Monday, October 4, 2021

This Jade World Isn’t So Jaded: Emily Dillon on Ira Sukrungruang's THIS JADE WORLD

While packing up the house after his divorce, Ira Sukrungruang throws out or gives away much of his belongings. As he says, “If I were to start over, I would start over, like a fire that rebirths a forest.” 

Spoiler: He is admitting to more than just throwing away his t-shirts.

Sukrungruang’s new memoir, This Jade World, out this last week, chronicles the aftermath of his first marriage and, in a way, Sukrungruang chose to burn his life down. The first chapter, aptly titled “The First,” hits with a wallop. For one, it is compact like a fist; there is not a single paragraph break in three pages. For another, it narrates Sukrungruang’s first sexual encounter after his marriage ends, one in which he fucks a nameless woman from the internet. 

I use “fuck” deliberately here. As Sukrungruang says a few chapters later: “The body acted on the things it had wanted to do for years. To fuck and fuck and fuck. I was a body. A selfish body. A greedy body in movement.” Of course, sexual intimacy alone—even a lot of it with multiple partners—does not mean that Sukrungruang burned his life to the ground. It is not “fuck” here that collapsed his life into ashes, but “selfish” and “greedy.” In fact, he dips a toe into these adjectives even before he has sex with other women: before his marriage dissolved, he took his wedding ring off, went to a bar, and chatted with another woman, all without telling his wife. And when he does start having sex, afterward he doesn’t always answer the phone when his partners call him. Even in his interpretation of these memories on the page, selfishness sticks around: “This was a form of mourning. This was a form of healing.” Importantly, “this” is vague enough that we don’t know whether it was the sex that was healing, the ignoring of others, or both. 

Now, it may very well be that Sukrungruang believes selfishness is the root of the human condition and, in my pessimistic days, I might cheer him on. But I doubt that was his aim. After all, the final chapter of the book focuses on raising his son, ending with “Son, you can have anything.” No, I think Sukrungruang is onto something a bit more nuanced than selfishness: he wants to talk about exposure. 

Throughout This Jade World, Sukrungruang gives us his worst selves: the one where he treats sexual partners with callousness; the one where he rages and picks a fight with a man on the street; the one where he aims to hurt his ex-wife, spite sticking to his tongue with “you're not going to get anyone better than me”; the one where he manipulates women into caring for him while sick. He is direct about these failures, admitting, for example, that he “should have told her no” when a date made him soup during an illness. We could forgive the lapse in judgement during the illness (he was sick after all!) but it’s what comes after that’s a bit more unforgivable: he never replies to her texts, and he can’t remember her name.

This selfishness would certainly be more easily excusable in a memoir about the distant past, about a high-school boy or a college hook-up. For the most part, we all agree that we make mistakes, that we are greedy and selfish. But back then. Before we knew better.

But here in This Jade World, Sukrungruang is much older—he left undergrad over two decades ago—and some of his worst stories are only a few years behind him. The radical nature of this book is its immediacy. How soon after our failings can we admit to them? How soon after can we write about them?

These questions of exposure stand in stark contrast to the silence that choked his marriage. As he says, “Silence slithered into our lives and settled there until it was too late.” After a particularly nasty day in their marriage, he recounts, “We didn’t say anything after that. We didn’t say anything about the situation any time afterward either. We buried it, as if it never happened.” And so, This Jade World, in its whole being, exists to turn the tide by exposing everything, to admit to the hard things, the things we don’t want to talk about, the things we put off for the day when we think we will be better, or it will be easier. Let them go, it says, even if they’re still being discovered.

Now it would be an easy pivot here to assume that Sukrungruang is also challenging stereotypes of Asian culture, rooted as those stereotypes are in voicelessness or, kindlier, humility. But Sukrungruang doesn’t let this stereotype land. He fills his memoir with Thai people who are direct and unflinching. In particular, his mother and his aunt—two women whose lives fill his chapters with color and humor—are more open than most Western psychologists. His mother, for one, is quite direct about the ongoing political challenges in Thailand: “What does the other side want?” she offers up. “For the other side not to win,” she replies. Then, in one particularly funny scene, his Aunty Sue asks about his sexual relationship with his ex-wife: “did she climax?” So no, it is not Asian people specifically that he pushes to expose themselves, but anyone in a place where silence reigns supreme. At times this place is, in fact, Asian culture, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it is American culture; sometimes it is masculinity or broken relationships; and, most often, the silence is in the self wanting what it won’t admit.

For, in the end, much of the narrative arc of the book follows Sukrungruang discovering the silence within himself. Specifically, it is about him not admitting that he wanted a child. In a particularly grueling scene, one in which his ex-wife gets an elective hysterectomy, Sukrungruang works so hard to believe that he, too, does not want a child. The images keep looming (“you imagine a child, one you’ve created, one without a face, a child, your child, yours”) but he pushes them down because he loves his wife and wants what is best for her. And haven’t we all had these moments, the ones where we wanted one thing so badly that we didn’t admit we wanted another, almost entirely incompatible thing? 

For the record, it’s not immediately clear if This Jade World is a memoir or a collection of essays. It is likely both, for it has the best qualities of both: a narrative that pulls us from naivete to discovery and a layering of self-contained essays that recolor the world like light filters over a lit bulb. This structure serves him well, mirroring the way he lived through the divorce—one step at a time and also in circles. Or at least, that’s how he lives it until the final sections of the book. While the first seven sections all finish with a chapter titled “July 10th”—the date of his wedding anniversary—the final two sections close with the chapters “Goodbye” and “The Next Life.” In the end, he names his departure—exposes it—and then moves on.


Emily Dillon is a writer and educator from Maryland whose creative work ranges from nonfiction to poetry and all the lyrical places in-between. Ever an avid reader, she also publishes book reviews and teaching guides. Find her:

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Hanging on the Telephone: Ander Monson on Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade

There’s something wobbly and rare that happens in Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade’s Telephone: Essays in Two Voices, the latest winner of the CSU Poetry Center Essay Prize, which has produced some badass books in its first few years by the likes of Lily Hoang, James Allen Hall, Shaelyn Smith, and Amy Long. 

I’m thinking about how primal the self often seems to be in the contemporary American essay, how we prize the contours of the self and its slinky thinkiness, how that is the thing that I’m really interested in when I read anyone’s essay, and that’s what we’re usually talking about when we talk about essaying and annoy the non-essayists among us. I mean, it’s not the subject (though it’s sometimes the subject): it’s the architecture that the I dances around the subject: how the I is transformed by it, or vice versa, and probably both. 

So I was prepared to be skeptical of an essay collection composed by two Is, though I’m not really sure why. I like both Brenda Miller’s and Julie Marie Wade’s work. And in other media, duets are often standouts. I’m all about collaboration in my editorial work and increasingly my teaching. But when it comes to the I, I guess I’m not so sure I’m ready to give that up. 

Maybe I’ve just read some bad experiments in deselfitization before? I find that when you lose the I in a book or in an essay I just get less interested in most cases. It’s like when a graphic novel trades language (which is the only thing I really care about, it turns out) for image: it’s not a good trade, at least not for me. I want both. 

Wade and Miller tell us in the “Authors’ Note” that “We have chosen not to label the speaker in each section so that our individual voices surrender into a more collective, and communal, authorship.” So when I read that I’m all totally like ugh, no. 

I’m not that good a reader, though. I don’t really want to play that game. So even if Miller and Wade choose not to identify who is speaking or manifesting in each section, I naturally start to assign certain bits by what autobiography I know from each writer (I know neither well but having read their individual nonfiction you start to get an idea). I couldn’t stop myself. But it’s not always easy to do that, or maybe I don’t care enough to follow through all the way on it, so after a while I had to mostly give it up. 

And after I gave it up, the feeling I started to get was a productive uncertainty, in which I began to care less who was talking or writing or thinking, and the two began to just spin around each other. I thought of the metaphor of the thaumatrope, where you have a card attached to a string or stick, and on one side is an empty cage, and on the other side is a bird, and when you spin the card, even though you know it’s two images, you see only the one image: a bird in a cage:

But it’s not quite that. Neither writer abdicates the I: many of these sections are intensely personal or autobiographical. They often let the I extend some thinking. The book doesn’t collapse the two Is into one another, a single collective I. It’s not a we: it’s two Is. They’re just not identified. The Is do start to correspond (their method clearly involves closely reading the other and often following an associative link from one writer’s piece to the next. At least I think they’re alternating. It’s to the authors’ credit that after a while I couldn’t really tell). Through that practice of closely listening to the thing the other wrote, they start to approach each other as we go deeper. This effect is amplified because as I have to give up on trying to figure out who’s memory is whose, so both Is contain both of their memories. The I isn’t collapsed, but it is expanded.

Maybe the better metaphor is the area between two things that create a field of force between them. I’m thinking magnets here, how there are spaces in between the two in which one is subject to both pulls, variably. And at the equilibrium point between the two one floats perfectly between them, pulled in neither direction at all. It is a kind of freedom that’s accomplished in moments like this, and as a reader I felt very strangely free. 

Oddly, it’s often form that helps make me feel a little more at home with this freedom. Well, that shouldn’t be surprising: those who love form know form is freedom. And Wade's and Miller's essays are presented in short sections, sometimes titled, sometimes not. Sometimes those sections are alphabetized, as in an index or a catalog, and I was particularly drawn to those, because the reliability of the repeating form lets us focus on the form rather than the questions of I. 

They tend to be collected or categorized by a category (“Heat Index”’s sample subsections: Bikram, Blush, Boiling Point, Can’t take the, Dead, etc.). The category becomes the thing that each section references or riffs on (“Of Madison County” or “Over Troubled Water,” for instance, from “Bridges: a Catalog”). There’s a pleasing associative logic that plays out in these particular essays that yokes the subtitle to the title, and we make the leap with them each time (we hope), and doing so we’re drawn closer to the Is, I mean the I, I mean it’s becoming a we now, isn’t it, with our having to do a little bit of assembly as readers, and, damn, that’s a fine trick.

I felt it most sharply in the more form-forward essays, but this leaping we’re doing is also a function of the interplay between the two Is throughout the book, as in the game of telephone that gives the book its title, so we read it everywhere. 

By the time I was halfway into the book, I realized I’d given up on I, at least the kind of I work that I was used to essays doing. Was I cured? Suddenly free from its tyranny? I doubt it, but I noticed that my natural urge to resolve the I had vanished in the reading process. What had replaced it? An admiration for the play between the two. And it’s not just wit, either, that I’m admiring, though I do greatly value wit in art. Wit and chemistry, I guess. Maybe all wit in this context is chemistry? But it’s also a real commitment to the methodology: after all, so much of the way literature is rewarded and counted in academia and in the larger literary world is as a solo act. I thought of conversation—not just the telephone kind of conversation, but something closer and more intimate. It’s more like the podcast kind of synergy, where two (or more rarely three) voices and minds together and their collective work is what makes the conversation come to life. Consider I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead (from the essay world) or Reply All (before one of the hosts left) or even Car Talk, which shows up in one of the essays in this book, and is built on the expertise and affection of both brothers. It was sad when that ended because one of them could no longer do it.

By the time I got to the last epistolary essay, the epilogue, it was jarring to all of a sudden see the names and the methodology so clearly identified: here, after all, was Julie writing to Brenda and signing her name, and vice versa. It felt a little like a reveal, but also an acknowledgment of a different kind of intimacy, this one practiced in the summer of 2020, right amid our covid isolation, where writing to each other really did feel novel and necessary. Maybe in that enforced soloing we needed to assert the communicative nature of our prose? That essay, if it’s an essay—I’m not sure if it’s an essay—does feel like it’s operating differently than the others as a result. It didn’t give me the same kind of floating feeling that the others did, but then you have to get out of the book somehow. I realized, after writing this all on my own, that the better methodology would have been to correspond with one of my many witty collaborators in a game of telephone about Telephone, but I guess I haven’t learned my lesson yet. I guess it'll take another couple books from this double I, which I'll look forward to.


Ander Monson's next book is Predator: a Memoir, coming out in September 2022 from Graywolf.

Monday, August 16, 2021

The Essay’s Slow Simmering: An Interview with Caryl Pagel

Sarah Minor: You’re a writer of poems, essays, reviews, good-news emails, and jacket texts. You’re also a publisher and editor at two indie presses, the CSU Poetry Center and Rescue Press, the second of which you co-founded, and both of which are known for publishing outstanding contemporary work that is often hybrid and risk-taking. This meant that you were the main force behind the editing of Bright Archive, my collection of visual essays. I frequently find myself in awe of your work with texts that span genres and styles. Your many editorial projects demonstrate a keen sense of writing and its process—from the sentence level to the full scope of a book project. We’ve talked briefly about the term “experimental,” and how this term has changed—or perhaps hasn’t changed as much as we expected it to?—over the past decade. As someone who both makes experimental work, and who has brought dozens of indie titles from submission queue to paperback, what does “experimental” mean for literature today, and how have you seen it change during your time as a writer and an editor? 

Caryl Pagel: My first collection of essays, Out of Nowhere Into Nothing, was recently published by the author-run experimental fiction publisher FC2, and I feel lucky to have worked with a press that actively values “adventurous, nontraditional” writing as an aesthetic-political force, and has done so for half-a-century. I think of the essays in Out of Nowhere as being in conversation with other form-curious art-obsessed writers: Claudia Rankine, Eileen Myles, Siri Hustvedt, Lucy Lippard, Aisha Sabatini Sloan, Chris Kraus, or Renee Gladman, to name a few of my favorite writers. My book might be considered experimental because it incorporates photographs, mixes genres, and is made of long, meandering sentences and several one paragraph essays. Its approach to content is peripatetic and rambling, its relationship to the truth simultaneously over-framed and under-valued, its concerns and associations meant to unfold gradually.

SM: Of course one hears the term “experimental” used to mean everything from “original” to “hybrid,” “difficult,” “interested in language,” “approaching the form of the book uniquely,” “multi-genre,” “multi-modal,” “impenetrable,” “sans plot,” “artsy,” “weird,” or “tethered to avant-garde lineages.” It’s an imperfect term but I still use it, as both an editor and writer, out of an appreciation for its most immediate scientific implications which are, to me, about trying something out, perhaps playfully, to see what will happen, actively prioritizing materials and processes over expectations or precision of outcome. 

CP: Valuing the experimental can mean an emphasis on the present, the practice. It can mean making something unfamiliar, something you can’t quite put your finger on, and maybe it’s speedy and good, or bursting, flawed, energized, and you publish it. Experimental literature be difficult. Maybe a reader needs to approach it with patience or good will (hard!), or read it again (time!); maybe it’s not easy to write that jacket copy or review, maybe you’re a little uncomfortable, maybe when you talk about the work you’re wrong (gulp!). Experimental literature can expand perceptions, stances, structures. Perhaps the author is fine with you feeling bewildered or bored, agitated or unmoored. Can experimental literature create stronger relationships with complexity, inconvenience, and desire? Would we benefit from stormier, more robust imaginations? 

As an editor (or reader, teacher, friend), I’ve noticed that my participation in a book’s “experimental” qualities can usually occur at two points. The first is when I encounter a writer thinking through a project that they might not embark upon or finish for fear of its difference or their own perceived limits of readership or publishing opportunities. In this case an editor can encourage something unusual from the start by saying yes please, do what you see. Alternately, one might edit a finished manuscript with strangeness as their co-pilot, calling attention to a work’s idiosyncrasies or most mysterious gestures. In my work at the two presses you mention, I imagine the publishing process as a period of time in which one can extend a project’s options or expand its questions (as opposed to a kind of smooth closure). So much of the history of experimental literature is linked to small press publishing, collaborative artmaking, and niche communities and is the result of author-editor relationships, proximities, intimacies, and micro-cultures. How are these histories accounted for? Where do the social or relational aspects of literature appear in conversations about the experimental? How do shared, fluctuating narratives of artmaking operate in opposition to the figure of the genius or celebrity?  

SM: Your collection of poems Twice Told is a book about subjects like intuition, hearsay, ghosts, loops, and coincidence. The essays in your collection Out of Nowhere Into Nothing revisit landscapes, inside jokes, and topics like sight and memory which echo the voice and interior conversation from your poems. I wonder if you have insights on the differences in making a book of poems and a book of essays? How does each form communicate differently? I’m thinking especially about the notion of “the turn,” which you’ve described before as a quality that can be shared by essays and poems. I’m thinking also about how writers of narrative use terms like “pivot,” “reveal,” or “twist.” What is a turn? Do you think elements like “turns” shift, arrive, or behave differently depending on the form and length of a text? 

CP: I think of a turn not so much as a plot twist or change of subject but an attempt to trace the inevitable associations, distractions, and detours of the animated mind. It’s less about the content’s logic, or what’s turning (the widening gyre, the season, the screw!?), than a pace-based shifting of direction; it’s a gesture based in rhythm more than theme. If a poem or essay turns often enough (requiring some time, as you mention) it will inevitably circle back in on or around itself, having become more complex, or at least stranger, in the meantime. So yes, even in prose I’ve held on to what I think of as the poets’ turn, which can be more startling and less tethered to a piece’s initial argument or source than in a more traditional essay. This gesture can create unanticipated patterns or a slow simmering recognition which might feel to the reader like coincidence or the uncanny.  

SM: When reading the essays in Out of Nowhere Into Nothing I am often thinking about sight and perception from the perspective of an speaker who is constantly moving through the world. This year the book was longlisted by The Believer! When my students read the collection, they described your essays as feeling like “being on a walk with a friend”—an experience of continuousness that moves us comfortably, associatively, but always with an eye on our surroundings. As someone interested in physical page forms, I also wondered if this effect had to do with the format of paragraphs that allow the reader’s eye to remain connected for many pages. Was conversation, or continuousness on your mind as you were writing these essays or compiling them for the book? 

CP: Absolutely—I’m interested in the experience of continuity with detour. As you mention, many of the essays take the form of a walk, and others are meant to meander via casual social time (at a bar or party), driving, talking, or travel. The essays often exist in the “place” where getting lost in thought occurs, which for me is when I’m in motion. I appreciate the contrast between a body moving in a linear (if rambling) route while the mind darts, sometimes simultaneously, in many directions and through several timelines. My hope was that these essays would sustain a train of thought for a bit longer than one would expect if aiming to make a single sharp point, the way you might allow yourself tangents and irrelevant excitements in conversation with someone you’re familiar with. There’s an intense intimacy, I feel, in the form, which is perhaps in contrast to both one’s immediate impression of it on the page (long, unbroken text blocks being potentially alienating at first glance) and the content (so much of which dwells in nothingness, loneliness, bewilderment). I hope that instead of the usual rest of a paragraph break the occasional images provide an escape from language, like encountering a sudden valley or window. 

SM: Can you share a bit about what your writing process looks like? You’ve often said that walking is a part of writing for you. Do you carry a pen and paper in your coat pockets? When you “begin,” do you start by reading, or do you sit right down with a draft or a new page? At what point does research come into your process?

CP: Walking is part of my process because it’s where I have ideas, and there’s a rhythm there that I’ve found useful. I walk circles around my (our!) Cleveland Heights neighborhood, which amounts to some kind of pacing, and/or take very long walks around Chicago, where I’ve lived on and off in my adult life. But there’s not much that’s purposeful about it. I go on a walk and then sometimes have a thought. I take frantic notes on paper or in my phone or brain, transcribe them when I get home and then mostly forget about them. So, in that way walking is probably just as—but no more!—magical than sleeping or showering or driving or staring at the wall, but it’s important to this book because the walks-as-process started showing up in the essays as content. I love writers who can capture a walk’s wonders surprisingly and think of Cole Swenson, Teju Cole, Brandon Shimoda, Virginia Woolf, Rebecca Solnit, Robert Walser, and Lisa Robertson as great wanderers. I’m not the first reader or writer to generally care less about plot than style, connection, joke, sound, or description, and a walk—even just moving from one side of the room to the other—can be all the action I need. But you’re talking to someone who watches Friday Night Lights for the lights, so…

SM: Because “collection” is a subject of both your creative and editorial work, I wonder if you have insights on the structure or function of literary collections and collecting. You’ve mentioned the “Indiana Jones” ordering method—where the book opens with a more action-packed piece as an introduction to more reflective, lyric sections. Are there other ordering types you’ve named or imagined? Do you think the ordering or re-ordering of collected pieces in a draft can help to shape the revision of individual pieces? How do you know when a collection is “finished”—is there a particular quality that gets distilled through repeated motif, shared subjects, and the call and response of stylistic choices? Is there a key?

CP: Ha, yes, ye olde Indiana Jones method. That’s probably the best name I’ve come up with but I have a lot of different strategies depending on the book. I love this part of editing (not necessarily for myself but for others). I love thinking about pacing and balance and levels of mystery and various chronologies. It’s a different process for every book, with different perspectives on finished-ness, different collaborative dynamics. The act of ordering can feel like an extreme synthesizing of pattern, theme, tone, mood, goals, music, and form and then, a… uh… vibe-based organizing session responding to that synthesis, a combination, in the best case, of insight, and instinct. I’ll make up a few names for shapes I’ve encouraged in the past: the Indiana Jones, the Sweet Wave, the Calendar, the Pillow Fight, the Fun House Mirror, the Bouquet, the Lazy River, the Retired Docent, and the Shared Songbook.

SM: From a perspective outside of publishing, over the past five years I’ve maybe noticed that the popular lyric/braided essay form is moving aside to make room for forms like the long poem and types of short “auto-fiction.” I’ve also loved seeing many very small books of prose in print. Do you think you’ve observed shifts like this that pertain to new crossings in literary modes? Do you think “length” is attached differently to genre today? 

CP: I guess the great thing about working in small press publishing is that you can basically do whatever you want. Things are always changing and there aren’t really any rules. I’ve loved many smaller hybrid works that have been published in the past few years. I think of Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book, Mary-Kim Arnold’s Litany for the Long Moment, or Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk as beautiful examples. I can’t speak for all small or indie presses but will say that at Rescue Press, since the very beginning, we’ve been interested in uncommon lengths, shapes, genres, designs, and approaches to what a book can look like or enact in the world. We’ve published a little bit of everything: mini short story collections, performance props, memoir-in-lines, multi-genre meditations, wild poetries, hybrid messes, travelogues, novellas, and the simply uncategorizable. 

SM: We’ve heard tell that you’re working on another collection. Do you feel interested in talking a bit about that new project, its process, and about what it’s been like to work on a new book after publishing both essays, poems, and a hundred books by other authors?

CP: I have notes, a desire for some new propulsion, but nothing in writing yet. Between the CSU Poetry Center and Rescue Press I’ve spent the last year, in collaboration with the other editors and staff at both places, working on forthcoming books by Gabriel Blackwell, Vanessa Jimenez Gabb, Dot Devota, Tobias Wray, Julie Marie Wade + Brenda Miller, Valerie Hsiung, and Shane McCrae. Some beautiful writing to look forward to! 


Caryl Pagel is the author of Out of Nowhere Into Nothing (FC2, fall 2020), Twice Told (University of Akron Press), and Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death (Factory Hollow). She teaches in the NEOMFA program, directs the Cleveland State University Poetry Center, and is a publisher and editor at Rescue Press.

Sarah Minor is an interdisciplinary artist and the author of Slim Confessions: The Universe as a Spider or Spit (Noemi Press 2021) and Bright Archive (Rescue Press 2020), winner of the 2020 Big Other Award in Nonfiction. She serves as Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the Cleveland Institute of Art and Video Editor at TriQuarterly Review.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Cumulative Knowledge Can Be Quiet: Lia Purpura in conversation with Sarah Ruth Bates, on Crafting Essay Collections

Lia Purpura trained as a poet, and it shows: her essays are precise, finely tuned, and subtly accretive. So, too, are the collections in which they appear. I read and charted one of her books, Rough Likeness, for an MFA course with Ander Monson on book-length collections, and talked with her about the twined arts of essay writing, essay collecting, and living.

Sarah Ruth Bates: You’ve said in previous interviews that you don’t map out your books ahead of writing them, that you move intuitively.

Lia Purpura: That’s true, early on, I really don’t work with a map—either a form-map (a drive to “braid”) or an outline of a subject. I have interests, commonly called ‘obsessions,’ but to my mind, it’s more a way of being I try to be alert to—so the writing and the living are one continuous act. In All the Fierce Tethers, as in much of my work, I’m aware of following down trails, and opening passageways to objects, places, ideas, sensations that have been with me all my life, and that I’ve been profoundly intrigued/moved/troubled by. In lieu of an early map, there’s trust in the coherence of a self. When I say trust, it’s not like it’s comfortable or clear or restful, but I do find that finishing one essay leaves all of these very alive questions, or angles, up in the air, and the next essay wants to take that thread up, and stitch it into another essay—an extension or deepening. 

Moving this way—and it’s not everybody’s way—lets me sort of set things out and see the ways that essays are speaking to one another, seeing what the conversation is about. Sometimes it’s clear that I’ve overspoken on a certain direct subject, like “insects,” and I don’t want eight essays heavy on insects in a collection. Even if one piece might be beloved, you have to pare back and balance. In On Looking [Purpura's first book of essays], all of the interlocking conversations around the subject of looking and perception, the ethics, the aesthetics, the drive to look at things that are difficult to look at came clear as an arc pretty late in the game. In some of those essays, the looking is very direct; in some, the looking is sidelong. It’s a broad conceptual net, as opposed to being a collection that’s memoir-driven, or told in narrative form, or consciously braided. I know some people find it really helpful to think about “braiding” or other kinds of formal templates, but to me, the making-clear of distinct strands—or methods—at the outset can be constricting. I seem to need to throw it open really wide, both in an individual essay and in a collection, and then look for and strengthen the drives, formal and otherwise, that I see.

All said, though, my interests, concerns, curiosities, questions, are of course known to me, and clear.

SRB: And for that—strengthening strands that you see working—I’ve read that you don’t change much in the pieces that you’ve already published in magazines, and instead, you arrange those finished pieces into a book. I’d love to hear more about that ordering process.

LP: Here’s one story: There’s an essay in Rough Likeness called “Shit’s Beautiful,” about three-fourths of the way into the collection, and as much as it laid out a particular sensibility that might help a reader see into the work as a whole, I chose not to make that the lead essay. I didn’t want the book to be immediately identified by an essay about shit, even though the ethos of that piece is central to my thinking—about the beauty and holiness of natural systems, the ecologies of working systems, the underseen beauty of the body, or that which we see as conventionally “ugly” or crude. The subject itself was too much of a flag, something too easily grabbed and foregrounded in a quick-take way, so I chose instead to place the essay in a live spot, but one that’s neither beginning nor end. So there are a number of considerations: how loudly a piece will speak, and whether it will drown out quieter pieces, or take center stage in a way that might set intentions in an unbalanced way. 

There are all kinds of practical considerations that have to be balanced as well, like, what do I do with two fifteen-page essays that really want, subject-wise, to live together, but balance-wise, might leave me with two long essays back-to-back and a pile-up of shorter pieces. So many decisions about form and sequence draw from my other life as a poet, and deep time spent on the balancing of line breaks and lengths, and stanzas, so I think about that a lot in prose as well. I consider, too, within a collection, if three or four essays want to be read as a set, and, if so, how to order that? Should a defined “set” of essays be numbered, or maybe similarly titled—or do I want to scatter the closely related pieces throughout, at beginning, middle, and end? That’s another interesting conundrum I’ve come upon. Questions of “idea” are always, simultaneously, questions of sound, rhythm, breath, and space—form, in other words.

SRB: To make those decisions, do you try arranging the pieces in a few ways?

LP: Oh, many, many ways. Then I try to be really clear about what distinguishes each grouping, and I will write notes to myself about that: “ Grouping #1 focuses on X subject,” or “…makes X possible,” or “Grouping #2 presents an X kind of pace,” “Grouping #3 highlights a seasonal trajectory.” It’s amazing to see the characteristics that each sequencing surfaces. Absolutely, when you start arranging, different thematics arise that previously might have felt like an inkling or tint. You teach yourself so much by grouping and regrouping and re-identifying, and giving different subject or thematic names to sets. 

SRB: And those things that you’re teaching yourself through that process—do those come in the next time you sit down to write?

LP: Well, cumulative knowledge can be quiet. Those grouping (or corrals, or frames, or indices) will show me I’ve written, say, five poems about insects. That’s fine, but, then I need to ask myself if I’m writing the same poem over and over, or if, on the other hand, I want to think about intensifying that impulse. 

SRB: I’ve been curious about some of your formal choices as well, and I wonder how much you think about them consciously, especially parentheticals and exclamation points.

LP: Parentheticals, I think, represent a mode of thinking rather than a self conscious move. Another writer might interpret those inner-voiced thoughts as footnotes, or another writer might edit them out entirely, not wanting a conversational tone, but the parentheticals for me are a kind of accretive way of thinking and being that reflects a way of coming to know, giving some space to inner commentary, the extension of a mind at work. 

The exclamation points? Well, they’re either saying “WHOA!” or are doing some kind of imitative commentary—they’re gestures that need to be read in context, always. Sometimes they are just flat-out ecstatic, completely honest little stun marks.

SRB: I really enjoy them, because each one feels like a shared moment or a little celebration.

LP: That’s really nice—as shared celebrations. Exclamations are complex—I don’t use them ironically—that’s not my register—but they can function as a way of commenting on others’ excitement about a subject I’m not especially agreeing with. 

SRB: It’s been interesting, reading for those formal choices, because the MFA asks us to chart those elements in our own work, and ask questions about how much we use them and how we may amplify them. I’ve been curious about that in your work, because you are so intuitive with your process.

LP: Well, I don’t have an MFA in the essay, so I kind of just made the path for myself, and I suggest that method to students—make your own way, as much as possible. That’s hard to do in school, because, as you say, you’re asked to be reflective constantly, which can kind of get in the way of the immediacy or weirdness of composition, because you’re foregrounded and are leading with self-consciousness—and I think most of all, you don’t want to lead with too much in your head other than curiosity. 

SRB: I wonder how workshops go, for you, because your pieces correspond so clearly to your particular mind, and your way of being, and I could imagine somebody trying to change your stuff in ways that would be different from what it’s trying to be.

LP: You mean they wouldn’t make it through a workshop!

SRB: Well, what does it mean to make it through?

LP: Exactly.

SRB: I just don’t know that workshops would be helpful for them.

LP: I think you’re right—and none of these essays have ever been through workshops. As I said, I was at Iowa as a poet, so none of my prose has ever been through—or threatened by—a workshop.

SRB: I think it’s a failing of the workshop, rather than an issue with the work. I’m trying to approach the workshop in a useful and open way, but I think that the ways in which one can be swayed are fraught.

LP: Yeah, there’s so much going on there, and it’s really hard to keep your work yours—when you know it will be prodded—and when you have to negotiate so much about the sources of critique. The whole “MFA model” of workshops is, thankfully, no longer singular, and there are many different forms of really productive reflection going on out there. The choreographer Liz Lerman wrote a book called Critical Response Process. It’s a kind of general workshop manual that you can apply to anything, any art form under consideration by a group. As she says, “feedback for anything you make, from dance to dessert.” She has a very particular set of questions she asks and stances that she takes as a choreographer, but her method is totally adaptable, and a lot of it is profoundly author/creator-centered, and involves the workshop participants asking questions and listening, as opposed to giving opinions and claiming territory—or maintaining canons and systems of power, overtly or covertly. Some of the questions go so far as to ask the author whether or not the author wants to hear an opinion: “I have something to say about the ending. Would you like to hear it?” and you’re then free, as the author, to say, “no, I don’t need that right now,” or, “yeah, lay it on me.” Then, she encourages people to speak in questions, like, “I’m wondering what you were getting at here, when you did x …..?” It’s not defensive—it’s an actual question. It’s not like, [confrontational tone] “I’m wondering what the hell you were getting at…”—It’s not that. And it’s also not a showcase for judgment, like, “well that moment, when that guy’s walking through the storm—I don’t see the point.” Curiosity doesn’t allow for that. It’s a profound change of stance that I have found really helpful.

SRB: There’s a—it feels related—field of trauma-sensitive work that I’m familiar with through yoga, like, “you’re invited to raise your arm,” or, “you might find it useful to…”

LP: Sounds like a similar family of thought….

SRB: I really like that, and I try to teach with it.

LP: The workshop—as a space—can be used to maintain the power structure of the dominant players or it can be a space that actively works to hear and honor a full landscape of styles, subjects, voices. Its work can confirm convention or it can be dedicated to emergence. 

SRB: And that feels more honest to me, because no one is actually compelled to take judgmental workshop advice, even if it’s given.

LP: It’s true! And why have we constructed workshops to privilege people who are critically adept, or driven by ego, or aggressive, or garrulous in one way or another? The language we use when talking about art/work matters, and the intent matters. And being open and clear about what your workshop is trying to accomplish and how it will proceed matters. It’s a challenge to try and ask open-ended and neutral questions that are truly helpful, and not, in some way, a veiled opinion or a veiled judgment, or a desire to call certain moves or subjects “broken” and then fix broken things.

SRB: Yes. These questions feel essential to looking at your books as collections, because each of the pieces are so in touch with themselves, so meshed at the line level.

LP: The attention paid at the line level has much to do with starting my writing life as a poet and now, with working in two genres. Line to line, I’m prose-writing very freely, but there’s a lot of shaping going on soon after the initial jotting, a lot of listening to sound, much attention to rhythm. In part, that’s because I’m not all that attentive to story initially—though I work hard on storytelling, which is not always my inclination.

SRB: That doesn’t seem to be the axis that things are moving along. I’d love to hear you think out loud about what kind of trajectory is happening in place of a narrative one.

LP: Well, sometimes they’re very small incidents that are striking or lit in some way, and I have to write my way into the questions, or into the kinned ideas that are surrounding the moment. Something happens in the moment—where does it lead, how does it reverb, what’s associated with that? In place of a kind of plot or narrative, I work by association and accretion. And then I stand back and see what I’m saying. 

SRB: That’s where it makes such sense to me that the line level needs to be attended to, because that’s where this is all happening, right? It’s not incidental.

LP: Exactly. So therefore, image becomes central and driving, and not just as an illustration, but as a kind of element itself. A mind itself.

SRB: Absolutely. Thank you—this is striking many notes for me! I’ll ask one more question, since I’m in a class on collections: what are you collecting these days?

LP: I’m not collecting full, long pieces at the moment. I have two fairly recent essays out in the online magazine, Emergence [here and here]. Otherwise, what I’m collecting, literally, are scraps and observations. That’s the best thing I can do right now, because it’s been such an upending time, amplified in the past year. I’m looking at my notebook right now: there are entries as simple as “a mossy roof”; or “smoke from the neighbor’s fireplace, orange at sunset”; “circle of grass, yellow under the flowerpot”; “snow lying on the branch of a tree—tenderness.” Really, really basic. And much note taking on books, the news, conversations. I have no idea where these are going, or what they will be, but it feels right and restoring to see, and to say.


Lia Purpura is the author of nine collections of essays, poems, and translations. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for On Looking (essays, Sarabande Books), her awards include Guggenheim, NEA, and Fulbright Fellowships, as well as five Pushcart Prizes, the Associated Writing Programs Award in Nonfiction, and others. Her work appears in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Orion, The Paris Review, The Georgia Review, Agni, Emergence, and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore, MD, where she is Writer in Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She has taught in the Rainier Writing Workshop’s MFA program, at Breadloaf Writers Conference, The University of Iowa’s Nonfiction MFA program and at conferences, workshops, and graduate programs throughout the country. Her newest collection of poems is It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful (Penguin) and her latest collection of essays is All the Fierce Tethers (Sarabande Books). 

Sarah Ruth Bates is a third-year nonfiction MFA candidate at the University of Arizona. Her work has appeared in Hobart, No Contact, Aeon, the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, and elsewhere.

Monday, August 2, 2021

The #Midwessay: Natalie Tomlin, Midwest Remembering and Knowing and Lee Iacocca

Midwest Remembering and Knowing and Lee Iacocca

Natalie Tomlin


Meghan O'Gieblyn’s 2018 book Interior States changed how I see the Midwest and midwessays, especially “Midwesternworld.” While she takes in the living history museum Greenfield Village in Dearborn with her sisters and their children, “Victorian cheeriness” begins to “seem sinister” in oppressive heat. The whip-smart friend I’d love to visit a museum with, O'Gieblyn turns this quintessential Midwest experience in her hands, asking what it is for: “If the park still persisted as a site of nostalgia, it was because it satisfied a more contemporary desire: to see...a world in which one’s labor resulted in predictable outcomes…” But by the end of the essay, O'Gieblyn concludes that that desire was crushed in 2013, when Detroit declared bankruptcy, and the Village's enshrinement of candlemaking and other simple labor became problematic: “There was an uneasiness here, a needling suspicion that...prosperity, envisioned by Diego Rivera as an endless collaborative assembly line stretching into the future, is now a closed loop that ordinary people are locked out of.” 

I will never be able to deftly pivot between a philosophical discussion of types of nostalgia and how restorative nostalgia can have totalitarian impulse when practiced in times of economic turbulence the way O'Gieblyn does. But she lifted the stakes of my Midwest knowing and remembering, especially when she mused about what exactly the Greenfield Village experience might pass on to the children around her. In fact, O'Gieblyn probably helped me to become a little obsessed with Lee Iacocca the night I had insomnia and found out he recently died. I couldn’t sleep because it was the Fourth of July and glitter bombs had just dropped beyond my middle-class trees in Grand Rapids. Why wasn't I happy? The noise had not woken my three-year-old up, so I Wikipediaed Iacocca, who I knew very little about, found out he endorsed George W., then Kerry, then in ‘07 called out the “bozos” who couldn’t build a hybrid. Romantic but not true, he said, of the rumor that he had been christened Lido after his parent’s honeymoon in the Lido region of Italy. That night, I wanted to tell Iacocca about how I totaled my K Car at age sixteen, ask him about the golden ratio, bankruptcy, how he knew Chrysler would eventually come back. Or have him take me back to ‘93, to that olive oil-based margarine product he founded: in the boardroom, taking Olivo on a spoon, prepping to appear on TV, the faint aftertaste on the roof of his mouth.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

The #Midwessay: Caitlin Horrocks, The Cottage Essay

We're back for round 3 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. Are you a Michigander? A Michiganian? Do you have thoughts or feelings about our fair water-bordered state and its literature? If an essay captures the workings of the mind, what is the mind of Michigan? Be in touch and send us something.


The Cottage Essay

Caitlin Horrocks


When I think about Michigan essays, what I find myself thinking about is a subgenre I’d like to call “the cottage essay,” or maybe “the cabin essay.” It’s rarely a “lakehouse” essay, but it could be. I can’t always tell, in these essays, how large or well-appointed or house-like the cottages are. Sometimes my students just write about “my grandparents’ place.” 
     In Michigan, it’s not necessarily the richest people who have lakeside property, but the people who have lived here the longest. Wealthy people from Chicago might still simply buy a cottage. But for most of my students, for most of the people I know, your main choices are to rent one by the week or weekend, or to inherit or be hosted in one that was bought in another era, by an earlier generation, when such purchases were in easier reach. I was born in Michigan, but my parents were transplants. My husband is from Seattle. We write and teach. We will probably never have a cottage. But I read a lot of cottage essays. 
     Most have one of three shapes: the first is more commonly by a beginning writer, and it is an essay about joy. The joy is cozy and regular, without beginning or end—the writer anticipates the same joy every summer (the cottage essay takes place almost always in summer, though the cabin essay might also take place in autumn deer hunting season, or winter snowmobile season).  The writer’s joy is so perfect and private and steady that it becomes a vague fog to the reader. We talk about this, the “problem” of joy, how odd and unfair it is that it’s so much harder to convey in interesting ways than tragedy. The student’s patience for this conversation tends to correlate to their patience for writing in general.
     A second sub-subgenre is about disaster narrowly averted, usually in the form of the near-drowning of either the author or the author’s cousin or friend. There are a lot of near-drownings, and some are harrowing. But this essay is ultimately about the lesson learned, either by the parents or the kids. The author will return next summer, chastened but wiser. 
     The third sub-subgenre starts off as an essay about joy. Possibly with a near-drowning thrown in. But mostly about the rhythms of vacation life, the reconnections with extended family, the meals with hot dogs and fresh watermelon slices, the mosquito bites and floating swim platforms, the cheerfully over-crowded sleeping arrangements.
     But in this type of essay, we are headed from “every” to “last.” A last time the now-adult child vacationed with the family. A last time before divorce or other family strife put the cabin out of reach. A last time before the property was sold. A last time before the beloved matriarch or patriarch died, or some other center of family gravity could no longer hold. The cottage is now demolished or condemned or more often occupied by strangers. This cottage essay is an essay about joy, but also about loss. It is about coming of age and nostalgia, and how joy looks from an unbridgeable distance. 
     Part of what those writers understand of happiness, they have learned through loss. Part of what they understand about writing, they learn through their attempts at resurrection, to make breathe on the page what is gone in real life. Individually, the essays might or might not succeed, but as a genre, I can’t unread them. The sub-subgenre of near-drownings is with me when I take my child to swim lessons. But the third type of cottage essay now dogs my vacations. I stayed in a rental a few weeks ago and kayaked around the small inland lake. The cottages initially inspired in me jealousy, and then a sort of sympathetic, anticipatory grief. All those damp, vinyl-sided memento mori, scenic little skulls at dockside.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

The #Midwessay: Jaclyn Sipovic, On Shit and Shinola

We're back for round 3 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. Are you a Michigander? A Michiganian? Do you have thoughts or feelings about our fair water-bordered state and its literature? If an essay captures the workings of the mind, what is the mind of Michigan? Be in touch and send us something.


On Shit and Shinola

Jaclyn Sipovic


There was a time I called things Midwestern only when I was in a room full of people who, I believed, as the saying went, did not know shit from Shinola. In other words, when I was reasonably assured I could see their gears turning then rusting out and settling into the loam of that one image they saw that one time: a rowed cornfield or a red barn crumbling, an abandoned Main Street or some burned-out factory, rebar reaching into the sky like the frayed ends of cloth. Wait—a friend once interjected while detailing her flight path back to the East Coast from the West—Which comes first? Minneapolis St. Paul or Detroit Metro?
     In other other words, when I was pretty confident most people in the room were not Midwestern and any responsibility to unpack that might, for a moment, fly over me too. 

I don’t actually think I knew there was a Midwest beyond some arbitrary textbook geography until I went to college. Ann Arbor was only three hours away from my hometown in Muskegon and granted, still in Michigan, but also, somehow not. My Midwestern gained its early inflections in those years. Especially in the ideas and behaviors the “outta state” kids were quick to point out. One being the way I justified every purchase with a remark about its sale status.
     Girl: That’s a cute shirt.
     Me: Thanks, I pretty much found it in a dumpster.
     Girl: Oh, is that like a new boutique or something?
     Me: Yes?
     But also in their bewilderment about the existence of deer hunters or the necessity of small talk, or the way some people looked other people in the eye; how that contact was for some, held three seconds too long, but for others, one second too short of what it took to say hello.
     Yup, I would say, some real Midwestern shit; a phrase edged with shame long before it was ever riddled with pride. 

In those days, Ann Arbor was often referred to as a bubble. And if I had been as metaphorically inclined then as I was materially, I might have recognized the trappings of a place, or the idea of a place, that could exist within only as much as it might resist without. But, for better or for worse, I wasn't.
     I was, instead, entirely preoccupied by another phenomena: leggings. Leggings as something not worn under your pants as a base layer for frigid commutes but as actual pants. That and the fact a thousand dollar coat could be a noticeable fashion trend. The kind of coats made out of dead birds and space plastic, necessary only if you were: 

  • On an arctic expedition 
  • Not wearing pants

     A Canada Goose® had, until that point in my life, been an actual goose, synonymous with black letters arcing over the sky and trumpets punctuating the evening stillness. But also shit: shit on the driveway, shit on the dock, shit on pretty much everything you could think to shit on. 

As it turned out, even though I had been saying it for years, I didn’t really know Shinola from shit either. I had known Shinola was an old brand of shoe polish, but I also didn’t know anyone who polished their shoes. Had never really put two and two and five together. Had always assumed that not knowing shit was the true heart of the insult.
     Not long after I graduated, a store called Shinola opened up on Main Street. They sold leather things, single speed bicycles, and high end timepieces (aka watches) (aka no bargain bins there my dudes). They lauded themselves on employing local Detroiters, many of whom came from the increasingly defunct auto industry, and called their revival of Fordist infrastructure—in which no one who actually worked for them could really afford any of their shit—an emerging lifestyle brand. At that point, I think I lost or maybe just found mine. 

Like the Midwest, the essay was a place I could learn about only after I left home. And after the novelty of leggings as pants wore off, was where I would encounter the kinds of minds unafraid to cast and spin and reel and drag, dumpster dive and drift, quarry and leap; the kinds eager to say hello. I found kinship in writings that reached inward through all the layers one might don to stay alive in the cold, in those that reached outward only by drawing deep from that within.
     That last bit was not a shit reference, but it might as well could be: good shit. Suffice to say I only really call things Midwestern now when I am trying to connect with the other people in that room.