Monday, March 18, 2019

On Blindness and the Teaching of Form in Essays

JT: I’m explaining the focus of my Intermediate Nonfiction course with the syllabus projected onto the large screen when I notice a young woman (brown shoulder-length hair, skinny jeans, soft sweater, brown lace booties) in the front right corner seat wearing sunglasses. It is January, 2018. A white cane leans against the wall beside her. Her fingers alternate between the Macbook on her desk and a small, blue keyboard on her lap. One earbud in, she types notes as I go along, and when I pause to ask the students to write their first names on a sheet of paper and hang it from the edge of their desks, the young woman turns to another female student behind her and whispers. The student whispers back, writes something on a sheet of paper and hands it to her. I watch the young woman fidget with the folded paper until it hangs from the side of her desk. Nikki.

I panic.

I panic because the class I have designed, “The Essay Form(s),” relies heavily on the visual aspect of the essay and includes units on the braided, the enumerated, the segmented, the one-sentence, and the triptych, as well as a final unit—Innovations in the Essay—that includes borrowed form (hermit crab) essays and other experimental, invented approaches. I have taught a version of this class for a few semesters, always with the emphasis on the conversation between form and content and how various forms engage the reader visually on the page.

How, I wonder, is this going to work?

NL: My first thought, after class was over, was that I was really looking forward to learning more. Creative writing was a new passion. Upon completing my first fiction workshop the previous fall, I decided to take creative nonfiction because the opportunity sounded exciting. Nonfiction—real life? I had no clue what to expect. I didn’t know if anyone would be interested in reading about my life. As I always do, I introduced myself to Dr. Talbot after the class had ended and said, “I don’t want you to worry. Blindness won’t affect anything at all.”

Said with a smile, with confidence, with a knowledge that this was, in fact, the truth.

I was fairly certain that blindness would only mean I would receive the assignments via e-mail, whereas my sighted peers received them in a course packet. I assumed blindness would mean nothing more than it does in my other classes, that I’d simply take notes on my computer. I had absolutely no idea what it would actually mean: thinking in a new way about things I’d never had to think about before. Form. Shape. Font. What those things would mean to a Braille reader like myself.

But I didn’t know any of this then.

JT: After that first class ended, I walked back to my office, worrying about the small group read-arounds.

Every Thursday, each student brings in two copies of a 300-word experiment in the form we are studying. One copy for the group, one for me. In groups of four to five, they silently pass their experiments around the circle, reading and underlining passages they admire or identify with, as well as one other element that changes each week. Sometimes, a + for where a reader wants more information or an E to signal that an entire essay could be made from that line or an L for a surprising leap across the white space between segments.

As the experiments go around, students come across a sentence already underlined or find a plus sign or an E in the margin. If they agree, they add a check next to it. So students can get their experiments back with ✓✓✓✓ in sections or find sections with no markings, those areas I call “crickets.” After the first read-around, I ask students to look at their writing and identify where the energy is (where are the multi-colored checkmarks?). Students answer with “a strong detail” or “an image” or “a strong emotion,” and I explain that my strategy, in part, is to teach them how to assess what’s working and not working. In other words, I want them to see what’s going on in their writing.
I considered the read-arounds, the emphasis on visual assessment, the underline or the + or the ✓. Blindness wouldn’t affect Nikki’s learning, but it would impact my teaching.

Nikki’s group ended up meeting each Thursday at a table in the hallway, and while the rest of the groups sat in the classroom silently reading in circles, Nikki’s group took turns reading their experiments orally and commenting on strong lines or discussing the assigned elements for that day.

Nikki and I figured out after a couple of read-arounds that the sighted members of her group needed a hard copy of each experiment to make their underlines and notations, in addition to the group discussion. A hybrid read-around, part out loud, part on the page.

Sometimes I went in the hallway to check on Nikki’s group, but most of the time, I left them on their own because I don’t monitor other small groups. Nikki, what did I miss out there in the hallway? What was your takeaway from the oral read-arounds?

NL: The group read-arounds were undoubtedly my favorite part of Thursdays. When I read a nonfiction essay, or any piece of writing really, I try to do so only with Braille, because it enables me to try to hear what the author’s voice sounds like in my head. When I read with a screen reader, as helpful as that can be, I hear an electronic voice and don’t feel I can connect with the author. This is to say that I was so, so excited by the prospect of listening to my group members read their own work aloud. It meant that I would get to hear their tone and inflection and the way they phrased each syllable. And they did not disappoint. Each Thursday, my group brought their best work to the table, leaving me in awe each time they read for me.

Additionally, after that first read-around, I found that reading my writing aloud wasn’t as daunting as I had previously thought. By the end of the semester, I’d grown to enjoy doing so. As one of my group members read his or her writing, I would open a document and write down particular phrases that stood out to me as I heard them, as well as anything Dr. Talbot had asked us to point out that week. On the flipside, as I read my writing aloud to them, they would circle and underline their favorite parts of my work and then review them with me at the end of my reading, all of which I would write down in that same document under the heading “Notes.” This became a weekly ritual for us. I learned to listen for specific things in the writings: syntax length, the use of what Dr. Talbot calls “the magic three,” or the clarity of the persona.

Also, if a part of someone’s writing was in italics, or bold, or changed font, my friends took the liberty of letting me know. If the form was segmented, they told me how each segment was denoted (by asterisks, by number, by symbol.) By the end of the semester, none of us wanted to see group read-arounds end, because we had grown to thoroughly enjoy the time we shared our writing aloud. It helped me become a better writer, and I would wager to bet it helped them notice different things about their own work that they probably hadn’t had to think about before, such as form, italics, white space. By the end, we knew each other’s writing styles inside out.

JT: During those initial weeks, I struggled to understand what you could “see” regarding segments in essays, and you struggled to understand what segmentation meant, how it appeared on the page. But we had a breakthrough moment in my office. Would you like to tell about it?

NL: The moment you are referencing is one I will never forget. I’ve been fortunate to be a fluent Braille reader since the age of eight, and for about five of those years, I used a refreshable Braille display that connects to my computer to read everything from essays to novels. I realized during the segmentation unit that the Braille display I utilize was reading sentences line by line, which made the concept of sentence-by-sentence segments nearly impossible for me to grasp. For example, if the sentence was longer, I may receive a line of that sentence before needing to advance it to the next line. I had no understanding of how long a segment could or should be. I remember feeling frustrated that I didn’t have the answer to figure out this thing that seemed so complex yet so simple at the same time. You and I decided it might be a good idea to move away from technology and go back to the basics of Braille as I learned to read it, before refreshable Braille displays and computers entered my life.
With that in mind, I typed—in Braille—an essay by Ira Sukrungruang, “The Cruelty we Delivered: An Apology.” The next day, I brought the four pages (in landscape mode) to your office. I remember your awe as you watched me read the words. It reminded me that for someone who has never seen Braille, it can be really neat to observe the reading process. Then, you took scissors and cut that essay into strips, laying each out across the small sofa in your office. As I placed my hands on the strips – segments – I was astounded. The fifth segment was shortest of all and to me, carried the most weight in the essay. Those that were longer sandwiched the shorter one, and suddenly I understood fully what a segmented essay was all about. And it was all because we were both willing to think outside the box. Technology is an amazing asset, and I can’t imagine my life without it; however, for this exercise, it was really crucial to go back to the basics of Braille formatting, as can be done only on paper.

JT: While you held the strip of the fifth segment in your hands, I asked you if you had any thoughts about why it was shorter then the other segments, and you answered, “Because [the boys are] all together in that one, and that’s an important moment.” In class, we had been discussing how short segments can be used for emphasis, and in that moment, you physically recognized that.

And then you asked: “So when the students read, they can see this?”

I realized that a student might be able to see, but may not pay attention to visual cues on the page. The next day in class, you and I shared our conversation, and from then on, everyone was more attuned to segment size variation or consistency, to writer’s choices in regard to the spaces in their work. Since that class, I share this anecdote every semester to emphasize the importance of not only reading an essay, but looking at it.
And here’s something else about the visual aspect of the essay. My syllabus requires that students avoid the default font in Word and use the experiments throughout the semester to “find” their font, the one that matches their voice or the tone of the piece. The font in your experiments, Nikki, even this semester in Advanced Nonfiction, are all different. How do you create different fonts, even when font has no meaning for you?

NL: Because Braille looks the same to the blind reader all the time, no matter what is being read, font as it appears in print was something I hadn’t thought about before. There is no way to change font in Braille because, though different symbols may be present, the code itself doesn’t change. To that end, I found thinking about print font confusing—until you asked me to consider how each experiment I wrote made me feel. You asked me to pick a font based on my answer to that question.
I’ve found over time that the font that usually goes best with my writing is Apple Chancery (Nikki’s other recurring font is a 10 point Courier New. It works well with her voice on the page.). As it has been described to me, it is gentle and swirls across the page in a loop. And many of my experiments feel like they need this gentle, swirling font.

On days this font does not fit my writing, I ask a wonderful assistant in one of the campus computer labs for a bold font, or font that is more quiet, or a font of a particular emotion. This pairs an emotion, a concept I am familiar with, with print font, a concept I am not.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the incredible people who have taken the time to describe these fonts to me in this way; when I turn in an essay, I know it looks uniquely like something I wrote.

JT: In our conversations and in class, you insisted, more than once, your desire to do what your classmates did, but we did make some minor adjustments. Which ones worked best for you?

NL: Self-advocacy has been an important part of my life from a young age, and I knew you took my questions seriously and worked diligently to understand my way of learning so you could best help me understand what I needed to know. Often times, once you explained it in a way I could grasp as a Braille reader, such as when you told me about the three ideas that run throughout a braided essay, it made total sense. The oral read-arounds worked really well because they enabled me to fully participate in a way that was unique to my learning style. I believe it also helped me learn to read more confidently, something I previously struggled with at the beginning of the semester. Finally – and it seems really simple – but e-mail was our best medium of communication. Each week you would email me the essays, along with any notes on formatting and form I should know before reading the piece, and this was extremely helpful. With these three things, I truly learned an incredible amount in the class and would recommend that any blind student take a class on form if given the opportunity. I simply cannot imagine my writing now without the knowledge I have gained on form, and it is something I always think about now as I sit down to write a new piece.

JT: After a few weeks, we agreed it would be beneficial to add an Independent Study to your coursework as an extension of the class so that we would have more time to discuss the shape and function of different forms and for you to read additional essay models. You also worked one-on-one with some of the PhD students. Those students each selected an essay, such as Eula Biss’s “Time and Distance Overcome,” “Dislocation” by Verity Sayles, or Steven Church’s “Auscultation,” because of the their distinct shape. And when one of those students asked how you would describe the shape of Braille, you answered, “Shapeless.”

Thinking about shapelessness—the one sentence essay really clicked for you, because it makes the most sense to you as a Braille reader. What is the connection/relationship between the one sentence essay and Braille?

NL: My entire life, I have been a loquacious speaker; my sentences are long, winding, and often require gentle interruptions from the person listening, so they are able to get a word in! This is not to say I do not listen, but what I found is that I write the way I tend to speak. When I discovered an author could write an entire essay full of emotion and sentiment all in one sentence, I could not wait to try it.

In my mind, the one-sentence essay translates the best to Braille because it just flows across the page, nothing special needed. It just is what it will be. The one-sentence essay effectively let me convey scenarios which were full of action, full of excitement, full of feelings that are not controlled easily and tend to burst to the surface. That was what the one sentence essay came to represent for me. In a one sentence essay, the form reads fluently in Braille because it is essentially a series of lines working together to form the sentence, the same way Braille is presented.

JT: Finally, what did it feel like to have your own one sentence essay, “This is What (Real) Freedom Is”, published in Hobart?

NL: Having my first essay published is a tremendous honor, and I couldn’t have done it without the time and energy and brilliance of the graduate students who worked with me to make this piece the best it could be. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my family and friends, especially the family friend who inspired the piece. And I couldn’t have done it without the support and guidance of you, Dr. Talbot, who took the time to teach me all I needed to know about form and nonfiction in general. Finally, this essay found its home with Hobart, and I am forever grateful to Laura Gill and her team for taking a chance on me and deciding this essay was worth a shot.

Special thanks to Ruby Al-Qasem, Clinton Crockett Peters, Kim Garza, and Spencer Hyde.

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Nikki Lyssy is a senior at the University of North Texas, where she studies creative writing. Her favorite journals to read include Brevity, Hobart, Kenyon Review Online, Sweet, Pithead Chapel, and Hippocampus. After graduation, she plans to pursue an MFA.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren't: A Memoir (Soft Skull) and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (Iowa). She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of North Texas.

Monday, March 4, 2019

In Praise of Ambiguity: The Lyric Essay in 2019 by Zoë Bossiere & Erica Trabold

As the host of an interview podcast series on the New Books Network, one of my missions is to generate quality conversations with writers about their debut books of creative nonfiction. Though I have hosted interviews with writers from all backgrounds, my New Books in Literature channel gives special priority to books written by women, people of color, queer-identifying folx, and other marginalized identities. Recently, I had the good fortune of sitting down with Erica Trabold, whose collection of lyric essays, Five Plots, was released from Seneca Review Books this past November. If you haven’t read it yet, Five Plots represents a sharp contemporary example of the subgenre, boldly experimenting with form to craft a striking portrait of the intersection between terrain and the lived experience of Trabold as a young girl navigating her identity and heritage in rural Nebraska.

Below, essayist Erica Trabold and I continue the conversation we began on the New Books Network about definitions of the lyric essay, why it has such staying power, and how it intersects with identity in order to better understand the lyric essay’s place in the writing world of 2019 and beyond.

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Zoë Bossiere: Erica, our conversation about the craft of your book got me thinking about the state of the lyric essay, especially as it comes up in academia. As a teacher, I’ve had countless conversations with the emerging writers in my classroom about what the lyric essay is, exactly. They’re curious about what makes it tick, (Is it the poetic quality of the language? The formal experimentation? The use of white space? All of the above?) and how to master it as eloquently and as (seemingly) effortlessly as Eula Biss in her essay “The Pain Scale” or Claudia Rankine in her Citizen, or Ander Monson in his “I Have Been Thinking About Snow.” We spend time in class mapping each of these essays, seeking answers to big questions about content and form. I encourage my students to experiment with the lyric essay, themselves, which often represents a first departure from the linear narrative prose intro creative nonfiction students write, and an important step toward finding a unique writerly voice. As a result, every semester several of my students will bring pieces into workshop crafted with the lyric essay in mind. Teaching the lyric essay works for my teaching style and classroom, but I know the form is also somewhat contentious in academic spaces. So let’s start there.

Erica, you consider yourself not only an essayist, but a lyric essayist. You began writing lyric essays as an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska, and they remain a strong (if not the defining) aspect of your identity as a writer. I’m wondering what your experiences with the lyric essay within the academy have been like? Have you encountered any resistance to the form and your personal identification with it?

Erica Trabold: Something I learned as a brand new MFA student: it’s contentious to call yourself a “lyric essayist.” I had just left Nebraska for a program in Oregon, and the students in my cohort were meeting for the first time, introducing ourselves and our work around the dinner table. “Are you sure you write lyric essays?” a second-year student interrupted me to ask. “What even is a lyric essay?” That’s when my face got hot.

“I like D’Agata’s explanation,” I said, “that a lyric essay is dependent on gaps and images.” My answer was built on definitions, and I didn’t necessarily feel any of them were new. The term has its origins in Seneca Review’s Fall 1997 issue, the first in which the journal devoted page space to the subgenre by name. In Seneca Review’s oft-cited editorial note, Deborah Tall and John D’Agata offer a basic definition, and that’s what I was drawing from:
The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.
With this work, Tall and D’Agata opened their submission queue to writing that “accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically,” is “no more than metaphors,” or circles “the core of a single image or idea, without climax, without a paraphrasable theme.” In sum, the editorial note resists the idea that narrative or argument are the only driving forces behind publishable nonfiction writing. Though a thing always exists before it is named—in 1997, a subgenre was born…. twenty-some years later I was still being asked to defend and define it.

“Are you sure you write lyric essays? What even is a lyric essay?”

Although I identify as a lyric essayist, I ask myself some version of these questions every time I sit down to write. Maybe that’s a product of self-doubt, or maybe these are questions worth asking. I guess I’m not too interested in the difference, only in noticing how the questions are so easily weaponized and uttered in skepticism. I even do it to myself, instead of embracing the freedom and flexibility of the form.

I’ve heard a number of writers express similar suspicion over the term “lyric essay” over the years. Some want it gone, replaced, or shifted to another genre entirely. I get it. Even with our definitions, “lyric essay” remains a hard category to pin down, and like the term “creative nonfiction,” carries with it an encyclopedic volume of baggage. But I worry the contents of these conversations will never really change. When it comes to “lyric essay,” I wonder… besides drawing and redrawing the lines of definition, what else can we talk about in 2019?

ZB: That’s a good question. I’ve heard all kinds of interpretations of the lyric essay both in the workshops I teach and the workshops I’ve taken, ranging from narrow definitions that strictly conform to John D’Agata and Deborah Tall’s original conversation to much broader understandings of the form that seem to encompass just about anything. Both are valid, as the only real rule in essaying is that there are always exceptions to the rules.

So I agree that getting hung up on finding an exact definition for the lyric essay can be antithetical to creativity, especially in the workshop setting. For example, in one of my graduate workshops, a peer brought in a piece she titled “a lyric essay” that was comprised of one linear narrative broken up into short sections with lots of white space spread across several pages. Whether the piece was in fact “lyric” or not, no one can actually say. But much of that class was spent arguing over the definition of “lyric essay” before we actually got around to discussing the content of her work. I’m sure that was a frustrating experience for her, and it’s one I’m not keen to repeat in my own classes.

Luckily, there has been a distinct shift in how writers talk about the lyric essay now and when John D’Agata and Deborah Tall’s definition first cemented it as a subgenre. Of course, we can’t know what Tall would think of the lyric essay in 2019, but in the years since their collaboration D’Agata has revisited the definition numerous times, calling into question the very foundation of what the lyric essay is and whether the distinction between lyric and other forms is still relevant in the ever-shifting universe of the essay at large.

And though it might be easy for folks to dismiss this as the usual D’Agata move, stirring things up in the writing world, he’s definitely not the only one. Far from protecting the integrity of the form, lyric essayists in particular seem the least willing to interrogate what the term means. This movement from the need to delineate the lyric essay as different from other essayistic forms in 1997 to Eula Biss stating the definition “doesn’t matter” in her 2007 essay “It Is What It Is,” to now, more than ten years later, appears to be in favor of embracing in that ambiguity—or, at least, resigning oneself to it. The titles of recent works on the lyric essay seem to follow in this spirit, as seen in Biss’ essay and also the 2015 Seneca Review anthology, We Might As Well Call It the Lyric Essay.

So I’m wondering now where you consider your stance to fall along this spectrum. Is the lyric essay a readily identifiable form, or is it something one can only really know when they see it? Do you feel this delineation between lyric and other essay forms is an important aspect of your identity as a writer?

ET: Is it important? That’s a good question, and perhaps, if I re-enter the conversation I had with my classmate, it’s a version of what they were asking. I think it’s incredibly important to call a lyric essay I’ve written a “lyric essay.” Whether in a workshop, submission, or editorial situation, those words mean the essay will be read and responded to appropriately. Nothing is more frustrating than getting feedback or edits that go against the spirit of the lyric essay—gaps, images, repetition, meditation, subtlety, music—and ask it to be something else. No matter the genre, I would guess most of us want our work to be read through the lens of the form we’re aiming for. In that sense, I find the label so important.

That said, I think many of us know a “lyric essay” when we see one, but terms used to categorize genre are often co-opted and decided for us by marketing departments. Sometimes I read a memoir and think, “That didn’t really feel like a memoir to me at all.” Turns out the writer wanted to publish it as fiction. In another example that comes to mind, a writer published each “chapter” of her memoir individually as essays, and through the editorial process, numbers got slapped on. What am I getting at? I think savvy readers know when something doesn’t feel right or fit the category we’re trying to smash it into. And in those cases, a label can do more harm than good. I’m of the opinion that writers should be allowed to name and define their own work—if I say I write “lyric essays,” be generous first and try to understand why, try to understand how it uses the tools of that form to create meaning.

ZB: Right. The trouble with labels and categories, of course, is that by definition they must include some things while excluding others. Implicit in naming the lyric essay—in naming anything—is the imposition of limitations as to what something called “the lyric essay” should look like, should encompass, and even who it should be written by. But how does one begin to categorize a form that “forsake[s] narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation” but is also distinctly something other than poetry? Geoffrey Babbitt interrogates this very problem in his recent essay, “On Categories,” wherein he points out how “naming an in-between, such as the lyric essay—which Tall and D’Agata originally defined as a ‘sub-genre that straddles the essay and the lyric poem’—can show just how arbitrary categorization is.”

I’d say giving the lyric essay a name provides clarity, and clarity can be a useful thing. When we can identify what an essay is doing, this helps us in turn identify what the essay is doing well for purposes of workshop, critique, and other professional pursuits. For instance, the term “creative nonfiction” only came into contemporary usage around the 1970s because writers needed a way to categorize their work for the National Endowment of the Arts. Then they needed an official name for what they were teaching in the academy. Publishers needed a category for selling books and literary journals for accepting submissions. In a similar vein, Seneca Review needed a name for its contest, and, as Babbitt makes clear, the lyric essay was closest to the kind of work they were seeking. So in light of all this, we might understand the tendency toward distancing the lyric essay from certainty to be a form of resistance to the academy’s obsession with categorization—a way of protecting the lyric essay from becoming institutionalized in the same way other creative forms have been.

ET: Exactly—I think we wade into murky waters by institutionalizing and syllabizing our subgenres. Plenty of academics offer interesting critiques about boundaries, terminology, and ethics, and I think these are conversations unique to the nonfiction genre. I want to get curious about that. Even in pedagogy, I notice a hesitation among creative writing teachers to teach the term “lyric essay” to students. Mostly, they seem worried about our genre’s relationship to truth.

Perhaps some of the hesitation is rooted in the myriad reactions to D’Agata’s 2012 book The Lifespan of a Fact. As that conversation has continued in our classrooms, I’ve noticed a fair amount misunderstanding and conflating. First of all, the book is not about lyric essays; it’s about nonfiction writing en total. It questions just how much nonfiction writers should believe in or rely on “facts.” Some of us don’t like that idea. Isn’t our genre built on facts? Shouldn’t we defend them? If we don’t, what separates our work from fiction? Of course, these are fair questions to ask. But again, The Lifespan of a Fact is not a book about lyric essays—it’s only by association the stigmas get attached to the subgenre and passed onto our students.

Anyway, I think the truth vs. fact conversation is pretty tired. They’re two abstract concepts I don’t see entirely at odds and never have. We can allow our writing to push against while playing within the boundaries of the truth—we know this already. Stopping another writer short from that playfulness is a kind of gatekeeping. It keeps us from having more meaningful conversations about what the lyric essay can accomplish. I see the lyric essay as a place of resistance and especially useful for writers with marginalized identities.

ZB: I’m glad you bring this up, Erica. You’re right that it’s probably time for the conversation around the lyric essay to shift from definition to other questions about who is actually writing the lyric essay, and why. Because I feel like the answers haven’t been examined much beyond the pervasive assumption that only (white) women write them. For instance, Lyzette Wanzer, in her excellent addition to Essay Daily’s 2018 Advent Calendar, “Finding A Way In: Teaching the Lyric Essay” asks why there seems to be, in her words, a “dearth” of men writing lyric essays. I appreciate Wanzer’s question as one certainly worth exploring, though I’m not sure I buy the notion that men aren’t writing lyric essays, per se. I can think of several well-known male lyric essayists or, if preferred, male writers who have been known to write lyric essays, other than the handful Wanzer mentions. There’s John D’Agata, Matthew Gavin Frank, Eric LeMay, Ander Monson, and Dinty W. Moore to name only a few of my favorites. Erica, you could probably name even more!

But accepting Wanzer’s assertion at face value, I think one potential answer for the popularity of the lyric essay among women writers might be its ability to successfully subvert (white, western, heteronormative) literary tradition. That is, the lyric essay takes many of the cardinal rules of “good” writing—linear structure, clear chronology, plot—and throws them out the window in favor of embracing liminality and uncertainty, which are spaces many women inhabit.

The conversation about women and the lyric essay parallels, in many ways, the grouping of women and what’s often called the “confessional” essay form. The confessional essay has been criticized for being what detractors call “too singular,” detailing personal experiences with everything from medical nightmare scenarios to rape and sexual assault in plain, honest language. I wrote a response on the Brevity blog a couple of years ago now to the infamous New Yorker piece, “The Personal Essay Boom is Over,” which touches on the issues surrounding this kind of criticism in greater depth. But in short, the confessional essay is often unfairly dismissed as less serious than other forms of nonfiction writing, and those who write them are not considered “real writers” in the literary sense. That women just so happen to make up the majority of so-called “confessional essayists” is no coincidence, and I worry that categorizing the lyric essay as a predominantly “women’s” form distracts from the amazing genre-pushing work these essayists are doing.

So in this same vein, I wonder whether the rush backward in the conversation surrounding the nomenclature of the lyric essay is actually good or bad for the women writing them. That is, would the end of distinguishing lyric essays from other kinds work better credit women lyric essayists as “real writers,” or does it erase the recognition these women have worked so hard to establish in the genre? It’s a complicated question, and one I’m not sure has a definite answer one way or the other. But I’d be curious to hear your thoughts, Erica.

ET: Those are difficult questions to answer—I think we can agree that it is pretty messed up there is anyone out there who believes they have the power to call someone a “real writer” or not. Unfairly, women have had to fight harder for their work and lives to be taken as “serious matters” worth writing about. However, I don’t think this is just a question about women. Let’s invite all our intersectional identities to the party—writers of color, queer writers, writers with disabilities, writers of multiple languages and multiple Englishes. Let’s reclaim our marginal spaces, like the “lyric essay”—for absolute sure—but I don’t think new definitions are necessary.

For me, “lyric” is perhaps more a quality than a category. There are conventions unique to the subgenre—gaps, silences, white space, images, and association, to name a few. Maybe a piece has some of those lyric qualities and not others—just like every writer has a unique amalgamation of intersecting identities. “Tracks,” one of the essays in my book, Five Plots, is more narrative than anything I’ve ever written, and I’m okay with that. Because it’s still using many of the conventions of the lyric essay while letting others go. We have to be able to allow ourselves that space to decide what selection of tools are useful for a project. And it’s a really powerful thing for a writer to be able to name their own work, instead of having it named for them. Writers should be allowed to assume the identities they see appropriate for themselves.

ZB: You know, in considering why we’re seeing a tendency to distance the lyric essay from its nomenclature, I can’t help but think how this ambivalence is so germane to the lyric essay, and what the form supposed to symbolize. I mean, could a something as liminal, marginal, even queer as the lyric essay exist any other way? In some ways, this movement is reminiscent of creative nonfiction as a genre, up to and including marrying the words “creative” and “nonfiction” together as a stand in for what it is we essayists do. As I tell my students in their introductory workshops, one of the first paradoxes of nonfiction is that it’s named for what it is not—and it only gets weirder from there.

So it is with the lyric essay, which is both lyrical and essayistic but also so much more expansive than any pair of words could encompass. The lyric essay doesn’t follow the “rules” of creative nonfiction (most lyric essays spectacularly fail Lee Gutkind’s “Yellow Test”). It defies traditional narrative prescription, and makes itself comfortable occupying the spaces between artistic normativity. All of which is why it’s important when we talk about lyric essaying to look beyond binaries. You’re right—when the conversation is focused on women and the lyric essay, as it often is, it can be easy to overlook the amazing genre-bending work by trans and nonbinary writers who tend toward lyrical forms in their nonfiction, like Clutch T. Fleischmann, Berry Grass, and Krys Malcolm Belc (to name just a few). The lyric essay and liminality go hand in hand, so it makes sense that queer-identifying folx are choosing this form of written expression in particular, and I’d like to see this method more widely embraced in the worlds of academia and publishing, where these voices have traditionally been excluded.

ET: Wholeheartedly, I agree! In a time when embracing fluidity is essential to positive changes in our culture, why go on resisting the expansiveness the lyric essay offers? The binaries have to to go—including and especially truth-fact. Let’s continue to update our thinking, as teachers and writers.

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Zoë Bossiere is a PhD candidate at Ohio University, where she studies creative nonfiction and rhetoric and composition. She is the Managing Editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction and a podcast host for the New Books Network. Visit her at her website, zoebossiere.com or on Twitter @zoebossiere.

Erica Trabold is the author of Five Plots, selected as the inaugural winner of the Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize. Trabold's lyric essays appear in The Rumpus, Passages North, The Collagist, Seneca Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of Oregon State University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Erica writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon. Find Erica on Twitter @ericatrabold and the web at ericatrabold.com

Friday, March 1, 2019

Chris Wiewiora: From Defense to Offense

Brian,

Before my buddy Andrew and I earned our MFAs at Iowa State, I sent him your proem “Hoop—a hymn” from The American Scholar. We shared lit mags like passes. By then, we were at the pinnacle of our games and at the trough of our writing, but we had started going to courts a year before that.

Recently, I got a copy of your last book, also named Hoop, and read it, but I didn’t know how I could write about it and about you, since you’re dead. I thought I should write you a letter despite you not being able to read it, because open letters aren’t really written to one person, but to a team, either one you played for or against. I want to revel in the play back in Ames with Andrew. Your book reminded me of all those outdoor and indoor courts, our outfits, players, and games, and the fun of it all, and affirm your question, “Could it possibly be that sport is more than sport?”

Andrew and I wanted to do something instead of sit at home and write; work on our theses that we called manuscripts and thought of as books. We were probably as delusional as college ballers thinking they’d go pro. In your chapter, “My College Basketball Career,” you recalled the humbling fact that you weren’t going on because you were already at your pinnacle of your game and “there is some blunt straightforward admirable integrity about this that says something subtle and true about the sport, and about those who play it.”

For us, our first game was at Meeker Elementary School—an outside, cracked and sloped asphalt court with hoops facing east and west so that we had to play half-court with our backs to the afternoon sun. Everyone who we rounded up at Meeker had played ball before as kids. They had probably played in suburban driveways against siblings or cousins in neighborhoods like mine. My daily uniform to middle school during the mid-90s in Central Florida was an extra-large T-shirt, mesh gym shorts, and high top Jordan’s. I wasn’t any fanatic, except that my paternal grandmother lived in Chicago and who else was I going to root for except M.J. and the championship-winning Bulls?

Nonetheless, I didn’t grow up as a winning shooter, an offender. Instead, I followed the ball and knew what your brother had told you that, “You don’t have to steal the ball; all you have to do is get a hand on it, deflect it, distract the shooter.” However, that ethos wasn’t good enough to get on my middle school’s team, when I tried out, but it didn’t stop me from playing in driveways, scrapping for the ball. That’s how I played as a kid and that’s how I played when I was back on the court as an adult.

After that first game at Meeker a pain pulsed in my sides too used to sitting. A cramp from running, from hustling, from defending on the court. Nobody had brought water and there were no water fountains. I heaved, but smiled, thirsty to play more.

Andrew and I were so relieved to find an escape from the tyranny of our theses. Andrew with a novel that everyone thought would be the novel our program would be known for. During summer before our final year, we roadtripped from Iowa to West Virginia. Andrew would research mountain top removal and Appalachian families. I was going to attend a nonfiction conference in Ohio. I was hoping to use it as a retreat and figure out the second half of my memoir. We stopped in Kentucky and Andrew fielded e-mails from agents. Plural. A bunch of literary scouts who seemed to want him. They were reading fifty pages of his manuscript and that was one step closer to readers reading a book by him, except that the agents all turned his manuscript down. They wanted him to do a bit more with it, like a baller going abroad to play in a European league before coming back to go pro. His manuscript’s title sounded his frustration: Blasting at Big Ugly.

Andrew and I didn’t know if we would find answers to our manuscripts’ questions: What happened? Both our theses featured intergenerational family sagas. Andrew’s more expansive in scope about a family rooted in mining the mountains and then protesting the practice, while mine followed my perspective of growing up as a son of overseas Christian missionaries who served behind the “Iron Curtain,” before moving back to the States. I had written about my childhood memories in a foreign country, but I didn’t have much to write about my family’s faith except my abandoning it like an air ball. I couldn’t find a way to pass the narrative from growing up as a non-Polish speaking American Pole in Poland to becoming a teenager in Florida with my Evangelical family. The title of my thesis gaped at the space between heritage and memory: The distance is more than an ocean.

Off the page, we knew our roles on the court: Defense or Offense. I don’t mean that we were trying to escape all language. I’m sure Andrew would know how to read every line of body language in your chapter “Getting the Nod” : “pats chest, pointing of a finger, raises his hand, curt nod, touching of hands, wink,” because we did all that when we arrived in a small town of West Virginia and walked down to the city park and played one-on-one.

My orange ball gleamed off the metal backboard like the reflecting sun. We had to aim our shots to skim across the sheen and into the rim or plop a swish straight into the net. The net, too, might have been metal like chain-link, or mail, a connecting fence or a protecting armor, and I imagine it metallically tinkled instead of whooshed through nylon. It’s hard to remember since even the air looked distorted, boiling. It was humid in the trough of the city’s hill. Our sweat clung to our skin, unable to evaporate. Salt sparkled on top. And we had just driven two back-to-back days. Andrew probably wasn’t down for a game so soon, but it all added up to me winning.

That game was before Andrew figured out that I favored the right wing for jumpers and left for hooks. This was before Andrew closed the space in games so I couldn’t dart to the basket for an attempt at a quick lay up and then make-it-take-it again. Before he would turn around, like your brother, with his back to my chest and dribble down the lane, not needing to unlock a shot from the top of the key, and instead he would shuffle against me until he was close enough to easily turn and shoot—mostly making it—while I could only dance with him and then try for a rebound.

When I left Andrew for the conference in Ohio I felt a foreshadowing loneliness. I sped past buggies rolling along the shoulder of Amish country. I went to a craft discussion on art-i-fact in nonfiction, skipped my manuscript review, and stopped correcting the awed other participants who gushed about me being at Iowa. It took too much to explain that, No, I didn’t go to the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City, and that the Nonfiction Program was separate, anyway, but I was at Iowa State’s multi-genre, place-based Creative Writing and Environment Program in Ames.

From my single room in the dorms, I walked over to a court. A jagged net barely hung from several rungs around the rim. Cracks split the court’s cement. Nobody else from the conference was there and I had my ball, a still sticky new rubber Spalding. I took shots for less than an hour; self-conscious of my ball careening off the double rim or rolling away after a miss, and either way retrieving it myself.

I spent the rest of the conference back in my room. I drafted an essay about skateboarding when I used to do it alone until I found a friend to ride with. I should’ve known my thesis was doomed to not become a book if I didn’t care to write it.

After summer we started playing nearly exclusively at Brookside Park. Its court was closest to Andrew’s duplex downtown. He didn’t own a car. He had biked 20 blocks up to Meeker with a basketball tucked under his T-shirt, but at Brookside he could dribble over the bridge above the train tracks and I could drive.

In fall, we wanted to go outside and play, get out of our offices of grading and co-workers’ conversations about composition, which really wasn’t writing. Or conversations about what we would do after grad school. Or meetings with students. I taught in the mornings and held all my office hours only on Friday afternoons so the students who really cared would show up. I had any other weekday afternoon open and free to receive a text from Andrew: Brookside?

I wouldn’t answer, “Brookside,” to your chapter title’s question of “What Was the Worst Gym You Ever Played In?” Brookside wasn’t like your worst gym, the dusty Saint William the Abbot’s gym where you could “slide through the dust leaving long runnels behind you and contrails raised by your passage.” Brookside was this bucolic, but quirky, skinny court between several full-sized tennis courts and an ultimate Frisbee field. I don’t know why the city of Ames hadn’t made the court professional width, or at least sunken in only one hoop lengthwise to make a regulation half-court. Instead it was another east and west poled court. We mostly played facing east and not just because of the sun but the west side ended just as the park sloped down to the park’s namesake: a brook.

In addition to Andrew and my afternoon one-on-one games, we would meet up with a rotating cast of ballers. We knew them from other cohort’s writers, or guys in relationships with gals in the program, or folks around town or the university. We mostly used their last names since some shared the same first names. They sounded like ballers or writers. The Nicks: Bognavich and Brennick. The Wills: Bonfiglio and Osterholtz. Also: Gran and Kolbe. I wonder if you and the rest of your brothers all just went by first names on the court, or if you were counted off as Doyle One, Doyle Two, Doyle Three…. If we had another Andrew, then it would’ve sounded right to say my friend’s sportsy last name. I had seen it on jerseys and I could imagine it on a book jacket: Payton.

As you wrote, “Names are fluid things on basketball courts.” But we never called any big guy “Meat” like you did after your buddy Tommy Crotty whose “mother called [him] husky, which is another word for unsculpted.” We didn’t say anything like that aloud, even if we thought some of those big guys we later played in State Gym were jerks or the high schoolers at City Gym were ball-hoggers. We didn’t name them, we just didn’t play with them again.

Still, there is a language—a verbal language—of the game. Nobody needs to see any movement for knowing play: “We got next! My bad. Little help! Shoot that! Pick left. Pick right. Yo! Ball! I’m open! Who’s got that guy? Good game.” As I read Hoop I wrote down all the words of the game that you used, that we used, that every baller uses; and the list is a list of mostly action, a chain of movements in the moment, a list attempting to relive them: pick, roll, drive, D, pass, pump, box, pass, stutter, screen, pass, sink. But there are other phrases and words that recall memories. The joy of play. The frustration of injury.

On one of those one-on-one afternoons, Andrew and I met at Brookside and someone had cranked the adjustable hoop down to a dunkable level. How could we not resist recording each other on our cell phones doing what we couldn’t normally do? Recently, I watched one of those videos I took of Andrew. I’m kneeling, but holding the cell’s camera above the court. There is no frame of reference for the viewer. Only blue sky in the background, the hoop in the fore until I say, “Watch him fly,” and Andrew jumps in and he does as I say, “Dunkin’ it.”

On another afternoon, Andrew yelled, “Fuck!” He sprawled on the ground with his hand clasped around his leg. I thought he might have tweaked his knee or maybe hurt his back, because he had bent his knee and he laid on his back, but then he probably wouldn’t have bent his knee or laid on his back if either were hurt. Andrew leaned on me while I got him up to my car and took him home.

I cursed the same as Andrew did when my injury happened, but it was entirely different circumstances. I cursed at a person not at the situation. My left forefinger hardly bent 10 degrees. The skin—initially blackened with dead blood—turned purple, blue, and then lightened to a swamp green.

I believe the finger’s knuckle had been cracked. To this day I can’t curl it as fully as my right. Thankfully I’m right-handed. The next time in class I set my left hand on the podium and one of my students glimpsed the monstrous appendage and dry heaved. All my other students wanted to know what had happened.

It happened during a shifting from gloaming to nighttime at Brookside. During an over-populated, full-court, one-last-game game. During some fast break with some hot shot on my team. During a blind pass across the court. I raised my left hand to shield my face and the ball smashed my finger.

These were your “Common Colds of Basketball Injuries,” but that doesn’t mean they didn’t hurt us. We remembered them because they took us out of the game, took us away from fun, took us back to the page, to our grad work. I can’t remember how long it took for us to return to the court tentatively and tenderly. We were still up for a good game to go down, but it had to happen indoors with the onset of winter since snow and ice began to cover the outdoor courts.

We could’ve quit. Taken our injuries and nursed them at home past recovery. We could’ve said we needed to keep working on our theses. Stayed at our desks and wrote away. But our hands still curled with the sphere of a ball, even if they held a crumpled wad of another draft. Our eyes still flicked to baskets, even if they looked at wastebaskets. We still made shots, arced into the air.

That winter, I felt like I needed to be invited to a new court. I wasn’t one to search alone. Andrew ran offense, the go-get-’em. I supported defense, the stay and stop. Then, Brennick told us that there were hoops around Lied Gym’s recreational track where his girlfriend played indoor soccer.

And so, we practiced on rubber courts that left our feet blistered from friction heat for an ill-fated 3-on-3 intramural league. We had to wear a set of gym-provided mesh tanks. Our first and only uniforms other than shirts and skins.

During the tournament, you would’ve been glad to know that I almost drew enough fouls to bench me when I tired to reach around our opposing corn-fed undergrad boys, but they beat us before that. Despite losing, I didn’t care. I was playing with my friends on our hastily named team: Just-for-Fun.

Maybe it was Brennick, too, who told us the usual on-campus parking meters didn’t count for Sundays at State Gym, where we had lost in intramurals. However, in spring, we soon figured out that in the mornings we wouldn’t be up against corn-fed or ball-hogging boys, but fellow grad students and a few young instructors who understood a good game wasn’t about winning, but having fun. I don’t want you to think that we didn’t play our best just because we played for fun. We played so that our team played its best, because next game we might be playing with someone who we manned up against would be who set down a screen for us.

Now, I want to call you out on writing about your lack of team play. You blew off the idea of manning-up or zone coverage in the glib “In My Defense,” because you got bored. Bored? You believed that basketball was geometry and calculus and small-not-small moments and other metaphors that don’t connect to the game’s only two plays: offense and defense. You missed out on half the game!

You loved to offend—I mean play offense—like I loved to defend. I can only understand your desire to score with my desire to block when I had manned up on Andrew at State Gym. As we came down from a rebound his elbow knocked my eyebrow. I don’t know who took possession, but I was ready to keep playing, but everyone else had stopped. There wasn’t the scuffle and squeak of dusty or dry rubber on glossed wood. Someone must have held the ball, because there wasn’t any bouncing echo. Only laborious breathing. Then, the sliding drip off my nose thicker than sweat.

Someone got a gym attendant who ushered me to the bathroom. He tried to block the view of me bloodied while asking me loaded questions: “You alright, right? You don’t want to call an ambulance? Won’t some super glue work better than stitches?”

I agreed.

I washed my face. The cut looked clean, popped open from pressure. It would leave a scab and then a Monday story to tell my speechless students and finally a scar that I see in every mirror and reminds me of the worth—not the cost—of play. No apologies necessary, because it wasn’t a jerk play, just ball.

It’s not that you don’t get it right elsewhere in Hoop—picking the “rat baller” when choosing guys, the humiliating acceptance that there will always be a guy better than you, the funk of workout clothes, and the fact that “you cannot tie up all the loose ends” even as a father with a son’s laces—it’s that you claimed nolo contentardo. You’re not guilty and not not guilty. It’s that as a baller you weren’t accurately or fairly or honestly or sportsman-likely one to call your own fouls and outs. You were dishonest, and I don’t believe honestly confessing it all later earned you forgiveness, only told your truth: “I was a terrible defensive player from the start and never got any better.”

And in the interest of calling out, here’s a not-foul foul that I’ll call on myself:

During the too cold and gray and snowy weekdays we used our saved quarters from State Gym’s weekend free parking to pay for playing at City Gym. City Gym was a full court, indoor facility, but we usually played half-court since seniors played pickleball on the other half. We didn’t have to bring water or our own balls, because City offered both.

Andrew and I would play epic lunchtime games of one-on-one. My “ogre finger,” as I came to call it, could flex enough to palm a ball and somewhat dribble. Andrew didn’t hobble on his ankle anymore, but didn’t stomp on the gas while driving to the basket.

I circled the wings trying to find space but Andrew crouched and spread and claimed the ground and air. I dribbled clockwise around the three-point line and then broke in, getting my sneakers near the paint, pressuring Andrew to cut and try to block. Instead, his ankle gave as I released a left-handed hook that caught the rim and sank down through the net to the floor where Andrew clutched his blown ankle.

I was thrilled to make the shot, but disappointed at the cost of causing pain for the point. I used Andrew’s weakened body for the play. One basket won wasn’t worth many games lost. I didn’t do it again. And maybe that made me a lesser player, but I know it made me a better friend.

That’s where and who and what you got right: on the court and with your pals, your brothers, and, later, your sons, and with your songs. In “Laughing and Jigging and Laughing,” you recalled warming up to the Talking Head’s “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)”—which I remember played at so many of the house parties in Ames—and you rhetorically asked, “Who doesn’t dig this song?”

Your song selection makes me think of “Let the Good Times Roll” by Ray Charles that I played in my car on a rainy Sunday. This was springtime when everything began to get lush on the way to State. Andrew and I were done with our theses and only needing to defend, and, of course, I was ready for that.

Somehow on this day—the day I remember as my best game, because don’t we all have our best like we have our worst, and we should call out both—I was selected to be a shooter as it happens in games. I didn’t ask. It just happened. What you called, “This Unconscious Sureness” happened. This big guy—a Meat—passed me the ball and set a pick on my man and I darted for the basket and dropped the ball in. This great defense to offense connection happened for the entire game. I felt like I was playing at the rim. Floating up there. Or sending the ball, arcing a clear trajectory from the corners for threes. Or aiming for the square and bouncing the ball off the backboard. Or plunking it right in. Nothing but net.

“No game is ever the same,” you wrote in “Hints and Intimations.” And it wasn’t. Not after that. Maybe there would have been, but I never really played for myself like that. I didn’t go to the courts to practice dribbling or shooting alone. I didn’t plunk down quarters at City when I knew Andrew wasn’t going to be there. I didn’t go to State by myself. And I only went to Brookside by myself once, long after my cohort had all graduated with me, but all of them moved away from Ames to anywhere else. I stood in that quiet and empty space with my ball on my hip and then I dribbled and shot against no one, for no rebounds, and it was so different, so lonely.

I was so conscious of playing by myself that it affected the game. I knew what I was doing instead of just doing it. I wasn’t doing it anymore with my team, or against another team. I wasn’t defending an offender.

There was no communication with anyone on the court. I had missed that language, the body language, what you called “a sort of language that sometimes is about competition and other times might be about theater, or summer, or friendship, or channeled war, or communal vibrancy, or refuge, or catharsis, or reinvention, or salvation, or lots of those things all at once.” And it was none of that anymore.

Sincerely,
Chris

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Chris Wiewiora earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University where he played pickup basketball mostly defense as well as on an intramural team "Just for Fun." He previously contributed "My Selected Marginalia, Pulled Quotes, and Underlining from Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures" to Essay Daily for National Poetry Month, April 2018. His nonfiction has also been published in Sport Literate and anthologized in Best American Sports Writing 2016. He has written an essay collection about his reading life tentatively titled ON THE PAGE. Read more at www.chriswiewiora.com


Monday, February 18, 2019

Matthew Dube on James Agee

ON LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN


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Harold Bloom describes the confrontation with the masterwork as “a psychic battlefield upon which authentic voices struggle for… the divinating triumph over oblivion” (Poetry and Repression 2). In other words, when writers encounter a masterwork, they rebel, fearing that if they can’t write better than the masterwork, they will cease to exist. Thankfully for me, I approached Let Us Now Praise Famous Men not as a writer in competition with its author James Agee, but just a reader. Even so, there was a curious sense of dissolving reading this book-length collage, of forms breaking apart, as if through his Olympian effort, Agee stepped outside the limits of genre or the need to create a discrete, unified, unitary text.


In 1936, James Agee went south with photographer Walker Evans on an assignment from Fortune magazine to create, in Agee’s words, “a photographic and verbal record of the daily living and environment of an average white family of tenant farmers” (IX). Agee’s ambitions ballooned from there, until he imagined a trilogy to be called Three Tenant Families. Fortune magazine passed on printing the prose and photographs Agee and Evans returned with. Agee himself only ever wrote the first volume in his planned trilogy, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and the material in this book can be found in a variety of formats, with and without the photographs, and under a couple different titles.

But as varied as the publishing formats of this material, the prose styles Agee uses are even more various. The differences between narrative sections, like “At the Forks” where Agee and Walker Evans encounter some local farmers, or the more poetic listing of “Clothing,” or the straight-up self-analysis cum artist’s statement of the three “On The Porch” sections, but especially section 2, unsettle our experience of what “non-fiction” looks like. In this long strophe, Agee is at his most revealing about his project, telling us about the real circumstances of his writing (“We lay on the front porch to the left of the hall as you enter” (197) and also his spiritual progress toward joy (“It is our consciousness alone, in the end, that we have to thank for joy" (199)), notes on his artistic aims (“the hearing and seeing of complex music in every effect and in causes of every effect” (204)), and interrogations of those aims (“Granted that beside that fact it is a small thing, and granted also that it is essentially and finally a hopeless one” (206)), as well  as playing with language and its formal concerns ("George Gudger is a human being, a man” (205) becomes “George Gudger is a man, et cetera” (211)). The mercurial flash of styles and ideas in the book as a whole are all present in “On the Porch 2,” and vice versa.

One needn’t wait till halfway through the book to witness the variety and Agee’s play with forms. Rather, it is already on display in Agee’s “Design of the Book,” this book’s table of contents, which mixes sections titled “Verses” or “Preamble,” which suggest a written document, with sections like “Intermission: Conversation in the Lobby,” which imply an ongoing, real-time performance, and other sections with titles like “Money,” “Work” and the aforementioned “Clothing,” which suggest an inventory of sorts, whether commercial or philanthropic or sociological. In other words, Agee’s book takes place between different modes and styles, and you see this long before you realize that the “Notes and Appendices,” traditionally the last section of a report, precedes the book’s final significant strophe.

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What about Agee’s own confrontation with Bloom’s “strong poet”? In other words, who is Agee writing through and against? In “Notes and Appendices” (395), he namechecks Faulkner for the first time. And a reader, in 1941 when the book was first published or now, when s/he hears that this book documents an encounter with sharecroppers in the deepest parts of the Deep South, is likely to think of Faulkner and the shadow he must cast. Let me tell you, Agee’s writing overlaps with Faulkner’s as little as possible. There’s an internal boundary you find in Faulkner’s monologues, the sense that for Benjy or Quentin or whoever is talking, they soon meet the limit of what they can say, and that for that reason the articulation is always incomplete. Agee’s ear is tuned more to external forces, to what has been said over the course of human history, through our literature. At one point, he even admits his discomfort at writing in dialect. If his voice is rooted in anything, it is in his own cosmopolitan, hyper-literate self, which has already shown itself to be kaleidoscopic.

Agee credits other writers in his work, including William Blake, Jesus Christ, and Sigmund Freud in the “People and Places” family tree he gives us near the start of his book, and he interpolates a review of Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White’s book You Have Seen Their Faces in his own book, a similar volume to the one Agee has produced, if maybe more indebted to journalism than whatever literary trip Agee is off on. And Caldwell’s name does crop up a couple times in this book, though when it does it is usually in counterpoint to what Agee thinks he is doing.

Instead, the writer Agee never mentions but who feels most influential is Henry David Thoreau, especially Walden. In fact, I think the best test to determine if you’d enjoy Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is to ask how you feel about Walden, how you maintain your readerly equilibrium in the shifts between “Economy,” where Thoreau outlines the exact costs for his plan to live by the lake and the more visionary/ philosophical/ lyric section “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.” In fact, Agee’s book owes a lot to Walden, even though Walden really has only the two registers and Agee’s book has both of Thoreau’s and four or five all his own. Thoreau, if we strip him from his rooted historical consciousness, makes observing itself an act of praise, and this stripped-down listing is one of Agee’s rhetorical strategies. But like Thoreau, Agee can lift off from this quotidian listing into something empyrean at a moment’s notice, without troubling about that leap. But where Thoreau has those two primary modes, Agee has five or six to speak through.

*

Given that he introduces Freud as a “People and Place” early in the book, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Freud, or at least a Freudian mindset comes back at the book’s emotional (?) climax, or at least at that moment where, structurally, something like a climax can be expected.  I’m referring here to the “Inductions” section, which is placed at the crucial two-thirds point but which narrates one of the earliest moments in the book, a breakthrough with the Gudger family. Agee’s style in this section echoes high modernist narrative, something from Malco[l—?]m Lowry or Djuna Barnes, and features a very Freudian flashback, to eleven year old Agee masturbating while at his grandfather’s, years before (“I, this eleven-year-old, male, half-shaped child, pressing between the sharp hip bone and the floor my erection… striking over and over again the heel of my bruised hand against the sooty floor and the sweating and shaking my head in a sexual and murderous anger and despair” (335)), this as the prelude to a psychic break in the narrative’s present, when, driven by his erotic reverie to find a prostitute, Agee comments “That would do Via some bad damage, just as continuing to live with her is bound to” (339), Via being Olivia Saunders, Agee’s wife at that time, who has, until this point in Agee’s book, never been mentioned and who will never be mentioned again. It’s as if this eruption of his private life into the public text of the book is some return of the repressed. Looking for a sex worker, Agee gets caught in a torrential downpour, drives his car into a ditch, and he finds himself on the Gudgers’ porch (it’s worth mentioning that previously, he and Evans both have remarked on how attractive Gudger’s young wife is), and then, in a further Freudian turn, Agee is mothered-and-fathered by Gudger and wife and put to bed in the children’s bed. So, Freud, sure. He’s in there.

*

Every writer, but more so writers of non-fiction, must fear what the people they write about will think of how they are represented.  There are uncomfortable moments here, beyond lusting after his host’s wife. Those passages in “Clothing,” for example, where Agee describes what Margaret, age twenty, wears (“It is an elaboration of the sort of dress a ‘well-preserved,’ dark-haired, elegantly well-to-do, middle-aged woman might at some uncertain time during the last twenty years have worn formally” (250) and Paralee’s favorite dress (“exactly of the kind middle class girls of her age wear to town…. [except] in the wish for brilliance and emphasis and propriety, everything is overstepped” (ibid). So, if you’re a Dolly Parton fan, there are moments here that’ll make you cry.
But back to the point: what about Agee’s subjects? What will they think of his bathetic portraits of them?

They are illiterate, and were they able to read, their extreme poverty and distance from cultural capitals means they won’t ever see his book. This gives Agee license to be heartless in his portraits of them, to capture as much of our hearts as he wishes. When, in the 1989 book And Their Children After Them writer Dale Maharidge talks to Emma Woods, she said Agee got it wrong, that he misrepresented her experience so her character could bear the weight of Agee’s fantasy. It’s obviously problematic to say Agee’s fantasy is truer than Woods’ experience, especially in the era of #MeToo, but it’s not a lie to say that his book is pointed at a different goal than merely representing (though that’s surely in there, too).

*

What of the portraits? This is, after all, a book made from photographs of three families and their living spaces, and as Agee himself worries over repeatedly, his writing cannot quite capture the truth the way a camera can. Talking only about the writing like I’ve been doing here ignores the largest gap between styles, the photographic and the textual. It’s easy to note the disconnect between Evans posed photographs, where people are carefully arranged and often literally framed by their surroundings, doorways and window and the like, and Agee’s discursive, even impromptu prose, that admits no boundary to his interest or language.

And more than that, Evans’ photos in the book lack titles or any identifying information. When the photos are later cataloged in the Library of Congress American Memory Project, Evans identifies his subjects with names that don’t align with the names in Agee’s book. The photos stand in opposition to the text, which seems so particular about who is who and what is what. But maybe the tension here is overstated; maybe the goals of the two media are different. The photos document, while Agee illustrates. Unless I’ve got that backwards.




Matt Dube reads and writes for pay and pleasure in mid-Missouri. He is at work on the Lovecraft-adjacent, haunting-in-a-small-town novel that will either put this region on the map or wipe it out. It changes, day to day.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Lorraine Berry: Scorched Moths

Now light the candles; one; two; there's a moth;
What silly beggars they are to blunder in
And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame—
No, no, not that,—it's bad to think of war,
When thoughts you've gagged all day come back to scare you;
And it's been proved that soldiers don't go mad
Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts
That drive them out to jabber among the trees. 
(Repression of War Experience, Siegfried Sassoon)


1.


Robert Raymond, my maternal grandfather, died of his wounds on October 18, 1917. He was killed by a mortar blast at Nieuport, part of the front during the Third Battle of Ypres, which has come to be known as Passchendaele. (His death made a widow of Edith, and left his ten-month old daughter, Hilda, fatherless.)


2.


I sit down and attempt to write about my great-grandfather for the (lost count) time. I ask myself why I feel compelled to set his story down on paper, to give his death, just one of the ten million military personnel [1] who died during World War I, some kind of meaning.


3.

Robert was twenty-five years old when he died. He had served with the Lancashire Fusiliers, 1/7 Battalion beginning in November of 1914.

If Robert was deployed immediately after training, it means he would have been sent overseas to Egypt in defense of the Suez Canal. In 1915, he was shipped to Turkey, to fight against the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Gallipoli.


4.

The records show that his battalion sent 410 men to storm the cliffs. Only 137 men escaped unscathed. The eleven-month battle killed 100,000 troops from Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, and Britain. In addition to the dead, there were 300,000 casualties. One historian includes this detail taken from first-hand accounts written by officers.

“It took days for those dead to be buried, and as the thousands of corpses lay in the sun with their guts and their shattered limbs and their stove-in heads disgustingly exposed, the stench of death sickened the living for miles around.” [2]


5. 

After Gallipoli, Robert must have been granted a brief home leave. The reading I have done indicates that leaves lasted approximately two weeks. I have no records to prove that he had leave at this time, but my grandmother’s life serves as evidence. She was born in late November of 1916, which means that sometime in February, Robert came home to his wife, Edith Lavinia, whom he had married on May 25, 1912. They lived on Sherbourne Street, in tightly packed terraced houses built by the Britannia Mill to house its workers. The mill stood across the road from the houses. 


6.

One of the most common shared experiences for soldiers home on leave, regardless of which nation they were willing to die for, was the utter disconnect each soldier felt in their brief forays to the home front. After months of living in execrable conditions, they came back to homes where life had continued without them. 


7. 

In his memoir of his service, The Burning of the World, Béla Zombory-Moldován recounts a conversation he had with his uncle about the war’s potential outcome. 

His uncle said, “I accept that my position is not based on personal experience. For that very reason, I maintain that I am able to judge the facts more objectively. For you, everything is overshadowed by the traumatic experience that almost ended your life. The deductions you draw can’t be objective.” [3]

Those at home, of course, were not being told the “facts” in the newspaper accounts of battles. Journalists were not allowed on the front lines, and they were dependent upon the sanitized versions produced by each country’s war office. 


8. 

Even if the information had been accurate, soldiers on leave found that civilians refused to believe that their governments would sacrifice so many men for poorly defined, or even non-existent, reasons. 

In Schlump, Hans Herbert Grimm’s fictionalized account of the war he joined “in order to meet girls,” he quotes the man who blames Schlump for not being able to “contextualize” his own experiences. 

“[O]ne must differentiate between the longer and shorter point of view. From the shorter point of view all the war brings is sorrow, suffering and unbelievable torment. But seen from the longer perspective, one comes to a different conclusion … The individual is nothing, he has no intrinsic value, he is just part of a much larger totality, a nation. The individual has no soul, but a nation does. And the individual only has value when he is of use to his people.” [4]


9. 

A good portion of my undergraduate studies, a subject I pursued through the first part of graduate school, was reading about and researching how the working class organized itself against exploitation in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Many historians have argued that the First World War interrupted a nascent movement among workers to see themselves as linked to other workers, regardless of national boundaries. [5]

The First World War exposed how all of that solidarity with other workers shattered as each country’s workers declared their allegiance to their kings and countries and picked up arms against other workers. Whether this was a complete failure on the part of the period’s intellectuals to understand what workers wanted, or whether this new solidarity was too weak to bear up under the pressure of war, the longed-for international workers’ movement was disrupted by the hostilities. 

My family’s own history as evidenced by genealogical research is of generation after generation of workers, many of them in the textile trades in the Manchester area. In an earlier version of this article, I wondered why a worker like Robert Raymond, whose descendants were involved in twentieth century workers’ politics, should have taken up arms on behalf of his country. 

The editor who had commissioned me to write about my thoughts and reactions to Robert’s death as the centenary of the Armistice approached, returned my initial draft, stating that my questions indicated “intellectual unsophistication” that he found uninteresting, and that he was killing the article.


10.

Despite finding more evidence of the movement the editor had informed me “didn’t exist,” I decided that intellectual wrestling with Robert’s death was not likely to produce a satisfying rapprochement with the past. [6]


11.

Instead, reading the memoirs and novels written by those who had served during World War I provided me with emotional resonance. In the words of individual writers, I could imagine myself in Robert’s head. 


12.

Bodies that fell on the continent were not repatriated to Britain after war’s end. It’s why each English town and village erected a cenotaph where they could memorialize their local dead.
In a town in Normandy when I was twenty-two, I had encountered such a cenotaph. It bore the names of 624 men in a town whose 1910 population was just over 16,000. In Accrington Stanley, a small town not too far from Manchester, a battalion comprising local men went into battle at Serre, on the Western Front, on June 30, 1916. By July 1, the British troops had been defeated, but not before 584 of the 720 from the Accrington PALS Unit were killed, wounded or missing


13.

I have a confession. Part of what sent me on this journey to write about Robert was based on what I found on his gravestone. His tombstone, which lies in the Zudycoote Military Cemetery in northern France, reads: 
280692 Private
ROBERT RAYMOND
Lancashire Fusiliers
18th October 1917 Age 25
HE DIED FOR HIS COUNTRY


Discovering the epitaph was a kick in the teeth. Why would his widow have paid extra for an epitaph that reduced her husband to yet another fleshed chunk of cannon fodder? It felt inconceivable to me that a young woman left with a babe in arms would declare such a thing. Didn’t she know what he had endured? 

But reading the novels of the war has answered part of that question: I doubt that she had any idea of what Robert had experienced during those months away from her. 

All letters sent to and from soldiers were read by censors who removed any material considered to be “sensitive.” Instead, soldiers were given the option of sending home pre-printed postcards—for free—that offered a sentence for the correspondent to indicate. These cards listed sentences that the soldier could mark with an X. [7] “I am quite well” or “I am being sent down to the base,” were two of the options. British soldiers were warned “If anything else is added to the postcard it will be destroyed.” 

When the men returned home on leave, many of them found it impossible to convey to their wives, girlfriends, and families the horrors they had witnessed. 


14.

Some of the women whom they did try to tell refused to listen. In several of the novels, women on the home front—regardless of age—were represented as harridans who shamed the men who were not serving by presenting them with white feathers to indicate cowardice. Other women acted as bellicose tub-thumpers, dismissing the war’s doubters as traitors or caitiff soldiers whose “wetness” imperiled the brave. 

Gabriel Chevallier writes of one such encounter as Madame Bergniol argues with a returning soldier: 

“No son of mine will be brought up to think like you.” 

“I know that, mademoiselle. You could bear flaming torches as well as babies, but you’ll only give your son the guttering candle you were given; its wax is dripping and burning your fingers. It is candles like that which have set the world ablaze instead of illuminating it. Blind men’s candles, and you can be sure that tomorrow they’ll relight the braziers that will consume the sons of your loins. And their pain will be nothing but ash, and at the moment their sacrifice is consummated, they will know this and will curse you. With your principles, if the occasion presents itself, then you in turn will be inhuman mothers.” [8]


15.

The men and women on the home front, who soldiers felt honor-bound to protect from their hideous memories, didn’t want to speak of what they had seen, nor did they wish to frighten those who would be able to do nothing but worry when the men returned to battle. Instead, in the news accounts, civilians were fed a steady diet of courageous Everyman heroes and glorious victories on the battle plains. It was only after the war that the novelists, memoirists, and poets were published. Even the poems of someone like Wilfred Owen whose “Dulce et Decorum Est” defined the war for many, was unknown during his lifetime. His battlefield death one week prior to the Armistice meant that his audience was only found after the war was over and his friends had collected his poems and published them in a volume. 

The accounts of a loss of life feel impossible to apprehend. Consider, for example, this number from the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Prior to the war, the population was 51 million. The seven million casualties it suffered breaks down like this. “An average of more than 4,500 Austro-Hungarian men in uniform were killed, wounded, or captured every single day of the war.” [9]


16. 

When I try to comprehend what Robert saw, heard, smelled, and thought about during the war, I hear the incessant booms of the mortars that were fired several times a minute for hours on end. For men trapped in foxholes with shells raining down on them, it is not surprising to learn that many returned with a condition labeled “shell shock.” 

But, in addition to the noise, it’s imagining the trenches divided by a patch of “No Man’s Land,” that I cannot shake. This passage from Chevallier is a tough read. The replacement soldiers have just arrived at the trench where they are due to relieve the men who have been there for several days. What they find is something out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch:
Corpses contorted into every possible position, corpses which had suffered every possible mutilation, every gaping wound, every agony. There were complete corpses, serene and perfectly composed like stone saints in a chapel; undamaged corpses without any evident injuries; foul, blood-soaked corpses like the prey of unclean beasts; calm, resigned, insignificant corpses; the terrifying corpses of men who had refused to die, raging, upright, bulging, haggard, cursing and crying out for justice. All with their twisted mouths, their glassy eyes, and their skin like that of drowned men. And then there were the pieces of corpses, the shreds of bodies and clothes, organs, severed members, red and purple human flesh, like rotten meat in a butcher’s, limp, flabby, yellow fat, bones extruding marrow, unravelled entrails, like vile worms that we crushed with a shudder. The body of a dead man is an object of utter disgust for those who are alive, and this disgust is itself the mark of utter prostration. To escape such horror, I looked out at the plain. A new and greater horror: the plain was blue. [French uniforms were blue.] The plain was covered with our comrades, cut down by machine guns, their faces in the mud, arses in the air, indecent, grotesque like puppets, but pitiable like men, alas! [10]
Chevallier’s description continues on for pages. While the battle is never specified, he is providing a sense of what hell was encountered at Artois where the French suffered 102,000 casualties in six days. 


17. 

My great-grandfather’s death is a stone I keep in my pocket, my fingers rubbing against it, worrying it in an attempt to make something meaningful of it. How can I capture the impact that one single death had upon his family when he was but one of millions? Does it make a difference if I tell you that Hilda, my grandmother, became an orphan a few years later when Edith died of kidney disease? 

Perhaps I try to make Robert’s death mean something because I know that ultimately his little girl would grow up without parents, raised by the older step-sister who came into her life when Edith remarried shortly before her own death. 

No photographs of Hilda as a child exist. No one thought to take her photograph. She doesn’t exist before pictures that show her as a married woman. Is it wrong that when I think of Robert’s death, the story of what became of the tiny invisible baby he left comes with it? 


18.

On the day that Robert died, his commanding officer noted that the battalion had suffered seven casualties that day. Even on October 18th, Robert’s death was not special in any way. His commanding officer made no special mention of the man who had served with his battalion for thirty-five months. 
These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
     Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
     And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
(The Dead, Rupert Brooke)




[1] The total number of World War I dead is disputed. The number of dead when civilians are counted, and the 1.5 million Armenians who died during the Genocide in 1915, and those who died of disease and starvation during the course of the war brings the number to nearly 40 million
[2] Hell’s Foundations by Geoffrey Moorhouse (2008: Faber & Faber) 
[3] The Burning of the World, Béla Zombory-Moldován (2014: New York Review Books) pg. 113 
[4] Schlump, Hans Herbert Grimm (2014: New York Review Books) pg. 241 
[5] At the University of Washington, where I did most of this work, the exploration of labor and World War I was a topic of interest to professors. See, for example, in Germany, Marxists identified themselves with anti-militarism long before the war broke out
[6] I mention this because I think the idea that “working-class” folks capable of recognizing common interests, of acting rationally on their own behalf has been lost in recent years. Recent votes—Brexit in Great Britain, the election of Donald Trump in the United States—exposed the divide between workers and the journalists who covered them. Journalists settled on an explanation that working-class folks had been hoodwinked by politicians into voting against their own class interests and the working class had been exposed as a hotbed of racism and regressive thinking. But as I argued in a number of articles, and journalists such as Sarah Smarsh, Elizabeth Catte, Steven Stoll, and Ted Genoways, among an increasing number, have argued against these reductive arguments about working-class culture. 
[7] This service was offered especially for those soldiers or their correspondents who found writing difficult. In the BBC TV series, “The Village,” these postcards became a plot point. When a soldier on the front works out a code using the postcard to let his younger brother know he was being sent to the front, his subterfuge is discovered by army censors. 
[8] Fear, Gabriel Chevallier, (2011: New York Review Books) 
[9] Zombory-Moldován, pg. xiii 
[10] Chevallier, pg. 62



Lorraine Berry writes for a number of publications including the Guardian (U.K.), the Washington Post, Catapult, and Read It Forward. She has recently been diagnosed with abibliophobia. Follow her on Twitter @BerryFLW where she tweets about her passion for Manchester City Football Club. 

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