AWP 2011: Playing for Keeps: Intensity and Creativity in the Lyric Essay

February 7, 2011 § 2 Comments

Guest blogger Margaret Kimball, a Tucson-based multidisciplinary illustrator/designer, reports on a lyric essay discussion at the most recent AWP Conference:
Playing for Keeps: Intensity and Creativity in the Lyric Essay
Panelists: Steven Harvey, Kathryn Winograd, Robert Root (in absentia), Rebecca McClanahan
In a standing-room only space amidst a largely and perhaps notably female audience, a group of AWP-goers gathered to discuss the lyric essay: what the name means, what it is, what it might be. Here are my notes from the conversation, delineated by speaker.
Introduction (Steven Harvey)
The lyric essay was first named by Deborah Tall in 1994, then-editor of Seneca Review, in a note to John D’Agata. What she said was that he was looking for a form not by information but by possibility of transformative experience. You are talking about the lyric, she’d said. Then Steven asked: but what does a definition matter? Rather, we should ask: when is a lyric essay good? The lyric is a license to experiment, to play with language but must always contain a sense of intensity, level of passion and intelligence. (Throughout the intro, names were dropped: Eula Biss, Lia Purpura, D’Agata and one affectionately named nay-sayer, Philip Lopate.)

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Lyric Essay in 15 Minutes (Rebecca McClanahan)
  1. Something Like Music in My Head
    • – Not all music is melodic (atonal, minor key)
    • – Change a note or two and the essay is a different key
  2. Beauty is as Beauty Does
    • – Subject need not be pretty poetic or musical or serious
    • – Humor is almost never discussed with lyricism
    • – Does not have to be large or on the surface important
    • – Absolute attention is prayer
  3. Close Cover After Striking
    • – Need two or three elements to start something
  4. Lyric Essay as Time Travel, or Move Fluidly In and Out of Time
    • – Elements of the essay existing on independent and colliding time tracks
  5. How Many I’s Does It Take to Change an Essay
    • – Speaker as I
    • – The I might be absent at first
    • – There might be multiple variations on self (past, present)
  6. Caution: Contents Under Pressure
    • – Every word matters
    • – What is the musical score running beneath essay
    • – Subject must fit its container
  7. Say It Again, Sam
    • – Tone poems, repeating phrases/sounds/mantra
    • – Repeated loops or braids (In nebraska, ted)
  8. Take a Breath
    • – Music only exists because of silence between the sounds
  9. Right Here, Right Now
    • – Feeling of immediacy, of a mind is discovering its subject even as words appear on page
  10. Ride the Train of Thought or Language All the Way to Meaning
    • – Language (leaps of thought), engine that pulls the train of meaning
    • – Balance between music and meaning
  11. Imagine There’s a Heaven or Hell
    • – Speculate, wonder, imagine, the gift of perhaps
  12. Go Ahead and Wear the Crazy Hat
    • – Be weird, idiosyncratic structure
    • – Hat alone isn’t enough; object of affection/true subject
  13. Get Out While the Getting’s Good
    • – Endings as openings; allow reader to complete transaction; reader supplies final chord
This is Not a Lyric Essay (Robert Root, read by Harvey)
The lyric essay might be considered as a kind of blurting of words: unplanned, spontaneous, first and final draft, charged. It has a kind of inadvertence. The lyric can be felt in the blood. Place is a lyric essay. Deborah Tall said of the lyric it partakes of the essay in its weight, in its desire to engage with facts, in its passion. The form is simultaneously essay and poem and music; attends language with precision and rigor but with a different vision from poetry about what it might achieve. The lyric is an entity in itself; embodies a sense of wholeness; is an essence; is not decorative. As Lia Purpura says: the form is a necessity of thought.
How Important White Space is in Poems and the Lyric Essay (Kathryn Winograd)
In a poem, white space is everything on the page unmarked. It has the power of juxtaposition; is the poet’s unspeakable; it is movement mapped out. Essays speak of the vertical movement of the essay (verticality through associative memory, descriptions); they contain intersections of consciousness and unconsciousness, of associations. For a poet, white space is what they cannot or will not say, it is their essential unsayable; that which is understood only on intuitive level. Beneath everything I am writing is absence. The ultimate tension in writing, in white space: what is written v. what is not.

Unmaking of the Made-Up Self (Steven Harvey)
Harvey found the lyric after becoming weary of his own voice. After he realized the self as top hat and cape of imagination. The lyric offers a breakdown of the persona, a kind of portal in which the self comes apart, in which the process of disintegration is seen. In the lyric, the voice is absorbed by subject matter and the self-assured persona is liberated. In Mark Doty’s Still Life With Oysters and Lemon, we witness an insistently low-key self, a weary voice in transformation. In this voice, the I is enlarged by becoming part of something bigger than itself; the self does not have the last word but blossoms, allows itself to be transformed by bumps and texts and countertexts and new information.

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§ 2 Responses to AWP 2011: Playing for Keeps: Intensity and Creativity in the Lyric Essay

  • I hope folks have a chance to read some of Winograd’s lyric essays – they are some of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve had the chance to hear – I say hear – because I heard her read at Ashland University’s MFA Summer Residency last year (summer 2010.)This is poet alchemist essayist. Joy Gaines-Friedler

  • Ginger Moran says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Joyce! The essay Winograd read at AWP was mind-blowingly good! Layers of complexity and metaphor weaving up and down like the mining tunnels in the essay, carving out meaning. Really beautiful.

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