This week Essay Press is publishing my chapbook of experimental and lyric essays, one year. Click the link and you can read the essays and see a bit of what I’ve been doing with my essaying. The essays are excerpted from a longer manuscript direction is the moment you choose. I wrote the essays and then embarked upon an extraordinary collaboration with the artist, Amanda Thomson, and we worked together to see how we might visually explore the relationships between the essays, voices and themes. The full m/s contains three distinct narratives and the format of the book, the way text and image work together, alters the relationship of these narratives and how they’re read. It was an exciting foray into collaboration and has led Amanda and me to embark on a second project together.
As many people know, I’m a huge fan of the essay form and am interested in seeing if it’s possible to redefine and reclaim the essay. I’ve written previous posts about this and so won’t wax lyrical again, here.
But as we all write into an ongoing culture, I’ve drawn up a list of some essays and essayists I love.
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (see my post from May 2015). Poetry and essay, image and text, these books work on me like few other texts have. First of all they are powerfully written and beautifully rendered. Rankine’s writing makes me consider race, gender, institutional and individual violence, mental health, everyday racism, and many other things we all should be considering every day.
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (& Bluets & The Art of Cruelty): Nelson’s astute and concise consideration of gender, sexuality, family and motherhood is timely and timeless. She takes the essay form, shakes it up, and gives it a good talking to. Nelson, with the linguistic breadth and power of the poet she is, brings autobiography, observation and philosophy together in fluid, shocking, satisfying prose. Phrases/ideas like the ‘many-gendered mothers of my heart’ and ‘feral with vulnerability’ work on me in wonderfully agitated ways. Give me more. Yes, please.
Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist (see my post from May 2015). A brilliant, curious and honest consideration the biggest subjects of the day – race, gender, sexuality. Gay is a force here as well as in her equally hard-hitting fiction.
Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know – a concise, clear meditation on gender, voice, race and writer/woman as subject. It is a response to Orwell’s ‘Why I write’. This book is quiet and subtle and builds to such a convincing, fully complex discussion. The cover of the Notting Hill Editions edition quotes Levy on how she’s come to her writing: ‘To become a writer I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak a little louder, and then louder, and then to just speak in my own voice which is not loud at all.’ For me, her writing gains volume as I read; it is exactly through her sublimely written quietness that her writing booms.
Anne Carson. Well almost everything she writes. Her Short Talks stand out and build in plain, complicating short pieces that often draw our attention to how we pay attention and how we see and hear. Carson’s ‘Kinds of Water’ is of pilgrimage of the most othering sort and breaks apart form before putting it back together in a way that stops breath and makes you scratch your head before you breathe again (a missed breath or a sigh?). My favorite single essay of hers is: ‘MOLY: Variations on the Right to Remain Silent’ published in A Public Space, which is all about silence and creativity and intentional ambiguity. Here she brings together Joan of Arc, Francis Bacon and Hölderline and quotes lines like ‘the light comes in the name of the voice’ and asks questions like: ‘And if there is a silence that falls inside certain words, when, how, with what violence does that take place, and what difference does that make to who you are?’
Ali Smith, the great genre bender. Reading Artful and How to be Both around the same time made me look at and see the world differently for weeks afterward (months, years).
Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me – an impassioned letter from a father to a son on race, presence, violence and being a man in the United States today. An uneasy read and that’s good here where Coates is cognizant of his main reader, also of gender (tangentially), and so very focused on his subject at hand as he looks back in order to take us forward.
Max Porter – Grief is the Thing With Feathers – a fluid, witty, and sober genre-defying work. A book exploring subjects I find so compelling – death and grief – and including a talking/thinking/mischievous/loving crow. What else could you want?
Theodore Adorno ‘The Essay as Form’. Thick, intense essay on the form and what it’s capable of. The essay form rocks, basically, and is dynamic and challenging and full of almost anything we want it to be about and, if we work hard enough, we can make an essay do almost anything. Adorno writes about how the essay can prove that the assumption that the ‘unbroken order of concepts is not equivalent to what exists’ and indeed he goes on to write: ‘Discontinuity is essential to the essay; its subject matter is always a conflict brought to a standstill.’
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, ‘The F Word’ from Blue Studios, an interrogative and generative and gendered response to Adorno. One of her essays on essaying. ‘The essay is a way of representing struggle, crossings, and creolized exploration. Essays can be tested by the degree and tension of the struggles and passions with which they reverberate.’ And she also says, ‘The essay is restless. It is like a kind of travel writing, a voyaging, partial and never satisfied, always a little too hungry or full…a little too thirsty’.
John D’Agata: The Next American Essay; The Lost Origins of the Essay and The Making of the American Essay. ‘‘And by “Essay” I mean a verb.’
Philip Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay is excellent on the personal and familiar essay. ‘The essay is a notoriously flexible and adaptable form. It possesses the freedom to move anywhere, in all directions. It acts as if all objects were equally near the center and as if “all subjects are linked to each other” by free association. This freedom can be daunting, not only for the novice essayist confronting such latitude but for the critic attempting to pin down its formal properties.’
I’m also going to include Lydia Davis on this list. Although it could be argued that her essays are stories, I’d argue that her stories can also be considered essays. The best kind of essays. The shattering kind.
There are many others, including many still to discover, but this is a start, a teaser.