Write a chaconne.
Try this fantastic poetry-in-scene writing prompt by Yona Harvey (inspired by the sistuh voice of Sonia Sanchez).
Rejection may begin with a tendril of resentment coiled inside a color. Glacial. The way some words carry the weight of what we fear saying. Distant. Detached. The way a word that gets overburdened becomes an object, a bough. An objectification. A false innocence that depends on diminishment of something external. She’s a bitch is the hoarseness voice of not saying I’m hurt. Refusing to own the emotion. The confusion of first-generation immigrants as a descriptive tag that denotes both non-naturalized citizens, refugees, and those born to immigrant parents in the US. The melting pot of identity hunger. Write a poem that makes use of words that enact rejection.
The most powerful ideologies are the invisible ones, the shirts we wear to breakfast. Write a prose poem that includes all the shirts you wear to breakfast—the assumptions, the unspoken hurts, the secret biases, the imperfections, the honest rot.
C. D. Wright: “I love the particular lexicons of particular occupations. The substrate of those activities. The nomenclatures within nomenclatures. I am of the unaccredited school that believes animals did not exist until Adam assigned them names. My relationship to the word is anything but scientific, it is a matter of faith on my part, that the word endows material substance, by setting the thing named apart from all else. Horse, then, unhorses what is not horse.” Write a poem that uses a “particular lexicon”. For example, see Heather McHugh’s poem, “Hackers Can Sidejack Cookies”.
Read Czeslaw Milosz’s “Conversations with Jeanne.” Notice how Milosz breaks the stanzas and makes use of patterned white space. Think about the effect of cutting that one line alone in the middle of the poem. Now think of friends or family with whom you maintain an ongoing disagreement about a specific ethical question (maybe divorce, abortion, end of life, etc.). Write a poem addressed to that person. Try to nurture the same level of distance that Milosz deploys in his titling of the poem as a “conversation.” As you write, think about the difference between a conversation and a dispute.
Write a poem about the afterlife of an object. For example, “The Afterlife of Sunscreen” or “The Afterlife of Pink Cocktail Umbrella.”
Read Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s favorite poem by Gwendolyn Brooks and use his prompt to angle into a sonnet. So much gorgeousness here.
Read Alice Walker’s “S M”. Then write a poem in response to it. Or write a poem in tandem with it. Or write a poem that bystanders it.
Bernadette Mayer: “Using phrases relating to one subject or idea, write about another (this is pushing metaphor and simile as far as you can), for example, steal science terms or philosophical language & write about snow or boredom.”
Write a poem about an awkward moment, but do so lightly, with the loosest touch, with a special attempt to apply Paul Celan’s attention to breath.
Tod Marshall has a poem titled “Describe Custody to an Omelet.” Following Marshall’s lead, write a poem in which you describe an abstraction to a noun.
Read Naomi Shabib Nye’s “Famous.” Notice how the poem is structured around the definition and circling of the title word. Write a poem that turns on the reframing of a certain word. Use that word as the title.
Experiment with poetic sub-genres using this prompt by Eric Pankey, inspired by W.S. Merwin.
The Line Break.: Play Etymological Rotisserie. First go back in time & find an Indo-European root word. (They are all in the back of the American Heritage Dictionary). List all its derivative words, & then try to get all those words into one poem. For instance, kailo-, which means “whole, uninjured, of good omen.” Its derivatives (words that came from it) are: whole, hale (as in “free from infirmity or illness”), wholesome, hail (as in “to salute or greet”), wassail, health, heal, holy, halibut, halidom, holiday, hollyhock, hallow, Allhallowmass, & Halloween.
Write a poem immersed in place with help from this prompt by Susan Tichy.
C.D. Wright once wrote: “It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside of us that would be free and declare them so.” Find your zones. Explore them on the page. Don’t be surprised if you discover that it was you who authored the zoning restrictions. Write why. Reveal the barbed wire.
Read these three prose poems by Beth Bachmann. Think about the lack of punctuation. Consider the syntax. Use Bachmann’s technique as a scaffold or model to experiment with sparse form.
In “The Poetics of Disobedience”, Alice Notley writes: I've spoken in other places of the problems, too, of subjects that hadn't been broached much in poetry and of how it seemed one had to disobey the past and the practices of literary males in order to talk about what was going on most literarily around one, the pregnant body, and babies for example. There were no babies in poetry then. How could that have been? What are we leaving out now? Usually what's exactly in front of the eyes ears nose and mouth, in front of the mind, but it seems as if one must disobey everyone else in order to see at all. This is a persistent feeling in a poet but staying alert to all the ways one is coerced into denying experience, sense and reason is a huge task.” Find an “old poem” and rewrite it with a baby in it. Give credit to the original author.
Write into this quote from Clarice Lispector: “What is the weight of light?”
Invent places and institutions to populate a poem. Or to place it. The Room Where She Left Me. The Ferris wheel That Ate Children. The Shittiest Fair. Or David Berman’s “Bureau of Sad Endings”.
Read Anthony Hecht’s “Double Sonnet”. Mess around with the double sonnet form until you find a way to bend the notes just right. Listen to Lightning Hopkins as you write it.
Study Laynie Brown’s fascinating “Epigraphs”. Be fascinated. Write your own version in this form.
Now write a poem for each epigraph in previous exercise. But make sure the last line of each epigraph poem becomes the first line of the next one so that something like a sonnet corona conceit enters the picture.
Think about the tweet from Todd Kanecko at the top… and write or journal into it. Collect a few bones. Make them dance.
Because music and poetry mine the same vein in me.
Wipe That Smile Off Your Aphasia
by Haryette Mullen
as horses as for
as purple as we go
as heartbeat as if
as silverware as it were
as onion as I can
as cherries as feared
as combustion as want
as dog collar as expected
as oboes as anyone
as umbrella as catch can
as penmanship as it gets
as narcosis as could be
as hit parade as all that
as ice box as far as I know
as fax machine as one can imagine
as cyclones as hoped
as dictionary as you like
as shadow as promised
as drinking fountain as well
as grassfire as myself
as mirror as is
as never as this
(Poem source: Contemporary Poetry)
I remember the jolt of gratitude—the thrill of knowing a difficult female voice had found a home outside the perfect-mommy publishing industry. Robin’s validation encouraged me to keep writing in that raw, minor key that wound into Every Mask I Tried On.
When the print collection of Minola Review showed up in my mailbox, I sat down and literally snuggled it. Count me among the horrified, anti-cool-girl cotillion. Count me among the women who wanted to rip every seam in the garment fashioned to sell cool-girlness to a consumer society of desperate, hungry women groomed for the male gaze.
Cool Girl Writing Prompt
This prompt is simple. Read the excerpt from Robin’s introduction to the anthology (see image). Read the excerpt that defines Flynn’s “cool girl”. Then write into or about a space in which you (or someone you love) enacted her cool-girlness. Don’t write about someone you hate or resent—that’s too easy, too gratuitous, too invulnerable. Look in the mirror. Now tell us what you’ve done.
A few of the prose pieces I can’t get out of my head…
“Lullaby” by T. Kira Madden
“When My Father Left My Mother” by Meghan Rose Allen
“This Is Not a Short Story” by Jill Talbot
“Memory Palace” by J. A. Pak
“Runny Young Folks” by Mariah Stovall
“Acting Womanish” by Gay Pasley
“Liber Monstrorum” by Sara Patterson
“The Many Sick Mothers of My Heart” by Margeaux Feldman
“All memories start with a bird slamming into a window which is an omen” by Sara Patterson
“Perform” by Marianne Apostolides
And the poems that haunt me….
“First Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” by Caitlin Cowan
“Teeth Marks” by Laura Page
“Palm Trees, Post-Rape” by Cade Leebron
“A Scene From Proper Spite” by Leah Umansky
“déjà voodoo” by Adebe DeRango-Adem
“White Paper Birds” by Shannon Bramer
“Were I To Prepare For Your Death” by Shannon Hardwick
“Claude Thornhill Arrangement” by Lauren Hilger
“The Actor” by Nicole Brooks
“[if not for the space between]” by Madeleine Wattenberg
“The Out of Bread Poem” by Emily Schultz
“Self-Portrait As a Pink Dressing Room” by Jenna Clarke
“Cool Enough to Sink a Ship” by Claire Kelly
“Diacritics” by Emily Osborne
“This Is Not An Epistrophe But An Epistrophe Without An ‘E’” by Tanya Singh
“Maidenwifemother Maiden” by Kate Finegan
Read Minola Review.
Purchase the print anthology.
Donate to help keep the journal alive.
Chase it on twitter.
Support writers and editors who demand a space in which women hold hands and perform for each other rather than the usual, male-dominated script.
And follow Robin Richardson to learn more about the amazing ways in which she writes and rocks the poetry world.
A chaconne is a composition in a series of varying sections in slow triple time, typically over a short repeated bass theme.
"On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind."
- Brahms on Bach's Chaconne in D-Minor For Left Hand in letter to Clara Schumann, 1877
Chaconne for My Lover’s Hands
Regret I wore raw
a silk dress, poured to follow
each fold & slouch of peridot flesh
that met the suede
touch of fingertips
nails nibbled down to nub
the unexpected flange
of a lover’s hands
conspiring to caress
or to crowbar me open
like neon, the unsettled buzz
of lust for ravish holds tempo
Terror I wore raw
into rooms without windows
the beauty of barbarism
being all ways it could have been
nothing binds us
to what is brutal
but a choice
lust for ravish shears
the safe silhouette, the story of luggage
packed to leave him
of affections past
unsecured from a boat
useless life rafts
Regret I wore nothing
swore the image
of his hands on my hips
would not stab me
like the dry stems of flowers
tucked into boxes, the death of over-admired
objects hurts to touch
or be touched
by such familiar thunder
when rain bruises us with kisses
because it must
let us rust
into lust for ravish
or what rushes me into chapels
where Joan of Arc once knelt
in a village named after a flea
and the itch of this hairshirt
is just longing
The Warm-Up Routine: I listened to this chaconne and picked three words that kept whispering somehow from the melody and particular measures. Then I wrote into those words and their associations. I do things like this every day as exercises to loosen images and clumped thoughts before getting started on writing. For the most part, I don’t keep or use or even revisit these many warm-up poemings (my notebooks are full of them), but I appreciate when other poets share their practice routines so I thought I’d share mine from yesterday. Which started with googling Trifonov performances and then discovering this fascinating thing called a chaconne, and then using it as a bridge into my warm-up exercise.
My dad made these video on film reels before defecting from Romania the following year. My parents left me in the care of the my grandparents, who also kept film reels safe.
The day before they ran, my parents invited family over for dinner and told them they were leaving early in the morning. There are no words for the fear they left on their loved ones’ faces. And no words for the fear they carried over borders when leaving their baby behind.
Maria Tanase remains.
I need to talk about words, the ruse of them, the huff and whiff, the bracket.
How words use me as they resist being used, as they scale a wall and seep beneath a window to ruin a room, to sketch fangs on the whispers encircling a bed.
The fear of words,
And how they hurt us. How a connotation can inflame a room, claim ownership of a womb. The difference between a baby and a fetus is how we feel when it’s said. How we choose the word to use based on what we want from it.
The wrong word.
“A word is chosen and put into position, for particular effect. It is tantamount to hauling a big rock, carrying it a great distance, and setting it down, only to realize it should not be occupying that spot in this circumstance. It is dead on arrival although you barely have the reserves to move it again. But if not moved, and best before darkness spreads, it will create a hole commensurate with its heft, and it will encroach on the tender shoots of words nearby.”
Words that enact rejection
May begin with a tendril of resentment coiled inside a color. Glacial. The way some words carry the weight of what we fear saying. Distant. Detached. The way a word that gets overburdened becomes an object, a bough. An objectification. A false innocence that depends on diminishment of something external. She’s a bitch is the hoarseness voice of not saying I’m hurt. Refusing to own the emotion.
The confusion of first-generation immigrants as a descriptive tag that denotes both non-naturalized citizens, refugees, and those born to immigrant parents in the US. The melting pot of identity hunger.
The most powerful ideologies are the invisible ones. The shirts we wear to breakfast.
C. D. Wright: “I love the particular lexicons of particular occupations. The substrate of those activities. The nomenclatures within nomenclatures. I am of the unaccredited school that believes animals did not exist until Adam assigned them names. My relationship to the word is anything but scientific, it is a matter of faith on my part, that the word endows material substance, by setting the thing named apart from all else. Horse, then, unhorses what is not horse.”
Sailing words. Firefighter lingo. Administrative technology. Nonprofit development reports.
I think of Heather McHugh’s poem, “Hackers Can Sidejack Cookies”
What C. D. Wright calls the words some poets inhabit so completely that one rarely reads them without feeling those words near. She says W.S. Merwin uses rain. Cole Swenson uses hand. Robert Creeley uses here.
The way we wear a word into a poem as an introduction, a handshake that establishes how what we make of space in a room.
My signature words feel cheap, overly abstract. Maybe longing,
Words that assume gestures.
Imagine Salome. Who would be nothing if not for the willingness to fan desire’s flame. Whose name comes from peace. Whose use of the body is both plot and characterization. Her words are simply the motion of seduction, the quick slip of a hip when it owns the horizon, the pitch of lust when it narrows the gaze.
Dance for me.
Rae Armantrout: "a silence that was a gesture". That must be a gesture in a world lacking natural silence. The estrangement of silence and our relation to it in consumer culture enfused with "ghostly messages from television, radio, billboards, etc..... a noise which requires no response so it may be received subliminally."
Rae thinks the impulse to respond remains.
"Words no longer come from silence, but directly from other words" in an ongoing dialogue with commercial culture and the terms set by connotation. Silence may "mark the legitimate bounds of certainty."
Single syllable words
“I like that a lone syllable names a necessary thing: bridge, house, door, food, bed. And the ones that sustain us: dirt, milk, and so on. What a thing, that a syllable—birth, time, space, death—points to the major mysteries with such simplicity, as with a silent finger.” (C. D. Wright)
“The difficulty is what happens in that instant between the moment before you even begin and the moment once you’ve begun, into which is inserted every vague notion you may have about what writing is, how it is done, who does it, and every conceivable fantasy you might harbor about being a poet or a novelist. Before you begin, the blank page or screen is in front of you, absolutely free of any irrevocable marks, literally virgin territory. Once you begin, however, you instantaneously discover yourself burdened with thousands of ghosts and beliefs about what writing is. It’s like trying to swim with a team of elephants on your back. The opportunities for drowning are immense.” (Ron Silliman)
C. D. Wright, “In a Word, A World,” Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics, Issue 1, January 11.
Danielle Vogel, "Letters for Renee Gladman’s The Ravickians: an ekphrastic companion", Evening Will Come, Issue 23, November 2012
Ron Silliman, “Unlearning to Write”, Poetry, 15 April 2014.
I was raised in a state that taught me to sing its praises—to strive for its debutante corsets and bend my body to worship its purist ideals.
I was raised in a state that made it clear from the start how my being “foreign” kept me from being able to contribute to discussions that mattered. Starting with history and ending with culture.
I was raised to pledge allegiance to flags, to football teams, to men who mastered the fine art of killing foreign bodies in countries we never learned to pronounce.
As I grew older, I met more progressive-minded Alabamians that encouraged me to think outside the please-accept-me immigrant box.
I relished the moments of safety inside nice, liberal bubbles that made the majority of my state’s citizens feel so far away—and harmless.
When I became a naturalized citizen, I began the long journey of loving a country without making excuses for its crimes and cruelty.
I learned to stop defending the indefensible.
I know the history that prides itself on excluding me is also the history for which I am responsible.
I know the price of not being likable and not playing “the game” is exclusion from polite circles where power is concentrated. This is true for any leftist, anti-imperialist female in the south.
This is how the stakes are drawn.
This is how we line up to angle for influence.
This is how we commodify dissent into “acceptable” forms that keep others feeling comfortable.
To the friends who condemn me for staying here, you talk a good game of privilege that assumes I’d abandon other women to the mess in which I (as a voting, tax-paying citizen) am complicit.
To the friends who tell me to go back to where I came from, I’m sorry my poster upsets you but I’m not here to offer peace of mind that my silence or disappearance would give you.
To the friends who want me to say Alabama is just like the rest of the country, I can’t do that without selling out countless of humans who live in the gagged regimen of polite southern silence where we go along to get along. Which is what makes all of this injustice possible.
Should I critique the deep misogyny of southern life in a way that makes it seem like only elected officials are responsible?
Should I make it easy to say the gregarious mega-churches are innocent?
Should I pretend that so many people I love don’t support Trump in this state—and don’t support misogyny so deeply that we barely avoided voting a child rapist into office?
Why do you get to decide what Alabama means for me?
What about your life, body, or career enables you to be the expert on my experience?
And isn’t that the point, finally? My job. My role as good immigrant and southern girl. My commitment in the effort to maintain a cherished ideal of southern life that is warm and welcoming and hospitable and no more racist or xenophobic or self-destructive than states where the majority votes against xenophobia, racism, and misogyny.
I’ve spoken about this before. I will speak about it again. As an American. As an Alabamian. As a woman. As a citizen of this warming planet.
I will hold my state accountable for lies we are asked to live. Daily. Constantly. Without mercy or reprieve.
My voice is NOT the problem. My criticisms of patriarchal life in the south are NOT the problem. The problem is a system so deeply rooted in allegiance and loyalty that even my liberal friends find themselves invested in its appearance.
As for those whose experience in the south is different from mine, believe me when I say that I am glad. This is a place where everyone should feel welcome and seen. This is a state with room enough for all kinds of humans beings with varying hopes and dreams.
If I didn’t believe goodness was possible, I wouldn’t fight to expose the seams where cruelty dwells, and nests, and breeds.
Gladness aside, I hope that we all hold our government and communities accountable for the laws and the culture that punishes humans for their birth.
I hope that our energies are focused not on rescuing the mythologies of “a good south” or a “liberal south” but on dealing with the reality of a merciless south where the institutions of justice and social aid are as complicit in racist, sexist outcomes as the laws that keep them that way.
I stand in the Customs Line with “nothing to declare” on my lips.
Inside that “nothing,” however, is a struggle between the need to belong and the need to tell the truth.
I hope you find it in your hearts to forgive me.
An activist broke her heart. The girl whose heart broke was not a feminist. She stayed away from politics and male-dominated tropes.
When asked to describe herself in a freshman essay, Heartbroke used the word traditional three times. Listed dreams that involved a good husband, a beloved wife, a safe suburban family likely situated in the suburbs of a thriving southern metropolis. She has pastel tshirts and bumper stickers and a B- minus in freshman composition to prove it.
Heartbroke can't help thinking her embrace of femininity has been held against her. As if any living human should sacrifice their dreams to a frat boy that bought her a drink at the Row Row Row Your Kappa Alpha Boat party.
And then left her in alley behind a warehouse.
On a street she didn’t recognize.
In the sprawl of a boy whose name she didn’t know.
Who isn't in the right frame of mind to be anyone’s loving Daddy.
She thinks the very nice church-lady understands. The church-lady promises that we are all sinners.
The church-lady clutches her hand and presses it to her chest while swearing that we are all sinners. There is no need for shame. Things happen. Satan attacks a man's mind and forces the man to attack a female.
Heartbroke carries tiny morsels of hope into this church. She becomes an official visitor. Her name appears on the prayer list. During prayers, she tongues the word sanctuary like a lozenge.
When Heartbroke gets distracted from the sermon, she imagines being saved, maybe marrying the blue-eyed fellow that places checks into the silver tray.
A few guys in a nearby pew turn their heads from her bloated belly.
Rode hard and put up wet, she hears one guy whisper.
She can't erase the tandem drum-whirr of snickers.
She can’t stop wondering if she is. Or what she is. And who made her that way.
Heartbroke wonders how much more they will ride her to please a man they don’t know. She knows that to please any man requires effort and dedication.
How many more months of being ridden, and then—into motherhood, forever?
Near the restroom, Heartbroke sees the poster. It says no body is innocent. Not since that girl in the garden. No girl gets blamed without a cause. No man escapes losing his mind to lust every so often. The culture warns us. The man takes the fruit. The woman offered.
When she sees the kind church-lady at the clinic waving a sign, Heartbroke’s feet freeze into icicles or stalagmites or whatever those things that grow in caves up from the ground due to a single drip drip drip.
Has the church-lady seen her? Did the church-lady get her name from a list and then invite her to the church? Did the church lady hug her and introduce her to her husband, three sons, and single daughter for a reason that wasn’t casual?
“Emma!” The church lady shouts in a wrung-clean voice. “Jesus loves you! Don’t murder his baby!
A man to the left calls her “Jezebel”, his tongue forking into a hiss.
She thinks when a girl is pregnant her name must not matter. She is whatever a lousy fellow screams in a gravel parking lot.
She thinks about how the activist said her job was saving lives. There was money in saving lives. The activist received a paycheck for bringing God’s love into the world.
She thinks the lives saved by the activist do not include her own.
Child of Satan.
She forgives the rapist, a nice middle-class boy, driven by the sudden urge to have her. She remembers how his eyes gleamed when she cried, when she said it hurts. He liked it. She forgives him for the terror. But she will never forgive the activist who breaks her heart. She will never forgive the woman who knew her name in that clinic parking lot and said nothing, nothing, nothing.
I have this quote from James. J. Gibson running through my brain, namely: “Events are perceivable but time is not.” Meaning we can only perceive time when something happens—our experience of time is event-dependent. And the way I feel the breath of AWP is both dizzying and terrifying. I am grateful, afraid, and absolutely small in the face of all this.
Or really, writing prompt from a poem you can’t stop reading, loving, admiring, and needing to engage. I’ve been challenging myself to write a poem in response to a poem that haunts me. It’s a challenge that frames my morning and ruins my placid coffee-guzzling routine.
I learn so much from the prompts and possibilities posted by fellow writers, so I’m going to share this Wait/Don’t Wait experiment in full knowledge that nothing I write in a morning compares with Galway Kinnell’s poems. This statement is both particular and general in its scope. This poem will never be submitted, published, collected, or read. It is a poem for the compost. It is critical to produce a steady stream of poems one is willing to bury. A poet’s task is to feed the flowers, which includes grinding old bones into soil.
Because I love Galway Kinnell’s “Wait”—from the way he touched depression to the way he wove a melody to free it. Kinnell wrote this poem for a student who wanted to die after a love relationship went wrong. Because it is one of my favorite poems and yet—I feel a hollow space in its promise, a sort of positivity that promises we will learn from the suffering of life. I’m not sure I believe this anymore. I’m not sure I need to believe this in order to love living—or to bear the implacable parts.
The Rub: Subvert Your Idol
Pick a poem that you adore, a poem by a famous poet, a poet you admire and emulate. You should have a fear of profaning their poems. This fear is important—it’s where the poem gets its energy.
Start by playing with the title, reading it, feeling its relationship to what the poet wants from the poem. Then subvert it. Flip it. And write into what happens.
(My example in response to Kinnell’s “Wait” is below.)
It’s worth watching the poet read this beautiful poem aloud—because watching adds layers to listening, and layers thicken the bed, broaden the available brushstrokes.
And what’s funny to me about this poem is I went in thinking I wanted to argue with Kinnell about whether we “recover” from broken hearts in the context of romantic love. As I wrote into the titular subversion, I discovered my mother—and how I needed to think about love and loss in general, how the intensity of love can attach to unromantic relationships, including parental ones.
The point of this post—the point of my daily subversions—is to schedule time for failure. To slot in a space where I write to fail, and then feel through that failure to new subjects. So I wrote the poem above (which is compost) and then discovered the poem I needed to write (which is not compost and not shared here but hopefully appears somewhere someday, ptuie ptuie).
In this way, writing “Don’t Wait” led me to a tension that I probe in a poem I do not plan to compost. But I’m not sure I would have resolved to write into the uncertainty of this space if I hadn’t first discovered its parameters through this writing exercise.
And that, friends, is the risk I need to bring to the page. Alongside the reminder that, if we are writing, then we are producing reams of nonsense alongside a few moonflower vines. And producing those reams is a good thing. A shameless thing. A facet of practice and commitment. Don’t wait.
I taught the most AMAZING group of writers this past weekend in an online weekend workshop hosted by Bending Genres. I really can’t recommend these humans enough—and I encourage fellow writers to look at Jonathan Cardew’s forthcoming workshop on character as well as Sara Lippman’s.
On that note—and partly as a bookmark for myself as I share and study prose poetry—these prose poems have influenced the permission I give myself in understanding (and bending) the form.
"32 Views from the Hammock" by Lance Larsen (Kenyon Review): for list poem
3 prose poems by David Shumate (Mad Dog Blues blog)
""by Yoel Hoffman (Tikkun)
"A Land Governed By Unkindness Reaps No Kindness" by Terrance Hayes (McSweeney's)
"Among the Prophets" by Essy Stone (New Yorker): for language
"Childhood" by Brenda Hillman (Kenyon Review Online): for an "essay in rhyme"
"from Curriculum Vitae" by Yoel Hoffman (Poetry)
"Describe the Situation in Specific Detail" by Emma Bolden (So To Speak): for great use of conceit
"Domestic" by Jenn Givhan (Adroit Journal): for interesting use of white space
"Eventide" by Ray Rasmussen (OJAL): for an example of the haibun form
"Final For" by Ron Silliman (Double Room): for example of long prose poem that inches close to flash
"He Said Discipline Is the Highest Form of Love" by Beckian Fritz Goldberg (Blackbird)
"How to Sit In A Cafe" by David Shumate. From High Water Mark (University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 2004). A prose instruction poem that uses directions to describe feelings in a backward manner-- what you wear when you feel X, how you look, etc.
"In A Sunday Kitchen" by Dina Relles (Pidgeonholes)
"Information" by David Ignatow (New Yorker): for factoid prose poems
“Instructions for Banishment” by John Sibley Williams (Figure 1)
“Minotaur // Dylan Roof” by John Sibley Williams (Figure 1)
"Past Immaculate" by Beckian Fritz Goldberg (Blackbird)
"Prayer for What I Do Not Want" by Amorak Huey (Third Point Press)
“Repast and future” by Bob Hicok (Blip Magazine)
"Stereo" by Ann Waldman (Poetry): for use of parataxis
"Subtraction" by Maxine Chernoff (KYSO Flash)
"Teaching A Child the Art of Confession" by David Shumate. From High Water Mark (University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 2004). A prose instruction poem that starts with what not to do and frames it in the negative admonitive voice.
"The Drag Queen Inside Me" by Denise Duhamel (Web del Sol)
"The Fire Cycle" by Zachary Schomberg (Poetry)
"the other word for thesaurus" by Maurice Kilwein Guevara (Guide to Prose Poetry, Rose Metal Press.)
"The Problem with Sappho" by Charles Rafferty (New Yorker)
"The Sound" by Maxine Chernoff (Jacket):for a dialogue between lovers about the sound of an orgasm
"The Tale-less Hoffman" by James Wallenstein (Tikkun)
"from Whereas" by Layli Long Solider (Poetry): for its amazing and innovative form and the spell it casts
"Year of the Dig" by Danielle Mitchell (Cease, Cows): for use of the aleatory voice in prose poems
A few years ago, Mount Analogue (a small press in Seattle) ran a submissions call for political pamphlets. My brain was one big list of events, marches, protests, direct actions, and possible pamphlets. I was thrilled when MA decided to publish this precious little fellow named dicktat (which you can download for free below).
The title was a word that came to mind which described the Trump POTUS scenario, namely the etat of dick. Or the dick-state. Or the dicktatertot.
I’m grateful to Mount Analogue and Paper Press Punch for producing political pamphlets in a historical tradition that reaches into what is best about the printing press, namely, its use as a engine for dissent. And I’d love to learn more about how to support these efforts locally in Birmingham, Alabama.
For more from Mount Analogue, see their Instagram at @themountanalogue.
In response to a poem that unsettled me.
Yesterday, I kept quiet
as a mouse inched
careful pink claws across
our kitchen floor.
I did not speak
or say Grand Canyon things
that forced doors open
into postcards. I left
gluttons of the grotesque
to the business of making noise,
And as the mouse came so close
to my toe, I did not lay
her small wonder at the hem
of a G-d or a nation.
Instead, I watched the fur
on her flanks pulse fast.
And sped my breath
to meet the terror
of the tiniest.
The quote above comes from one of my favorite writer self-soothing blankets, namely, “Outlaw Heart” by Jayne Anne Phillips. I’m starting there because it cleans the room and returns me to the self who values writing more than having a clean house.
Since I’ve been working on a large batch of CNF lately—and Phillips is so helpful in that space of fear and concern— I thought I’d share other essays and resources that I’ve found to be helpful.
Starting with notebooks. And why to keep them.
Annie Dillard, “Write Till You Drop” (New York Times)
Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook” (PDF)
Susan Sontag, “On Style” (PDF)
Moving into structure and forms—how to fashion the best vehicle for the piece.
Ander Monson, “The Designed Essay: Design As Essay” (PDF)
Donald Barthelme, “Not Knowing” (PDF)
E. v. de Cleyre,” Morphology of the Essay” (Ploughshares blog)
E. v. de Cleyre, “Begin Again: On Essays in Nonfiction” (Ploughshares blog)
Erika Anderson, “I Craft, Therefore I Am: Creating a Persona Through Syntax and Style” (Hunger Mountain)
Jennifer Gravley, “White Space: An Annotation” (Brevity)
John Proctor, “7 Things I Learned From Reading 15 List Essays” (Numero Cinq)
Krys Malcolm Belk, “On ‘First Seen in Print in 1987, According to Merriam Webster’” (Black Warrior Review)
Linnie Green, “In the Mines: A Craft Essay on Creative Nonfiction” (Cleaver Magazine)
Q. Lindsey Barrett, “7 Ways to Seduce Your Reader” (Hunger Mountain)
Then voice and various voice-related techniques..
Gwendolyn Edward, “Beyond Perhapsing: “Split-Toning Techniques for Speculation in Nonfiction” (Brevity)
Jonathan Lethem, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism” (Harper’s)
Karen Sabine, “8 Variations on the Idea of a Sentence” (Brevity)
Kurt Vonnegut, “How to Write With Style” (PDF)
Lisa Knopp, “Perhapsing: The Use of Speculation in Creative Nonfiction” (Brevity)
Michael Downs, “Me, Myself, I: Idiosyncrasy and Structure in Nonfiction” (Triquarterly)
Michael Noll, “Apply the (Perhaps) Most Famous Fiction Exercise of All Times to Your Essays”(Brevity Nonfiction Blog)
Phillip Lopate, “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story” (The Fourth Genre)
Robert Vivian, “The Essay As An Open Field” (Numero Cinq)
Susan Hall, “Now and Then: The Binary Dimension of the Authorial Voice in Memoir” (Numero Cinq)
Finally, ways to bring yourself to the page without losing it. The complex tangles of saying what you mean without promising you will mean it forever.
In writing witness, how to convey trauma without creating a spectacle? To present violence without repugnance or reaction? What do we owe the reader? How is this balanced against what we owe ourselves and loved ones?
Ele Pawelski, “Found in Translation: How My Memoir of Life Overseas Turned Into a Novella” (Cleaver)
Francine Prose and Leslie Jamison, “Is It OK to Mine Real Relationships for Literary Material?” (New York Times)
Gina Iron, “Writing First-Personal Journalism About Trauma” (Hunger Mountain)
Joan Didion, “Why I Write”
Laura Rose-Russell, “There’s a Reason They Call it Show AND Tell: How to Reveal Thoughts, Emotions, and Motivations Without Sentimentality” (Numero Cinq)
Leslie Lindsay, “Is Memoir Automatically Therapeutic? A Craft Essay on Writing About Mental Health” (Cleaver Magazine)
Liz Stephens, “Creative Lies I Tell My Nonfiction Students” (Cleaver Magazine)
Meghan Culhaine Galbraith, “Child’s Play: How Creative Play Helped Unlock My Nonfiction Writing” (Cleaver Magazine)
Nina Puro, “Mary Karr Names Names” (The Fix)
Pam Houston, “Corn Maze” (Hunger Mountain)
Sherry Simpson, “Tiny Masters: An Artful Trick to Writing Personal Essays” (Brevity: The Craft Blog)
And a few good essays to read when you need inspiration:
Andrea Jarrell, “A Measure of Desire” (New York Times)
Beverly Donofrio, “Meanness” (Brevity)
Cheryl Strayed, “Write Like a Motherfucker” (The Rumpus)
George Orwell, “Why I Write” (PDF)
Joy Williams, “Uncanny the Singing That Comes from Certain Husks” (PDF)
Melissa Febos, “Intrusions” (Tin House)
Michelle Zauner, “Crying in H Mart” (New Yorker)
Sandra Felice Robinson, “The B Side of Blackness” (Believer)
Some poems have topics that defy the usual forms. Elisabeth Weiss chose to turn her nine-part poem about memory and mental illness into a hybrid triptych form titled, appropriately, “The Anna Fragments”. I think this is a fabulous example of letting the subject find its form. The poem becomes a sort of historical dialogue between medical records, public opinion, private experience, and public health policy that situates it in American time and place. The ideological undertones of mental health policy are touched in a way that doesn’t demand resolution.
Weiss explains how the poem found its shape:
'The Anna Fragments' began as a nine-part poem. It deals with how my grandmother’s life was shaped by her times. I added the preface as sidebar commentary and then added further definitions and explanations to enlarge and expand her story. The text resembles a page of the Talmud, which is how learned rabbis argued texts across centuries. Last summer at the Millay Colony in Austerlitz, New York, I completed the narrative by extending it to women in the following two generations. The combination of research, poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction mirrors Anna’s schizophrenic world, but I also hope it gives voice, in many different ways, to a woman who was silenced.
Permitting wikipedia entries to speak to journal entries and old medical archives adds a circularity to this poem, an appropriate motion in narratives that remain elusive and surreal. By noting which records are absent (for example, records for Anna don’t exist from 1931 to 1936), the poet erases as she describes and depicts.
I really appreciate this form as a vehicle for depicting the erasure of a medicalized body, and the ways in which medical institutions replace individual personhood when it comes to narrative. The questions about agency and existence are left open for us to mull. There’s more to learn from Weiss at her website.
In “New Neighbors,” a creative nonfiction published in Subtropics, Ryan Ruff Smith uses footnotes to enrich the authorial perspective speaking from within a relationship.
Here’s footnote 4, for example:
4. David, the editor of Subtropics, suggested that perhaps I am being a bit too hard on myself here, in a way that is symptomatic of the very tendency to be hard on myself that I diagnosed earlier, and kindly suggested that I cut the words “from a blinkered perspective.” This was a shrewd suggestion, and I’ve retained the phrase only for the purposes of this footnote.
And footnote 5 undercuts the veracity of the narrative itself:
5. This business of the night terrors is the one detail I’ve made up. So perhaps it’s not so much that I wasn’t allowed a villain as that I couldn’t abide one. Where no explanation exists, you’re sometimes
obliged to invent one, and this rings true enough for me.
David Leavitt asks him why he decided to use footnotes in this way. I’m going to quote Ryan’s response in full just to give a sense of how an improvisational tactic winds up playing an interesting and provocative role in an essay:
Is it innovative? At any rate, I had fun with them. The first one I put in was based on a comment RL made on an early draft of the manuscript, responding to my assertion that we were both very particular (that is, fussy) by suggesting that perhaps one of us was more particular than the other. It seemed to capture something of our relationship—our shared sense of humor, the nature of our repartee—that I hadn’t been able to capture through dialogue, so I wanted to put that in there. I wasn’t sure footnotes were right for the piece, and I thought that I would probably cut them later, as soon as someone told me it was a dumb idea, but as I started adding more, I realized that it was a way of highlighting one of the things the essay was about—the idea of constructing narratives, of the truth as something that needs to be edited, revised, and qualified in order to get right. Now that I think of it, the sense of self that I come to terms with in the essay, and that I’ve been trying to describe here, is itself defined, in part, by being open to revision.
The way in which the footnotes challenge the authority of the narrator only makes the narrator more reliable to me. I footnote so many of my thoughts and assertions…and I appreciate the way Smith uses this as a device to acknowledge multiple leavings of meaning in service of truth in the essay.
Anxiety is the epidemic but belonging is the silent hunger.
A photo takes good notes.
See photos above, taken with an iPhone camera.
Jot things down in jpeg.
Assume the ordinary world is asking you to read it.
If you have contact with any supernatural worlds, assume they also wish to be read.
Sensuality lacks a moral compass. A lie can be sweet as stealing apple lollipops, licking them fast, burning down evidence. A wedding can be an example of bright pink peony living too far forward way too fast. A sawmill can be part of hand that shouldn’t be exposed until later. An ambulance siren can be as innocent and reckless as summer kids careening across a street.
It is easy to dehumanize a person in less than a page. When I’m writing difficult characters, I think of something James Baldwin said in an interview: “Perhaps the turning point in one’s life is realizing that to be treated like a victim is not necessarily to become one.” Writing about victimhood does not require a victim. Write your characters the way they would want to be written.
Sometimes you come to that point in a short story where you can’t resist anymore. I remember watching the Alabama Symphony Orchestra perform Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scherazade, Op. 35” from our favorite seats in the choral balcony. The Tale of Prince Calendar. The hands of the harpist like wings loosed in a meadow. Becoming a wave. The kids look at me, querulous, wondering if they can dance, if they can allow themselves to do what the music begs. I say no with my mouth. Firmly. But my body says yes, oh yes you have nothing left to lose.
Czeslaw Milosz: "A flaw: awareness of being a child inside; i.e., a naively emotional creature constantly endangered by the coarse laughter of the grown-ups."
The way adults wear their disenchantment like dresses, the way they lay it down like a wool rug in the center of the room. At some point I imagine it took the tiniest fingers to weave those intricate textures that scratch the cheek.
I lay on the wool rug alone. Like my mother before me. I know we have all come from the dreams of small children. I stretch my arms to make angel imprints and stitch wings to the leaves.
Joyce Carol Oates reflects on the lure of the grotesque, the charm of the vampire as evidence that evil can be as seductive as it is repulsive—that it can render us not just victims but accomplices in its destruction. There is a sense of horror or dread bound up in the grotesque, a sense of perversion in which we can feel how something good begins rotting.
”Extenuating Circumstances”, my favorite short fiction by Oates, is deeply grotesque—and propelled forward by the reader’s dread. One way Oates manages this is by refusing to use question marks at the end of questions. This adds to eeriness—the conclusion and answer have been set in stone by action.
The story is structured as a legal apologia, with first person narrator confessing why she killed her child, and addressing it to the father. Each paragraph proceeds from “Because…” starting with “Because it was a mercy. Because God even in His cruelty will sometimes grant mercy.” It is a perfect piece.
On my desk, a line from Leonard Michaels’ notebooks: “The opposite of mystery is pornography.”
And the opposite of eros is mechanics. Are you writing the optics or the inhabitation? Be thoughtful and deliberate in your choice.
It's always sad when a writer winds up writing mechanistic sex unintentionally.
Almost as sad as finding yourself in the middle of it.
Mona Simpson: “I think day-to-day life changes loves. It can’t stay high, if you know what I mean. Little frictions develop. Did you ever notice the way people married a long time don’t believe each other?”
Oh gold-mine of little frictions…..
Triangulation in poetry is a strategy where writing builds itself on question of winning or losing, attaching certain elements of suspense, moving back and forth between characters without creating connective tissue. The movement--and expectation of movement--is part of the emotional tone. An aspect of what it feels to inhabit that moment.
Lucretius: "Nothing appears as it should in a world where nothing is certain. The only certain thing is the existence of a secret violence that makes everything uncertain."
The writer stays up late palpating the body for scars.
Sometimes poetry and fiction and nonfiction and music blur together and I feel like I’m enacting a harm by trying to separate them. Or to find a space for them on the binary. Maybe honoring genre requires us to offer it a spectrum rather than a check-box.
When the inability to write unsettles me, I sink into something published by Wave Books. Often Mary Ruefle or Renee Gladman.
There’s this wonderful section in Calamities where Gladman remembers the back she took the night before: “…if I was no longer going to write, as I had begin to worry that I wouldn’t, then I should at least write about not writing. And was so struck by the idea that I rose from the tub, dripping, to jot it down, which I was now doing. I was writing down the idea ‘I no longer wish to write’ by writing down that I was writing it down. I wanted a threshold to open that would also be like a question, something that asked me about my living in such a way that I could finally understand it.”
For some reason, this helps me sit down to write.
Iris Murdoch: “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.” As writers, we work under constant threat of rejection and wreckage. I call it “wreckoning”, that sense that my writing will destroy all that I cherish and hold dear. And then there’s the human worry of failure—the fear of bad reviews, the friends who purchase but never mention the book, the way life goes on as if the book never happened, the fear of polluting intimate relationships by asking too much of one’s readers.
That feeling you’re missing something. What is the outlier? Where does the center not hold? After the short documentary film festival, we split a pitcher of cheap draft, talk about firefighting, Black Panthers, good rap, Talibans, Eastern plans, anything except the albino protagonist. A pitcher shared among Americans of every color still cannot ease the tension of race as we construct it. The box we build a box lacks a choice that acknowledges albinos.
To describe someone as “strange” is the greatest compliment in my arsenal of tiny love-tanks. Michael Martone is strange. I say this although I’ve only spoken to him twice (and very very briefly with kids tugging at my shirt). Martone knows how to estrange the ordinary—a superpower I covet.
Coveting is good.
I covet my neighbor’s wife (and every wife, for that matter, wives in general).
I also covet my the way my neighbor’s wife man-handles idioms.
My heart is dark with the pleasures of covetousness.
Things that drip into the writer’s mind while waiting in the carpool line. Egon Schiele's rendering of human bodies and empty cityspaces, the abandonment of realism in a world where reality is a form of propaganda. His unexpected, early death in the Spanish flu epidemic preceded by the death of his wife and child from same virus, the ravage of Bohemian Vienna but not yet Hitler. The writer lists her appends her influences to include: all interwar periods, all spans of time between one bomb and another, what bourgeois americans damn apart from themselves, conversations in 24-hour gyms, female bodies. She sits on the couch between Audre Lorde and Hannah Arendt with Schiele in her head. And Syria.
I spend most days waiting to write. I wait for the words like a character waits for her lover, the one whose voice carries the story.
Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding in order to please the guests. The writer turns water into wine to show how we are powerless in the face of temptation.
I write with loyalty to the things, places, and people I’ve loved. Not from nostalgia but out of respect to the mammal I was, the girl who loved them. I can love my husband and still write about loving an X because that girl is gone. Her disappearance should not be an excuse for erasure. I can love the girl while acknowledging the tree feels different. I’m talking about the sapling before the thickened trunk, the massive canopy, the curved hips of branches. I can’t discredit the yearning of the sapling while acknowledging myself as the tree. May these branches leave space for all the girls I’ve been, all the compost I’ve yet to be.
Sometimes it helps to follow Walker Percy’s suggestion and play the alien anthropologist to whom every gesture is a mystery and possible code. I park in the lot two streets down the mountain and watch my family move from window to window of supper. Preparations. A man and three kids crowding a bowl. Cozy if you can’t overhear the missing ingredients, the sugar lost to coffee.
In art, the bird’s eye view is one that foreshortens from above. Artist Egon Schiele made powerful use of the bird’s eye view to defamiliarize landscapes and towns. In his paintings and sketches, cities, streets, and trees are empty of human objects and flesh. The viewer is estranged from the view. The use of high, lofty viewpoints, fragmented motifs, simultaneous presentation of non-simultaneous states, depersonalization of motifs, and the effect of empty background deliberately removes us from the real and feel of it.
Sigmund Freud, 1915: "Our own death is indeed, unimaginable, and whenever we make the attempt to imagine it we can perceive that we really survive as spectators."
To survive towards death.
My death has been spectated one thousand ways now, all of them likely, all of them met with astonishment.
The first time you die is as surprising as the multiple others.
Turbulence on an airplane is a terrorist. The profanity of fear, its octane metal in the mouth, I am biting and biting the bullet. Bite down at take-off and then again when we land. I can't believe. I'm alive.
So many poems begin in astonishment at being alive.
But it would be silly to stop and grab my friend by the shoulders and shout “isn’t this unbelievable?”
It would be especially ridiculous to do this as often as the thought overtakes me.
The thing about paper is that always wants to know my astonishment.
Every scene needs the subtext of possible neon. I like to mull Steve Almond's critique of reality TV: It's about the careful construction of two central narratives: false actualization and authentic shame... it reflects our unrequited yearning for the authentic.
Americans are drowning in a cesspool of fake emotion, nearly all of it aimed at getting us to buy junk. — That’s either a great story or a boring sitcom.
More than fifty years ago, the Higgs field emerged as an omnipresent expanse of energy that explains why some theoretically-massless particles have mass. The boson was predicted to appear when a particle interacting with the Higgs field excites it. Since physicists could not directly observe the field itself, they looked to bosons for evidence of the field's existence. Nothing is finished.
Phenomenologically speaking, the swan has yet to dive and its white is soundless. I am fine. Not even wet. My ears ring with crickets and uninvited bullfrog events. A disjunct between two connected places— this grimy lake and the downtown four blocks away. One being the boson to a Higgs field that proves its existence but I am too lazy to discern which.
Again, this lake where most teens in my town get pregnant bears an invisible physical relationship the downtown clinic where they creep behind bodies to secure an abortion. To visit one is to feel potency of the other by implication.
To wake up in the morning, pack lunches, and thank the cosmos for Mary Gaitskill’s “The Agonized Face”.
This is an argument for the value of fascination. For the mundane and extravagant act of attention in shaping what the mind makes of the eye. Georgia O’Keefe was so fascinated by the evening star that she followed it into the wide sunset space in the desert. She said ten watercolors were made from that star. One star in the desert, holding her tight.
After George Sand's death, Ivan Turgenev wrote: “What a brave man she was, and what a good woman.”
There are so many stories in this, though not one leans into Hemingway’s “muscular writing.”
“Pain is not the only thing.” It’s not even the most interesting.
Susan Sontag, in her notebooks, 2/23/1970: “My idolatry: I’ve lusted after goodness. Wanting it here, now, absolutely, increasingly… I suspect now that lusting after the good isn’t what a good person really does.” Schopenhauer listed pain and boredom as the twin evils of life. What is the worst lust? What hunger lies beneath the heroin?
Grace Paley often reuses the same narrator. And begins in medias re. The power of her opening lines is such that it carries us straight through a story, straight into the scene, the kitchen, the room, the action of voices colliding, arguing, explaining. It is said that Paley stitched her stories together inch by inch, paragraph by paragraph, whenever time permitted. She also added scenes to stories that had been previously published, thus changing their tone and meaning. One can’t help feeling that Paley had a certain loyalty to these female characters—a loyalty so profound that she alienated readers or editors rather than the women in her kitchen. Each story is structured by rhythm of thought and conversation.
How fear of death—knowledge of it—cripples life.
A rock is not a pedestal but a possible murder weapon.
All things turn to their endings.
My mother’s fear of dying young and leaving us motherless. Like her mother left her by dying young. As if dying young is lifestyle choice.
The fear of losing family and safe ground—the fear that chased her to America, having nothing left to lose in her mother tongue. And nothing to gain except forgetting—that unique American freedom that sets up apart from history, apart from settled accounts.
At the local level, racial segregation was maintained by white women who wrote letters and lobbied local officials, censored textbooks, hosted essay contests for local schools, policed racial boundaries as administrators, and taught kids racial hierarchies that emphasized white over black as a natural order. No one forced them to do this.
You don’t have to force your characters to do things as long as you allow them to respond in a way appropriate to their socialization.
The alliance of white motherhood and white supremacist politics continues today. Iconic images of white supremacy privilege male images of violence, revenge, legislative power, or dominance. The assumption that women are maternal and progressive is a form of biological essentialism that blinds us to what women did then and what they do not. Think Roseanne, hen mother.
The “gardeners of white supremacy” tended Lost Cause mythologies, cotillions, fear of outsiders and United Nations, sowing the seeds of white supremacy for the future.
Some people will not be able to accept this truth unless they read it under the guise of “fiction.”
You can’t save the world but you write about a woman trying to save the world while destroying it.
Grace Paley, again. Her stories hinge on a pattern of exchange and response that is more spatially-demanding than linear. You don’t have the sense of going anywhere but you feel very alive. The events and changes are situated within a mysterious relational fluidity in which the outcome is hard to predict. What changes is not so much the character as the relational space between characters. The re-negotiations of intimate space after love, children, war, and dinner.
All writing is political. There is no way to write without touching socialization. Even an article about a high school football game is political in that it presumes the existence of human bodies playing by rules that harm them in the hopes of being seen. Or respected. Or given power. Or just loved.
Learn how to tilt tone.
The Oliners interviewed 72 German bystanders to arrive at a better understanding of their reasons for not acting or speaking out against the Holocaust. Most were characterized by “constrictedness, by an eye that perceived most of the world beyond its own boundaries as peripheral. More concerned with themselves and their own needs, they were less conscious of others and less concerned with them.” Only a small minority of bystanders were true ethno-centrists who didn’t like outsiders. Most bystanders were church-going Christians active in their faith communities.
Victoria J. Barnett called indifference “the leitmotif of the literature of the Holocaust.” The most common behavior we see during the Holocaust, whether by perpetrators, terrorized victims, or passive bystanders. Fatalism is its handmaiden.
From Teju Cole’s Open City: “Look, I know this type, she said, these young men who go around as if the world is an offense to them. It is dangerous. For people to feel that they alone have suffered, it is very dangerous…. If you live as long as I do, you will see that there is an endless variety of difficulties in the world… if you’re too loyal to your own suffering, you forget that others suffer too.”
To write from outside the outrage of personal suffering and into the vulnerability.
I can’t envy belonging—I’m too grateful for the perspective nonbelonging imposes on the lonely, left-out mind. To be outside the circles, disinvited, negligible—how else to witness the absurdity of group dynamics, the lies we tell in order to sneak into a stadium?
It would be easier if I could swaddle myself in cynicism or a knowing materialism. But I believe too much in beauty and passion—I’m too riveted by this life.
Humans change the meaning of words each day the sun rises a slightly different color. No liberalism stays fixed, no freedom is not another person’s encroachment. To call myself a “Democrat” is conservative, asserting a static construction of meaning to a category that cannot, by its nature, remain the same. What is my political position? I am firmly anti-totalitarian and anti-authoritarian, and this is grounded in a deep concern for human rights. As technology alters the nature of human rights, I can only commit to what I don’t believe we should tolerate. I can only commit to the “No.”
And what we want from Anne Frank is forgiveness, the cheap grace of hindsight, the blamelessness of looking back. An easy teleology which unites progressives and conservatives in their belief that history will not happen again.
I can’t agree.
I see no telos in life.
And I fight it in my short fiction.
I’m thinking love between brackets. Like it’s 2 am and still taking temperatures from the tongues of little mammals, the offspring of love getting sick, needing nurture. A story that demands foregrounding. Even kids become part of the stage set keeping lovers apart. And yet the memory of the face I fell involve with is edgy, dangerous, blurred as a police sketch. Jets bust open the sound barrier. Rain plinks into a metal plate in the fireplace. Parts of us cannot shut completely. A house with a mouse. And you—trying to find the entryway into our marriage. The way your eyes clench lists fists over me when time passes too fast.
Feminism’s collapse into the master’s tools, the overt militarism and violence, the strong sense of group belonging that makes it a crime not to Other. Not to emphasize the Otherness at the expense of the human. To manipulate fear and prejudice against these others upon which our identity is built. To pose in camos with a weapon of mass destruction. The role of my status as witness against xenophobia is not to claim fraternity with the brown bodies in deportation camps—not to pretend I know how it feels to be a slave or to be trafficked or to be desperate for acceptance. It is to speak not of my minor plights but to pass the mic to brutalized bodies—to show how skin color protects no one in the former Yugoslavia or Africa. The enemy is not solidarity and difference—the enemy is power and violence.
Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories blurred genre between fiction and memoir by necessity. In telling stories of life in Soviet prison camps, Shalamov switches point-of-view often; and many times, he does this to inhabit the POV of a dying prisoner. To tell the story of that person’s final minutes. There is something unspeakably brutal about death in the taiga, a place so cold that the buried bodies are preserved in permafrost, never rotting into the soil and being absorbed, never composting to serve as nourishment for future life.
The image of those frozen human statues is an ars poetica that carries us through the book, justifying the narrator’s detachment and lack of feeling.
No, it’s not a leitmotif. That’s not what I meant. The frozen bodies are an explanation for why he is writing, a key into Shalamov’s formal choices, and an expiation for the crimes of the survivor.
In 1938, Simone Weil suffered from a series of acute migraines. She began to recite George Herbert’s poem “Love” while sitting in a French chapel, trying to link the pain she was feeling to the passion of Christ. She felt Christ come down and take possession of her. She said it changed her life forever. She knew. But she also refused to be baptized, refused to become one of the chosen lest that position make it harder for her to help others. And so the writer guards her marginality, and the freedom and loneliness it secures. The assurance that she cannot rest easy in the comfort of belonging. She cannot earn a stake in not saying certain things out of fear those things will alienate her from others. She stays alien.
Maybe the urge to stay alien is a religious impulse.
The poets laureate of the Communist empire take their vacations in Florida now. It is wrong, they say, to offer false hope. It is a crime to give the desperate a choice they can’t make in good conscience. Desperation cannot make decisions. All the words we find to sanitize death still give chills when applied to insects. There is no kind extermination.
In search of lost silences. The silence after losing a fishing lure in the creek, knowing you can’t fish anymore but not yet knowing what that means for the rest of the day. How the day will be transformed by loss. The silence on a Greyhound when your seat-mate watches porn on his iPad. The silence of the moment before anesthesia sets in. The silence of a city street at 4:17 am. The silence after bad sex. The silence after good sex. The silence straining across a traditional family dinner. The silence of a monastery. The silence you choose to protect others. The silence on a porch with a close friend when neither felt the need to say anything. When silence was enough.
I don’t know why we think that dying is the time to say those things held deep in the dark. As if the immanence of death is not a continuous presence. I don’t know why we wait to write the revealing thing.
Ben Marcus says fiction has no formula—“you have to solve for x again, every time.”
I think of my kids, raising them, watching them defy the boxes I’ve built to protect them, boxes of purity, in a sense, boxes that preserve them from contamination. Marcus expresses the strongest appreciation for stories that do not parent, fiction that does not provide a box that relieves our anxiety. In a sense, the dread and complexity serve as a comfort, an unhidden gash. Let’s talk blood.
Let’s say I write a story about my mother, a formidable feminist whom I prefer to keep as a talisman of strength and irrepressible will. A story that makes her victorious is a story that ignores how traumatized she must have been to defect from Romania and leave her one-year-old daughter behind not knowing if she would ever see her again. How can I write a story that ignores the PTSD required to leave a one-year-old behind as she ran to the USA, with only a story and two hundred dollars and an equally reckless, desperate spouse? The 50 percent odds. The child she almost lost by never seeing again. The baby in hidden in her belly (my sister). The name she took from her mother who died of breast cancer three months before my birth. The middle name she legally appended to keep her mother close. To bring her here. Tell me what you taste of fear.
It’s important to remember that pathos is integral to the kleptocratic market economy and its literary frenulum. One shouldn’t shy away from the obvious.
A hesitation is not a pause but an attempt to reconsider longing, to revisit hope. In dialogue, a hesitation should be distinct from a pause—should be written with poignance. Deborah Levy says the point of writing is to tell the story of hesitation, or the ways in which fictional characters try to defeat a particular longing or long-held wish. The horrible long spaces between sobs which indicate the deepening of the sob.
The writer does not have the option of keeping their private life to themselves. E. B. White compared essay writing to taking off one’s pants without showing one’s genitals. Margaret Atwood admitted “You need a certain amount of nerve to be a writer, an almost physical nerve, the kind you need to walk a log across a river.” When my partner asked why reading was so terrifying, I told him that reading my own writings is like performing a striptease without the buffer of compartmentalization. With each word, one makes a choice that can held against you, a step in the direction of nakedness and raw vulnerability. As existential philosophers were quick to note, courage does not mean an absence of despair. Courage means an ability to move forward in spite of despair and dread.
Ralph Keyes talks about “that naked feeling”, how writers tend to feel all of the time. “Those who put their words on paper for public consumption live in fear that whoever reads their words will see right through them. At the very least, readers will discover what they themselves have suspected all along: that they’re faking it.”
The risk of candor is real. A candid writer risks being seen for their authentic sincere self and being deemed uninteresting. Isn’t it better to wear a mask? Keyes notes that “authors always feel in danger of being abandoned by loved ones.” And this fear leads to large pockets of silence which swell into regret or a sense of servitude, the feeling that one sacrificed truth to popularity and likableness.
The estrangement of an iceberg, it’s unfamiliar use of space altering the surroundings. A horizon pulls back from icebergs and a sky rises with no intermediary—no lines of compression behind them to mark the in between. I don’t know where death begins and life ends. For a girl who loves borders, this space of death is daunting. In making this map, I sever the ties between beholding a beholden. I think the act of writing, the cartography of bars and landscapes, is a middling guide at best, and sometimes, just this trash you are reading before you return to your own.
While we can describe the experience of realizing that we are wrong, it is impossible to describe any sort of feeling associated with simply being wrong, or with wrongness. When we are wrong, we are mostly oblivious to it. The problem of error-blindness means that error feels normal, and the falsehoods which we invest with belief are not visible. Since it’s impossible to feel wrong when wrongness is imperceptible, we conclude that we are right. And since our brains don’t file away a category of mistakes we made, each mistake emerges as a surprise and a shock, something we can’t take as evidence or use to create a rule about our tendency to make mistakes. In essence, each mistake is an anomaly.
Roger Rosenblatt observes that we “exist in the fold of human failing.” And the hunger for power that creates tension in a relationship. The tension engine.
We tend to overwrite rejected beliefs and build amnesia for our mistakes, which makes it difficult to a accept wrongness as part of the way in which our minds work, as part of the way we arrive at knowledge. Nothing happens easily. This is an argument for slow fiction.
We are torn between wisdom and schedules in which a woman’s plan for life leaves little flexibility or margin for error. Maturity, the ability to defer gratification and wait for an outcome, seems close to the planning and preparation of digital dating but the risk is absent. The absolute folly of love is set aside for the predictability of good companionship. By rendering each need instantaneous, the internet makes delayed gratification look too much like weakness. As if writing is always a doormat and never a glimpse of the sky.
The smocked bodies or the the bodice I failed to smock, the unburdened collar, the frayed meter of the footstep. My chronic restlessness and sinking posture. A tone but not a story.
I’m a fan of indirect dialogue because, in my experience, humans are rarely clear or eloquent about what they want but the fragile banality of actual conversation feels stilted or bumpy or faked on the page. It’s hard to write a real conversation without losing the reader.
The first line begins with what someone wants at the end, and action is how we get there. Usually the fixed desire is modified by movement across time and space, an accumulation of events and altering scenarios. You are not the same person at the end of a good story. At least, that’s the “good fiction” conceit.
But what if you are the same person?
What if you just agree to say different things and wear red jeans to church?
Maybe characters aren’t that different from human beings. Maybe they look like they’ve changed for the purpose of a special moment or a Thanksgiving dinner but they’re still Trump voters inside.
Broken beliefs, busted ideologies. A landscape of fallen statues and broken beliefs. That's how I see post-Soviet Russia--a space in which no ideologies stayed inspiring or possible.
Or maybe a workshop that promises too much?
A workshop that offers the solution to all your writing problems?
There’s something feeble about writing mental health challenges in a way that defines a character. Mental health can only describe us, not define us. Only for a moment and among a cornucopia of other traits and embodiments.
I know it's wrong to put a moral in the story... but is it wrong to twist the story's wrist until she cries "Moral!"?
In ongoing partnerships (as opposed to new relationships), sexual consent often hinges on interpreting emotional tone correctly. (Note: I admire those for whom the case is always a yes/no discussion, but I also acknowledge that some of us start to use other forms of language after years of yes/no together and I think nonverbal communication continues to play an important role for many decent mammals.)
After much disclaiming, I don’t know why consent leads me into thoughts about authenticity and appropriation, but emotional tone is somewhere in that fog. It’s hard for me to write from the perspective of a war veteran because that lack of experience makes my voice too brittle and artificial to carry the heavy parts. Maybe the only emotions I can authentically bring to the table are those I’ve experienced. This isn’t rocket science, but it feels like chaos theory when you’re desperate to write from the place of people you care about. Even though you can’t. Even though it may be best to sit down and think.
As writers, we can't speak for others if this involves replacing or erasing their voice. We can, however, speak with others and in dialogue with ourselves and social institutions--we can show support or affinity by honoring the distance between the witnessing voice and the embodied one.
Tone should reflect (and respect) the limits of engagement. Enter reticence.
I think reticence adds fuel to uncertainty, and uncertainty keeps the reader from getting too comfortable and missing the good parts.
Oh, and if you’re looking for a prose poetry workshop that you can attend without having to purchase a plane ticket or find child or pet care, you should register for this February weekend workshop I’m leading for Bending Genres. I promise there will so much to take home and so much to build with and play with and explore… It’s a generative workshop with plenty of time for feedback. And I can’t wait to be somewhere in the universe with you… writing and revising prose poetry.
Elizabeth McCracken helped me through the writing doldrums today with her essay, “I’m an Award-Winning Short Story Writer and I Don’t Know What I’m Doing Either”, in Electric Literature. Of course you should read it. Why else would I leave a link?
Apart from her prompts and reassurances, McCracken also linked to a wonderful craft essay by Allan Gurganus that covers the gamut from community gardens to historical complicity as well as the AIDS crisis. I sat outside my daughter’s ballet class laughing, holding my notebook close to my chest, that stupid smile of relief patched over my not-here-to-mom-chat face.
Published in a 1989 issue of Iowa Review, while Gurganus was taking a year off from teaching to write, ’ “Garden Sermon” (properly titled, “Garden Sermon: Being the History of a History, Notes from a Journal about How to Keep a Long Long Project Alive. Or: What I Did with My Summer Vacation”) is beautiful and encouraging. Of course you should read it. Why else would I leave a link?
A few excerpts:
“What starts a romance is rarely what sustains a marriage. My novel is called Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. I consider my relation to the oldest living confederate widow my life's longest monogamous connection. What starts a young writer is not what keeps a geezer coming back for more. You begin with the sound of one voice that goes forward into nowhere and, after years and trials enough, begins to come back with an echo, dividend.”
“We are often urged not to take things personally. A sales clerk yells at me and, shaken up by it, I tell a friend and my friend says back, "My God, you take everything so personally.” Maybe that belongs on the artist’s coat of arms. The agreement is: when you cease to take the world personally, you relinquish your credentials and your moral hold and your subject matter, and it's then that they issue you a gold card and they tell you that life is hard but that you should relax and then they send you on your way and you are utterly utterly lost—but it's okay because hey it's nothing personal. Just your life.
I want to keep it personal. I want the horrors of the daily New York Times to shake me up. This year, let's make a vow to each other—let's promise to take every thing personally. Let's help each other not be numb. "Deliver us from evil and lead us not into numbness." When I stop feeling embarrassment and rage, please take me out into the garden and bury me where Spot, and Muffy and the hundred family goldfish rest under crossed sticks. “
These poems were first published in Yoel Hoffmann’s “proto-memoir”, Moods (New Directions, 2015), a fascinating set of fragments influenced by Zen Buddhism, Jewish mysticism, and unusual joy. It reads like a numbered series of prose poems. Peter Cole translated the New Directions text from Hebrew.
For more on Hoffmann, see James Wallenstein’s excellent review, “The Tale-less Hoffman” in Tikkun (from whence I cut and pasted the first four poems). Or see Joseph Schreiber’s blog, where I found the piece by Hoffmann piece above.
I could write about how the Bible that the principal gave me at the end of eighth grade saved my life (it was in the pocket of my army vest and the bullet went into it up to the Book of Nehemiah) or, how, as though in an American movie, I went to the wedding of a girl I was in love with once and at the last minute etcetera. Which is to say, a bona fide story with plot twists and intrigue and an ending cut off like a salami (to keep it modern).
Books like those have at least three-hundred-and-twenty-eight pages, and in the end mobs of people running around you like holograms.
But I can’t, because of the turquoise sunbirds.
Some of our readers are no doubt saying to themselves: At last, a real story. I wonder what will happen next.
We don’t know if we can say what will happen next. For that we’d need real inspiration, and inspiration, as we know, comes from somewhere else, like prophecy.
We could, toward the end of the book, tell about a murder, and then when the woman asks, Who killed him, the detective will answer, You.
Or we could make it a love story, and the woman will ask, And who is that woman you always dream of, and the man will answer, You.
And what then? What happens in books after they end? Then, and only then, does the true story begin. Again there’s no end. No division between different things. All the colors come at once.
We owe nothing to no one. Certainly not a story. If we like we could write a single word 7,387 times. A word is as cheap as a stick. Or we could compose our sentences along the lines of Japanese syntax (that is, from the end to the beginning). Or insist that the publisher burn the bottom edge of the book so that the reader’s hand will be blackened by the charcoaled page . . .