Monday, May 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 7, 2018

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

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


On The Spirit of Disruption and The Normal School Nonfiction Series


Steven Church 


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


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


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