In this singular collection, John D'Agata takes a literary tour of lyric essays written by the masters of the craft. Beginning with 1975 and John McPhee's ingenious piece, "The Search for Marvin Gardens," D'Agata selects an example of creative nonfiction for each subsequent year. These essays are unrestrained, elusive, explosive, mysterious—a personal lingual playground. TIn this singular collection, John D'Agata takes a literary tour of lyric essays written by the masters of the craft. Beginning with 1975 and John McPhee's ingenious piece, "The Search for Marvin Gardens," D'Agata selects an example of creative nonfiction for each subsequent year. These essays are unrestrained, elusive, explosive, mysterious—a personal lingual playground. They encompass and illuminate culture, myth, history, romance, and sex. Each essay is a world of its own, a world so distinctive it resists definition.
Theresa Hak Kung Cha
George W. S. Trow
David Foster Wallace
Paperback, 488 pages
Published February 1st 2003 by Graywolf Press (first published February 28th 2002)
Chila: "Meditations on the Common Life" is a braided essay, certainly lyrical, and one I both admire and appreciate. Please summarize it for us in a line or two.
Raphael: “Meditations on the Common Life" is a memoir of several poignant memorable events and moments in my life that recurred vividly to me as I turned 48 and sat outside on a windy doorstep trying to make emotional sense of my life. A lot of it is about love and relationships and how we love imperfectly and humanly.
Chila: Aging is an important consideration for most of us, and I see that I'm not the only one who addresses it in essays on occasion. How often do you factor it into your writing? Is it something you think a lot about?
Raphael: I don’t think I am obsessed with aging or that I put it in everything I write, but I think I am at the point in life when I can appreciate what is gained and what is lost as we age. Certainly when I was younger I didn’t bother thinking about “when I grow older.” It simply wasn’t a consideration. I was more interested in matters of identity: who is this woman?! Now it is more of a consideration. And currently being caregiver to my 87 year old mother puts it right in front of me. I think one of the positives is that aging seems to have granted me a lucidity and an openness that I didn’t always feel before. My poems become more honest, and I am less afraid to take on the unpleasant, the downright dangerous. Going back to my lyric essay, I think I feel more myself right now than when I wrote it. Day by day, I am becoming more who I really am. I just wrote a poem that takes on the body called “Oh Body, Oh Mine”— kind of a brutal ode to the aging body. But it was great fun to examine this in a poem! You have to be brave to take on the aging body honestly.
Chila: You're also a fan of Annie Dillard. Which two or three books of hers are your favorites and why?
Raphael: I have read all of her genres and actually my three favorite works are all different genres—a testament to her breadth and art. The absolute first Dillard I ever read was her ’92 novel The Living. I have kept a log/journal since junior high of everything I have read which impressed me enough to write it down, so I got out my log and sure enough, it was the first Dillard to captivate me. I can share what I wrote about it in July of ’93: “A luminous, shimmering account of the settling of the Pacific Northwest and the interwoven lives of the strong souls who chose to literally cut a life out of the nearly unreal forests there. A novel about how all of us must live, should live. A novel about the presence of death among ‘the living’ and how that presence actually heightens the quality and verity of our lives.” The main character only learns to truly live when his life is threatened by another character. And I noted: “This is the best novel I have ever read.” Coincidentally, when you sent me the questions about Dillard, I was thinking that I need to reread The Living.
In ’95 I read her book of found poems, Mornings Like This. She took texts such as various writings about nature, Van Gogh’s letters to his brother, and how-to books, and by cleverly juxtaposing words, phrases and sentences from these works, created truly astounding poems. These had such an effect on me that I wrote to her via the publisher and she answered me with a filled postcard I treasure.
Her book of essays, Teaching a Stone to Talk is the bread and butter of lyric essays. And I also fell in love with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. But I will focus on three works here.
Chila: Another one about Annie: What specifically have you learned from her regarding writing and language? Other thoughts along this line? (As you can see, I love discussing her.)
Raphael: Her book of found poems, Mornings Like This was a revelation to me. The art of juxtaposing seemingly unrelated phrases from the works she used freed me from what I called the “tired use of language” and offered me new and exciting possibilities for language. In short, her found poems which are so strikingly fresh, original and surprising, showed me a world of language doing what poetry does best: make connections between disparate things to reveal sudden and stunning truths about our world and how we perceive it. One of the lines I love is from the title poem “Mornings Like This” taken from David Grayson’s The Countryman’s Year, 1936: “Give me time enough in this place / And I will surely make a beautiful thing.” And she does with these poems. I carried this book around with me for a long time. And although I didn’t intend to write about Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I will share what I wrote in my book log: “The sentiments expressed and scrutinized here are as solid, spiritual and dangerous as the Bible--Pilgrim is a book that invites us to partake of a shameless joy in life as flawed and beautiful as it is.” And a certain sort of “scrutiny” is what I also learned about writing from her book of essays, Teaching a Stone to Talk.” This set of essays clinched my worship and adoration of Annie Dillard.
The opening essay, “Total Eclipse” is a lesson in life, in living. It teaches us that ecstatic moments are preceded or followed by the curiously mundane. That kitsch and art often exist side by side. In her opening paragraph she writes, “It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering” in regards to the eclipse of the sun. The next paragraph is about a terrible smiling clown’s head painting on the wall of the hotel where she and her husband spend the night in order to view the eclipse. The clown’s head is comprised of vegetables and she describes it elaborately as it is so bizarre she will never forget it—just as she will never forget the “rapture” of seeing the eclipse. Both are given space in this lyric essay. Both make up our lives which are mundane and exceptional. Both are valid and worth our scrutiny. And often these moments of revelation and rapture are seared into our memory beside the ordinary, the mundane. I learned this from her essays.
Another essay in Teaching a Stone to Talk that inscribed itself on my psyche is “Living like Weasels.” Her message is clear when she says, “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.” I came back to writing in my forties and reading Annie Dillard coincided with my return to writing. I knew that it was something I had to do, to “dangle from it limp wherever it takes [me].” She was the right person for me to be reading at the right time. I clung and worked hard after a long hiatus from poetry. To pursue the passion of writing is treading on holy ground. The writing life is akin to the religious life. It’s a pursuit of truth through words, through language, and there is always a spiritual element when seeking the truth of our lives. I credit her with lighting my fire and pointing me where I need to go.
Chila: Many people ask about the spelling and pronunciation of my name (I'm German-born and the spelling of my name is French-influenced.) Yours is likewise unique; tell me about it?
Raphael: Very simply, my parents named me after the angel, Raphael. I used to joke that angels are neutral—neither male nor female—and I have appreciated the anonymity of gender it affords me. When I turned 18 I received a letter from the draft during Vietnam. No one followed up. If I wish to disclose my gender when sending out poems, essays, I include my middle name, Helena. In Hebrew, “Raphael” means “God has healed” which I like very much. My hope is that some of what I write has a somewhat healing affect on this often wounded world. And I myself could always use some healing.
Chila: You're a poet first and foremost, it seems. How do you feel poetry prepares you to write the lyric essay?
Raphael: Most good lyric essays are a series of not obviously related vignettes that the author skillfully connects with a silken thread. And poetry is the pinnacle of making dissimilar things gel in resounding and surprising ways. I think the lyric essay is a natural for the poet. I have never wanted to be bothered with plot; methodical and cleverly plotted sequence has always seemed something I had no patience for. I freely admit that as a poet, I am a sprinter, not a stayer, to use racing terms, and the lyric essay is a good fit because it works very much like poetry, only in prose. Recently I have written some flash nonfiction pieces—an even shorter prose form which I only recently learned of—and my first one, “Barking Dog in the Night” will be published soon in Ruminate. Poetry is certainly helpful with the concise and accurate use of language and it is not a stretch to say a poet can spend hours, days on finding the exact right word or phrase. And when that right word or phrase eludes us, it’s maddening!
Raphael Kosek's poetry has appeared in numerous journals and magazines including Big Muddy, The Chattahoochee Review, Catamaran, Still Point Arts Quarterly, and is forthcoming in Southern Humanities Review and Poetry East. Her 2009 chapbook, Letting Go, was published by Finishing Line Press, and her new chapbook, ROUGH GRACE, won the 2014 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Competition. Raphael teaches American Lit and creative writing at Marist College and Dutchess Community College (New York).
Lyric Essay Award Winner (tie)