Monday, April 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Rachel Z. Arndt: Looking for My Beach

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

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

Monday, April 23, 2018

Breaking the Rules in Utah

In my quarterly Breaking the Rules column, I usually ask writers about their nonfiction. Even if authors write in multiple genres, this is Essay Daily. And nonfiction is where all the rules are broken. I love creative nonfiction because of its dumb title which is oxymoronic and requires definition and then counter definition. The joke, where is the creative nonpoetry is always a good answer to the question of what is ‘creative nonfiction.’ But we don’t need nonpoetry because free verse broke the rules completely and now poetry has no rules except that it should a la Emily Dickinson blow the top of your head off and Denise Levertov’s exultation that defines line as a breath.

I recently visited the University of Utah’s MFA and PhD creative writing program where I read manuscripts by some blow-the-top-of-the-head off poets. Emily Dyer Barker’s fertility, surgical, counting poems, Alleliah Nuguid’s floral lyrics, Jackie Balderrama’s nature crisis, water-touching poems, Michelle Macfarlane, mother-death-blue poems, Liza Flum’s, word inverting, culturally investigative, guy poems, and Cori Winrock’s stitchy, webby, hybrid poems were the kind of poems that reminded me why I loved poetry As I read their manuscripts, and read them again, I pulled connections between and through the poems like hand-pulled noodles, pulling it again. Poetry is the substance it is made of. You don’t need the phrase non-poetry. Poetry Poetry will do.
     The U has great teachers who write nonfiction. Paisley Rekdal and Katharine Coles have books on nonfiction out or coming out. While I was there, Gretchen Henderson was teaching the nonfiction course as a visiting professor. But there aren't as many nonfiction students. So the manuscripts I received were primarily poetry and fiction. What I loved about the work I read was the way the fiction people had been infused with poetry. Their fiction broke the fiction rules in the way free verse broke the poetry rules. “Regular” fiction rules include such strict business as character development, a Freytag’s Triangle of rising action, climax, and dénouement. You’re supposed to have plot, damnit. And these fiction authors I read subverted some of that. Rachel Levy introduces the same characters multiple times. Each time, it’s as if it’s the first. Jace Brittain’s Sorcererer protagonist, Felix, suffers from the consumption. We don’t know exactly in what time period or what country he suffers, but we do know Felix’s expelled phlegm falls in love with a slug, or at least falls in like. Rachel Zavecz’s Briar TM retells the story of Sleeping Beauty through the lens and spectacle of a Kardashian. The one nonfiction manuscript I read, by Noam Dorr, made it clear that nonfiction is the place where genre definitions go to get broken. His essay incorporates an online dating questionnaire, an interior monologue, a quasi narrative about a soldier/operative/spy in the middle of a war in the sense that world now is always at war.
     I asked the prose writers some questions about their prose because I found it surprising and discombobulating and top of the head off blowing. Jace Brittain answered my questions about breaking the rules and his Sorcererer book which he named Sorcererer not only because his main character, Felix, is a sorcerer and is the source, but because it is fun to type erererererer. Which it is.

NW: And, as we discussed, you put a lot of pressure on the lyric, hoping the story moves by means other than narrative. Why resist narrative? What does the story gain from the lyric? 

JB: I wasn’t necessarily trying to resist narrative, rather trying to think through tendencies to narrativize. From my earliest drafts, Felix’s mind and voice have been precariously associative, and with each thought that slips away in the vehicle of its metaphor, the web of associations gets dense and denser. Something dreamily similar to narrative comes alive as the reader counts the recursions. Though, of course, orderly progression is out the window here. And I think something lyric comes out of the resistance to ordering the narrative activities. There’s an instability to any single image, and my own impulse as a reader is usually to make sense of all the sensory noise and nonsense bubbling under any image or word. 

NW We also learn a lot about snails. I will never think the same about the stuff we expectorate from our lungs and how much that expectorant is like snails/slugs. What is the metaphor you're working on here ?

And we’re in luck (or maybe in denial) because I think that speaks to how metaphors are working in SORCERERERER. There’s a kind of blurry line between vehicle and tenor, and it is a two-way street. Each carries the potential of the other in its buzzing little molecules. Felix is a snail, and he isn’t. His spittle and sputum are always in the process of becoming slugs, accruing those traits—and vice versa [purposeful non-period here]

NW: In Sorcererererer, we are introduced to Felix, a man suffering from the consumption in a unspecified time and place--why leave those two elements unspecified? 

JB: And yes, time is fuzzy in this one, but there is at least one specified place (perhaps a small concession toward clarity!): an old sanatorium in Elysian Park / Echo Park in Los Angeles. And that specificity is there as part of a critique running as a more directed stream under the piece against the paranoid instability of historical narrativizing, of the heliotropic myth and the west/rest cures and westward marches and of being entrenched in bogus destinies [purposeful non-period here]
     If you’re in the area with a little free time, those old grounds presently include an active respiratory hospital abutting a few scenic paths up in the hills above Dodgers Stadium—take a stroll and put your newly slimy associative mind to the test. [purposeful period here]

I asked Rachel Zavecz about BriarTM and how the Queen is a King is a Ringmaster. The Ringmaster makes a lot of money off the sex tape.

NW: In Briar, you use a lot of allusions to create an atmosphere for your reader--brand names, the allusion but not description of a sex tape, a king who is not really a king. How does allusion substitute for scene in your book? 

RZ: I am interested in a proliferation of allusion so far as it is suggestive of a continual piling up of interrelating images, concepts, and nodes of meaning. It is the exploration of an aesthetics of trash wherein pieces constantly shift and provide new context for others, where the suggestion of more and excess creates a sense of interlocking infiniteness. The scene is simultaneously exploded inward and outward where it can have no internal or external markers of boundary. The autonomous movement of expanding objects, people, and ideas as they slide against one another creates a permeable membrane of text that resembles the digital heartbeat of a dark net. What is a brand but an allusion to the exchange of social capital, and eventually the autonomous movement of the brand-symbol itself?

NW: As we discussed, you put a lot of pressure on the lyric, hoping the story moves by means other than narrative. Why resist narrative? What does the story gain from the lyric? 

RZ: I think that this question is closely related to the previous in that it lends support to a particular conception of aesthetics and an understanding of movement through the contemporary world of spectacle and commodity. In many ways the “narrative” of BriarTM exists in the same way that the exhibition space exists. J.G. Ballard’s conception of modern human life as an atrocity exhibition to which we are all ourselves spectators rings very true to me in my conception of this piece’s narrative intent (or lack thereof). The reader moves through complex language and sensory overload in an attempt to find meaning just as we move through the hyperreality of a saturated world. In a society of overload, what is time and what does it mean to exist within a particular space? As language textures itself, overlaps, explodes, and coils into a glittering representation of excess, the mind also moves, in an attempt to conceive of its own machinations and perception.

NW: I love how you're updating the original, incredibly dark story of Briar Rose. How does your retelling of the story act as a referendum on contemporary storytelling? 

RZ: I have always been drawn to fairy tales and their continuing engagement with storytelling through time. In her essay regarding the form of the fairy tale, Kate Bernheimer refers to fairy tale characters as  “silhouettes, mentioned simply because they are there,” and possessed of a flatness that allows for depth of response. However, I think that in a culture where meaning over-proliferates, being a silhouette has become a multi-dimensional occupation. The fairy tale reflects, but also refracts. There are so many shards of the mirror attempting reflection simultaneously that the reader comes dangerously close to facing a reality of selfhood previously obfuscated during the supposed mirror-stage of their own development. Jean Baudrillard describes the death of the mirror as abstraction: “Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.” In other words, there are more holograms performing at this halftime show than there are members of the audience.
     Consider: the fairy tale as a perfect and eternal vessel for an aesthetics of continuing meaning-making, overload, illegibility, garbage, reality that is no longer tethered to reality. Storytelling that consumes us until we find ourselves simultaneously moved by putrescence and beauty. Horror and delight. Repulsion and temptation. No longer in control of our own conception or experience of supposed difference. This feels to me like a true representation of what contemporary storytelling can be.

Noam Dorr's nonfiction blew the top of my head off. See how:

NW: In your essay, you thread together three modes--dating questionnaire, military/spy narrative, and lyrical interior thoughts. How do you balance those three modes and what do you hope to gain from pressing three separate threads together?

ND: That essay is an exploration of the relationship between surveillance and desire—the tension that results from a desire to form an intimacy with the person who is being watched, but having to constantly maintain a distance from them. When I wrote the first draft of this essay it was just a fragmented narrative of my experience as an intelligence analyst during my compulsory military service in the Israel Defense Forces. And while I found ways to create a narrative tension there, it just didn’t work—partially because I kept having to omit details (since they were classified), but mostly because I personally just didn’t find that narrative interesting to tell.
Some time later, as a result of a fairly dramatic shift in a long-term relationship, I joined OKCupid. As I was filling out the dating website’s matchmaking questions I kept finding myself rebelling against the limited logic of the multiple choice options. My essayistic tendencies wouldn’t let me respond to a question about say, whether I believe in love-at-first-sight with “yes” or “no” and that’s it. But I had to answer in order to increase my chances of finding a good match! Fortunately OKCupid gives you an out—you can add an explanation to your choice. So then each question became an opportunity to write a mini-essay, a kind of acknowledgement of the performance all of us love-searchers are a part of inside this machine. There were very concrete connections between the surveillance I had been involved with in tracking these intelligence targets and the one I was willingly submitting to in order to find romantic connections—each a form of intimacy with complete strangers. Eventually a lyric voice emerged, one that rebelled against the impersonality of the questions, their inability to capture what it’s actually like to be a feeling human being with embodied desires. An interior voice, it was trying to describe what we don’t see reflected in those dating questions, or in military surveillance—though that voice too is a kind of performance.
     Surveillance and desire are all around us, but each thread on its own would only get at part of that gesture and part of the complications that come up when algorithms become entwined with warfare or erotic love. To make the presence of that already existing tension known I had to bring the three strands together. Ostensibly there is nothing really sexy about tracking a hostile government as it attempts to acquire nuclear weapons, or listening to two people planning a suicide bombing, and yet that mode of searching (and sometimes finding) is all about desire—an increased attention, a looking. Then there’s the act of self-surveillance—what happens when we subject ourselves to an algorithm by answering revealing online dating questionnaires. Here we want to be watched and noticed and the more answers we provide, the higher the likelihood (so says the website) that we will be found by someone desiring us. The lyric self is also caught in that web of surveillance and desire—witnessing the end of an exclusive romantic partnership and the kind of excitement and anguish of seeing a former lover with other lovers—which is also full of desire, but of a very confusing variety (if I can imagine my lover with other lovers I can also imagine myself with other lovers, and yet, I am not part of this lovership).
     The stakes may seem disproportional: the intelligence work has, or so I was told, saved and ended lives; how can this possibly compare to online dating? But in a lot of ways if we dig deep down the impulse behind both is the same. Soldiers who served with me are now rising stars in high tech giants—they bring the knowledge they developed in the military to civilian applications. I’m not saying the Israeli Intelligence community is behind OKCupid’s matchmaking software (that would be a whole other level matchmaker-matchmaker-make-me-a-match), but the same operating logic is there.

NW: You attend a program that doesn't really have a nonfiction track--how have fiction and poetry courses influenced your nonfiction? 

ND: So first, I have to say that while there isn’t a dedicated nonfiction track, there are faculty members here who have published nonfiction—my advisor, Paisley Rekdal has written books of both poetry and essays and I’ve learned so much from her and her work. And I’ve found the fiction workshops here to be completely open and experimental; no matter what I brought them—an essay written on slivers of paper hidden inside a hollow orange, or an essay that was also a functioning pinhole camera—they were always ready to talk about the work on its own terms.
     But in many ways some of my most formative learning experiences here have been through the poetry side. I hope that one day I can actually write poems as good as those written by my classmates in the program, but in the meantime I’ve taken to stealing (or I should probably politely say, learning) as many of their skills as I can. What that has translated to is a merciless approach to my own language. Let’s face it—prose writers sometimes think that when they write a lyrical sentence or gesture towards abstract ideas they’re creating beautiful and poetic language. But the poets I worked with just wouldn’t let me get away with it. One person I work with a lot here, Cori A. Winrock, would press and press on my work until I got the writing to do what it needed. And as a result, when I got to that point I knew every single word counted. (I’m getting back at her by having convinced her to write essays.)
     I feel like the skills of a poet are crucial for any writer, but especially for an essayist—stacking images, the power of the line as a unit, being aware of syntactical juxtapositions, creating friction not just through content or narrative but through sound and lyric—all of these have been formative for my current work.

NW: And, as we discussed, you put a lot of pressure on the lyric, hoping the essay moves by means other than strict narrative. Why resist narrative? What does the story gain from the lyric? 

ND: I think that what the essay gains from the lyric is the anti-story. There is a kind of tyranny of narrative when we experience stories, an insistence of authority: X happened, then Y happened, and as a result Z happened. When I was serving as an intelligence analyst a huge part of the work was the piecing together of fragmented bits of information to create a story: we’re trying to figure out what is happening (for example, a bombing is planned at this place at this time) in order to prevent it from happening. But this endless quest for narrative severely limits the experience of language—we start to see only what we want to see to fit into the story we expect to hear. Not that the intelligence reports were fabrications or fictions (they would be useless if that were the case), but the longer I served the more I saw them as a tragic sadness—all of these resources (people, money, equipment) dedicated to capturing and interpreting other people’s communication (without their consent), and only interested in the part of it that conforms to narrative, and ideally narrative that tells the story we are looking for.
     Narrative is important for orientation in an essay, so the reader doesn’t become lost, but narrative will also create the illusion for the reader that they truly know what’s going on. Lyric is a challenge to narrative’s certainty of itself, a space for a different kind of authority, a voice that rejects the domination of stories. Essays as a mode work as the mind works, and so this rejection is crucial for the form. Storytelling is only one way our mind moves with language, what about all of the others?
     There is also a moral complexity here—I don’t know the consequences of the information I was in charge of forwarding. It is highly likely that some people lost their lives and some lives were saved, but that was a moral implication enabled by narrative. Lyric wouldn’t do that. If I wrote poems instead of reports and handed them to my superior officers the machine of the military would have broken down (also, I would have been court-martialed). Narratives by themselves are too easy to fall into. Resisting narrative to me was also resisting a whole set of militaristic narratives, of the logic of national conflict. I could have given an alternative story to counter the official rhetoric. But I don’t want a competing version, I want to question the very nature of the competition, and I think we need lyric as that act of resistance.

NW: Your book is coming out next spring? from Sarabande. Sarabande publishes some of the most innovative nonfiction out there. Who's work from Sarabande do you feel most aligns with your work? 

ND: Such a difficult question! Sarabande has published so many incredible essayists and the press has done so much for boundary-pushing non-fiction that it’s hard to choose. But I can say that the Sarabande books I most often returned to while working on my own manuscript were The Book of Beginnings and Endings by Jenny Boully and Syzygy, Beauty: An Essay by T. Fleischmann. Both of these texts in their own way took on difficult forms, and I would often go to them to think through what happens when we challenge the conventional forms of writing—not for the sake of being challenging, but for opening our horizons of possibility. Also, Elena Passarello’s books were a great inspiration for a reinvigoration with obsession and how to sustain that obsession and curiosity over the course of an entire text. And I have to mention my friend and teacher Ander Monson (it’s true his books of essays are published elsewhere, but technically he is a Sarabande author!)—I have a super-deluxe edition of his book Letter to a Future Lover, which comes in a box with all of the essays printed on these beautifully printed loose cards, in random order, ready to be stashed in unsuspecting library books, and I found myself frequently opening it to re-remember how formal constraints can actually free us up to write.

Rachel's Levy's book and dissertation called All Fur might end some pretty spectacular deaths of some big named literary theorists. Who are already dead: 

NW: In All Fur, we are introduced to Wendy Wanda and Greg? You return to the conversation between them several times, offering several adaptations of their interaction. What do you hope to gain from repeating this move and how does it set us up for the end of the book when we will see literary theorists (except Foucault) stabbed from all sides? 

RL: In part, my project attempts to produce an unfaithful rewrite of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s iconic masochistic novella, Venus in Furs, and to parody literary masochism more generally. 

In Venus in Furs, an unnamed but well-to-do narrator visits the lavish estate of his eccentric friend, Severin, for an afternoon of snacks, cigars, art appreciation, domestic violence, and literary conversation. It’s a very classy visit. The narrator and Severin talk about their shared obsession: the elusive figure of the Cruel Woman! They’ve caught glimpse of this icy temptress in their dreams, their fantasies, and their favorite artistic works by wealthy straight men of European descent. Severin confesses that once upon a time he went so far as to try to bring the obsessive fantasy to life. And guess what? He’s just finished drafting his first novel, which details the entire harrowing experience! Want to read it? It’s still really rough, but I’d love to hear your thoughts! No! I don’t want to read it. Unfortunately, my desire is ignored, and Severin’s hackneyed account of the-time-he-played master-and-servant eclipses the greater portion of Masoch’s novella. Severin’s experiment ends, as one might expect, in tears. He’s whipped by a dude (which makes him angry) and dumped by the icy temptress (which makes him sad + angry) but, as Friedrich Nietzsche says, what doesn’t kill you births a more virulent strain of your kind, and so Severin gets over his embarrassment, inherits his daddy’s estate, and becomes an active participant in the Men’s Rights Movement. He also acquires a silk-clad thingy to keep around the house as his very own… wife? servant? prisoner? Her status is unclear. But she fixes Severin and the narrator tasty snacks! Severin verbally abuses her when he finds the eggs aren’t cooked to his liking, and then he threatens her with extreme physical violence until she flees the parlor like a freaked animal. After that, Severin and the narrator continue their conversation about women, elite masculinity, friendship, and art. 
     Some people choose to read Venus in Furs as a transgressive novella because it features a member of the ruling class who’s also an aspiring novelist with an impossible desire for absolute submission. Others read it as subversive novella because it features a member of the economic elite who’s also an aspiring novelist with a paradoxical desire to end capitalism. (My personal opinion differs. I don’t think those who win at capitalism desire capitalism’s demise—but keep in mind that I have an incredibly small imagination.) Others still say Venus in Furs gives queerness a whole new meaning. The meaning? Heterosexuality + whips! Obviously I’m intentionally reducing the discourse but that’s just because it’s such a thrilling thing to do. I can’t stop myself. I’m dumb.
     In real life, I’m perfectly capable (under the threat of extreme physical violence) to appreciate the complexity and genius of Literary Masochism. At its most beautiful, Masochistic Lit is like the patriarchy’s best try at camping itself (if such a thing were possible), and sometimes it can be really fun and a little bit moving. But in writing my book, I am interested in making a fool of literature, especially the kind of literature that thinks of itself as always-already transgressive. Because if you trap Venus in Furs in your hands and hold it up to the light just so it really does resemble something so sadly normal it’s practically hegemonic. Which makes me laugh/come. What is Venus in Furs? An exclusive conversation between bro-friends that spans the distance of space, time, history, the entirety of the Western canon, and several complicated layers of narrative diegesis. Isn’t it just the project of literature screaming at its most annoying-anxious pitch?     
So I want to trap it for a while and make it sing itself silly. And this involves trapping all the theories/theorists that valorize literary masochism as some limit-point of transgression and subversion (except Foucault! he’s my baby, my comrade). It’s all in good fun (as is literary masochism itself, presumably). The conversations that I stage in my book between Greg and Wanda are a method for voicing this silly singing. In Masoch’s text, “Greg” is aristocratic Severin’s self-selected “slave name”—what? Anyways, Masoch has Greg and Wanda meet repeatedly to enact their tableaus of domination + submission = subversion. Okay. But in my book, the relationship between Greg and Wanda is blistered. Wanda is audience to Greg’s self-obsession, which is also his obsession with the literature of transgression. Greg is just so obsessed with his beloved literary fathers, brothers, and buds that he can’t stop talking about them. He’s talking about them, but he’s talking at Wanda. And for some reason this gives him pleasure. But the entire situation causes Wanda to become increasingly agitated. It’s like she exists only to witness Greg’s pleasure and to affirm its transgressive shimmer. Greg’s incessant theorizing and grotesque obsession with disobeying (who?) and transgressing (what?) irritate both Wanda and the narrator (who is a sadist-lesbian, truth be told) to incredible heights. After a while, they become so IRRITATED that they need to shut Greg up! By any means necessary!!! So, the narrator and Wanda join forces. They hatch a plan. They start executing the beloved figures from Greg’s canon. The first to go are Don Quixote and his annoying skinny horse.

NW:  There is a lot of mansplaining in your manuscript. It's very effective and very funny but does it also allow your narrator to mansplain a bit through Greg? 

RL: I think the project does connect to the phenomenon of mansplaining. Greg is definitely a mansplainer but he doesn’t have full control of his body. I’m using his body and bending its pipes to make it squeak out horrible things. And I think this breathes new life into mansplaining, while simultaneously depriving mansplaining of oxygen. Which is sexy, sort of? It’s been fun for me.

NW: And, as we discussed, you put a lot of pressure on the lyric, hoping the story moves by means other than narrative. Why resist narrative? What does the story gain from the lyric? 

RL: The book is less of a narrative than it is a lyric-patchwork. There’s this Grimm tale called “All Fur” where a daughter forces her daddy to commission the construction of a suit that’s made from the fur of every living thing in the kingdom. The resulting garment is a patchwork affair, very grotesque, with some blood (and probably some shit, too) flecked on it. I think this garment might be an interesting structural model for a book. Like what if a book could be a suit made out of all the hides that belong to the brothers and fathers and friends who comprise the kingdom of transgressive literature? So each chapter in my book is harvested from the body of a different “species,” so to speak. Together the species form a kingdom and a loving community. One of the chapters slips into the demonic skin of Jacques Lacan, and parodies his seminars on Love, Stupidity, and Feminine Sexuality. Other chapters obsessively rewrite the encounter between Greg and Wanda, trying to break the masochistic machine. And others still explore the soft and furry discursive hide called: “pedagogy.” It’s still a work in progress, and I’m trying to embed more narrative into the structure for sure. But, right now, the organizational principle is a lyric-patchwork garment made from the skin of the fathers and brothers of literature. The skin is ethically harvested, rest assured. On the whole, it’s a very ethical project.


Listen: Noam's book is coming out next year. I believe that Rachel and Jace and Rachel's work will find its way into the world soon.  So will the poets'. I know I'm prejudiced toward Utah but I loved anew the wild blowing the top of the head that happens in this place that people don't naturally associate with mind-blowing wildness. 

P.S. Cori Winrock just won the Alice James Prize, reaffirming the poetry area's ability to blow the top of peoples' heads off across the land.