Day 3: VCCA On the Lyric Essay

News Flash: My name, along with one or two others, has been passed on to the VP of TopSecret school for a second interview. A decision about the 6-month Writer-in-Residence position for which I am being considered will be made by the end of this month.

Note: There are artists here from Scotland, Austria, Germany, India, and France. The rest of the 20 of us come from Washington DC, New York City, and a few other places like Chicago, IL or Bakersville, NC. One lady is here on an NEA. One is about to depart for a six month funded fellowship to Japan. A southern writer living in LA will leave for Europe next month, pursing additional residencies. In other words, the people here are kind of amazing. Uber talented. Friendly, serious, smart, hard working. I’m getting a lot done. Haven’t “had a blast” yet, but that’s ok. Oh, and I’ve befriended Brian, gay playwright from NYC, with whom I go to the gym everyday (there is a college campus 1 mile away and we get free access). He’s funny and we can be loud together and that is a good thing because everything else here is very, very quiet. Almost like an abbey. Brian and I gossip on the way to the gym, sweat bullets for 2 hours, then head back to our respective studios and get to work.

Day 3: VCCA – On the Lyric Essay
When I applied for this residency, I explained that I wanted to spend two weeks focusing on the lyric essay. Since then, my infatuation with the short-short (fiction) has grown and I have decided to study both forms while I am here. I consider them cousins, to say the least.

Now, here I am in studio W8, where all the past authors who have stayed sign their names on the door. As it so happens, both Valerie Miner and Dorianne Laux—professors of mine from graduate school—have stayed and written in this very same private studio. How cool!

Part of my self-directed studies involves a free-write every morning, from which I steal the 1st line of an author’s short-short and go forth wildly into my own fictitious writing without censorship. I do this in an actual journal—less formal than the computer—and I write at least two pages, no stopping my pen. I’m going to share the 1st lines each day if anyone wants to try this at home.

Day 1 I used Dan O’Brien’s line from the short-short “Crossing Spider Creek”: “Here is a seriously injured man on a frightened horse.”

Day 2 I used Alan Gurganus’ line from the short-short “A Public Denial”: “Despite persistent rumors to the contrary…”

Today I used Carolyn Forche’s line from the short-short “The Colonel”: “What you have heard is true.”

I’d like to take this opportunity—especially for any of my readers who are also writers—to quote some of the authors I respect as they attempt to define “the lyric essay.” These are all taken from Seneca Review’s 2007 issue devoted to the lyric essay.

Brenda Miller
“The lyric essay doesn’t look too long at itself in the mirror. It is not ‘self-reflective,’ in that it does not really reflect the self who scribbles it down. Rather, it is the mirror, the silver film reflecting whatever passes its way…And that’s how the lyric essay happens: When there’s no bothersome self to get in the way. When the writing finds its own core. When it finds the language it needs on its own…What I’m trying to say is: The lyric essay happens in the gaps. In the pause before the next breath demands to be taken.” (23-25)

Philip Lopate
“…What is ostensibly so new about the lyric essay per se? Is it only historical ignorance of the classical essays’ resourceful capacities that allow the champions of the lyric essay to proffer it as something novel? What does the lyric essay bring to the table? One might cynically say: opacity, incoherence, mediocrity. Or, more hopefully: an attention to the movements and undulations of language as a subject in itself; a replacement of the monaural, imperially ego-confident self, the I-character voice, with a more multivalent, realistically unstable, communal or media-channeling speaker system; a wedding of contemporary poetry and nonfiction.” (30)

“What bothers me more is the lyric essay’s refusal to let thought accrue to some purpose. Over the years I have come to feel that what interest me most in the classical essay, including the memoirist personal essay, is the quality of rumination. It is the writer’s thought, or consciousness, let us call it, which hooks me, not the ostensible plot.” (31)

Amy Newman
“What if the lyrical content of the poem sexed the essay from out of its tie and didn’t wait for it to get dressed in the morning?…So this hybrid is serious about establishing itself as a unique species. Evolution is both science and desire. Did you just look at my legs?” (43-44)

Judith Kitchen
“…Like a poem, the lyric essay must not only mean, but be. It is a way of seeing the world. A hybrid—a cross between poetry and nonfiction—it must, as Rene Char said of the poet, ‘leave traces of [its] passage, not proof,’ letting mystery into the knowing. Or the knowing to incorporate its mystery. And part of that knowing is through sound—the whisper of soft consonants, the repetition of an elongated vowel that squeaks its way across the page, the chipping away of k-k-k-k, the assonance and consonance of thought attuned to language. The internal rhyme of the mind. “(46)

“To be lyric, there must be a lyre. That said, I believe there must also be some allegiance to the nonfiction aspect of the essay. The run-of-the-mill, workaday nature of reality. Of fact. The job of the lyric essayist is to find the prosody of fact, finger the emotional instrument, play the intuitive and the intrinsic but all in service to the music of the real. Even if it’s an imagined actuality. The aim is to make of, not up. The lyre not the liar.” (47)

“A lyric essay, however, functions as a lyric. Can be held in the mind—must, in fact, be held in the mind—intact. It means as an entity. It swallows you, the way a poem swallows you, until you reside inside it. Try to take it apart and you spin out of control. It is held together by the glue of absence, the mortar of melody, the threnody of unspent inspiration.” (48)

Stephen Kuusisto
Wise and humble as he is, I find the most direct information on the lyric essay in Kuusisto’s selection of an epigraph quoting Igor Stravinsky: “The real composer thinks about his work the whole time’ he is not always conscious of this, but he is aware of it later when he suddenly knows what he will do.”

David Shields
“It’s a category mistake to think of memoir as belonging to journalism; it belongs to literature. When a lyric poet uses, characteristically, the first-person voice, we don’t say accusingly, ‘But did this really happen the way you say it did?’ We accept the honest and probably inevitable mixture of mind and spirit. I think the reason we don’t interrogate poetry as we do memoir is that we have a long and sophisticated history of how to read the poetic voice. We accept that its task is to find emotional truth within experience, so we aren’t all worked up about the literal. We don’t yet have that history or tradition with the memoir.” (81)

“Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.” (84)

“The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they’re both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems…One could say that fiction, indirectly, is a pursuit of knowledge, but the essay and the poem more directly and more urgently attempt to figure something out about the world…The lyric essay is the literary form that gives the writer the best opportunity for rigorous investigation, because its theater is the world (the mind contemplating the world) and offers no consoling dreamworld, no exit door.” (84-85)

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