Hey there dear readers! Superstition Review is back after a brief hiatus with more good news: past contributor Victor Lodato’s essay “When Your Greatest Romance Is a Friendship” has been published in The New York Times‘ “Modern Love” column. Lodato was featured in our Interview section of Issue 8 in an interview conducted by former intern Marie Lazaro. In addition to being a recipient of the PEN Center USA Award for fiction, Victor Lodato has also been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Institute as well as the National Endowment for the Arts. His latest novel, “Edgar and Lucy” is out now from Macmillan, and can be found both online as well as at most major bookstores. Do yourself a favor and check out the essay here, and buy one (or two, or seven) copies of “Edgar and Lucy” here. Congratulations Victor, we couldn’t be happier to know you!
Top of the afternoon, dearest readers! We here at Superstition Review are rife with news from the Occident after a barn-burner of a conference at this year’s AWP, held in the belly of the beast in Washington, D.C. Past contributor Patrick Madden is co-editing the 21st Century Essays series with none other than David Lazar! 21st Century Essays is put out through Ohio State University Press, and they themselves have some great news: The 2017 Gournay Prize is taking submissions from now until March 15. If anyone out there has a book-length collection of essays, or knows someone who might, tell them to check out this link here. There’s a publication deal with a cash prize of $1,000 in it for ’em if they win!
And the proliferation doesn’t stop there: Madden also has provided us with the announcement for not one but TWO collections of essays, titled (respectively) “After Montaigne” (which was also co-edited with David Lazar), out from University of Georgia Press, and “Sublime Physick” (for which Patrick Madden is the sole progenitor), put out through University of Nebraska Press.
Suffice it to say, Patrick Madden keeps the hits comin’, and we here at Superstition Review are only too happy to share these with you, dear readers. Congratulations to Patrick Madden, and David Lazar, for all their hard work!
That about does it for us today, gang. Thanks for reading, and always, let us know what you think in the comments section below.
When I read I want to be surprised- I want to see something new in the story that I have never seen before. I find myself drawn to more modern writing styles, the riskier and the more artful the better. How the author uses words to describe places, things, people, ideas or feelings is critical. Without art and skill in how a writer describes the concepts of the story, the writing falls flat as I am unable to really imagine what the writer is trying to describe and I can’t engage in the text. The writer should use words in a style unlike what I normally see, so the piece is entirely unique. The idea behind the words should be just as creative and original as the words themselves- I want to be lead to reflect on the piece long after I have finished reading. Presenting some new question, idea, or experience for me to read about always gets my attention.
In nonfiction, the author reigns supreme. You’re the main character of your own story in nonfiction, and it revolves around you. When I read a nonfiction piece, I want as much information and detail about the author as possible from every sense. The more detail and description the author gives in a story the more able I am to fully reflect on the story they just told me. The descriptions should not only be affective and creative- but artful, almost poetic. The more beautiful a piece is to read, and the longer I find myself thinking about it after I finish it, the better I judge the piece to be.
Sophie Graham is a junior at Arizona State University double majoring in English Literature and Sociology, and minoring in Geography. She is currently the Nonfiction Editor for Superstition Review. She is also a Writing Tutor at the ASU Tutoring Center. Upon Graduation, she plans to pursue her interests in social work and education.
What do I owe the people I write about? This concern is ongoing, whether I’m writing about family as in my marriage memoir, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, or about strangers I meet, as in Good Neighbors, Bad Times, Echoes of My Father’s German Village.
Actually, I’m sometimes more concerned for strangers than for those I live with every day. Family can get mad at me. They can challenge my sense of truth. They can sue to keep me honest. Fortunately, none have—partly because, except for my sister, they are reasonable if I am reasonable; partly because I keep two caveats in my head while writing. One is Annie Dillard’s advice: “Writing memoir is an art, but not a martial art!” The other is from Kim Barnes after she discovered that, despite their battle scenes, her father, much to her surprise, liked her memoir In the Wilderness:
One thing that we always assume, wrongly, is that if we write about people honestly they will resent it and become angry. If you come at it for the right reasons and you treat people as you would your fictional characters—you know, you don’t allow them to be static—if you treat them with complexity and compassion, sometimes they will feel as though they’ve been honored, not because they’re presented in some ideal way but because they’re presented with understanding.
Both authors’ advice, however, was not enough help in the kitchens and living rooms of the Christians and Jews I met and interviewed about my father’s German village. Everyone was gracious; many served me homemade linzertorte. But unlike my family, I knew very little about them, and so had no context for processing what they were telling me about their memories and lives. Plus I had a built-in bias: these were Germans and I was Jewish, a child born in the US to parents who fled their country in the 1930s, so when they said, “Everyone got along before Hitler,” my struggles with fairness became part of the story. Finally, they were old people, unsophisticated, who thought I was only gathering the objective facts of their lives. And no matter how often I tried to explain narrative nonfiction, they did not understand that I was going to recreate them fully on the page, as I experienced what they said, thought, and did before, during, and after Nazi times.
One big question: Do I use real names? I had their written permission so I could—but should I? These people, as it turned out, were neither heroes nor villains, so were names ethically necessary or a bad idea? With my family, I had no choice; my husband Stu was my husband Stu. But in Good Neighbors, Bad Times, I could follow the tradition of other writers of nonfiction books about small villages—and use pseudonyms.
In the end, like Carlo Levi’s Christ Stops at Eboli and Lawrence Wylie’s Village in the Vaucluse, I changed names. First, it universalized the story so people in other German villages couldn’t let themselves off the hook, saying, “Oh, that was X. We are Y.” Just like if you write “an Ivy League school,” Harvard can’t say, “Oh, that’s Princeton, not us!” Second, and most important, the names were not essential to my story. Whether the postman was Herr Stolle or Herr Stoner had no consequence; he is still the young man in Hitler’s army who spent his retirement years researching the history of the village Jews. His life is complicated, and as Kim Barnes advises, my challenge was to honor that complexity.
Since then, when I write nonfiction, I’m comfortable with this rule of thumb: If people are neither famous nor infamous, they deserve privacy whenever possible. At the very least, they should not be hurt or embarrassed without good reason. I always let the reader know: sometimes with initials; sometimes with a “Let’s call her….” ‘ sometimes with a footnote, such as, “I’ve changed the name and some identifying details to honor requests for individual privacy.”
This rule has served me well. Friends continue meet for lunch, strangers still offer me linzertorte or the equivalent, and I feel I am writing true.
Today we are pleased to feature author J. Malcolm Garcia as our Authors Talk series contributor. J Malcolm discusses how he finds inspiration for his writing from the people he encounters during his travels.
Like his nonfiction work, “Security District 4,” J Malcolm reflects that much of his writing is about the people he meets. An individual will say something and he will “write it down.”
He reminds us that inspiration can be found anywhere and that the moments that change a person’s life are worth telling even when their life is no longer news-worthy.
The case involved a woman who sought damages from her estranged, much older fiancé because he had lied to her about the nature of her engagement ring (not to mention its value). The majority of the court denied her claim, declaring that she, given the difference in their ages, had relied foolishly on his assurances.
But the poetic justice dissented. And thus sangeth:
A groom must expect matrimonial pandemonium
When his spouse finds he’s given her cubic zirconium.
Given their history and Pygmalion relation
I find her reliance was with justification.
One of the justice’s colleagues observed that “every jurist has the right to express him or herself in a manner the jurist deems appropriate,” but he was concerned about “the perception that litigants and the public at large might form when an opinion of the court is reduced to rhyme.”
Reduced to rhyme.
Perhaps the offending justice is merely a bad poet (though he defended his work, accurately, I think, by declaring: “You have an obligation to be right, but you have no obligation to be dull.”)
His critics, however, seem to be suggesting that the musical properties of verse are insufficiently serious for the task at hand; and that the characteristic virtue of poetry—to condense and transmute whatever it wishes into memorable, indestructible language—somehow harms the facts, stripping them of the gravitas appropriate, in this instance, to an instrument of law.
Yet there is a venerable legacy of serious nonfiction in verse. For instance, Lucretius in his treatise On the Nature of Things, from the first century B.C., presents in hexameters a full-scale exposition of the Greek Philosopher Epicurus and the atomic theory of Democritus. There is also Ovid’s satirical but no less serious handbook of seduction, The Art of Love.
So maybe poetry, or even merely verse, is not the problem here. Maybe the justice’s quatrains—his creative nonfiction, if you will—are unsuitably creative because they employ the wrong poetic techniques. If he had written his dissent in a less galloping meter or even in verse libre, if he had chosen fewer polysyllabic rhymes, or had used slant rhymes, or had dispensed with rhyme altogether, perhaps his colleagues, and the guffawing public they imagine, would not think his verse a diminishment.
Poetry, in its official get-up, is a matter of lines and line breaks, of course, and the interplay of these with sentences draped down the page, through the stanzas, across the pauses. It’s a spectacular confinement, and at its best, a delicious, necessary unsettling of the language.
But we also know that poetry appears in prose, as prose, perhaps as often as it appears in verse, as verse. It’s something other than just lines. So we might assert, for the sake of argument, that verse is to poetry as nonfiction is to creative nonfiction.
Nonfiction prides itself on trafficking in facts. But many poets assert that poems should be factually accurate, even when fictive. So what happens to the status of a fact once it is introduced into a poem? Is there such a thing as a poetic fact? If there is, can it be introduced into nonfiction? How is its status changed by doing so? And how does it alter the status of nonfiction?
Poetic writing consorts with a lyric consciousness, of course, and with the metaphoric—saying one thing by saying another, saying one thing in terms of another but in a more controlled and sharpened way than the metaphoric slip-slop of ordinary speech. A poetic fact—not a fact made poetic—embodies more than one kind of perception. It registers more than one kind of measurement. And it inspires in us a devoted restlessness among those perceptions and measurements, because it also welcomes the possibility of discovery at its edges. It presents—and verges on presenting something more.
Let me give just one example of a poetic fact, though they abound, of course—a line from “Chimes” by the wonderful poet Robert Dana:
Every day I live I live forever.
The statement is true, undeniably factual in several ways but not like My heart beats sixty times a minute now.
Both lines might be verse, since they both scan, but only the first is poetic, or poetry.
We might wonder how, then, a poet would rewrite the versifying justice’s opinion in order to include poetic fact and whether the law would still be the law if that were to happen. We nod yes when Ezra Pound says poetry is news that stays news. But if the newspaper were poetry, we certainly wouldn’t need a daily edition. (And can you imagine the 11 o’clock news as a poetry reading?)
Consider now Norman Maclean’s masterpiece Young Men and Fire. It is a book of nonfiction fact, relating the story of the death of a dozen smokejumpers—and the unlikely survival of three others—in a forest fire blow-up at Mann Gulch, Montana, in 1949. Maclean meticulously replays, rethinks, re-imagines and researches the last thirty minutes of the doomed men’s lives—setting this quest for comprehension against the backdrop of what was known about fire at the time of the disaster and what has been learned in the 38 years afterward. The book brims with historical documentation and scientific data about fire fighting, about burn rates and the effects of wind; it contains maps and photographs, diagrams, transcripts and mathematical equations; and it also draws on his and others’ intimate knowledge of the local landscape, gleaned from lifetimes spent in the Montana woods.
As he writes: “In a modern tragedy you have to look out for the little details rather than big flaws.”
The word “tragedy” should cue us here. Maclean is also drawing on a lifetime of teaching Shakespeare and the Romantic poets, and this is where the poetry comes in. His book is haunted by the search for compassion and understanding about the earth and our place on it. While acting as a factual detective, Maclean is also confronting the problem of identity, which, even as he faces old age and his own mortality, remains unsolved for him—unsolvable for us all.
It is probably not surprising, then, that the book was left unfinished at his death, though it is, most assuredly, complete.
Maclean’s task lay beyond the power of nonfiction facts alone, so he turned to poetic facts, of which the book contains many. Consider, for instance, this passage from the concluding pages, which illustrates how he extends nonfiction fact with poetic fact. About the doomed men running up the steep mountainside from the fire that will consume them, he writes:
The evidence, then, is that at the very end beyond thought and beyond fear and beyond even self-compassion and divine bewilderment there remains some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hoped to do on earth. By this final act they had come about as close as body and spirit can to establishing a unity of themselves with earth, fire, and perhaps the sky.
This is as far as we are able to accompany them. When the fire struck their bodies, it blew their watches away. The two hands of a recovered watch had melted together at about four minutes to six. For them, that may be taken as the end of time.
If this were not enough, a few sentences later, Maclean writes, in what is the concluding passage of the book:
I, an old man, have written this fire report. Among other things, it was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature. In addition, I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to me, many of them now dead. Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.
It is a thematic coda, of course, but at the very end of it something wholly unexpected flares up. Maclean has mentioned his wife only once before, briefly, telling us of her death from lung cancer, and that there is a valley near Mann Gulch named for her. (Another place where fire can make its strange appearance.)
These few details become supreme poetic facts because they allow the nonfiction facts about the nature of fire—and the facts about the smokejumpers’ deaths, the strange solitude of their deaths—to also stand metaphorically for the obscure solitude of Maclean’s grief at his wife’s lonely death. These poetic facts revise our understanding of the book by suddenly multiplying the dimensions of its assumed subject. The nonfiction book of nonfiction facts is called Young Men and Fire. But the poem it also becomes by virtue of that final passage could be called Old Man and Ashes.
Thus, we might assert that creative nonfiction—if we can now think of it as a form of poetry—is the most impure, and thus capacious, of poetic forms because it allows the broadest range of rhythms and “content.” It honors the nonfiction fact, reveres and seeks the clarity of definition that nonfiction fact aspires to, but, like Maclean’s fire, it knows and submits to the earthly reality that, in a moment, a fact of that sort can become quite something else.
* “Justices Call on Bench’s Bard to Limit His Lyricism:” The New York Times, December 15, 2002, Adam Liptak
In July 2015, we published Laura Esther Wolfson’s essay After the Autobiography here on our blog. Then we recently heard the good news that it received a “notable” listing in Best American Essays 2016. That brings the number of notable listings her work has received to five. Congratulations, Laura!
To read her past work published in Issue 14 of our magazine, click here.