Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Syntax Club: "XXIV. Freedom"

Due to a technical snafu involving Blogger's auto-save features (ok, one part a technical snafu, one part me having too many tabs open and inadvertently trying to compose a new post on top of an old one), the prior incarnation of this post wound up getting accidentally replaced with a blank page. What follows is an expanded re-working, though not exactly the same content (important life lesson: don't compose things directly in Blogger!).

Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red

Please see here for previous installments of Syntax Club; feel free to post comments and thoughts and sentences you love here on the site or Twitter; if you try an exercise feel free to Tweet some of your results using the #SyntaxClub tag.


--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?


In the wake of his breakup with Herakles, Geryon begins work at a somewhat boring archive job; Geryon continues to experiment with photography; Herakles drops a call to Geryon, ensuring our young gayboy protagonist that what he truly needs is freedom; despite his increasing awareness of the relative awfulness of Herakles Geryon continues to find himself transfixed by the boy.

Herakles is...sort of a lot, isn't he?

Very much so! Herakles is most certainly a tiresome lad. If we can draw perhaps one life lesson from this text, it might be something like "don't seduce someone younger than you, encourage them to abscond from their life to your hometown, unceremoniously dump them, and then phone them up a while later to state that freedom is what I want for you."

What role does freedom play in all of this?

It seems like that might be a major thing, given that Carson chose it as the title for this section (one of the longer, more memorable, more charged ones), yeah? The question of how Geryon is or isn't free is an interesting one; Geryon seems aware of his death/demise (and that Herakles' might play a role in it) from a very young age--recall that addition he made to the story in his composition journal as a young boy. And in the Stesichoros-Red-Meat sections we saw that his mother had a pre-existing knowledge of his demise, as did the Olympian gods, which is to say that all of this is fated, maybe. But worth considering as well that the ancients had a slightly different notion of freedom than we do, and that might open up some new avenues of thought. If we think about Plato, for instance, we get a sense of freedom slightly less concerned with political and inter-personal behavior (our general reference points for freedom as English-readers probably living in Western liberal democracies). "Freedom of an agent from impediments to a goal," yes, but also "the rule of reason over the soul unimpeded by desires." What goals/ends is Geryon set towards, and what foundational factors are advancing/impeding that? And what exactly is Geryon's soul--and what impedes it? Might be interesting to think about the myriad ways Geryon is othered/rendered monstrous here (artist, gayboy, shitty abusive brother, weird conception of internal and external, likely synaesthete, literal wings, etc). Of course, this is a very tentative line of analysis--Plato isn't the only ancient reference point for freedom, and furthermore Plato is further removed from Stesichoros than we are from the American Civil War, so we probably shouldn't lean too heavily on a strict reading.


Geryon's life entered a numb time, caught between the tongue and the taste. (72)

A nice alliterative pairing, and I also appreciate the light assonance of numb and tongue. Caught is an interesting verb choice too--nothing can quite literally be caught between the tongue and the taste (whether it mean taste as in morsel or as in sensation), but it works well here because it reinforces both the awkward stilted-ness of this time in Geryon's life and his odd sensory experience of the world.

The documents
had a forlorn austerity,
tall and hushed in their ranges as veterans of a forgotten war. (72)

Forlorn austerity is a bold choice--if this were an MFA workshop people would write it off as overwrought, juvenile, teenaged--but I think it works well here; I also find myself intrigued by the pivot or movement accomplished by in their ranges, which transforms the shelving system into a martial image.

A yellowing 5x7 index card
scotch-taped below each button said EXTINGUISH LIGHT WHEN NOT IN USE.
Geryon went flickering
through the ranges like a bit of mercury flipping the switches on and off. (72)

So much to love here! Consider flickering. As a verb, this continues the sense of the previous, literal image (the index card with EXTINGUISH): the lights that need extinguished when not in use probably flicker, yeah? But attributing that particular action to Geryon allows Carson to maintain the memory of that literal, physical register (the crappy lights in the library) through the action--the quick, slight, movement of a teenager in that environment flipping the switches off. But flickering also lets her pivot mid-sentence to a simile which gets at not only Geryon's physical actions but also his emotional, mental, developmental, existential status: a bit of mercury. The verb can serve simultaneously as a link and a pivot, allowing Carson to maintain a steady register relating to the physical actions in a specific scene while also dropping in a dense metaphor to gesture at Geryon's broader state.

His mother reached out
a hand to touch his head but he ducked sideways (73)

Well characterized teenage behavior, I think. Very few adults would duck sideways to avoid being touched--we might lean back, or reach out a hand to stop somebody. Ducking along a parallel axis neatly encapsulates the sprawling energy of an adolescent body in the world.

Herakles' voice went bouncing through Geryon on hot gold springs. (73)

Hot gold springs are what drew me to this one. We can tell from the general narrative that Geryon undoubtedly finds Herakles "hot" in a general sense, but we also get the feeling that Herakles is some kind of jock-twink-hybrid curly-haired blond Adonis yeah? Precisely the sort a young sensitive gayboy like Geryin would find to be an all-encompassing, feel-it-in-parts-of-your-abdomen-you-didn't-know-you-had kind of hot. But Caron actually avoids direct physical characterization of Herakles throughout the work, generally--we get this knowledge through a kind of associative characterization. Gold springs, although used here as part of a metaphor for an emotional experience, indirectly communicates information about Herakles' likely appearance. It might seem silly to spend this much time thinking about this sort of effect, but then again this is a work about adjectives...

{NB: heterosexual readers, if you are unfamiliar with the word "twink" please use extreme caution when Googling}

Don't want to be free want to be with you. Beaten but alert Geryon organized
all his inside force to suppress this remark. (74)

The first sentence is a straightforward example of how authors use sentence fragmentation to convey the patterns of internal thought (this is a very old technique). The second I found interesting for the somewhat atypical placement of beaten but alert, which lacks the typical connective tissue (punctuation or conjunctive something or other) one would use to include that information).

He saw the doorway
the house the night the world and
on the other side of the world somewhere Herakles laughing drinking getting
into a car and Geryon's
whole body formed one arch of a cry--upcast to that custom, the human custom
of wrong love. (75)

The use of asyndeton (deliberate avoidance of conjunctions) in the first few lines does a neat job of showing Geryon's train of thought; the repetition of the, absent anything else to join these nouns emphasizes the painful rumination of our sad teenaged Geryon. The asyndeton with Herakles laughing drinking getting into a car does similar work (and note the implications achieved with that enjambment--exactly what Herakles is getting is thrown up in the air for a few moments). I especially love the last two lines. Upcast is such an interesting choice, and parsing out the senses of it give us a variety of meanings: Geryon literally arching bodily upwards in emotional pain; his metaphorical (or literal) cry thrown upwards; and Geryon's story (and his pain) being thrown up into a different or new light: a mythic light, an archaic light--didn't Stesichoros undo the latches holding things in Homeric fixity and let adjectives float up, after all? And of course that final appositive is a killer way of drawing out emphasis, especially because Carson withholds the meaningful semantic portions from the initial noun the appositive modifies (we don't know what custom until it gets reiterated, renamed as the human custom of wrong love).


Associative Characterization

Indirectly communicate physical information about a character, scene, or object by accumulating related connotations in metaphors relating to that character, scene, or object (see: how get the sense that Herakles is likely a blond Adonis type via things like hot gold springs).


Use a verb to extend the range or scope of a physical action or scene (see: how we get a note about extinguishing the lights and then Geryon flickering down the hall to turn them off.) Use that same verb to work in, mid-sentence, a metaphor or simile which works in the established range/scope but also pivots to communicate new information about a new dimension (see: a bit of mercury, which relates not only to Geryon's physical movement but to many other things as well).

Tomorrow, assuming I don't blow up the blog again, we do "Tunnel" and "Aeroplane."


Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Syntax Club: "XXII. Fruit Bowl"; "XXIII. Water"

Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red

Please see here for previous installments of Syntax Club; feel free to post comments and thoughts and sentences you love here on the site or Twitter; if you try an exercise feel free to Tweet some of your results using the #SyntaxClub tag.


--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?


Geryon returns home after being semi-brutally dumped by Herakles; Geryon reunites with his mother in a complex scene of mutual empathy and intimacy--they regard each other; we get new that Geryon's brother has a new set of struggles (i.e., drugs); Geryon wails and mourns his lost relationship under the raw force of rain before performing one of his first "mature" artistic acts--the taking of a long-exposure photograph of a fly drowning in water.


We start to see a more serious, dedicated, conscious move towards an artistic avocation on the part of Geryon here. Should we interpret his split with Herakles as foundational to his future trajectory?

I don't know that it is the foundation, but it certainly seems to be a foundation. Will be interesting to track Geryon's sense of self and sense of art in relation to the specter of Herakles once he's an adult.

What's up with these long exposure shots, and how does it relate back to Geryon's experience of time?

I don't pretend to have a full grasp on everything going on with time in this book (especially once we get to some of the later sections which start to name-drop Heidegger), but it seems interesting that Geryon's early forays involve screwing with exposure, i.e., with time. We get a fly rendered weird around the wings as it drowns in water: obviously there's some self-insert action going on here, given Geryon's own sense of emotional drowning and his own wings. Interesting too that he chooses to render it not incomprehensibly (we can tell it is a fly) but strangely (agitation of light around the wings). Not dissimilar to what Stesichoros did with adjectives, no? There's some movement here about photography & time as a way of thinking about adjectives and registers/modes/latches of being (think back to the epic fixity of Homer and compare with archaic and fast self, maybe).

Have you given up on the whole ~essayistic~ angle to this, Will?

Not precisely, but I've shifted focus for these sections a bit, mostly because this middle adolescence bit is one of the least essayistic parts. We'll see more essayistic thinking in the adult sections, and I'll probably do a book-wide recap towards the end. Also, I don't actually care about genre distinctions very much at this point.

Geryon had meant
to slide past the name coolly
but such a cloud of agony poured up his soul he couldn't remember
what he was saying.
He sat forward. She exhaled. (68)

Much to like about this passage: the alliteration, the assonance, the strange structure of agony poured up his soul he couldn't remember (what's the relationship between poured up and soul? an implicit in? or is something else going on?), the variation in sentence length (very long & heavily enjambed-> short -> even shorter).

She regarded him through smoke. (68)

Regarded is an excellent verb choice for a number of reasons (unexpected, uncommon, thrusts us back into questions of viewing, distance, and intimacy), and Carson makes use of this verb pretty often throughout the book. Worth keeping an eye out for, maybe.

He forgot for a moment that he was a brokenheart (70)

Brokenheart is another of Carson's excellent, novel compoundings/kennings/whatever we want to call them. Takes a noun + adjective (broken heart) or an adjective (brokenhearted) and renders it as a single object.

Sick lurch
downward to Geryon trapped in his own bad apple. (70)

Bad apple--what a wonderful, playful strangeness to the description in this book.

Wind rushed over the ground like a sea and battered up
into the corners of the buildings,
garbage cans went dashing down the alley after their souls. (70-71)

A strong example of an appealing long sentence, and interesting too to use a simile to convert one force of nature (wind) into another (sea). Notice too Carson's willingness to move far and fast in a single sentence--after the simile is well established we get garbage cans following after souls.


Natural Conversion

Take one element of nature, preferably one frequently used in metaphors (see: wind) and use some figurative element to render it in terms of another natural element (see: like a sea). Extend the conceit if you can (see: battered, a verb more frequently applied to sea than the original subject wind).


Next week let's aim for:
Tuesday: "Freedom"
Wednesday:"Tunnel" & "Aeroplane"
Thursday: "Mitwelt" & "Skepticism"


Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Syntax Club: "XX. AA"; "XXI. Memory Burn"

Thanks to our readers for their patience and understanding with the shifting schedule for this project; I found it necessary to take a break from writing and thinking primarily about this book, given the ongoing struggle for justice we've seen over the past weeks. I hope that you are all well during these times, and I hope that you are able to work towards justice in your own communities as circumstances best allow. I plan to return to regularly posting 2-3 times a week again from here on out.

Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red

Please see here for previous installments of Syntax Club; feel free to post comments and thoughts and sentences you love here on the site or Twitter; if you try an exercise feel free to Tweet some of your results using the #SyntaxClub tag.


--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?


Geryon finally sees the volcano up close--and it silences him--but this experience is somewhat complicated by his lapsing in and out of a dreamy liminal state: the boy's intake and outtake valves seem to be acting up at times, no? Herkales and Geryon also argue about the ways in which photography is a way of playing with perceptual relationships, and Geryon continues to find himself stricken by the long-exposure photograph from previous sections.


Is this book setting up some kind of relationship between the discipline of photography & the discipline of syntax?
Yeah, it's interesting to think about how the long-exposure photo might be doing something similar to what Stesichoros did with syntax--throwing up the latches of being, altering the stable Homeric notion of adjectives, etc. Probably worth tracking this a little more closely once we see a slightly older Geryon attempting more photography of his own.

What's up with Geryon's dreamy fits? He frequently seems to be stuck bouncing between conscious and unconscious.
Probably this renders him different/alien/other/monstrous, in a way, but it also contributes to the internal-external-VOLCANO conceit we have going on in the text. I will be honest that I don't totally have a full grasp on all the contours of Geryon's way of experiencing the world (we are very, very different categories of gayboy).


The other two were talking about feminism then life in Hades then unstable bitumen
or was that from Britannica? (63)

A very simple and straightforward form of elongation; Carson extends the sentence, almost to the point of strain, by tacking on phrase after phrase with then; the effect ultimately mirrors the out-of-it kinda sleepy kinda dreamy kinda odd mental state Geryon finds himself in so frequently by linking up the syntactic logic with his (presumably scattered, choppy) internal thinking in the scene itself.

The world had gone black and bulbous. (63)

Love both the alliteration and the powerful, blunt, guileless use of had gone to introduce the adjectives; such a stark introduction for them is fitting given that we are thinking about adjectives-as-latches-of-being, as indicators of metaphysical states, no?

Most volcanic rock is basalt.
If it is dark and blocky that means very little silica in the composition (so the Encyclopedia Britannica).
Very little silica in the composition,
said Geryon as he climbed out. Then the rock silenced him.
It pitched away on all sides
utterly blank except for one crazed blackish unit of intraplate light
bouncing from rock to rock
as if looking for lost kin. (63)

The register shifts and mixes here are interesting: we start out very geologic, encyclopedic, and then switch to mad, sweeping imagery (rock silenced him; blank except for one crazed blackish unit) but we don't totally abandon the scientific register (intraplate).

caught her other arm, it was like a handful of autumn. (64)

Love how the simile attempts to materialize a fundamentally immaterial thing: handful of autumn. Materializing the immaterial--maybe that's what poetry is, anyways.

Just a memory burn! (65)

Something about the phrase memory burn is quite enchanting: the wry sarcasm in context, the use of memory as an adjective, the huge range of interpretive possibility available if we think about it in contexts broader than their argument about stars.

Geryon was standing in front of her
and he lifted her towards him like snow. (67)

Lifted her towards him like snow is maybe a little bit more "real" than handful of autumn (you can lift a handful or a shovel of snow), but seems to be similar work here. I dig it either way.



Take something fundamentally immaterial and pair it with a fundamentally physical verb in a simile, metaphor, extended conceit, etc. Bonus points if you do so with seasons or the natural world, as in our above examples. See: caught her other arm, it was like a handful of autumn.


Tomorrow let's aim for "Fruit Bowl" and "Water".


Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery

Monday, June 15, 2020

On John Prine

When John Prine died on April 7, 2020 of Covid-related complications, he left a deep and wide gap in the American consciousness. In his memory, Essay Daily invited some folks to think on, write about, and discuss some of their favorite lines from his sung mythology.

Bob Cowser: I always loved Prine’s noodling with language, and the poetry he made of common speech.  But what really speaks to me is the genuine nostalgia.  "I really love America. I just don't know how to get there anymore,” Prine said in one of his last interviews.  His songs take us back to an America we (think) we recognize or remember. The heart and humor and resistance in his music are things he carries forward from what he’d listened to as a child, on the radio and around the dinner table.

Jennifer Bottom Sobecki: Muhlenberg Co. was right next to the county I was raised in Ky. One summer in college I worked for KY Fish & Wildlife. We worked a lot in the reclaimed mine lands in Muhlenberg Co. I did see the “world’s largest shovel” as we drove through the mine lands. There were many new lakes created in the reclamation process and since it was Fish & Wildlife property we got to name the lakes. So now there is an 80 acre lake near Paradise, Ky named Bottom Lake! It has a deep oxygenated layer so trout are stocked there. Some of my co-workers wanted to name it “Ass Hole” but I vetoed that!

Cathy Barber: This is another of my favorites among John’s songs. One of my cousins, who lived in West Virginia, owned a strip mining company there. You can imagine we were on opposite sides of the political divide. The lines that Bob quotes above really hit me...that paradox of loving America, of feeling genuine nostalgia and heartache, fear for the loss of what we love.

Melanie Bishop: "Genuine nostalgia" nails it. This song mourns everything we've lost, different for each person. My father was raised in rural Virginia and his parents picked tobacco. He loved this song. If he and my brother have a favorite John Prine song, this is it. Our family sings this one like it's our anthem. This one meant more to me after John died. When I die let my ashes float down the Green River. I hope he's all the way to Paradise by now.

Marla Porter: I don’t yet know the limits of happiness in love. I hope I never find out. But I know you learn weird stuff about your lover. Mine writes down everything he buys. He can literally tell me how many cans of black beans we’ve eaten together. He wears only boxers in the house and refers to this as his “natural state.” When the cat gets too close to his face at night, he moves his pillow to the foot of the bed to escape her. But when you have love, even the weird stuff feels like a big door prize.

Melanie: This inventory of your love is just gorgeous. The big door prize. Damn straight.

Maggie Karrs: Death is one of those Big (capital b) ideas. When John Prine sings about death in “When I Get to Heaven”, he does it in his usual fashion, by taking the pieces of a difficult concept and making them resonant while also painting them in bright, comical colors. The idea of greeting all our loved ones after we die, giving and receiving forgiveness, and drinking “a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale,” makes me want to laugh, cry, and sing along at the top of my lungs, as John Prine songs tend to do.

Melanie: "Bright, comical colors." I love Prine's ability to cut right to the heart of a matter, and pair that with something light or funny, sweet or sarcastic. He bridges the emotions with lines like "...we found ourselves in Canada, trying to save our marriage, or perhaps, catch a few fish, whichever seemed easier." You have the ailing marriage, on the one hand, but in the other hand, there's the fishing pole. Or the spatula turning the sausages, sizzlin' on the grill.

Cathy: “Hello In There”—one of the most heartbreaking songs ever written. By a mailman, or as we now say, letter carrier, who probably met old, lonely people on his route, people who met him at the door for the mail: just bills and requests for money for the church and the hungry. If he hadn’t been discovered, he might have kept on walking, kept on dropping envelopes through slots. How many letter carriers, Uber drivers, landscapers have unknown talents? Don’t we all? Hello in there, hello.

Jessica Handler: “Hello in There” never fails to reduce me to tears, for very much the reasons that Cathy points out. Who might have been the people Prine met on his mail route, and what are the unknown stories, the unheard voices of so many people around us lost to age and loneliness.

Lee Anne Gallaway-Mitchell: Both my dad and his mother (my Granny) worked for the post office. My grandmother was a rural mail carrier who drove all over the county and into the next delivering letters and bills and packages to farmers and their families. I’m reminded through Prine’s words how quickly a person’s life can turn, how the fortunes of a family vacillate, how suddenly people come and go.

Melanie:  A memory: I'm 16 or 17, in the grocery store with my older sister, Laurel, produce aisle. There's an old man next to us, and I say hi and he says a warm hi back. A minute later, out of earshot, Laurel says,  "Do you know that man?" "No," I tell her. "Just saying hello in there." Prine taught me that, and I've never stopped doing it. One day I'll be the old person with the "hollow, ancient eyes." Please don't just pass 'em by and stare, as if you didn't care, say hello in there, hello.

Lee Anne: My dad came back from Vietnam in 71. He died in 2018. The war made him sick. Agent Orange. PTS. It’s a story I tell often. I’ll tell it the rest of my life. The child singing his daddy's war tells that story forever now, too. Yet, dad had a good life, fought to escape Sam Stone's fate. The pain remained; even now it's a ghost. I saw Prine play after dad died. There it was: my dad's despair & troubled faith, his belief in mercy & his merciless work ethic. His love. Grief revisiting me in song.

Melanie: "Grief revisiting me in song." My love of John Prine is so enmeshed with my love for my father. Prine may have been a mailman, and my father a PhD Psychologist, but spiritually, they were the same. My dad didn't have a hole in his arm, but there was alcohol. There was depression. There was a longing. These songs drop me into our family room in New Orleans, 1971, my father lying on the floor, his head in between the speakers. He was getting an infusion.

John Proctor: I don’t have that intense connection to my own personal and family narrative, and yet I’ve been singing this refrain for weeks since his death. I’ve even sought out covers, just so I could hear these words in other voices. I don’t know exactly what it is, but these two lines are like a good short story to me.

Lee Anne:  John Prine tells a story in an interview about how Johnny Cash couldn’t bring himself to sing the words about Jesus. That line must have made his mouth go dry, a line hard for a recovering addict to sing, that one could have faith yet no hope for redemption or recovery. That Prine’s gentleness could sit alongside such hard reckonings says so much about the dark depths he could reach as an artist.

Jessica: I am eighteen. I play an Ovation 12 string guitar. Looking back, I can’t imagine where it came from. How could I have paid for it? I know I loved it, spoke through it. I sing, Make me an angel, that flies from Montgomery. I have never been to Montgomery, although home is not-far-from-there Atlanta. I am in Boston. Forty-some years on, I can tell you that I hated it there. Call me homesick. Call me lost. Call me a freshman. I was a child, not yet grown old. My best friend and I harmonize. Thunder was desire. She imagines Bonnie Raitt’s arid voice, but I live in John Prine’s bitter, wise words.

Melanie: I had an Ovation, too. A boyfriend gave it to me. I didn't deserve it and never learned to properly play it, but I still have it. Angel from Montgomery is brilliant. If dreams were lightning, and thunder were desire, this old house would've burned down, a long time ago. Dreams and desire. Your lines, "Call me homesick. Call me lost," strike a chord with me.

Steve Adams: The thing about this song for me, as a straight guy from Texas who played guitar (and failed at lyric writing), was I could immediately sing the hell out of it. I still can. And Prine singing it himself (1st person lyrics, female POV, 1971) gave me permission years ago to not second guess myself over any gender aspects and just own what moved me, what spoke to me directly. You just feel it, and sing it, and that’s enough. And that’s the way he wrote. The mystery of a great song usually isn’t the individual lines - when you put them on the page as poetry they almost never hold up - it’s how the lines work nested in chords, and the way they ride the melody (and how the melody holds them up), and how a human voice can take hold of them and fly. It’s the way a phrase or an individual line can swell with meaning, understood or not by the singer, and give everyone listening in the room goosebumps. He was a master at this. His songs had room inside them, were generous, and we were welcome in there. I want someone to make me an angel that flies from Montgomery too. And I don’t have to understand what it means to feel it, and sing it like I know it.

Maggie: One of the big things about John Prine was that he could embody the subject of song, and he could let you embody them, too. You could be part of the older couple in “Hello In There”, the middle-aged woman in “Angel From Montgomery”, one of the kooky, crazy in love humans in “In Spite of Ourselves”. He lived and embodied all these different human experiences in his songs, and he lets us, as the listener, live in those experiences too, for the length of a song.

Steve: Yes. Maybe much of that (but not all, because there’s mystery here) is the storyteller aspect. A teacher of mine called stories “empathy machines,” and as some people mention above, a postman, especially one particularly tuned in to people, would be picking up stories every day.

Melanie:  "His songs had room inside them, were generous, and we were welcome in there." Amen.

Melanie: I was 14, Larry 16, Laurel 18, when Laurel brought the album home. New Orleans, 1971. It was the first music that belonged neither to the parents or the kids—we all claimed him. Prine looked at you from his bale of hay like he meant every word. My father, a quiet man, listened. He drank. Depression ran through his veins. Prine taught me: A hole in your arm can cost a lot. If shit isn’t going well for you, inside each of us, we have the key. Find that and use it—what you really think is right. 

John: Within a week of John Prine’s death, my best friend Andrew bought a guitar. He’d never really listened to Prine, but his mother had quoted “When I Get to Heaven” to my social media the day after he died. After a week of listening to Prine’s earliest work, Andrew texted me a picture of himself with his new guitar, saying, “Why didn’t you push him on me harder?!” I told him I’d assumed I didn’t need to. He was from Kentucky, after all. “John Prine was always my mom’s favorite,” he said, “And I never took musical cues from my parents.” Even after death, it’s never too late. 

Melanie: This is the only consolation for me as I reckon daily with the fact that he's gone: we have the music. We will always have that. What a thing to leave the world.


Bob Cowser is Professor of English at St. Lawrence University and author of 3 nonfiction books.

Originally from Beech Grove, Kentucky, Jennifer Bottom Sobecki lives in LaPorte with her family and works for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Cathy Barber is a 2013 Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate in poetry, living in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Melanie Bishop is Faculty Emeritus at Prescott College in Arizona.

Jessica Handler is the author of The Magnetic Girl, winner of the 2020 Southern Book Prize.

Marla Porter is a California-based writer who is typically covered in pink fur and laying on a bed of unicorns and other fluff.

Maggie Karrs is a writer, whitewater guide, and Physical Therapy student living in Richmond, VA.

Raised on a farm in Texas and now living in Tucson, Lee Anne Gallaway-Mitchell writes about illness, caregiving, and war.

Steve Adams is a writing coach, editor, and Pushcart Prize winning author living in Dallas, Texas.

John Proctor currently lives, teaches, writes, and self-distances at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Sheryl St. Germain in conversation with Ander Monson

I'm a big fan of Sheryl St. Germain's newest essay collection, Fifty Miles, which, like her last poetry book, The Small Door of Your Death, is in many ways about the 2014 death of her son Gray. I'd met him only a couple times, I think, if that, and knew him primarily through Sheryl, whom I've known for many years: she was one of my earliest creative writing professors. Sheryl turned me on to a lot of poetry, much of which still remains with me, and while she is probably better known as a poet I've always admired her essays too. Gray was a musician, among other things: he was part of the band Ghosthustler: check out one of their songs here. Since both Sheryl and I had our spring book tours pretty much cancelled by the pandemic, I thought it might be nice to talk in this space instead, so we got together on Zoom to talk about her book. —Ander Monson

Ander Monson: Hello Sheryl. How are you doing?

Sheryl St. Germain: I’m okay. My mom just got out of the hospital. She’s in an assisted living facility, and it’s really hard because it’s on lockdown. She lives in New Orleans, which is the epicenter, as you know, in some ways of the virus—New Orleans and the south. Her facility has five cases of the virus; one resident died. Anyway, I don’t think she recognizes me sometimes when I talk to her. I’ve been writing about this a little bit. It’s hard to go through that stage with a parent.

We had to sell her house recently when I was down there. We had to go through all her stuff and I found out she took creative writing classes in 1949.

She wound up in the hospital in January, falling and falling and falling, and we put her in a nursing home then in assisted living, and then she had heart problems. She had heart failure a couple weeks ago and that’s what landed her in the hospital, but now she’s back in assisted living. She’s okay—she doesn’t have the virus. She can hardly walk, and because of her dementia she’s going to have to be moved to what they call the memory unit as soon as the virus is cleared up. I hope you never have to go through this with your parents.

Ander: I probably will, but—my stepmother is still alive. My dad is still married to her. They got married, then they got divorced, and they got remarried without telling me or my brother, which should give you a sense of the relationship we have with my stepmother. They’re still married, but they don’t live in the same house. She lives in a camp on a place called, literally, Hermit’s Cove, and she almost never leaves. She’s alive—she’ll outlive everyone. She’s a tough lady. My dad hits all the buttons for Covid-19 risk groups, so he’s the one I’m worried about. She never sees anyone if she can avoid it except him, so I don’t know. But they live there, and we live here, and it’s something I haven’t for a long time felt like I had any control over. If I lived there, and felt like I could actually do something about their situation, I’d try to do that, but we really don’t have that relationship.

Sheryl: I have a very complicated relationship with my mother. And I’m now the person who has power of attorney, and has to make all these decisions, and I’m the one who has to check in on her every day, and all of this stuff is coming up, and it’s one thing if you have a wonderful relationship with a parent all your life, but if you’re the responsible party and you have a complicated relationship, it’s tough.

Well, the whole idea, was that I was going to go down there to do the book tour, and do a reading at the Tennessee Williams festival. That had been my dream for a really long time. I was going to do that, then stay with my mom for three weeks, and all this came down, and they locked down the facility, and I can’t even see her now. So now I’m just watching her dementia get worse, day by day. Two days ago I talked to her and she couldn’t finish a sentence. She can’t write a sentence either. It’s so sad. She kept copies of what seems like every letter she ever wrote. I’ve just been reading these letters. She was a very good writer. But today when I tried to talk to her, all she could say was okay. Okay okay. I don’t think that she knew who I was.

Ander: had she read your work before? Did you have that kind of relationship?

Sheryl: Oh she read everything. She was the one who, look at Swamp Songsthere’s an essay in there about her and all the books she had. Thousands. We had to try to sell all these books. She read my work. She mostly was supportive, but she was really pissed off with a poem that I wrote about her having an affair with a boy in the house when my brother was dying. And she didn’t like that I revealed some of what she considered the family secrets. She was unhappy about that but in general, but also she always wanted to be a writer, and I became what she always wanted to be, so there was a little tension there. She was mostly supportive, though.

Ander: Had she read Fifty Miles, or was she too far gone by that point?

Sheryl: You know, the book came out in January, right when she went into assisted living. —I gave her a copy in February.

Athena Monson [from offscreen]: Zoom bomb!

Ander: Oh, we’re about to be zoom bombed.

Sheryl: is that Athena? You didn’t meet me before, but I’ve known your dad for a really long time, and I’ve seen pictures of you on Facebook! Hi! How old are you Athena?

Athena: 6!

Sheryl: I love your name, Athena. The goddess Athena.

Athena: Thanks. I might as well get back to playing my video game. [exits]

Sheryl: Yeah, so I gave her a copy of the book in December when I went down there, but I don’t think she read it. I don’t think she can read. A therapist told me a couple months ago that she took a cognitive test, and a normal person would rate 30, and she rated a 10. There’s a library in the assisted living facility, and she claims to read books, but the therapist said she didn’t think that’s possible. She’s read everything else. I found she had folders of work of mine from the 80s, poems of mine that I’d written. I was really glad to find some of these, because I’d thrown these terrible old drafts away, so it was fun to see them. She doesn’t like to dwell in darkness, and she wants to put a bright face on everything, and I’m all about well, let’s just say what it is, so that’s been a source of tension between us. Why don’t you focus on the bright side of life, Sheryl? [laughs]

Ander: Yeah, that’s not really your jam—

Sheryl: No.

Ander: I mean, there’s a lot of brightness in your work, but it’s not the predominant—

Sheryl: I think of Fifty Miles as a hopeful book. I tried to structure the arc of the essays so that it would end with hope, even though my son died. I’ve been running this Words Without Walls program for ten years and teaching women who are substance abusers. Some of them die, some of them don’t make it, some don’t write after our 6-month workshop, but I feel like it’s very important to develop that relationship. I’m not trying to save people, but…

Ander: When I was rereading the book, I was struck by how various it is. There’s a lot in it, with the four different movements/sections, and the first section is basically chronological. Gray dies between sections one and two, then in section two, we’re in that, section three is the long essay about him and you and video games, and that’s still one of my very favorites,

Sheryl: I like that one too. And the last essay is the teaching CW and addiction, but that’s an outlier in a way. I had mixed feelings about even having it there. I feel like the most important essay is the video game essay, for me anyway. At one point it was almost twice the length it is in the book. But you know, I really wanted to complicate the notion of who an addict is, and to give a fuller exploration of a person’s life, so it was important to have some of those earlier pieces, some of which I wrote way before he died. I just left some of those earlier essays as if he hadn’t died, because it felt untruthful to go back and change the essays after and put his death in there. But after he died, and I kept thinking about how he was such a digital person, so nerdy in that way. It wasn’t just video games: it was everything. He would just call me up sometimes, and I know he was on something, and he would talk for hours about complicated—you would have understood it, I think—about some kind of weird digital deep-dive, the coolest way to make and listen to music online, and he’d lose me because I didn’t get it, but it made me happy to hear him talk about something he loved.

Ander: and then we see that come back in the third, in which we see you playing with him, in that essay we see you move closer to him in an interesting way.

Sheryl: it’s funny; I don’t know if it’s his generation or what, but I felt like, but some of those intimate moments I had with him were either playing World of Warcraft or texting—digital—there was this buffer between us, and we could say things to each other that we could never say face to face. We were never together for long periods of time, since I moved around so much, but it felt important to acknowledge that.

Ander: Did you feel like that kind of communication through texts/chat/games, I can’t help but think of your mother and her letter-writing, and you and your son writing digitally to one another. Did you ever write letters to Gray?

Sheryl: the only time he wrote letters to me was when he was really mad. So I wrote him a letter once, he was a teenager. That was the worst time with him. And he corrected it as if it was an essay that someone had turned in to me for a class. It’s funny now, but it wasn’t so funny then. He was circling things—and writing notes in the side like “ambivalent” or “not true”—and then he wrote a note at the end saying he really enjoyed this fictional account of our relationship.

Ander: wow.

Sheryl: he was very ironic like that. I did write letters to my mom a lot, and she wrote a lot of letters to me. But Gray had ADHD, so he couldn’t sustain things for a long period of time. He’d send me out of the blue a link to a song. Like Roberta Flack’s “Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” and a long detailed really smart analysis of the song. And then he’d say I love you mom. There’d be this moment, and it’d almost always be songs, that would bring something out of him.

Ander: I’m trying to remember your shared love of music and how much that shows up here. I know it shows up in the previous book—

Sheryl: it’s in the poetry book. The Small Door of Your Death. It’s not so much in this one since I didn’t want to repeat that. It’s in the one long poem that’s about those connections we had.

Ander: Even before the CV took over and blew everything up for your book tour, you were trying to rethink the book tour from the get-go anyway, less about random bookstore readings, and were trying to create more intimate events with friends.

Sheryl: I wanted to reach out to people I knew, friends in different states, and see if they would be interested in hosting an event in their houses, or if they had connections with non-literary communities. I had several of these planned, like one in Atlanta. This woman who set the one up there, her son had been my student at Chatham, and he had schizophrenia and was taking medication for it, really really smart, but troubled in the way you might imagine, so he graduated last year, and a few months after he graduated, he stopped taking his medication, and he jumped off a bridge in Pittsburgh and killed himself. So I was really upset about this in all kinds of ways, and I got close to his mother. She offered to set something up in Atlanta, a smaller event with family members and some folks from the community and a local bookstore, and that meant a lot to me, and I was writing some grants with a former colleague to do some outreach, and we got one, called Spreading the Word, and trying to reach communities that wouldn’t normally read a book at all, and that’s going to happen in the fall. The grant will pay for copies of the book. I went to some jails and prisons in Ohio with ARCs and did some readings, and I really loved that. My press, Estruscan had gotten a grant to provide the inmates with copies of the book, so that was really great. They were a wonderfully attentive audience. They’d all read the book. One guy who was about my son’s age said to me, I feel very much like your son. The next time my mother comes to visit me here, I’m going to tell her how much I love her. That was unexpected and moving.

I was talking to Ed Hirsch about this. He has this book Gabriel that he wrote about his son dying from drug use, and we were talking about books, and he said you can’t really market a book about this. It just has to fall in the hands of people who need it. I felt this struggle with my last book too. It’s not like I want to go out and market a book about my son’s death. I’ve probably given away almost as many copies as I’ve sold, but I do feel a responsibility to the press, and I do want it to reach people who might get something from it, so I’m doing what I can to get it out. But this is clearly not the time. You had a book that came out too—so none of us really knows how to do this. I don’t like the idea of a virtual book tour.

Ander: I’m doing some virtual events, though I don’t really know what that’s going to look like. But there’s not really the same rationale behind it: it’s not as intimate. What do you get out of a virtual event? What do you want out of a reading or whatever? I’m thinking about Margaret Atwood and her invention of the LongPen, which allowed you to sign books remotely. What is the point exactly of doing an event at all? It doesn’t have the same kind of community-building effect that going to a place does where you know people and you can be a body in a room with those people.

Sheryl: That’s how I feel about it, especially with this book, but if people offer those things I’ll do them, especially if this thing drags out as it probably will, but right now I’m kind of in a holding pattern.

Ander: I have a plan for mine on Tuesday. I’m going to dress like a wizard, and use a virtual background—have you seen the virtual backgrounds people are doing on Zoom?

Sheryl: This is only my second zoom; I’m doing a bunch of thesis defenses on Zoom next week, but—

Ander: [swaps backgrounds; Sheryl laughs] So the new books are The Gnome Stories, and that’s the one I’m doing the wizard thing for. There’s a bit of a wizardy quality to those, and the other is I Will Take the Answer, and that’s an essay collection. They’re meant to be read together. IWTTA is about in part living in Tucson when Jared Lee Loughner tried to assassinate my congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords. It’s the first book where I feel like I’m really from Tucson. I’m not from Tucson, but now I’m as from Tucson as everyone else here is, having gone through a tragedy. This is a book in which I’m trying to find ways of processing sadness and grief, but also it’s about bad pop songs and so forth, but that’s its undercurrent of sadness I was really looking forward to—the last time I had a book come out, it was 6 months after Athena was born, so I didn’t exactly crush that book tour. I wasn’t in a headspace then—I wasn’t getting any sleep. I did a couple events, but I don’t have any memory of them at all. I hope they were okay. So I was really pumped up to do it this time: I want my editors to be happy with the books and to know that I’m trying to help get them out there. And I got to do 2 events, and the whole thing just got nuked. It’s just depressing to see, though obviously people have much worse problems than this.

Sheryl: This was a huge tour for me. I just got a notice on my calendar—I just got back today it told me. I think my mother’s situation, if that wasn’t going on, I’d be more depressed about it, but there’s been so much going on with her, so I have no space for any other feelings. But I hope one of these days we can have public readings again, even if it’s not going to be anytime soon.

Ander: I wouldn’t plan anything in person until December. But maybe a few things will come together and feel really of the moment. Do you know Ross Gay’s work?

Sheryl: Oh yeah.

Ander: I went to a reading of his for his Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, from which he was reading the night of Trump’s inauguration, and that’s just when he was scheduled to do it here at U of A, and it was one of the most joyful human readings I’d ever been to, maybe in part because of the occasion, but I remember going to that and feeling: fuck yeah. This was a real reading. It meant something. I mean they all mean something, but a lot don’t mean all that much.

Sheryl: Indeed. I’ve been to enough of those that don’t.

Ander: I hope there are opportunities to make some ones happen that will.

Sheryl: Maybe this forces us to rethink some of the big things in our field—like how AWP has gotten out of control—

Ander: Yeah, it’s huge—

Sheryl: Maybe this will allow us to focus more on smaller gatherings instead.

Ander: So to awkwardly pivot back to your book, one of the things I think is really interesting is how formally various it is. It includes a super long essay, a couple more traditional ones, some short-shorts in the second section, then the one that’s half poem. Would you talk a bit about what a collection can contain? Was there a desire at any point to saw off some of the formal edges, or make it more routinely prosy or memoiry?

Sheryl: I get really bored reading collections where all the essays are of a similar length, predictable, with a similar arc. Maybe the voice always sounds the same. I talk a bit about this in the introduction, but I wanted to honor the variousness of my voice and my personality. So the formal changes reflect emotional states of being for me. None of us are always the same. I wanted to honor that. The shorter ones are the ones that deal directly with Gray’s death. That’s why the first book was a book of poetry too, because with the fragmented grief I didn’t even want to make a narrative out of it. With the earlier pieces I was trying to stitch together a story about how the culture deserves some kind of responsibility for what happened to this child. And maybe I do too. And after that, the long long essay about video games, if I were to say to someone that I’m going to write a long essay about my son’s death, and it’s going to start out with me playing a video game, that would sound really shitty in a way, to approach a serious subject like that. That one deserved a longer arc, and I knew that was going to be a really long piece. It was almost twice as long, and I cut it back. I knew there was going to be a couple more traditional pieces in there because I’m a teacher, and especially the last piece is written in my teacher voice. It’s a little more analytical and less lyrical, but because I am a poet first, I think the lyric essay is the essay I’m most drawn to, but that essay has some limitations. There are some things you just can’t do with a lyric essay. And that’s when I turn to more traditional essays. I don’t think we need to expect in terms of form or voice that every piece in a collection should be the same. You’re a great example of that: a lot of your collections have wildly different things going on.

Ander: For me, I don’t like that saminess or too much consistency either, and I always find it puzzling—I don’t like in an essay collection when the writer seems to have made no effort to think about the arrangement or the cumulative effect of the collected work, but I don’t like novels; I prefer short stories. I prefer to meet something new over and over every 20 pages or so, so when I hear people complaining about variousness in collections, I just don’t get it, especially in a book like this one, which is so anchored by this narrative drive to tell this story, and to tell these other substories that fill out these lives. But also this is a book that maybe more than any other book of yours, it has a pedagogical quality. It wants to talk about some real problems in a way that’s not just describing them but wants to change them. That comes out of your teaching I’m sure, but also your outreach work—Words Without Walls—that feels much more present and important than it is has in your older work. Is that something the lyric essay can’t do?

Sheryl: I’ve had really good reviews of this book. I had one review that was off the wall fantastic but then it said maybe I shouldn’t have included the last essay, which was more pedagogical and traditional in a way. The reviewer was awash in all the lyricism, and the last essay is not lyric at all. Well there are some lyric moments in it. It’s about this thing I’ve done for the last ten years, and that felt really important to have in there, but I struggled to find where to put it. Maybe I should have put it in an appendix or something, I don’t know. Might’ve been better to end with the video game essay, but I felt like it needed to be there. I work a lot with students who are drawn to me to work on what’s called trauma narrative. What can happen sometimes in a trauma narrative is that you give the trauma and you just end and that’s it. Who wants to just read through all this trauma shit? So I like to try and have some—sometimes it’s just in the language, and I do think that lyricism can do this, but—addiction is such a huge issue, and I feel like I wanted to say something. That last essay is a criticism of MFA programs at its heart, and it’s one of the reasons I retired early. I stopped believing in it. I’d find myself talking to students trying to get them into the program, and I realized I just didn’t believe it anymore. I wanted to work with people who needed to use writing to become intimate with themselves or to face up to something, and I wanted it to be a healing thing. In a lot of MFA programs there’s a kind of elitism, they teach the same kind of students over and over again, and do the same things, and maybe because I’ve been teaching for 36 years I just wanted to break out of that, and I am going far afield now from the question you asked, but it felt important to me to say that there is something you can do with this, and maybe it’ll help a little bit. There are a number of students who came through this MFA program who were recovered addicts—I directed their theses and they came out of it, and they’re very successful right now. I don’t know. I have writing and I have teaching, and I’m doing fiber arts too. These are the only things I know how to do, and they’re the only tools I have to address this huge issue, and so I wanted that teaching to be part of it.

The lyric essay is important in the same way poems are important, that there are certain things that are so complicated and so deep and there are so many tentacles that the only way I know how to express that is in the lyric essay or in a poem, and I’m not looking for answers there, but to say look at this thing: there’s so many legs and so many arms and there’s so many ways of it being understood. That feels important, but it also feels important to be able to sometimes say there are some things in real life—and I can’t tell you, Ander, how many people have come up to me, especially after the poetry book, and they tell me their brother or their son, their lover or their wife, their daughter is caught in this river of addiction, or they have somebody they want to give the book too. That feels like I’m making a bit of a difference, and when I die, I hope that something I did made a little tiny bit of a difference. It’s never going to be a big difference, but all you can do is hope that our work makes a difference in somebody’s life.

I might have told you this story a long time ago, but many years ago I wrote a poem called “Cajun” (reproduced below) and years after I wrote it, somebody contacted me, this woman who lives in an area of Southwest Louisiana, and she said she’d had that poem on her refrigerator for a really long time, and it got all kinds of stains on it, and she couldn’t read it anymore, and she couldn’t afford to buy the book again, and would I send her another copy of the poem? I said yeah, obviously, and I can’t tell you how happy that made me. A refrigerator is an altar. You put important photographs on there. I thought about that conversation a lot, that the poem meant so much to her, she put it on her refrigerator. That’s sort of what I hope for this book—nobody’s going to put it on their refrigerator, but for some specific audiences, it’ll feel like a place they can go to and get inside of. The thing is, there are a lot of books that deal with addiction, like self-help books, very prosy, or look-how-I-survived books, but this book is much different. It’s not a how-to. It is a story of one woman’s struggle with a child that she loved and was sometimes estranged from, and had connections with in other ways. Maybe that story will matter to people.

Ander: Coming back, I was thinking about, that it’s a commonplace that you can’t market a book like this. I have another friend who was trying to sell a book in which she’s writing about a miscarriage, and it was extremely difficult for them of course, and many agents have told her that you just can’t sell a book like that, but at the same time, so many people have experiences with miscarriages or losing a child, or with addiction in their families. When I read Fifty Miles, I think a lot about my dad. It’s a book that has so many connections to so many people, that it’s bizarre that many people don’t think of as something that they would seek out. I guess you don’t go seeking out a book that’s not going to be uplifting or instructional, but it’s beautiful, and it moves me reading it, and I’m glad that people are finding their way to it—

Sheryl: I would read just about any book that’s beautiful. There’s a guy, not a lyric writer. I don’t know if you know Russell Shortos work? He’s a little more journalistic, but I love his writing so much. He writes a lot about the Netherlands, and about New Amsterdam, New York. I told him one day—I had him come out to read at Chatham—that I would read anything he wrote. There’s a reason to read my book, I hope, because there’s beauty there, and there are moments in the book that I hope rise to the level where people would be moved reading them, but there’s no happy ending. For a commercial press to have published it, it would have to have a happy ending. It would have to be much less various, more narrative, and I didn’t want to do that.

Ander: I also appreciate the move not to just strand us at the down point of the story. If you end after section two, we’re in a different emotional place, or after section three. I hadn’t thought about what it would be like without the final essay. It would be a different book ending on section three—still a reasonable way, we’re finding a way out of the dungeon—but the fourth section really brings us all the way out, with a call to action. Here’s a thing that I’ve been doing, and I believe in strongly, and it’s a powerful move out of that and to surface from the book.

I really love the book and hope that it will continue to find its way to people who will encounter it on its own terms, and will find it beautiful in the way that I do. So thanks for that.

I want to take the word back into my body, back
from the northern restaurants with their neon signs
announcing it like a whore. I want it to be private again,
I want to sink back into the swamps that are nothing
like these clean restaurants, the swamps
with their mud and jaws and eyes that float
below the surface, the mud and jaws and eyes
of food or death. I want to see my father’s father’s
hands again, scarred with a life of netting and trapping,
thick gunk of bayou under his fingernails,
staining his cuticles, I want to remember the pride he took
gutting and cleaning what he caught; his were nothing
like the soft hands and clipped fingernails that serve us
in these restaurants cemented in land, the restaurants nothing
like the houses we lived and died in, anchored in water,
trembling with every wind and flood. 
And what my father’s mother knew:
how to make alligator tail sweet, how to cut up
muscled squirrel or rabbit, or wild duck,
cook it till it was tender, spice it and mix it all up
with rice that soaked up the spice and game so that
it all filled your mouth, thick and sticky, tasting
like blood and cayenne. And when I see the signs
on the restaurants, Cajun food served here,
it’s like a fish knife ripping my belly, and when I see
them all eating the white meat of fat chickens
and market cuts of steak or fish someone else
has caught cooked cajun stye, I feel it
again, the word’s been stolen, like me,

from Let it Be a Dark Roux: New and Selected Poems

Sheryl St. Germain has published six poetry books, three essay collections, and co-edited two anthologies. Her latest collection of essays, Fifty Miles, appeared in January 2020 with Etruscan Press. She lives in Pittsburgh where she is co-founder of the Words Without Walls program. In addition to numerous awards for her work, including two NEA grants, in 2018 she was the recipient of The Louisiana Writer Award, presented annually by the Louisiana Center for the Book. 
Ander Monson is one of the curators of this site. His newest books are The Gnome Stories and I Will Take the Answer, both from Graywolf