Monday, August 26, 2019

Talking trans writing and Ryka Aoki's "Raccoon" with Oliver Baez Bendorf

I was glad to chat with Oliver Baez Bendorf for this series on essays and essay-like things like by trans writers. For our conversation, I asked Bendorf to select a short piece by another writer that we could appreciate together. Below, he shares some thoughts on Ryka Aoki’s “Raccoon,” which appears in her multi-genre 2013 collection Seasonal Velocities.

And if you haven’t yet, make sure to check out the last conversation in this series, in which Torrey Peters shows some love and appreciation for Joss Barton’s “Lord, Be a Femme.”


TCF: Could you start off by sharing why you picked this piece? When you pointed me toward it, the images and movement came back to mind quickly from when I first read Seasonal Velocities. But returning, I found myself just as surprised by where the piece arrives as I did that first encounter. What drew you to this?

OBB: So much about this essay strikes me. It's hard to explain. I returned to "Raccoon" after moving to a house in Michigan that has a small pond in the backyard. On a recent morning I went outside to feed the fish and saw a dead one on the rocks. Like in the essay, its head was intact but the body had been torn apart. For days I wondered what did that- could a bird catch like that? A few nights later, my partner and I saw a raccoon creep into the yard and start toward the pond before seeing us and running away. But I knew then that a raccoon had done that to the fish. My partner buried the fish out back behind the garage and something kept digging it up for days, eating more.

Aoki builds in images, and commits to precision of image, and to working that out on the page. I can see so vividly what the raccoon's done to the fish and how. The intact head of the fish still swimming; the violated body.  And then, she makes a startling leap with this visual pattern that deepens the implications of what we've seen. With clarity and generosity, she adds layers, teasing apart a lifetime of accumulated meaning: "I didn't think at the time...," "I still don't know...". and then "But I do know...," "And I remember..." 

TCF: Yes, I get a lot out of the precision of the images, like you say, and how they build-- the power of the sentences, and the flow and beauty within the prose. It's a thing that I always appreciate about Aoki's work. Across genres/forms, there's often something stunning in a sentence or a line. Before we move ahead, could you point to a few images/sentences that strike you, in particular? And share what you appreciate about them? As someone who works in poetry as much as prose, I’m curious to hear what grabs you.

OBB: For me, the images anchor the piece to a point where it feels impossible to single any out. They're like a constellation for me: the fish being brought from Hawaii to Los Angeles "in cardboard boxes, double and triple-tied in Hefty bags." Arriving home past bedtime, the father "carefully unbagging the fish and releasing them one by one, into the dark." The fields surrounding the neighborhood.

One morning, the rocks around the pond "dull with blood and tissue." Then, the single fish who the raccoon had destroyed only partially, its "flesh underneath shredded from its sides," but its head intact as it swims, and the speaker watching this, disturbed by its calm. 

The memories of the father holding the speaker's head underwater, the piercing of the nails into skin. The father waiting with the aluminum baseball bat for the racoon to return, then running out into the night in his underwear when it does. A whack, those fields again, then blood again. 

Those are the images and what strikes me about each one of them is simply this: I can see it, I'm moving around inside it, I'm there.

TCF: I'm also thinking about that accumulation of meaning and knowledge-- and returning to the edges of those. Sometimes, essays or personal narratives play with the limits of memory in a way that feels rote or flat (self-conscious references to what isn’t known, that kind of thing), but this piece makes use of those moments of knowing/unknowing. Could you talk a little more about how you read that accumulation-- like you say, “a lifetime of accumulated meaning?”

OBB: The images unfold almost vertically, with everything happening all at once, past and present layering. And isn't that how certain experiences or memories can feel? Set against the vivid clarity of the images I pulled out above, the limits of memory come into sharper relief. Where Aoki writes, "I didn't think at the time, of how my father had held my head under water, how I felt my skin pierced by his nails," when in the narrative do you read that to be happening? Until now, I read it as a separate occasion, a flashback triggered by this scene with the mauled fish. When I read it just now, though, I can't locate it in time at all, and there's nothing to signal its chronology. Even the very last line of the piece- the one about the knowledge of how koi blood tastes- now seems me that it could point toward the speaker's head being held underwater right after the raccoon bloodbath in the pond. Does it really matter what happened when? Samuel Delaney would say yes, it does, and I agree. But "Raccoon" seems to me an example of how simply working to get it precise and accurate can be more insightful than any manufactured "aha."

TCF: This shift of when things are known, and how that takes shape the writing. Knowing often does not fit into an easily confined event, seeping or extending into other moments of life, language, prose. The images are helpful in moving me toward that. I love this engagement with narrative and time, as different orderings of knowledge are part of what essays try to do.

OBB: How can we talk about time without talking about your fantastic new book, Clutch? I find the title of it coming to me at moments: “Time is the thing a body moves through.” The thing. I’d love to know how you are thinking about this, too. As a poet raised in some ways on the timelessness of lyric, it’s been exciting to be introduced to new ways of thinking about time and narrative, especially from other trans and queer writers I so admire, like Samuel Delaney, Ryka Aoki, and yourself, to name just a few. I’ve been reading Delaney’s About Writing slowly over the last 6 months and I love what he says about chronology— how important it is for the work of making sense of things. Assembling moments into an order.

TCF: Dhalgren jumps first to mind. I’m not as well-read in Delany’s fiction as I wish I were, but I’ve started reading my way through more of the novels. I used to feel very resistant to narrative, and was kind of anti-narrative, which I recognize now as a reaction the way narrative was taught to me rather than what it does and can do. Like you say, “assembling moments into an order.” Coming to understand the importance of process (in assembling, in choosing an order) was helpful, and when I pivot toward nonfiction or essay, I think of process as a part of lived experience. A thing done actively, and embedded in a life that is often away from the page.

This makes me want to ask about autobiographical writing. What is the impulse that turns you, as a reader, toward autobiographical work? I'm wondering how often you seek out autobiographical work by trans writers, and also how you see this piece by Aoki fitting into those broader genres or modes-- poetic essays, autobiography, trans writing, etc. We both read “Raccoon” as autobiographical, although in the logic of the book, I imagine some readers encounter it differently. 

OBB: You’re right to point out that I’ve maybe taken a liberty to read “Raccoon” as autobiographical! I am lonely and curious, and it’s meaningful for me to read about other trans people’s lives in their own words. I’m in a geographical location where I currently don’t have day-to-day trans people in my life who are my peers. So I’ve been reading to keep me company, to a degree I haven’t quite felt since I was an adolescent in Iowa and reading omnivorously to learn what was possible. It’s imperative for me to be in dialogue that way, and for me to respond in writing. I’m at a point in my life where I would 100% subscribe to a snail mail trans newsletter. Reading work by trans writers, whether from imagination, observation, or memory, re-centers in my life our intellect and imagination, which is imperative because in mainstream it’s still on the margins or altogether erased.

TCF: Thinking about where we look to find trans writing-- how often we might find things in unexpected places. Could you touch on the experience of encountering something that we’re calling an essay within the context of a multi-genre collection. Some of my favorite essays appear in books of poetry, and I read prose differently depending on the company the writer puts it in.

OBB: I bought this collection of Aoki’s in 2012 (the year it came out)-- I went to see her perform from it at UW-Madison, and bought a copy afterward, which she signed. Having seen her embody so many of the pieces, I never needed genre to unify them for me in the collection, because her voice did that. In the book, “Raccoon” comes between two poems and now that I look again, the poem that precedes it, “City Limits,” hands certain questions off to “Raccoon,” and “Raccoon” hands narrative off to the poem that follows it, “After the Storm and Before.” In “City Limits,” Aoki writes:

“I remember watching
on television
a pair of identical twins:
one with Alzheimer’s,
the other painfully
aware of time.”

and later, toward the end of the poem: “What do we remember?” The poem that follows what we’re calling an essay reads to me like it turns toward the father figure and that violence which is mentioned in “Raccoon,” even circling back around images of the throat, and drowning. I like the energy, insight, and possibilities that build when one writer moves between prose and verse and lets those genres work alongside each other; that contraction and expansion of form. It’s similar to what I love about Eve Kosofky Sedgwick’s book-length haibun, A Dialogue on Love.

TCF: Lastly, your new book, Advantages of Being Evergreen, comes out shortly. You have your own interests in animals that recurs in that collection, and I’m thinking about the story you told to open this conversation, about a raccoon and a fish. Could you tell us a little about the ways you turn to figures of animals in your writing, and what conversation might exist between your book and Aoki’s work here?

OBB: My new book is a lot about the living and the dead— and the necessity of grief so that we can really live while we’re alive. I was interested in adaptation and staying nimble and taking care of one another. It’s not exactly an idyllic bestiary: there are ticks, vultures, mice burials, frozen carp, a possum skull, rooster nails, dog hair, a fox mask, a spider missing half its limbs, homophobes, deadly fire, and active shooter trainings. Some of these become part of rituals in the poems while others are just observed. It’s also about the strange relationship between safety and danger. Using instinct while also acknowledging that instinct, especially when overworked, can get it wrong. I am aware in my communities of the constant stress and exhaustion of navigating safety in our modern conditions, and I wanted to write poems that imagine the possibility of not just surviving but actually living a lush life of togetherness. The poems are informed by my experiences as someone who is marked quite corporeally as transsexual and who is trying to live my best gay life in spite of everything. So even though the book goes into the underbelly, I am trying to imagine something, usher it in.

Aoki’s essay speaks to me on a number of these levels. The way a single moment can tug a string that threads through an entire lifetime and beyond— that, too, has to do with that exhaustion. The work of keeping the past and present separate, while acknowledging their deep relations. Ancestral blessings alongside traumas both inherited and experienced. How wonder and awe can exist alongside terrible violence. The image of the partial fish, swimming calmly. Is that beautiful or is that horrible? I hope my book is in conversation with what Aoki’s work offers, this project of myth-making: the possibility of not only following threads that are already there, but of threading new things from them.

TCF: Thanks so much for chatting with me, Oliver, and giving us a chance to appreciate this piece together!


Oliver Baez Bendorf is the author of Advantages of Being Evergreen and a previous collection The Spectral Wilderness. He’s an assistant professor of poetry at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. 

T Fleischmann is the author most recently of Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through and Gonorrhea, SESTA, Institutions.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Living By—or Against—the Stories I Read: Randon Billings Noble in conversation with David LeGault

We’re collecting whether we want to or not. In this case, I mean that we are hardwired to to the work of assembling meaning: creating Venn diagrams between every two objects we put against each other. I think back to being ten years old, to getting a copy of Queen’s Greatest Hits for Christmas. In retrospect, I’m not entirely sure why this album was chosen for me, but in any case, I thought of it as an album: though it encompassed singles off of albums that spanned multiple decades, the order—I believed—old a specific story. I still think of Queen’s Greatest Hits as a sort of concept album, a hero’s journey that ends in death.

All this to say that I was a pretty weird kid, but still: I believe collections ask us to do the work ourselves, to fill in the gaps, to find a meaning that is uniquely ours.

I recently came across an interesting essay, “In Defense of Themelessness,” over at Brevity’s blog. In the piece, writer Randon Billings Noble talks about the process of putting together her own collection, Be With Me Always, recently published by the University of Nebraska Press. She talks about her resistance to the idea of theme, to the idea that every piece of writing in the book must fit into a designated category. 

Of course, themes can serve a purpose--either in marketing or even in our own writing/creative structure--but they can also be stifling. With that said, readers will always take the Queen’s Greatest Hits route: giving the book its own narrative. With that said, how much work should we as writers put into directing the readers toward that meaning, or how much should we leave open to their own interpretation?

I had a chance to talk with Randon Billings Noble over email for the past few weeks. We talked about the idea of themelessness, a resistance to memoir, and the ways literature references are a way of collecting our favorite works with our own thoughts, changing the trajectory of each. —David LeGault


David: To start, I wanted to refer back to your essay, "In Defense of Themelessness," on the Brevity website. As someone who is primarily a writer of essays, I think a lot about the ways that a collection is shaped, how any collection will ultimately accumulate to a bigger meaning. In your piece, you ask the question, "must an essay collection have a through line?" I agree with you in principle, but I know how my brain works: my immediate impulse (both as a reader and writer) is to try to make those connections between pieces, to read the first piece in a collection as a sort of a set-up for what I'm getting myself into. With that said, I'm curious about your process of ordering here: if you were not thinking in terms of "theme," what do you think was the guiding principle for putting together your collection?

Randon: My essay collection, Be with Me Always, had a very long evolutionary process, which—while difficult to go through—was in the end a very good thing.
     It started out as a collection of every essay I had ever written that I thought was any good at all, which was not a very good organizing principle! But I was a newer writer then and didn’t know better. An agent found me through one of those essays, read the collection, and wanted to represent me. But then she wanted me to revise my collection into a memoir and I was unwilling to fillet my essays and mold them into something else. So we broke up, and I kept writing.
     Over time I noticed that many of my essays had to do with longing, nostalgia, and the path not taken. I thought of this as my set of “writerly preoccupations” and kept writing in that vein. When I started sending out the manuscript I claimed “hauntedness” as a loose—very loose—theme.
     Very late in the process I did the ordering. I printed out a page for each essay: title, first sentence, last sentence. I knew that I wanted to start with “The Split” (the oldest of the essays) and finish with “Devotional” (one of the newer ones) and I knew that I needed to have a few experimental essays appear early, so the reader wouldn’t be surprised by them later. Because the subjects of my essays are so varied (a near-death experience, Anne Boleyn’s relationship with Henry VII, Stonewall Jackson’s amputated arm, regret, control, capacity) I decided to divide them into sections—essays (like “The Heart as a Torn Muscle” and “A Pill to Cure Love”) that had to do with biology, essays that had to do with looking, essays (like “Yet another Day at the Jersey Shore” and “Widow Fantasies”) that were about past and future loss. I made these divisions fairly easily, instinctively. And then I moved individual essays around so that the last line of one essay had some kind of relationship—or ease—with the first line of the next. When I was finished I had 26 essays divided into six sections, all loosely themed around hauntedness.

David: I really like this on a number of levels: First, I think the structural component of this (the experimental essays coming early) is an unappreciated part of the essay collection as its own sort of genre...I think with a memoir, we do think about thinks like a linked narrative and (usually) a somewhat chronological order, but the collection also allows for shifts in form and style. Secondly, the idea of "hauntedness" as a theme, which is to say that a pattern emerges once the pieces are put together. It's always interesting to me that these patterns are a discovery to the writer, that we often don't know what it is we're writing about until much later in the process than one might expect.
     I know in my own collection, I struggled with this question of theme as well because I wanted to write about everything, and it wasn't until probably the 3rd iteration of the book that I figured out what it was about, and from there I had to go back and revise to reinforce that bigger picture, as well as write a few more essays that more meaningfully filled in some gaps. I'm curious, as you came to the idea of "hauntedness," did you fundamentally change anything about the bigger collection? Did you change order, revise, or write anything new to make that more apparent, or was it more about presenting the book to a publisher, etc.

Randon: That’s a great question with a somewhat complicated answer. The short answer is yes to all. But the longer answer is this:
     I used hauntedness as a theme when I was presenting the book to publishers. When Nebraska accepted it I was thrilled—but there was a catch: too many of the essays had been published and the press requires a 50/50 ratio of published and unpublished work. So they offered me a pre-completion contract: they would publish the book, but I had to add new essays. This was both a thrill and a letdown at the same time. The book was accepted! But not quite just yet.
     In retrospect, this turned out to be a very good thing. I weeded out some of the weaker essays and wrote new ones. The new ones still fell under the haunted umbrella, but I didn’t deliberately set out to write haunty essays. I still wrote about the things that interested me—silence, invisibility, looking and being looked at, the responsibilities of both physical and intellectual creation—and those essays fit. I also revised a couple of much older drafts into essays that felt both current and finished. Then I ordered them. And then—at last—it was done. At times it felt like Xeno’s paradox but Be with Me Always is a much better book for this work.

David: This is really interesting. Again, as we consider the question of what it means to assemble a collection, there are the practical considerations of the publisher, as well as things like marketability, etc. Like you say, I think sometimes these constraints can improve the final product in the same way that formal constraint can reorganize our thoughts, force creativity, and put pressure on our language in unexpected ways. I think that flexibility in your project--the possibility of movement and shaping--in collaboration with someone else is ultimately a good thing.
     As I was reading Be with Me Always, I also picked up on the way a lot of these essays are in conversation with books. We get Woolf, Montaigne, Stoker and Shelley. I see how books can fit in with this idea of being haunted (particularly with the horror authors) by these works, but I feel like they are functioning on a different level: more like your life is in parallel, echoing their ideas. How do you see books in this case building into the bigger idea of this book? Are they a jumping off point? Do you see your work in conversation or as continuation? Something else entirely?

Randon: I love this question. And your use of the word “parallel.”
      I’ve always read a lot—broadly and omnivorously—so using novels and essays and stories and poems in my work happens intuitively. (I can’t think of a time when I consciously thought, I need to quote a classic novel in this piece.) And because reading has been such an ingrained part of my life I have often felt as if the lives I read about (fictitious or not) run parallel to my own.
     I remember being floored by something one of my professors said—that we read fiction to learn how to live. Someone had put into words what I was doing instinctively. (It’s always a thrill when someone articulates something wordless in your life—however obvious their statement might be.) I remember feeling the same thrill when reading Carolyn Heilbrun’s Writing a Woman’s Life when she claims that "lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard." I realized I was always living by—or against—the stories I read.
     And now my essays do too. What I've read becomes an alternate way of looking at an idea. Robinson Crusoe helps me articulate depression, the characters in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours become different facets of my own (hoped for) identity, and Dracula and its romantic retellings help me see more clearly the price we often pay for passion. It’s a pleasure both intellectually and emotionally to have so many other experiences to draw from.

David: Well said. I do believe that one of the greatest things of the essay (particularly in a collection) is that it allows us to look at the same question or problem from a lot of different angles. Whether it's in our lived experiences or our reading, we're already doing that anyway! I think the book is an opportunity to tackle these problems more explicitly, and I think you've done a great job of that here.


Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her full-length essay collection Be with Me Always was published by the University of Nebraska Press in March 2019 and her lyric essay chapbook Devotional was published by Red Bird in 2017. Individual essays have appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, The Massachusetts Review, Shenandoah, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. She is currently the founding editor of After the Art.