August 29, 2016

Syllabizing the Essay

When American University asked if I could teach a section of creative nonfiction this fall, I was thrilled. I've spent much of this year strategizing and drafting essays, so their craft is on my mind right now. Although I get to engage both genres as part of the faculty for the University of Tampa's low-res MFA program, poetry commands most of my time and my student assignments. Also, AU is the program that sent me out into the world as a writer; the first alumnus portrait that comes up on their splash page shows Derrick Weston Brown, one of my classmates from days of workshopping poems with Henry Taylor, Myra Sklarew, and Cornelius Eady. 

I decided to emphasize essays that incorporate lyric energy, by which I mean energy that is grounded in perception by (or will of) the author over the material, versus a topic’s intrinsic narrative or suspense centered in plot. Signature elements of a lyric essay usually include framing figurative language, raw juxtapositions, and unconventional structures--for example, a personal revelation embedded within a seemingly objective encyclopedia entry. Poets who crossover to nonfiction are often drawn to lyric forms, which I have written about here.

The great thing about teaching a class you've never taught before is that you get to envision everything from scratch--no preconceptions of the canon, nothing you're loyal to simply because you know it well. The terrifying things about a class you've never taught before is assembling a syllabus from scratch. I chose two core texts to anchor the workshop, which meets on Mondays, and will always include at least twenty minutes of craft talk before we segue to discussing student drafts. 

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction is a very straightforward and democratic guide, edited by Dinty Moore. Each contributor--including Bret Lott, Robin Hemley, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Norma Elia CantĂș--offers a brief essay on different aspects of flash nonfiction, accompanied by a prompt and an exemplar. Other than his introduction to the form and, implicitly, his shaping of the table of contents, Moore's voice is absent from the RMP anthology; he is happy to step back and let the contributors speak for themselves. 

In contrast, The Next American Essay, part of John D'Agata's trilogy of anthologies for Graywolf, embraces subjectivity. D'Agata's voice is interspersed throughout the collection, which is arranged chronologically from 1975 into the early 2000s, via prose-passages that comment on the particular moment in American literature--and sometimes D'Agata's personal biography, and sometimes the larger pop culture. I don't know if the students will find those passages useful; I don't know if they'll find them at all. I cherrypicked individual essays from within a slightly overwhelming (if very well curated) 450+ pages. Then, because that selection lacked pieces of the last decade, I added another nine pieces of my choosing. 

So these are authors whose essays we will give a close reading to:

John McPhee 
Barry Lopez 
James Wright 
Harry Matthews 
Eliot Weinberger 
Dennis Silk
Fabio Morabito 
Susan Mitchell 
Sherman Alexie 
Susan Griffin 
Carole Maso 
Mary Ruefle 
Thalia Field 
Jenny Boully 
Eula Biss
Maggie Nelson
Kiese Laymon
Roxane Gay
Sarah Einstein
Carmella Guiol
Camille Dungy

In addition, we have two weeks where we do not meet, so I've suggested hefty longform pieces--Joan Didion's "the White Album" and David Foster Wallace's "Ticket to the Fair," both conveniently anthologized by D'Agata --as supplemental reading. 

Toward the end of my syllabus, I've included "A Note about the Reading":

It is not your imagination if you find this reading list intensive. We have essays by thirty-some authors, plus lengthy suggested readings for the two weeks we do not meet in person. We will not always have a chance to discuss the readings fully, given the demands of our schedule. 

Here is my motive: being well read as a writer is a form of currency. If you stay in the publishing world, you will find yourself part of a thousand conversations in which the names of authors are dropped. When that happens, I have found that if I have even one genuine point of reference—that one essay I read, for that one class—I can contribute to the conversation with confidence. When I have no familiarity with the author, I’m a little embarrassed. I fall silent. 

So our reading list is intended to fill your coffers, Scrooge McDuck-style.

This is a pass / fail course with no pop quizzes. There may be days when you skim the reading and lay low during discussion, and no one is the wiser. That doesn’t make you a bad person—we all have weeks when we fall behind and need to cut ourselves some slack. But if you choose that path consistently, just be aware that you’re missing out. These readings, one and all, are ones that I wish that I’d gotten to digest during my MFA years. 

In addition to the reading, they'll be writing two longform essays, which I hope will incorporate lyric elements inspired by the readings, and four flash nonfiction pieces inspired by Rose Metal Press prompts. How will it all turn out? I have no idea. But I'm excited to find out. Class starts in the three hours.  

August 23, 2016

Writing About Craft

One of the unique components of a low-residency graduate program is the residency itself, which is often designed using the template of writer's conferences such as those at Sewanee or Bread Loaf. For the University of Tampa MFA instructors, this might mean that in a given 10-day stretch we're giving a craft talk in our genre (~20 poets), plus perhaps a craft talk to all students, in multiple genres (~80 people). That is in addition to leading eight sessions of a workshop with our 4-5 students, which I always lead off with a 20-minute close reading of poems framed as craft discussion. 

In other words: we've got craft coming out of our ears. 

It wasn't until I began to teach that I came to appreciate the art of smart, incisive yet conversational craft writing. It wasn't until I began to teach that I realized we needed more of such prose published, especially by women and voices of color.

I'm not talking about book reviews. That is an important genre as well, but different in tone and intent. I've also encountered a lot of great self-reflexive craft pieces written in the past few years, views of "inside my process." Increasingly, such pieces are one of the myriad of ways we're asked to promote new work. Those are wonderful, but they often have hybrid qualities--they can very easily cross over into the realm of personal essay. I've worked in that mode myself,  and will continue to do so, but I've really come to admire are crisp IM-personal essays that focus solely on outside authors and do not measure themselves by timeliness or relevance to a zeitgeist; they simply show us, line by line or phrase by phrase, how the language is exerting power on the page. 

One of my other responsibilities at UTampa is giving a pep talk to the Third-Termers, who are responsible for generating a 25-page critical essay on top of their standard responsibilities. This often freaks them out, because it feels like an arbitrary hoop to jump; irrelevant to their aspirations as a "creative" writer. But a good writer is a good writer, period. Coming at this as a mentor, the point isn't that I'm going to lose sleep if someone's citations aren't in perfect MLA format. The point is that someone who can't strategize a 25-page essay is also going to struggle with sustaining 250-page novel, or sifting and organizing 50 poems. 

The point, as well, is that the best gift you can make to a book you're passionate about, perhaps of a rarefied genre or by an author no longer with us, is to write something illuminative that makes others more likely to pick it up.

One of my resolutions, in choosing to accept more teaching roles while still prioritizing my writing, was that I would generate at least one or two substantive craft essays each year. Since any book aspirations I have in this regard are at least five years out, that leaves me in search of great journal venues that are open to essays about craft. Not too long ago, I surveyed friends and fellow writers for their favorite publishing spaces, and with their contributions in hand, I give you this list.


American Poets [General info]
American Poetry Review ["About Us" / Submittable]
Assay [Guidelines]
Blackbird [Guidelines / Submission Manager
Brevity [Guidelines]
Cleaver [Submittable]
The Essay Review ["About" / "Submit"]
The Hopkins Review [Author Guidelines]
LitHub [General info]
Measure [ Guidelines / Submissions Manager]
N+1 ["Contact"]
Parnassus Poetry in Review ["Contact Us"]
Passages North [Submissions]
Poetry Foundation  [Submittable]
Poetry Northwest [Guidelines / Submittable
Poets and Writers  [Guidelines]
Talking Writing ["General Guidelines" / Submittable]
The Tishman Review [Guidelines / Submittable]
TriQuarterly ["Submissions" / Submittable]
Writer’s Chronicle [Guidelines / Submittable]

Note: I've included a couple of magazines where the craft writing is delegated to a particular space, e.g. the "Writers on Writing" blog for Passages North.

Got a journal you think should be listed here? Let me know! I'm happy to expand.


P.S. - If you missed it, I just did a sprawling interview for The Mackinac, Issue 10. This is a startlingly wonderful little journal that designs a custom "Liquor List" for each issue, in addition to a Spotify playlist. They asked me to send along two new poems, so I did. Thanks to the editors, Lenea Grace & Brookes Moody.