March 26, 2014

On Lyric Essays

There's a vase of daffodils on my table, and snow on the ground outside: welcome to DC's confused, confusing spring. One of my students in the University of Tampa's low-residency MFA program is interested in using the "lyric essay" as a drafting mode. In rounding up resources to help her out, I thought I'd share my findings here as well. 

To begin, where does the term originate? Although both "lyric" and "essay" are concepts visited by generations of many writers past, the coinage conflating the two appears definitively in a 1997 issue of the Seneca Review. In an introduction, editor Deborah Tall and associate editor John D'Agata elaborated on the phrase this way:
The recent burgeoning of creative nonfiction and the personal essay has yielded a fascinating sub-genre that straddles the essay and the lyric poem. These "poetic essays" or "essayistic poems" give primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information. They forsake narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation. 

The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form. 

The lyric essay does not expound. It may merely mention. As Helen Vendler says of the lyric poem, "It depends on gaps. . . . It is suggestive rather than exhaustive." It might move by association, leaping from one path of thought to another by way of imagery or connotation, advancing by juxtaposition or sidewinding poetic logic. Generally it is short, concise and punchy like a prose poem. But it may meander, making use of other genres when they serve its purpose: recombinant, it samples the techniques of fiction, drama, journalism, song, and film. 

Given its genre mingling, the lyric essay often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically - its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole. The stories it tells may be no more than metaphors. Or, storyless, it may spiral in on itself, circling the core of a single image or idea, without climax, without a paraphrasable theme. The lyric essay stalks its subject like quarry but is never content to merely explain or confess. It elucidates through the dance of its own delving.
I would summarize thus: The lyric essay values the tension of juxtaposing objective and subjective material. The lyric essay emphasizes language as a means of engagement, equal to or exceeding its value in conveying information. The lyric essay does not emphasize argument or traditional closure. 

Since I published first in the genre of poetry, then in nonfiction, I am sensitive to the explanation the lyric essay is merely a compromise or indulgence--a "poet's version of prose." It's true that in moments when others report, poets meditate. Poets such as Sarah Manguso and Nick Flynn have written masterpieces of the lyric memoir. But that's a choice, not a default. Plenty of poets have written cogent, journalistic pieces or chronologically coherent personal essays over the years.

So why turn to the lyric essay? On a pragmatic level, here are some circumstances in which the lyric essay might prove advantageous:

-The essay concerns a personal episode in which the author lacked power. Lyric moves, particularly fragmentation and passive voice, enact a lack of agency on the page.

-The goal is to use a received form or numerical formula, e.g. The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous or the Five Stages of Grief, and comment on its efficacy.

-The author does not have access to sources for key aspects of the traditional "story." Lyric moves, particularly litany and stimulative truth, bridge these troublesome gaps. 

-The language and images are the driving motivation of the piece, and stream-of-consciousness observation, sacrificing traditional narrative, is the only way to go. 

And there's the simple--not to be underestimated--sway of aesthetic appeal. Lyric essays offer a space in which an author can weigh a topic without passing judgment. The critical thing is that adopting the mode not be seen as a kind of "almost poem," nor a "pseudo-essay." I like Lia Purpura's take in this interview for Smartish Pace:
Laura Klebanow: It seems you came to write poetry first, and prose poetry and essays next. Is this correct, or has your work in each genre developed less compartmentally? For example, do you ever start a poem and watch it become a prose poem or essay, or vice versa? 

Lia Purpura: The issue of how one discernible genre grows from another is utterly mysterious to me. I’m certain that I’m writing prose, though my essays are called “lyric essays.” In fact, I’ve just written an essay titled “What is a Lyric Essay?” for Seneca Review. In it, I’m making a plea for allowing the form to remain as mysterious as possible. I do mean “mysterious” though in the best way – challenging and magical and able to work on a reader and knit up above the page. I don’t mean at all “unclear” or “sloppy”. The language ought to be as precise as possible in order to affect the most unlikely moves. When I’m writing, an impulse makes itself known as a prose itch or poem-itch. Some failed poems have extended out into prose and found their musculature that way. I don’t think a derailed essay has ever turned itself into a poem.
In the last fifteen years, lyric essays have come to be more accepted in mainstream publishing, and as they have become a more frequent sight at the workshop level. Subsequently, teachers and editors have developed a vocabulary surrounding their craft. These are some of the models I consider most useful when recognizing a lyric essay:

-The Collaged Essay - Collages embody an emotional, intellectual, or historical experience without unifying explanation. They may freely incorporate photographs, poems, maps, or other multimedia modes, including texts "found" elsewhere, e.g. Reality Hunger by David Shields. Asterisks often denote section breaks.

-The Braided Essay - Unrelated topics, perhaps set in different eras, develop a common theme. Brenda Miller's "A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay" is an apt explication. I like her analogy to french braids, in which patterning renders slippery, homogenous materials--e.g, strands of hair--more interesting by adding texture. 

-The Hermit Crab EssayAn author responds to an external cultural product (a well loved album), but gradually reveals an internal landscape (the relationship that corresponded to that album). As Dave Hood says, "This type of lyrical essay is created from the shell of another." These essays are sometimes masked as reviews. 

These are trends, not sole categories. Lyric essays also tend to be particularly rich in litany, parallel structure, and what I call "stipulative truths," which include imperative voice, grafted images, or invented tableaus. 

Below are some favorite or oft-cited examples of authors working in the mode of lyric essay. I'd recommend them to any student looking to assemble their toolbox. 

- Michael Martone's "More or Less: the Camouflage Schemes of the Fictive Essay" - This essay toggles between iterations of camouflage and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five; the sections are described as being in "arbitrary order" and in a signature move, the author's bio is a contributing creative text. 

- Priscilla Long's "Genome Tome" - This essay uses a received form (the 23 pairs of chromosomes that make up a typical DNA strand) to structure Long's mediation on personal and inherited identity, weaving in scientific case studies. 

László Krasznahorkai's "Someone’s Knocking at My Door" - This essay uses a circular structure, with slippage between observer and observed, to enact the state of anxiety or, as he put it, the "terrible meeting between boorishness and aggressiveness."

- Maggie Nelson's Bluets - This book-length work itemizes meditations on "blue" as a color, a term, even a musical mode, looking across cultures and time periods. 

Eula Biss's "The Pain Scale" - This essay uses a visual construction (advancing from 0 to 10) to pace her exploration of suffering; Biss spikes a particular domestic setting with outside references to Anders Celsius, Dante, and Galileo Galilei. 

- Kiese Laymon's "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance" - This essay juxtaposes the author's own experiences against news stories of black youths killed under questionable circumstances; note the rhythmic use of standalone sentences, defiant of normal paragraph organization. 

- Ander Monson's Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir - This book-length work interrogates the privilege of fact versus fiction; Monson's website complicates the notion of "reading" as a linear act, and includes the wonderful "Essay as Hack."

- Jenny Boully's The Body - This book-length work's text is posited entirely via footnotes that might take the form of assertions, postcards, Mad Libs, and so on.

- Roxane Gay's "What We Hunger For" - This essay opens in response to The Hunger Games before accessing a harrowing, firsthand experience of gang rape. 

- David Foster Wallace's "Ticket to the Fair" - This essay's structure is a variant on journalistic chronology, but what distinguishes it is the extravagances of DFW's attention; he freely telescopes between minute details and vast cultural intuitions.

Subsequent proponents of the form have not always agreed with the terminology. At the most recent AWP Conference in Seattle, Kathleen Rooney argued for the phrase "Open Form Essay." In a 2012 Black Warrior Review interview, Maggie Nelson resisted the label in part because of its connotations with "pretty" writing:
BWR: You are a writer that is often associated with the Lyric Essay. I find that term to be quite useful, but I’ve come to realize that many people use that term to mean wildly different things. Do you use Lyric Essay to describe your, or other’s, writing? If so, how do you characterize it? 

MN: I don’t use it to describe my work, because I’ve never written anything that I thought of explicitly as an essay. (I’m trying to write more essay-like things now – it’s very different, and I don’t really have a clue how to do it.) On the other hand, I conceived of both my books The Red Parts and Bluets as continuous flows, albeit jagged up into titled or numbered pieces, and so treating them each as one long essay also seems kind of right. I don’t mind if anyone calls my work “lyric essay”; I don’t care much about classification, as it comes after the fact of the writing. “Lyric essay” likely covers a lot of writing that I like, but honestly, and I’m just speaking personally here, the words themselves kind of bug me. They make it sound like the pieces have to be self-contained and pretty, song-like. Whereas some of the work I like the most is more chafing, awkward—ugly, even. And sometimes sprawling—think of Wayne Koestenbaum’s recent Anatomy of Harpo, for example. That’s why I usually stick with the broader, albeit pretty boring, moniker, “creative nonfiction.”
It might be counterintuitive to include a quotation that questions the very usefulness of the phrase. But "lyric essay" is admittedly a fledgling term. In the absence of rules, the author of lyric essays must summon more self-discipline, not less. Each word choice counts, because you've asked your reader to be primed for every conceivable motif, pattern, tense shift, found text, or other linguistic switcheroo. Traditional indicators of priority on the page have been stripped away. I'm wary of the lyric essay draft in which stylistic meandering is costumed as "figuring it out." That's laziness. Even if the writing suspends judgment, the writer must have clarity in his or her understanding. 

Do we need this term? One of the clearest distinctions between poetry and prose, in my mind, has always been that prose is assigned a truth value--fiction or nonfiction--while poetry is not categorized in such terms. Does attaching the "lyric" modifier shift our expectations, allowing the essay to straddle truth values? Can an essay contain fictional conventions, or does that mean it has become a short story, albeit one rooted in fact? Readers of John D'Agata's The Lifespan of a Fact or John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead, specifically "Violence of the Lambs," might find this a resonant question, and in a brief piece for The Lit Pub, Roxane Gay argued that the perceptible "playfulness and manipulation of a world" is at the very core of the lyric essay's appeal. 

In poetry, we use the word lyric to denote a particular attention to the "I"; the speaker's thoughts and perceptions are the central draw, rather than the culmination of a story. The poem's energy spins around a fixed point, rather than arc-ing from A to Z. Is a blurring of reportable fact the inevitable consequence of emphasizing the "lyric" in an essay? 

I'm fascinated by the texture of truth, the way we establish authenticity and authority on the page. Regardless of whether the "lyric essay" is taught one hundred years from now, the term is a potent description of contemporary American aesthetics toward the last two decades of personal writing and, I suspect, for at least the next decade to come. All the writers mentioned above are worth your time, consideration, and consternation. I'll leave it at that; these are just some notes toward a larger discussion. 

March 11, 2014

On Wonder

My cousin-once-removed Charles H. Swift passed away on Friday. When he retired back in 2002, he'd been a teacher for 35 years, much of it spent as a beloved teacher in the Lubbock Independent School District. In these final weeks of his illness, I loved seeing the parade of student tributes on his Facebook page, and the snapshots (such as this one) contributed by colleagues on the countless trips Charles led to any of the 68 countries he visited. 

We spoke for the last time on a January snowy night while I was at the Millay Colony, dependent on the static-ridden land line stretching the miles to his Texas hospital room. He told me to visit the Walter Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs, Mississippi; he teased me for not having my New York Times piece in print already ("I'm on kind of a tight timeline, here," he said, chuckling). In another world, we could have been very close; it's odd to realize he'd dedicated his life to fostering the exact kind of nerd-child I grew to be in northern Virginia, attending Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. He always brought around his rock collection, his carved-wood canes and pens; at my grandmother's funeral, he told stories about smuggling snakes. He will be missed. It is what it is, and he departed this earth knowing he was deeply loved. That said, these losses are irreversible, and I haven't felt like being on the internet as of late. 

But oh, a reason--a reason Charles would love--looms: I gotta tell you about this thing coming up. On Tuesday, March 18, I am bringing Brian Jay Jones to the Arts Club of Washington, to talk about his biography of Jim Henson. Yes, THE Jim Henson, a.k.a., the man who gave us the best characters of Sesame Street, The Muppets Show, The Fraggles, Dark Crystal, and so on. A man who said, “The most sophisticated people I know--inside they are all children." A man who actually got his start while a teenager in Hyattsville, Maryland, showcasing his young imagination on Washington-area stations (Jones will be sharing rare, archival video clips). Brian's behind-the-scenes journal of writing the biography, posted here, reveals a sensibility that is funny, humble, and very attentive to detail, all of which is reflected in this incredible book. I can't imagine a better event to raise your spirits or mine. This event starts at 7 PM (details here), and is free and open to the public; please join us, and spread the word. The Arts Club is at 2017 I Street NW DC, convenient to metered street parking. See you there?

I can't even wrap my arms around how much I love the Muppets; their bright colors, their silly songs, their bodies at once specific and abstract, their unapologetic curiosity, and O yes, their sense of wonder. There was never a sense, behind the puppet or in the moment, of talking down to one's audience--even when skimming across the surface of a vast pool of knowledge and humor. And that makes me think of Charles H. Swift.