Monday, March 26, 2018

Andrew Maynard, When the Facts Aren't Enough

When the Facts Aren’t Enough

Andrew Maynard


In his most recent Netflix comedy special, Dave Chappelle addresses the comedians standing in the back of The World Famous Comedy Store. “Motherfuckers you have a responsibility to speak recklessly.” Chappelle is not my subject, but I agree with the sentiment, a call to arms that should extend to essayists. 

I first read Charles D’Ambrosio’s essay “Casting Stones” from his tiny collection of essays (could fit in your pocket, about the size of a secret), Orphans, while an MFA student. My teacher had to email D’Ambrosio directly to find copies of the book, and D’Ambrosio was quick to respond. After a small initial print-run and, due to a string of shitty luck that had nothing to do with the actual collection, it fizzled out. It has since been reprinted between larger covers, retitled Loitering, and re-released to mass acclaim, but there was something about the initial run and size and obscurity that felt better suited to house “Casting Stones,” an essay about the media’s inability to cover Mary Kay Letourneau’s story with any hint of coherence or sympathy as she was tried in court for raping a 12-year-old child, her student. It was like nothing I’d ever read, daring to whisper compassion toward a woman who had only been met with glaring, pious denunciation. 

In Jerrod Carmichael’s first HBO comedy special, Love at the Store, he tells a joke about how “Money changes you.” With his burgeoning fame and success as a standup comedian and actor, he can now afford to live in a building with a security guard, Joe. And when Jerrod, sporting a hoodie, enters the building without resistance, he is concerned by Joe’s inaction. “I pay a lot of money so niggas who look like me can’t just waltz in here.” His message to Joe is simple: “Stand your ground.”

In 2017, Aziz Ansari went out on a date with a woman, took her home, and, at the very least, was persistent to the point of obnoxiousness, ignoring verbal and nonverbal cues, in his attempts to sleep with her. I’ll leave it at that. You probably know the rest. If you don’t, a Google search will fill in the gaps before you finish typing his name.

In “Casting Stones,” D’Ambrosio doesn’t make a point of condemning Letourneau, a 34-year-old woman on trial for sleeping with a child. He seems averse to moralism, at least in the obvious sense, and instead takes exception to the habitually unoriginal takes of pundits who refuse to alter the established narrative. He also takes shots at lazy reporting: journalists and radio personalities content with the skin of the story. He’s concerned with language, sympathy, and our unwillingness to take Letourneau seriously when she said she loved the boy. A grown woman feeling adult love for a 12-year-old boy is messy, creepy, illegal when acted upon, but not beyond the realm of possibility in D’Ambrosio’s estimation. 

Spike Lee directed Love at the Store, and he did not want Carmichael to tell the joke surrounding Trayvon Martin. Probably because it’s risky, insensitive, triggering. You can imagine it going viral on Twitter, quoted without context, littered with remarks censuring Carmichael as a race traitor. But the joke in its entirety is also thoughtful, provocative, and intentioned. He cuts through the dermis of the narrative to reveal the organs. And though it’s clear that Carmichael takes pleasure in the audience’s muffled displeasure, the joke is a necessary setup to an important question. Do you, disturbed (probably white) audience member, actually care about Trayvon Martin? 

Confession: I’m a fan of Aziz Ansari. And in no way do I think Ansari should be exempt from criticism just because he writes himself onto the screen as a good dude or provides a platform where a gay black woman can showcase an important, untold story for mass consumption, resulting in an historic Emmy. My problem is that it feels way too American, in all the worst ways, to so quickly and summarily publish a story that strikes a tender chord with men and women alike, an indicator that the material is urgent and essential and should be treated as more than a who-is-at-fault confessional and warrants a deeper, more potent dialogue about men and women being culturally conditioned into unbalanced roles in sex and relationships, and handled it in a way that minimized a glaring cultural deficiency surrounding the errors of a single man of color.
     I don't like the way Katie Way handled the reportage of Aziz Ansari's evening with pseudonym Grace on the website Babe. The title "I went out on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned out to be the worst night of my life." is heavy-handed and operates as a thesis statement, which is problematic because it's not a particularly good one. She quickly establishes the piece as a portrait drawn by Grace depicting an encounter reduced in scope to simply a night. The inquiry is reduced to the didactic, to who was the victim and who was the perpetrator, a bummer because this piece could have been so much more. It could have been an essay. Way could have taken longer than a week to report it. Babe could have given Ansari more than six hours to respond. The anecdote could have been stretched and interrogated, scraped for nuance, dusted for clues to highlight cultural history or trends of normed backwardness, crafted with room to infer a path moving forward or to illuminate a trail we never knew we’d been hiking. Essays are meant to strike chords, not just single notes. And it would be naïve to suggest that this piece didn’t connect: it amplified an all-to-familiar scenario of lopsided power dynamics and selective understanding of non-verbal (and sometimes verbal) communication. But to what effect? What were we supposed to take away?

I wonder how “Casting Stones” would be received today in an age where social media provides the platform to cast spawning, un-hatched opinions before they’ve been properly incubated, let alone matured. It’s not an essay that can be captured in a tweet. “Casting Stones” feels like an apt springboard to examine not only rote click-bait “reporting” but also the way we demand it, how we use half-baked analysis to support half-baked assumptions and think that adding those two halves will make a whole. But we’re not adding fractured ideas; we’re multiplying and in turn reducing them.

The next time you walk into a comedy club, fix your attention on the audience; the lit-up comic with the microphone is not the only one performing. You’ll find that crowd reaction can be as timed, measured, and calculated with intent as the punch line itself. This is particularly transparent when audience members who are white are watching comedians who aren’t. When the black comic addresses white privilege, notice how the audience members might go up an extra octave in laughter, might yelp or clap or nod in seeming agreement, a signifier of liberalism. They are both white and aware of their undeservedly inflated status, maybe even against it, and hence exonerated via laughter, separated from the herd that is the problem. And let’s assume it’s performed with genuine intention. I am sure I’ve been this audience member, and that’s fine I suppose—we all want our intentions, when pure, to be known—but it’s precisely why Carmichael’s joke feels different. He turns the reaction into the subject. “You guys went ‘ah’. Really? Because that Trayvon shit is really affecting your day-to-day?” He asks the crowd if they think about Trayvon over their morning coffee, blow a kiss to the picture they have framed of him as they leave for work. “Because you don’t. Can I tell you the harsh reality of life? It’s that events happen—really, really sad things happen, and we all pretend to be mad.” This line of thinking—outrage as performance—continues in the context of 9/11 and other subjects, but Carmichael ends the Trayvon bit on a somber note, no punch line.

Outrage as performance is center stage every time I try to use Twitter threads or op-ed Google searches to follow a scandal. And I’m concerned about the general unwillingness to read the responses to the Ansari scandal with any sense of flexibility, much less uncertainty. There is a problem when “evidentiary” articles are being shared on Twitter to prove a point before the person posting could possibly have read, let alone reread, let alone digested, let alone properly considered the nuance of the questions posed in the statements and reflections. Two op-eds in particular (one in the Atlantic, the other in the New York Times), released quickly after the story broke, questioned whether this type of account does more damage than good for the MeToo movement. Both were written by women. Both were widely met with two basic responses: 1) Fuck these woman haters! and 2) See, even women think this bullshit! I didn’t particularly like either of the essays: they felt short-sighted and pointed (which can be expected in a world of same-day responses) as opposed to exploratory and assumed angles that seemed to miss the point, diluting themselves to partisan fluff, refusing to examine anything but easy, the obvious. But I was more turned-off by the reaction’s reactions. To be clear: I want readers to hold and express strong opinions, and it’s a problem when more and more often it seems we read these, let’s call them essays, solely to support or denounce a pre-established, unflinching point of view. Here is my question: What is an essay if not an attempt to shift perception, complicate norms, offer a space to reflect, inspect, reconsider? The best essays push. Always. So what’s the point of reading if there’s no room to budge?

“This sense of understanding as fossil sample occurred throughout the story, and after many readings of just about everything written on the Letourneau case I entered a near-mad state of chicken/egg confusion where the habitual priority starts flipping around, and I couldn’t tell anymore if people were trying to understand and describe Letourneau or invent a theoretical prototype.” —Charles D’Ambrosio, “Casting Stones

It’s not easy to discover the angle we’ve all been missing, but isn’t that what makes it worth digging for?

Were you lucky enough to have a pediatrician who hung framed prints of cognitive illusions on the walls that from a distance might looked like a candlestick, but as you moved closer transformed into twin brothers nearly touching their noses for whatever reason? To my five-year-old self, these illusions epitomized the possibilities of visual art. And though I don't particularly care for them anymore, nor have I seen one in a long time, they echo what I admire about “Casting Stones” and Love at the Store: an insistence that if we look closer, what once seemed in total focus will reveal itself as having been something else entirely, all along.

The responses to the Ansari/Grace story made the mistake of categorizing its readers as either critics or supporters of the encounter. We might be critics of shoddy reporting? Sure. Critics of Ansari’s disbelief that a woman might come home with him and not want to blow him? Yep. Supporters of women who refuse to silently abide a culture where they bear all the risk, fear, and futility of long-stagnant sexual dynamics? Certainly. But who is this terribly odd person who identifies as a supporter of that night? And if he does exist, why are we giving him agency? Why do we anoint him as the primary audience of the essay?

“But these days you get the impression people think it’s kind of a recreant to waver, as if by feeling and expressing, or worst of all admitting, doubt and uncertainty, you’re being disloyal to a guiding idea.” —Charles D’Ambrosio, “Casting Stones”

Maybe Carmichael didn’t feel the need to establish his antipathy to young black men being shot down in the streets because he trusted his audience to apply the context, to give a young black man the benefit of the doubt as not actually being pro racial-profiling and pro-murder. But what if they didn’t? What if they refused to accept the joke as layered with insecurity and sadness? What if the audience failed to notice Carmichael had no intention of representing an entire movement with his observation of hypocrisy and his admission to wanting to feel safe. What if the audience did not catch that the seeming tone of irony in that admission was not a fault of his but ours? Or maybe George Zimmerman’s name wasn’t mentioned because he had already stood trial and been predictably acquitted, so Carmichael made us the subject instead. It was our turn. The point was not the mere facts of the story but rather how we apply them to our own narrative.

This might feel like I’m pointing fingers at a culture for devolving as readers and writers. I’m not. I assure you I am way too selfish for that. I’m here to reconcile the way I finish hot-take articles and pat myself on the back as if to say “We’re still right, old friend,” because I am uninterested in cases where I am the plaintiff or the victim. I need to be the defendant. When I first heard the Carmichael joke, I thought to myself, that’s fucked up. In “Casting Stones,” it struck me as odd that D’Ambrosio for the most part did little to condemn statutory rape. And after I read the article on Babe, I immediately searched for op-eds to help direct me to a takeaway, as if a writer responding to a piece within mere hours after the breaking news would really have had the time needed to truly form an opinion, let alone offer something provocative to the broader conversation.

And maybe that’s my problem with the Ansari coverage. I was a mere witness at another man’s trial. And that felt wrong. I should have been on the stand, because I’m a guy who identifies comfortably as a feminist, often without considering what it really entails. And while male feminism should ideally be swung like an axe to dismantle a worn-out, rotting patriarchal system, it can also be used as a shield to protect oneself from being bludgeoned by the irony of the privilege said system provides said male feminist. I should have been asked to reconsider an evolving definition of consent, one that insists intention and power and equal footing are at play. I should have been guided to those moments when coercion felt like a part of sex, the times I only considered what I wanted, myself.

Maybe the point is this: we should refuse to share the work of writers who relay what we already know, just because it affirms that we’re not terrible, and demand more than hot-takes, more than the binaries of the agenda-driven “debate” between Talking Heads Skyping each other on cable news. There are few things less appealing than a speech-and-debate tournament where high school kids (aside: after typing this, I acknowledge there might just be a strong possibility of entertainment, but I think the point stands that it has no place in post-high school essays) prioritize slant over truth.

Maybe the point is that we need to do better as readers, and that our intention behind sharing an article with our peers should align more with the mind set “Here’s something new to consider” as opposed to “See!”

Maybe we should stop demanding writers to be so careful, stop nitpicking at straggling phrases dangling from the essay like frayed threads from a quilt, stop tugging at them just to make it unravel, because care is only essayistic when it refuses to thwart risk.

Maybe the problem is the fine line separating what should be reported vs. opined. The murder of Trayvon Martin had been reported, so rather than harping on the details of the actual crime, Carmichael expanded the conversation and asked: What does this actually mean to us? D’Ambrosio did the same with Letourneau, unplugging the spotlight we’d aimed at her in favor of a mirror. And it feels like we’re nearing that moment in discussions of sexual assault and harassment. The Harvey Weinstein narratives—the stories where the facts are the point—have been reported for consideration. And some of the strongest moments of coverage were none other than personal essays/accounts from the actual victims. We needed to be in the room with him to fully understand. I don’t think we needed to be in the room with Ansari, because we already know that room, and we know it well. When the majority of women acknowledge familiarity with Grace’s dilemma, we can assume that men understand too, whether or not they’ll admit their part. It’s time to investigate the room.

Maybe this story just needed a steadier hand. What would it have read like had it been written by Jia Tolentino, a journalist who can unpack an exchange at a doctor’s office to reveal the subtlety and ferocity of power dynamics? Who just finished a project investigating the campus-wide attempt at Columbia to keep students safer from sexual assault. But she didn’t write about Ansari. Maybe she didn’t have time. Maybe she just didn’t want to.

Or maybe it’s just me, a grown man who hasn’t been to the doctor in years. Maybe I avoid it because I know the picture is gone, replaced by an omniscient x-ray machine that mechanically exposes us for what we really are. I prefer the unexpected sleight-of-hand, the revelation born of a simple shift of gaze.


Andrew Maynard’s essays have appeared in True Story, Mud Season Review, DIAGRAM, Essay Daily, Switchback, Bayou Magazine, and elsewhere. He has taught creative writing at the University of San Francisco and San Quentin Prison. He lives in Arizona with his coonhound, River.  

Monday, March 19, 2018

Dustin Parsons on Dropping Off

In January of 2013, I began an essay entitled “Drop Off.” On the surface, it was simply an essay about walking my son to the doors of his elementary school, watching him enter, and lamenting the fact that I couldn’t continue to walk with him down the halls to his room. Early drafts were flat, overly sentimental. I was having trouble finding the words for the sadness I felt at watching him toddle away, his backpack two sizes too big for him, as he entered his school. This was not an original sadness—so many parents must feel this way. And indeed, there are so many that write about watching their children leave them in a variety of ways: off to school, to college, to war, to marriage. I did something I rarely do in those early drafts: I scrapped them entirely when they didn’t work. They were short, meant to be lyric and descriptive. I started over with each new draft, no core DNA remaining from earlier drafts.
     The Newtown shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary happened on my birthday that year, December 14, 2012. I was teaching my last classes of the semester that day, had been sent balloons and cards arranged by my wife, and capped off a fine semester with fine students. The debilitating snows of Western New York hadn’t yet started, and while it was gray outside, there was a sense of peaceful conclusion to the academic world. Students were shuffling to their very last classes for the semester. Readying themselves for finals. They didn’t think twice about where they were going.
     I have a picture of me holding a bunch of balloons in the department office, a big dumb smile on my face. I’d been surprised by the gesture, even though my wife did things like this for me all the time. I ordered donuts for my early classes, and pizza for my students during my lunch hour class. We finished workshop and literature discussions and made a relaxed day of it. I hadn’t yet heard the news.
     While I was in my workshop class, the first of the day, 20 children were being shot in a school in Connecticut. I remember taking the leftover food from that class to the office, and receiving the balloons. My oldest son was at the time in kindergarten, perhaps settling in for a story or some sort of art class. My wife was at home with our 18-month-old, hearing the news soon after the events.
     I spent the remainder of my birthday hugging both my children in our house after my oldest was home from school. Kids are amazing at simultaneously reminding you of their perseverance and their fragility. We watched a nature special on television, and much of the rest of the day was a blur of couch-sitting and fort-building, crawling into those dark spaces my oldest would make with cushions and blankets where he would play his games talking to make- believe people and animals. His younger brother would tear down the fort and he would get angry, but we would rebuild. It felt possible that what I’d heard on television didn’t actually happen.

After the announcement, with Christmas so close and the tragedy so jarring, the school didn’t immediately respond. For the remaining week or so before the break, there was a police officer at the front door, but little else really changed, and parents were starting to get worried.
     It was after the break that the changes happened. Parents were no longer welcomed to come in unless they had an appointment or were listed as official guests. Children were dropped off about fifty yards from the door. An armed guard was posted in the morning, and was there a good deal of the day standing near the office door which was right inside the four glass doors to the elementary school. The policy on weapons, which this tiny school in western New York State had never needed to spell out, was posted to all parents.
     Predictably this satisfied some parents and outraged others. For me, it meant a fundamental change to my everyday routine. Before, I parked in the back lot where the elementary school children’s parents were expected to park. I often saw the same people there: colleagues and friends from town whose children were friends of my children. We all walked together in the doors, where we would split up to take our children to their rooms.
     My son had troubles with his boots, which he wore the minute the cold weather came in November. We brought “indoor” shoes in a plastic bag and I resisted the urge, every day, to simply pull his boots off of him and help him put on his shoes. I watched, and encouraged, but let him do it, and the best part of my morning with him was after he’d finally put his boots under his coat, all hung or stored beneath his name on a series of hooks and spaces for him, and he kissed my cheek and ran away toward the class with his binder and his lunchbox in his hands.
     When students returned to classes in early January of 2013, this was no longer possible. The snow had finally come, as had the very cold temperatures, and so my son, looking like a Weeble Wobble, was to say his goodbyes at the curb and walk into his school, past the man with a sidearm at the doors, alone.

I began the essay after that first day back at school, and it languished for nearly a month, constantly on the page and erased, in a liminal space of existence. The news was full of stories about gun violence. Comparisons to Columbine were beginning to surface again as the shock of the dead children wore off. The image of a gun on television became pervasive, intrusive, and cold. I’d already come to terms with my fear of guns long before, had written about it, thought I’d understood it. But there was something different about this fear. The gun wasn’t pointed at me, so to speak. An impulse to fantasize about rushing in to a school on lockdown with an active shooter started to fill feeds and Facebook updates. I wanted, more than anything, to see the gun come apart, to disassemble it, and I started looking for ways to supplement the essay I was having trouble writing with an image that might help me do that.
     I’ve been searching my memory for why I did this. My new collection of essays, Exploded View: Essays on Fatherhood, with Diagrams, is full of essays just like this, writing into the cracks of diagrams and instructional images to draw forth a different context. But this one, the first of its kind for me, came as a mystery. I’ve been asked since why I wrote these kinds of essays, and while I see real value in the way images and words can work together to create new and dynamic layers to meaning, at the time all I can remember is raw emotion—an anger and frustration and sadness at how helpless I was, sending my son to school, a police officer newly posted to the front door of our elementary school, new rules instituted to limit the number of unofficial adults roaming the halls. I wasn’t using my intellect when I wrote it, and as a result the entire memory of constructing it is a blur after I discovered the exploded view image of the gun I used in “Drop Off.”
     I remember fixating on all the pieces in the image of the disassembled gun. An exploded view of any gun shows a surprising number of parts that I simply don’t associate with weaponry. There are screws, the size of ones used to close the battery compartment of my youngest son’s nightlight. There are metal rods that I might confuse for pieces of their toys. There are so many springs that I remember gasping at the sight of them. How like Slinkies they are. How one might confuse them for the springs that come from push-button pens.
     It was Aimee that suggested I make it part of my essay, and I found that I was able to write to the parts. The barrel was the hallway. The springs were steps my son might take. The trigger a half moon, the rods our arms connecting together as we walked to his classroom. When it was taken apart I took away its power, and it gave me an essay:

(reprinted from Indiana Review)

The reaction was startling. I am not schooled in graphic design, nor do I have a truly visually artistic bone in my body. I want to draw, but stick figures were about my limit at the time. So I learned how to manipulate images, to eliminate what I didn’t need, to add what made sense to me to add. This would take me nearly another year, and during that time I worked on nearly nothing else.
     I sent the finished product out more to get it away from me than to have it seriously considered. At the time only a few magazines were able or willing to print anything besides text, so already the choices were limited. Indiana Review, however, had a “Folio: Middle Space” feature in their magazine at the time, and in late November of 2013 I sent it to them.
     Indiana Review accepted it four months later, in February of 2014. Along with questions of how they were going to make a grainy image work for their issue, they sent along, in the acceptance email, a small, ominous end note: We appreciated the ways in which this piece works as both provocation and subtle narrative and we are glad to include it in our journal. And in a return email about image resolution: Thanks for sharing your work with us—it provoked some very intense discussion among the editorial board, and we hope it does the same for our readers. 
     I wasn’t sure what to say to such a thing. I hadn’t considered it a “provocation” and was suddenly gripped by the fear of the gun that I thought I’d put to rest long ago. But I soon realized they were right. Even torn apart, it had power. Even as a source of art instead of violence, it could be destructive.
     So many essays would come after this that took images and used them out of context to speak to something bigger. I slowly learned, with the help of a great many patient magazine editors, how to create sharper, better renderings of these public domain images. Different ways to interact with them. More complex relationships to the physical world. But none was more raw and emotional than that first one. None spoke to me even years after the final draft or the publication like “Drop Off” does.

This is coming on the heels of yet another school shooting, this time in Florida. Nearly as deadly, it is this time in a high school. I’ve been quiet about it, and that generally signals to me that I’m sad and unable to articulate anything that won’t sound derivative or clumsy. Another form of helplessness. And again I’m turning to the page, as many writers do, I suppose. But what does it mean when the form you think you found to help you cope with what happened isn’t working? When even that daring, taboo juxtaposition that stirred so many emotions in you simply doesn’t work anymore? When you are numbed to the images, let alone the words that accompany them?
  I’ve gotten to the point where I can no longer write myself out of the sadness and confusion of why guns end up in schools. I’d sooner fill a page with semicolons than engage in a frustrating shouting match with an NRA member on Facebook. Five years ago writing an essay about watching my son walk away from me, into a place I once thought was safe but now seemed less and less so, helped. Not anymore. It just fills me with more sadness and frustration.
  Perhaps it is fitting that this essay comes back to me in my book this year. Reading it makes me feel that cold air skipping off the western New York fields, the slick sidewalks my son slipped down to get to school. We don’t live there anymore, but it is still with me when I read this essay again. My son is a fifth grader now, and he hears what is happening on the news. He is vaguely aware that he is a character in some of my work. Perhaps that essay can help him now.


Dustin Parsons is the author of Exploded View: Essays on Fatherhood, with Diagrams (University of Georgia Press 2018) and teaches at University of Mississippi. His essays can also be found in recent issues of Hotel Amerika, Passages North, Proximity, and Zone 3. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Terese Svoboda on Finding Lola


Touching on two essays: “A Menace to Liberty” by Emma Goldman and “Woman and the Creative Will” by Lola Ridge

Terese Svoboda

[a repost from our 2017 Advent Calendar on the occasion of the paperback release of Anything That Burns You: a Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet]


Cover design by Lola Ridge for Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty by Emma Goldman, 1908. 

This summer I was rounding the corner in the Museum of Modern Art, sixth floor, new acquisitions, where I beheld—the only word for the shock of seeing it—a fifteen foot magic marker copy of poet Lola Ridge's only extant work of visual art, “A Menace to Liberty.” Artist Andrea Bowers, also a women's rights activist, labeled it “cover art for Emma Goldman's Mother Earth magazine, 1911” but since I had recently published Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, I knew from Goldman's letters that Ridge was the unacknowledged artist, and that it was published three years earlier.
     Executed in the realistic lithographic style of the turn-of-the-century, “A Menace to Liberty” depicts “Patriotism,” a woman in armor pinioning a prostrate female “Liberty,” not the most feminist of images. In the essay that follows it, “Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty,” Emma Goldman argues that the more patriotic the country, the more military is engaged to guard that country, which results in less liberty. Although America was then in relative peace, having only recently fought the Spanish American War, she said capitalism had trebled the manufacture of weaponry, which resulted in seriously depleting human and natural resources, a claim later supported by historians. In comparison, our relative peace has had undeclared wars in Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan, with increased military spending ratcheting up accordingly. Goldman did not overlook the irony that “the very soldiers sent to liberate Cuba were ordered to shoot Cuban workingmen during the great cigarmakers' strike, which took place shortly after the war,” an incident highlighting the true nature of patriotism used in service of a military guided by capitalism. She quotes Tolstoy, that patriotism justifies “the training of wholesale murderers.” These days self-described “patriots” arm themselves to the teeth, citing their rights under the second amendment, and with increasing regularity, murder those who threaten them. She also quotes Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last resort of scoundrels,” asserting that these “scoundrels,” wealthy capitalists, usually have little need for patriotism because they are cosmopolitan; they live and work at home in the world rather than the nation. Despite Trump's slogan America First, he invests in U.S. companies that outsource their jobs, and has partnerships operating in at least twenty foreign countries, a debt of over a hundred million dollars to German banks, not to mention revenues from his overseas golf courses and hotels – and links to military spending that line his own pockets. According to Goldman, patriotism assumes that “our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by a iron gate.” Eight years after the publication of her essay, America slammed its gate shut when the Espionage Act was passed specifically to deport her.
     A radical, according to H.L. Mencken, “is not a bad citizen turning to crime but a good citizen driven to despair.” Lola Ridge arrived in the U.S. in 1908 as an immigrant from New Zealand. She immediately sought out Goldman who recognized her passion for radical politics and her talent for art. They worked together for four years, Goldman publishing Ridge's poetry and the lithograph, and Ridge organizing. Eventually Ridge split from Goldman—”she could brook no independence of action in any associate”—a force inimical to women seeking their own identities, like birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, another of her acolytes.
     In 1919 Ridge read an essay entitled “Woman and the Creative Will” to a large crowd in Chicago. It concerned women's creativity and how it was equal to men's. “Woman is not and never has been man’s natural inferior,” she wrote, ten years before Virginia Woolf published “A Room of One's Own.” According to Ridge, no woman had ever been as great an artist as a man, although many had tried. There had never been adequate training of women, nor opportunities for them to support a career in art, and finally, men, blinded by the precepts of gender and difference, were never be able to recognize greatness in a female artist. When women realized “that art must transcend fear, and that thought is a spiritual substance to be molded like clay—they too will be the masters of dreams.” Ridge pressed her premise to its logical conclusion: unless mankind made a determined effort “not merely toward reorganization and reform, but toward the construction of a completely new social and economic fabric,” it would self-destruct.
  Ridge's branch of anarchy, Kropotkin's, advocated freedom in all things. Modernism has its roots in anarchy, a movement espousing total freedom from formal precepts and proscribed subjects. On the other hand, the root of patriotism, patros, means father in Greek. Goldman's essay reminds us that dominance by the fatherland comes at a price; Ridge's essay says that the price is half of humanity's creative subjugation. If one were to conflate Goldman's essay with Ridge's via her lithograph, the image might be interpreted as one woman, pressured by the absent man—military might, The Hulk—funded by the fatherland who promises to protect women if they would only recognize that they have no liberty at all, let alone artistic. If women were allowed to be creative, goes the corollary, patriotism would wither away and democracy flourish, with every artist allowed a voice in its making.
     When Ridge died in 1941, the New York Times deemed her “one of our most important poets.” The Ghetto and Other Poems, her first and most famous book, concerns the trials and triumphs of immigrant Jews on the Lower East Side, and was published in 1918 to great acclaim. Although she was not Jewish, she understood the political situation of immigrants, who are often the most patriotic of citizens—until they are disillusioned.  “To The American People,” the title of her first poem, contains the lines: “On my board are bitter apples/And honey served on thorns.” Four more very successful books followed, including one entitled Red Flag, and they included writing about executions, incarceration, labor leaders, and lynchings. Ridge worked hard to turn these subjects into artful poetry, negotiating complex social realities. Her “Lullaby,” written after the terrible incidents of the 1917 East St. Louis riots, indicts while it mocks.
Rock-a-by baby, woolly and brown...
(There’s a shout at the door an’ a big red light...)
Lil’ coon baby, mammy is down...
Han’s that hold yuh are steady an’ white... 
Look piccaninny—such a gran’ blaze
Lickin’ up the roof an’ the sticks of home—
Ever see the like in all yo’ days!
—Cain’t yuh sleep, mah bit-of-honey-comb?  
Rock-a-by baby, up to the sky!
Look at the cherries driftin’ by—
Bright red cherries spilled on the groun’—
Piping-hot cherries at nuthin’ a poun’!  
Hush, mah lil’ black-bug—doan yuh weep.
Daddy’s run away an’ mammy’s in a heap
By her own fron’ door in the blazin’ heat
Outah the shacks like warts on the street...  
An’ the singin’ flame an’ the gleeful crowd
Circlin’ aroun’... won’t mammy be proud!
With a stone at her hade an’ a stone on her heart,
An’ her mouth like a red plum, broken apart...  
See where the blue an’ khaki prance,
Adding brave colors to the dance
About the big bonfire white folks make—
Such gran’ doin’s fo’ a lil’ coon’s sake!  
Hear all the eagah feet runnin’ in town—
See all the willin’ han’s reach outah night—
Han’s that are wonderful, steady an’ white!
To toss up a lil’ babe, blinkin’ an’ brown... 
Rock-a-by baby—higher an’ higher!
Mammy is sleepin’ an’ daddy’s run lame...
(Soun’ may yuh sleep in yo’ cradle o’ fire!)
Rock-a-by baby, hushed in the flame... 
(An incident of the East St. Louis Race Riots, when some white women flung a living colored baby into the heart of a blazing fire.)
     How was Ridge erased from literary history? Influential essays by John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate in the 30s rebuked successful women-as-poets, asserting they were anti-intellectual by nature. Around the same time patriotism began to justify the next World War, until any critical political writing was suspect, and poets reverted to writing formal poems about sunsets. Literary freedoms had to go: experimentation, leftist politics, and feminism. This backlash left poems serious about politics or experiment by either sex in the dustbin. It took another fifty years for the confessional, the beat, and the radical to shake off such repudiation.
     A year after Ridge's speech, she received a grant from a radical philanthropist to expand it into a book with chapters on Woman’s Creative Past, The Nature of Aesthetic Emotion, Man’s Conception of Womanhood as the Rib, Puritanism and Art, The Bisexual Nature of Genius, The Inner Room, Sex Antagonism, Motherhood and the Creative Will, and Woman’s Future in Creative Art. Nine years later, Viking, her publisher, told her no one would read such a book, and turned it down.
     I tried to secure proper recognition for her original lithograph as appropriated by Bowers. The artist did not respond to my several requests. In an online interview she said that “famous artists would design some of the [Mother Earth] covers” but she didn't bother to find out which famous artist designed the cover she copied, much less read the essay that the image illustrates – or she wouldn't have said that “patriotism silences dissent.” She missed the point: that militarism arises out of excess nationalism. I was less surprised by the silence of corporate MoMA. A corporate body, like a nation, is seldom moved to correction.


Terese Svoboda is the author of Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet (2015) that was just issued in paperbackProfessor Harriman's Steam Air-Ship (2016), her 7th book of poetry; and a chapbook from Swan's Island Press called The Maine in Spain forthcoming in 2018. 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Jennifer S. Cheng, April Freely, Shamala Gallagher, Aisha Sabatini Sloan, and Addie Tsai: The Lyric Essay’s Ghosts and Shadows: A Conversation

What if—thinking about the lyric essay—we had the desire to start over? What if—in a gathering of woman essayists of color, many of us queer—we hated the lyric essay as much as we loved it, felt homeless in the very form that—by virtue of its openness, its evasiveness, its self-questioning—was the closest we’d found to a home?

I don’t mean to impute hatred to anyone, not even myself. What I do want to share is a rich conversation born in dissatisfaction, that beloved and productive hotbed.

This is the trouble: we write the lyric essay because of our marginal identities: because our presence—in schools, in grocery stores, in literature—is always a little strange and troubling, is always subversive—and always requires, in big and small ways, our interpretation, our essaying, in order to make our lives possible.
     However, the “lyric essay” as term is old enough to have a small canon, a set of founding texts, and this marginalized experience is missing from them. The lyric essay’s founders are committed to dissonance and diversity of idea, of form. But they are largely, uniformly, white: in all the lyric essay’s fragmentation, social identity remains unchallenged.

What if, then, we reconceptualized the lyric essay so that marginalized identity (or marginalized subject position, or even non-normative position) was integral to this conception? What if we saw the lyric essay—with its fractures, its unevenness, its silences—as belonging to those whose experience of personal being—and, therefore, of knowledge—was itself fractured, uneven, silenced?
     In that case, what would the lyric essay be? And which writers and artists—of color, queer—would we understand to be its new founders, or would it have founders at all?

This conversation first took place as we prepared a panel for the 2017 Thinking Its Presence Conference on Race, Creative Writing, and Art, held at the University of Arizona Poetry Center in Tucson, AZ. Thinking Its Presence is an intimate conference in its third year—and it’s my favorite conference, so rife and glittering with ideas and immediacy that it’s almost not a conference. I often find that the formal manifestation of a writing conference—systematic, professional, official—threatens to belie its purpose, which is (because it’s concerned with writing and thought) to narrow the alienating gap between experience and discourse. But at TIP, I feel at home. President of the Conference Board Prageeta Sharma says that TIP addresses the ways “creative work, scholarship, and practices hold conversations, ideas, attitudes, about how our imagination is part of experienced identity.” The conference, then, is about the ways that marginalized identity—traditionally conceived of as adjunct to or extraneous to artistic practice—is actually central to it.
     My co-panelists were Addie Tsai, Aisha Sabatini Sloan, April Freely, and Jennifer S. Cheng. In the fervent, wild discussion, shared with a warm and smart audience, we discovered, strangely, that four out of the five of us (not Addie) are Leos. And we also discovered that we weren’t done talking, so here we are again, talking with you.

Now I’ll let us, the rest of us, speak for ourselves, to ask and answer our own questions. —Shamala Gallagher


SG: Tell us a little bit about your background (as a writer/creator/thinker/person) and how it informs your interest in the lyric or experimental essay. 

Addie Tsai: I am an interdisciplinary artist and writer. I received my Master of Fine Arts in Poetry in 2005 from Warren Wilson College, and I am currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. My dissertation is intent on exploring the ways in which (straight) White men are depicted as bad or non dancers in American popular culture starting in the mid-1980s. I’ve collaborated extensively with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater—I was a co-creator on Victor Frankenstein and a narrative collaborator on Camille Claudel, among others. I also dabble some in photography (and have exhibited my work locally, where I live in Houston, Texas). I have a Young Adult novel, titled Dear Twin, that will be published with NineStar Press in June of this year. In terms of how my background informs my interest in the lyric or experimental essay, I’d say that my background as a writer, artist, and thinker interested in most forms of artistic expression means that I don’t really hold myself to one form or even genre. In other words, I am interested in the ways in which modes and forms fall apart. This, I think, has a lot to do with the way in which I identify—I am a queer, biracial artist, and what that means is that as a body that sees itself as fluid with regards to race, sexuality, gender, and so on, I am most interested in engaging in artistic practices that I think rely upon the intersection of forms, voices, influences, and etc. 

Jennifer S. Cheng: I was drawn to the lyric essay from the moment it was introduced to me as an undergraduate because it seemed to me to be a language for the broken, the haunted, the liminal—a way to speak wholeness by speaking holeness, by acknowledging more explicitly the gaps, the silences, the slipperiness of the world. This sensibility of truth and meaning-making has always been intimate to me, even as a child, and at some point as an adult I realized it’s been at least in part informed by my experience as a marginalized person, sensing all along the dissonance in how prevailing bodies of knowledge are invariably incomplete and ephemeral, that our lives are in some part hidden or erased, that our bodies are inarticulable within our socialized vocabulary. Singularity and linearity of history and reality was never true for me, both as a marginalized person in society and as a child of immigrants. So it had to be a broken/haunted/liminal language with which to articulate myself into being. (Lyric essay, too: I am also, just by nature, a person who is slow to speak, who compulsively collects small things, who feels most comfortable in quiet spaces with lots of room to just pause and be.)

April Freely: My own feeling of kinship with the lyric essay has everything to do with my social location as a working class, queer, black woman. I was introduced to the lyric essay in college, and I continue to be interested in the potential of such essays to make space for new and transformative experience. I also write long-form poems that tend to be as gangly as the essays, though with a different emotional aim. Before I was introduced to lyric essays, I felt trapped by rhetorical styles and linear modes that did not reflect my life. Where was the polyvocal? Essays are a form where even silence can be a key player in an argument of the emotion. I wanted an essay that belonged to me, that could accommodate the non-linear and intersectional life I knew--especially the speed of thought and complexity of experiences prevalent among my communities. 

SG: As soon as I tried to write seriously, to show other people, I ran into a trouble with genre that has never resolved. I’d always written in journals, always wanted to be a writer, but when I got to college I thought I should try to write for real—to show other people that I could do it, and I felt patently—and sometimes proudly—unable to finish anything. It felt as if my being was always too excessive, too wild, too stubborn, and too scared to fit into any given form. Once I took a fiction workshop, and for a month I was unable to produce a piece. I tried to write every morning and afternoon in my boyfriend’s house, in a room that was unhelpfully painted blood-red and had only a bare mattress on the floor. Inside my panic, I tried so hard. Finally I turned in something made of little pieces of story, all interspersed with asterisks. This happened at Stanford in the mid-2000s, when the fiction workshops were resolutely realist and narrative.
     Like both of you, I link this embarrassed but defiant unruliness to my background. I always told people that it was about being mixed-race and queer, and it was, but it was also about an allegiance that was more wordless. After I graduated from college, I got my first job working in direct services with homeless families in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, and since then I’ve gone back and forth between being in academia and working in homeless services. That work, so practical and outward and so different from writing, but so involved with confronting irreconcilabilities—is, perhaps, what makes me most committed to the indefinable essay.

Aisha Sabatini Sloan: So many of these themes resonate for me too-- the holeness/wholeness idea, and also being attracted to forms that argue with linearity and feeling like being a queer, biracial person of color, informs that attraction or curiosity. I came to the lyric essay from, I think, an interest in conceptual art. I did an individualized study program before I studied writing and I took classes in new media, video art, and cultural studies. I was especially attracted to the work of conceptual artists like Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, and Isaac Julian, who use text and image in such concise ways and who use juxtaposition and gaps and humor as major tools. Also collage has always been an artform that feels like it accomplishes something, aesthetically, that I’ve always wanted to do with writing. My father is a photographer, a photojournalist, and I’ve sort of apprenticed with him for years, so I think the lyric essay or whatever we want to call it was a way of translating my ideas into words, which usually appear to me first as images, and often as juxtaposed images.

SG: When you come to your own essay these days, which writers and artists guide you, or give you permission for your work? I'm especially interested in hearing about the writers and artists who give you permission to be transgressive, or bold, or simply to assert your own being as an essayist from a marginalized background.

AT: Oh, there are so many! Off the top of my head and at the present moment, I would say that I’m spurred on by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Kara Walker, Karen Russell, Sufjan Stevens, Alexander Chee, Lynda Barry, Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer, James Baldwin, Tyehimba Jess, Hilton Als, Pina Bausch, Sally Mann, Angie Thomas, Celeste Ng, Basquiat, Adrian Piper, Joanna Newsom, Joni Mitchell, Donald Glover, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Maggie Nelson, Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters and Jesse Reklaw’s LOVF: An Illustrated History of a Man Losing His Mind, Bianca Stone, Mimi Cave, Michel Gondry, Jordan Peele, Rachel Bloom, Pamela Adlon, Gina Rodriguez, and so many others! 

JSC: I am being repetitive, but: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who gave me permission to treat image and text both as meaning-making fragments; Anne Carson; Fanny Howe, who affirmed for me bewilderment; Audre Lorde, who gave legitimacy to the ineffable inside us; Roland Barthes; James Baldwin; the artist Leslie Hewitt, who overlays photographs on documents; the artist Christine Sun Kim, who, over and over, refracts ‘silence’ into ‘sound.’
     Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is important to so many writers I know. A couple years ago I sat in a dark closet at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, watching some of her films, which I wrote about at Jacket2. In many of these, she overlays and interjects, visually and sonically, various lexicons in multiple languages and images of objects like envelopes, windows, stones in water, the ocean, large bright sheets, shadows. One hears or sees words: she could have been leaving, her shadow, cut out, permanent residence, birthplace, re name, buried, forgotten, absent name, between name, without name, a no name, wounds, exil/e/e. How is this not an essay on exile and displacement, the experience of it? Something about language through the body, something about disjuncture, about ghosts/echoes/traces.

AT: Ooh, Anne Carson! Audre Lorde and Barthes are also on my list!

AF: The four writers above helped me recognize what essayistic methods most easily belonged to me: Cha, Carson, Lorde, Barthes, yes. I also think about poets such as Myung Mi Kim, C.S. Giscombe, Thylias Moss, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, CD Wright, Fanny Howe, Mark Nowak, M NourbeSe Phillip, for how they manage complex material often based in nonfiction research of some kind. Texts that dip into critical spaces like Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, Barthes' Lover’s Discourse (again), Deleuze and Guattari’s The Fold, have been important to me in thinking about the many locations from which one can speak, simultaneously, in an essay.. Anthologies like Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep by Harper and Walton helped me trace my own “experimentalism” to specific and long rhetorical traditions in black culture. Cane, forever. Jamaica Kincaid and Lucille Clifton’s prose and hybrid work has been a great help, as I think about the multivalent powers of syntax I might have at my disposal. Also: the oral histories of the quilters of Gee’s Bend. I’m interested in theatre, since I’m always searching for essays that unfold in time like events: key players for me are Thalia Field, Beckett, Zora Neale Hurston. Under the Dome by Jean Daive is a stunner of a journey. Lydia Davis’ work, when viewed from an essayistic/theatrical lens, and even Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, Are You My Mother?, have offered different kinds of permissive spaces.

SG: I feel deeply what you both have said, and where I don’t yet feel it, I’m taking notes. Three who are crucial to me: Jean Toomer in Cane, James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Zora Neale Hurston, all of whom I read for the first time soon after moving to northeast Georgia, where I live right now. All three of them write—differently—about encountering the immense racial and class violences that define this Southern land, and all three of them come to their task with immense awareness of themselves as outsiders, or partial outsiders. Agee knows that he will never understand what it’s like to be a poor sharecropper, and the awareness of his own privilege turns him so awkward and lyrical, so self-aware--I find it hilarious and embarrassing and also feel moved by it and deeply akin to it; I respect his seriousness. Toomer, too, returns/travels for the first time to his ancestral South because he finds his own white-passing body unbearably lonely--or this is how I tell it in my head, maybe imposing my own white-passing body. Toomer, like Agee, turns to lyric prose because of what he finds unbearable. And Hurston! She comes back to her own Eatonville as an outsider, carrying “the spy-glass of anthropology” and a white patron’s money--and out of the weirdness of this situation makes her own living trickster text, pieced together and yet so loudly joyful, so readable and so irreducible.

AS: This is hilarious, our lists are so similar. I’ll just repeat, too: Jean Toomer, James Agee, Anne Carson, Roland Barthes, Fanny Howe, Hilton Als, Maggie Nelson, Tisa Bryant, Renee Gladman, Gabrielle Civil, Wendy S. Walters, Samiya Bashir, Beth Alvarado, Pina Bausch, Michelle Cliff, Fred Moten, Eunsong Kim. But also, I have this very poppy side—I loved listening to David Sedaris in college and sort of forgot how much he influenced me before I knew I was interested in essays. Comedians in general have taught me so much about the necessity of making a shift, making surprising moves before a subject gets stale—Maria Bamford, Tig Notaro, Richard Pryor. Mysteries, too! I love the mystery novels of Donna Leon.

AT: Fred Moten, YES! Also, since we’re speaking of comedians, I’d add The Lonely Island, Bo Burnham, Issa Rae, and Aziz Ansari’s work with Master of None.

AT: I know that many of us are inspired by visual artists (as well as writers). For those of us who do not work in visual arts as a medium, what would you say it is about the visual art practice that informs your writing in the lyric/experimental essay? For those of us who do, how does your work in those two disciplines intersect and inform your work in both? 

JSC: I was lucky that my introduction to lyric essay included image-text work; sometimes in my writing I find that words are insufficient and that image has the ability to evoke the textures, tones, atmospheres I am attempting to express. It feels natural to me to think of the visual and the textual as modes that can influence one another together in the same space toward meaning—there’s a fertile built-in tension there. Sometimes, in the same way that reading can bring me into writing, so too can visual artifacts, not even as prompts but as guiding textures or a kind of haunting while one writes. It all originates in something bodily, toward emerging a kind of private language. Also, I love the idea of seeing almost anything as an essay, though perhaps this is only because of my personal way of navigating the world. As if I am constantly filtering things through this stance: a process-oriented accumulating and arranging of pieces and fragments in search of bigger meaning, bigger something: rock collection as essay, textile weaving as essay, iterative photographs as essay.

SG: I think I’ve only written one piece that includes my doodles in addition to my writing. Black Warrior Review let me include them, and it felt so deliciously irreverent—and more embarrassing than usual, and for me, being embarrassed is a good sign that something might reach someone. Addie, you mentioned Lynda Barry earlier, and I think about her a lot: her work really emphasizes invention, playfulness, coming up with things. I think she thinks about making before she thinks about what something is supposed to be like. I think the moment a little image appears next to text, a boundary is broken, and everything grows confusing. There isn’t any longer a prescribed way things should look—or if there is, I don’t know what it is. Images in text, then, make the text more childlike and also, maybe, more queer: the reader, who is no longer just a reader, needs to let go of understanding and just see what happens.

AF: The John Hay Library at Brown University had a great collection of artists’ books. We could see early iterations of Leaves of Grass, for instance—and Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror actually included a mirror and fantastic etchings and prints by artists like Kitaj and Katz. In the collection, there were also works by artists like Johanna Drucker and Jean-Pierre Hébert. These pieces were important in my thinking about what a book can be, how it might unfold, what a book, as an object, might accommodate. Some of my essays and poems incorporate visual cues and cuts, as I explore the tension between the image, silence, and the grotesque—I’m happy to say, I learned from some of the same teachers as JSC toward this end.
     I’ve done a little art writing, and I see a lot of correlation with our conversations here about what is “traditional,” what is “experimental” (whatever that might be) and who gets to “own” the language around these modes and methods. Much like there is an newly assumed ownership of the lyric (if the current canon and cannonizers have the last say), there are traditions of looking at art that further marginalizes and often misinterprets the work of contemporary artists from subaltern communities. Complex formal qualities and innovations are most easily seen as relating to traditions like conceptual art, or abstraction in post-WWII paintings, where the artists we are taught to think of first are almost exclusively not artists from the margins—at least in my experience.
     The artists that have meant the most to me as I think about how to build the kind of arguments of the emotion that I need are: Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Nicole Eisenman, Angela Dufresne. Though he is a complicated figure, Romare Bearden’s work has been important to me, as I consider the collage as a form. Among younger artists, Eric N. Mack, Abigail DeVille, and Jennifer Packer help me think about personhood, materiality, ownership of space, complex and forgotten histories, and the particular consequence and power of folks from the margins.
     I love to read what artists are thinking about their own practices, especially when their work touches on modes of perception—which is where I feel the most kinship with visual arts—for example, Amy Sillman is super smart and we should all read her writings.

AT: From the time I was a small child, I’ve always longed to be a painter/sculptor as well as a dancer. As I became more involved in my writing practice, my love for dance turned into something different, and I began to really own my position as an informed spectator—this was even clearer to me after collaborating with someone who’s become a close friend, Dominic Walsh, when we first began working together on a dance theater production addressing Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and all of the real life “behind-the-scenes” dynamics that were going on at the time in Shelley’s life that seemed to inform her timeless text. As a child I watched my father rehearse for and produce epic and contemporary dramas in Mandarin. My father had made a choice early on not to teach me and my siblings Mandarin (a choice he made believing it would confuse us but now regrets). Due to the fact that I was surrounded by so much Mandarin that I could not understand, I began to hone my skills as a watcher in order to try to make sense of the world unfolding before me. While my father rehearsed and performed, I also began to watch each production come together in order to make a cohesive whole—lighting, sound, costume, staging, props, etc. My extensive role as a watcher (rather than as a participant, even though there was one dance production my father had my twin and I perform in because the director wanted to take advantage of our likeness as a theatrical element on stage) is probably one of the reasons I never was able to grow into a practice in the plastic arts. And even in the visual arts discipline I work in most concertedly, photography, I never truly feel inside that medium, either. I make a LOT of mistakes. But I really love working in a form that can go wrong on a technical level, and I never know what it is the machine of the camera will produce out of my decisions. It’s a game I find incredibly useful for my struggles with perfectionism and failure as I can never really know what will happen inside the camera—this is the case for my work in digital, but especially true for my work with film. I purposefully do not seek out too much technical knowledge with photography so I stay continually surprised by the end result. It is this sense of freedom and openness and lack of control I try to take with me into my more experimental forms of writing. In general, however, I am always looking for ways images and text intersect both in texts I consume as well as those that I make myself with my own photographic images, and how differently they can express similar ideas. The artworks I am most interested in does a lot of work in terms of how they intersect with the text framing it—in particular I am thinking of Louise Bourgeois’s and Kara Walker’s ideas, and how what they say about their work can inform how we as spectators receive and interpret that work. But, I think what visual art does for me the most is simply open me up, in terms of how one can make work, what informs one’s work, and the ways in which we can innovate structure and form in limitless ways. I would love to collaborate more deeply with a visual artist—I just haven’t found the exact situation and opportunity and relationship for that to happen as of yet.

AS: I think studying visual art gave me so much reverence for craft that I psyched myself out and I am sort of waiting for permission to include visual work in my writing.

JSC: I want to put these questions side by side: How do you contend with the whiteness / whitewashing of the genre? How does being a writer from a marginalized background inform your essaying (in terms of aesthetics / craft / process / content / location / approach / etc.)? 

SG: This is such an important question, and this is what I wonder: if the lyric essay is coded as “white” because it is “difficult.” I think something similar might happen with “experimental poetry.” Maybe both of these genres were defined inside academia, which is a predominantly white space. But not only a white space: many of us emerged inside it. And, as Fred Moten and Stephano Harvey point out, academia isn’t a monolith: it has its undercommons too. And they were defined there; they didn’t emerge there. 
     I’ve had a couple conversations with people of color who said: we thought at first you were white, but now we can tell from the way you talk, or the way you dance, that you aren’t. My mother is from India, and Indian cultures are collective. Though I’m a bad Indian daughter in so many ways, I think I can activate in the way that people of color often do when they come together: that we believe in our shared warmth. Perhaps I’m not even sure what I’m saying, but maybe when lyric essayists of color come together the form can activate in the same way.

AT: This is a complicated question! Perhaps because I didn’t study the craft of lyric essay in a more formalized setting—I got my MFA in Poetry and all other forms of writing I’ve pretty much studied on my own (I did have one class on Personal Essay as an undergrad)—I don’t really experience it through that lens. Regardless, I feel a writer of color especially must contend with the whiteness / whitewashing of any genre, really. I suppose I contend with it first and foremost by making very concerted efforts to read the works of writers of color. Secondarily, and I suppose this attempts to get at both questions, I contend with both the whitewashing of the genre and with my marginalized identity by placing that within the form and content itself. In other words, I am not only always already informing the body of the lyric essay via a hybrid form, a form I feel that I embody myself as a biracial queer twin, but I am also seeking to interrogate issues of fragmentation and multiplicity in order to particularly contend with all these warring selves that live in my own body. I can’t see myself ever working again in a more cohesive (and less hybridized) form because I myself do not relate to that kind of experience, that kind of embodiment. So I aim to make the body of what I make reflect the body I experience and with which I move through this incredibly difficult world. I also try to use the form of what I make as fragmented, as hybridized, as incomplete to literally intervene upon the ways in which the illusion of whiteness implies a formal cohesion.

AS: When I was in college I became very fascinated by the ways that Nella Larsen, Jean Toomer, Michelle Cliff and Zoe Wicomb played with form as an expression of a marginalized and ephemeral, socially invisible identities, and this led me to read a lot of post-colonial theory. In fact, I had this beautiful anthology, the Post Colonial Studies Reader, which introduced me to writing about language and form and identity by folks like Kamau Brathwaite. And in graduate school I focused a lot on Adrian Piper’s conceptual and performance art work, and found this really powerful piece called “In Praise of Creoleness” by Patrick Chamoiseau, Jean Barnabe and Raphael Confiant, which talks about how if the official historical record has been written without the screams, basically, of your ancestors, you have to use art to fill in those gaps, articulate those voices, which is an inherently genre-fluid project. So when I encountered the lyric essay during my MFA program and noticed how many of the folks taking credit for this supposedly recent formal innovation were all white, it was just blatantly ridiculous to me. Tisa Bryant has a beautiful essay in this new anthology out from Kore Press, Letters to the Future: Black Women/ RADICAL Writing, about her discomfort with the term “experimental” in trying to describe the radical writing of black women who have influenced her, which has always been formally complicated by necessity.

AF: I’d love to second this mention of Tisa Bryant’s work! There have always been writers from the margins who have been publishing analyses that helped me understand my own writerly inclinations, and how they fit neatly within my own cultural traditions—thank goodness for that labor! I have had to search out such writers, who critical works have served as a kind of armor for me, in academic spaces—Gloria Anzaldua & Gertrude Stein, suddenly come to mind. I have to admit, I get angry when I think of how many writers of color have been overlooked, how many queer writers have been overlooked—-when we have always been here. Of course there is a wealth of foundational “lyric” work written by folks from the margins out of a kind of necessity. There is too much information out there already—decades worth of research—for this to be confusing or new to anyone who purports to be a scholar of the essay form.

JSC: That consideration of necessity has always interested me, both as a writer and reader. The fragmentary form of the lyric essay feels like the only possibility for voicing for me; I always think it’s sort of funny that before encountering the lyric essay form, I was trying to write linear narratives (because that was my only model), and they were terrible. I am a terrible storyteller. My brain/body does not know how to work that way. Maybe because of this, I’ve never been able to fully grasp where the boundary lies between “traditional” and “experimental.” And perhaps because it feels so intuitive and personal and truer-to-life to me, I have a hard time understanding readers who find fragmented essays “difficult”—it hurts a little. I’m reminded of a quote from M. NourbeSe Philip: “The purpose of avant-garde writing for writers of color is to prove you are human.”
     At the same time, I have wrestled with what it means to be a writer of color who, even from within a “non-normative” genre, still read a lot of white writers and looked up to white models because that was what was given to me. So many of my heroes are white women: Anne Carson, Marilynne Robinson, Fanny Howe, Susan Howe. In certain spheres like academia, I have had difficulty giving myself permission to define legitimacy for myself—I tended to look to someone else, someone with “more authority,” to grant it to me. Adulthood for me has been a revelatory freedom in searching out and loving beyond, on my own terms. I still love those white women writers, but I also recognize that I am and have been writing toward filling what I see as missing from their work.


Jennifer S. Cheng’s work includes poetry, lyric essay, and image-text forms. Her debut book, HOUSE A, was selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the 2015 Omnidawn Poetry Book Prize, and her forthcoming hybrid collection, MOON: Letters, Maps, Poems, was selected by Bhanu Kapil as winner of the 2017 Tarpaulin Sky Book Award. She is also the author of Invocation: an Essay, an image-text chapbook published by New Michigan Press, and her writing appears in Tin House, Conjunctions, AGNI, The Literary Hub, Black Warrior Review, DIAGRAM, The Normal School, Guernica, Hong Kong 20/20 (an anthology edited by PEN Hong Kong), and elsewhere. She was a Fulbright Scholar and received fellowships and awards from Brown University, the University of Iowa, San Francisco State University, Bread Loaf, Kundiman, and the Academy of American Poets. Having grown up in Texas, Connecticut, and Hong Kong, she lives in San Francisco.

April Freely is a poet and essayist living in Provincetown, MA. She received her BA from Brown University and MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Iowa. Her writing has appeared in Forklift, OH, Ninth Letter, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships and awards from the Ohio Arts Council, the Rona Jaffe Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, the Fine Arts Work Center, and the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

Shamala Gallagher is a poet and essayist based in Athens, GA. Her recent work appears in Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Copper Nickel, The Offing, Black Warrior Review, The Rumpus, Bettering American Poetry Vol. 2, and elsewhere. She is the author of a poetry chapbook, I Learned the Language of Barbs and Sparks No One Spoke, and she has received fellowships from Kundiman, Vermont Studio Center, and Virginia Center from the Creative Arts. She holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia.

Aisha Sabatini Sloan is the author of the essay collections The Fluency of Light and Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit.

Addie Tsai teaches courses in literature, creative writing, and humanities at Houston Community College. She collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater on Victor Frankenstein and Camille Claudel, among others. Addie received her MFA from Warren Wilson College, and she is currently a doctoral candidate in Dance at Texas Woman’s University. Her queer Asian young adult novel, Dear Twin, will be published by NineStar Press in 2018. Her writing has been published in Banango Street, The Offing, The Collagist, The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere. She is the Nonfiction Editor at The Grief Diaries, and Senior Associate Editor in Poetry at The Flexible Persona.

Monday, March 5, 2018

"Examining = extracting": A Conversation with James Allen Hall & Shaelyn Smith

A conversation with James Allen Hall, author of I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2016 Essay Collection Competition (chosen by Chris Kraus) and Shaelyn Smith, author of The Leftovers, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2017 Essay Collection Competition (chosen by Renee Gladman) and forthcoming 4/1/2018. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

James Allen Hall: …here we are!

Shaelyn Smith: Here we are!

JAH: How are you doing?

SS: Good! Nervous. I literally just reread I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well this morning.

JAH: Awwww!  I was re-reading The Leftovers too. Time VERY well spent.

I really love the book. You make such shapely sentences and have such fascinating insights and interpretations.

SS: Thank you! I must say that 1) the e-mail you sent two weekends ago made me go into the final editing process with much more confidence than I had about the collection. It was so nice to have a little confirmation before making final decisions about this thing living in the world and 2) rereading your book after making those final edits so close together (I send the final version this week) made me see all these parallels in the way we approach the essay form—your sentences and the way you sort of let humor hang over devastation as punctuation—the anecdote or punchline serving as commentary rather than a long explanation.

And the ways in which we both work with fragment and let those fragments jut up against each other to illuminate/interpret or reverberate.

JAH: I am floored by how many times you view [Judy Chicago’s] The Dinner Party, both in real life and in the manuscript. Can I ask you a little about art?

SS: Yes! Please!—and yeah I lived in Brooklyn for two years before moving to Alabama for grad school and made at least two or three trips back to NYC for the four years I was working on the book.

JAH: Did you ever make art aside from food and words?

SS: Ha—good question. Nope. Not musically inclined for shit, and I can’t draw worth a damn, either. I tried adult ballet once, but I’m not very coordinated and have terrible hand-eye-brain coordination, which I think is necessary for other forms of art—visual, performance, etc. Also why I didn’t last very long in a professional kitchen. I don’t do well with an audience, except teaching I guess. But in undergrad my friend circle was composed of visual artists and architects so that’s where I think a lot of the appreciation and deep fascination with art comes from”

JAH: That’s fascinating.  Especially since there’s a preponderance of specifically performance art in The Leftovers.  I’m thinking of the Marina Abramovic piece you reference — is it The Artist is Present? — and how you look so intently at Judy Chicago until she and The Dinner Party are a kind of character in the piece, a touchstone.

Do you think of the essay at all as “being built”?  Or does it come into view?  Or as a performance of some kind?

SS: Interesting, I have a similar question for you written down here. I think that this book started because I just couldn’t stop trying to articulate what art meant—performance art, visual art, film—all these things that exist for consumption, for an audience, but are so fleeting—going to the museum or theatre or gallery and just trying to figure out how to frame what I felt in those moments. Because it seems to me like an impossible task. Like I can’t quite play witness to it in such a way that I do the author or performer or director or artist any justice. I still can’t articulate the obsession. I wanted to be an art critic first, but then I found that I like writing around points more than making them. Just trying to replay the experience, and make it into something static. Or make meaning through reframing these works, through the juxtaposition of them rubbing up next to each other in my memory.

So I think any given essay in the book comes from me seeing inarticulable connections between experiences I’ve had as a witness, as audience, and wanting to physically place them together, so in this case on the page. So I guess the essays are built—it’s more like curation than writing.

JAH: I love the idea of the essay as a kind of museum, and the subject being both static — suspended, looked at — and then having energy and motion in the mind, the memory.  
You make art criticism personal, and I especially had a visceral, emotionally large reaction to “Origins,” where you juxtapose goddesses with the stories of murdered transgender and queer people.

The coda in that essay is a particular exercise in curation, I think.  Can you talk about how you build that?  I was riveted and I wanted to be rescued at the same time, reading it.

SS: So that’s the essay that gave me the most trouble, along with the one just before it [“I See Myself in You”], which spans the fourth floor of the Brooklyn Museum. Most of the time, writing comes pretty quickly when I actually sit down to do it—like what I think is the most personal essay in the book, “Economy of the Hopeless”—I wrote that in one sitting on my porch fairly in the order that it will be published in and it hasn’t change much other than coaxing certain sentences into something more poetic. But, “Origins” was so challenging. And I think mostly because of the ethical and moral complications I felt doing that research. Like, am I the person to tell those stories and am I doing it in such a way that isn’t compromising or sensational or exploitative? But it’s something that I felt strongly needed to exist as I was standing in front of The Dinner Party for like the 15th time and thinking about all of these news stories I had read about these women whose stories are just as important. About how the dinner party is activist art in its own limited feminism, but how that can be so dangerous in the way that even as it makes space, brings things to light, and serves as recognition, it creates more holes. 

I’m not sure I have entirely thought this all through, either, and maybe I never will because it’s not my lived experience. But in a way, all this writing about art, even, is only a lived experience in how I try to frame, or curate, or give voice to it on the page

Rereading your book this morning I had a similar deep and visceral and more potent reaction to “My Aids” I think, for similar reasons. And moreso than the first few times I read it.

JAH: I thought it was tremendous, the kind of hole you point at, and then look through. I think it gives space back to those who have been X’d out in quite violent ways.

I’m really glad to hear that’s how you read it. It’s hard to be delicate when writing about something so deeply upsetting and unsettling.

I remember reading that essay aloud once, and a random guy asked the woman sitting next to him, who happened to be my friend, “Why is this guy so proud he has AIDS?”  

Why do you think we’re both drawn to unsettling art and subject?

SS: Yes, exactly—I don’t know if I have an answer to that.

JAH: I don’t know if I do either. Except that it’s not about spectacle.

But maybe something you said earlier — trying to capture the reverberations of the emotional experience. It is important to be seen; to have the unvoiced parts of ourselves notice that they have a place in the world—a sibling, a family to which they belong. 

SS: No, it’s not [about spectacle]. Another moment that really struck me in that essay was is when you footnote a quote about “reading as an act of mourning” —maybe writing is that too.

JAH: Absolutely it is.  The experience is never coming back; it has exhausted its form in the moment. So all writing is elegiac, I think.  

At my father’s funeral—which was just a bunch of folks sitting around the living room, since he was cremated—we were encouraged to share a memory, and I said one I knew would make my father laugh, if he had been there.  It felt even though the situation was sad and awkward and weird, that comedy was the right way to eulogize him.

Something about getting the feeling of the moment right.

Do you think you maybe wrote “Economy of the Hopeless” so quickly, in its formal gestures even at the draft, because it had inhabited your memory for so long? You turn 11 in that essay, yes?  And it’s the same year that 2 hunters are murdered in your hometown (and another man is also killed to cover up the murder)?  

SS: Well, the murder happened before I was born, but it was “solved” when I was in high school. But I grew up with the story of the hunters, and my dad had lived the area and was frequenting the bars at that time, so knew the guys who did it, and had been playing softball and darts with them—I sort of lived on the margins of that small-town darkness, so I think that it was sort of elegiac to write through it even though I never truly lived it. It’s a curation of all the darkness of my childhood that never truly came to fruition—a sort of reckoning with and mourning of something that never quite happened to me directly. That’s the thing about art, too, is seeing something that really moves you, it echoes in your periphery for so long that it becomes a part of your story.

Can you talk through the lifecycle of an essay for you? As you touched on a bit, you are so good at capturing the hilarity in the devastation. I find myself laughing out loud at so many moments in your essays, even though they are horrifically sad, there are some things that are just so funny. It sounds like you live that way too.

JAH: Yeah, I guess I kind of do live alongside the funny and the tragic.  Comedy doesn’t exist without its twin.

There are beginning impulses for me. Like, sometimes it’s a question that I have already.  For instance, in the essay about my grandmother and sexuality [“Adventures in Old Lady Land”], I was asking myself, “In what ways can the aged body help me understand the queer body, and vice versa?” Or, if I am being honest, the initial question was more like, “Why is my grandma so freaking fabulous to me?” Something about her clothes (and me in them), something about her tendency to be naked... I mean, it was weird but it was devoid of shame, and I wanted desperately to be devoid of shame.

Other times, there’s a story I know I want to tell, like with “MY AIDS,”  I knew I wanted to talk about growing up in that shadow, and I wrote it exactly as it appears.  The impulse is narrative.
Other times, I stumble around looking for the shape.  The essay about my parents keeping 130 cats, for instance.  I knew I wanted to write it, but it wasn’t until I realized that it was really the story about the end of my parents’ marriage did it take on a shape that felt urgent and integral.

Do you have these kinds of impulses too?  

SS: The way you write about your grandmother is so perfectly beautiful—it’s obvious how much you respect and love and care for her in that essay. It really is so brilliant. For “Economy…” —I knew that was something I had to write, and I started it in persona poems from Barbara’s point of view, but then realized that the story didn’t work without me. One of the reasons I started writing essays, actually, but then I didn’t even attempt to write that essay for another three years. I think things linger—I don’t know if it’s impulse as much as it is obsession. Like the things that are constantly recurring in my sort-of subconscious thought, and then eventually enough pieces start circling around a core that I’m able to curate it—but again, it’s just putting all these different things in a space together, and never quite articulating the core—letting that sort of be the unspoken or implied cohesion of the essay. Which is why I think I’ve had such a hard time considering myself a writer, or getting things published, or even when I was in my MFA finding good readers for my work. Because sometimes I think I’m not actually saying anything as much as I am just letting things resonate and speak to one another.

Like maybe the way in the essay you mention Adventures in Old Lady Land—that’s just an anecdotal evidence that points to this deep love you have for your grandmother—you don’t have to talk through it point by point on the page—it’s literally just the sum of its parts.

JAH: YES. One of the reasons I love your book, Shaelyn, is that you accumulate and resonate.  There are returns — to The Dinner Party, for instance — but there’s always a new insight or new enlargement happening with the return.  There is such internal cohesion through the book’s obsessions with art and with violence.  And with a specifically feminist and female view, I should say.  The book risks gap and rupture and leads readers to an argument without over-making or over-enclosing the meanings that can echo.  That seems to me a really feminist way of making an essay.  Multiple points of resonance, resisting closures that are artificial, etc.
Can we talk about feminism?  

SS: LOL. But yes, feminism. I remember handing in drafts of these essays in workshops and people asking me things like, are you a feminist? or what kind of feminist are you? but also the worst question: how do you really feel about The Dinner Party? And honestly, I don’t really have a solid answer to any of those questions because I don’t think it matters. I think it’s better to let things just kind of constantly shift—because it’s surprising and important to allow myself to be open to new definitions and possibilities and ways of thinking rather than trying to pick just one.

JAH: In preparing for this interview, that was the one question (“How do you feel about The Dinner Party?”) I swore off.  I figured you must get that.  

I am with you — who cares about the label, when it’s the aims that are important.  No one ever asks me if I’m a feminist.  Isn’t that sad?  Sometimes people ask me if it’s ok to call me a queer writer, and I’m like, PLEASE YES.  But then, I always wanted to be seen by other queer people, and hate to be erased…

There is a lot of violence in the book — how does art countermeasure that kind of erasure?

And, at the same time, your persona is one that perhaps witnesses, stays somewhat peripheral — maybe that’s not quite right, because every sentence is so wrought that it is always a bit of self-portraiture.  I finished reading The Leftovers knowing more about your voice than your biography—more about the way you dream than what you lived, if that makes sense?

SS: Yes, I think that’s exactly the kind of writing voice/persona I’ve tried to cultivate. And it’s like that, who is it, Malcom Gladwell, maybe, who says that you’re an expert when you’ve spent 10,000 hours trying to perfect something? The problem is, though, that now I can’t write any differently, which is maybe a detriment to the book? I think absolutely my tendency toward art is exactly because it allows me to just be witness, and writing about it, even though these are things I’ve seen, allows me to stay in the periphery. It’s comfortable there—evidenced, I guess, by my fear of definition or label. I don’t think that answers your question about violence.

But I think there’s something important about being a witness, about trying to be an honest witness, that is in itself a kind of lived truth—maybe not a T-truth, but a sort of honesty I feel comfortable, or have trained myself to be comfortable with. I’m not sure if this is making any sense. But that’s how I’ve learned to become a writer. 

I don’t know why this is the thing I’m thinking about and maybe everyone goes through this but I do remember in high school just being so consciously terrified that I didn’t have a personality
And so I compensated by subscribing to Vogue and listening to Ani DiFranco and making my own clothes. It all feels like cultivation. Like, I want to work for April Bloomfield, I decided, so I moved to NYC and made it happen.

But maybe that’s just normal and that’s how people become who they are. Or I am just overly concerned with aesthetic in an atypical fashion.

JAH: I don’t think that your persona-as-witness is a detriment to the book. In a way, it feels generous and assertive without being a center-of-attention drama queen.  There’s no swanning in from stage left.  There’s a laser-precision, in the way you make such gorgeous sentences, to the astonishing interpretations at which you arrive.  There is, I mean, such an intense perception that meets the reader in your essays.  What is that except a self, a personality? Are you a Libra?

SS: Nope, guess again.

JAH: Ani DiFranco is a Libra, which was what made me guess that sign.  I would rule out Aries.

SS: Taurus!

JAH: See — I was on the earth sign track!  I am a Libra. Always in danger of overproduction.  I have to trim A LOT when I write.  And I am always on the wrong side of the Too Much Information line with people.  

Do you identify with the classic description of Taurus?

SS: I do, pretty resolutely—but I cross the TMI line because I share deeply personal things in a way that doesn’t feel connected to me. Which I guess is like how I write. I’ve been thinking a lot about how my writing will define me, or like if and when people read this book what they’ll think about me as a person…but I don’t qualify or classify people based on their writing—mostly I just really like them for having written things that speak to me or teach me something

JAH: Best part about books, right?  They give us another interiority to inhabit and take parts of it back to our inferiorities and redecorate!

I’ll admit something—I felt very connected to your book in a primal way.  Partly it’s the incredible dedication to precise and searing imagery.  Each essay is achingly, beautifully written.  But there’s the precision and daring of your insight.  You don’t interpret anything in an obvious way.  I really like The Dinner Party, for instance, but if a reader doesn’t like it, or doesn’t know it, s/he will know it in ways that could never be guessed.  I feel the same way about the last essay, in which you discuss architecture and end up writing: “If there is a void in the layout, we will learn how to fill it, by whatever means necessary.  Because we don’t like the barrenness, the confrontation of devastation.  This is not comfortable. …We have made habit of shirking from desolation.  A revisionist history, an impossible equation.  We are supposed to forget everything.  That is what makes us human.” I am so drawn into that first person plural, since you give us a language to confront desolation and the uncomfortable subject of our humanness.  

I mean, I didn’t know I was going to love learning about things I had probably marginally/never cared about ever in my life up until reading your book—like “pet architecture.”

SS: Wow, thank you! That’s the first essay I ever wrote, and it’s gone through a thousand revisions. The editing process was really hard for me because so many of the things I felt the most bound to were questioned/rephrased/cut, and it was hard to say no/I feel too close to it to see it clearly so trusted and was grateful for editorial guidance. But also it just made me feel strange and terrible because it is and was so deeply personal. I think the first person plural I am so drawn to because it doesn’t place it totally on me—what you just called not interpreting anything in an obvious way.
So, for example, you articulate in MY AIDS that you are returning to that essay years, more than a decade, even, after you initially wrote it. One of the hardest parts of the editing/publication process for me has been trying to enter some of these essays after so many years—because I’ve lost the logic of my younger self, and it’s strange to know that it will live in the world anew, that people will consider it fresh, in like 2018, when that was 2010 or 2012 thinking on my part. I guess I’m scared of that too. Like, what if it’s wrong?

JAH: I had the same kind of freakout—how do you stay true to the writer who made that essay and still strengthen it, years or even a decade later?  How do you do that when you’ve changed as a person and as a writer?  

If it’s wrong, it was true to the way you perceived.

And people will have things to say about it — but it won’t ever be what you think it might be.

Of all the things I write about my mother, for instance, it’s a depiction of me combing her hair when it was greasy that she hated.  Like, mom, you do know I write about you putting a gun in your mouth and threatening suicide too, right?  But, that was the thing that pissed her off the most.  (Well, actually, she asked me if it was ok if she didn’t read the whole book, and I thought that was a terrific thing).

I worry about my rapist reading the book, honestly. More than is probably healthy.

SS: Oh man, this is a question (I have many) that I’ve wanted to ask you since I initially read your book, which was back in May, but writing about other people—did you have your mother or your brothers, read the essays before you published them?   

I think it was a Fresh Air interview with Mary Karr right after The Art of Memoir was published in which she said that it’s sort of a moral or civic duty of someone writing nonfiction or personal nonfiction to let people read what you’ve written about them before it’s published. But, I didn’t let anyone read anything. And I’m worried about how my folks will respond to “Economy…”—or like that yes, the men incarcerated for that murder will read it or their family, and have it out for my father. I wasn’t scared about that, necessarily until a friend asked me if I was scared about that. I’m more worried about how my dad will feel if he reads it and I write in poetical detail about a confrontation he has while peeing at a urinal at the county fairgrounds.

But you also mention the Anne Lamott approach in your book, which is if people wanted me to write differently about them they should have acted better.

JAH: I love that confrontation — your dad handled that like a hero!  

SS: Well that’s his “truth” of the story that I’ve interpreted for the benefit of the essay, I guess.

JAH: My younger brother, Dustin, reads most of what I write.  His memory is better than mine, for the most part, so I trust him to help corroborate.

SS: And I noticed that both of your book titles come from him, right? He is the one who says “Now You’re the Enemy” [which became the title for your first book of poetry] and [he’s] also the one who receives the door hanger embroidered with “ I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well”

JAH: But the essay about being raped — no one read that before I published it.  I couldn’t imagine sending it to my rapist, and I can’t bear to think of him reading it.  It’s not for him.  And in some way, that essay is only about the interior self, how it changes.  

My brother gives me all my titles!  It’s his superpower, along with organizing.  (Scorpio).

SS: You mentioned shame—I always want to write about it but I can’t. I feel it so daily and deeply in my personal life, but I can never articulate why on the page or how. I despise writing because I’m terrified of it—for a number of reasons that are the reasons I deeply respect and love reading authors like you and books like I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well…because it’s so honest and specific and particular. I avoid getting into the writing space because reentering essays and writing new ones and the research—it all makes me so depressed and get into such a dark place. But then there’s the release and satisfaction of that feeling that comes when you just know that you have something good—a sentence, a paragraph, a metaphor, a draft. In the last essay of your book, the I I character comes in. Who are you in your essays, or how do you see yourself as the I on the page and the I putting the I on the page? Does it give you pause or do you have to relive the experience to write things that are so deeply personal? I think there’s always the temptation to make yourself better or worse in any moment, but you are such an honest narrator. The memory and details and quotes are impeccably precise. It makes me wonder if you have a strict documenting and recording of daily life, or if these moments just burn themselves into your memory…I think the “we” absolves me of my own “truth” of memory—or like if it’s wrong it’s okay.

It’s maybe a truth-Truth kind of question.

JAH: There’s a moment in a film I love where, after a performance, the singer blots her heavily-made up face with a wet cloth and throws it out to the adoring fan.  The rag contains a rough impression of her makeup, her eyeshadow and lipstick, the rouge that contours her cheeks—all the ways she shapes herself into glamor.  As accurate to the hours of how she makes her self as we can get.

These memories—like my rape—are deeply personal but if I don’t throw it out, don’t share how it shaped me, then it would live inside me.  And it’s dangerous to let serrated things stay alive in you.  Examining = extracting.  In writing, I give it a new face, one whose blemishes can gleam, can be thrown out, like beauty, like trash.  It’s the only way I have to save myself. 

Sometimes I look at my body doing the things it does: the fingers typing now, the foot kicking out a rhythm, the chest rising with breath, and I think, there goes the body, living its little life.  I feel coextensive with my body, but I don’t always feel my body, until I am ill or in pain.  And in the past I have wanted my body punished for failing to be a good one, a lovable one, one that inspires kind or warm reactions, rather than sometimes the abjection with which it has been met. 

So, separating the I’s seems natural to me.  And only so much I goes into that letter; the name cannot contain all that it houses. Some music in another room goes unheard, or some porch-part of me gets cut away since it doesn’t fit. 

Telling the story doesn’t make you the hero of the piece.  It just makes you another character, and perhaps the most fallible, the most suspicious.  I feel it’s important to point to that fallibility, which is due to the performance we always are making with our prop-limbs. 

How did you come up with The Leftovers as a title?  How do you enjoy the editing process?  You’ve edited for Black Warrior, right?

SS: It was before the TV show—it was literally just because I felt like I was trying to write about the leftovers of The Dinner Party.

JAH: I love the title [The Leftovers: A Memoir in Art], and the approach.  It feels really fresh.  I love thinking about how “art” is “memoir” and vice versa.

SS: The title has changed now—it’s just The Leftovers. But yes, I do think of the book as a memoir, of sorts, through my experiences with art. I did work for BWR as nonfiction editor for a year, yes—and I’m very proud of those issues I worked on. I loved the editing process, but I hated being on the other end of it. Kind of like every writing workshop I was in in undergrad and grad school. 

JAH: Why did you hate those workshops? I loved workshops, except for two, led by abusive writers.

SS: I don’t think I did hate it, except I was terrified of being up for workshop—I loved thinking about the shape of other people’s work, but when I got comments I was wasn’t pushed toward the kind of writing I wanted to do. There was this Shakespeare scholar [at The University of Michigan], Barbara Hodgdon, who I was lucky enough to work with [during undergrad]—I took a “Shakespeare and Film” class with her and she let me hand in creative interpretations of the films and the plays—my essay about Julie Taymor’s Titus and that absurd film The King is Alive, for example, turned into the essay you mentioned—the last in the book—and she introduced me to Peggy Phelan, who wrote this incredible book called Unmarked, which changed my whole world in terms of what “criticism” could look like. Also I took a class with Thylias Moss, who is just phenomenally brilliant and one of the strangest minds I’ve encountered in terms of possibility and truth.

JAH: People wanted you to write more “personally”?  Or to divulge more...? I love Thylias Moss’s poems.

SS: I think I just was trying to be a poet but in the wrong ways.

JAH: Me, too.  I think the essay is poetry except with longer stanzas.  And stranger breaks.

SS: Yes, more room to play. Do you consider yourself a poet or an essayist or I guess what do you tend toward?

I was just looking through the program for AWP in Tampa and saw that there’s a panel that’s something like alternative facts: writing creative nonfiction in the era of Trump…and when Caryl [Pagel, editor at CSU Poetry Center] asked me to make a bibliography at first I was just like oh no, because of course I didn’t keep a good track of what I had read and referenced, and then came the fact-checking stage and I was like hell no—that’s why I write creative nonfiction. But then I did it, and it was both oddly satisfying and incredibly rewarding. Validating, probably, but I could never be a journalist. The poet in me is too deep, I think, for adhering to so many rules. I guess it’s a question of what kind of writing you think you do?

JAH: When I was in undergrad, in Florida, I always wanted to be a lyric poet.  But I love stories.  I love their shape, the way action drives you across the plains, but how image deepens the velocity so that there are two kinds of movements…And then add in the sonics (the playlist) and it’s just a party in 3D space.  

SS: That’s such a beautiful description—and so accurate!

JAH: After I published I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well, all I wanted to write were essays.  And I kind of swore off poetry. But now I’ve been writing poems again.  Maybe I had to make it taboo or forbidden.  

I actually loved reading the very impressive bibliography to The Leftovers.  It was very satisfying to be able to go to some of the sources for further reading.  And it felt, in some ways, like a gesture toward what is left over…we can’t tell all of every story.

Are you writing new work yet?  It’s so hard when you’re preparing a book to be published.

SS: Nothing. Caryl said something on the phone the other day how after the book gets published people will just celebrate me as a writer and talk about the book but also what I’m working on next and I just laughed out loud. I’m so excited to just be a reader for a while.

JAH: Are you reading anything good?

SS:  I love novels more than anything—especially in the last year. I have read barely anything other than novels by women—but I’ve never written a lick of fiction. I’ve never even attempted it. So I think it’s just amazing to read something and live in the built world where I’m not considering craft or questioning craft, just luxuriating in the beauty of the narratives and sentences.

JAH: I want to read Jennifer Egan’s new book, and Celeste Ng’s.  And I love Carmen Maria Machado’s book of stories.

SS: Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere I got from the library the Friday before I was going to work on edits for the book all weekend because I had just gotten feedback from Caryl. But Saturday I read the entire novel in one go. It’s so good. And Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing.

JAH: Maybe it was Robert Hass? who said that poets are either obsessives or hysterics?  I think we might be obsessives, Shaelyn.  I have very little self control, which is why I love the editing process — being on the other end of it, I mean. 

SS: I love absorbing things—even this morning—I reread your book a few weeks ago in prep for this, but then this morning I sat down to write out questions, but instead of referring just to my post-its and notes, I just read the entire thing.

The other notable thing I’ve read recently were Emma Cline’s The Girls and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. Both [of those were] weekend reads. Angie Thomas’s YA novel The Hate U Give. And my friend Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s memoir-in-verse What Runs Over.

JAH: I loved inhabiting your book, too.  Even when I physically was trembling from “Origins,” I couldn’t put it down.  It hurt in very healing ways.

SS: I’m also curious about persona because when I read your book—and knowing you teach—I think about one of my friends who has blown up on Instagram, and now sort of lives in the queer performance world under a pseudonym, but years ago before that happened, he was really struggling to negotiate the personal and professional, to acknowledge the real world consequences his writing and art—that he felt compelled and I’d argue needed to make and needs to be in the world—might have on students (or worse, his students’ parents or potential employers). So his compromise was a pseudonym, I guess. And me, I work in prison education, but I feel like my personal/writing views have nothing to do with my professional/work persona. Especially when I’m writing about prisons, working in prisons. Do you have any hesitations/qualms about that?

But then it’s a question of audience, too—like the people I’m scared of misinterpreting won’t read the book I guess. Or the people who I assume will read my book.

JAH: I have qualms.  But then I think, as a queer kid, what would have this kind of book done for me?  Or, what if I had known about a book like David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives or Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name?  And then the qualms quiet down.  And I know it’s just garden-variety shame piping up, and I’ve always said I would not let that force shape the art I make, except inasmuch as I retaliate against it. 

I teach college, and my colleagues are adults, and so I ask myself, so what if they know I have desire?  Am I free to discuss it?  Does it make me free to talk about what I think we never really talk about?  Does my talking about it make someone else free to talk about shame, taboo, silence, erasure?

In grad school, there was once a party thrown by three other guys in the program, (ostensibly) straight guys. The told each invitee that they couldn’t talk about the things they normally talked about. For me, it meant that I wasn’t allowed to broach the subjects of sex or astrology.  I did not go to the party.  Instead I had awesome sex with a Scorpio and I think I had a much better time than my compatriots who went and pretended not to be themselves. Even a night of pretending not to be enthralled by your fascinations seems stupid to a queer person who pretended to be straight until he was 21. Not just stupid. It participates in the animus that wants queer lives silenced, dead. Fuck that.

Isn’t Caryl an incredible editor and human being?

SS: Caryl was so kind and generous with my work.

JAH: [Caryl] was such a kind and empathetic editor.  I had a major freakout right at the end, and she called me and talked me down from the ledge.

Caryl’s editing helped push on soft sentences and pointed out places I needed more clarity.  She is so good at what she does.

SS: Yes, I too thought about just entirely pulling the book. She is brilliant—places that needed clarification, but also just enough compliments to keep me on task.

I really like how your book has footnotes and longer end notes. Was that a decision you made for the book?

JAH: The footnotes I just liked experimenting with.  I think I came across them in that Jenny Boully essay, “The Body.” And wanted to experiment with an “understory.”

I love end notes too — it was a decision to gesture toward other parts of the story, or to resources....that would have sort of broken the spell of the essay itself, but seemed integral
I do too.  I don’t think I understand it very well.  Her writing has been so instructive and daring and challenging for me. And Joan Didion too.

SS: I think I’ve spent more time with the endnotes of Claudia Rankine’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely”  than I have with the actual text of the book—there’s so much in yours too, to be learned.

JAH: Her end notes are great. My friend Jericho is really good at end notes as well.  I think end notes are like “direct to camera” moments.  

I took a manuscript workshop with Claudia Rankine at Houston.  It was one of the best classes I ever took—she was so good at analyzing the architecture of a book, how to inflect one tone against another, how to carry over, create a book that has memory and recall and rupture and surprise.  
We read various versions of Ariel and Howl, and we’d just sit there and analyze them, poem by poem.

SS: I love thinking about the architecture of a book. That sounds like such an incredible class.

JAH: Has the book gotten a cover yet?  

SS: Sort of—it’s funny if I send you the first draft mock up because the back has your blurbs. My friend Laura [Peterson]—the one who is an architect and visual artist, who introduced me to pet architecture and all of these ideas designed the collage.

Did a friend of yours take that photograph on the cover of your book or do you know the person in the photograph? I assume since it’s in memorium, right?

JAH: I didn’t know the artist personally; his name is Tim Hailand. We were having a more protracted conversation around the cover—nothing seemed quite right.  I sent Caryl the Hailand photograph as perhaps a kind of “hint.” I never dreamed it would actually become the cover.  

The best part about the book, for me, is that I’ve corresponded a bit with Hailand now.  I never in a million years thought we’d be writing each other on Facebook.  The man in his photograph died, suddenly, I was told — but other details about his death have been hidden.  In some ways, it feels like a bed of leaves that wants to lay undisturbed.  And so I have done some research but let the refutation stand.

The model’s sister also wrote me to buy copies of the book.  It was very emotional to correspond with her, because I wanted to ask so much about her brother, but out of respect I just couldn’t.  

I think collage is perfect for your cover. It has texture and movement and space and color. 

SS: As a first-time reader of your book the cover and title just resonated so strongly with me that I made assumptions about the origins of the photograph and person as soon as I started reading the first essay.

JAH: That’s interesting!  I never thought about that, to be honest. A radio interviewer once asked if that was me on the cover.  I said, Girl I wish I had those legs. He was not amused.  Which was amusing.

It’s fine if readers make their assumptions, or feel in some ways intimate with some of the things a writer says.  I want that connection when I read, and I am glad people feel that too.  

I think people will definitely feel that way with The Leftovers. I hope that’s not a scary thing to say.

SS: Thank you—it felt important to me to have Laura design it. and a collage felt right. I think it’s so good to talk with you because you are so kind and generous and I know not everyone will feel that way but it’s a good start.

JAH: Are you going to be in Tampa for AWP? Signing, I hope!

SS: I’ll be there! Will you? I’d love to meet you in person!

JAH: Yes! I’d love to meet you in person, too!


James Allen Hall’s first book of poetry, Now You’re the Enemy, won awards from the Lambda Literary Foundation, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the Fellowship of Southern Writers.  He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, the New York Foundation of the Arts, and the University of Arizona Poetry Center, as well as the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. His second book, I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well, is a collection of personal lyric essays.  The book was selected by author Chris Krauss as the winner of the 2016 Cleveland State University Poetry Center Press’s Essay Award.  

Shaelyn Smith grew up in northern Michigan, and lives in Auburn, Alabama. Her first collection of essays, The Leftovers, was chosen by Renee Gladman as the winner of the 2017 Cleveland State University Poetry Center Press’s Essay Collection Competition, and will be published April 2018. Other work can be found in Masque & Spectacle, storySouth, Essay Daily, The Rumpus, Sonora Review, Territory, and Forklift, OH.