A conversation with James Allen Hall, author of I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2016 Essay Collection Competition (chosen by Chris Kraus) and Shaelyn Smith, author of The Leftovers, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2017 Essay Collection Competition (chosen by Renee Gladman) and forthcoming 4/1/2018. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
James Allen Hall: …here we are!
Shaelyn Smith: Here we are!
JAH: How are you doing?
SS: Good! Nervous. I literally just reread I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well this morning.
JAH: Awwww! I was re-reading The Leftovers too. Time VERY well spent.
I really love the book. You make such shapely sentences and have such fascinating insights and interpretations.
SS: Thank you! I must say that 1) the e-mail you sent two weekends ago made me go into the final editing process with much more confidence than I had about the collection. It was so nice to have a little confirmation before making final decisions about this thing living in the world and 2) rereading your book after making those final edits so close together (I send the final version this week) made me see all these parallels in the way we approach the essay form—your sentences and the way you sort of let humor hang over devastation as punctuation—the anecdote or punchline serving as commentary rather than a long explanation.
And the ways in which we both work with fragment and let those fragments jut up against each other to illuminate/interpret or reverberate.
JAH: I am floored by how many times you view [Judy Chicago’s] The Dinner Party, both in real life and in the manuscript. Can I ask you a little about art?
SS: Yes! Please!—and yeah I lived in Brooklyn for two years before moving to Alabama for grad school and made at least two or three trips back to NYC for the four years I was working on the book.
JAH: Did you ever make art aside from food and words?
SS: Ha—good question. Nope. Not musically inclined for shit, and I can’t draw worth a damn, either. I tried adult ballet once, but I’m not very coordinated and have terrible hand-eye-brain coordination, which I think is necessary for other forms of art—visual, performance, etc. Also why I didn’t last very long in a professional kitchen. I don’t do well with an audience, except teaching I guess. But in undergrad my friend circle was composed of visual artists and architects so that’s where I think a lot of the appreciation and deep fascination with art comes from”
JAH: That’s fascinating. Especially since there’s a preponderance of specifically performance art in The Leftovers. I’m thinking of the Marina Abramovic piece you reference — is it The Artist is Present? — and how you look so intently at Judy Chicago until she and The Dinner Party are a kind of character in the piece, a touchstone.
Do you think of the essay at all as “being built”? Or does it come into view? Or as a performance of some kind?
SS: Interesting, I have a similar question for you written down here. I think that this book started because I just couldn’t stop trying to articulate what art meant—performance art, visual art, film—all these things that exist for consumption, for an audience, but are so fleeting—going to the museum or theatre or gallery and just trying to figure out how to frame what I felt in those moments. Because it seems to me like an impossible task. Like I can’t quite play witness to it in such a way that I do the author or performer or director or artist any justice. I still can’t articulate the obsession. I wanted to be an art critic first, but then I found that I like writing around points more than making them. Just trying to replay the experience, and make it into something static. Or make meaning through reframing these works, through the juxtaposition of them rubbing up next to each other in my memory.
So I think any given essay in the book comes from me seeing inarticulable connections between experiences I’ve had as a witness, as audience, and wanting to physically place them together, so in this case on the page. So I guess the essays are built—it’s more like curation than writing.
JAH: I love the idea of the essay as a kind of museum, and the subject being both static — suspended, looked at — and then having energy and motion in the mind, the memory.
You make art criticism personal, and I especially had a visceral, emotionally large reaction to “Origins,” where you juxtapose goddesses with the stories of murdered transgender and queer people.
The coda in that essay is a particular exercise in curation, I think. Can you talk about how you build that? I was riveted and I wanted to be rescued at the same time, reading it.
SS: So that’s the essay that gave me the most trouble, along with the one just before it [“I See Myself in You”], which spans the fourth floor of the Brooklyn Museum. Most of the time, writing comes pretty quickly when I actually sit down to do it—like what I think is the most personal essay in the book, “Economy of the Hopeless”—I wrote that in one sitting on my porch fairly in the order that it will be published in and it hasn’t change much other than coaxing certain sentences into something more poetic. But, “Origins” was so challenging. And I think mostly because of the ethical and moral complications I felt doing that research. Like, am I the person to tell those stories and am I doing it in such a way that isn’t compromising or sensational or exploitative? But it’s something that I felt strongly needed to exist as I was standing in front of The Dinner Party for like the 15th time and thinking about all of these news stories I had read about these women whose stories are just as important. About how the dinner party is activist art in its own limited feminism, but how that can be so dangerous in the way that even as it makes space, brings things to light, and serves as recognition, it creates more holes.
I’m not sure I have entirely thought this all through, either, and maybe I never will because it’s not my lived experience. But in a way, all this writing about art, even, is only a lived experience in how I try to frame, or curate, or give voice to it on the page
Rereading your book this morning I had a similar deep and visceral and more potent reaction to “My Aids” I think, for similar reasons. And moreso than the first few times I read it.
JAH: I thought it was tremendous, the kind of hole you point at, and then look through. I think it gives space back to those who have been X’d out in quite violent ways.
I’m really glad to hear that’s how you read it. It’s hard to be delicate when writing about something so deeply upsetting and unsettling.
I remember reading that essay aloud once, and a random guy asked the woman sitting next to him, who happened to be my friend, “Why is this guy so proud he has AIDS?”
Why do you think we’re both drawn to unsettling art and subject?
SS: Yes, exactly—I don’t know if I have an answer to that.
JAH: I don’t know if I do either. Except that it’s not about spectacle.
But maybe something you said earlier — trying to capture the reverberations of the emotional experience. It is important to be seen; to have the unvoiced parts of ourselves notice that they have a place in the world—a sibling, a family to which they belong.
SS: No, it’s not [about spectacle]. Another moment that really struck me in that essay was is when you footnote a quote about “reading as an act of mourning” —maybe writing is that too.
JAH: Absolutely it is. The experience is never coming back; it has exhausted its form in the moment. So all writing is elegiac, I think.
At my father’s funeral—which was just a bunch of folks sitting around the living room, since he was cremated—we were encouraged to share a memory, and I said one I knew would make my father laugh, if he had been there. It felt even though the situation was sad and awkward and weird, that comedy was the right way to eulogize him.
Something about getting the feeling of the moment right.
Do you think you maybe wrote “Economy of the Hopeless” so quickly, in its formal gestures even at the draft, because it had inhabited your memory for so long? You turn 11 in that essay, yes? And it’s the same year that 2 hunters are murdered in your hometown (and another man is also killed to cover up the murder)?
SS: Well, the murder happened before I was born, but it was “solved” when I was in high school. But I grew up with the story of the hunters, and my dad had lived the area and was frequenting the bars at that time, so knew the guys who did it, and had been playing softball and darts with them—I sort of lived on the margins of that small-town darkness, so I think that it was sort of elegiac to write through it even though I never truly lived it. It’s a curation of all the darkness of my childhood that never truly came to fruition—a sort of reckoning with and mourning of something that never quite happened to me directly. That’s the thing about art, too, is seeing something that really moves you, it echoes in your periphery for so long that it becomes a part of your story.
Can you talk through the lifecycle of an essay for you? As you touched on a bit, you are so good at capturing the hilarity in the devastation. I find myself laughing out loud at so many moments in your essays, even though they are horrifically sad, there are some things that are just so funny. It sounds like you live that way too.
JAH: Yeah, I guess I kind of do live alongside the funny and the tragic. Comedy doesn’t exist without its twin.
There are beginning impulses for me. Like, sometimes it’s a question that I have already. For instance, in the essay about my grandmother and sexuality [“Adventures in Old Lady Land”], I was asking myself, “In what ways can the aged body help me understand the queer body, and vice versa?” Or, if I am being honest, the initial question was more like, “Why is my grandma so freaking fabulous to me?” Something about her clothes (and me in them), something about her tendency to be naked... I mean, it was weird but it was devoid of shame, and I wanted desperately to be devoid of shame.
Other times, there’s a story I know I want to tell, like with “MY AIDS,” I knew I wanted to talk about growing up in that shadow, and I wrote it exactly as it appears. The impulse is narrative.
Other times, I stumble around looking for the shape. The essay about my parents keeping 130 cats, for instance. I knew I wanted to write it, but it wasn’t until I realized that it was really the story about the end of my parents’ marriage did it take on a shape that felt urgent and integral.
Do you have these kinds of impulses too?
SS: The way you write about your grandmother is so perfectly beautiful—it’s obvious how much you respect and love and care for her in that essay. It really is so brilliant. For “Economy…” —I knew that was something I had to write, and I started it in persona poems from Barbara’s point of view, but then realized that the story didn’t work without me. One of the reasons I started writing essays, actually, but then I didn’t even attempt to write that essay for another three years. I think things linger—I don’t know if it’s impulse as much as it is obsession. Like the things that are constantly recurring in my sort-of subconscious thought, and then eventually enough pieces start circling around a core that I’m able to curate it—but again, it’s just putting all these different things in a space together, and never quite articulating the core—letting that sort of be the unspoken or implied cohesion of the essay. Which is why I think I’ve had such a hard time considering myself a writer, or getting things published, or even when I was in my MFA finding good readers for my work. Because sometimes I think I’m not actually saying anything as much as I am just letting things resonate and speak to one another.
Like maybe the way in the essay you mention Adventures in Old Lady Land—that’s just an anecdotal evidence that points to this deep love you have for your grandmother—you don’t have to talk through it point by point on the page—it’s literally just the sum of its parts.
JAH: YES. One of the reasons I love your book, Shaelyn, is that you accumulate and resonate. There are returns — to The Dinner Party, for instance — but there’s always a new insight or new enlargement happening with the return. There is such internal cohesion through the book’s obsessions with art and with violence. And with a specifically feminist and female view, I should say. The book risks gap and rupture and leads readers to an argument without over-making or over-enclosing the meanings that can echo. That seems to me a really feminist way of making an essay. Multiple points of resonance, resisting closures that are artificial, etc.
Can we talk about feminism?
SS: LOL. But yes, feminism. I remember handing in drafts of these essays in workshops and people asking me things like, are you a feminist? or what kind of feminist are you? but also the worst question: how do you really feel about The Dinner Party? And honestly, I don’t really have a solid answer to any of those questions because I don’t think it matters. I think it’s better to let things just kind of constantly shift—because it’s surprising and important to allow myself to be open to new definitions and possibilities and ways of thinking rather than trying to pick just one.
JAH: In preparing for this interview, that was the one question (“How do you feel about The Dinner Party?”) I swore off. I figured you must get that.
I am with you — who cares about the label, when it’s the aims that are important. No one ever asks me if I’m a feminist. Isn’t that sad? Sometimes people ask me if it’s ok to call me a queer writer, and I’m like, PLEASE YES. But then, I always wanted to be seen by other queer people, and hate to be erased…
There is a lot of violence in the book — how does art countermeasure that kind of erasure?
And, at the same time, your persona is one that perhaps witnesses, stays somewhat peripheral — maybe that’s not quite right, because every sentence is so wrought that it is always a bit of self-portraiture. I finished reading The Leftovers knowing more about your voice than your biography—more about the way you dream than what you lived, if that makes sense?
SS: Yes, I think that’s exactly the kind of writing voice/persona I’ve tried to cultivate. And it’s like that, who is it, Malcom Gladwell, maybe, who says that you’re an expert when you’ve spent 10,000 hours trying to perfect something? The problem is, though, that now I can’t write any differently, which is maybe a detriment to the book? I think absolutely my tendency toward art is exactly because it allows me to just be witness, and writing about it, even though these are things I’ve seen, allows me to stay in the periphery. It’s comfortable there—evidenced, I guess, by my fear of definition or label. I don’t think that answers your question about violence.
But I think there’s something important about being a witness, about trying to be an honest witness, that is in itself a kind of lived truth—maybe not a T-truth, but a sort of honesty I feel comfortable, or have trained myself to be comfortable with. I’m not sure if this is making any sense. But that’s how I’ve learned to become a writer.
I don’t know why this is the thing I’m thinking about and maybe everyone goes through this but I do remember in high school just being so consciously terrified that I didn’t have a personality
And so I compensated by subscribing to Vogue and listening to Ani DiFranco and making my own clothes. It all feels like cultivation. Like, I want to work for April Bloomfield, I decided, so I moved to NYC and made it happen.
But maybe that’s just normal and that’s how people become who they are. Or I am just overly concerned with aesthetic in an atypical fashion.
JAH: I don’t think that your persona-as-witness is a detriment to the book. In a way, it feels generous and assertive without being a center-of-attention drama queen. There’s no swanning in from stage left. There’s a laser-precision, in the way you make such gorgeous sentences, to the astonishing interpretations at which you arrive. There is, I mean, such an intense perception that meets the reader in your essays. What is that except a self, a personality? Are you a Libra?
SS: Nope, guess again.
JAH: Ani DiFranco is a Libra, which was what made me guess that sign. I would rule out Aries.
JAH: See — I was on the earth sign track! I am a Libra. Always in danger of overproduction. I have to trim A LOT when I write. And I am always on the wrong side of the Too Much Information line with people.
Do you identify with the classic description of Taurus?
SS: I do, pretty resolutely—but I cross the TMI line because I share deeply personal things in a way that doesn’t feel connected to me. Which I guess is like how I write. I’ve been thinking a lot about how my writing will define me, or like if and when people read this book what they’ll think about me as a person…but I don’t qualify or classify people based on their writing—mostly I just really like them for having written things that speak to me or teach me something
JAH: Best part about books, right? They give us another interiority to inhabit and take parts of it back to our inferiorities and redecorate!
I’ll admit something—I felt very connected to your book in a primal way. Partly it’s the incredible dedication to precise and searing imagery. Each essay is achingly, beautifully written. But there’s the precision and daring of your insight. You don’t interpret anything in an obvious way. I really like The Dinner Party, for instance, but if a reader doesn’t like it, or doesn’t know it, s/he will know it in ways that could never be guessed. I feel the same way about the last essay, in which you discuss architecture and end up writing: “If there is a void in the layout, we will learn how to fill it, by whatever means necessary. Because we don’t like the barrenness, the confrontation of devastation. This is not comfortable. …We have made habit of shirking from desolation. A revisionist history, an impossible equation. We are supposed to forget everything. That is what makes us human.” I am so drawn into that first person plural, since you give us a language to confront desolation and the uncomfortable subject of our humanness.
I mean, I didn’t know I was going to love learning about things I had probably marginally/never cared about ever in my life up until reading your book—like “pet architecture.”
SS: Wow, thank you! That’s the first essay I ever wrote, and it’s gone through a thousand revisions. The editing process was really hard for me because so many of the things I felt the most bound to were questioned/rephrased/cut, and it was hard to say no/I feel too close to it to see it clearly so trusted and was grateful for editorial guidance. But also it just made me feel strange and terrible because it is and was so deeply personal. I think the first person plural I am so drawn to because it doesn’t place it totally on me—what you just called not interpreting anything in an obvious way.
So, for example, you articulate in MY AIDS that you are returning to that essay years, more than a decade, even, after you initially wrote it. One of the hardest parts of the editing/publication process for me has been trying to enter some of these essays after so many years—because I’ve lost the logic of my younger self, and it’s strange to know that it will live in the world anew, that people will consider it fresh, in like 2018, when that was 2010 or 2012 thinking on my part. I guess I’m scared of that too. Like, what if it’s wrong?
JAH: I had the same kind of freakout—how do you stay true to the writer who made that essay and still strengthen it, years or even a decade later? How do you do that when you’ve changed as a person and as a writer?
If it’s wrong, it was true to the way you perceived.
And people will have things to say about it — but it won’t ever be what you think it might be.
Of all the things I write about my mother, for instance, it’s a depiction of me combing her hair when it was greasy that she hated. Like, mom, you do know I write about you putting a gun in your mouth and threatening suicide too, right? But, that was the thing that pissed her off the most. (Well, actually, she asked me if it was ok if she didn’t read the whole book, and I thought that was a terrific thing).
I worry about my rapist reading the book, honestly. More than is probably healthy.
SS: Oh man, this is a question (I have many) that I’ve wanted to ask you since I initially read your book, which was back in May, but writing about other people—did you have your mother or your brothers, read the essays before you published them?
I think it was a Fresh Air interview with Mary Karr right after The Art of Memoir was published in which she said that it’s sort of a moral or civic duty of someone writing nonfiction or personal nonfiction to let people read what you’ve written about them before it’s published. But, I didn’t let anyone read anything. And I’m worried about how my folks will respond to “Economy…”—or like that yes, the men incarcerated for that murder will read it or their family, and have it out for my father. I wasn’t scared about that, necessarily until a friend asked me if I was scared about that. I’m more worried about how my dad will feel if he reads it and I write in poetical detail about a confrontation he has while peeing at a urinal at the county fairgrounds.
But you also mention the Anne Lamott approach in your book, which is if people wanted me to write differently about them they should have acted better.
JAH: I love that confrontation — your dad handled that like a hero!
SS: Well that’s his “truth” of the story that I’ve interpreted for the benefit of the essay, I guess.
JAH: My younger brother, Dustin, reads most of what I write. His memory is better than mine, for the most part, so I trust him to help corroborate.
SS: And I noticed that both of your book titles come from him, right? He is the one who says “Now You’re the Enemy” [which became the title for your first book of poetry] and [he’s] also the one who receives the door hanger embroidered with “ I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well”
JAH: But the essay about being raped — no one read that before I published it. I couldn’t imagine sending it to my rapist, and I can’t bear to think of him reading it. It’s not for him. And in some way, that essay is only about the interior self, how it changes.
My brother gives me all my titles! It’s his superpower, along with organizing. (Scorpio).
SS: You mentioned shame—I always want to write about it but I can’t. I feel it so daily and deeply in my personal life, but I can never articulate why on the page or how. I despise writing because I’m terrified of it—for a number of reasons that are the reasons I deeply respect and love reading authors like you and books like I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well…because it’s so honest and specific and particular. I avoid getting into the writing space because reentering essays and writing new ones and the research—it all makes me so depressed and get into such a dark place. But then there’s the release and satisfaction of that feeling that comes when you just know that you have something good—a sentence, a paragraph, a metaphor, a draft. In the last essay of your book, the I I character comes in. Who are you in your essays, or how do you see yourself as the I on the page and the I putting the I on the page? Does it give you pause or do you have to relive the experience to write things that are so deeply personal? I think there’s always the temptation to make yourself better or worse in any moment, but you are such an honest narrator. The memory and details and quotes are impeccably precise. It makes me wonder if you have a strict documenting and recording of daily life, or if these moments just burn themselves into your memory…I think the “we” absolves me of my own “truth” of memory—or like if it’s wrong it’s okay.
It’s maybe a truth-Truth kind of question.
JAH: There’s a moment in a film I love where, after a performance, the singer blots her heavily-made up face with a wet cloth and throws it out to the adoring fan. The rag contains a rough impression of her makeup, her eyeshadow and lipstick, the rouge that contours her cheeks—all the ways she shapes herself into glamor. As accurate to the hours of how she makes her self as we can get.
These memories—like my rape—are deeply personal but if I don’t throw it out, don’t share how it shaped me, then it would live inside me. And it’s dangerous to let serrated things stay alive in you. Examining = extracting. In writing, I give it a new face, one whose blemishes can gleam, can be thrown out, like beauty, like trash. It’s the only way I have to save myself.
Sometimes I look at my body doing the things it does: the fingers typing now, the foot kicking out a rhythm, the chest rising with breath, and I think, there goes the body, living its little life. I feel coextensive with my body, but I don’t always feel my body, until I am ill or in pain. And in the past I have wanted my body punished for failing to be a good one, a lovable one, one that inspires kind or warm reactions, rather than sometimes the abjection with which it has been met.
So, separating the I’s seems natural to me. And only so much I goes into that letter; the name cannot contain all that it houses. Some music in another room goes unheard, or some porch-part of me gets cut away since it doesn’t fit.
Telling the story doesn’t make you the hero of the piece. It just makes you another character, and perhaps the most fallible, the most suspicious. I feel it’s important to point to that fallibility, which is due to the performance we always are making with our prop-limbs.
How did you come up with The Leftovers as a title? How do you enjoy the editing process? You’ve edited for Black Warrior, right?
SS: It was before the TV show—it was literally just because I felt like I was trying to write about the leftovers of The Dinner Party.
JAH: I love the title [The Leftovers: A Memoir in Art], and the approach. It feels really fresh. I love thinking about how “art” is “memoir” and vice versa.
SS: The title has changed now—it’s just The Leftovers. But yes, I do think of the book as a memoir, of sorts, through my experiences with art. I did work for BWR as nonfiction editor for a year, yes—and I’m very proud of those issues I worked on. I loved the editing process, but I hated being on the other end of it. Kind of like every writing workshop I was in in undergrad and grad school.
JAH: Why did you hate those workshops? I loved workshops, except for two, led by abusive writers.
SS: I don’t think I did hate it, except I was terrified of being up for workshop—I loved thinking about the shape of other people’s work, but when I got comments I was wasn’t pushed toward the kind of writing I wanted to do. There was this Shakespeare scholar [at The University of Michigan], Barbara Hodgdon, who I was lucky enough to work with [during undergrad]—I took a “Shakespeare and Film” class with her and she let me hand in creative interpretations of the films and the plays—my essay about Julie Taymor’s Titus and that absurd film The King is Alive, for example, turned into the essay you mentioned—the last in the book—and she introduced me to Peggy Phelan, who wrote this incredible book called Unmarked
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
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.
-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 Essay - An 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?
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.
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.”
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.