I became hooked on lyric essays after reading Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s article, “Writing a Shadowbox: Joseph Cornell and the Lyric Essayists” (The AWP Writer’s Chronicle, March/April 2008). Fletcher’s article—and by way of him, Charles Simic’s essays—challenged me to work with an atypical eye. Simic, our fifteenth Poet Laureate, writes elastic, anomalous essays, the kind that make readers climb inside the prose and inhabit his language’s prismatic flavors.
I remember when lyric essays were ghettoized within the prose landscape, considered the purview of belles lettres. In the past fifteen years or so, the lyric essay has enjoyed a rapid ascent, becoming a highly popular genre in multiple disciplines from journalism to the personal essay. But what is this form exactly? Poetic essay, essayistic poem, both, or neither?
As with flash fiction, the definition of lyric essay depends in part on whom you ask. If you’re asking me, I’ll say that the form employs a series of images or ideas, rather than chronicle or argument, to sculpt a narrative. Often inconclusive, lyric essays reach beyond archetypal classical frames to a meditative sense of place and displacement. They evidence particulars that seem disparate, but are connected before the close. Some of the best exemplars combine protocols and properties of several different genres, working very much at the junction of essay and poetry. Essayist and Seneca Review editor John D’Agata has said that a lyric essay is “what happens when an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem.”
My favorite lyric essay is “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché. It is actually a piece that appears in anthologies, variously labeled as a prose poem, flash fiction, or lyric essay. I’ve read it so often that I have it memorized.:
Carolyn Forché, "The Colonel"The writing is hauntingly meditative and marvelous, and the reader is rinsed in dread as a ghastly recognition dawns. Note the pedestrian portal into which Forché draws the reader, the ordinary habits in motion when the piece opens: “His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar”; “His daughter filed her nails”; “On the television was a cop show.” In addition, there are pet dogs and newspapers in the scene. In other words, this setting could be any of our homes.
What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.
Then we have the first faint whisper of an uh-oh moment: the “pistol on the cushion beside him.” It’s not just a matter that a gun is involved; it’s where the gun is located. Clearly, it’s imperative to Forché’s host that the weapon be close at hand, readily deployed. Why is that?
Then Forché drops a four-word phrase that clues us in to our locale: “It was in English.”
Perhaps in and of itself, noting that the television show was in English isn’t a watershed mention. Many of us have cable TV, or we watch scores of programs online. A large number of programs, including newscasts, game shows, and children’s programming, are available in languages from Arabic to Urdu. Even with that cognizance, though, when I first read this line, I felt a perceptible—if indistinct—sense of foreboding. The pistol—or, rather, its readiness—had already pricked my attention. But guns are hardly uncommon; we see them all the time in, for example, the aforementioned cop TV shows. So which piece of Forché’s text is ferrying the red flag? I believe it’s this one: “The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house.”
When I ask about this sentence, I have had students say, “She’s describing the environment [meaning the outdoors.] It’s part of her setting. We now know that it’s late in the day.” Well, true, although we already had a hint that, at the very least, it’s past mid-afternoon when we read, “his son went out for the night.” I believe the imagery’s starkness and direct delivery are the culprits. It’s not just any moon, but a bare moon. Bare can mean naked, empty, and plain. But it can also signal cold, stark, and desolate. Forché’s swinging moon is tethered to a black cord (noose?). The cord is swinging over the house, this particular house in which the narrator finds herself. We’re not told what phase the moon is in, but don’t you think it’s full? Cue Jerry Goldsmith’s Ave Satani from The Omen.
The use of alliteration lends an uneasy acceleration to the narrative’s springboard: papers, pet dogs, and pistol; bare on its black cord; broken bottles embedded. Forché unpacks what turns out to be a heinous horror one peel at a time, with a commanding dexterity that belies the prose’s simplicity. While I won’t step through the entire piece and ruin it for you, note the generous use of food descriptions (including one ghastly food metaphor), and the manner in which the dialogue is related to the reader. What standard of living does this colonel enjoy? Why the passive voice invocation when the narrator tells us, “I was asked how I enjoy the country”? When Forché claims “There is no other way to say this” is that true?
While I’ve been writing and publishing lyric essays for six years, I only began teaching the form last year. I created a six-week workshop for continuing and community education venues called Writing the Lyric Essay: Write, Revise, Submit. In crafting and shaping the course’s pace and exercises, I drew on my background as a short story, flash fiction, and creative nonfiction writer. My one prerequisite for students is that they have some substantive experience in writing prose. I want them to come to the course with an appreciable grasp of basal storytelling tenets such as plot, characterization, symbolism, and foreshadowing. I expect them to have familiarity with—and preferably a command of—the stylistic rules attending whatever form of prose they’ve written in the past: articles, short stories, novels, reportage, prose poems. Why is a grounding in these conventions important? Because the lyric essay sets out to breach so many of these same conventions.
Many of my students suppose that lyric essay is something new, not realizing that authors from Purpura and Forché to Didion and Dillard have written them. During the first class, I always ask students what features they expect a lyric essay to embody. What’s their best guess as to what distinguishes this form from other essays? What kind of work do they anticipate language having to do in this form that it may not execute in a traditional essay? Students’ responses include notions of poetic language, and genre-bending and –blending. Some suggest that the key recipe is a mixture of heightened language and brevity, and while the latter is not a requirement of the form, I’ve observed that those students who have read or written a breadth of flash fiction tend to take the most curated and cultured leaps in their deliberations. They posit more elaborate conjectures when imagining what the lyric essay might encompass. Their first drafts often demonstrate a willingness to gesture in bold—sometimes rash—fashion.
Inspirational and pedagogical models I use during my workshops include Annie Dillard’s “Teaching A Stone to Talk,” Michael Martone’s “Some Space.” Amy Butcher’s “Still Things,” Linda Hogan’s “Walking,” and a few of my own published pieces. I also have students read selections that discuss craft, such as one of Lee Martin’s “From the Creative Nonfiction Workshop” columns and Bending Genre’s “Navigating Emptiness: Benefits and Drawbacks of Teaching the Lyric Essay.” I choose to have students begin with a lot of reading to have them identify key components of the form, and to help them determine a strategy for negotiating its terrain. One common mistake students make in their earliest drafts is going uber-experimental, to the point where it’s impossible to connect the dots among the associations they’ve sketched. I remind them that readers must be able to trust the leaps and bounds they are making with their disparate images, tropes, memories, details. As the writer, they have to walk a tightrope between not revealing their hand too early—or, at least, not too much of it—and leaving enough of a trail, thread, or braid that readers can follow them where they are leading.
The first homework assignment I have students complete is a visual representation of this braid that I call the mapping exercise. The exercise helps students explore and romp in structural concepts for their essays, while they’re still in that excited brainstorming, try-anything phase preceding frightful first drafts. They should choose their topic and map the threads of the essay. Another way I phrase it is to say that they are deconstructing their essay idea and transferring that deconstruction into a map. My intent is for it to be a fun, non-threatening, inventive, freeing activity, and more than a few students have trouble letting themselves go there. To encourage them to play within what they understand to be a “serious” writing craft workshop, I lay down some requirements. The “map” must use a minimum of three different ink colors, on 11 x 17 or larger graph, construction, poster, or kraft paper, or on cardboard. They should use colored pencils, markers, fabric, crayons, paint, inks, construction paper, pipe cleaners, or other creative medium. One young woman brought in a collage.
I get two payoffs from having folks complete this exercise. The first is the comments students make as they stand to present their essay maps to the class: “This really helped me think things through.” “Once I started, I went in a whole other direction.” “I thought I was going to write about X, but as I got into the map, it changed to Y.” “This map is my plan of action/angle of attack for my first draft.” Or, from those who arrived at the first class with a rough draft already in hand, “I wish I had done this before starting my draft.”
The second payoff is that the presentations themselves serve as icebreakers. The room warms up, defenses come down, and students comment on one another’s maps during the snack break, making suggestions to, and asking questions of, one another. They exchange maps and get inside the heads of their neighbors, learning how someone else wrestles with the nebulous, figurative aspects of lyric essay outlines. The camaraderie forged here endures through the remaining five weeks, and comes in very handy when it’s time to exchange manuscripts in week four.
I wish I could take credit for coming up with this assignment, but I really got the idea from Nina Gaby’s 2013 “Mapping the Lyrical Essay” post on Brevity. I show her map to students to provide them with a jumping-off point.
I’ll end with a bemusing question: Where are all the male lyric essayists? They seem to be vastly underrepresented, and I’d love to teach more short-form lyric essays written by men. There is no shortage of men writing poetry, flash fiction, plays, novels, or even songs. What accounts for the lyric essay dearth? If you have an explanation—or even a theory—post it in the comments below. I would love to hear your take. Happy Holidays!
Lyzette Wanzer (@INTJs_rock) is a San Francisco writer, editor, and creative writing workshop instructor. She received her MFA in Fiction from Mills College. A flash fiction connoisseur and essay aficionado, her work has appeared in Callaloo, Tampa Review, The MacGuffin, Ampersand Review, Journal of Advanced Development, Journal of Experimental Fiction, Pleiades, Flashquake, Glossalia Flash Fiction, Potomac Review, International Journal on Literature and Theory, Fringe Magazine, The Naked Truth, and many others. She is a contributor to The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays (Wyatt-MacKenzie), and the San Francisco University High School Journal.
Lyzette has been awarded writing residencies at the Headlands Center for the Arts (CA), Blue Mountain Center (NY), Kimmel Harding Center for the Arts (NE), Playa Summer Lake (OR), Horned Dorset Colony (NY), Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow (AR), and The Banff Centre in Canada. She is the recipient of an Investing in Artists grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation, two Individual Artist Commission grants from San Francisco Arts Commission, and two Professional Development Grants from the Creative Capacity Fund. Visit her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/lyzettewanzer or https://www.facebook.com/lyzette.wanzer .
& learn more about multitalented writer, visual artist, and psychiatric nurse Nina Gaby at https://ninagaby.wordpress.com.