I identify as an "experimental formalist." If you’re reading this, then you probably already know that I work with and against forms. You may not know I work with and against all of them; whether fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, formal generic experimentation is kind of my thing. It turns out, too, that I also experiment with those other “genres," which I’ll discuss later. I am writing this post with the benefit of knowing what the second and third books in the 5-set have done. Desire releases this December. It's a novel. It's a retelling of The Scarlet Letter and Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa, mixed up with the real-true tragedy of Una Hawthorne (Nathaniel's daughter and his inspiration for Pearl). It's a 250-page love song unsung because our speaker has no voice. It's a 250-page poem with lines broken (I'm willing to bet) like you've never seen before. It's a ghost story that tricks you into thinking it's an erasure that looks difficult to read, but it's designed to be easier to read than the text in a children's picture book (because for the sake of all that is good and right about humanity, mankind needs to be reading poetry again). Book 3, Fit Into Me, fell into place this summer because I’ve had more than a year away from it, and upon seeing it again the answer became clear. It's now a full-length lyric memoir, inside of which fits the fictional tea house woman's version of WTMA and Desire, inside of which fits (1) a ton of appropriated lines from recognizable novels, stories, and poems about love and female sexual awakenings and (2) a somewhat pornographic but mostly sweet and tender sonnet sequence; and, ultimately, Fit Into Me as a whole fits itself back into the fictional world shared by WTMA and Desire. A fourth book, not in the set, is turning out to be an even more radical formal experiment, and although I said I'd never write about it, it is in fact a nonfiction-only book about adoption (working title: What Are You?).
With the knowledge of what these four formally unique books now look like, I can say--with thanks to my committee chair Lance Olsen and Utah's PhD program--that I'm quite comfortable teaching any form of fiction an undergraduate or beginning-to-mid-level writer might want to workshop, from traditional longform novels and stories to novels-in-flash nonfictions or even a short story-in-pentinas, etc., which of course suggests that I am also comfortable teaching any form of poetry, formal or not. But when it comes to nonfiction, the form I'm most interested in learning how to better teach is the lyric essay, because it can look like anything--not just those examples we've already seen, but also (especially!) shapes and forms we've never seen. This summer, at the Yale Writers’ Conference, I trial-and-error taught for the first time an hour-and-a-half elective called: "The Lyric Essay: 'A Wedding of Contemporary Poetry and Non-fiction'" (the subtitle I borrowed deliberately from Phillip Lopate, because he's not an experimental nonfiction writer but an authority on the Personal Essay). I taught this elective twice, once before lunch and once after. Having the opportunity to mostly repeat but also tweak it the second time around is why I’m sitting here puzzling this out. Because it got under my skin and hasn’t gone away.
I think a lot of people consider the lyric essay to be a formal experiment. It may well be, for now, but I can't help but think it is something more. A mode of its own, perhaps. Since Western literature began, we have seen only two modes of poetry: the epic and lyric. I am saying here that the lyric essay is more than just a known prose form operating within the mode of lyric poetry. I think it is moving more aggressively than this. It's not settling for being a category of something else. I think it is slowly edging out or at least beginning to cast the edge of a shadow over the lyric poetry mode. More and more writers, women especially, have embraced the lyric essay. It's no wonder; we are all broken and always picking up our pieces, putting ourselves back together again. It is, like us, just trying to figure itself out. And at the moment, the lyric essay is just a baby, but I believe it will stand the test of time, that it will make literary history. I think it is a game-changer and it's going to rapidly proliferate, to the extent that in the not-too-distant future every writing program in the country will want someone who can teach an intro to it. Why do I think it's a game changer? Because it’s got the endurance, the power and strength, of poetry's Lyric I and the flexibility of nonfiction’s Personal I. If these are the loins from which the lyric essay springs, it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s here to stay.
But why now? Why, in the late 1900s and early 2000s, did the lyric essay suddenly become a thing? The Lyric I begins with Sappho (before Jesus!) and the Personal I with Montaigne in the 1400s! That's a whole lot of time for them to have avoided each other. They could have hooked up some 400 years ago when the Romantics came along, but they didn't. The "lyric" half of the lyric essay sings the "Lyric I," which, all by herself, Sappho didn't stand a chance of making her contemporary mode. The epic was the thing. But when the Romantics came along in the 1600s, they inherited that Lyric I from Sappho and utterly transformed and revitalized it: forever. They wiped out the epic mode entirely, and since then the lyric mode has reigned. I used to say that nothing could come along and replace it, because we love music too much. But there are a lot more music listeners in the world than there are poetry readers. Song lyrics are one thing, it seems; poems are another. The "essay" half of the lyric essay tracks back 200 years before the Romantics, to Montaigne's introduction of the Personal I (a thinking, doubting, wondering I) into the prose forms he inherited. Leaning on these historic precedents, I think I would challenge anyone who attempts to demean the beauty, courage, and validity of the lyric essay’s contemporary moment, because all they're doing is revealing their ignorance of the two most essential identifying characteristics of contemporary poetry and nonfiction—the Lyric and Personal I's, respectively. And now these two I's have joined forces. We are fools if we think the lyric essay is just a fad.
So the real question about the lyric essay isn't "What is it?" but "Why now?" Maybe because in our current cultural moment, right now, we are fighting hard to develop a new vocabulary (the Right calls it "political correctness") that will allow everyone in America, regardless of race, class, or gender, to speak for themself (I use that gender-neutrally). The Internet is to thank for this. And as far as a newly forming identity's concerned, just as we are attempting to learn a new language with an expanded, more inclusive vocabulary, Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram and other social media platforms are also in the infancy of their existences, too. In both arenas, we will fuck up big time. But we will learn. When we think of "we," though, we don't often think of the younger generations on a large scale. In order to reach the 14-16yos in the youth workshop that I also taught this summer, I did some research on "Generation Z." I learned that it's not that these kids have an 8-second attention span; it's that they can filter out the bullshit in 8 seconds flat. I tested my girls on this and gave them 3 minutes to open their laptops, get on Twitter, search the hashtag #mswishlist, find an agent whose wish was of sufficient interest, and then report back to me the agent's name, the name and location of the agency they work for, their client list, their professional bio, and something personal (maybe from a blog post or a public Facebook update). The girls did it.
One report I read suggested that this generation will not fuck up big time online, the way older generations have and still do and god knows still will. Generation Z knows the difference between professional and personal, and they are masters at managing both their professional and personal "brands." Our youngest generation of thinkers alive today was born into a world in which the Internet, as we know it now, already existed. If you’re of the Oregon Trail or Millennial generations or older, then you remember a world that existed in that time period we might as well dub: "The Stupid Age." We couldn’t in our wildest dreams have been able to find the answer to something encyclopedic in under 8 seconds flat, and even if we were lucky enough to have a set of encyclopedias at home it is likely they were already at least a year outdated. And how were we supposed to know, in real time, what was happening everywhere else in the world? The 24-hour news cycle, coupled with the power of the Internet, didn't yet exist.
Today, the Internet is the single greatest technological invention of our time, and our dependency upon it and its control over human intelligence should terrify us. Big surprise: it does. Is this our greatest anxiety today? I don't know. The new normal of our extreme weather events seems a safer bet, globally; and in the States, systemic racism, police brutality, rape culture, mass shootings. We must do better. All of us on earth, yes, but I mean writers. We must do better. Because I think that for a literary movement to be remembered as great, the writers who paved the way, whose unfinalizable books have somehow transcended their own time period (largely because entire academic fields of study exist that study, theorize, and teach them), did the work of tapping into what was terrifying about not just their own individual experience of being alive but to all of humanity (in their own time period, contemporary to them). I think, too, that the lyric essay's Lyric and Personal I's, singing and struggling, fragmented and broken and lying in shards, in tatters, trying to make sense of these multiple consciousnesses, is the form that best allows us to tap into our own contemporary moment's "Anxiety of Identity."
The lyric essay, as a performative text, bares itself, exposes itself, naked on the page and in any form it chooses (making up its own rules along the way). Its use of white space, which we have long read as an indicator of a jump in time or location, allows the self to fragment itself as many times as it must, in that silent space of a breath or a day or ten years; the "I" of this kind of lyric essay may speak for or from every subject-position in need of a voice (each with its own wants, dramatic plot lines, and transhistorical and trans-spatial settings). This lyric essay itself performs the identity crises that its many speakers / narrators struggle desperately to repair into that single ego-confident "I" we were all taught to craft in fiction classes, that ego-confident "I" we were misled to believe, first in high school and then in college English, could remain stable yet personal, argumentative but persuasive, etc., from the moment of its first appearance in the text to its last.
I brought up Generation Z before because these kids are fluent in things we don't even know exist. The most terrifying things that will confront them when they come into their adulthood are not likely to be the same as ours, and while I wonder what their greatest anxieties will be I also take comfort in the knowledge, in the meantime, that if we consider writers to be the record keepers of life on earth, the record keepers of human consciousness, for all time, then isn't this one hell of an important job we have to do? And isn't it lovely that each generation of new young writers gets to make and record those observations most relevant to its own experiences?
Now that I’ve got these first three books of the 5-set behind me, I feel brave enough to wonder if what makes my novels different is that they are experimenting with a new mode of poetry, one I’ve been quietly and patiently trying to figure out for myself, mostly by trying, failing, trying again, failing, trying and trying and still trying. But, I mean, that’s why I came to the most experimental fiction program in the country for my PhD. Now that my degree-granting coursework is done forever, I feel as if it has to come to something, some understanding of myself, as a reader if nothing else. So, off the cuff, I’d say that the courses of my BA, MA, MFA, and now PhD have illuminated for me that I love to read for love, and I love to read women (particularly mothers and daughters). Bonus points for magic. And a gold star for writing it in song, in a form I’ve never seen anyone else use before. Two gold stars if that music is precise and not for a second out of tune or off beat.
I’d never say this if I only had We Take Me Apart to stand on, because it’s just OK (and sure, maybe for a debut, it wasn’t too bad). But Desire does it better, on every level. It has to. Because I wasn’t even a poet when WTMA came out. I felt like such a fraud that the poets had given it any attention at all, that they even considered it poetry. Remember that because it was the first one of the bunch, it launched Mud Luscious Press's “novel(la)" series. I really thought that all I’d done was write a funny-looking novel(la)! The poets did care about that book, though, so I got serious about giving them a 2nd book that could prove I'm not a fraud. I applied for and went to a 3-year MFA program for poetry. It was awful. I was so far behind those first two years. I didn’t get anything. I didn’t get line breaks! I hated everything about poetry! I wanted to run back into the safe embrace of fiction. . .
But I’m patient. I’m also obsessive. So I took my time and obsessed over every tiny thing, because I knew I’d be mortified if, after finaling for two national awards for a not-too-bad debut that’s just OK, I followed it up with a dud. Necessarily, Desire does it better on every craft level I could think of. My favorite thing of all about it is that the mere existence of its narrator should call into question everything you thought you knew about the narrator of We Take Me Apart. What I’m most proud of is this: the story was done in 2014. I spent a year and a half getting its form right.
Which brings me back full circle. I am an experimental formalist. I can hear my mom asking me now: What does that mean? It means I experiment with that prose form we all think we know: the novel. And because mothers, daughters, love, and magic come straight out of Marquez 101, I’m not trying to mess with that stuff (much). The challenge I’m most interested in taking on is how to write a novel that sings the Lyric I in a form I’ve never seen before. But what kind of novel is that? I don't know, exactly. Tentatively, I offer that it's a novel written in a mode of poetry that I don't know what else to call except the Lyric Epic. I write Lyric Epic Novels? I don’t want to tell people that! But it seems right? Because I've taken the contemporary Lyric I and dropped it into the epic tradition that (1) has specific forms and (2) narrates a novel-length story that takes place in a world entirely its own?
I feel a little like Sappho all alone out here. Not least of all because, for as much generic experimentation as I do, I experiment just as much with those other genres, too. Early in this post I said I’d get around to them, and here we are. Because my lyric epic novels also care, deeply, about those other genres most of us like to ignore and pretend don’t really exist: horror, speculative, romance, fairy tale, fantasy, etc. But a large portion of the literary texts on my exam list is inclusive. My work strives to be inclusive, too. Re: horror, the narrator of We Take Me Apart stabs the points of her sewing shears straight into her eyes; re: speculative, Desire is a ghost story; re: romance, Desire is a non-heteronormative love story; re: fairy tale, We Take Me Apart rewrote them; and re: fantasy, when taken together, my first three books offer up one weird magical world, and I keep going back to it again and again and again.
See ya there. <3