September 9, 2014 § Leave a comment
Sundog Lit has a road-thumping, tire-biting, asphalt-meltingly wonderful new issue — (Letters from) the Road — edited by Brevity contributor Jill Talbot. We especially love the digital work by Eric LeMay (full disclosure, he’s on the Brevity Board of Directors) and the video essay by William Hoffacker, as well as work by Pam Houston, Marcia Aldrich, Lee Martin, Nicole Walker, William Bradley, B.J. Hollars … oh, cripes almighty, it would probably just be best to list the entire table of contents. As for the theme, Here’s an excerpt from Jill’s marvelous intro, followed by a link to the issue itself:
A gas station in Beatty, Nevada in 1973. Twenty-two miles from here, off the U.S. 93, four cars with out-of-state plates laze in the parking lot of the Outlaw Motel. Who knows what’s really going on here? The blue sky looks so brilliant against the yellow sunflowers in a South Dakotan summer. A flock of blackbirds flies off a field somewhere near Columbus. And there on the side of the road, looking up and out at the surrounding emptiness, it wasn’t so difficult to imagine. The night train from Venice. Around the wide square driveway, down the hill and around the turnabout with the lit lantern beacon in the middle across the street from the red barn and the muddy yard. The road to Hana, the 68-mile highway that skimmed along beige cliffs, single-lane bridges. A road after a flash flood in San Angelo, Texas. The stacked stones of a roadside liquor sign in Ohio. We are half-way there. Speeding the curves of a road braced by the blue light of snow…. It is staggering to be here.
April 19, 2013 § 2 Comments
First, let me tell you a little bit about why I love Donna Steiner.
I heard of her magisterial essay “Elements of the Wind,” first published in Fourth Genre, from essayist Patrick Madden, who marveled at a couple of tricks Steiner plays on her reader. One involves a copious list of different cultures’ names of the wind and the other breaks down the “two kinds of people in the world” dialectic. I won’t go into specifics because I don’t want to spoil either payoff. After reading the entire essay, I realized that these were just two of the many schematics Steiner makes use of; “Elements of the Wind,” in fact, draws most of its energy from a series of inversions, reversals, and recontextualized narratives and memories. To call them jokes would belie the critical and emotional heft at the center of the essay, but there’s something to the fact that I’m giving the review-speak version of “You just have to hear it.”
So instead of giving anything away directly, I’ll relate a personal experience. I’ve now taught “Elements of the Wind” to my freshman writing students for the past two years. My primary reason for this is to show them the multitude of possibilities inherent in the essay, a form that by college most of them have decided can only exist in five paragraphs and most would only write for a standardized writing exam.
Predictably, many of their responses to it can be summarized as, “Is this really an essay?”
Yonathan, one of my better students this year, came to my office recently to talk about his own personal struggle with “Elements of the Wind.” Another professor and I joke about Yonathan. We say he has the singular ability to make deeply profound observations while simultaneously looking like he’s about to bust out laughing. On this day, he wasn’t laughing.
“I’ve read the essay three times now,” he started, “and I don’t understand if she likes the wind or not.”
“Well,” I said, venturing in slowly, “What do you think?”
“It’s kind of tricky. I mean, on the one hand she makes all these lists of the gods named after the wind. But then she says,” and here Yonathan began skimming through his copy of the essay, “‘When it can’t be named, ascribe it to the gods.’ Which is it? Why does she give the wind all these names, and then say it can’t be named?”
“What do you think?” I asked.
“Well…” His brow furrowed, and a smile started to curl one side of his mouth. “I guess she might be saying that there are no real answers? Is she contradicting herself on purpose?”
“What do you think?”
“She does start the whole essay by saying you can’t say there are two kinds of people, that it’s too simplistic, then she says there are two kinds of people. And that whole thing with the big list of names for the wind—which I read, by the way—then saying there are people who read the list and people who skim over it. And she gives that—whatsitcalled—Beaufort Scale diagram about kinds of the wind, and she says that’s too simple: ‘The Beaufort Scale categorizes and concretizes what was once a subjective, almost abstract phenomenon: the movement of air. Imagine the magnitude of the accomplishment: naming the wind.’ So is she saying words and charts are too simple to describe the wind?”
I sat, looking at him.
“Then why did she even write the essay?” he asked.
“Maybe,” I started, “she’s writing about writing.”
“I thought she was writing about the wind?”
“Maybe she’s writing about both of those things.”
He was smiling on both sides of his mouth now. “I’m so confused,” he said, shaking his head.
This was one of my great teaching moments.
Now, let me tell you a little about Donna Steiner’s new essay chapbook, Elements. (Scroll down after clicking the link.) This is the first essay “chapbook” I’ve read, but I hope essay chapbooks turn into the next big trend in indie publishing. I’ve just ordered B.J. Hollars’s three-essay In Praise of Monsters, and have always loved Eula Biss’s One Story-inspired Essay Press, which publishes bound copies of novella-sized essays by Albert Goldbarth, Jenny Boully, and others. The chapbook has traditionally of course been the publishing realm of the poet, which has sustained my abiding love of poetry. I love going to a reading, being blown away by a poet’s work, buying the poet’s chapbook, and taking it home with me so I can later see the voice I loved hearing, transcribed on the page. Looking at my poetry section on my bookshelves now, I realize I have about three times as many chapbooks as full-length collections.
I’ve never heard Steiner read, but I can confidently say she has one of those voices you want to take home and savor, in small, slow, savory bites. Elements, a little blue square, can fit easily in most pant pockets (though probably not skinny jeans, yet another reason not to wear skinny jeans). It makes me think less of a book than that symbol of a bygone industry that still, only scant years since its demise, evokes a nostalgic twinge—the CD. It’s beautifully tactile—handbound, with a cover cutout of a square revealing a full moon. Opening the diminutive book reveals the moon in a sky over an ostensible illustration of “a freight train busting the night open,” from the closing line of “Elements of the Wind.”
The chapbook contains five essays, one about her alcoholic lover, another about a magnifying glass by which she detects elements of her world, another about a vaguely sexual prank phone caller, another about her sleeplessness, another about the wind. Each of them, whatever its ostensible subject, is as much an assemblage as a narrative, turning over each element in her palm and mulling it over with the care of a collector and the passion of a paramour. When I open it and take in Steiner’s masterful prose, and even when I simply open the book and hold it in my hands, I think not of a reading but of a conversation, of a voice offering no answers and telling no lies, but rather setting up the riddles so that every response, so long as it is honest, is the punchline.
John Proctor lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, two daughters, and Chihuahua. An active reader on the New York City open mic scene, he’s written memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His work has been published in Diagram, Superstition Review, Underwater New York, Defunct, New Madrid, Numero Cinq, McSweeney’s, Trouser Press, New York Cool, the Gotham Gazette, and the anthology Imagination & Place: Weather. He serves as Online Editor for Hunger Mountain Journal of the Arts, and teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College. You can find him online at http://notthatjohnproctor.com/.
March 2, 2013 § 5 Comments
A guest post from B.J. Hollars, editor of Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction:
One day I woke troubled by the hard fact about facts; that is, that their factuality is often in flux. Sure, the world is round today, I reasoned, but hadn’t that observation once nearly cost Galileo his life? And more recently (and perhaps more troubling to my own understanding of the universe): Wasn’t Pluto once a planet? What the hell happened to Pluto anyway?
My heart broke further upon learning that not even photographs were as factual as I gave them credit for. Take National Geographic’s 1982 cover photo—the one of the Pyramid’s of Giza—which, as a child, was solely responsible for hurling me headlong into my mummy phase. Imagine my surprise when I learned, decades later, that those pyramids weren’t exactly as they appeared. That those pyramids were, in fact, the victims of a digital alteration. Apparently, an overzealous layout editor had crammed them tightly together so the photo could better fit the magazine’s frame.
If we can move an ancient pyramid with the click of a finger, I reasoned, who’s to say how far we’ll go?
As my grumbling grew louder, I began to realize that my frustration with facts was far less productive than my exploration of their unreliability. And I figured if anything could put truth in a headlock and wrestle it into submission, it was the essay. Not just any essay, mind you, but an essay that understood the value of the surprise attack, one willing to get the jump on truth by coming at it in a new way.
And so, weighing in at 268 pages, I humbly present to you Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction—an anthology of genre-bending essays that (at least according to the back cover copy) continually toe the line between “truth and memory, honesty and artifice, facts and lies.” Rather than whining ad nauseam about pyramids and Pluto, I asked 20 of today’s most renowned writers and teachers to help me put truth on trial by fiddling with form, fragmentation, structure, sequence, and all the other traditional conventions essay writers hold so dear. I was seeking a new definition of nonfiction—or at least a renewed debate on the matter—and I was grateful for the legion of intrepid explorers who dared enter into the wilderness alongside me. Writers like Marcia Aldrich, Monica Berlin, Eula Biss, Ryan Boudinot, Ashley Butler, Steven Church, Stuart Dybek, Beth Ann Fennelly, Robin Hemley, Naomi Kimbell, Kim Dana Kupperman, Paul Maliszewski, Michael Martone, Ander Monson, Dinty W. Moore, Susan Neville, Brian Oliu, Lia Purpura, Wendy Rawlings and Ryan Van Meter.
Not only did they embark into this wilderness by offering their essays, but they even provided helpful maps in the form of mini-essays—each of which sought to give the reader new insight into the writer’s own explorations of genre. Add to this pedagogically-practical and thematically-linked writing exercises, and readers now had a complete guidebook for this burgeoning terrain.
Taken together, these essays challenge and confound, but it’s my hope that they might also create a new space for the essay form, or at least encourage other writers to assist in mapping a landscape we know little about.
Who among us will put the pyramids back to scale or return Pluto to its planetary state?
Or more importantly, who will subvert what we think we know by showing us what we don’t?