Monday, January 29, 2018

Four Menus for Books by Kelly Cherry, Katherine McCord, and Sonya Huber

Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, And Other Essays From A Nervous System, A Menu, by Sonya Huber; Temporium: Before the Beginning to After the End, A Menu, by Kelly Cherry; Run Scream Unbury Save, A Menu, by Katherine McCord; Plath's work, A Menu, by Katherine McCord


As I write this, my new medication is shaking my hands: I just wrote "sheak" then "shek." Words, red, flash. Just a sec, I need more medication . . . stop psychological pain. So Plath's work, A Menu, I'm using to introduce us, seems apt. Kelly's and Sonya's books beautiful. Oh my god. Exit. Craft:


Ariel and Other Works, Sylvia Plath, by Katherine McCord, A Menu
  1. Drink some milk.
  2. I was lying: Some people eat horses.
  3. But you can eat grass.
  4. And capsules. But not all at once.
  5. They make you fly which is better than eating
  6. like with crop circles, which make wheat and corn lie down,
  7. mushrooms,
  8. honey, which is not easy, bees sting.


A Menu for a Book of Fictions, Temporium: Before the Beginning to After the End, by Kelly Cherry
  1. The first course is nothingness. How does one eat nothingness, you may ask, but the answer is clear. Nothingness is what the squirrel eats while trying, unsuccessfully, to steal the birdseed from the birdfeeder. He does not move on to a more accessible meal; he cannot see anything more than his own determination. We call this deranged. To eat is to be not deranged.
  2. Today's meal is matter arriving with time. In the beginning, enjoy the beginning with fine wine and delicious mushrooms. You will be sated with happiness.
  3. Now we have the taking in of serial time, from early China to the colonial era, which, we admit, is a little hard to swallow. One wants to regurgitate all that whipping and hanging of slaves and mistreatment of women, black and white. But soon we are at
  4. which offers us a banquet of civilization, with its industrial and mining smoke (well, that's not so good) and also the development of the auto industry and opportunities for working women, although the working women earn pretty much nothing and get trapped in locked rooms where fire breaks out and everyone dies.
  5. I'm searching for more agreeable amuse-bouches. Indeed, on this day we see that women are permitted to work as scientists and even as philosophers (they had for very long been prohibited or laughed at for wanting to do philosophy) and those are tasty occupations. One female philosopher has gone so far as to re-envision the way the world came into being. That is a superb dish!
  6. After such a rich dish, we perhaps prefer to cleanse our palates with Sambuca or Vermeer Dutch Chocolate Cream Liqueur. Simply hearing the name of the second liqueur will make you salivate but your first sip of either will make you think you are in heaven.
  7. The last item on our menu is most unusual. It is, in a way, a return to the Nothingness with which we began. The difference is that, between the two, Armageddon arrives. Armageddon is only for those with the most exquisite and educated understanding of smell and taste. In other words, it is for those who can eat chocolate-covered ants, Haggis, tripe, and tuna eyeballs. You must have a strong stomach to digest these edibles. A wasp cracker is another inviting choice.


The Menu for Pain Woman by Sonya Huber
  1. Turmeric tea, which is made with a can of coconut milk, turmeric, a dash of black pepper (supposed to help with absorption), honey, cinnamon, and nutmeg. This will help calm inflammation.
  2. Dark chocolate: as much as you want. Also, you may take any extreme recommendations to cut sugar from your diet and fire them from a cannon.
  3. Gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free English muffins that taste like sawdust. Grind them up, add water, and use to stucco a wall or ceiling or tomb.
  4. Gelatin capsules, used for supplements and vitamins. Take one outside, open it beneath a northern night sky far from the city in which aurora borealis is throbbing and spinning, and catch this magnetized hypnotized air. Take two capsules of northern lights each evening with dinner.
  5. A carrot cake made with cacao butter and various other expensive and exhausting ingredients. Decorate with new foam earplugs in a variety of colors in a celebration of all the ways you have discovered to make the world slightly less overwhelming when the surge of pain threatens.
  6. Fantastic lime-y margaritas with fantastic gritty salt around the rim. You cannot drink these because they clash with your meds, so instead you may either soak your fingertips in the liquid or swish and spit.
  7. Literally anything else within your limited anti-inflammation diet you feel like. Do you want an $11 smoothie? Buy it. You are starving for allowed indulgences. 


A Menu, by Katherine McCord, for RUN SCREAM UNBURY SAVE, by Katherine McCord, the courses that should be spread out over days, listed in order, People, they have to be eaten in. this. order. Thank you. 
  1. Bamboo, lots of bamboo. I'm told you have to harvest the small "shoots" in March and cook them almost immediately, so be prepared.
  2. Corn, lots of corn. Preferably corn flattened via Crop Circles. Unless you want to go with wheat, but that seems a little too hopeful, don't you think?, given you and I aren't into a lot of prep.
  3. Frosting from a can. Preferably in the middle of the night but more like just take the can and a spoon to bed and go on a bender after a long time of not being able to sleep, it being your last resort, your fucking last resort, after trying all the sane things (ocean sounds, rainforest sounds, baths, herbs, psychiatrists, sleeping pills, and exercise (but that was at the end when you were truly desperate. Okay, you like exercise but not when there's an agenda.))
  4. Shredded apples. Yes, that once shredded look like slaw. You want them shredded because they need to look damaged.
  5. Not pheasant.
  6. Jello, okay? Just Jello. With whipped cream. But you are going to have to go all out with this which means a regular grocery store. Preferably with that green and white linoleum and it has to be high summer so that when you walk through the door you feel a whoosh of air conditioning. Oh, also there are TONS of windows in the front with blue-sky light streaming in so that you are way out of your perpetual S.A.D. and feel hope, People, hope. So no Whole Foods for you. You are going back in time when you were a teenager and knew nothing about things like red dye (not that Jello had or has it, ever, but you know how people get). Remember the glasses from McDonald's that were painted with Hamburglars and stuff? Random, I know, but in a good way. Now, this is probably the most important thing you'll hear in your life (okay, in the next 30 seconds), so I'm going to help you with an excerpt from the book to illustrate: 
  7. The world is a serious place. Both horrible and wonderful in its seriousness. I get that. But I am just trying to have as much fun as possible. For example, for the Fourth of July in two days, I will be serving blueberries in cherry Jello with every kind of whipped cream: "Lite," "Regular" (Normal), "Sugar-Free," "French Vanilla" and "Chocolate." That is, whatever they have.


Kelly Cherry is the author of 27 books and 11 chapbooks. Her newest titled are Temporium: Before the Beginning to After the End: Fictions, Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Poem, and Beholder's Eye: Poems. She and her husband, and their little dog, Booker, live at the bottom of Virginia, also known as nowhere.

Katherine McCord's newest book, RUN SCREAM UNBURY SAVE, a literary memoir, chosen by Michael Martone for the Autumn House Open Book Award in Creative Nonfiction, was published in early 2017.

Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and the new essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. She teaches at Fairfield University, where she directs the low-residency MFA program. More at

Monday, January 22, 2018

How Can I Explain Personal Pain?: On Tatiana Ryckman’s I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do)

1. Virginia Woolf, reviewing the work of George Moore, said, “The only criticism worth having at present is that which is spoken, not written—spoken over wineglasses and coffeecups late at night, flashed out on the spur of the moment by people passing who have not time to finish their sentences, let alone consider the dues of the editors or the feelings of friends.” Reviewing the work of E.M. Forster, she said, “There are many reasons which should prevent one from criticizing the work of contemporaries. Besides the obvious uneasiness—the fear of hurt feelings—there is too the difficulty of being just.”

2. Tatiana Ryckman is my friend, and she recently had her publisher send me her new novel I Don’t Think of You (Except When I Do), released September 7, 2017. Kevin Sampsell, head of her publisher Future Tense Books, scribbled a note at the top of the press release that accompanied it: “Hi John—I hope you enjoy Tatiana’s book and can help us spread the word.” I tightened up on reading his message, which seemed twofold: 1) Enjoy the book, but also 2) promote the book so we sell the copies we’ve made and Tatiana can continue to write books. In other words, don’t let this gift be in vain.

3. In his manifesto The Gift, Lewis Hyde expounds on what he calls the “gift economy,” a quasi-anti-capitalist notion of community dependent on the notion that some commodities—works of art, religious artifacts, or anything that is made and given not for profit but for the pleasure of giving—are intended not to be gathered to oneself but to be circulated, within oneself and in the larger culture. In differentiating between work and labor, he says, “When I speak of labor…I intend to refer to something dictated by the course of life rather than by society, something that is often urgent but that nevertheless has its own interior rhythm, something more bound up with feeling, more interior, than work.” I’ve done the work of reviewing plenty of books, and I’m reticent to subject my friend’s labor to it. In fact I’ve sat on her book for a month now, fearful of commingling the labor of reading with the work of reviewing.

4. Fuck that. This review is a labor of love and gratitude, and a hopefully honest reckoning of how Ryckman’s thin book changed me, and might change the world. Whether it’s a “good” book, worth a disinterested reader’s time, I’m not in a position to say. I can say that it’s an honest rendering of the self-abnegating love one gives to another person before one reconciles oneself with the pain and loss of dignity such love entails. I was going to also add that it’s a love given to an undeserving object, but Ryckman has let me know that it’s not about the person I thought it was about, and our mutual friend Caitlyn gently reminded me recently to treat the book as a work of fiction.

5. So, about that. It’s a work that can probably be called many things—epistolary novel, prose poetry—but I want to call it a collection of micro-essays (or perhaps microfictions in the Borgesian sense) simply because that is what I understand it to be. Almost no section is more than a page, some are under twenty words long, they’re arranged by number to the first decimal point from 0.0 to 10.0, and all are written to a now-former lover. I can’t claim to understand exactly why she goes with the decimaled numerology, except perhaps to trace some order into the drama and trauma of a late-twentysomething breakup, or perhaps to trace the narrator’s selves in their sequential versions. The project was inspired—if that’s the right word—by a rudimentary drawing which she includes on the last page of the book of two mice fucking and one of them saying, “This feels so right,” which feels to me like a very Tatiana Ryckman thing to do.

6. In fact, the choice of illustration is, for me at least, the most Tatiana Ryckman thing about the book. Reading it, I had a continual sense of not knowing a friend as well as I thought I did. We went to grad school together, and had many late-night conversations that people have in grad school. One time I told her I couldn’t remember if I got the scar on my right middle finger from getting it stuck on a merry-go-round ramp in the third grade or from my adoptive father trying to cut it off when I was ten. She responded by biting my nose. She wrote many pieces then, in her mid-twenties, that were pure fiction in an uncontrolled voice that made her the life of any reading or party. Even as someone who has never had that type of relationship with her, I can say that sex is a large part of her experience and her aesthetic. There’s plenty of sex in this book, to be sure. But it no longer seems, well, fun. Perhaps that’s why I’m so stunned at the voice from which she writes in this essayistic novel: needy, dependent, alone.

7. The cassette tape holds a special place in Ryckman’s personal mythology. I only bring this up because she quotes in section 7.1 a B-side from the Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut album that I listened to obsessively on cassette tape in the early Nineties. The song, “Gimme the Car,” is sung in the voice of perhaps the worst type of male, a sex-obsessed late adolescent begging his father to lend him the car so he can date rape a girl he’s obsessed with. The voice only works because, as in any good fiction, frontman Gordon Gano injects the boy with a pathos, both through the lyrics and an especially creepy repeating riff and bassline, so that the words “How can I explain personal pain?” are a sort of mantra, an ode even, he repeats for any lingering humanity that remains within him. Ryckman’s narrator in I Don’t Think of You is not even close to the depravity of Gano’s car boy, but they both speak from a position of humanity lost in the attempt to navigate a sexual relationship mostly devoid of pleasure.

8. She refers in a number of the book’s micros to an experiment our friend Caitlyn conducted while living in Guanajuato, Mexico with her husband. Despite (or perhaps due to) a complete lack of experience as a visual artist, she decided to learn to paint by painting the same gate outside their villa every day for one month. Miller wrote about the experiment for Hunger Mountain in 2016, and Ryckman mentions in 5.0, 5.9, and 7.3-4 trying a similar experiment by drawing the robe of a man who used to live at the house where she stayed for two summers while in the throes of her obsession. Alas, she finds herself incapable of the repeated recreation of an object without injecting it with her obsession, and like Miller she gives up. In casual conversation Miller advised her, “I mean, it’s an endeavor that was doomed to fail. No one is ever going to capture life as it was. We all decided to try something impossible.”

9. The one quirk of the essay as a form with which I struggle most is its presumed narcissism. The form almost requires its writers to talk to themselves for an audience. This becomes especially fraught when relating personal pain. I think of Sampsell’s own 2012 essay “‘I’m Jumping Off the Bridge’,” where he talks down a man who comes into the bookstore where Sampsell works and says he’s going to kill himself, then spends the ensuing months talking himself down from the same fate as his own life spirals downward. I could almost feel his spirit—or at least his editorial hand—in Ryckman’s voice. The poet Ralph Angel once told a woman he was advising at the graduate school Ryckman and I attended to “get naked on the page”; she responded by dipping her breasts in paint, pressing them against paper, and submitting them with a statement of intention. One can’t be sure, but I don’t think that was what he was requesting. To get naked on the page—to confront our pain and confusion and mold them into language—requires a blatant disregard of our impulse toward emotional self-preservation. If we press our most private parts onto the page, it’s not paint that records and preserves us. It’s blood.

10. This may be what I see as the closest thing to redemption Ryckman offers in a cycle that could fairly be judged as relentlessly disheartened: The acknowledgement of the narrator’s dependence on people besides the object of her affection is the first punctum of the narcissistic persona she hones throughout I Don’t Think of You. One of my favorite paragraphs late in the book relates an opening of perspective that feels like curtains being flung open on a warm April day: “And on the other side of town, when my grandfather said goodbye to a woman who could no longer remember herself, the last person left from his real life, I was surprised that I did not reassign their sadness to you or their separation to us. How lonely, I thought instead, to be the last thing left no one remembers.”

11. She’s been experimenting with voice for some time now. This shift was prompted, I think, less by moving from her twenties to her thirties than by her shift from writing primarily fiction to writing quite a few nonfiction pieces, something I find many of my primarily fiction-writing friends getting shoehorned into. In some ways, she represents to me the inverse of our societal understanding of fiction and nonfiction: her fictional voice is singular and instantly recognizable to anyone who’s read more than one or two of her fictions; her nonfiction voices, on the other hand, are myriad and sometimes contradictory. To give just the most recent example, her recent piece for The Tulsa Voice, wherein she recounts interviews with Oklahoma Republicans in search of a more broad understanding of the word “resistance,” is measured to such an extent that I can’t even see her in the piece (which is, suppose, the whole point of journalistic integrity), and I can see her, alone with the pixels, pouring every ounce of the self she withholds from The Tulsa Voice into this little book.

12. Virginia Woolf’s assessment of George Moore is that he would have made a better memoirist than a novelist—his skill at conversation, the singularity of his voice in a crowd, was his greatest strength. Perhaps antiquity has proven this assessment correct; perhaps I’m simply being egocentric because I’d never heard of Moore before reading Woolf’s review of his work. Or perhaps a third option is the most viable—that Moore was one of many, perhaps most, writers whose work missed its audience by at least one epoch. Today his novels might be read as Woolf seems to read them, as the rendering of one person’s conversational voice translated into written language. This is how I read I Don’t Think of You. Unlike Woolf, a reader doesn’t necessarily come to a book like this one needing to read it as either fiction or non-fiction. Not knowing whether a written experience was a lived experience for the author makes the work somehow both more expansive and more opaque to read.

13. I’m trying to choose my words judiciously in relating details of Ryckman’s personal life. She has, after all, read my early drafts, ones from which I’ve cut details that make narrative nonfiction compelling for the precise reason I decided to cut them: They’re secrets, and secrets are bonds. Perhaps the greatest lie writers get away with is pretending we’re making our audience proxy to our secrets rather than giving them carefully molded simulacra, wrought through many, many attempts to observe ourselves, a gate, a failed relationship, a lasting friendship, and make them into language. To be long-term friends with fellow writers, to me at least, is to make a conscious act of the continual transformations and self-renewals we all go through. Our selves—whether we choose to call them fictions or not—when written assume a perhaps-false sense of permanence through the simple act of recording them and the not-simple-at-all act of editing, revising, perfecting, and publishing them. The gift, then, is this discrete object representing that self in words and pixels and pages—a self existing outside of time, in conjunction with the simple, fluid little selves that live within friendships and sex and shared space.


John Proctor has written memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His essay “The Question of Influence” was a Notable selection in The Best American Essays 2015, and his essay “The A-Rod of Ballhawking” was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart. He teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College, and runs a weekly writing workshop for inmates at Rikers Island. You can find him online at

Monday, January 15, 2018

Alexis Almeida on translating Roberta Iannamico

22 Imperfectly Translated Fragments [On Translating Roberta Iannamico’s Tendal]

Accomplish / a tenuous / fixation / Memory (John Godfrey)

I live in Providence now and recently I’ve started to forget my dreams. Today, I bought a journal and wrote a few fragments from memory: blue fireworks, a cow glowing in a field, a white peach floating in a jar. As I was leaving Buenos Aires I started doing something similar, though the dreams turned into to-do lists, random thoughts, lists of things I wanted to do but knew I wouldn’t. They projected on into the morning of my flight, and in the car, going to the airport, when I kept saying I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave here, and you, shifting anxiously in the drivers seat, kept saying but you get to go to diners again, you get to live in a place called Providence. 


Today I wrote about a man sitting on the steps of a tall building. The sleeves of his jacket are too long, and each time he passes his hand over a page of his notebook – it’s balancing on his knees – everything he’s written disappears. I have a vague memory of sitting beside him, looking over his shoulder cautiously, but I’m not sure this happened. Like in a John Godfrey poem, small details come at me like impressions, and sometimes those impressions feel like memories, or something I remember distinctly as a feeling, though I’m not sure who it belongs to exactly. 

Like the first time I was in Buenos Aires, I wrote to a friend that it was the city of people running very fast. Standing in a long line downtown, a woman in an orange sweatshirt nearly knocks me over running by; since then it becomes a quiet obsession. Now that I’ve lived here for almost a year and a half, it’s become the city of long long walks. Yesterday I walked to three places I’ve been meaning to go: the pizza place on Cabrera, the ESMA (the Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos, former detention center during the dictatorship), one of the small bookstores on Corrientes. Today I walked one length of the city – from Palermo to San Telmo – to meet you for dinner. We order seafood and pasta and try to make light conversation. I’m leaving in 3 weeks. The noise in the restaurant is overwhelming, and the couple next to us keeps reaching across the table to touch each other. On the way home, there’s barely anyone on the street – it seems incredibly wide. Our bodies keep knocking against each other exhaustedly. As with anything involving eros, the trouble is with boundaries. 


On the 39 bus, the air is definitely too cold for what I’m wearing. The women behind me are reading a text message to each other and laughing, and as I start to fall asleep I know I won’t be able to understand them, though it feels like enough just to be close to it. 


I am standing outside Bar Montecarlo. It’s one of the oldest bars in my neighborhood, and I want it to be “my” bar, though I haven’t been inside yet. I am carrying Roberta’s book in my bag. It was recommended to me by my friend Viki, who I know through our friend Rebekah, who she knows through her friend Celeste. In the first poem, a mother and daughter sit in a park in the evening, wanting it to never end. “There is no better company” – everything feels incredibly calm, light. “The color of the park,” which is never actually named, seems instead to accumulate around the things inside it: the dogs, the mate, the company of the daughter, the leaves. At one point the speaker – who we don’t yet know is a mother – holds up “the four fingers of a hand,” and suddenly, the dogs “have turned yellow,” moving “like leaves / flying very low.” The reader starts to get the impression that the speaker’s desire makes things happen. Or that she lets herself form there, at desire’s edge. “We would like to tie them up by the tails,” she says, referring to the dogs, “make kites / before the lanterns turn on.” I am drawn to this uncanniness, the way the poem’s placid tone can so quickly turn violent. As I keep reading the book, I find myself wanting to linger inside the poems, though they seem like fragile, almost dangerous enclosures, and this feeling only gets stronger as I read more of it, though I don’t know I’ll translate the book yet. 


I am sitting in a bar across the street from my apartment that plays terrible music. I would much rather go to a number of other bars, but I come here because it’s convenient, even if the music makes me somewhat miserable. Over a muzak version of “Private Dancer,” I arrange my usual stack of books– some I’ve been carrying around for months for comfort, and some I recently just found here. In Ana Porrua’s Caligrafia tonal, I read this phrase about Roberta’s work over and over: “algo se naturalizó allí pero a la vez se convirtió en artificio.” Something becomes naturalized but at the same time turns artificial. The waiter – who I haven’t seen before – comes over to take my order smiling, but when he hears my accent he looks disoriented, even disappointed. This is an experience I have often. I am near-bilingual (though I’d never feel comfortable saying I’m actually bilingual). I am of Colombian, Portuguese, and Scottish descent. My grandmother, on my Dad’s side, came from Cali, Colombia, and my grandfather came from Portugal via Brazil. They met in Harlem, where my grandmother was working as a seamstress and my grandfather was renting rooms, and they lived there for years before opening a diner on Long Island called The Small Fry. After this, they moved to St. Petersburg Florida – the climate was easier on my grandfather’s asthma – where they raised my Dad and his brother near a school with very few immigrants. At some point, my grandfather started going by Al, instead of Caetano, and my grandmother started going by Grace, instead of Graciela. They told their sons to speak English, because this would make things easier on them. So when my Dad was sent to Colombia on assignment for his job – many years later – this was the first time he spoke consistent Spanish (or felt in some new way Colombian), and when I visited my grandmother every year until she died (my grandfather died well before I was born), this was my first contact with the language, however refracted through my teenage distraction toward her stories. And when, after reading and falling in love with Borges in college, and thinking I wanted to read him in Argentina, or many years later thinking I wanted to live there to study and translate contemporary poetry written by women, it wasn’t without some confusion, or shame, or some unnameable feeling, that this language felt both familiar and strange, natural and distorted coming out of my mouth. And though I felt it didn’t really belong to me (though I, in some ways, belong to it), and well after giving up the hope of “knowing” Spanish completely (or all the narratives it fits inside), I would still pass through long periods of resenting English, though it’s the language I translate into, and live in, and write in, and all this made for a particular feeling of displacement I had never been quite so close to, or felt so deeply, also a distinct kind of curiosity, a near-situatedness, so much so that just reading certain things, or writing this makes me feel like I’m immersed in it again, and, at this distance, a joyous feeling ensues. 


My first weeks back in the states I wake up every night in the middle of the night. In those weeks we write to each other often about our dreams – long, dense descriptions at first, then they become sparser, then we stop. I remember you saying once that at your happiest you never dream. For me, when I’m anticipating happiness, or some other recognizable emotion, I dream the most vividly, but I can’t remember periods of not. Of course it’s not a question of whether or not I do, but how quickly I forget. Or – in my made-up reasoning – that in the wanting, or anticipating something, the part of me that’s absent makes room for those kinds of memories. Those weeks, but also the weeks before and after those weeks, I wake up in the middle of the night with the hot impression of something on my body and I chase it quietly for the rest of the day. 


Pessoa: “My dreams…I walk with them. Their alien imperfection.”

I’m sitting on a bed surrounded by papers. Within a week of first reading Tendal I’ve drafted a very rough translation of the book. Though I wouldn’t necessarily call the poems straight narrative, each one describes a scene from a world imagined, lived in, and authored alternately by a mother and daughter. The book itself is peopled by strange, inscrutable figures – Tomato Face, The Panda Bear, a despondent horse, La Reina Batata, a Cow with glowing nipples – but also written in a way that feels intimate, quiet, serene. However it’s the moments when something sinister, something uncanny breaks through in the poems without necessarily compromising this tone – uncanny in the sense of unhomely, in its literal translation from the German, as Cathy Park Hong points out recently in her essay “Against Witness,” – that seem to define them for me. When this happens, the poems are able to not only juxtapose the supposedly “natural” with the artificial, but also the at-hand and the unapproachable --– what the poem can and cannot do. For example, in the poem “Shells,” here in my translation, the speaker – in this case the mother – wants to protect her daughter from some unnamed, encroaching danger:

In a pocket the shells from the sand
she goes on picking
the ocean doesn’t impress her much
she prefers to find these kind of treasures
like mature fruits
the sand leaving her hand
the water leaving hands
in turn the shells
you can keep them in a box
like lesser moons
that you spread across a table
as decoration

Later, when the speaker starts thinking about the ocean – “you can’t keep it in a box / the same with blood,” a new, darker feeling enters the poem. Suddenly the shells are not soft comforting objects, but living, reacting creatures, both aware and symptomatic of these shifts: “everyone laughs…because they don’t know / shells are sad / they’re sick.” In this, we see the way the speaker’s desire consolidates in brief enunciations of self, or desires for the wholeness of self, but also the poem being unable to fully concretize these desires, protect them against the passage of time, or create enclosures of safety. That the world of the poem is not invulnerable to the world outside it seems obvious, but the speaker’s will to pause, or linger at these thresholds becomes something beautiful, something that edges against the sublime sense of danger, exorbitance, awe; also something imperfectly calibrated against what is humanly possible and what is not. 


In another poem, “Baldío,” the daughter describes a scene in which she and her friends discover a circus horse, “who had two different colored eyes”: 

A blue eye and the other brown is called sarco.
Later came the jokes
he has one brown eye and the other azulado
but it was all to conceal that we wanted the horse for ourselves
we had fallen in love with him
If you can look at the open field to know if a storm is coming
I’m going to look into the eyes of my horse
the blue one if I want to see the ocean
the brown one if I want to see the earth.

The way this poem builds on its own sense longing, all the while approaching the death of the speaker’s grandfather: “did you know that Pascual went to heaven / I say yes but it’s a lie / the horse and the grandfather running through the open ocean…” reveals not only a long process of sublimation – a continual loss of self-other boundaries – but also that imagination exists at desire’s core. When translating “azulado,” a play on “a su lado – at it’s side,” I wanted to leave the word as it was, not because it is untranslatable, and not only because I love the sound of the word, but also for the silence it carries (I think I mostly realized this later), the way it might, and not without leaving an impression, relish in passing the reader by. 


…to establish for ourselves…the long list of words within us whose sense escapes or, taking this farther, to fix the syntax of this language we are babbling. (Édouard Glissant, tr. Betsy Wing)

I am sitting in a poetry workshop at Florencia’s house. The topic is feminism and poetry, and so far we’ve read Maria Moreno, Fernanda Laguna, Alfonsina Storni, Susana Thenon, Alejandra Pizarnik – next week we’re going to read Juana Bignozzi. It’s the middle of winter and everyone I know complains. Earlier, walking with Viki, I tried to pretend it was nothing – bragging about how it gets so much colder in Chicago – but now I get it. The winter in Buenos Aires is cold and damp and the dampness gets in your bones. Within a few weeks of denying this, I am wearing many layers and wrapping myself exaggeratedly with scarves. At Florencia’s house we huddle around the space heater while her cats move on and off the balcony. We’re talking about the figure of the monster in Pizarnik’s poetry and reading the poem Sala de psicopatología, “Húmeda. / Concha de corazón de criatura humana.” While Florencia talks I take an absurd amount of notes, which I don’t read afterwards, but when we talk as a group, I feel alive and present. When we do writing exercises, I sit there uncomfortably and wait for everyone to write and share. I say I can’t write in Spanish, or that I’m “not ready” – maybe the next time – things like this. At one point I bring in a poem I’m writing in English, and then do a translation into Spanish very quickly, and this feels strange and goes over badly. I feel like it’s not my place, or that I won’t be able to; I’m also afraid it would come out “bad.” This feels incredibly stupid now, and I wish I had done it, and I would, and anyway, this is one of the things I regret. 


“The Cartwheel” is the most beautiful poem in the book. The first few times I read it, I thought the speaker was the daughter, but lately I’ve wondered if the poem exists, if all the poems exist in a liminal place where these two voices combine: “When I was a girl / I didn’t know how to do a cartwheel / when I brought my arms to the ground / I didn’t dare / lift up my legs.” Here, the poem moves from invoking nostalgia, or the reader’s expectation for nostalgia – “as for the other girls / they all did cartwheels” toward the visual, even the spectacular realm, flooding the poem with a strange light: “they were stars / turning / turning.” I love the way the poems open up to create spaces for awe, fear, joy, while also keeping those sensations incredibly close-seeming. If much of the book exists at thresholds, and if one of those thresholds is between the past and the present, I don’t think Roberta wanted to commemorate the past, necessarily, but instead to draw the reader into the new experience of the poem – to intensify, even slow down perception there, even if those distances are ultimately reinforced. Strangely, as I was translating the book, I kept having the sensation that I was recalling a memory that wasn’t mine – like something had taken root in me and was slowly coming to bear. And the way the poems so often point to something while also pushing through so much more – that feeling, like a new capacity, is something I’m reminded of each time I read her: “my open body / was flying over / the surface of the earth.” 


When I walk between our apartments, I always walk the same way. I know that if I walked back on the street parallel, I’d pass that café with the old stools and counter, or I could stop at or the Carioca, or I could take Velasco all the way to Chacarita, or walk up Vera. But I like the way I go. And I usually listen to the same song on repeat. There’s a strange way this repetitiveness doesn’t make me feel stagnant, but more like I’m approaching some new sense of freedom. It’s something I’ve never experienced before and it’s a feeling I really can’t describe. 


I’m here to see Martín Gambarotta read at La Sede. I’m sitting on a pillow on the floor. Many poets I’ve met and know are here. I sit next to Nurit – we catch up – and suddenly a conversation forms around me. That’s Arturo Carrera, someone says. There’s Alejandro Rubio. There’s Marcos and Gabriel. There’s Luciana, who I haven’t seen in months. I nod along to what’s being said, then move just before the reading starts, leaning my head against the back wall. Martín is a poet I’ve been reading steadily since being here, and months later I’ll decide to translate his book as well. My whole life I’ve felt an anxiety in these situations – being between conversations, the moments of passing anonymity – but there’s also something I really like about it. 


At some point I have the thought that the animals in the book are getting progressively more tired. Mid-way through, the horse from “La frontera” is despondent, leaving “wakes of glass,” so no one can follow its tracks. And Tomato Face, though she’s all lit up, is also very impetuous: “you had to not move anything, or else she would blush.” And the speaker who arrives at the shore in an abandoned city – “the ocean isn’t modest / in the winter” – and stands there calmly while minnows dance on her hands. Or the cow that “lays down alone in the middle of the plain / over the letter P of the province of Buenos Aires,” watching the stars while her nipple lights up like lanterns. Now when I read this, I realize Tendal is full of these small moments of excess, specifically feminine excess, and it moves between the poems in strange, almost imperceptible ways, and when you read the book you can feel its inextinguishable agency throughout. 


Dije chau, y me fui a vivir a las lechugas (Roberta Iannamico)


I am at a translation conference in Minneapolis. I’ve moved back, and passed through many uncomfortable periods of adjustments, and I’ve settled into Providence where I’m writing and teaching. Roberta’s Tendal came out as a chapbook with Toad Press, and I’m working on a bunch of other projects involving and not involving translation. I’m at the conference to observe – I’m not on any panels. My friend Jake and I wander around but split up when he goes to a reading of North African poets, and I go to a panel on the Latin American neo-baroque. In the 90s in Argentina, there was a supposed split between the neo-baroque writers and the neo-objectivist writers – though many people also say this “split” was exaggerated, invented by critics. In any case, I first read Nestor Perlongher – very associated with the movement in Argentina – many years ago, and then most recently in Florencia’s workshop when we read his poem “Cadáveres.” The panel is small and there’s a pretty limited crowd. It begins with a well-known translator reading his translations, then asking each panelist to comment on how the neo-baroque is political, then disputing that a poet one of the panelists translates could be considered neo-baroque, then repeatedly saying he wants to talk about the “political,” as if that was ever in question here. Things get heated and people leave the room. It’s absurd and not. The neo-baroque – though often associated with decorum, word and sound-play, experimentation, also resistance to repressive political regimes– is not the same in every context, there are multiple baroques in the Americas. To call it one thing, as if a translator were simply facilitating access to a work (and its meaning) by translating it – as if the circulation of these texts, and their dialogue with other texts was not just as important – this seems incredibly dangerous. Translation, like any other form of representation, is not unmediated. Anyway, it felt good to be able to talk about this afterwards. Sometimes it's not hard to place hope in new things. 


When I’m feeling stuck in my apartment, I go outside and walk toward Avenida Córdoba along Dorrego, sometimes turning along the windy street that leads into Chacarita, past the tennis courts, and the long snaking brick wall, or I walk along Arévalo, past the butcher’s with the cow statue outside it, and the Italian restaurant we went to once, and the neighborhood bakery with the mediocre empanadas, or the new pizza place that just opened up on Gorriti that I’ll never go to, or the kiosko on the corner of Costa Rica with the best dorritos, or I walk across the bridge going into Colegiales toward Chloe’s house, and then back again, and then all the way down Honduras, past Juan B. Justo and the train tracks, and back up El Salvador, and up Pasaje Voltaire, past the scaffolds back on Arévalo and the grocery store that’s always closed.


I am sitting outside Bar Montecarlo waiting to meet Roberta for the first time. I now consider this “my neighborhood bar,” but I’ve only really spent five afternoons here over the course of a year. When she arrives she’s carrying a backpack – we’re going to read later together at La Sede – and though I’m nervous the minute we start talking I feel at ease. We talk for a while about the 90s generation of poets in Argentina, the generation I’ve mostly been studying – and the male-dominated editorial world, the neoliberal emphasis on 'clarity,' especially from the 90s on – and the poets we like, the presses, etc. I ask her some minor questions about the poems – words here and there – but mostly we just want to talk about the title. In Spanish, “tendal” carries multiple meanings: “clothing line,” or anything used to gather what is fallen – a sheet, or canopy, or a harvesting net. But it also means a trail of things left behind, “un conjunto de cosas tendidas,” whether strewn there forcefully or left there to dry. I told her for me the book read a bit like a scene of aftermath – not really a recollection, but a re-living of something with an essential absence at its core. She said she had written it as she was leaving Buenos Aires – not about that necessarily, but during that time. We hesitated a bit, but decided on that title in English. Then we chose the poems we’d read later. For a month when it had otherwise been so unbearably hot, the light was perfect when we left. We walked for a bit into Palermo, which she kept saying over and over again had changed. 


In a way this turned into an essay about love. Today the snow stopped in Providence, but the blizzard, and the snow days that followed finally gave me the time I needed to write this. It was difficult when I finished the translation of Roberta’s book, because rather than feeling actually finished, there seemed to be so much surplus, so many lingering questions and doubts, language that didn’t say anything and maybe wasn’t meant to. One thing I can say about why I love Roberta’s work so much, is that part of it exists beyond explanation, beyond the condensation of possibility. There is a way language can turn its back on desire: sanitize, sanctify, even in the translation process – the grossly mistaken idea that a translation should strive for one-to-one equivalencies, should smooth over dissonance, gaps, only move between familiar aesthetic paradigms, etc. In any case, Roberta’s work, for me, is a way to read simultaneity in place of closure, and I hope to always stay close to it. Like somewhere, someone is grieving a loss, and someone is walking through a park with yellow dogs with their daughter, and someone is walking along the coast of the widest river in the world, on a hot night, and I am here in my kitchen, where it’s just been snowing, and the air is fresh, and I’m making lunch for tomorrow.

Alexis Almeida grew up in Chicago. Her recent poems and translations have appeared, or are forthcoming in BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Prelude, Bone Bouquet,The Elephants, and elsewhere. She is the author of Half-Shine (Dancing Girl Press, 2016), and the translator of Florencia Castellano's Monitored Properties (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016), and Roberta Iannamico's Wreckage (Toad Press, 2017). She has received fellowships from Yaddo, The Vermont Studio Center, The Center for Book Arts, and elsewhere. She was recently a Fulbright research fellow to Argentina, and now lives in Providence where she teaches writing.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Some Lessons from Object Lessons

The Potato Chips of Books:
On Short Books and Essaying for General Audiences

Christopher Schaberg, Anna Leahy, and Susan Harlan in conversation

The Object Lessons book is a particular kind of book: short and not properly academic, smart but accessible and lithe. What’s the draw for taking on this sort of more-than-essay, less-than-long-book? For the writer, how are the constraints of a short book frustrating or liberating, or both? What are the challenges, what are the risks? And what opportunities open up, what are the rewards, for both writer and reader? Series editor Christopher Schaberg and recent authors Anna Leahy (who wrote Tumor) and Susan Harlan (author of the about-to-be-released Luggage) reflect on their experiences with the Object Lessons book and consider some of the larger questions and considerations that other scholars and writers may face when writing for general audiences.

CS: When I first envisioned the Object Lessons books I imagined cute, compact books that would be enjoyable to read and memorable, the sort of books you can tote around easily and that also look striking on the bookshelf—books you want to keep. Books that felt intimate, as if you’d gone on some sort of weekend journey with the author, if that makes sense. I remember when I read Graham Harman’s wild little book Circus Philosophicus, which is a bunch of quirky allegories, and it struck me how much fun it must have been to write like that: to take an idea, a structure, and a form and then play it out over a brief number of pages (fewer than a hundred pages, in that case). Maybe it’s not a surprise, as it’s right in the title, but Harman’s book is actually about philosophy—however, it has such narrative texture that it felt like reading a good collection of short stories. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, another slim book I read around the same time, similarly got me thinking about what a short book can do.

AL: I’ve discussed this issue of length with some of the other authors in the fall 2017 batch of Object Lessons books. In a conversation essay for Assay: A Journal Of Nonfiction Studies, I claim that this length—25,000-30,000 words—is the novella of nonfiction, neither essay nor traditionally book length. It strikes a balance between expansiveness and focus. Writer’s Digest says that the average length of a novella is 30,000 words, so I’ll stick by my assertion, but fiction writers with a novella are often encouraged to develop the manuscript into a novel in order to have a better chance at securing an agent and a publisher. Many novellas are indeed probably short novels and not really taking advantage of this form situated between short story and novel. That’s not to say that there aren’t some amazing novella writers. Jane Smiley is a master of the novella, with Ordinary Love, Good Will, and The Age of Grief, and Alessandro Baricco’s Silk and Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine stand out as fiction that takes full advantage of this middling length and in-between form.

CS: And Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine as well. On the nonfiction side, books like Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just and Roland Barthes’s Mythologies stand out to me for similar reasons. When I first started to imagine Object Lessons, I was teaching these sort of short books in various classes at Loyola, and I liked seeing how my students would read, discuss, and come back to short books. There was something special about such books. It may sound pretty obvious, but short books tend to be very reader-friendly. Or, at least, they have this immediate appeal and potential. Who doesn’t want to pick up a neat little book? And then, who doesn’t want to open the book, to see what’s nestled inside?

AL: There’s an appetite and a market for nonfiction of this length that doesn’t seem to exist for fiction, despite the standouts. I was especially pleased to see Object Lessons mentioned by the BBC in an article about how best to use one’s commute to read more every year, as the size and scope of these print copies seem ideal for those who want to use that time, which is otherwise either wasted or actual work, productively and also get away from their devices. One semester years ago, I felt especially busy and wanted a sense of both leisure and productivity in my reading, so I prohibited books that were more than two-hundred pages. That’s how I discovered Silk and When the Emperor Was Divine, and I gained a sense of accomplishment getting through so many books in a few months.

SH: I like this point about time and reading—that a shorter book fits into your life in a different way than a long book. You can read it in one sitting if you want to. Obviously, a lot of novels in the nineteenth century were serialized, so you read them over time—broken up by time because you read a bit, and then you had to wait for the next installment. So in a scenario like that, a book has a different relationship to your life and to how your life is unfolding. And that is true of long novels today, even if we read them differently. But a short book can exist in a particular moment of your life. You can go to a bar and read the book and then go home (that’s what I like to do). Or read it on a train. And then it’s an experience. An experience that is bound, and limited, by time. I recently finished Francis Ponge’s La Table, which is a short object study and one that walks a line between poetry and prose. I read it in a cabin in Tennessee one evening. Now I associate it with that time.

AL: The concentrated temporal experience of reading a short book can also generate a craving. When I finished reading my first Object Lessons book—Hood by Alison Kinney—I immediately wanted to read another and then another. As a reader, I think of them as the potato chips of books, and the length makes it easy to rationalize grabbing just one more.

CS: The potato chips of books! I love that. But that raises an interesting question: How to make the books palatable and enjoyable without, well, leaving the reader feeling gross? We all know that awful mouth-feeling after having eaten too many chips. (Actually snacks are their own interesting genre. And I have strong feelings about snacks, too.)
I think sometimes authors underestimate the sorts of challenges that such a book poses: they might think it’s merely a half a normal book, or a lighter book, written really breezily. But in fact these books—like a good snack—require just the right mix of crunch, savoriness, and a self-imposed limit (like individual-serving-sized bags of chips?). So if the trick with these books is to make them desirable and grabbable—and also substantial—how can an author achieve this? What forms lend themselves to such books? I think about the various strategies that our authors have used in our books, from launching off from an oddity (Cigarette Lighter) to revealing a surprising history (Personal Stereo) to charting a constellation of personal encounters and affects (Phone Booth) to exchanging letters by way of orbiting an impossibly large object (Earth). I always like to see what final form the authors choose, and how it works out—or, if it doesn’t quite work in the first draft, how it can be modified or tweaked in revision.
An amazing thing about the short book is that you can zoom out and see the shape of the book from above quite easily.

SH: That’s true. I love looking at my Table of Contents page now and seeing the shape of the book there. The potato chip idea is funny because you also wish that you could keep writing Object Lessons books. I wish that I could write Map. House. Pen. Skull. Frame. You get hooked.
Avidly has a new series of 30,000-word books—Avidly Reads—with NYU Press that they describe as “short books about how culture makes us feel. Each volume in this series will explore the surprising or counterintuitive pleasures and revulsions of a single cultural experience, phenomenon, or artifact.” Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series and Routledge’s New Critical Idiom series also come to mind as short crossover books, although they really aim to be accessible introductions to an idea, and the latter may still skew a bit academic. Stanford publishes the Briefs series, and Minnesota rolled out their own brief Forerunners a few years ago—still academic but, in their own word, “grayer” than traditional monographs. A book like Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time also comes to mind. Its subtitle, A Short History of Fairy Tales, draws attention to its brevity, and it’s also a pretty, pleasingly small book.
I love the idea of short books. I have never understood the fetishizing of enormously long books. Some books need to be enormously long, and that’s great, but I found that the choices you have to make with a short book were a major part of the writing process. The Object Lessons books could be 90,000 words. But they’re not. They require authors to really focus. They ask you to leave out a lot of things. And that leaving out can be very productive. I asked another Object Lessons author at the beginning: how did you choose what to write and what to leave out? But of course that is going to be different for everyone, and it has to do with how your book takes shape—what you feel like it wants and needs and what can be left out.

AL: You’re onto something important with this leaving out. Exclusion is a particular type of writerly decision making that makes sense to me because my book covered such a well-trod topic and because I come to nonfiction through poetry more than through scholarly writing, though I’ve done that too.

SH: Academic writing is often about being exhaustive. If such a thing is possible. You are endlessly footnoting, endlessly covering your bases. And it’s a kind of joke in the profession that a reviewer will still point out what you left out, what you neglected to account for. But this is different. I applied for an NEH Public Scholar fellowship at the same time that I submitted my Object Lessons proposal, and I remember thinking: I wonder if they will consider the book long enough. I didn’t get the fellowship, but I’m glad I applied because that also made me think about length, and about what assumptions we have about what nonfiction books will look like. To be liberated from exhaustiveness in Object Lessons was great.

AL: Because I think of myself as an essayist, I thought of Tumor, when I first proposed it,  as a collection of essays, even though I didn’t dare put that into the proposal. I talked briefly about this essay plan I had in a conversation with other Object Lessons at Poets & Writers, but I’ll admit more here. Despite the seemingly clear chapter organization in the proposal, my ideas were unwieldy, the book length seemed long, and thinking essay allowed me to break down the project into manageable pieces. I did the math—25,000 words looked like four 5,000-word essays plus an introduction and conclusion, each half that length. And I could break each chapter down into smaller parts of about 1500-1800 words, which is a relatively comfortable length for me. But essay was a lie I told myself in order to suggest the project to you and, then, in order to sit down to begin to write it once you had been convinced.

CS: I might steal that for my students (and for myself): an essay is a lie you tell yourself to suggest an idea or structure, in order to just sit down and begin to write something. Our books rarely are proposed to us in finished form; the proposal is something of a gambit, or a what-if scenario. I like the suspense in seeing how the books actually turn out. And then, to see how these different short forms play with readers.

SH: That sense of flexibility is important. It gives an author a kind of freedom in writing because one don’t feel completely tied to the proposal. And the short length was also massively appealing to me because it seemed to have something to do with the essay as a form. I write a lot of essays, so like Anna, I initially conceived of my book as sort of a collection of essays. I loved the idea that you could write four or five essays on a given subject—sort of come at it from various angles. And I liked the idea that these essays might in some ways stand alone but would also be linked.

AL: The wonderful thing about essays is that they are so malleable. Plans can be drawn up and then be discarded as one goes, though I see how much risk and trust that requires of the editors.
When I decided what to write and what to write next, I thought first and foremost about what I wanted to include in Tumor—what was most important to me—and then how I could find the structure to include disparate topics and ideas. I wanted to talk about my parents because their experiences with cancer shaped how I see the world as well as how I understand the subject matter of Tumor. That personal narrative seemed important to include at the very beginning, and the way I put that narrative together invited discussion of the probability and statistics of cancer in the opening chapter as well. I’d had a fascinating conversation with a colleague who studies field cancerization, so I wanted to talk about that research and the question of where we end and a tumor begins. I wanted a nurse’s voice in the book, and I wanted to include what poets had written about cancer. I also wanted the book not to be only about cancer, so I had to clear some room for the benign tumor as well. So, for me, content led to structure, and the length limit was a guide for establishing depth and deciding when to pivot. I trusted that what interested me would interest readers.

CS: One funny thing about the series is that we never can tell how the different books are going to find their audiences, and when. Sometimes I have hunches, though. For instance, I knew I was reading something special when I read Joanna Walsh’s Hotel, and it was enormously gratifying to see her book delight so many readers and reviewers (and piss off a few). Short books seem like a low-risk enterprise and yet they have the potential to find wide readership. The productively squirmy tradition of the essay you’re both alluding to jibes with the possibilities and constraints of short books.

SH: Yes, as I worked on the book, I found myself thinking less in an essay-oriented vein, but the essay was a way of understanding a length that was new to me. It was a way in. The first Object Lessons book I read was Joanna Walsh’s Hotel, which I loved. It’s very beautiful. Lyric. So is Brian Thill’s Waste, which I read next.

CS: Object Lessons books—and others in this crossover realm—toe the line between academic and trade, between nonfiction and a certain poetic style. In an interview with the Antenna Gallery's Room 220I pointed out that all the books in the series are meditative, which makes sense given that each is titled with on object upon which to meditate. I also said, “they almost must be lyrical to a certain extent.” So, they each navigate the dance between the academic and the popular differently. That’s connected to the length constraint and the resulting need, as I said, “to be economical and sometimes move quickly, in order to get where they want to go in relatively short order.”

AL: I don’t think the lyricism results from the book’s length but, rather, from the editorial vision you and Ian Bogost have and from the series tagline: the hidden lives of ordinary things. What a lovely line of iambic pentameter, with the sonic echo between hidden and things. You have a lyric sensibility that includes sound and emotion and shapes the series out of books that navigate the dance between really smart ideas and popular appeal, between complex concepts and mainstream readers.

SH: The series undoubtedly attracts writers who find that dance appealing. I was reading a lot of poetry as I wrote Luggage, and, in fact, a lot of what I read ended up in the book, not because I had been looking for a poem about luggage or packing or what-not, but just because I found connections there. Alice Oswald’s Dart. A Mary Ruefle poem called “Müller and Me” about a portmanteau. Ovid’s exile poems. If you’re reading a lot while you’re writing, and of course writers tend to do this, you’re thinking a lot about being a reader, about what you want to read, what you enjoy reading—what you choose to read. I was also reading Jane Austen’s letters, so she shows up a few times in the book, talking about her luggage.

AL: For the writer, style, which encompasses voice and perspective, is that ability to dance and is what both links and distinguishes an Object Lessons book. Writers understand their choices in this dance by reading. Of what I’ve read of the series thus far, my favorite is probably Silence because of John Biguenet’s style. I enjoyed his story collection The Torturer’s Apprentice several years ago, and though Silence certainly doesn’t sound the same, he knows how to dance as a writer. Reading the opening page immerses you in his lush, meditative lyricism as well as the book’s subject matter. Dust by Michael Marder opens with jauntier sentences dependent on lots of simple, one-syllable words. Do I hear silence? Do I hear the word dusting as a noun or a gerund? (And you don’t have to know what a gerund is to think about the difference.) Each book quickly becomes emblematic of the author’s mind at work and, therefore, depends on that’s author’s distinct perspective and voice. Both openings get the reader thinking.

SH: A friend of mine once said that academic books don’t have a reader. Not that people don’t read them, but that the author is not encouraged to consider the reader’s experience of reading, beyond the quality and clarity of the argument. You know that the people in your field will read your book. They sort of have to. And ideally want to. You don’t need to attract readers. You don’t need to get someone to want to read you. But with nonfiction, you do. Roland Barthes wrote criticism that is beautiful. His is a model for me of incredibly smart, gorgeous writing. Writing that is pleasurable to read. I re-read The Pleasure of the Text, Mythologies, Mourning Diary, and A Lover’s Discourse. Books like Olivia Liang’s The Lonely City and Lauren Elkin’s Flaneuse also do a lovely job combining research with the the personal and the poetic. Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, which is memoir and biography. And of course there is Anne Carson, who writes across genres and who brings together the personal and the intellectual like no one else. I re-read Glass, Irony and God all the time.

CS: We like it when our books balance a personal approach with a penchant for scholarly research. We want the books to have a distinctive voice, but we also want them to go for a certain detached—dare I say radically objective—perspective. Maybe this is a contradictory demand. But books can do this, I think.

AL: Tumor opens with a chapter about my parents’ cancers, so it’s very personal content. When my aunt read it, she was surprised that it wasn’t sad, and I’ve heard similar responses from other readers who knew my parents. I take this to mean that I achieved the detached perspective that’s part of the signature of the series. As a writer, I’ve always been leery of slipping from the personal into the private and of sentimentality or melodrama. In fact, ever since Stanley Plumly suggested to me in graduate school that I was so far from sentimental that I should stop worrying about it, I’ve worked toward including more of the personal and edging into greater emotion. Still, I like detachment or, rather, plenty of intellect—a form of recollection, perhaps—filtering my emotion.

SH: That’s a nice way to put it: the intellect filtering the emotion. That’s when emotion is most interesting to me. And I think that what we call close reading in literary studies can actually be personal, or emotional. Since that’s my background and training, I wanted to bring that into Luggage and to think about luggage in literature and about the language of luggage in everyday life (“baggage,” “unpacking,” etc.), but I wanted to do it in a more personal way than in my academic work. Sort of a felt criticism. And for me, this was linked to a personal connection to the object themselves.

AL: That’s a wonderful term: felt criticism. While I’ve done some scholarly work, having a penchant for curiosity is really what carried me through Tumor and led me to immunology, the difficulty of translating science to the public, metaphors we use to talk about cancer, and the biggest benign tumors. The demand for the personal and the scholarly doesn’t seem contradictory to me at all, and I trace that back to Friday afternoons with my parents at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where I spent hours looking at fetuses, chick hatchlings, a submarine, and a space capsule. While not everyone is this sort of nerd, I grew up thinking that knowledge and fun were dependent on each other and that pondering how the world around us works is an important part of being human.

SH: I’m a collector, and I have written a lot about my collections, as well as about odd and quirky museums that, more often than not, are the personal collections of someone. I wrote about a museum of motorcycles in Maggie Valley, NC, amassed by one man and the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum in Gatlinburg, TN, which houses 40,000 salt and pepper shakers. It’s overwhelming. There is a museum of luggage in Haguenau, France I hope to visit one day. My own collection of vintage luggage in part inspired the book, and I write about some of these pieces—about what they suggest about the past. The Object Lessons series relates to objects, or considers objects, in a way that is not unlike how a collector relates to her collections: she pushes back against the idea that there is something shameful about being attached to objects, or even something idolatrous.
The books are also about valuing objects, not because they are monetarily valuable, but because they have these hidden lives. I found that everyone has a story about luggage—maybe about their own lost luggage or about a suitcase they inherited from their grandmother or about something they found in a duffel bag that had been stuffed in the back of their closet for years. A lot of this made it into the book: things friends told me or posted on my Facebook page. I wanted to move back and forth between books and art and film and the lived experience of people in my life. It started to seem to me that luggage asks to be narrated. It holds stories.

AL: A lot of people have stories about cancer too. In fact, the number of published cancer memoirs was daunting. I couldn’t represent everyone’s stories, especially because so many had represented their own, so I thought about concepts of cancer and how people narrated it, rather than what was narrated.

CS: When you wrote your book, then, you had to make certain decision about how to structure it in ways that aligned with these ways of thinking about the stories, information, and concepts you wanted to included. More narrative? More cultural commentary? History? Factoids? You had to pick and choose, making the Object Lessons book multiple things at once but not too much of any one thing.

AL: When I proposed Tumor to you and Ian Bogost, I included an outline. While some of the chapters stayed—Self/Other(s), Part and Parcel, Inside/Outside—because I had a broad, conceptual idea of what I wanted to accomplish with them, the structure I’d planned changed a lot in the writing of the book. The chapters aren’t in the order I proposed and don’t include what I’d divvied up for each. Between proposing Tumor and drafting it, I’d become a better and more confident nonfiction writer, recognizing my strengths through drafting and revising other pieces that blended personal narrative, science, history, and cultural commentary.

SH: I had a similar experience of thinking about my strengths and about what I wanted to to with the book. My original proposal was maybe a little conventional for lack of a better word—I had a chapter on the history of the suitcase, for example—but then, as I worked on the book, the first thing I found was that I wanted it to have a more thematic structure. I wanted each chapter to be about an idea—“Luggage and Secrets” or “The Language of Luggage,” for example. Certain patterns had started to emerge, and those patterns were what interested me: thinking about how this material thing was an idea as well as a thing. That a suitcase is about portability. Or secrecy. Or freedom. Or restraint. Or the things we bring with us and why.
I asked myself a lot of questions about what I could do that would be new and different. Did I really need a lot of design history? Initially, I had thought that would be a pretty major part of the book, but it has been done. It’s out there. So I ran this new, more conceptual structure by Chris, and he had the incredibly helpful idea to add interludes that traced a trip. I was planning to go to a conference in Atlanta last spring, so this trip became the interludes, which was perfect because the drive took me into the mountains, where I go to get away from work, and it took me to work: to an academic conference. And my packed suitcase reflected the hybrid nature of this trip. The final book has more of me in it than the proposal. More autobiography. One of the chapters is about my trip to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Alabama, so there is also that travelogue element, and I hope the interludes speak to the personal nature of travel, too. It’s a book I wrote at home and on the road. It’s about home and not-home.

AL: Several years ago, an editor at Passages North accepted an essay I wrote for that journal’s Writers on Writing series in part because he was impressed by how many disparate things I could pack into a single essay. Given the length constraint of an Object Lessons book, I approached the writing as a challenge to see how much I could pack in and how I might surprise the reader by including the unexpected in a way that felt inevitable. That made structure impossible to work out when I considered the whole but unavoidable when I was drafting and revising. I trusted I could set out a few broad categories for discussion and make the connections paragraph to paragraph, page to page. I didn’t know whether you would trust my writing but sensed that my approach to the writing process fit the series well—that you’d be able to see the shape of the whole at a distance. I was especially pleased when you didn’t question the poetry that I snuck in at the end of Tumor.

CS: If you can’t sneak poetry into a book like this, where can you? (Incidentally, my poet colleague and great friend Mark Yakich would love the idea that poetry has to be snuck into a book.)

SH: And we have to be sneaky. It was hard to figure out what to include and exclude. That was a challenge in writing the chapter outline for the proposal. When I was in grad school, I was told that a dissertation proposal was a “thin tissue of lies.” It was something we would all joke about, and it helped to alleviate some of the stress for writing a book proposal for the first time. I was thinking about this phrase when I started writing my proposal for Luggage, which was a really different kind of proposal—shorter, non-academic—but still requires you to envision of a book you have not yet written. And everything you think you want to include can lead you to something else and then to something else, and that feeling is thrilling but also slightly scary. The short format is liberating in a lot of ways, but, of course, you also worry that you haven’t done enough. That’s a challenge. But maybe all authors worry about that. Writing 90,000 words doesn’t save you from feeling that you might not have done enough. That’s just writing: not doing enough.

CS: Can we make that slogan into a T-shirt? WRITING = NOT DOING ENOUGH. It’s so true. And it’s almost Derridean, isn’t it? Completion, full coverage, authority—those dangerous supplements that always haunt the paragraph, the page, the book. I’m getting a little heady here. But something about the short book allows the fundamental inadequacy of writing to take place more freely, even jubilantly.
The malleability of nonfiction writing serves as both an exciting opportunity and an intimidating gauntlet. Most of the authors of the Object Lessons books weren’t trained in nonfiction per se. This makes the books better—they aren’t formulaic. This, though, frustrates some of our readers who wish that the books had more consistent a style across titles. In any case, the ambiguous nature of the essayistic tradition, and this uncertain crossover realm of writing—these things are interesting to me and very much keep the series stimulating to me as an editor. And I hope to authors and readers, as well. How did you navigate this slipperiness as you worked on your books?

AL: I’m a poet by most of my writing training, so the trust I have in my nonfiction is more recent and hard-won. I might write nonfiction very differently if I had started in my twenties instead of in my forties, when I had also achieved some job security. The first piece I wrote in the vein or style of Tumor was about John Wayne, nuclear weapons, and my father’s death from cancer. I sent it to one journal to test the waters—The Southern Review was doing an Americana issue. Editor Jeanne Leiby called me to accept it (Leiby died just days after I received my contributor copies), and Cara Blue Adams did the most amazing job fact-checking and copyediting of that piece. That experience convinced me that what I was writing meant something, not just to me but to others who are shaping the cultural and literary landscape. The essay form, this recombination of ideas,  and the kind of crossover writing of the Object Lessons series are important—perhaps now more than ever—even if Montaigne was doing it six-hundred years ago.

SH: If you want to do crossover work, think about what interests you personally as well as what might be more widely interesting. That personal connection is important in the Object Lessons series and in a lot of crossover writing. If you’re an academic, that’s not part of the way you write normally. The objectivity of the critic is essential in academic writing. But to be able to write in another way means you’re allowed to think in another way. Of course, a lot of academics have a personal connection to their scholarship—the old joke about research as “me-search”—but that connection can’t be visible to your reader. In crossover writing, it can be.
The importance of writing time is key, too, to this sort of sustained thinking. I try to write consistently, and my teaching load isn’t too heavy, so I can usually do that. Carving out time in the evenings and on weekends helps, too, if you want to do that or can do that. I like to rent a cabin in the woods and just write for a few days. No grading, no other kind of work. Just writing and reading. I like the change of scene. The focus. Being somewhere beautiful. So these weekends away are sort of like a writer’s residency.

AL: One of the reasons the writing of Tumor went as smoothly as it did, when I finally sat down with my notes and books, was that I had a writing residency at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony. Over years, I had shored up a lot of reading and ideas in my head already and had some bits drafted, and then I wrote for hours every day, day after day, for about a month. One day, when I was revising the early part about my mother, I had tears streaming down my face, and I kept working. This sort of dedicated time for writing—sacred time, in a way—is not necessary for every project nor do-able for every writer, but writing residencies allow me to be a good college professor and also sustain writing projects that take time and take risks. Writing in the essayistic tradition—essay is from the Latin meaning examine or test—requires enough time to ponder, to wander, to argue with yourself as well as with others.

SH: Yes, wandering is important. We write Object Lessons books pretty quickly (at least compared to academic writing), bur there is still that wonderful wandering and pondering in the process. Academic writers and non-academic writers tend to think about time differently. You want to get your work to where you’re happy with it, but also accept that you only have a certain amount of time for any project, so at some point you have to let it go. That’s something I have learned writing nonfiction, both essays and this book. My academic book started as my dissertation; I have lived with it for a decade. I don’t want to live with another book for a decade. I want to work on different projects, shorter projects or projects that can be completed in less time, and then move on. That is more possible in crossover writing than in academia.

CS: Ian and I have talked about this a lot lately, how once you start writing in a more brisk mode, it becomes harder to stay attached to a Big Idea or Big Book Project. It’s much more gratifying, on some level, to write short work and see it go out into the world more quickly and be received by readers.
I recognize that I can sound like I’m dissing traditional academic work—slow, methodical, painstaking—but it’s more that scholars often internalize these things to the point where they don’t even know how to sit down and write, just write, for an hour or two, let alone send out short, more spontaneous work like this for publication. It becomes a lost art or even a seeming impossibility for many scholars, to simply write something pithy and accessible. Again, I’m not saying that we should jettison all academic writing (maybe a lot of it, though?!?), Still, it can be rejuvenating for scholars to realize that they can write in other forms that can reach a wider audience than in a purely specialist mode.

AL: Though I still publish pedagogy scholarship, I’ve consciously moved away from the academic writing that I did early in my career, and even my writing in scholarly outlets has a purposefully crossover bent now. So, I’d already made that shift when I proposed Tumor.
That said, considering reference points, not only Montaigne, who gets a nod whenever writers talk about models for essays or crossover nonfiction more broadly, can be important when moving away from the traditional academic model. What are we moving toward as we move away from the specialist mode? What’s the body of work into which this writing fits? Not that we need compare ourselves with other writers nor strive to do what they do, but finding connections with a larger niche helps us figure out what we’re doing that’s distinctly ours.
Elkin’s book about walking in various cities that you mentioned, maybe Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden, or something by Natalie Angier—those aren’t quite what I’m after myself, which is the very point of keeping them handy as touchstones. Rebecca Solnit can talk about family history and historical documents simultaneously; she blends the lyrical and the factual; she’s neither tied to chronology nor dismissive of it. What Solnit says about the writing process resonates with me too: “Thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, composing in your head and in sketches, maybe some typing, with revisions as you go, and then more revisions, deletions, emendations, additions, reflections, setting aside and returning afresh, because a good writer is always a good editor of his or her own work.” Reading her work or that of Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss, or bell hooks validates some of my own impulses and pushes me to take new risks to make my writing my work.

SH: I love Solnit. She is a model. We’re always seeking out models we admire, voices we admire. Robert Macfarlane also blends the lyrical and the factual in an incredible way. I recently read Mary Beard’s Women & Power, which is a marvelous example of a scholar speaking to a general audience. She was actually speaking—the book brings together two talks—and she writes in the Afterword that she decided not to go back and change a lot, that she thought it was best to leave the talks pretty much as they were, even with “rough edges.” She also refers to “floating” ideas in the talks/book, which I loved—that some things are more suggested than completely worked out. The book is so smart and witty and elegant and personal. And short, of course!
Floating ideas: that’s something you can do in a lecture for a general audience, and it’s something you can do in nonfiction. You can suggest ideas, and then just leave them there and let them do what they’re going go do. The Object Lessons books often have a very suggestive feel. Academic writing is about conclusions, finely tuned arguments that make a contribution to a field. We might be able to float ideas in conference papers, when we’re starting on a project, but that’s it. This idea of floating ideas reminds me also of the way many of us talk in the classroom. Part of teaching is suggesting things but not necessarily offering hard-and-fast answers. Sometimes we offer answers, of course, but it’s important to dwell in that space of thought, too, without or before conclusions. And we are translating scholarship for our students, making the academic writing accessible to that student audience. Or we offer a reading of a poem or a play that is smart and also makes sense to someone who might be coming to the material for the first time. To academics who are thinking about writing in a crossover vein, I would also say: think about how you communicate in the classroom. What you say there and what you leave out.

CS: That reminds me of advice we got from Matt McAdam, a guest editor at one of our NEH Object Lessons workshops. Matt said that when he’s working with an author who is stumped about how to write for broader audience, he recommends that they start from scratch and write a series of lectures geared toward undergraduate students. This seems to open up the writing toward much broader audiences because, of course, our undergraduate students are smart, general readers. If we’re not writing for them on some level, all the time, I’m not sure what we’re doing. Think about how much humanities-based academic writing is simply inaccessible to undergraduate readers. Does it really need to be this way? We’ve also all read brilliant academic prose that is lucid, teachable, and something to which the uninitiated relate—this seems like a much more admirable goal for writing. (I know, I know—I was just citing Derrida a few minutes ago. Old habits die hard.)

SH: Yes, undergrads are sometimes shocked to see the difference in how ideas are communicated in the classroom and in the essays, books, and articles that they read for their research papers. I value academic writing, but I also have certain ambivalences about it. In some ways, I’m not sure if academic writing has ever really come easily to me. I have found it hard—sometimes hard in a productive way and sometimes hard in a way that has made me wonder if it’s the kind of work I really want to do anymore. I was writing a lot of non-academic essays when I was finishing my academic book, and this work made me more aware of style. I hope those essays improved my academic book, maybe made it more elegant—or as elegant as a scholarly project can be.

AL: Scholarly writing can be elegant, of course. Perhaps the most fun I’ve had on the editorial side of the desk was line-editing a scholarly piece by Marjorie Perloff. (What a nerdy thing to say!) Whether I agreed with her point—her aesthetics and interests and mine don’t often align—her sentences are gorgeous. I could feel her mind working—it was felt criticism.

SH: Luggage definitely came out of my scholarly interest in objects and in material culture; my academic book is on armor and nostalgia for past wars and past military models in the English Renaissance. As I was finishing that book, I was surprised to find that my scholarly interest in objects and cultural memory continued to resonate in my non-academic writing. The word “nostalgia” comes from the Greek nostos, or home. It is a longing for home, what Odysseus felt, however ambivalently: a desire for a lost place you know and to which you wish to return. So thinking about the materials of travel came out of thinking about objects and a longing for home. There are often productive connections between academic writing and non-academic writing.

CS: Ian and I really hope these books will go on to find new and unexpected audiences that break through boundaries between academic and mainstream audiences, scholarly and general readers.
We never got Harry Brown’s Golf Ball into a pro shop, but we had many discussions of how to do this. We imagined somehow convincing Samsung to buy a few thousand copies of Jonathan Rees’s Refrigerator and pack them into the massive boxes of new fridges, but that proved tricky, too. Christopher J. Lee’s Jet Lag should obviously be at the Hudson News in airports—but those turn out to be incredibly difficult markets to break into. I managed to get copies of Scott Shershow’s Bread into my favorite artisan bakery in northern Michigan—and I was happy to see them disappear over the course of the summer months. Some authors have been successful at doing these types of things on their own: Kim Adrian has talked to a yarn shop near her home about writing Sock, and Matthew Newton told me about an idea he had to do some sort of installation/reading/signing with Shopping Mall at certain downward spiraling malls. Joanna Walsh did a reading at the Freud museum (Hotel tarries with psychoanalysis). Michael Marder has gotten Dust into the hands of some artists who have been inspired by his book.
Did you think about this sort of thing—to put it bluntly, did you think about non-academic or more-than-academic audiences at all as you wrote your Object Lessons book? Or as you thought about promoting it after publication?

AL: While I don’t usually give much thought to audience while writing and assumed that the series was cultivating an audience or niche, I did think about who might be interested in reading this particular book and why. I’ve co-authored a more scholarly book about cancer communication, too, which helped me think about what Tumor might (and might not) encompass and also think about readers. I’m talking with a cancer center about participating in their annual symposium because I very much want oncologists to consider cancer more broadly as a cultural as well as biomedical issue. Going forward, I’d like to do more of that and also connect with cancer patients and caregivers.
One of the most heartening experiences I’ve had since Tumor was published was when a family friend brought with her to one of my book-signings someone who’d been recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I’d never met the man before, his prognosis isn’t good, and we talked about his cancer and what it meant. There exist a lot of stories out there, a lot of people with cancer or who know people with cancer and want to talk about what that means in our lives—not only the facts but the meaning or, in Object Lessons parlance, the hidden life of this ordinary thing.

SH: I’m trying to set up a reading in the luggage department of Bloomingdale’s—I used to live in New York and have always loved wandering around its departments—or at the AWAY store downtown, so I love hearing about these past plans. I’m also setting up readings at hotels as everyone in a hotel is thinking about luggage, to some extent. Packing. Unpacking. Moving their bags from one place to another. Watching other people move their bags from one place to another. For now, I’m planning events at the Durham Hotel, which has a sort of contemporary literary/cultural vibe, and at the Greenbrier in Virginia, which is very old-school. Both are close to where I live. And maybe these hotels would want to sell copies at the check-in desk, in case a guest forgot to pack a book.
Object Lessons  books can definitely break through boundaries between academic and mainstream audiences, and I like the idea of entertaining people. Engaging them. I have heard academics use that term dismissively about crossover books—“Well, it was very entertaining”—implying that this must indicate that the book is not serious. But that’s not the way I see things. Particularly in the case of stores—either my plans or the sock store or the shopping mall—you’re really in consumer culture. In a world of objects. That’s interesting, and worthwhile. To do a reading in a store or at a hotel suggests what I’m always telling my students (I imagine that we all are): literature is not set apart from life; it is part of it.


Susan Harlan is associate professor of English at Wake Forest University and author of Memories of War in Early Modern England. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Awl, the Bitter Southerner, Public Books, Jezebel, and Atlas Obscura.
Anna Leahy is Director of the MFA in Creative Writing and Professor of English at Chapman University. Her publications include the poetry collection Aperture and the co-written books Conversing with Cancer and Generation Space. See more at

Christopher Schaberg is associate professor of English and Environmental Studies at Loyola University New Orleans and founding co-editor of the Object Lessons series. His most recent book is Airportness: The Nature of Flight.