Notes on the State of Virginia: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Queries IV and V

vintage virginia

This is the third installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. You can read previous installments here and here.

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Query IV: A notice of its mountains
Query V: Its cascades and caverns

I walked into Queries IV and V thinking Jefferson would use these sections to acknowledge the changeability of Virginia’s natural landscape, the dramatic variations of terrain that make it both beautiful and dangerous to traverse. I thought I’d compare Jefferson’s celebration of Virginia’s wild places to the notion of surprise in poetry, or maybe to resistance—that sense that the poem is getting lost somewhere in the middle, and you, the poet, have to invent a light (or a hatchet) to make your way through the draft.

I should have known better.Continue Reading

Erotic Parodies of Women

A writer and I were on the sunny plaza outside the Nobel Museum in central Stockholm and she was telling me about an erotic parody project she’d collaborated on. The project was called Fifty Shelves of Grey and involved a dozen or so British authors doing erotic rewrites of fifty classic books, all published under the pseudonym Vanessa Parody. However, amidst all that bodice ripping, partner swapping and heavy breathing, there arose a very real problem for those salacious scribes—finding works of literature that had two or more female characters that were not blood relatives. Though there were plenty of male/female and male/male relationships to uncloak; female/female relationships were almost exclusively between sisters, and mothers and daughters. The relationships of unrelated adult women are nearly invisible in literature. This absence is not only a hindrance for aspiring erotic parody writers, but is quite possibly a symptom of a larger erasure of the lives and experiences of women across literature.

Last year writer Nicola Griffith published a survey of the gender representation among the winners of half a dozen major literary awards. She looked at competitions from the last fifteen years and found that nearly two-thirds of Pulitzer winners were written wholly from the perspective of a man/boy, while zero were written wholly from the perspective of a woman/girl. The Man Booker fared slightly better with a total of two books of the last fifteen written wholly from the perspective of a woman/girl. So, it seems that stories that center on the lives of women are rarely elevated to the highest echelons of literary praise. It should then be of little surprise that relationships between women are nearly invisible in literary fiction.Continue Reading

Reconstruction: How the Lyric Essay Rendered One Body After Trauma

Anatomy Class, 1920

1.
I didn’t start writing lyric essays until I found out I had cancer. The melanoma buried in my right cheek was at first missed, and then misdiagnosed in its severity. Clark’s stage IV, they told me. Likely in my lymph nodes, but they wouldn’t know until my third surgery, the excision and biopsy.

2.
I was coming out of a dry period in my writing. I had hardly written in the previous year since my brother’s death from complications arising from a rare genetic disorder. When I went back to the page, I couldn’t go back to it as I’d been there before, but I felt I must go back. I had something to say, and what if I didn’t have long to say it?

What If became my muse.

3.
The poems became fragmented, full of white space.  I broke lines unexpectedly, at least for me. Out of tune, out of sync/syntax. I revised through redaction, cuts, excisions.  Everything seemed relevant and connected, even as everything seemed disjointed. Separate.

4.
Text is solid or liquid, body or blood.1Continue Reading

Who Speaks How

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I love when people ask my friend Jenny and I how we know each other, because long before we co-taught a queer theory elective and drove cross-country and made parallel moves to Pittsburgh, she was one of my first writing teachers. It was in her Xeroxed handout of eclectic love poems that I first read Stanley Kunitz’s 1971 “After the Last Dynasty”: what would become my first truly beloved poem, which itself begins with a transformative event of reading.

Reading in Li Po
how “the peach blossom follows the water”
I keep thinking of you
because you were so much like
Chairman Mao,
naturally with the sex
transposed
and the figure slighter.
Loving you was a kind
of Chinese guerrilla war.

This being the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, I wanted to observe this poem: to submit how it works and what it means to me as anecdotal evidence of poetic capacity.

The summer I found this poem, I was 16 years old. It was my first time studying at the Young Writers Workshop, an immersive alternative to sports camp then housed in an un-air-conditioned freshman dorm in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was, to borrow the hyperbole of that particular moment, a transformative summer. Emboldened by critical pedagogy and a lot of Ani DiFranco, I wrote love poems for my camp boyfriend, ekphrastic poems for seventeenth century paintings, slam poems (I know) for men who’d harassed me on the metro.Continue Reading

On Questioning Narrative Sequence

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At the Contemporary Museum of Art in Montreal, Ragnar Kjartansson’s “The Visitors” plays on nine screens in a dark theater. Each screen features a single musician set to the backdrop of a room in a chateau, which is in disrepair: one woman in a pale lace dress plays cello with a French door open to the outside gardens, one man plays guitar in a claw foot bathtub. All nine musicians chime in to sing: “Once again, I fall into my feminine ways.” In the theater, museum-goers experience all nine screens at once: a simultaneous narrative. In a second theater, which exhibits Kjartansson’s “World Light,” four screens play different scenes from a Halldor Laxness novel at the same time. In the same moment, viewers watch a woman pull on her dress and stockings in the morning, while across the room she fights with her future lover. The presentation of “World Light,” a Nordic story told in its entirety in one moment, calls into question the sequencing of narrative—that is, that a narrative should be read from beginning to end, or that those components should be separate at all. Continue Reading

The Autobiography of the Imagination: Toward a Definition

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The autobiography of the imagination writes itself, one could say. It writes every time we write, every time we dream or daydream. It is its own captain’s log, the transaction and receipt. It reveals the self to make the self into a stranger, twisting the I to wring out a you. With every persona poem I write, every autobiographical lie, I manifest a self-portrait in silhouette, not so much an accurate depiction of what I look like or who I am, as much as a chart of where my shadow falls.

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If I were to tell you about my childhood, I could tell you about my parents’ divorce, how many dogs we had, that I liked to draw. I could tell you I went to St. Peter’s Episcopal School and spent afternoons with my grandparents playing cards. Or I could tell you I wanted to grow up to marry Don Johnson from Miami Vice; that I fantasized in Wednesday chapel about a flood leaving me stranded for days in my school in which I’d carve a pew into a canoe and paddle the halls with a crucifix; and that I believed the cemetery near my house would “leak” ghosts like radon up through the ground into my bedroom. The autobiography of the imagination is as vital, as personal, to the self-revelation of oneself as the autobiography of one’s experience.

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In his 1986 introduction to A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, with an air of pseudo-Freudianism, said, “It is the novelist’s innate cowardice that makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins that he is too cautious to commit for himself.” The autobiography of the imagination then is an autobiography of our base desires, the things we haven’t done but have longed for. It is our fantasies, our secrets from which we curate by redaction how someone else sees us. It is an autobiography of instinct, desire.Continue Reading

Violence Against Women in Fiction

Four of us writers were critiquing each other’s novellas which all happened to have female protagonists. Three of the protagonists were victims of sexual assault, which then caused these characters to suddenly and completely change. One of those protagonists became mentally unbalanced and faded away, another was rescued by a man, and the third became a kind of vigilante, exacting revenge. These three characters happened to perfectly align with three tropes in fiction that I had recently been thinking a lot about.

According to Allison Graham-Bertolini in her book Vigilante Women in Contemporary American Fiction, the female vigilante is a relatively new character type. She says that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries female characters who were abused and oppressed were relegated to mental illness or suicide, rather than revenge. Two notable examples Graham-Bertolini sites from this era are The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and The Bell Jar by Silvia Plath, both of which have female protagonists responding to systemic and individual oppression by slowly losing all sense of reality and all sense of self. My friend’s protagonist, who is raped and then begins hallucinating, seemed to speak directly to this first trope.Continue Reading

The Anti-Ekphrastic: Art Inspired By Text

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Writers often respond to visual art, a form known as Ekphrastic prose or poetry, and most famously as John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” But what happens when the form is inverted?

The anti-ekphrastic takes many forms: The Futurists were the first to create sound poetry, or the art of connecting literary and musical composition specifically for the purpose of performance and without the use of words. The Dadaists invented more specific types of sound poetry by communicating primarily through primitive movement or through different languages and rhythms simultaneously alongside other artists. Sound poetry performed a function that visual art couldn’t, which is to say that visual artists manipulated a written form into an auditory event: a spoken painting or photograph of an experience.Continue Reading

Presto!: A comparison of Magical Reveals in Fiction

 

magic

A friend and I were recently talking about weird fiction. We were trying to figure out when the best time to make the “magical reveal” would be in a story. Should it be in the very first few lines so a reader knows what they’re getting into? Should it be delayed, so as to ease the reader in? Should it be hidden deep in the story so that an “anti-genre” reader might feel less hesitant about continuing?

While the field of weird fiction is large, for the sake of brevity, we’ll narrow in on two works by a single author. China Mièville is one of the front-runners in the field of weird fic. He’s also (bias alert) one of my favorite authors. His works include: Embassytown, The City and the City, and a recent short story collection Three Moments of an Explosion. In this story collection, Mièville covers a lot of ground and a lot of story-types. Two of the pieces, “The Design” and “Polynia,” approach the “magical reveal” in different ways and end up creating two different, and differently engaging, worlds.

“Polynia” sets its reader directly into the strangeness, beginning:

When cold masses first started to congeal above London, they did not show up on radar. By the time they started to, perhaps two hours later, hundreds of thousands of people were already out in the streets and gaping skyward. They shielded their eyes—it was cloudy but very bright. They looked up at glowing things the size of cathedrals, looming above the skyline.

This beginning doesn’t allow the reader any acclimation. Instead, we are as stunned as the denizens of the story, who become so enamored of the giant icebergs floating above the city. It’s a bold move, in a way, as Mièville is pre-empting a sense of awe. When there is no build-up to the magical reveal, it removes the beauty that can come with the unfolding of that magic. However, there’s a good reason behind this choice: it allows the reader to become quickly accustomed to the strangeness, mirroring the way that the characters in the story become quickly accustomed to the icebergs. This plays against how unpredictable the event, and icebergs themselves, is and ends up surprising the reader more when other aspects of the story, and its strangeness, are revealed later. By making the weird into the normal, we’re even more set-up to be disturbed by anything that becomes even stranger.

Alternatively, in the story “The Design,” Mièville eases his reader into the stranger elements of the piece. The story begins:

There is a fact familiar to anyone who has worked with the dead. Do anything to a cadaver, it will do something back to you. This is not gusty spiritualism but psychology. It is true for even the gentlest interaction: actually cutting those quiet specimens provokes a far more serious response. One adjusts with speed, but the act never loses its taint.

Here, while the tone of the piece feels strange, we are grounded in a realism—cadavers, later we learn that the narrator is a medical student, and psychology. It isn’t until deeper into the story, that a character finds the weird element: a cadaver who has intricate patterns carved onto his bones. This delay of the “magical reveal” situations one into the world more firmly. The reveal serves to give us as much of a shock, as it does for the character who comes upon it. It also fits into the weaving of the overall story narrative better. Wherease “Polynia” is a narrative about community and reaction, “The Design” is very clearly situated in the realm of a secrecy plot. In order to add another layer of secrets to the story, it only makes sense to delay the narrative reveal.

In the end, the reveal itself comes down to, as it should, what best serves the story. If an author wishes for the reader to be kept in the dark because it serves to reflect on the secrets a narrator keeps from themselves then the delayed reveal becomes powerful mechanism to deploy. If the author makes a reveal early to shift a readers perspective and set them off guard for a later, truer reveal, then it’s an equally smart rhetorical choice. Authors, like magicians, need to know when the best moment to pull back the curtain is, and the only way to know this is through the act of performing the trick itself.

Women in Refrigerators

Chivalry 1885

Fifteen of us were watching Colin Farrell talking fast and sweet at a woman who communicated almost entirely by lowering her head, raising her eyes, and simpering. This was a few months ago and I was in a playwriting seminar with a well-known playwright that I had never heard of before. Huh, I thought, Colin Farrell is doing all of the acting while the woman is being all of the scenery. After about ninety seconds Colin Farrell’s character punches the woman in the nose, robs her, and then gets chased by cops. The last shot we see of the woman, she is wide-eyed and covering her face with her blood-coated hand.

The well-known playwright paused the movie and turned the lights back on. We’d just watched the opening scene of 2003’s Intermission, and wasn’t it shocking, he said. He kept saying how shocking it was and how surprised we were all supposed to be. He was certain no one could see that punch coming.

But here’s the thing: if you’re like me, a woman, or maybe you are not a woman but you happen to believe that women are people, then perhaps you’ve noticed the way women are often deployed in fiction. Frequently they are victimized, killed, or otherwise depowered early in the story which then serves as both the inciting incident, and the emotional thrust, for a male protagonist’s journey. This pattern, called “Women in Refrigerators,” was first written about by Gail Simone in 1999. Though Simone was writing specifically about the portrayal of women in superhero comics, this trope is certainly seen in other genres and formats of fiction as well.Continue Reading