Monday, April 1, 2019

Loving the Fear: A Conversation with Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel & Clinton Crockett Peters

What tears your skin off in the dark? Speaking of selfs, I’m terrified of car crashes and cancer, which data supports. But there are other kinds of fright, those on a global scale, monsters big enough to encompass presidencies, charm behind candelabras, and power Death Stars. Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel earned her MFA with me, and I got the unordinary privilege of seeing much of her riotous collection Fear Icons take shape. It’s a delicious serving of Paranoia. An essay collection that examines those icons who rocketed to our cultural moon and then, like Bond villains, waged terrible war. It came out from Mad Creek Books late last year. I recommend you read it in the dark.


I love the subject of your book and the subjects of your book. On a global scale, how did the book come together? What were your cornerstone essays? Were there any fear icons that didn't make the cut?

Thank you for saying that, Clint! I love that you love the subject/s since love is so bound up with fear in these essays. How love and fear intensify each other is really a cornerstone concern of the book.

I suppose the book started to come together when my son was born. He came out of my body and left behind a body of fear that I nourished in loving him. It was overwhelming. So I wrote through it. Essays like “Darth Vader,” and “Dick, About Your Heart,” consider personal fears. Others like “Dolly,” and “Liberace and The Ash Tree” engage cultural ones.

When I thought about icons, I found I could try to be present with fear— and not just get over it. I could think about how our interpretations of icons impact our perceptions of fear—and each other. In other words, I could ask: who are we to each other when were afraid?

There are so many icons that didn’t make it into the collection. I wrote an essay on Georgia O’Keeffe who talked about the fear of loneliness being nothing compared to the fear of never being alone. It was an ekphrastic essay that couldn’t move out of the confines of description. Another essay was named for Tilda Swinton, but it mostly narrated the activities of a squirrel outside of my window. Others that got cut: an essay on Caliban, one on widow makers, St. Valentine. Even now I feel a touch of curiosity about all of these subjects, but for one reason or another, they didn’t work. They repeated thinking I had already done. Or they repeated approaches. Or the essays fell apart. Or I did.

I'm always keen on collections that vacillate in their tones, lengths, and ambitions. I liked your collage of shorter, intimate essays with longer pieces that have more research girth. Wondering how you thought about putting them all together. Was there an overall tone you were aiming for or a shape?

I wanted the overall shape of the collection to move from essays that are experiential and frenetic to essays that settle more into fear. The essay “Oil,” is meant to mark the shift. It’s an erasure of Genesis that aims to remake an established text. For me, that essay indicates that the book will also to try to remake its approach to fear. The essays that follow “Oil” try (and fail) to do that.

I also kept my kids’ ages in mind when organizing the book. The collection begins with the birth of my son who then ages and is older in his last appearance in “Darth Vader.” My daughter is born about halfway through the book. The kids come and go; I didn’t want this to be a book that was only about parental fears. But I do want the fears of parenthood to seep out into all the other essays and inform how all other fears are read.

Something I've been thinking about is profiling a heinous source of fascination. I'm finishing up an essay on George W. Bush, and have mixed feelings. On the one hand I find him, his life, his attitudes, fascinating... on the other hand Iraq War, reversing Climate Change position, etc. Sometimes I shut down because, seriously, does more ink need spilling about this dude? I LOVED your Dick Cheney essay. It feels perfect. Clearly, you don't admire him (I think I'm reading you right there ;-)). How did you push through revulsion? Or did you use it as a writing tool?

Revulsion was the prompt. And so my questions were for myself: could I move beyond my own revulsion? I don’t know that more ink should be spilled for folks who are revolting to us—unless it is that revulsion that becomes the subject, the thing the essay will contend with.

Your question has me thinking about John Berger’s book Portraits. While Berger writes about famous artists who painted portraits, he is really writing a series self-portraits. He reveals himself through what he describes. We see him through what he sees.

I love essays that offer a take on a subject that reveals the person who is speaking—making it clear that the writer is aware of their subjectivity and calls on that subjective self to answer for itself. Why did Dick make me feel so afraid? Could I get past that fear to think of him like the human that he also is? He is a pastiche of fears for me. But a person. Could I extend empathy toward him—a man who is suffering from a heart condition that has been treated as a metaphor and yet is very real? It turns out I couldn’t. And that failure made me more afraid than the fears he caused in me. Through him, I recognized my inability to do what I assume I can.

In your question you mention that sometimes you shut down. I do too. How do we keep writing about difficult things without destroying ourselves? For this book, I kept writing by force. But now? I’m interested in writing that does not cause me to suffer so much. Can we write about the hard stuff without multiplying suffering? In others? In ourselves? I don’t want to be a machine with a broken heart.

I recently heard Ben Marcus read, and he asked the audience: “When was the last time you read a happy short story? Where everyone was happy?” I had actually just read Garth Greenwell’s story, “The Frog King.” Greenwell set out to write a happy story. And it is, in many ways, a happy story; it’s about two people who love each other. They have their small disagreements, but the story primarily conveys the experience of being a beloved. And yet, the story must end. The happiness can’t last.

All of this made me wonder: when was the last time I read a happy essay? A joyful one? And then I read an essay from Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. He wrote one essay each day about something that gave him joy. Every day. In the essay I read, he finds delight in loitering — something that is not allowed — and so he locates joy through tension. And finds tension through joy. This seems like a very good writing prompt.

What's your essay-family tree?

I love this question! A tree grows. It’s a metaphor with change built in.

Right now I’m reading James Baldwin’s open letters and Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book and Moominpappa’s Memoirs. Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. Svetlana Alexievich. Patrick Rosal’s “Letter to the Lady who Mistook Me for the Help at the National Book Awards—or Some Meditations on Style,” and Bhanu Kapil’s blog.

I'm a new parent, so maybe this is just on my mind, but your kids come up in your essays. How did parenting change your writing? For me, I find my mind ping-ponging less among different essays and ideas I'm composing and drilling down more steadily (if less passionately) on one as I write. That make sense?

That does make sense! I’ve heard other parent-writers talk about becoming more focused when they have less time to write — I really admire that!

My daughter is currently at a playdate on this Saturday morning and my son is with his dad so I can respond to your wonderful questions. This is my experience of writing as a parent. I have to separate myself from my kids in order to write. But they’re always on my mind.

I remember the first year my son went to daycare for 6 hours twice a week so I could try to finish the book. I was so thankful he was there. And I cried because he was there. I felt like split wood. I wanted to be with him AND wanted my own space to be with myself. It’s the AND that accompanies me through the process of being a parent and writer. I am trying to be both. It isn’t possible. But it must be. I must be able to write as a parent. Because I am both. How to be both? That too is part of what this book explored.

Now that my kids are in school and preschool all week, I'm also teaching all week. I still have so few hours for writing. The logistics are always a challenge. For a few years, I answered the limitations of time by writing late at night and in the early morning before anyone got up. That schedule wasn’t sustainable. My health started failing. It also wed my writing life to expectations of productivity.

At this point, I’m trying to liberate myself from those expectations so that I might hold the freedom that comes with writing. This means sitting down to write without expecting anything from the limited time I have to write. I’m not yet sure how to actually make this happen. But I do know that when I refuse notions of productivity, I actually write.

I'm lucky that I got to workshop, I think, four or five of these essays with you back at 'ol Iowa. I love seeing their final forms. As a teacher and a (like me, twice!) graduate student of writing, do you have any thoughts on how workshopping helped (or hindered!) your collection?

Workshop let me learn so much about what is possible in writing. It taught me how to speak the language of critique, gave me deadlines, and it let me connect with writers who would become lifelong readers.

But, I’m also interested in workshops that allow us to learn from the writing process. The most commonly used model of workshop doesn’t foreground that process, make it transparent, or allow for the writer to explicitly consider the concerns they have. Conventional workshops are actually contingent on silencing. (The writer sits silently while receiving “critiques” of their work.) And, frankly, any mode of being that works by silencing is a mode I’m interested in dismantling.

In 2018, Joy Castro, Matthew Salesses, and Bich Minh Nguyen held an amazing AWP panel in which they talked about workshops that do/not work for writers. After the panel I felt empowered to revise the workshop model as I’d wanted to do for some time. I read Jesse Ball’s book Notes on My Dunce Cap and paired his approach with Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Method. She’s a choreographer who (30 years ago) thought workshops were damaging to the creative process. In my model, writers ask questions of their readers and talk openly about what they hope to do. Responders offer statements of meaning and questions that the writer can answer or simply receive.

So far, this approach has been boss. My first year students are responding to each other’s work with such care and insight within the first five minutes. They speak to each other with such respect. They are also, perhaps most importantly, learning how to ask questions about their own work. And to share the difficulties openly. Their writing is really evolving. It isn’t stationary or reproducing the affinities most popular in class. The model has given us the space to see what the writing might become.

I'm a big fan of how you open up your Liberace essay: "In the children’s backyard, the ash tree is a celebrity. Its bark shines with sap, and its branches sign their dark autograph into the clouds..." I'm wondering how you found or landed on this image to start the essay, how you came to include the ash.

When these sentences came to me, I had been thinking for a long time about the ash tree outside my window. I had been stuck for a while on how to write about Liberace. The essay was feeling rather stifled by its biographical mode. I was looking out the window, letting myself get bored and started describing the ash tree. It was so pretty. I remembered its golden fall color and red berries that stuck around through the winter. I loved the tree. At the same moment I remembered being a kid and finding initials carved in a tree. I thought trees were the best of all creatures. I never carved my initials in them; I didn’t want to hurt them. But I loved to touch the initials in the bark. I felt connected to the person who was no longer there. Their initials only told me so much about them, but I could touch the place they touched. I felt connected to someone I knew almost nothing about. This kind of magic feels akin to the magic of fame for me — the way someone famous can feel so present in your life even though they are nowhere near it. The image of the initials become a metaphor that I could follow back to that idea of fame, and of what it means to be famous and to have your autograph—your very name—collected and claimed in such a way.

What are you working on now? What are you reading?

I’m working on writing — I’m reading everything — I’m learning how to begin again.


Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel is the author of the essay collection Fear Icons, winner of the inaugural Gournay Prize. Her essays have appeared in Conjunctions, The Iowa Review, Gulf Coast and the anthology Marry a Monster. A graduate of the University of Montana's Environmental Studies Program and the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, she is an Assistant Professor at Whitman College.

Clinton Crockett Peters is the author of the essay collection Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology. He has been awarded literary prizes from Shenandoah, North American Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Columbia Journal. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow and a PhD in English and creative writing from the University of North Texas. His work also appears in Orion, Southern Review, Hotel Amerika, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, Catapult, and elsewhere. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Berry College.

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