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!
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
Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and author Elizabeth Kolbert will be talking about her latest work, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, at Tempe Center for the Arts. The author will also present on the role human beings have played in climate change. The event takes place on Thursday, October 20 at 7 p.m. A Q&A and book signing will take place after the presentation. This event is free and open to the public.
Elizabeth Kolbert has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1999. Her series on global warming, “The Climate of Man,” appeared in The New Yorker in the spring of 2005 and won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s magazine award, among numerous other accolades. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, and Mother Jones, and has been anthologized in The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best American Political Writing. She edited The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009. A collection of her work, The Prophet of Love and Other Tales of Power and Deceit, was published in 2004. Prior to joining the staff of The New Yorker, Kolbert was a political reporter for The New York Times.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, was a New York Times 2014 Top Ten Best Book of the Year, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle awards for the best books of 2014. Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change was chosen as one of the 100 Notable Books of the Year in 2006 by The New York Times Book Review.
I’m at dinner at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference – 250 writer types in one huge room divided up into tables of four, six, and eight. The voices are pitched high. Alcohol, sleep-deprivation, and all-day-and-all-night book-chat contribute to the general hysteria of neurotic people from all over the country eating together with many strangers – way too many strangers. The young woman beside me (whom I’ve just met) is shy, and so, socially responsible citizen that I am, I try to engage her in conversation, try to “bring her out,” as my mother would put it. Not meeting my eyes, she says that her name is Julie. The other two people at the table (whom I’ve also just met) do their parts to conquer Julie’s shyness – it’s a spontaneous and vaguely humanitarian project that distracts us from the anxiety we feel over the general dining room hubbub.
Julie turns out to be a good sport. She allows herself to be brought out. More accurately, she tries to be polite by answering our questions. She has a surprisingly snappy, street-corner way of speaking. At first she’s reluctant to say much, but as the conversation goes on, she releases information in rapid bursts of sentences punctuated by awkward pauses during which she blushes and stares at her plate. Julie charms us – she’s making such an effort not to be surly toward us and to enter the spirit of her first real writers’ conference conversation. She reveals to us that although she’s from a working-class family in a working-class neighborhood in a working-class city, she’s now a student at Middlebury College. The college offered her a scholarship, and without knowing much about the place, she showed up and enrolled. She reveals to us that she’s doing okay at Middlebury even though it’s about the strangest place she’s ever been, and most of her time on campus she feels like an alien.
Okay, we’re doing fine, we do-gooder bringer-outer dining companions like this biography we’ve elicited from the shy girl. Apparently Julie is a before-version of Eliza Dolittle, and we’re eager to contribute to her education and improvement. We ask her which writers on the Bread Loaf staff she listed as her preferences for a manuscript-reader. Julie shrugs and says that the only one she knows anything about is Larry Brown. She’s never heard of the others.
This conversation occurs somewhere around 1992 or 93, in Larry’s first year on the Bread Loaf faculty – he’s an associate staff member and not nearly as “well known” as Tim O’Brien or Nancy Willard or Ron Hansen or Francine Prose or Nicholas Delbanco or the other members of the fiction-writing staff. We three dinner companions eagerly offer Julie our comments about our favorite writers with whom she might work – if it doesn’t work out with Larry Brown – in the coming days of the conference. Julie listens politely but finally shrugs and says she hopes she gets assigned to Larry, he’s the only reason she came up here, she really admires his writing.
About this time I glimpse, up at the far end of the dining room, Larry Brown himself standing up and excusing himself from the table where he’s been eating. From the previous year’s conference, when Larry and I became friendly acquaintances, I remember that after dinner he customarily leaves early like this to walk outside and have a cigarette on the porch of the inn. An irresistibly bright idea flashes into my brain. “Would you like to meet Larry Brown?” I ask.
“Oh God no!” Julie says. She looks as if I’d suggested we go out to the highway to watch a car run over a chipmunk.
My friends, I know I should have respected Julie’s wishes in this matter, I know I did the wrong thing, and my excuse makes me feel even worse than I ordinarily do about my social blunders. I was a victim of that strain of social agitation peculiar to writers’ conferences – low-level celebrity-itis. Ostensibly I was out to do the right thing, to introduce a fan to a writer and to give the writer the pleasure of meeting someone who has a passion for his work. But really and truly, I know I was just showing off and trying to increase my stature in the eyes of the people with whom I’d eaten dinner by demonstrating that I was pals with Larry Brown.
I stand up and speak to Larry as he makes his way down the dining-room aisle toward the exit. I tell him there is someone here at my table who wants to meet him, and in his affable way, he says, “Okay – sure.” I go ahead and make the introduction.
As I carry out my little mannerly performance, Julie blushes deeper than I would have thought possible. She might be flashing her eyes up toward Larry’s face, but I don’t see it. She might be moving her lips or moaning to herself, but I don’t see or hear that either. I do see her sitting with her head bowed and her shoulders hunched as if she’s in pain.
Larry Brown speaks to Julie. When she doesn’t – or can’t – reply, he finds a way to go on talking to her as if she has replied. A shy person himself, Larry seems to understand Julie’s plight, and with an eloquent social grace, he carries us all through the awkward situation. And of course the others at our table play their parts, too. Except for Julie, we all talk, we make chit-chat, we smile and laugh, and so the introduction reaches its proper conclusion. Larry tells Julie that it was great to meet her and that he looks forward to talking with her again. “And now if you’ll please excuse me,” he says, giving us all a grin and a nod, then making his way toward the dining-room door, the porch, and his well-earned after-dinner cigarette.
For a long moment the four of us sit in silence. Julie’s behavior during the introduction has been mildly shocking – I personally have never seen anyone quite so paralyzed by a social circumstance. The other two do-gooders and I begin awkwardly trying to construct a new conversation, when suddenly Julie interrupts us, “How could you do that?!” Her eyes are blazing at me, and it’s evident that her former shyness has been converted into anger.
I make my explanations, of course, and resort to such social skills as I have, which are adequate for most situations. In fact, I feel that in spite of my questionable motivation, I’ve acted correctly, I’ve made it possible for Julie and Larry to become acquainted in the days that follow, now she can get to know him as a person. And how can that be other than a good thing? I yammer on and on, feeling a hot mix of guilt, self-righteousness, teacherly condescension, and social desperation.
“You don’t understand!” Julie blurts, interrupting me mid-sentence – though it’s a disposable sentence, one that I’m happy enough not to have to finish. Julie has raised her voice enough to make the people at nearby tables shut up and listen to her.
“I used to go to my classes and walk around campus and be around these people all day,” she says, and she looks around the dining hall in a way that suggests that she means us. “And then when I finished my work, which was when everybody in my dorm had pretty much gone to bed, I stayed up late, and I read these stories by Larry Brown, and I thought, all right, thank god, at least there’s somebody somewhere who lives in the same world I do – somebody who knows who I am. Larry Brown was my friend in the early morning hours at Middlebury!”
Julie’s soliloquy ends abruptly. To fill the silence, I ask her in my softest voice, “And you never wanted to meet him?”
She actually shouts, “No!” Her face is both furious and pleading. A pocket of silence surrounds our table – we have the attention of a couple of dozen people. Everybody waits for something violent or grotesque to happen, but both Julie and I have come to the end of what we can say. Then someone finds a way to lighten the mood with a comment, and someone else responds, which helps me to find a way to apologize to Julie, and she manages to nod and let it go, and of course our dinner companions pitch in to help ease the awkwardness.
And that’s really the end of my story. It seems to me a literary parable – or maybe it’s more like what I understand a zen koan to be, a parable that’s paradoxical, mysterious, open to interpretation. Ideally, I’d stop right here and just let you hold in mind the drama of Julie and me and Larry Brown at dinnertime up at Bread Loaf. But I can’t resist making this assertion: To read a book is to choose the company of the author.
With a book (of artistic merit) it’s always the case that the art and the artist are so incorrigibly, undeniably, and inevitably connected that to experience the one is also to experience the other. It’s not by accident that we use such phrasing as “Have you read Faulkner? What do you think of Jane Austen?” When you read Absalom, Absalom! or Pride & Prejudice, you are in fact experiencing the human beings who created those books.
Now for the writers and artists among you, I want to offer both a caution and a comfort.
The caution is that if you try to write a good book, no matter how artful it may be, you’re out there. You’ve made yourself vulnerable to strangers, you’ve displayed yourself to the public, you’ve walked downtown naked. In fact, I sometimes think of artists as being a high order of prostitutes. And when I’m doing book-signings, sitting by myself at a little table with stacks of my books just sitting there untouched as the customers stream by, I think maybe I’ve got it wrong about the high order – maybe we writers are the absolute lowest order of prostitute.
The comfort is that as a fiction-writer or poet or personal essayist, this is what you’ve got to offer – yourself. So you don’t have to try to be anything or anybody other than yourself. Pshew! – what a relief that is. In your art, you can put on many masks and speak in various voices, but ultimately they’re all versions of you – as the people in your dreams are all, finally, you. The self is the basic stuff. The art is directed toward transforming that self into something beautiful made out of words. Quite often that transformational act is an act of discovery – in carrying it out, you come into possession of a self you didn’t really know you had.
My faith – a word I don’t use casually – in art is located right here. In “working” the self as one must work it in order to create art, one may discover that one is a cowardly, duplicitous, greedy, and insensitive weakling. But in coming to terms with all those dreaded negative qualities, one may also suddenly see that one possesses a peculiar integrity, a surprising strength of will, and an astonishing capacity to love. To catch a glimpse of the angel, you’ve first got to have a good hard look at the whore, and they live at the same address.
So that leaves just this one last question before us: Exactly why didn’t Julie want to meet Larry Brown, the author of the books that had kept her company in her lonely late hours at Middlebury College? At the time Julie didn’t explain. She went no further than her fiercely and poignantly shouted “No!” But I don’t mind saying what my own experience has taught me – that the person who lives in a work of art is not the same person who walks around among us on the face of the planet. An obvious and unsettling fact is that we look to great artists to be great human beings, while they demonstrate to us again and again that outside of the practice of their art, they’re ordinary, imperfect people. Often they’re quite unattractive. Sometimes they’re downright despicable, as if they feel they have to compensate negatively for the beauty they’ve produced in their work. I venture to say that artists are always fallible and usually fallible in ways that offend us or hurt us when we find them out. So whatever her reasons were and however emotionally wrought up she might have been, Julie was taking an extremely sensible position. No way was she going to be disappointed by Larry Brown the human being.
My friend Elaine Segal has written an illuminating fable entitled “The Progress of the Soul,” in which she says that “There was no mistaking the soul for the self.” The Soul is perfectly innocent – it lacks memory, understanding, and fear; its single virtue is that it recognizes “the very strangeness [of the world] before it,” whereas the Self is manipulative, vain, greedy, etc. So if I were to apply that fable to what I’m trying to discuss here, I’d say that by working the Self so rigorously to make a book, the author – with a great deal of luck – manages to invest the writing with some of his or her Soul. And this purification is what I’m going to guess that Julie understood with such passion: She’d already become acquainted with the man’s soul – meeting him in person could only be a violation of a relationship she greatly valued. What she managed to convey to me with her “No!” that evening in the chaos and babbling of the Bread Loaf dining room was wisdom. It’s taken me only about thirty years to hear it.
Larry Brown died of a heart attack in November 2004 at the age of 53. Here’s the link to his obituary in The New York Times:
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Lori Jakiela.
Lori Jakiela is the author of two memoirs – The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious (C&R Press, 2013) and Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette, 2006) – as well as a poetry collection, Spot the Terrorist! (Turning Point, 2012), and several poetry chapbooks. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Brevity, KGB BarLit, Hobart and elsewhere. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, the author Dave Newman, and their two children. She teaches in the writing programs at Pitt-Greensburg and Chatham University.
You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.
You can read along with the work in Superstition Review.
William J. Cobb is a novelist, essayist, and short fiction writer whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The Mississippi Review, The Antioch Review, and many others. He’s the author of the novels—The Fire Eaters (W.W. Norton 1994) and Goodnight, Texas (Unbridled Books 2006)—and a book of stories, The White Tattoo (Ohio State UP 2002). He has reviewed books for the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, and the New York Times, and lives in Pennsylvania and Colorado.
We are pleased to announce that his novel, The Bird Saviors, was published this summer. His book of stories, What Happens to Rain, will be published next year.
You can read more of Cobb’s fiction in Issue 8 of Superstition Review.
Superstition Review Issue 7 has launched and to celebrate we will be featuring blog posts about our artists and authors. Today we will be highlighting a few of the interviews featured in Issue 7.
A native of Detroit, John Grogan spent more than 20 years as an investigative reporter and columnist, most recently at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He also is the former editor of Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine. His first book, Marley & Me, was a #1 New York Times bestseller with six million copies in print in more than 30 languages. It was made into a movie starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston. Grogan’s second book, The Longest Trip Home, also a national bestseller, explores the author’s loving but complicated relationship with his devout Irish Catholic parents. John lives with his wife and three children in eastern Pennsylvania. Read the interview featured in issue 7. John Grogan’s Website
Sloane Crosley is the author of The New York Times bestsellers I Was Told There’d Be Cake, which was a finalist for The Thurber Prize, and How Did You Get This Number. She is also a weekly columnist for The Independent in the UK and editor of The Best American Travel Essays 2011. She lives in Manhattan, where she is a regular contributor to GQ, The New York Times, National Public Radio and the inexplicably vast and varied collection of granolas in her kitchen cabinet. Read the interview from issue 7. Sloane Crosley’s Website
Jenifer Rae Vernon’s first book of poetry Rock Candy was published by West End Press in 2009. Rock Candy received the “Tillie Olsen Award” as the best book of creative writing that insightfully represents working class life and culture from the Working Class Studies Association, SUNY, Stony Brook, in June of 2010. In August of 2009, Garrison Keillor selected a poem from the collection, “Blackberry Pie” to perform on Writer’s Almanac. And in October of 2010, Keillor selected a second poem from the book, “Ketchican Wrestling” for Writer’s Almanac. Currently, Vernon lives in Juneau, Alaska with her husband and teaches Communication at the University of Alaska Southeast. Read the interview featured in issue 7 here.
Diana Joseph is the author of the short story collection Happy or Otherwise (Carnegie Mellon UP 2003) and I’m Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing But True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother and Friend to Man and Dog (Putnam 2009.) Her work has appeared in Threepenny Review, Willow Springs, Marie Claire, Country Living and Best Sex Writing 2009. She teaches in the MFA program at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minnesota. Read the interview in issue 7. Diana Joseph’s Website
Beverly Lowry was born in Memphis, grew up in Greenville, Mississippi and now lives in Austin where she is working on a book about another case of multiple murder, the unsolved killings of four young girls in an I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt shop, in Austin in 1991. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA fellowship and the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence, she is the author of six novels and three books of nonfiction, she teaches at George Mason University and is currently Writer-in-Residence at Goucher College in Baltimore. Read the interview in issue 7. Beverly Lowry’s Website
The full magazine with featured art and artists from issue 7 can be found here. Check back tomorrow to read about the nonfiction authors featured in issue 7.