March 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
A Special Issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization guest-edited by Ira Sukrungruang and featuring new work by Claudia Rankine
You continue to astound us with your generosity! We can’t believe we have already made it through our first Kickstarter stretch goal, and everyone at Brevity is grateful and moved and more than a little overwhelmed. Thank you! Our next stretch goal is, we think, a really amazing one: our next special issue, featuring new work by award-winning poet and playwright Claudia Rankine and guest-edited by one of our favorite (not that we have favorites) Brevity authors, the also-award-winning Ira Sukrungruang.
Claudia Rankine (as if you didn’t know) is the author of five collections of poetry, including most recently Citizen: An American Lyric, a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. She has coedited American Women Poets in the 21st Century; Where Lyric Meets Language (2002), American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (2007), and The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (2014). Her poems have been included in the anthologies Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present(2003), Best American Poetry (2001), and The Garden Thrives: Twentieth Century African-American Poetry (1996). Her play Detour/South Bronx premiered in 2009 at New York’s Foundry Theater.
We’ve been reading, and teaching, and gushing over Rankine’s work quite a lot recently, and are more than a little beside ourselves that she’s said yes to being next year’s anchor author. We can’t wait to bring you a new piece of her powerful writing!
Guest editor Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night. He is the coeditor of two anthologies on the topic of obesity:What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthologyand Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. He is the recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, an Arts and Letters Fellowship, and the Emerging Writer Fellowship. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Post Road, The Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. He is one of the founding editors of Sweet: A Literary Confection (sweetlit.com), and teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida and the low-residency MFA program at City University in Hong Kong. For more information about him, please visit: www.buddhistboy.com.
We hope you’re as excited about this announcement as we are, although unless you’ve just gotten giddy and a little teary-eyed, done a happy dance and called your mother to tell her that you’ve finally made something of yourself, you probably aren’t. We are deeply honored by the amazing writers who are willing to work with us, and the amazing readers who make our work possible. Thank you.
Help us Fund the New Special Issue, and so much more.
February 22, 2012 § 12 Comments
Kupperman’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including Best American Essays 2006, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, Ninth Letter, The Normal School, and River Teeth. Her honors include fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts in 2009; a fellowship from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a scholarship from the Center for Book Arts in 2008; multiple notable mentions in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays anthologies; the 2003 Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Prize; and first place in the 1996 Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics Essay Contest.
CG: I Just Lately Started Buying Wings has been described as an essay collection that “reads not unlike a memoir.” As a writer and publisher, what are your thoughts about this characterization?
KDK: Many of my essays are autobiographical, and much of first part of the book contains familial tales; this explains that characterization by some readers. But on another level, the reading public has become familiar with themed collections of essays, as well as essay collections repackaged as memoir. Our culture, on an even deeper level, is obsessed with classifying everything. We are marketed down to our last inch of skin and nail; no surprise that our reading is intensely marketed as well. And memoir is now the familiar category, which is odd in a way, considering that only several decades ago, memoirs were what famous people wrote, and essays, a little further back, were immensely popular (think serialized writing, pamphlets, etcetera).
During the last twenty years, it’s as if no one wanted to say the word essay, which is exactly why I founded Welcome Table Press. Though looking at some of the books coming out these days, from mainstream, independent and university presses—David Shields’s Reality Hunger; Chuck Klosterman’s Eating the Dinosaur; Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land; Patrick Madden’s Quotidiana, to name several—it seems as if essays might be coming back into favor. Which, of course, I love.
I think there’s room in the world for both memoir and essay; these are two forms of prose. And, as I’ve said before, people are reading essays all the time (think of the New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, not to mention blogs, our modern-day version of the pamphlet, editorials, etcetera). And people are writing essays. All you have to do is look at the immense popularity of conference panels on the essay or, for that matter, the number of people who attend Welcome Table Press’s biannual symposium, In Praise of the Essay: Practice & Form. That people are showing up to such events tells me the essay is a form worthy of attention.
CG: Many nonfiction MFA students work towards compiling essay collections and yet, as Phillip Lopate has stated, “no one wants to publish a collection of essays” (“In Defense of the Essay,” River Teeth, Vol. 12, No. 1). Your book, and success with Welcome Table Press, prove otherwise. What career advice would you give to writers enamored with the essay?
KDK: I think people need to be in this profession for the art: there’s no money in it. I’ve heard many fellow writers tell me, and I’ve heard it myself, that publishers, editors or agents thought the writing was stellar, but they couldn’t sell an essay collection. One of the reasons I founded Welcome Table Press was in response to this trend.
Writers should publish in literary magazines, and I’m not just saying that because I used to work at one. If you want to publish in literary journals, it means making a commitment to them, purchasing and reading them, becoming knowledgeable about the market before submitting to them. With this economy and the push to make everything digital, we’ve lost a lot of journals recently. Which saddens me.
CG: Your work has been acclaimed for its resistance to self-indulgence. Is this a cultivated stance or an instinct?
KDK: Both. I’m really not all that interesting. I think I’m more apt to indulge in language and in the gift of ideas and the turning of phrases from other writers.
CG: Language often leads in your work, such as when you deconstruct the etymology and meaning of the word cliché in the midst of having an affair. You write: “I’ve never considered that the clichés I’ve headed into (including this one) are merely reminders that I’m alive, kicking around the same story over and over, trying to transcend the too familiar, sometimes unable to twist language in new ways to describe what or how I’m living.” Could you reflect on how language leads you to story?
KDK: I’ll often look at a word’s etymology as a way into exploring meaning and, potentially, a way into locating the origin of an idea. This kind of rumination is crucial in the essay, a kind of chewing on language. An essayist is, essentially, writing the biography of a thought, allowing cognition itself—its circuitry and obsessiveness, its “moments of being,” as Virginia Woolf called it—to play out on the page.
It’s also an essayistic instinct to look at the potential derivations of patterns, behaviors, ways of thinking, etcetera. This instinct materializes as the speculative voice, doing what Barbara Hurd calls “perhapsing,” the probing at all the maybes and what ifs of a particular narrative.
CG: You use a vast repertoire of stylistic devices, including italics, fragments, dashes, hyphenated modifiers, ellipsis, parenthesis and lists. Did you cultivate this style? Or do you think syntactically?
KDK: Yes, I think I do; I think all writers do. Language is all we have. Visual artists might use paint; carpenters, nails. As writers, all we have are words, punctuation and syntax. That’s it. And from that we need to fashion a voice and persona.
Certainly my work as an editor has helped me grow as a writer. I’m very grateful to Mark Drew, the assistant editor at The Gettysburg Review, who has provided a great deal of mentoring to me as an editor. Speaking a foreign language helped me to further understand English and its nuances. By learning the intricacies of French grammar—and then, in turn, by teaching English and the intricacies of its grammar to French speakers—I learned to pay attention to syntax and diction, to really examine how we put words together.
CG: Sven Birkerts once noted that “Writers just starting to work with memoir often have real difficulty with (the) crucial distinction between event sequence and story.” What advice would you offer to an emerging essayist interested in using memories to shape narrative?
KDK: Annie Dillard wrote a terrific essay, “To Fashion a Text,” in which she advocates what I like to call the fine art of omission, and in which she describes the decision a writer faces about “what to leave in and what to leave out.” I wish more writers left more out.
Another bit of advice I’d offer is this: Always try to write about others more than you write about yourself. It’s how a narrator looks at the world surrounding him or her, what and who they look at, that ultimately interests a reader.
CG: Your book’s subtitle, Missives from the Other Side of Silence, suggests the art of collecting. How did you determine what to leave in and leave out when assembling your book?
KDK: I’ll answer this question with parts of a talk I gave at AWP’s 2009 conference, from a panel called The Essayist’s Dilemma, which was moderated by Marcia Aldrich, former editor of Fourth Genre; panelists included Lucy Ferriss and E. J. Levy:
The arrangement of my book came about in stages, beginning with that monster called the creative thesis, completed after two-plus years in a master of fine arts program. After I graduated, I thought that all I’d need to do was write a few more essays to fill out the collection I had so diligently assembled as a thesis. And then a friend read the essay titled “Relief” and said, “This is very interesting, but what happened before the time you wrote about?” That question prompted me to take apart this particular essay and write it into a memoir. Which meant, for practical purposes, removing a piece of writing from an already slim collection. And so I spent almost two years writing a memoir.
Though I published chapters from the memoir as discrete essays, it did not sell. After sending it to agents, publishers and contests, and having it turned down, I decided to take a new course of action. I dismantled the memoir, breaking it into discrete autobiographical essays and restoring “Relief,” the essay from which it germinated. I merged these into the essay collection I had already written and to which I had added one or two newer pieces. It occurred to me that if I wanted to publish this book, I’d need to solve the puzzle of how to organize these somewhat-linked-but-mostly-not pieces.
Though a book of discrete essays may be opened and delved into at any given point, most readers, perhaps because we are trained by the beginning-middle-end literary schema, desire an organizing principle, a structure that imposes meaning—even if it is quite nuanced—that relates the parts comprising a whole. Using sections to group the essays would help, I thought. And, the book’s title would derive from one of the essays; I knew that the title would, eventually, lead me to develop a suitable configuration, but which title to pick, which essay to emphasize? I identified some of the shared preoccupations among the essays—air, wind, flight—as well as some of the overarching themes—departures and disappearances (read “death”), but how to wrap it up in a neat package for the dear readers I imagined on the other side of the page?
When I decided on the title, I Just Lately Started Buying Wings, I realized that the subtitle would have to function as the agent of cohesion. I thought of applying a leitmotif of correspondence, using different kinds of letters as subheadings for individual sections. I noted words and phrases that evoked the epistolary: Letters home. Missives, dispatches, correspondence, billets-doux, epistles. Return to sender. Air mail. Parcel post. Sealed with a kiss. Etcetera. I played with the organization that was possible within these different rubrics. “I like the word missive for the subtitle,” I said to my husband during a moment of procrastination induced by coming to a dead halt. “But missives from where?” I wondered. “How about ‘from the interior’?” he suggested. And presto!—I had a title: I Just Lately Started Buying Wings: Missives from the Interior. All that was left was to figure out how to group the essays. I started by using Roman numerals.
When Graywolf Press editor/publisher Fiona McCrae suggested that I change the subtitle of the book to Missives from the Other Side of Silence, I agreed. Several months into the copyediting process, I looked at the table of contents. Those Roman numerals seemed lonely. I still saw the collection as needing some sort of organizing principle. That’s when I returned to the original idea of the epistolary. After all, I thought, Sue Halpern, in her introduction, asked readers to approach these essays “as an assortment of letters bundled together,” a phrase that led to the cover design.
I dug out my list of epistolary vocabulary and phrases. After looking at the three sections and moving an essay or two, I clearly saw what I needed to do. The first section I titled “Letters Home and Abroad,” because these pieces were all about my family, here in America and there, in czarist Russia. The second section I called “Return to Sender,” and in it I included a mix of essays about such diverse subjects as a lover’s suicide, working in a battered women’s shelter, and a meditation on the color orange. In the third section, “Billets-doux,” I placed all the pieces about love, platonic, romantic, and of language.
CG: What’s next for you?
KDK: I’m working on a memoir called Five Days, about my mother, who came of age in New York City the early 1950s. Though I’ve written a lot about her, she still remains complex and interesting, and now that I’ve matured as a person and as a writer, I see different ways into understanding and writing about her that I never saw before. In some ways, what I’m really writing is not a memoir, but a biography-in-essays. I’m also working on two collections of essays, one that contains more hybrid and experimental pieces, the other classical, digressive essays.
Christin Geall teaches nonfiction at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia. Follow her @ChristinGeall.
February 8, 2011 § 1 Comment
Another report from guest blogger Margaret Kimball, reporting on the panel To Tell You the Truth: Strategies in New Nonfiction at the most recent AWP Conference:
I just left a panel featuring the writers Stephen Elliott, Nick Flynn and Ander Monson, introduced by Graywolf editor, Jeffrey Shotts. Eula Biss, notably the only woman scheduled to speak at the panel, was snowed in in Chicago, alas. Here are my notes, by author.
Introduction (Jeffrey Shotts)
Nonfiction moves beyond reportage into the territory of tangents, dead-ends, errancy and wonder. Just because an essay is pursuing something, doesn’t mean what it’s arrived at is what it’s gained; the form is an alternative to judgment. A question we need to ask ourselves is: do we read nonfiction to experience art or to learn information? An essay, an illustration, a design is fixed in time and space and artifact; the essay is thinking, frozen. A virtual space the viewer/reader can inhabit for a while.
Strategy, part of the title of the panel, implies we as creatives know where we’re going; but strategy only enters the process after the thing is written or made. A filter is a critical utility in order to determine feedback that is helpful from that which isn’t. This relates to aesthetic vision; without a personal vision, you cannot write, cannot make. There are three reasons a person will read a memoir:
- Perfect/beautiful/really nice sentences.
This is built while maintaining story and character and narrative. Themes that digress from the narrative can only emerge if enough tension is built. The self is the thing around which the tension and everything else exists.
This is not about not lying. Lying requires intent but honesty is bordered by self-knowledge…in order to write honestly, you have to evaluate yourself intensely, honestly.
The reader is the most important person, needs to be the first concern of the author. By making characters singular (e.g. only good or only bad), you’re hiding something from the reader. By worrying about someone’s feelings, you’re putting something ahead of the reader. This cannot happen.
Stephen ended gloriously, “I don’t know. I just came up with this.”
People hear what they want to hear. They project their needs and desires and lives onto your work. So one of our functions is to create a screen that others can project onto in order to make meaning from their experiences. We are not writing from the soul; instead, we need to uncover our deeper purpose. Why do we cling to the stories we’ve told ourselves? What is behind them? What do the stories hide? The stories are important only as a threshold to cross. Here is the formula (to which he then said, a la Van Wilder, “Write this down.”:
- Hear the stories you tell yourself about yourself. The stories you always tell.
- Start with a random image and discover its meaning.
- Ask yourself what you think you know and how long you’ve known it.
- Let the story lose its thread and push further into the unknown.
- The point where language breaks down is a useful edge, revealing to us the space between the familiar and the unknown.
The story (the essay, the book) is not about what happens to us but how we perceive what happens to us. The process of writing is more about what we don’t know, is more about discovering the hidden pattern beneath the world. Something happened; some things actually do happen. We need to come up against the reality of the world and perceive them.
Essays are technologies are designed to handle infinity; they expand and allow us to expand into them, outward from them. They chip away at the stability of the self. What is interesting is the limitless; what is interesting are the limits. The interiors of our brains are the most readily available infinities. Look at Billy Idol’s album, Cyberpunk, album cover which came with a floppy disc and instructions to use with a color Macintosh. 1993.
This is a document of what we thought at one point the future might have been. In other words, this is a document of the way Idol’s brain worked at one point in time; it’s a mind we can enter into. The essay-the text, the form and the white space-are places to study, to imagine, to illuminate the dark spaces of our minds. Through essays we illuminate the world around us, editing it down so facts and ideas get their own tiny spotlights.
From the Q & A
What are other ways to think about tension?
- Tension can be generated by: waiting for something to happen; between two people in a room (keep them in the room together as long as possible); syntax/diction; the tension between the unknown and the known and how it gets discovered; tension emerging from subject-switching and disconnection.
Any new mediums you’re using?
- The website for Vanishing Point is used to interact with the text, to undercut what’s happening in the book. There’s a critical element of play important [to the process of discovery]. The web pages constantly erode/modify/self-edit the original; in this way, the web is a performance. (Monson)
- The written word can be as fluid as the stuff on the web. It can contain a kind of archive of information uncontainable in the book . (Flynn)
- The Rumpus is a space in which creative energy is spent in writing emails. We pass along information (about the self, about the world) this way. As writers, we have a smaller audience but create deeper connections with them. That’s what this is about. (Elliott)