May 25, 2022 § 2 Comments
In Brevity‘s recent May issue, Randon Billings Noble examines the “daringness” of the lyric essay, how it relies on intuition more than exposition, image more than narration, and question more than answer.
“But despite all this looseness,” she writes, “the lyric essay still has the responsibilities of any essay: to try to figure something out, to play with ideas, to show a shift in thinking (however subtle).”
Noble sees in the lyric essay a mammal of sorts, but
one that lays eggs; semiaquatic, living in both water and on land; and venomous, a trait that belongs mostly to reptiles and insects. It will run away if on land—its gait that of a furry alligator—or swim off in the undulating way of beavers. Either way it can threaten you with a poisoned spur before it ripples off.
Noble goes on to classify four common forms of the lyric essay—flash, segmented, braided, and hermit crab—and examines the inner workings of each.
You can read the full essay here in Brevity’s Craft Section.
May 16, 2022 § 4 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
The challenge Aaron Angello set for himself is daunting, maybe a little insane, borderline brilliant, and truly fascinating. For roughly four months, Angello woke at 5 am, brewed himself a cup of coffee, carried his cup to a small writing desk, and wrote – one per day, in order – a word from Shakespeare’s 114-word 29th Sonnet.
One word. The word “the,” for instance, or “of,” or “bootless,” or “possessed.”
He sat with the word a while, and then, “Once I felt I was filled with that word—as if the word filled my body, not just my mind—I began to write.”
The fact is, a single word can take you anywhere. The mind works that way. The word “Beweep,” for instance, a very Shakespearean word, leads Angello to imagine a Gallery of Forgotten Words, “pile after pile of bodkins and blunderbusses, jolly-nobs and junts, lacerts and lam’s grass.”
But The Fact of Memory is not a book about Shakespeare, or even just a book about words. It is a book about how the mind works. About memory. About rumination. Fabrication, And narrative structure.
The sonnet is deconstructed word by word, and then built back up again, to find stories Shakespeare himself had never imagined.
The simple word “of” appears only once in Shakespeare’s sonnet, and Angello’s brief chapter – the book, essentially, is flash nonfiction, with a robust lyric bent – imagines a vintage movie, a projected backdrop, two actors, a scratchy old 78 rpm record, skipping on the song lyric “-ve of you,” “-ve of you,” “-ve of you,” the way our minds skip over and over a remembered detail, an old song, looking for truth maybe, or just a story, or what may pass for a story, what may pass for a truth.
The way images break apart, reform themselves into narratives, remembered, felt deeply, but ultimately not real.
The 29th Sonnet does not use the word “memory” anywhere, but the word “remembered” appears once, as in “For they sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
Angello remembers his own sweet love, youthful love, a rooftop in New York City, jealousies, guilt, and failure. No wealth, or kings. It is a different time, a different thinker’s thoughts.
He remembers detail after disconnected detail of this tragic past love, then writes, “But this isn’t a confession. I’m making all of this up.”
Which we sometimes do when we reconstruct memory. When we try to reconstruct our truths, word by stubborn word.
The fact of memory is not simple. The Fact of Memory is complex.
Dinty W. Moore is the editor of Brevity.
March 21, 2022 § 3 Comments
By Celia Jeffries
When I first taught the essay, it was in the form of five paragraphs: a nice model for young writers used to counting on their fingers.
When I taught high school English, we pushed beyond five paragraphs to more formal essays: persuasive, descriptive, narrative, and expository, all of which may be as necessary as learning table manners, but each of which sometimes felt like writing with one hand folded in the lap.
In college I taught the requisite freshman composition essays: analytical, argumentative, compare and contrast, and, if the school was progressive enough, the personal essay.
For the past few years, I’ve been teaching writing workshops in a literary arts center, working with adults who had survived the five-paragraph essay and all the proscriptive forms handed out in English classes across the land, but each of whom sensed there was another—perhaps better—way to present their thoughts on paper.
I went back to some of my favorite essayists: Joan Didion, John McPhee, Calvin Trillin, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, James Baldwin, E.B. White, and M.F.K. Fisher. They weren’t arguing or persuading or comparing and contrasting. Or if they were, they were not following a rigid formula to do so. They were simply speaking their mind—on the page. Sometimes with humor, sometimes with rage, but always with their own engaging voice. I kept reading, moving through the “new journalism,” the “nonfiction novel,” reveling in how writers were pushing the boundaries and playing with form. Along came “flash” pieces and “hermit crab” essays and prose that looks and feels like poetry, and essays that break out of academic labels to make the reader see and feel the world in new ways.
Finally, along came Randon Billings Noble and her anthology A Harp in the Stars, An Anthology of Lyric Essays. Acknowledging that there is no widespread agreement on what it is or what to call it, Noble has gathered the slippery term lyric essay and folded it into the warm arms of four different forms: flash, segmented, braided, and hermit crab. In her introduction she refers back to mythology, to Orpheus playing the lyre. “His music was so powerful it could almost—almost—raise the dead.”
Lyric essays, Noble says,
have the same power to soothe, to harrow, to persuade, to move, to raise, to rouse, to overcome. Like Orpheus and his songs, lyric essays try something daring. They rely more on intuition than exposition. They often use image more than narration. They question more than answer. But despite all this looseness, the lyric essay still has the responsibilities of any essay: to try to figure something out, to play with ideas, to show a shift in thinking.
Noble says she came to define a lyric essay as “a piece of writing with a visible/stand-out/unusual structure that explores/forecasts/gestures to an idea in an unexpected way.”
Thank you Randon Billings Noble. This anthology is a treasure chest of daring ways to take one’s voice to the page. It opens with two stunning flash essays (defined by Noble as one thousand words or fewer) by Diane Seuss and Jericho Parms, and then off the page flies Sarah Minor’s segmented essay “Vide” that literally must be seen to be believed. “Apocalypse Logic” by Elissa Washuta and “Woven” by Lidia Yuknavitch offer startling braided essays, while Sarah Einstein offers the laugh-out-loud (well, parts of it made me laugh out loud) segmented essay “Self-Portrait in Apologies.”
It’s hard to highlight just a few of the forty-four essays in this collection, each of which “stands out” and offers the reader an idea in an “unexpected way.” Noble has said she’s fond of the six craft essays included because they are “lyric essays about lyric essays; they do what they’re talking about as they talk about it.” As if forty-four outstanding essays and six craft essays were not enough, Noble closes out the anthology with a section titled “Meditations” where she gives the authors the last word: each contributor adds their own short meditation on the lyric essay.
My copy of A Harp in the Stars is already dog-eared and covered with post-it notes and will be at top of my syllabus.
Celia Jeffries is the author of Blue Desert, a finalist in both the 2021 IPNE literary fiction awards and the 2021 Sarton historical fiction awards. Her prose has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Solsticelitmag.com, Mom Egg Review, Puerto del Sol, and other journals.
January 21, 2022 § 1 Comment
In our new issue’s Craft Essay section, Australian poet Lesh Karan discusses how she had “pretty much given up on prose,” until she met the lyric essay.
It was as if I found myself a new lover. I was on a cloud-nine high: I didn’t have to write a tightly knitted argument required of a critical essay. I could loosely stitch fragments—even seemingly unrelated ones. I could leave gaps. Lean on poetic devices such as lyricism and metaphor. Let juxtaposition do the talking. I did not need to know the answer, nor did I need to offer one. It was up to the reader to intuit meaning. Whew!
June 23, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Heidi Czerwiec
After Brenda Miller’s “Pantoum for 1979”—and, really, after Brenda in so many ways
At the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets1
Narrative, even in creative nonfiction, leaps forward, circles back, success in circuit. But ‘90s Utah, desert no dessert—as at other creative writing programs, the choice an or: fiction or poetry, narrative or lyric. A limited menu, prix fixe, the occasional à lá carte visiting writer, or nonfiction workshop taught by a dabbling faculty, and always, always, as a square meal of narrative. When offered, though, those classrooms stuffed, writers starved for it, nonfiction the neutral field on which we fed.
At the University of Utah, as elsewhere, students fed into fiction or—like me—to poetry. Then Brenda Miller was afforded, forded, foraged the first dissertation in creative nonfiction—a foretaste—though her degree notes none of this. At her defense, I recall the classroom stuffed, us writers starved for it. We hungered to see what she’d do next.
After Brenda broke the seal, things blurred a bit. Dawn Marano cultivating a taste for nonfiction at the University of Utah Press2; in course, Utah adding nonfiction to the spread, hiring Robin Hemley as a dedicated position. We hungered for what came next, couldn’t know how Robin and Nicole Walker (there then studying poetry) would nurture NonfictioNOW3. But that was then, and even then, lyric essays slow curing in Nicole’s head/cranium.
And not just Utah—other programs (Ohio, Nebraska, Eastern Washington, though not Iowa) added nonfiction to the spread. Phillip Lopate spread from teaching fiction to nonfiction, edited The Art of the Personal Essay4; Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, and Fourth Genre a pop-up of publishing. Deborah Tall coined the fusion cuisine “lyric essay.”5 Dinty W. Moore begat Brevity.6
Still, River Teeth’s subtitle is “A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative,” wouldn’t break Beautiful Things tiny milkteeth for fifteen years7; the selections in Lopate’s anthology firmly in narrative’s maw. At best, they ruminated through meditations, assayed and essayed a bit less logical. Even Dinty, in The Best of Brevity, claims his nascent mag considered only the compressed narrative.8 Soon, however, his concept of flash omnivorated.
But writers ruminated through meditation toward less logic, more lyric. Work labeled flash fiction, prose poems—at Quarterly West, when we didn’t know what to do with them, we published these delicacies as whatever the author preferred; the anthology In Short (Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones)9 proferred them in all their chimerical glory. By Y2K it was clear the possibilities were omnivorating. While Tell It Slant (Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola)10 presented a craft table of memoir and journalism, it also offered a taste of lyric essay.
Despite being labeled poets, writers—Elissa Gabbert, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine—were crafting delicacies no one knew what to do with. We devoured them like gathering breadcrumbs to trace a path, gorging on those leaping, circular forms. After Tell It Slant, Rose Metal Press (Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney)11 added a leaf to the craft table, made a groaning board of those lyric essays and braids and hermit crabs. If it seems like women nourished much of this work—they did, they do—I don’t know what it means but it sustains me.
Devouring those early poets-turned-essayists, I could trace a path for my own work, as I gorged on Doyle’s Leaping12, on Lee Ann Roripaugh’s haibun and zuihitsu13. I browsed poetic genres and conventions, bending them to prose. I read for sustenance, this stuff by women, to realize, astounded, spun around, that my favorite Annie Dillard book, Holy the Firm, is a book-length lyric essay, an evolutionary leap forward in 1977.14 But, like anything, the writing aged ahead of the critical work explaining how.
Bending Genres (edited by Nicole Walker and Margot Singer and featuring a lot of Utah expats)15 tried, and succeeded, at feeding us some answers. Even Lopate argued “The Lyric Essay” in his update To Show and to Tell16 (spoiler: he’s agin’ it). All that writing, finally nibbling at how. In 2015, NonfictioNOW had a couple panels on hybrids; in 2018, a smorgasbord.17
And yet, in 2020, my grad students at the University of Minnesota argued the lyric essay (spoiler: they’re agin’ it), not for inability to digest, but fed up, glutted on it. Utah now offers a feast of “fiction, nonfiction, poetry, digital writing, hybrid and other experimental forms, [and] book arts.”18 In 2018 at NonfictioNOW, invited to the table, I presented on a hybrid panel19 (mostly women) on poetic forms imported into nonfiction and cited Brenda, present in the audience, got to thank her for setting that table. This is not to say all is sweetness: recently, Ander Monson addressed other judges’ distaste for lyric essay in NEA grant decisions20 (spoiler: they’re agin’ it).
Creative writing programs and syllabus cellars at Assay21 and elsewhere now offer a feast for teaching and studying, an entire palette of genres for every palate. Far from the food desert of the ‘90s, us gone undernourished, the limited menu prix fixe poetry and fiction; the only sips of nonfiction, narrative. Despite this, narrative nonfiction still gets the grants, the agents and advances, the main entrée on the buffet (I prefer to make a meal of hors d’oeuvres, am always eyeing what’s being circulated on the platters). But as we see, even narrative circles back, awaits the great leap forward.
Essayist and poet Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the lyric essay collection Fluid States, selected by Dinty W. Moore as winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the poetry collection Conjoining. She writes and teaches in Minneapolis, where she is an Editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com
1. Eliot, T.S., “Little Gidding.” Four Quartets. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. Print.
4. Lopate, Phillip. The Art of the Personal Essay. New York: Anchor Books, 1995
5. Tall, Deborah and John D’Agata, Foreword to Seneca Review (Fall 1997). Print. Archived online at https://www.hws.edu/senecareview/lyricessay.aspx
8. Moore, Dinty W. “On Voice, Concision, and 20 Years of Flash Nonfiction.” The Best of Brevity, ed. Zöe Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore. Brookline, MA: Rose Metal Press, 2020. Print.
9. Jones, Mary Paumier and Judith Kitchen, eds., In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction. Norton: 1996. Print.
10. Miller, Brenda and Suzanne Paola, eds., Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. Print.
12. Doyle, Brian. Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2003. Print.
13. Roripaugh, Lee Ann. Running Brush. Website. https://runningbrush.wordpress.com/
14. Dillard, Annie. Holy the Firm. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Print.
15. Singer, Margot and Nicole Walker, eds. Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.
16. Lopate, Phillip, “The Lyric Essay.” To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonficton. New York: Free Press, 2013.
20. Monson, Ander, “Dear Essayists Applying for an NEA.” Essay Daily (16 Feb 2021)
August 1, 2017 § 28 Comments
The time will come when our students, or our mother (in an attempt to seem interested for real and not just because it’s her kid) will ask about essays. “Well, dear,” she might say, “I think it’s lovely. But what do you mean by lyric?”
Or perhaps we will want to write a braided essay, or a collage, without really grasping what, exactly that is. We’ll realize it’s been a while since we were in a workshop and nobody else has the notes, and strongly consider retreating to a nice orderly sonnet. Fourteen lines and a whole four classical rhyme schemes to choose from. Go nuts!
It is for these moments that Brevity presents our Brief Guide to Essays:
They are all lyric, these categories of essays in literary journals and finer mass-media publications and the occasional feminist website. Built on images, using poetic tools like metaphor to evoke feeling in the reader. What’s also important is the blank space, a place for the reader to fill in, to meet the author on the page.
Often, the lyric essay ends with a question–literal or implied–rather than resolution.
Not this one.
Moving as fast as thinking, skipping like a stone idea idea idea fading into the last ripples of the pond. The words making their own spaces, running rampant past line breaks, trampling the meter, shoving their way to the discount dactyls of Prose Black Friday where all the words are on sale. The security guard makes you show him the inside of your alliteration, standing between you and the door of random magnetic words, demanding you focus this piece. Choose a dominant image. Right now you’re stuck in Walmart, the pond of the first line paved over. Shit. Beloved of poster-poem makers, these tiny walls of text breathe to the edges of the page and then retract–they can only stay so long, say so long, hit save, it’s done, sunk like a wrong-shaped stone.
Fragments build a collage. Perhaps passages from your journal, or the journal of a more famous writer you wish to look inspired by. The fragments work like shards of a glass: each one a self-contained moment; a ragged edge flowing into the next. Meaning born through assembly. Try to make the whole watertight–or leak artistically.
I sat in a living room in Bombay with women writers who didn’t have time to write. Too many household obligations. Live-in in-laws, kids needing three hots and a well-made cot, maids who got sick or got lazy and had to be watched. When was the pen supposed to hit the paper, exactly?
In Ohio, we shuffled index cards of memories, our teacher guiding us through only enough text to fit on the card, calming a class of overachievers. It’s never enough to get into writing camp, every day is showing up and saying See what I wrote? I belong, I swear. We re-ordered the cards. Wrote connectors. Essays birthed themselves when we slacked off. Trusted doing less.
The paper shop on the corner had index cards for 30 rupees, so I bought five packs, enough for everyone to take some home. And over vegan ladoos and the memory of all the ladoos ever eaten, round and floury and soaked with ghee, we wrote just enough to fill the cards. Shuffled. Wrote connectors. The hostess looked up. “I could write a card while I wait for the pot to boil.”
In middle school I wrote on McDonalds napkins. In high school, Taco Bell napkins and the backs of receipts. Folders of scraps still live in my basement, waiting.
The Bombay ladies got the point: write small and often. The teacher showed us the point: listen to the words, stop trying so hard. I got the point: clean out the damn basement. You get the point: collage.
You can braid as many strands as you like, but just like with hair, more than three is hard and less than three is even harder.
Repetition is the key–each thread recurs.
As well as the writer’s own voice, a braided essay can use an external voice to provide details the writer may not have known at the time.
The purpose of the outside voice is to shadow the writer’s voice, according to Brenda Miller in Tell It Slant.
Inside the braid could be a mini-collage, or a list, or a hermit crab. Perhaps a definition useful to the essay, or a quotation.
Repetition is the key. If there’s not repetition, it’s probably a collage.
Some nice braided essays:
Seriously. The strands have to repeat.
It sounds so adorable, right? A little crab scootching into a new shell, growing to fill it, taking the contours of the shell as its own. No special equipment is needed; this is an excellent starter essay you can make at home.
2) Pack the prosaic form full of meaningful images. Use Table Mountain, and the man who was every bit as selfish as your friend said he was and left the windows open while you froze, who didn’t hug you when you got the news.
3) Tweak the writing to both explore and subvert the outer form; it’s not just a recipe for an essay, it’s the way to finish this blog post and process my father’s death.
4) Dropping a little bomb like that is nice in a hermit crab.
5) Let the form dictate the essay. Much like our maligned sonnets, the creativity comes from exploiting the form itself.
6) For example, recipes by definition end happily. I broke up with him. I mourned as much as I needed to. And I finished this essay in time to post on Tuesday.
Writing your memoir needs a plan. Join Allison K Williams for this three-session webinar, where you’ll clearly define your concept and structure, learn whether your book is right for Big Five, literary or independent publishing—and exactly how to write and revise your story.
November 21, 2016 § 15 Comments
By Heidi Czerwiec
The lobster mushroom, contrary to its common name, is not a mushroom but the result of a parasitic fungus having infested a host mushroom in a peculiar symbiosis. The fungus, Hypomyces lactifluorum, typically attacks milk-caps and brittlegills, absorbing them completely and imparting the bright reddish-orange color and seafood-like flavor of a cooked lobster.
Creative nonfiction, too, is a symbiosis of fact infecting art. Or art infecting fact. You become infected by an idea, a topic – open adoptions, fracking, the history of perfume – that absorbs you, imparting its own qualities, until the you’re transformed, not the same person as before.
Or, you may play the part of parasite – cloak your work, make it take the appearance of another form: an essay disguised as a list, a letter, an index, a diary. A hermit-crab essay. A lobster mushroom.
Or, you may think you’re writing one essay, but another essay takes it over, makes it its own. Think you’re writing about hiking? Nope, it’s about your ex-. A piece about the band Morphine and The Matrix’ Morpheus and the Sandman comics? Nope, your ex-. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Lobster mushrooms are much more valuable than the mushrooms they infect – about $25 a pound fresh, or $50 dried, at last check.
You should remember that both creative nonfiction and lobster mushrooms, like all fungus, feed off of dead matter, are in turn fed off of. You don’t always get there first. Sometimes appalling creatures have nested inside it – sometimes stuff you knew was there, sometimes stuff you forgot was there, sometimes unexpected stuff you uncover. You might be cutting through a mushroom when a centipede or earwig or worm crawls out of the hole it’s burrowed into the flesh. “Fuck!” you might yell, dropping the mushroom. Now you have to decide what to do next:
a. Sweep the mushroom into the trash. Burn trash. Burn house. No mushroom, no matter how valuable it might have seemed, is worth this toxic invasion.
b.Pick up the mushroom and examine the damage – how deep does it go? Has the nastiness laid eggs? Are there others? You may feel hesitant to give up on the mushroom, but sometimes you have to negotiate the value of the mushroom against how compromised it’s become. If there’s too much damage, go back to a); otherwise, continue to c). Remind yourself of two things:
1.If you can’t deal with the mushroom now, it will come back. It will always come back, popping up whether you want it to or no, because it’s part of a larger system, mycelia feeding on what’s rotten, what lurks, always, beneath the surface. If you decide in the future you’re ready to pluck it and make something of it, it will be there, mushrooming.
2. You don’t have to reveal the source of your mushrooms. Few enthusiasts do, going to great lengths to conceal their sites by lying, covering their tracks. But most are happy to share the fruits of their labors, the fruited mushroom, the finished product, however fraught. You can share, without sharing everything.
c. Decide you have worked too hard for this mushroom. It is too valuable to let go. THIS IS YOUR FUCKING MUSHROOM. Find a way to deal with the damage:
1. Cut it out completely;
2. Work around it. Convince yourself it will be altered in the shaping/cooking of it anyways. Keep what isn’t too bad, what you can still use, what’s of value. If you can deal with it, so can everyone else.
3. Take a deep breath and swallow it whole, bugs and all.
But here’s the thing. The lobster mushroom, the parasitic fungus, has a super power: it infests mushrooms, matter that is otherwise inedible, possibly toxic, and makes it safe for consumption. Palatable. Even delicious.
Is this a craft essay infected by a lyric essay, or a lyric essay infected by a craft essay?
Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent chapbooks — A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, and Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle — and of the forthcoming collection Maternal Imagination with ELJ Publications, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis.
April 21, 2015 § 5 Comments
A guest post from Kelly Morse, examining the work of Claudia Rankine, one of the anchor authors for our forthcoming Special Issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization:
When the world all around is calling for clear distinctions, loyalties to Self and hatred of others . . . . —smooth narratives—what greater threat exists than that voice which rejects such easy orthodoxies with their readily understood rhetoric and urges, instead, the most difficult readings, those that embrace the painfully impossible in the human heart?”
– Maria Rosa Menocal, from Shards of Love: Exile and Origins of the Lyric
Lyrical writing, like the lyre it originally accompanied, holds its heart in song and in the address of another. It is an observation shared with someone else, when the ‘I’ of the singer births a ‘you’ in the form of an audience, or a writer a reader. However, there’s a funny trick that happens with lyric: a blurring begins. The pronouns get mixed up. It occurs every time you sing your favorite song – the ‘I’ of another enters your mouth. You temporarily share someone’s else’s identity, their turn of phrase, and you want this moment, because this ‘I’ has captured something that feels true to you, even if the story being told is outside the scope of your regular life.
Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel, you have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when the girl and the mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected. The mother’s response is barely audible—I see, she says. I’ll sit in the middle.
Recently, Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen: An American Lyric, was nominated for both the poetry and nonfiction categories of the National Book Critic’s Circle Award. This has never happened before in the award’s forty-year history. Thought it eventually won the Poetry Award, the dual-genre nod was the only one appropriate to the hybrid nature of the collection. ‘Collection’ works doubly hard here: Rankine gathered anecdotes of racist moments people of color have experienced when they felt most safe, amassed quotes from CNN reporting on Hurricane Katrina, collected World Cup audience transcripts, curated images of art that speak to the experience of being black in America. As she explains to an interviewer:
The entire book is a collection of stories gathered from a community of friends and then retold or folded into my own stories. And though it’s not strictly nonfiction, Citizen is not fiction either. The experience of writing it, which might or might not be the experience of reading it, was to see my community a little better, to see it, to understand my place in it, to know how it sounds, what it looks like, and yet, to stay on my street anyway.
Rankine’s ‘not strictly nonfiction, but not fiction either’ approach to short prose pieces (most log in at a page or less), to my mind inhabits the world of lyrical flash nonfiction. At the heart there is an elasticity of experience. As Marcia Aldrich writes, “The lyric essay does not narrate a story so much as express a condition – often named, sometimes called human, but still to us unknown. It reverses foreground and background, cultivating leaps and juxtaposition, tensing between the presentational and the representational.” Rankine seeks to understand, a word that in its etymology means ‘to stand between, among; to be close to’. Rankine tries to make the reader ‘understand’ her pieces by narrating micro-aggressions from the intimate, close place of ‘you’.
The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you. As she picks up her bag, she looks to see what you will say. She says nothing. You want her to say something—both as witness and as a friend. She is not you; her silence says so.
With lyric, you may be suddenly seeing with multiple sets of eyes. In Rankine’s case, pronouns become a transitional space for a reader, especially if he is white; through his imagination he inhabits this racialized ‘you’, but at the same time the very foreignness of this experience serves to highlight the fact that he as a white person has never been treated this way. The blurring of ‘you’ and ‘I’ is disorienting; this painful impossibility echoes in the narrator’s refrain of What did you say?
A condensed layering of the self is what lyric flash holds in its heart. “The lyric essay doesn’t care about figuring out why papa lost the farm or why mama took to drink,” writes Sue William Silverman. “It’s more interested in replicating the feeling of that experience . . . the reader accepts the emotion of the piece itself as the essential ‘fact’.” Rankine’s ‘not strictly nonfiction, but not fiction either’ asks a reader to explore what it means to have a black body in this world. She actively destabilizes her own text, asking her reader to cross lyric’s transitional space over and over again. Rankine: “I wanted to create an aesthetic form for myself, where the text was trembling and doubling and wandering in its negotiation and renegotiation of the image.”
This trembling and doubling and wandering between what each small ‘I’ knows to be real and the possibility of what each ‘you’ suggests, this lyric nonfiction, is more important than ever. Smooth narratives are dangerous ones, if not deadly. Poet William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” How can we express our griefs, our outrages, our complicated hearts, if not by breaking silence, breaking into song? When the verdict of ‘not guilty’ was announced in the Michael Brown case, over and over I saw a line from Rankine’s book being shared on Twitter:
And where is the safest place when that place
must be someplace other than in the body?
The rain this morning pours from the gutters and everywhere else it is lost in the trees. You need your glasses to single out what you know is there because doubt is inexorable; you put on your glasses. The trees, their bark, their leaves, even the dead ones, are more vibrant wet. Yes, and it’s raining. Each moment is like this – before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be experienced, it has to be seen. What did he just say? Did she really say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? The moment stinks. Still you want to stop looking at the trees. You want to walk out and stand among them. And as light as the rain seems, it still rains down on you.
Kelly Morse is a poet, creative nonfiction writer, and translator. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, Quarter After Eight, Linebreak, Flyway and elsewhere. Her translations and reviews of Vietnamese poetry appear in Asymptote and M-DASH, and she recently won Lunch Ticket’s Gabo Prize for Translation. Kelly has had work nominated for Best of the Net, is a Robert Pinsky Global Fellow and a Vermont Studio Center grant recipient.
January 27, 2015 § 3 Comments
Michael Steinberg, founding editor of the journal Fourth Genre and co-editor of the textbook/anthology of the same name, pays tribute to CNF pioneer Judith Kitchen on his blog this week. Steinberg acknowledges Kitchen for being “one of the first people who wrote, taught, and could speak with authority on/about what we’ve come to describe as ‘creative nonfiction’.” She certainly was, and Judith was among the most generous of literary figures as well.
She is greatly missed. Michael’s blog tribute, with excerpts from Kitchen’s essay “Mending Wall,” is well worth a read, including this gem of a paragraph, quoting Judith on the overuse of the term lyric essay:
This past year, I attended a reading of “lyric essays,” and nothing I heard was, to my mind, lyric. My ears did not quicken. My heart did not skip. What I heard was philosophical meditation, truncated memoir, slipshod research, and just-plain-discursive opinion. A wall of words. But not a lyric essay among them. The term had been minted (brilliantly, it seems to me) by Deborah Tall, then almost immediately undermined. Not all essays are lyric. Repeat. Not all essays are lyric. Not even all short essays are lyric. Some are merely short. Or plainly truncated. Or purely meditative. Or simply speculative. Or. Or. Or. But not lyric. Because, to be lyric, there must be a lyre.
September 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric combines essay, image and poetry to describe how mounting racial aggressions in daily life and the media–some intentionally offensive, others errors consistently made–affect a person’s abilities to speak, write, perform, and stay alive.
At BOMB Magazine, Lauren Berlant interviews Ms. Rankine on the daily encounters that make up the “tone” of citizenship, the weaving of fiction and nonfiction, and the use of mixed forms throughout her work:
Tone is an everyday kind of maneuver. It disrupts and communicates aggression, disgust, dis- respect, and humor, among a myriad of possibilities, thereby allowing language to morph into a blanket or a gun. It helps me know how to read the spaces between things. One has an ear out for it always. It’s a thing to be translated. [Your question] presupposes certain expectations for tone in public encounters, places where equality and sharing are legislated to happen, places where one has expectations for justice, for evenhandedness, and for “we are all just people here” indifference. I don’t exactly expect disdain when paying for my bagel. Not at 9 AM in a café, anyway!
The scripts in chapter six seemed necessary to Citizen because one of the questions I often hear is “How did that happen?” as it relates to mind-numbing moments of injustice—the aftermath of Katrina, for example, or juries letting supremacists off with a slap on the wrist for killing black men. It seems obvious, but I don’t think we connect micro-aggressions that indicate the lack of recognition of the black body as a body to the creation and enforcement of laws. Everyone is cool with seeing micro-aggressions as misunderstandings until the same misunderstood person ends up on a jury or running national response teams after a hurricane.
She also discusses the difficulty of attempting to “reroute the content I am living,” within the frame of a world pushing back against her truth.
Ms. Rankine also has a fascinating website. It’s well worth checking out how she presents her visual, collaborative video, spoken, and multi-genre work in a graphic format that frames and reflects her subject matter.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!