The Lyric Essay as Resistance: An Interview with Zoë Bossiere and Erica Trabold
March 22, 2023 § 2 Comments
By Laura Laing
The lyric essay is not new, but 25 years after Deborah Tall and John D’Agata gave it a name, the form is being anthologized and has earned a place within the literary academy. Zoë Bossiere and Erica Trabold’s The Lyric Essay as Resistance: Truth from the Margins (Wayne State University Press) collects lyric essays that not only resist form and content but also our expectations of the world at large. In this Q&A, essayist Laura Laing talks with Bossiere and Trabold about their book, as well as the state and future of the lyric essay.
Laura Laing: Why lyric essay?
Erica Trabold: Well, there’s the academic answer, and there’s the personal answer, right? For me, lyric essay, because it’s what I know best. Zoe and I both studied creative nonfiction in undergrad. It always felt like this same conversation over and over. But it always gets stopped at that gatekeeper question, “What is the lyric essay?” We had a lot of favorite lyric essay writers that weren’t always represented on those reading lists. There’s space for many [lyric essay anthologies] to exist, and we figured we needed to contribute.
Zoë Bossiere: I wanted to show students the range of what the lyric essay could do. The anthologies that I was choosing for the class would include a couple of examples of lyric essays. And they’re very good. But sometimes, when students are exposed to only that very small fraction of what’s out there, they begin to think, “So this is what a lyric essay is and this is what it can do. And that’s it.” They come away with a very narrow definition of what the lyric essay is. We wanted to completely turn that upside down with a book that includes lyric essays that do things that essays shouldn’t be able to do or that resist even the idea of narrative. It was really exciting to put this together with all of that in mind.
ET: It was even fun thinking about how we would order them. How could we arrange it in a way where just when you think that you’ve figured out what a lyric essay is, the next essay will completely turn that on its head and be a total zag away from whatever definition you’ve formed? We didn’t want to try to nail down anything to do with definitions. It was just to offer the widest range possible.
LL: I’ve been thinking a lot about essay as the larger umbrella term. Essay is kind of the kid in the family who doesn’t want to fit in or behave. If you agree with that notion of what an essay is, where does the lyric essay fit in with that?
ZB: Essays often break things within a structure, so there’s this surprising but inevitable break that happens in a lot of idea-based essays. A hermit crab is going to escape or transcend the form in some way. Or in a braided essay, at some point the braid is going to come undone. And that’s maybe a genre expectation of essay and for each different form. But what I love about the lyric essay is that it has this genuine surprise. Anything could happen. Because each one is making itself. If you read a lyric essay, you read exactly one lyric essay. And [that essay] doesn’t tell you something about the next one you’re going to read. So I would say, it’s the most essayistic essay possible.
ET: Yeah, well, I think that’s right. It’s the most essayistic essay. I just always fall back on the idea of [the lyric essay] being this this quality of poetic sensemaking that essays at large may or may not have to do in the same way. Breaking something is very necessary.
LL: That brings me to the next very big question: why now? Why has the lyric essay become its own space?
ZB: We talked about this in the introduction, how there are examples of what we might call the lyric essay throughout history. It’s just that they weren’t called the lyric essay. And I think a big reason for that is because the lyric essay wasn’t seen by the center. The lyric essay has become begrudgingly and sort of uncomfortably accepted by the academy. And certainly more and more teachers are utilizing it in the creative writing classroom. So it’s being studied in a way that it wasn’t before.
ET: I think that shifting from the margins to the center is exactly right. But I would even broaden it and backup a little too, because that’s the whole story with the genre of creative nonfiction. It’s only relatively recently been a genre that you can study, right? That’s where Zoe and I really started. The seed of this idea was talking about how we were maybe one of the first generations of students who actually came up in the academy where creative nonfiction was already an existing track that you could study. Lyric essay is a narrowing down of that margins-to-center idea, all the way back to the larger genre conversation as well, which I think most creative nonfiction writers can understand and empathize with to some degree.
ZB: Oh, yeah. And what’s really fascinating about the lyric essay, like within that entire structure, is that even though like, you know, we are seeing it in center spaces, it still doesn’t fit there quite neatly. The essays that are included in the anthology, are all examples of essays that don’t I think exist within the academy in this readily accessible way to the center.
LL: That makes me wonder: What happens if the lyric essay is widely accepted by the center or is no longer in the margins?
ET: I don’t think you have to, as a lyric essayist, find yourself in the center in order to find readers or people who appreciate your work or can recognize some aspect of themselves in it. The important idea we took away from bell hooks was that it’s vital to maintain the perspective of the margins. Because that’s not something—if you’ve always existed at the center—you can accumulate. But it’s something that is vital to hold on to, because although your circumstances may change to a certain degree, you’re not like a different person. And those perspectives and those stories can only be told by you.
ZB: And to be accepted by the center is not necessarily to be of the center. The center has its own aims, and it wants to hear from certain marginalized perspectives for its own reasons, and those are sometimes icky reasons. Maintaining that tie to the margins is really important. Because if you don’t, it’s really lonely. If there isn’t a book like the one that you need, you get together with writers that you really love and admire and you put one together. That was the project of this anthology, to create something that we wished that we had had when we were students ourselves and when we were first starting to teach.
ET: I don’t think that anyone but Danielle Geller could write “Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary.” I have trouble with even thinking about another person with a different way of looking at the world and different experiences could even work within a similar form.
LL: Let’s talk about the whole idea of resistance. To me, the lyric essay feels like a double whammy. It’s not just the form as resistance, but it is the content as resistance.
ET: I think the third dimension is that it resists something in the real world about our expectations. [“The Dry Season” by Melissa Febos] does all those things, right? It resists any type of chronology or linear structure that that you could invent. It’s chaos. It also, in the real world, resists sex, right? She’s celibate. That’s the project for a year, which is radical. And it’s also resisting some assumptions even that we would have about the lyric essay, because it’s doing some funky things with research and movies. When you try to describe all the things that [these essays] are about, and that they do, it just almost always sounds like it shouldn’t work.
ZB: Yeah, it’s the kind of trifecta of resistance.
Zoë Bossiere is the managing editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction and the co-editor of The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press, 2020). Her coming-of-age memoir, Cactus Country, will be published by Abrams Books in 2024.
Erica Trabold is the author of Five Plots, which won the inaugural Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize in 2018. She is an assistant professor at Sweet Briar College.
Laura Laing’s essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, and Consequence. She is currently writing a hybrid memoir that blends lyric memoir passages with abstract mathematics.
Tagged: Danielle Geller, Melissa Febos, teaching lyric essay
Love this collection of remarkable essays. Great to read and learn from and to use to teach. Thanks for putting this together.
I personally love reading and writing lyric essays because they offer a unique way to explore and express complex ideas and emotions. I also appreciate how the form itself is resistant to traditional genre boundaries and expectations.