Beth Ann Fennelly: On Heating, Cooling, and Safety Scissors

June 4, 2018 § 3 Comments

22282109_359766681112308_5299649755912659950_n(1)Author Penny Guisinger interviews Beth Ann Fennelly about flash nonfiction, micro-memoir, prose poems, the engine of the sentence, and the upcoming Iota Short Prose Conference:

Guisinger: Your new book, Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, consists of tidbits that you call micro-memoirs. I feel a kinship to this book because it shares some qualities with my own work, particularly the way it pushes at definitions of words we use to describe different forms of writing. You’re a  poet laureate writing short prose pieces that aren’t prose poems; instead they are memoirs which are usually a book-length thing, but there’s this hyphenated modifier “micro” involved. I’d love for you to talk about this line between pieces like these and prose poetry. Does it exist?

Fennelly: I love prose poems and have written a bunch.  I like how they look like a paragraph but still move the way a poem moves, which is to say a prose poem is often image-based, and it is held together by syntactical repetition and motif and sonic ligature. In the micro-memoirs, I was more interested in connecting the way fiction connects, through the engine of the sentence, building tension through plot, creating a narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end.  Perhaps I might simply say poetry has always felt vertical to me, and prose, horizontal. These pieces are heading toward the horizon.

Guisinger: You said in another interview that once you thought of the idea of the micro-memoir, it felt like permission to create these pieces. I’m curious about what came right before that. Was the book already in progress, and you were searching for a form? Or was the idea of the form what allowed you to even get started?

Fennelly: Yes, the book was already in progress, but I didn’t know it, because I was writing these weirdo little things and I didn’t know what to do with them. They didn’t look like poems or essays or a novel, they didn’t look like anything I’d written before. Discovering a name for them helped me recognize them and then articulate my project to myself.

Guisinger: I love the boldness of the pieces that are just one sentence. What made you think you could get away with that? You totally do get away with that, but did it make you nervous to try it?

Fennelly: It wasn’t scary, it was fun. One-sentence pieces are so low stakes—if it doesn’t work, so what?  Throw it away and start another! My goal was to see how much I could take away and still have a story. Also, the one-sentence pieces could sometimes make use of humor because, like a joke, they’re stripped of exposition and the bones become visible. So that’s another way they were fun to write.

guisingerGuisinger: I’d love to hear about the process of revising this book. Was there an urge to keep making all the pieces shorter: to keep tightening the bolts? The title piece is over four pages, and others are much shorter. What drove the decisions to keep the longer pieces long? Was it a conscious decision to have a variety of lengths in the collection or was each piece given the authority to spread out if it wanted to?

Fennelly: I’m attracted to books that have a pleasing uniformity. For example, British author Dan Rhodes has a book called Anthropology: 101 True Love Stories, which has this symmetry not only of form but subject matter, as every one of the 101 stories has 101 words, and every one is a love story about a different girlfriend.

Rhodes’ tidiness is very appealing. Nevertheless, I knew I wanted my book to have a lot of range and tonal variety, and I wanted the pieces to move at various speeds and densities, and to have different physical shapes on the page. I wanted them to be a short as possible, but not shorter, and in one case that means eleven words, and in another case that means four pages.

Guisinger: Was it a challenge to organize the collection?

Fennelly: Yes, very much so, in the way a book of poems requires a careful construction because it has lots of moving parts. The micro-memoirs span my life from birth to adulthood, but I didn’t want to order them chronologically  They vary in length, but I didn’t want to group the one-sentence pieces, then the one-paragraph pieces, then the longer ones. And they vary in subject, but I didn’t want to group them according to subject matter, to have, say, pieces about grief in one section, love in one section, motherhood in another. And they vary in tone, but I didn’t want the funny ones separated from the bitchy ones from the wistful ones, etc. So organization was an ongoing challenge—if I ever removed one for some reason, I had to rethink the whole thing.

Guisinger: You brought multiple approaches to using titles in the book. One Doesn’t Always Wish to Converse on Airplanes is part of the first sentence of the piece, while I Come from a Long Line of Modest Achievers is the set-up line for a one-sentence piece. Talk about how you approached titling these pieces and how you were able to put titles to work for you.

Fennelly: The shorter a piece is, the more heavy lifting the title has to do. Some of the one-sentence pieces wouldn’t even qualify as “literature” without the title.

Guisinger: Writers often sit down with a thing to say and we either don’t know how to say it or we actually end up saying something completely different. A small kernel of an idea often blows the door open to something enormous, or an enormous idea has to be honed down to a manageable, concrete image. The piece Safety Scissors opens with specific childhood memories and ends with this breath-stealing emotional punch. I just have to ask: which idea came to you first? The haircut memory? The loss? Which opened the door to the other?

Fennelly: The story of my sister cutting off my hair and eyelashes in my infancy is an oft-repeated Fennelly family anecdote, one I also told myself, for laughs. But I felt unease when I told this story for a laugh because there was something about the anecdote that was darker, something that got simplified, in quest of a laugh. Revisiting the material in micro-memoir form helped me linger in the moment, and identify how that moment in our childhood explains something about our relationship now.

Guisinger: This book is receiving a lot of attention. It was excerpted on Oprah.com. You were interviewed on PBS. It feels unusual (and heartening!) for a collection of small, literary pieces to hit the big time. (Yay!) So, first of all, congrats! And secondly, since you are clearly a publicity Jedi, when will your seminar “How to Promote your Book” be scheduled? (I’d like to sign up.) Can you share your hottest tip for getting the word out?

Fennelly: Penny, I am astonished at your characterization of me as a “publicity Jedi,” and everyone who knows me would share my astonishment, because I’m kind of a publicist’s worst nightmare. Like, I just got on Facebook last year  I met with my editor to discuss the launch of Heating & Cooling, and I said, “What can I do to help the book get out into the world?  I don’t do social media, but I love to give readings, meet with students, visit bookstores, etc.” And she was like, “You have to do social media.” And I was all, “No, you misheard me, I don’t do social media, but I like to do readings, meet with students, visit bookstores, etc.” and she was like, “Oh, I heard you, but you have to do social media.” So, for her, I finally on got on Facebook. But when people talk about their “platforms” and their “product,” I kind of break out in hives. So I’d be the last person to give a book promotion seminar. That being said, I have had a lot of fun in introducing the micro-memoir form to various groups. It’s a teachable form; it’s low pressure. I know a lot of folks who’d like to write their life story, say, but don’t know where to begin, and they feel daunted. But to write a true story in a single paragraph? That seems manageable. My friend, the novelist Joshilyn Jackson, went to a micro-memoir craft class I gave and now teaches the form in a women’s prison in Georgia where she volunteers, because it’s possible to introduce the form and get great results in a one-hour class, even with students who aren’t allow access to computers. I love that.

Guisinger: This August, I get to welcome you as faculty at Iota: Short Prose Conference on the coast of Maine along with Sven Birkerts. It’s a generative, four-day conference on short forms. What does that mean and what can people expect from the experience of studying with you?

Fennelly: Oh yes I’m SUPER excited about the conference.  Truly bucolic location.  And I admire Sven Birkerts’ work a lot.  I teach his craft book The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, AgainIt’s so smart.  I’m excited to give prompts and share examples of short forms that really inspire me—including short form nonfiction pieces that I first read here at Brevity. Three cheers for Brevity! And for Iota!

___

Want to study with Beth Ann Fennelly and Sven Birkerts at Iota this summer? Dates are August 15 – 18. Visit www.iotaconference.com while there are still seats available.

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Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi, teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Mississippi, where she was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year. Her newest prose book is Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, published in October 2017 with W.W. Norton, and she published Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother, a collection of essays with Norton in 2006. Beth Ann is the author of three poetry books: Open HouseTender Hooks, and Unmentionables, all with W. W. Norton. Beth Ann’s poetry has been in over fifty anthologies, including Best American Poetry 1996, 2005, and 2006. A contributing editor to The Oxford American, she also writes freelance on travel, culture, and design for many magazines. Recent nonfiction awards include the Orlando Award in Nonfiction from A Room of Her Own, the Lamar York Prize from The Chattachoochee Review and the Porter Fleming Award for Excellence in the Essay. She’s the first woman honored with the University of Notre Dame’s Distinguished Alumni in the Arts Award.

Penny Guisinger lives and writes on the easternmost tip of the United States. A Maine Literary Award winner and twice named as a notable in Best American Essays, she has appeared in the pages of Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is an Assistant Editor at Brevity magazine, the founding organizer of Iota: Short Prose Conference, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program. She lives with her wife and kids, two dogs, and a constantly changing number of tropical fish. She can be found at: www.pennyguisinger.com and @PennyGuisinger.

 

 

 

A Review of Peter Selgin’s The Inventors

July 28, 2016 § 3 Comments

inventors.jpgBy Alexis Paige

I’m a sucker for literature that pursues an unanswerable question, all the better if that pursuit takes some idiosyncratic course, as with Peter Selgin’s new memoir, The Inventors. Recently published by Hawthorne Books, and a finalist for the Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize, the Graywolf Press Prize for Nonfiction, and the AWP Award Series for Creative Nonfiction, the book charts Selgin’s formation of self, or perhaps, selves. This smart, quirky, and insightful memoir explores the author’s formative years by way of the two most seminal men in his life, his “inventors”—his father, a bona fide inventor; and his 8th grade English teacher, an inventor of pedigree. Eccentric, magnetic, and grandiose, these men—and their “inventions” or fictions about their lives—cast a towering shadow over Selgin’s own existential search for identity, which lasts well into adulthood. After his father’s death, the author learns his paternal family was not Catholic as he had been led to believe, but Jewish. Similarly, the writer learns that the teacher with whom he shared an emotionally intimate friendship at 13 (a mutual “seduction,” Selgin calls the relationship at one point) fabricated an identity as a Rhodes Scholar, an adoptee, and later, a Native American. These lies, or fictions, are difficult for the narrator to reconcile because they are mixed with both objective truth (if such a thing exists), and perhaps more importantly, emotional truth. Selgin writes, “You can’t have the truth without lies. Or you can—it may be there—but you won’t see it, it won’t stand out.” The book is in part a catalogue of Selgin’s findings as he attempts to unravel the mysteries of his inventors’ lives (and thereby his own), and it is also an investigation into the slippery nature of truth itself. Pushing beyond that classic memoir question, Who Am I?, the writer’s various narrative selves—boy and man; first-person and second-person—ruminate on the very nature of selfhood, along with its attendant doubts, deceptions, and complexities.

In the Prologue, Selgin announces that the book is written to his younger self: “We’re made of the past. What we remember, or think we remember, or choose to remember, defines us. Like my father and my teacher, each of us, in different ways and to various degrees, constructs a myth about ourselves that we embrace in part to deny contradictory, unpleasant, or inconvenient truths. We inhabit fictional narratives that we come to think of as ‘our lives.’ From memories sifted, sorted, selected, or synthesized—consciously or unconsciously—we assemble the stories that tell us who we are. In that sense, we’re all inventors.” In addition to its overt pursuits, the memoir skirts a meta-argument: If the self is a kind of invention made from constructed myth, so too is the memoir an invention made from the versions of myth that the memoirist chooses to spotlight. After all, a memoir is not a journalistic record of what happened, but rather a subjective account of what the self remembers or deems important, what one has “sifted, sorted, selected, or synthesized.”

Selgin navigates such heady ideas with a playful, even inventive, sense of structure. The chapter titles employ patent application language as an extended metaphor: Exemplary Claims, Description of the Preferred Embodiment, The Prior Art, and so forth. Tucked into the chapters are patent figure drawings of his father’s inventions, along with arcane footnotes and captions that describe antennae, ray tubes, electric motors, colorimeters, and reflectometers, to name just a few. The approach to setting, chronology, and even point-of-view is accordingly associative, which means that the reader follows Selgin’s narrated consciousness as he leaps through decades and states, and as he moves between first-person and second-person narrators, both versions of the self. Such navigation of time calls to mind Sven Birkerts’ admonition about the flattening effect of strict chronology in his craft book The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again: “There is in fact no faster way to smother the core meaning of life, its elusive threads and connections, than with the heavy blanket of narrated event. Even the juiciest scandals and revelations topple before the drone of, ‘And then…and then…’”.  Selgin’s temporal and structural choices highlight the book’s meaningful design and create a vibrant, textured narrative.

In addition to its architecture, The Inventors’ approach to textual material is a rich layering of authorial modes that include sweeping reverie, crisp snapshots of memory, philosophical musing, epistemological ephemera, and a mix of second and first-person narration. Selgin moves between these modes with grace. The anchoring scene of the first chapter begins with the author delivering his father’s eulogy: “As most of you here probably know, my papa was an iconoclast. He had too many other things on his mind to worry about protocols or conventions.” The ‘you’ of direct address here then slides seamlessly into a ‘you’ of Selgin’s own consciousness. The author narrates the post-memorial gathering scene completely in second-person, which is an interesting choice of narrative distance, especially given the upending secret revealed by one memorial-goer: “Your father was Jewish, she says at last, firmly, smiling and shaking her head like a tolerant schoolmarm coping with an especially slow pupil. On both sides of his family, she says. They were prominent Jews.” The next section of the chapter, set apart on its own page, contains just two italicized paragraphs—written in first-person from the ostensible present: “He was as much my twin as my brother, maybe more so. I can’t mourn him without feeling as though I’m embracing a solipsism, like I’m mourning myself.” And so goes the journey of the memoir, in which the narrator attempts to reconcile his father’s and teacher’s fictions and motivations as a way of confronting his own: “It would take years of therapy for you to ascribe these and other symptoms to the pursuit of gratification by vanity known as narcissistic disorder and to trace its origins back to the day you wheedled a kiss from your kindergarten teacher in exchange for a crayon drawing of the Empire State Building (or was it the Queen Mary?), a fateful transaction that over time evolved into a mode of survival.”

In addition to the craftsmanship of the memoir, I admired the writer’s idiosyncratic mind. Equal parts poet-philosopher, professor, raconteur, and iconoclast himself, Selgin’s narrators are fascinating company. I read eagerly for the company of the brooding insomniac who wonders “Can we ever really know anyone? Can we even know ourselves?”; or for the company of the bored child, which Selgin declares “the most troubling” of dispositions; or the egocentric father for whom even his daughter’s first rainbow comes back around to him: “I thought from now on whenever she sees a rainbow Audrey will remember this trip and think of her daddy.” Ultimately, the memoir yields no easy answers about that nagging question of whether we can really know anyone, and by implication, ourselves. But the book bears witness to the worthiness of the pursuit. Confronting our fictive or inventor natures, Selgin suggests, is the path to discovering ourselves.
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Alexis Paige’s work appears in multiple journals and anthologies, including New Madrid Journal, Passages North, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity, where she is an assistant editor. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she also received two recent Pushcart Prize nominations, and features on Freshly Pressed and Longform. Twice a top-ten finalist of Glamour magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. Her first book, a collection of lyric essays, Not a Place on Any Map, won the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award and will be published in December. You can find her online at alexispaigewrites.com

 

The Ultimate Guide to Not Letting the AWP Do You

April 2, 2015 § 6 Comments

awp2013By Alexis Paige

 (A note on this Blog Classic Repost: I wrote this tongue-in-cheek survival guide two years ago on the eve of AWP 2013 Boston, after my first AWP sent me into an agoraphobic tailspin. Here’s what I know going into this year’s AWP: leave some room in the suitcase for books and “Write Like a Motherfucker” mugs from The Rumpus, everyone feels awkward while networking-as-a-verb at the bookfair, and if you’re not overwhelmed, you’re not doing AWP correctly.)

I arrived in Chicago last year for my first AWP with a hazy plan and a suitcase that weighed too much and cornered poorly. I packed stilettos, cigarettes, scarves, and lipstick, but forgot my laptop, cotton swabs, and new business cards stamped with a retro typewriter logo. Forgetting cotton swabs on a trip is a bad omen indeed. My plan was breezy and vague: oh, I dunno—find some authentic deep-dish, go to a few panels, say smart things, be charming, and have literary types fall in love with me. If there’s time, wrangle a book deal.

I’ve never been comfortable networking-as-a-verb, but my skills in this area hadn’t evolved since my 20s — awkwardness masked by flirtation. Incidentally, I gleaned this approach from an Anne Sexton biography that I read over ten years ago and interpreted not as a cautionary tale but as a primer on sex and dating.

I managed to get my AWP tote bag and lit swag, grab a slice served in a cardboard triangle, and check-in to my hotel room, all without incident. But it wasn’t long after I had gotten to my room, scarfed the pie, and lined up my little sentry of toiletries by height, that I found myself overwhelmed and on the verge of panic. The conference hadn’t even started, and this was not my usual existential panic, but an actual can’t-leave-the-room-and-function-in-public panic.

With nothing to do but strip down to my underpants and smoke in bed, I flipped through the 10-pound conference tome and tried to dam the tears with self-ridicule. I’ll spare you most of the rest of my mega-conference meltdown, but I accomplished little and went home an exhausted rube. Unable to navigate logistics capably, I ended up in the wrong panel at least a half-dozen times (each in the wrong genre and with a title more obtuse than the last); told Sven Birkerts his book The Art of Time in Memoir was “cool”; skulked around the book fair like a nervous woodland creature; collected business cards that would ultimately flounder in the bottom of my tote bag; and shouted “Hi!” to Cheryl Strayed in an elevator. (That’s it—just “Hi!” followed by a pregnant ellipsis. I should’ve told her I loved her or thanked her for “writing like a motherfucker”…something memorable.)

On the last night, I got invited—by way of the etiquette equivalent of the service elevator—to a VIP reception. Laureates, Pushcarts, NEA fellows, and National Book Award winners would be there: I was going to that room, the Gatsby room. Once there, however, I bored of the pomp and circumstance and sulked in a corner, popping cheesy poufs and getting hit on by a grandfatherly poet who mentioned his “new and selected” no fewer than eight times.

It’s redemption time now—a new year, a new me. I can do AWP: I just need a better plan.

First, a pep talk. Having spent much of my later childhood and high school years in Boston, I know the language, the land, the people, and customs. Home turf advantage. Also, I come from a military family—my husband, brother-in-law, and father—all no-nonsense types. This can-do competency must live in my muscle memory, right? Early wake-ups, hospital corners, overnight hiking trips in rugged New Hampshire mountains, extensive travel, and scrapping for respect in a big Catholic family: this was my childhood training. Dad was a recon Marine, for chrissakes; I can’t get pummeled by a writers’ conference.

Next, a plan and some rules of engagement. Instead of waiting until there, I grab my planner and Ned Stuckey-French’s “Handy Guide to Nonfiction Panels,” and I highlight. I highlight like a motherfucker. I pick two panels per day and write them into my planner in tidy block print. Anything extra is gravy, but these two are non-negotiable. My schedule is set and reconnaissance complete.

The rules of engagement are simple: no side trips to Fenway Park; no hesitant lollygagging at the book fair (get in, get out—with solicitations and business cards); no window shopping on Newbury Street; no improvised chit-chat with famous writers; no panel reconnaissance on the fly, flipping through maps and schedules while bent over a subway grate; no sulking or crying; and no reading of panelist bios until I am safely extracted and home.

If I seem a little more serious this year, that’s my plan. I am on a mission: do AWP, don’t let AWP do me.


Alexis Paige’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Pinch, Passages North, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, Ragazine, 14 Hills, and on Brevity’s blog, where she serves as an Assistant Editor. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she also received a recent Pushcart Prize nomination and a feature on Freshly Pressed by WordPress. Twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the Stonecoast creative writing program. She lives in Vermont, and you can find her at alexispaigewrites.com.

Come see Alexis at AWP 2015, at the Revising the Personal Essay panel with Penny Guisinger, Sarah Einstein, and Sven Birkerts, on Friday, April 10th, at 10:30 AM, in Room M100 D&E on the Mezzanine Level.

Iota: Short Prose Conference

March 25, 2015 § 2 Comments

DSC_5904A note on the upcoming Iota Conference from Penny Guisinger and a reflection on the event from Sven Birkerts:

Iota: Short Prose Conference is a place that celebrates the small in a world often ruled by heft. Participants gather at the Cobscook Community Learning Center, near Maine’s easternmost tip, for a long weekend of writing, relaxing, and learning. We also do a lot of talking, mostly about books. This year’s conference is July 23 – 26. Applications are due by June 23, but apply by April 15 for an early-bird discount!

 The focus is on short works: essays, flash, fiction, micro-everythings, prose poetry. And the definition of “short” is up for grabs. If you can write it, or even get it started, in a morning, you can workshop it that very afternoon. This year’s faculty will be Brevity Special Projects Editor Sarah Einstein and Richard Hoffman, and every participant will workshop with both of them. We’re thrilled to welcome them both!

This will be Iota’s third summer. The following is a reflection on the experience of teaching at Iota by Sven Birkerts, a faculty member from the conference’s first year:

I was invited to be an instructor at the very first staging of Iota, Short Prose Conference, which was held late in the summer of 2013 on Campobello Island off the northern coast of Maine. For once it was easy to tell people where I was headed: to the easternmost point of the continental United States. That struck an original note. As did the conference, start to finish.

Sven-for-Brevity

Sven Birkerts at Iota

I love the early days of things, the premieres, trial outings—love that improvisatory freedom of action before things crystallize, as they invariably do, into ‘this is how we do things.’ Small by design, it had the energy of first formations. Here were seventeen students and three faculty, gathering for the first time in a grand lodge. The first night we dispersed ourselves about the big room, the windows giving onto a prospect of tall pines and distant ocean. There were introductions, instructions, the usual business of first nights everywhere. But I also felt the almost immediate emergence of a distinct group spirit, which I can assure you is not the usual business. This had much to do with Conference Director Penny Guisinger and her associates at the Cobscook Community Learning Center, who between them had found exactly the right note. How to describe it? Expectant yet relaxed, exuding an improvisatory confidence. Which proved to be justified. Penny had brought together a diverse group of students and instructors who wanted nothing more than to talk about books and writing.

This came clear the next day as we dispersed to our various workshop locations, none without some view of pointed firs or distant water. The sizes were right, and—certainly in my case—the interactions were right away both lively and exploratory. Getting down to business, exchanging manuscripts, we knew that we were inventing much of the business as we went along. How like writing! The balance of activities was also smartly considered. Workshop time, writing time, down time, and in the evenings after dinner a wonderfully varied set of offerings: readings by instructors one night, students another, with musical guests bringing something original and briny into the mix.

Another of the day’s activities, one of the best,  was a late-morning to-and-fro in the big room—instructors informally conversing about various craft-related topics and then students joining in with their own thoughts, questions and war-stories. Again, that sense of converging intensities.

I know enough about these kinds of events to know that success is not guaranteed, that it depends on the coming together of innumerable factors—from personalities to organization to leadership. Planning takes you only so far and then the inner life of the thing asserts itself. Or–where things are too programmed, too this or too that– doesn’t. Here it did with great energy, humor and grace, and for this I thank the enthusiasm and fresh directorial instincts of Penny, who knew when to say “let’s try that again,” and “that was amazing!” and when to just break it all up and start laughing. Serious or antic, underneath it all we felt her literary devotion; we knew that this undertaking was the product of literary passion, not some market calculation. She was right there with us, arguing her views, reading her work, and making us feel like we were taking part in something really good. Which we were. The conference was engaged and purposeful, offering a craft-savvy jump-start to those who needed it and an invigorating tune-up for those whose engines were already running.

 If you want a long weekend to work on your short forms, join us!

(Oh, and there’s always lobster. And Peruvian chocolates. Just sayin’.)

For more information, contact Penny at: iota@cclc.me .

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Sven Birkerts is the author of nine books and has been editor of AGNI since July 2002. He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. He has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book ReviewThe New RepublicEsquireThe Washington PostThe Atlantic, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, and Mt. Holyoke College, and is director of the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars.

Why Don’t We Essay in the Road?

June 2, 2014 § 3 Comments

Jill Talbot discusses the ideas behind the upcoming special “road” issue of Sundog Lit, featuring “creative nonfiction and other works that blend genre, that bend and experiment, that rumble down new roads.” July 1 deadline. Full submission guidelines can be found at the end of the interview.

  1. What inspired the theme for this issue, (Letters from) the Road?

easyWhen Justin L. Daugherty, the editor of Sundog Lit, announced that Brian Oliu would guest edit the first theme issue, Games,  I e-mailed Justin to ask if I might guest edit at some point, and in keeping with the one-word theme, I suggested Roads.

I write overwhelmingly about the road and connect with essays that do.  It would appear your editors do as well. Roxane Gay’s “There Are Distances Between Us,” Brenda Miller’s “Swerve,” Bob Cowser Jr.’s “By A Song,” B.J. Hollars’s “On the Occurrence of March, 20, 1981 and on the Occurrences of Every Night After,” Sven Birket’s “anti-road” essay, “Green Light,” Sean Prentiss’s “Tonight (the Big Dipper, You Leaving,” Steven Church’s “Overpass Into Fog,” and my own, “Stranded,”  all appeared in Brevity.

Every chance I had in graduate school, I got on 84 west out of Lubbock. Yet the moment I discovered I was drawn to roads in literature happened while reading a road scene in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, and if you’ve read that novel, you know it’s a road of destruction and drunkenness. Desperation.

In fact, the tag line on the Easy Rider film poster in 1969 read: “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.”   And Steinbeck, in Travels with Charley: In Search of America, declares, “I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found,” as he acquires the Wolfean knowledge that You Can’t Go Home Again.

I like the way the road can be the catalyst for self-inquiry, how William Least Heat-Moon in Blue Highways discovers: “I had learned what I had wanted to know because I hadn’t known what I wanted to know. But I did learn what I didn’t know I wanted to know.”

Road narratives are imbued with a search for what may not be found.  They’re a desire not to leave, but to leave something behind.  And because it’s a genre derived from the Western, a chord of violence or its threat trembles at least once within each narrative: Thelma and Louise. Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing (or The Road). Don DeLillo’s Americana.  More recently, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.  Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California.

But it’s not all threat and edge. It’s also contemplative, ruminative. And for Virginia Woolf, a haunting—“For if we could stand there where we stood six months ago, should we not be again as we were then?”—just one of the questions she poses in “Street Haunting: A London Adventure.”   The road narrative offers side roads we never intended, but find.  For this reason, it is essayistic.

I worried announcing the special Sundog Lit issue as simply “Roads” would invite either clichés or Kerouac imitations, and I’m invested in the ways in which writers modify, innovate, and deconstruct conventions (essay and road).  So I wondered, “What would imply a voice of distance, of then/now, here/there, Wolfean/Woolfean wisdom?” And then I had it:  “(Letters from).”

  1. Some people claim every essay is an experiment, given the root word assay, or “to try.”  So what, in the current state of the literary essay, makes an essay experimental?  

The essay foregrounds thought, what Phillip Lopate refers to as “an intuitive, groping path” which, paradoxically, is carefully crafted by the writer.  The essay is a sleight of hand.

So in that way, the experiment is the reader’s—we start reading, and we don’t know where we’re going, and we hope to be taken aback by what we find. What did Eric LeMay say on this blog not long ago?  Oh, yes:  “An essay, by its very nature, isn’t finished by an essayist; it’s finished by a reader.”

But I also think an essay is an experiment when it expands our thinking about the possibilities of the essay (form).  Dinah Lenney. Marissa Landrigan. Ander Monson. Always, always, Marcia Aldrich.

Jill Talbot

Jill Talbot

As to the experiment of the “(Letters from) the Road” issue: I’m seeking essays, first person fiction, prose poems, photographs, and digital work in order to usurp genre with mode and create an essayistic issue.

For example, one of my favorite journals is Smokelong Quarterly because each story takes essayistic turns.  Some examples:  Kevin Sampsell’s “True Identity,” Jeff Landon’s “Thirty-Nine Years of Carrie Wallace,” and Jennifer A. Howard’s “Amateur Trailmaking for $1600.”

I recently discovered Anders Carlson-Wee on a night when he read his poems to a hushed room, and I whispered out loud with awe: “Those are essays.”

So my aim for the issue is to expand and extend the idea of “essay” beyond the boundaries of genre.

  1. Which do you like better, Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” or the Beatles’ “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?”

I am more (“Whiskey River”) Willie than I ever will be Beatle, that’s for sure, but this is an excellent opportunity to highlight the tone of Sundog Lit, a journal that “publishes writing that scorches the earth.”

So if you’re not familiar with the “rusty-nail” writing Sundog Lit publishes, listen to Paul McCartney wail “Let’s Do It In the Road”—his voice a rage, a ruin, the last mile of a day-long, desert-heat drive.

FULL SUBMISSION GUIDELINES TO SUNDOG’S SPECIAL ROAD ISSUE.

The Self-Curiosity Memoir

June 4, 2013 § 3 Comments

magf09ft2eDebra Gwartney, author of Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love, has a valuable blog post up this week looking at “A Few Memoir Pitfalls.”  Good reading to remind ourselves, and particularly useful for those of us who teach:

Here’s an excerpt.  The full essay can be found here:

…The most skilled and engaging memoirists, to my way of reading, don’t dwell quite so much on what happened, but instead on the question that I feel is at the heart of memoir: why do I remember a particular episode (series of episodes) that way? Again, how is my version of the event (not the event itself) serving me and my sense of self?

What the reader doesn’t want, and can’t invest in, is a self-pitying narrator. The those bad people did this to good me mode of writing memoir gets tiresome in a hurry. “Don’t sue your reader for sympathy,” I once heard the great Phillip Lopate say.

Instead of self-pity, then, self-curiosity. Instead of a string of excuses, the memoirist does her best to set aside defensiveness before entering the past and examining it anew. As Sven Birkerts writes: “Now, then. Past, present. The sine qua non of memoir, with the past deepening and giving authority to the present, and the present (just by virtue of being invoked) creating the necessary depth of field for the persuasive idea of the past.”

Iota: the Conference of Short Prose

May 8, 2013 § 1 Comment

50021_lobster_lgOur friends at Iota sent us this notice, of interest to those who love the brief and flash:

The thinking goes like this: short forms are worthy of a long weekend. Iota, the newest of the New England conferences, has a unique little focus: short writing. Iota celebrates and inspires an economy of words in a largesse of place. We’ve recruited Sven Birkerts (essays), Arielle Greenberg (poetry and hybrid forms), and  Lewis Robinson (fiction) to spend four days working with participants on how to say more with fewer words. Write in the morning, then attend workshops and cross-genre discussions in the afternoon.

Iota takes place at the Roosevelt Campobello International Park, the former home of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt. Campobello Island is just across the narrows from Lubec, Maine, the easternmost town in the United States. So while you’re exploring the boundaries between prose and verse, you can explore the line between these two communities as well.

And…yes….there will be lobster.

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