Delivered on 13 August 2009, Recto Hall, Faculty Center, UP Diliman
as part of the ICW Panayam Series
My next book of poems is a book of essays. I say this with the conviction of one who hasn’t written a word for the next book. I don’t know what it’s about. I don’t know what it’s called. I do know it can’t be another “city book” or another “love book”—my capsule descriptions of the two books I’ve written so far. I also know that I am not one to stick to a writing plan. When I decided it was time to write my second book, I began by giving it a name (i.e., Seam), identified several concepts I wanted to dismantle and study—i.e., art as a made thing, completeness and finished-ness as aspirations in the production of art, the possibilities of writing toward rather than away from the seams, i.e., favoring process of product—and divided my non-existent poems into three sections named “Works in Progress,” “Interrupted Meditations,” and “Material Influence.” I sat down to work with this elaborate plan in mind and emerged with elsewhere held and lingered, a.k.a. the love book that is on many, if not all counts, not the book I had intended to write.
Elusive intended outcomes notwithstanding, I still believe in making plans when I write. I think of Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, a collection of plans for making art which she invites others to execute, and toy with the idea that someday, when I’m old and weary, and in true process-over-product fashion, I can convert the columbarium of botched projects I’m fast accumulating into a book in itself. Not that any idea, however tangential, goes to waste in the making of a book. I don’t think elsewhere would be what it is minus all the thinking that went into Seam. The plan may not have been carried out to the letter, but it did happen somehow, in some form. My interest in veering away from the artifice of poetry, or at the very least, re-imagining what makes and completes a poem, which I initially explored through prose poems in Dark Hours (where I was after the eradication of the line as an indicator of genre, and then, of poetic weight), entered the realm of preoccupation in elsewhere, which, among other things, I envisioned as a novel in verse and a playground for attempts to put “nonliterary forms” (footnotes, indices, marginalia, multiple choice exams, versions/drafts) to use in writing poetry. If there is anything my books so far are telling me about my writing, it is this: my flirtation with the blurring of genre boundaries is over. The fling is now a mainstay, an obsession, and the next book’s trajectory is trained on that relentlessly skittish mark: the evasive degree zero of genre.
Our creative writing program here in UP, like many others, is organized by genre and divided into three basic tracks: poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. On occasions that call for quick descriptions of these strains, it is convenient to go tongue-in-cheek: poets pay attention to sound and image, fiction writers to plot, and nonfiction writers to “what really happened.” Or: poets play with line cuts and language, fiction writers with narrative and time, and nonfiction writers talk about themselves. Easy to tell which genre demands, as far as reputation goes, the most amount of chika and the least amount of skill. Which also explains the order of elimination CW majors typically go through (“Well, it looks like I can’t do fiction, and I know I can’t do poetry, so I guess that leaves…). My point here being: despite the obvious limitations, we operate by compartmentalizing the genres, the generalizations they come with, after all, validated by a plethora of existing samples and therefore allowing us to get a grip on what we’re reading or writing, this grip oftentimes such a given that we take it as fact (i.e., I love this essay by Jessica Zafra, or I don’t get that poem by Angela Manalang-Gloria). The label seamlessly slips into its function as lens, and what we love or don’t love, get or don’t get derives from a fixed point of reference—this essay, that poem.
Which isn’t to say that fixed means static; there are many eventful texts that do not call into question the genre to which they belong even as they employ techniques thought to be owned by other genres—a novel is still a novel, regardless of poetic (a.k.a. eloquent) language. But the compartments, flippant as they are, also reveal to us common behaviors of work produced in the genres—particularly disappointing in the case of nonfiction, where navel-gazing (which can happen in any type of writing) seems so prevalent that it has assumed the status of characteristic. That poetry plays with line cuts, on the other hand, seems an innocuous enough description, but when its absence is invoked to discredit a work (“That’s not even free verse—looks more to me like, er, convicted, sentenced, incarcerated prose,” says Cesar Ruiz Aquino of a poem that, well, really isn’t written in free verse but in prose), the compartment it affirms becomes claustrophobic, more supportive of enforcing rules rather than entertaining possibilities.
My enchantment with genre bending has to do with the possibilities it yields through an unyielding stance toward the question: What is it? When Circe finds herself in the presence of a man she cannot turn into swine and therefore cannot control, her response, to my similarly predisposed heart, is appropriate: she promptly falls in love with him. I have lived this experience repeatedly in encounters with texts that I can’t quite get a grip on because their what-ness eludes me. Plodding through a thousand pages’ worth of poetry for a British Romantics class in grad school, I was jolted awake by the sheer strangeness of William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. What is this, I asked, floored by Blake’s mixed bag of surreal sketches or “Memorable Fancies,” (what the contemporary reader might call flash fiction), manifestos, proverbs, and free verse. What is this, I asked again of T.S. Eliot, whose copious footnotes to “The Waste Land” positioned the poet as critic of his creative work within the very occurrence of the poem and called into question the acts involved in the writing of poetry. Again, what is this, in the face of Lydia Davis and her one-sentence stories, often lifted from others texts, or Anne Carson’s Short Talks, appearing in an anthology of essays by Susan Sontag, and then in an anthology of poetry by David Lehman, or Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, retelling the same uneventful scene ninety-nine times using various forms, genres, tones, and linguistic constraints. In the most recent UP Writers Workshop, tasked with introducing the work of Angelo Suarez, I tripped in my description of Dissonant Umbrellas, initially calling it his “third book of…” and, upon finding myself at a loss for genre (I had no idea what to call the hodgepodge of snippets, photos, typography effects, and whatnot in it), settling with “it’s his third book.”
Not knowing what to call what you’re reading or questioning the name it goes by or that’s been imposed upon it opens the floodgates to varieties of surprise. In assuming a hybrid existence, a text simultaneously fortifies and flexes genre boundaries; the lines are drawn (made visible) precisely because they are also being erased. In other words, we become conscious of the limits (to our knowledge) of, say, an essay, or a poem when we are confronted by a text that operates within yet exceeds such limits, a text that seems or claims to be both and is thus difficult to call either with confidence, driving us to resort to an inadequate label, i.e., this text is something else. Apparently, a text that swings both ways—or many ways, for that matter—can be a cause of great anxiety, something I witnessed firsthand when I taught CL 115 (Creative Nonfiction) for the first time last year. Among the items on my reading list was John D’Agata’s anthology The Next American Essay (Graywolf, 2003), which, like another anthology, Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo’s Creative Nonfiction: A Reader (UP Press, 2003 and 2005 editions), the class was required to read in entirety.
“I want you preoccupied with art in this book, not facts for the sake of facts,” says the D’Agata in his address to the reader, and true enough, the anthology prioritizes essays that depart from conventional structure and pacing (very much informed by the classic five-paragraph form), straightforward delivery of information, and what Thalia Field describes as “an unassailable ‘I’—a perceiving subjectivity at the center of what’s known, felt, expressed.” And so one gets selections such as Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” which cobbles together a portrait of the US in the 1960s by zeroing in on LA and such things as the Manson Trial, the arrest of the Black Panther Party’s Huey Newton, The Doors, and Didion’s own breakdown through sections that infect and weave into each other; or John McPhee’s “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” a series of vignettes on the decrepit state of Atlantic City interspersed with a Monopoly game between the narrator and an unknown opponent; or Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse,” a meditation that fixates on the seemingly eternal moment of the total eclipse’s occurrence.
I mentioned earlier that there was some anxiety in that class—emerging from a combination of uncertainty and skepticism shaken off easily at first but eventually escalating and difficult to ignore, D’Agata’s editorial assertions taking on the quality of assault and thus picked on, fussed over, resisted. These essays by Didion and company were not its cause, being clear-cut examples of adventurous form and language within the genre. Initial culprits were essays such as Susan Sontag’s “Unguided Tour” and Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” the former—a dialogue between two unnamed tourists who are perhaps lovers while traveling in Italy—already a struggle to read as fiction (it is often unclear who is saying what and why) and more so as an essay, and the latter already popular and well-loved as a short story that it was tough—and to some, even uncalled for—to read it in any other way. (Other essays in the anthology originally published as fiction include Sherman Alexie’s “Captivity” and Lydia Davis’s “Foucault and Pencil.”) Certainly, given the literature to come out of New Journalism, the alliance of fiction and nonfiction is nothing out of the ordinary. In Creative Nonfiction: A Manual, Hidalgo describes creative nonfiction in a nutshell as “nonfiction prose which utilizes the techniques and strategies of fiction” (9). But D’Agata’s editorial call here is not to affirm the link but to recategorize the text. He doesn’t say “Girl” reads like an essay; he says it is one. The assertion is disorienting, but with some prodding, it catches fire, once past the attachment to Kincaid’s intentions and open to the idea of genre as formulated by the reader during interaction with the text, and especially when taking into account the essayistic qualities in the piece, such as the authoritative voice and overt commentary.
The greater blame, however, went to essays which troubled easily without immediate access to the counterpart relief, such as David Antin’s “The Theory and Practice of Postmodernism: A Manifesto”—an example of Antin’s “talk poems,” many of which have no definitive or even recorded versions as they’re recited spontaneously again and again in public; Eliot Weinberger’s “The Dream of India,” a catalogue of surreal and hyperbolic “facts” about India; and culminating in “Erato Love Poetry,” excerpted from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, a text so fragmented, so unreliably narrated, so disobedient even to the protocols of reading from pages, that for it to be called an essay was too much to ask. By the time we hit Dictee, the class was stumped, bewildered, with a smattering of upset. The texts forced them to ask foundational questions, the answers to some they originally thought they had down pat. These were questions like: What is an essay? What is a fact? What is accuracy? What is truth? What is real? What is “what really happened”?
The mere sight of these works, I think, explains the confusion. We don’t look at an essay; we read it. We don’t expect essays to exert a visual identity on the page, like poems. I can even say the act of borrowing a technique or quality perceived as exclusive to another genre is a practice primarily relegated to the province of poetry, the oxymoronic prose poem being a case in point. And so when Antin breaks syntax, omits capitalization and punctuation, and organizes text into not-quite-paragraphs and not-quite lines; or when Weinberger makes use of anaphora and a series of discrete paragraphs, some only a sentence long; or when Hak Kyung Cha privileges white space and fragments narrative again and again, we are made to pay attention to the appearance of works in a genre whose looks are typically irrelevant to us. The essay, many examples of which come in blocks of prose, normally doesn’t even have a look. If it is ever looked at, it’s simply to see how long or short it is. But in calling attention to itself, the appearance of Hak Kyung Cha and company’s essays becomes a crucial vehicle for meaning and must be taken into consideration when reading the text.
Which leads me to the thorny thicket of interpretation. Here’s a description by D’Agata of one of his idols, Cicero: “He’s about presenting a point, telling you right up front what he’s talking about, and then spending two hours explaining his point. That’s where we get the conventional five-paragraph form in the essay. There’s never a moment in reading those texts when you’re not aware of what you’re supposed to be thinking.” We expect this kind of clarity (or perhaps lack of ambiguity) from essays, the best of which, Cristina Nehring points out, “generalize ambitiously; they prescribe as readily as they describe; they are on the lookout for Big Ideas with Vast Application. If they offend their audience, at least they address it. If they are sure to err, they are sure to awaken as well.” If not carriers of information or argument, essays are tellers of the true-to-life, “personal stories rendered with dramatic arcs and take home messages,” to use D’Agata’s words, recalling the “memoir craze” that took place when he was still a student, with authors such as Frank McCourt, Mary Karr, Kathryn Harrison, and Michael Ryan releasing books. We can expect to be stupefied by the scandalous revelations, the moving tragedies, or the morally ambiguous choices, but not by the formal strategies employed to convey them. We can expect not to be lost at any time when reading such memoirs, which, in answering the call of narrative and privileging what Woolf brushes off as the “appalling narrative business of the realist: getting from lunch to dinner” necessarily opt for language as a transparent renderer of experience rather than an experience in itself.
There are and will always be great texts written in this mode, and maybe it is also this certainty that causes the reader anxiety when essays depart from what’s been proven to work. To be an essay that demands to be looked at in the process of comprehension already entails a rewiring of thought on the part of the reader. To be an essay constructed via collage, fragment, and white space insists that the rewiring accommodate juxtaposition over transition, lacunae over connective tissue, and the logic of association over the logic of coherence, all of which drive the reader to interpret rather than receive ideas and information. Or in other words, to read the essay as poem, since it sure is acting like one. For a genre where, based on dominant output, you are never “not aware of what you’re supposed to be thinking,” this shift in approach is nothing short of an upheaval, which makes the clamor for the “coherent, authoritarian, beginning-middle-and-end, thesis-and-conclusion pieces,” for facts not subject to suspicion or change, for narrators that are singular and not schizophrenic and polyphonic, for forms that fade into invisibility as conveyors of content, for genre boundaries to be impermeable rather than porous, for essays that are just that—not hybrids, not genre benders, not something else—completely understandable.
In class, when the panic over D’Agata’s propositions subsided, the students jokingly described the arc of their crisis as analogous to the five stages of grief, where they traveled from denial, to anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance—something I found absolutely charming because really, how often do you come upon an idea, let alone one about genres in writing, so mind-boggling and paradigm-shifting that you can’t help but take it personally? The “decentralizing influences” of hybridity, explains Cole Swensen in her introduction to American Hybrid, “make it harder to achieve consensus or even to maintain stable critical criteria; instead, these factors put more responsibility on individual readers to make their own assessments, which can in turn create stronger readers in that they must become more aware of and refine their own criteria.” Upon loosening their grip on dearly held notions about genre in general and the essay in particular, it became possible to confront the challenges and explore the pleasures of texts whose genre identities are provisional.
Carole Maso, in “Notes of a Lyric Artist Working in Prose,” catalogues this flux: “The desire of the novel to be a poem. The desire of the girl to be a horse. The desire of the poem to be an essay. The essay’s desire, its reach towards fiction. And the obvious erotics of this.” For eros to exist, it has been said, it cannot be consummated; desire (want) lies where lack (wanting) lies, shaped as an obstacle that makes the merging of lover and beloved impossible. Perhaps genre benders draw their powers of seduction from a similarly impossible union—they do not become one, the poem never becomes an essay, and so it is both. And in being so it acquires multiple shapes and strategies and stances; it generates interesting tensions, parallels, and intersections.
The results of this paradoxical thwarted-yet-triumphant alchemy are most exciting to me when thinking of poetry and the essay as its major players. Etymologically speaking, essay derives from the Latin exagium, or ‘weighing,’ and from the late sixteenth century French noun essai, or ‘trial.’ I delight in these origins because it seems to me that they are true of both poetry and the essay—proof yet again of the limits of compartmentalization—and, more importantly, are also keys to the rejuvenation of nonfiction as a genre capable of so much more than the dominant whimsical, lightweight anecdotal reveries of childhood or cute and quirky opinion pieces punctuated by retorts and repartees; as well as the expansion of poetry’s notions of “the poetic,” venturing into realms other than the eloquent and affective. The term’s roots combine two acts: measure (the mind at work) and experiment (the mind at play), where thinking is simultaneously calculated and spontaneous. Both acts need to be directed at material, and here is where a hybrid sense of what constitutes material—informed by both poetry and nonfiction—proves to be productive, permitting oscillations from one approach to another even as writing is done with a particular genre in mind. Says Field: “Thinking through things can require a lot of approaches to form, a lot of associative logic, and that’s where genres come and go. To me, theater, fiction, essay, it’s all essentially a matter of what helps watch the question, play with the contradictions, wonder at the connections and dissolutions. I’m interested in how minds change, but not necessarily in changing them.”
Nonfiction can draw from poetry’s attempts to take material literally, i.e., to explore the page, the physical space upon which the text is set, a concern that barely makes it to the peripheral vision of the essay. Considering how committed the essay is to the page—and by this I mean it is more often than not page-bound, existing primarily on the page rather than in performance—it seems only logical to make the page its playground, to recruit it as an active participant in assembling a text. On the other hand, poetry can draw from nonfiction’s comfortable accommodation of literature with a lowercase “l” in its repertoire, what D’Agata sums up as “all the black and white data that make the world tick—all the map legends, political speeches, history textbooks, precepts, slogans, mottos, columns, committee-meeting minutes, sea captains’ logs, celebrity memoirs, teenage diaries, philosophies, obituaries, forecasts, postcards… a genre, in other words, that would be defined by fact.” Instead of consorting only with forms of the “high-end” a.k.a. “literary” kind (the sonnet, the villanelle, the sestina, the pantoum, etc.), poems can also engage in forms of the mundane, practical, and commonplace, infusing the ordinary with linguistic vigor. Nonfiction can retrieve the acts of wondering and wandering Montaigne so prized via the freedom of invention that poetry claims with conviction for itself, while poetry can tether its imaginings to the solid weight of information so valued by nonfiction.
I am a firm believer in writing as a method of thinking, and while I am not as hardline as Ann Lauterbach, the path of my process is similar to hers, which she explains by saying, “I reject the idea of the muse because I’m not as interested in inspiration as I am in the riddle of making something. A poem is for me much more of an invitation to find form. Once the words are on the page, I have a conversation with them: “How can I help you become a poem?” There is nothing more tiring than hearing yourself say the same things in the same ways again and again, nothing more exasperating than hearing others say what you are also saying in the same ways again and again, homogeneity being another cause of claustrophobia. If writing is a means of ushering thought into ordered existence, and what you say is how you say it, then the cross-pollinations of the genres can only guard against monotone and redundancy in making possible varieties of articulation and therefore varieties of thought, diverse shapes of imagination.
The term used by D’Agata and other editors of Seneca Review to signify the particular convergence of poetry and nonfiction is lyric essay, which, according to D’Agata, asks: “What happens when an essayist starts imagining things, making things up, filling in blank spaces, or—worse yet—leaving the blanks blank?” And: “[The lyric essay] takes the subjectivity of the personal essay and the objectivity of the public essay, and conflates them into a literary form that relies on both art and fact, on imagination and observation, rumination and argumentation, human faith and human perception. What the lyric essay inherits from the public essay is a fact-hungry pursuit of solutions to problems, while from the personal essay what it takes is a wide-eyed dallying in the heat of predicaments.” And, finally: “What is a lyric essay? It’s an oxymoron: an essay that’s also a lyric; a kind of logic that wants to sing; an argument that has no chance of proving anything.” The description demonstrates due recognition of the concurrent need and limitation of naming, the paradoxical name a nod toward what is ultimately the instability of classification and the fecundity of such shaky ground.
And so I continue to be in search of and revel in what is this moments that texts defying easy categorization permit—as was the case upon reading Adam David’s “Instructions for the Inclined” in all its center-justified-Cooper Black-choppy-imperative glory, looking very much like billboards scaled down to the size of manuscript pages, a snotty manual on the writing life discussed in the UP Writers Workshop as a work of nonfiction; or Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay, an entire book without a main text and comprised of footnotes which, says Christian Bok, “annotate a fantastic biography from another reality, referring only to itself as a kind of dream within a dream… [and] implies that the body of any text consists of nothing but a void—filled with the exegetical projection of our own imagination”; or Cole Swensen’s The Glass Age, an extended meditation in prose and verse on glass, considering its material properties, interrogating its links to vision, and studying its appearances in various works of art; or Vincenz Serrano’s “Short Walks,” another mixed prose-and-verse meditation where the persona splits in two, the “I” and “my scholar,” the break generating an experience of Manila that is both logical and lyrical, studied and sensed, clear-eyed and contradictory; or the poems from Mark Cayanan’s formally elastic “Placelessness” collection, where the essayistic stance is evident in the excessively self-aware, opinionated, digressive, fractured persona who, in studying the egotistical self, makes strong arguments against the reliability of sincerity; or Eris Heidi L. Ramos’s “I Have Friends in Holy Spaces,” a pastiche of graffiti found all over UP organized into an essay; or Dana Lee F. Delgado’s “In Saudi Arabia,” which combines litany, fragment, and white space, facts, fears, and feelings to collage into existence a portrait of home; or Pedro Ilustreto B. Publico’s “Variations,” a shape-shifting satire, manifesting itself as “News Item,” “Jokes (old and racist), “Legendary Alamat,” “Pass the Message,” and “Exam.”
I am excited to produce new work that is in the company of this roster; their works speak to me and I wish to speak back. Given my track record with plans, I may very well end up where I least expect to be, but then again, my track record also reveals that I never abandon plans entirely, that the map still gets me somewhere, though not necessarily to the place it envisioned. I have a few insatiable appetites, one of which is for writing, a source of great solace in the face of outcomes that don’t resemble intentions. If certain goals don’t materialize in the third book, then there’s always the next book to make up for it.