectations of the essay, or that at least buck against other “norms” in nonfiction publishing and might be difficult to place in another magazine. These are often longer pieces that seem constantly on the verge of collapsing or exploding out into a million different directions.
     Perhaps instead of “messay,” I should just call it a Normal essay; and perhaps I’m also just speaking of the sorts of nonfiction writing that we’ve always loved here at the magazine, those longer engagements with a unique consciousness. The essays we publish are often ones that suggest some larger, deeper, messier and possibly book-length inquiry.
     Normal nonfiction is then, for me, the unruly working class messay mated with the more academic and intellectual lyric essay. It’s the punk rocker blurred with the lyric essay’s classical composer, the bareknuckle fist-fighter mixed with the ballroom dancer. It’s the narrative tension mashed together with lyric attention. The basic foundations are the same shared language, often similar motivations toward formal innovation, and there’s something in the execution that rattles your sense of what’s real or right or normal or acceptable. It’s art, but it’s unruly and rowdy art. It’s art that is meant to disrupt your sense of what’s actually normal in literary nonfiction.
     It is this somewhat unruly approach to publishing and an obvious appreciation for interesting nonfiction that first appealed to me in working with Jon Roemer and Outpost19. I’d loved books that Jon had published with Outpost19 by Lawrence Lenhart and David LeGault, as well as an anthology, Rooted, edited by Josh McIvor-Anderson, in which I had a short piece reprinted; and I liked that he combined an indie-press appreciation for literature with an obvious understanding of how to put books into readers’ hands and how to celebrate authors and their work.
     In our discussions of The Normal School Nonfiction Series, Jon and I have always said that we want to continue the “spirit of disruption” that The Normal School magazine and the anthology has adopted, while also looking for ways to reach a wide reading audience that is more sophisticated, generous, and adventurous than many publishers realize, an audience that we believe is hungry for more Normal nonfiction.


Submit here by May 15 for The Normal School Nonfiction Series: 


Steven Church is the author of six books of nonfiction, most recently the collection of essays, I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear and Fatherhood, and he edited the anthology, The Spirit of Disruption: Selections from The Normal School, which will be released in Aug. 2018.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Prose-Poem-Personal-Essays: A Bite-Sized Dose of Journey, Exploration, and Meaning

As a poet and a essayist, and someone who reads widely in both genres, I see a very thin line between poetry and essay: specifically, when a poem is first-person, mostly linear, reads as prose, and contains elements of the personal essay. These prose-poem-personal-essays pay close attention to language and other poetic conventions, but also employ persona and personal experience to make meaning in a way characteristic of the personal essay. While the lyric essay has long been in conversation (and conflated) with the prose poem, I’m more interested with how the I-character is used in the personal essay and the prose poem to tell a meaningful story about the author. Both the prose poem and the personal essay are difficult genres to pin down because of their myriad variations, but each have formal conventions informed by their genre’s history.

A daily newspaper in Paris, La presse, published a few of Charles Baudelaire’s prose poems on August 26, 1862—debuting the possibility of prose as poetry. Baudelaire collected 50 of his short prose poems into a book, Petitis poemes en prose (Le Spleen de Paris) (1869) (Hass 385). In the book’s introduction, he explains his ideal for the form as “a poetic prose, musical, without rhythm and rhyme, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the gibes of conscience” (386). Baudelaire wanted to create a new, more flexible type of poetic prose better suited to capture the whimsey of human thought.

Baudelaire’s American prose poet counterpart was Gertrude Stein, who debuted prose poems in English with Tender Buttons (1914) (Delville 262). The 1997 version of Tender Buttons, published by Dover Inc., includes an unauthored Note specially prepared for the edition to contextualize the seemingly gibberish poems. This Note discusses how Stein attempted to write portraits of people “solely rooted in the present moment,” but then realized acknowledging people’s “movements and expression… forced [her] into recognizing resemblances, and so forced remembering and in forcing remembering caused confusion of present with past and future time” (v). Tender Buttons was born when Stein wrote still lives comprised of objects, rooms, and food—scenes with no humans, and thus no movements or changing expressions (vi).

To avoid any resemblances or remembering, Stein defamiliarized a long-recycled vocabulary and syntax whose patterns recalled its past and future use. Stein stripped words from their denotative contexts: “repeated words, recast them, rhymed them, and strung them together in unusual combinations. She emphasized their musical qualities, favoriting sound over sense” (vi). Her focus on sonics is decidedly poetic, but the form of her poems follow the conventions of prose: sentences begin with a capitalization and end in a period, commas offset separate clauses, and indentations begin each paragraph. For me, these prose familiars make the unfamiliar language construction in the poems easier to read and digest. Stein’s poems in Tender Buttons are unified into paragraphs, and each paragraph or series of paragraphs represents an object, a food, or room; it’s the language and grammar within those paragraphs, however, that subverts their unity.

The expectation of the paragraph is unity, as Robert Hass discusses in his chapter on the prose poem in A Little Book on Form (387). Outside of a poem using paragraphing, Hass declares the prose poem “impossible to define” (386). I feel like this claim is an easy way for Hass to discount the prose poem’s legitimacy, which is silly considering he writes prose poems, including the well-known “A Story About the Body.” He seems to take prose poetry as an affront to what he believes are the only four kinds of prose: “narration, description, exposition, and argument” (387). What a narrow definition of prose! What of exploration? reflection? retrospection? What of the poetic prose he claims “was sired by ambivalence and envy” (387)? From its inception, Hass says, prose poetry “was torn between undermining its medium and appropriating it… The ‘prose poet’ is either worshipping at or pissing on the altar of narration, description, exposition, and argument. Or both” (387).

Must prose poets either worship prose, piss on prose, or hold prose in esteem while still desecrating it? Can’t the prose poem combine elements from both its namesakes, thereby expanding the definition of each? Unlike Hass, I do believe the prose poem can be defined—as any writing that utilizes paragraphing and is categorized as a poem by author, reader, or publisher. Genre is murky, and genres bleed into each other, especially in the case of short prose. I’ll delve into this later in the essay.

As I mentioned earlier, the type of prose poem I’m most interested in includes elements of the personal essay. In “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing,” essayist and nonfiction writer Ned Stuckey-French attempts to define the illusive genre of the essay. He first turns to the two fathers of the essay—Francis Bacon and Michael de Montaigne. Bacon’s essays were “aphoristic, tidy and impersonal” searches for “truth” (4). On the other hand, Montaigne’s essays were “a means of self-exploration, an exercise in self-portraiture, and a way for him to explore… his own thoughts and feelings” (3). Montaigne’s essays are quite reminiscent of Baudelaire’s aims for his prose poems to capture “the undulations of reverie, the gibes of conscience” (Hass 386). These modes of Bacon’s truth-seeking and Montaigne’s self-portraiture combine into the modern personal essay as a form for the mind to think on the page.

Stuckey-French constructs a continuum with the dry, fact-based nonfiction article on one end, the personal essay in the middle, and the imaginative, fictitious short story on the other (7). The personal essay combines fact and elements of storytelling like narration, scene setting, characterization, and dialogue to tell a true, subjective story. The goal of telling a story in an essay is not just to entertain, but to create some type of significance.

This significance is accrued through the three distinct voices Stuckey-French associates with the personal essay. The voice of you as storyteller (recounting what happened), the voice of reflection (your inner voice from when the events of the essay occurred), the voice of retrospection (your inner voice now) (10). Stuckey-French explains how these three voices combine: “An essay recaptures the voice of a former self and in so doing enables one’s current self to talk about that former self, and then one or both of them... talks to the reader about the lives lived by both selves” (11). The voice of retrospection builds meaning at the end of an essay by looking back on those past selves and providing commentary that reveals some nugget of truth, or illuminates a new idea.

The I-character is a construction of a self on the page. Persona is elastic. But it can’t be stretched so far that the experiences of your I-character become fictitious, because the contract you have with a reader if something is published as “essay” is that it’s true. This is not the case in poetry. Poetry is unconcerned with distinctions of what is and isn’t true. When it comes to a prose poem that reads like an essay, outside research is necessary to understand the conflation of the author’s I-character with the poet’s own life.

In the case of the prose poems “Obey” by Danez Smith and “How I Look In Clothing” by Arielle Greenberg, both authors expressly said their work is about themselves. In a 2015 interview with Candice Iloh in Lambda Literary about their collection of poetry [insert] boy (2014) where “Obey” appears, Smith says: “Publishing these poems...has been like ripping pages out of my diary and posting them on everyone’s locker. So I feel like I have practice in being comfortable [with the fact that] people will read and judge my work and, by extension, my life” (Iloh).

As for Greenberg, the piece in question first appeared in BOAAT PRESS, an online journal dedicated to poetry. The book where the piece was next published, Locally Made Panties (2016), is introduced in the very first sentence of the press release as “A transgenre (prose poem? flash nonfiction?) exploration…” both complicating and reinforcing the publisher’s distinction of the book as nonfiction (“Arielle”). In an interview on The Rumpus with Nicole Guappone in 2016, Greenberg said, “I definitely do not think of the work in Locally Made Panties as prose poems. I think of them as micro-essays… When I write prose poems I’m really emphasizing language… [they’re] image-driven, not particularly narrative work and that’s not how I think of this book.” She goes on to say that her prose poems “are stand-alone,” but the work in Locally Made Panties needs to be read together for readers “to get the point” (Guappone).

I want to push back and say I read “How I Look In Clothing” as a poem, firstly because I encountered it in an online poetry journal, secondly because I believe it does stand alone, and thirdly because prose poems can also be narrative and driven by thought rather than image. This is all to say, I can also read “How I Look In Clothing” as an essay. The pieces in Locally Made Panties are labeled differently based on the needs of the publisher, designations of the writer, and perceptions of the reader, which only reinforces the flexibility of genre.

Why not throw out genre labels entirely? If we could settle comfortably into post-structuralism, there would be no debate. But genres matter because they create contracts with the reader—labeling something as “nonfiction” or “essay” cues the reader into the fact the piece is true, labeling something as “fiction” tells the reader the piece is made up. As I’ve said, poetry is unconcerned with distinctions between the two. So if I’m curious how a poet’s life conflates with their work, I have to turn to research to prove the poem as true. Now that I’ve proved “Obey” and “How I Look in Clothing” as nonfiction based on statements from the authors, and as poems based on their publications and my reading experiences, I can discuss them as both poems and essays.


at the orgy I deem all the whiskey & all the weed & all the coke mine mine mine & I dare a motherfucker to tell me different. but who would? they line up next to the free hummus for a shot at the young, black rampage who has come to conquer the house full of men who would be mall Santas or Senators, except for the brown one who speaks no English except yes & no & harder. the latter is his favorite, he makes it my pet name. tonight, I am no one’s pet, maybe an animal, wounded & hungry for revenge or sympathy, but what’s the difference? Some white guy says fuck him, dawg. & I hear fuck him, dog. I obey. when the brown one says no harder where I am sure he means stop, I no harder. he kisses his beast on the cheek, walks away bleeding, smiling, & the blood makes everyone want me more. one by one they bend, one by one I wreck them. everything must leave here limping & bruised. everyone must know what I know. (Smith 65)
The first sentence of the poem establishes a lavish orgy: whiskey, weed, and cocaine (which doesn’t come cheap). Orgy also carries both connotations and denotations of sexual multitudes and excess. The repetition characterizes the speaker, Danez Smith, by situating them in this setting and showing their perceived entitlement to those party drugs: “mine mine mine.” The next part of the sentence and following rhetorical question, “& I dare a motherfucker to tell me different. but who would?” demonstrates the confidence of the narrator. The short length of the question is more of an aside, a way to demonstrate Smith’s essayistic thinking on the page.

Storyteller Smith delivers this first sentence and continues describing the orgy with “men who could be mall Santas or Senators”—a genius way to describe white men—who “line up next to the free hummus for a shot at the young, black rampage who has come to conquer the house full of men.” Here, Smith describes themselves in the third person, which disrupts notions of the conventional personal essay where the narrator stays in the I-character. But this poetic move doesn’t disrupt the story they’re telling. Instead, it gives us a greater characterization of Smith’s I-character and the way the white men see Smith as a Black person, a Black rampage, who will take sexual control at the orgy by conquering, or topping, and thus dominating. Smith’s identity as a Black top is very important for the way power is distributed in the poem, because it encompasses racial power as well as the power of controlling the sexual encounters. Typically, because of systematic racism in the United States, a Black person would not be in control in a house full of mostly white people. But Smith reverses these roles and reclaims power by literally being on top of these white men. Conquer and rampage seem to foreshadow the violence of this topping later in the poem.

This violence is first played out with the only other person of color at the orgy. A man “who speaks no English except yes & no & harder.” Storyteller Smith tells us this man makes “harder” Smith’s “pet name,” which is a example of figurative language lauded in both poetry and prose. Then, Smith puns on the word pet and says: “I am no one’s pet, maybe an animal, wounded & hungry for revenge or sympathy, but what’s the difference?” I read this as the introduction of a second voice: Reflective Smith, not just telling us what happened at the orgy, but describing how they thought of themselves in that moment. They don’t belong to anyone like a pet, but they might be an animal—a word that in this context speaks to the primal urges of sex and violence. Smith again employs a rhetorical question which creates the conversational and essayistic nature of their thoughts for the page.

They think of themselves as someone who is “wounded” and seeking “revenge” or “sympathy” for their hurt. Animals have no sense of mercy. We need this context as a lens to help us accrue meaning in the poem—Smith is no longer the wounded, but the wounder: “Some white guy says fuck him, dawg. & I hear fuck him, dog. I obey. when the brown one says no harder where I am sure he means stop, I no harder. he kisses his beast on the cheek, walks away bleeding, smiling, & the blood makes everyone want me more.” Smith returns to their Storyteller voice; they are no longer victim, but the one inflicting (consensual) hurt on these men. Smith is powerful, their violence is desirable to the men at the orgy.

This passage also continues the punning started on the word pet, and mirrors that in the version of dawg as an informal nickname, and dog as the animal. The animal wordplay is continued when Smith turns again to the third person; the brown man they fucked “kisses his beast on the cheek,” which invokes their past uses of pet, animal, and dog. It’s also necessary to note that a Black person referring to themselves as pet and animal and beast recalls the brutal past of slavery. Smith reclaims these words to describe themselves and their agency at this orgy, and to own, without shame, the uninhibited animalistic sex and violence they exemplify.

“I no harder” recalls Stein’s language in Tender Buttons. Here, Smith creates their own language to capture a single moment, a still life at the orgy if you will. The uniqueness of the language successfully freezes that moment, although still references the past with the brown man saying harder and eventually no harder, but Smith takes the phrase out of the man’s mouth and puts it into their own as a creative way to show they stopped the fucking. This storyteller voice appears for the last time in the next sentences: “one by one they bend, one by one I wreck them.” The pinnacle of Smith’s power is a serial-fucking of all the white men.

The last two sentences are where the most meaning in the poem accrues, because they deliver Retrospective Smith: “everything must leave here limping & bruised. everyone must know what I know.” Everything, instead of everyone, illustrates how Smith thinks of the men as less than human, as if they are limping, bruised animals as Smith once was. Then, everyone returns the humanity to these men, and thus also to Smith themselves. Retrospective Smith combines the experiences of the confident Smith who tells the story of the orgy, as well as the Smith who reflected on their emotional position as a wounded animal to show how they add up together to build meaning about the emotional truth at the orgy—Smith’s desired revenge seeks to transform the white men into animals and fuck them until they are limping and bruised, but then restore the men’s humanity so they can feel the physical and emotional repercussions of that objectification and hurt like Smith once did. We need all three of Smith’s essayistic voices to find this meaning in the poem.

In “Obey,” the poetic and essayistic elements combine into a single unified paragraph that tells a linear story of the orgy. The paragraph isn’t indented, which is typical of many prose poems today. A single, justified block of text looks more poetic because it employs prose conventions, while also subverting them without the formal indentation. The very look of the paragraph is also unified, with the first letter in each sentence uncapitalized, as well as Smith’s consistent use of ampersands throughout. This poem reads as a paragraph of prose; each sentence leads logically to the next to create a unified whole. “How I Look In Clothing” also utilizes the paragraph as a unit of cohesion, but instead of one, it has five:


I am (always) currently trying to lose weight.
At one point I was trying to lose the weight I gained by getting pregnant with a baby who did not live, but who left me with the pounds I’d gained to house him in my body. I eventually got to the point where I had lost almost thirteen pounds, I still needed to lose ten more pounds to be at my normal adult weight and have a lot of my clothes fit me again, which would make me happy, since I love my clothes.

Right now, if I lose thirty-three pounds altogether I can almost guarantee I will feel really good about how I look in clothing. I will be able to wear even my smallest clothing, the clothing packed away in plastic storage tubs and duffel bags marked “small size clothing” and kept way up on the top shelves of closets. If I go to purchase new clothes and try them on in dressing rooms I will do a little dance of pleasure and have a hard time resisting making the purchase because I will like how most things look on my body.
If I lose forty pounds altogether it will be a fucking miracle and that would be my Goal Weight, my weight of all weights, and I would think that everything I put on looked fabulous on me.
A Goal Weight is really a completely ridiculous construct.
The first paragraph introduces Reflective Greenberg and the theme of the poem: “I am (always) trying to lose weight.” These seven words gives us all the context we need to understand the lens Greenberg is looking at herself through. If we didn’t have the “(always),” we might assume the obsession with her weight only began after her stillbirth, but since we know she’s always trying to lose weight, we can better follow the logic of Greenberg’s thoughts. With that context, we move into the next paragraph which is told to us by Storyteller Greenberg about her stillbirth.

She has an entire book about the stillbirth of her son, but tells us the story in the context of the poem—in relation to her weight: “At one point I was trying to lose the weight I gained by getting pregnant with a baby who did not live, but who left me with the pounds I’d gained to house him in my body.” She created a metaphor; if she can lose all the weight she gained in the pregnancy, she can also slough off the grief of losing her child. This connection intensifies the obsession with her weight, which was already present before her stillbirth, as introduced in the first paragraph.

Her obsession with weight is reflected in the repetition of phrases about losing weight and how much weight she lost or needs to lose. Over the course of the 240-word poem, there are 17 mentions of losing, weight, and pounds. The repetition of these phrases is compounded by the commas stringing them together: “I eventually got to the point where I had lost almost thirteen pounds, I still needed to lose ten more pounds to be at my normal adult weight and have a lot of my clothes fit me again, which would make me happy, since I love my clothes.” Greenberg could’ve broken up this sentence with a semicolon, periods, or coordinating conjunctions—but she didn’t. The clauses of this long sentence follow the logic flow of Greenberg’s thoughts: an essayistic mode of thinking captured in the subversion of grammar.

In this sentence, Greenberg also develops her I-character as someone who can be made happy if all her clothes that fit before the pregnancy would fit her again. I, too, love my clothes. And like Greenberg, my weight constantly fluctuates. Fitting into my clothes makes me happy, but it’s something I don’t talk about for fear of not being taken seriously. I laud Greenberg for her honesty about the simple joy of feeling good in the clothes she owns.

The third paragraph continues in Greenberg’s Storyteller voice, but carries us into stories about how she will act if she’s able to lose even more weight: “Right now, if I lose thirty-three pounds altogether I can almost guarantee I will feel really good about how I look in clothing. I will be able to wear even my smallest clothing, the clothing packed away in plastic storage tubs and duffel bags marked ‘small size clothing’ and kept way up on the top shelves of closets.” By projecting into the future, Greenberg brings us even closer to her consciousness by sharing her hopes and dreams. Her honesty is even more apparent when she tells us she keeps the clothes that no longer fit her in the hopes they will fit her again, which will mean she “will feel really good about how [she] looks in clothing.” The title of the poem also draws this connection.

The final sentence in this paragraph has no punctuation until the very end: “If I go to purchase new clothes and try them on in dressing rooms I will do a little dance of pleasure and have a hard time resisting making the purchase because I will like how most things look on my body.” Grammar conventions dictate at least one comma before the “I will” to separate the two clauses from each other. By making another poetic move to subvert grammar, Greenberg demonstrates the fast-paced nature of her thoughts surrounding the adrenaline and happiness she would feel if she were thin, dancing in the dressing room.

The penultimate paragraph carries a tonal shift: “If I lose forty pounds altogether it will be a fucking miracle and that would be my Goal Weight, my weight of all weights.” Before, all Greenberg’s musings about her weight were tempered with longing. This sentence is about self-depreciation. The phrase “fucking miracle” is hyperbole; Greenberg never believes she will actually reach her Goal Weight, but she’s confessing it to us anyway. If she reaches her Goal Weight, Greenberg tells us: “I would think everything I put on looked fabulous on me.” This is the third mention of how she looks in clothing, after the title and the third paragraph, reinforcing that she doesn’t think she looks good in clothing at her present weight.

This final paragraph-sentence is the Retospective Greenberg, who can look back at all her reflective and storyteller selves who were obsessed with trying to lose weight and undercut their grip on her life by saying what she was reaching toward—her Goal Weight—was “a completely ridiculous construct.” Greenberg’s use of construct, instead of a word like concept, shows she’s pointing to the artificial nature of a Goal Weight; construct as something that can be torn down, as opposed to concept, which is intellectual and intangible. It’s like she topples the dominos of all her former selves who were obsessed with reaching her Goal Weight.

Up to this point, each paragraph pushes us further into the future of her hypothetical weight loss until we reach this breaking point. It’s as if Greenberg is shaking her head at herself, but that doesn’t mean her fixation on weight loss won’t continue. This final sentence-paragraph is a pithy way to hold the tension and have the author laugh at herself. A Goal Weight, especially with the capitalization as if it holds the weight of a proper noun, is a ridiculous construct, but based on the history we know about the author, that won’t change her thought patterns.

Greenberg’s choice to employ retrospection in the last moment, just like Smith’s, shows the progression of her thoughts from the beginning of the poem. In the personal essay, this retrospection also comes at the end once the storyteller and reflective voices have done the work to develop the I-character. In the case of “How I Look in Clothing,” Greenberg introduces the poem with her reflective voice so we have the necessary context to see the evolution of her line of thought before she delivers the final retrospection.

Both Smith and Greenberg are very confessional in their poems. Smith’s reveals their penchant for drugs, and rough, casual sex, as well as their painful past; Greenberg’s her stillbirth, and wish to lose weight to look better in her clothes. Although the poems have very different tones, each contains a progression of thoughts the reader can follow to unearth a new Truth about the experiences of the author. The choice of these authors to write in prose is apt considering that the linear nature and evolution of their thinking is easily captured in the progression of sentences. It’s difficult enough to accrue this type of meaning in a 15-page personal essay, but to build this type of meaning in less than a page shows tremendous control of their craft by Smith and Greenberg. The prose poem-personal-essay is genre-blurring at its very best—a bite-sized dose of journey, exploration, and meaning.

Raina K. Puels is the Nonfiction Editor and Co-Editor-in-Chief of Redivider. She leaves a trail of glitter, cat hair, and small purple objects everywhere she goes. You can read her in​​ The American Literary Review, Queen Mob's, Maudlin House, Occulum, bad pony, and many other places. See her full list of pubs:​​ Tweet her: @rainakpuels.

Works Cited

“Arielle Greenberg: Locally Made Panties.” Dorns Life: University of Southern California, University of Southern California, 2016,

Delville, Michel. “Strange Tales and Bitter Emergencies: A Few Notes on the Prose Poem.” An
Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art
, edited by Annie
Finch and Kathrine Varnes, University of Michigan Press, 2002, pp. 262–271.

Greenberg, Arielle. “How I Look in Clothing.” BOAAT PRESS, 2014.

Guappone, Nicole. “The Rumpus Interview with Arielle Greenberg.” The Rumpus, 15 Aug. 2016, Accessed 14 Dec. 2017.

Hass, Robert. “Prose Poem.” A Little Book on Form: an Exploration into the Formal Imagination of
, HarperCollins, 2017, pp. 385–391.

Iloh, Candice. “Danez Smith: On His New Poetry Collection, Writing About Gay Sex, and the Power of Blackness.” Lambda Literary, 26 Jan. 2015, . Accessed 14 Dec. 2017.

Smith, Danez. “Obey.” [Insert]Boy, Yes Yes Books, 2014, p. 65.

Stein, Gertrude. “Note.” Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms, Dover Publications, Inc., 1997, pp.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Rachel Z. Arndt: Looking for My Beach

The physical world was troubling me. In those early days of writing what would become Beyond Measure, my bangs never sat right and I was usually cold, except when I was sweatingly hot. My teeth constantly threatened to revert to their pre-braces positions, and the chair I wrote in was being bleached by the sun—though if I lowered the blinds I’d have to raise them, and then I’d have to contend with how they never fell exactly parallel to the floor.
     The physical world was trouble. I wanted to go without it. But time and time again, people who read my essays told me I was too much in my own head. How couldn’t I be? I wondered—I was my own head, after all, and if I was writing about the merits and downsides to subjectivity, then why should I ignore the place from which that subjectivity arises?
     Finally, I started listening to the critiques. Eventually, I would be able to describe the light around me as a way to represent hope; I would be able to describe a plastic bag in the wind as a way to describe my declining mood.
     That was the point of the collection, in a way: to understand how we are applying our expectations of the physical world—that it is measurable, namely—to the virtual and emotional. But when I first started writing the book, though I knew I needed more of the physical world, I didn’t know how to create it on the page (and still often don’t know how). So I turned to other essayists to show me. I read pieces of Heidi Julavits’ The Folded Clock again and again, I read Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness too. But most often, I read Zadie Smith’s “Find Your Beach.” I’d find myself thinking of the essay suddenly, as if someone had said aloud to me, either whispering in my ear or shouting from across the room, “Find your beach!”
     I’d first read that essay before I knew I’d be writing about measurement. Later, I found myself turning to it often while in the throes of the book. I’d pull it up on my iPad, place the screen next to me on the bleached chair’s armrest, and swipe slowly with my left hand while I wrote feverishly with my right. If Smith could make a Corona billboard about productivity and work and writing, then I too could find my beach and make it about what I was thinking and feeling (uncertainty and the body and anxiety).
     I kept it simple: I assigned myself a physical space to write about (Bed Bath and Beyond) and an object (an electric toothbrush). As I wrote, I studied the way Smith moved from the billboard itself to what it represented, the way her imagined personality for the woman across the way from her held her concerns about motherhood and happiness. In description she found uncertainty, and in uncertainty she found meaning. The piece existed because it was about something in three-dimensional space—the piece existed specifically as an essay because its three-dimensional space held people and those people felt feelings and thought thoughts there.
     I am still unable to not be aware of my trouble with the real. It takes essays like Smith’s to remind me. To look inward, especially while writing my book, I had to look outward—and no matter how cliched that is, it’s true. I was, after all, writing about measurement, and even if that measurement is applied to my enigmatic body—I wrote about working out and sweating and sleeping—it is an external description of what’s happening unseen, a description dependent on context. It’s impossible to measure anything—to even consider measuring anything—without having something to compare those numbers to. Measurement can be metaphorical, but the metaphor has to point to something real, just as subjectivity must be relative to something else. It implies difference, and difference requires reference points.
     Smith’s essay, then, didn’t just show me how to write about the world around me—it taught me why I should want to, and that, in turn, taught me something about what I was trying to figure out by writing the book in the first place: why, when faced with all the sights and sounds of the outside world, I still don’t trust myself to measure it accurately.

Rachel Z. Arndt is the author of Beyond Measure (Sarabande, 2018). She received MFAs in nonfiction and poetry from the University of Iowa, where she was nonfiction editor of the Iowa Review. She’s written for Popular Mechanics, Pank, The Believer, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago.