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TWF14: The Law and Order Episode of Who Killed the Essay March 24, 2014

Posted by The Typist in books, literature, lyric essay, memoir, New Orleans, NOLA, Odd Words, Toulouse Street.
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“This is the Law and Order episode of Who Killed the Essay,” moderator John Freeman said to open the Tennessee Williams Festival panel “The Return of the Essay.” “Someone killed it. We’re going to find out later from Lennie Briscoe,” the character from the crime drama franchise. Panelists Dani Shapiro, Kiese Laymon and Roxanne Gay promptly put a bullet in the head of Freeman’s metaphor.

“The essay isn’t dead, it never died,” panelist Roxanne Gay shot back. “We have the arrogance in this age of believing that we’re going to be the end of literature when it has been around for millenia. That is always appalling to me. The book is dying. Are you kidding me? People were writing books on rice paper. Calm down. Books aren’t going anywhere, readers aren’t going anywhere. I think things are shifting. The essay from Montaigne to [fellow panelist] Kiese, we’re still doing it. I think we’re in the golden age of the essay. I’ve never read more stunning essays than the ones I read every single day and the art hasn’t been perfected because it can’t be perfected but people are practicing it at such a level. If the essay is dead, then the afterlife is quite wonderful.”

“The internet has done a lot of terrible things, but one of the best things it’s done has democratize this writing thing. It has allowed us to read all these amazing essays,” Laymon said. “I think there was a golden age. I think [James] Baldwin was the golden age. Every day, or every other day, I read an essay on the Internet that actually scares me as a writer. I think those are the best essays, I think s— I can’t do it. I just can’t do it as well as other people can do it. Now we have people not waiting for crusty editors to say: here’s your stamp that says, now you can put it out there. Also it puts out some art that is not so great, but it’s also allowed me to read some of the greatest essays that I have read in my life.”

“I don’t think we can know a golden age that we’re in one,” Dani Shapiro, countered. “I will admit tweeting this morning the title of this panel and saying, I don’t think it’s vanished. I also think it’s worth noting that the word essay means attempt, to attempt to get something right and true and universal and authentic down on the page. That’s like saying human nature is dead.”

Freeman asked his panelists: “If style is a struggle and essay is an attempt, what are you attempting in an essay? What makes you want to put the struggle in that form?”

“There’s an urgency when I’m writing an essay,” Gay explained. “Something has gotten under my skin. One of the first essays that got under my skin. One of the first essays that got my attention was “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence”. It was about a young girl that was raped in Cleveland, Texas. The New York Times wrote a story about the town–poor, poor town–and think of these poor boys but there were like 30 of them. The magnitude of the crime was horrific and the shoddiness of the reporting was also horrific. I went into this fugue state trying to temper my rage with understanding how we got to a place as a culture where we’re worrying about a town instead of this 11 year-old girl. The essays that I love writing the most are where I’m trying to make sense of this crazy world, but also acknowledge the god in this world.”

“Kiese, you [mention] the fact that an essay is going to deal some collateral damage to their family, because the wedge into a topic is not just your experience. It’s everything you grew up with. I wonder if you could talk about writing about your family and those essays and how you weighed what you would actually reveal because the truths you tell are quite difficult.”

“I feel like I’ve been writing about that question in my essays and my fiction. I come from a family in central Mississippi. I was raised by my mother. She was 19 when she had me. I went to graduate school and went to stay with my grandmother [also] in Mississippi. They’re both wonderful, brilliant people but whenever they got around white people their wonder and their brilliance and their thickness shrunk, and I think a lot of time they want me to also shrink my brilliance on the page. In [one] essay I talk about my mother pulling a gun on me when I was 19, partially because she wanted me to act right. I was trying to say in that essay there is a consequence to acting right in this country especially for folks of color…I think we talk about the consequences too often of not acting right, but there is a self consequence for acting right.

“Form is really important for me and I’m pushing back against forms and against my mom and I was trying to push back against my inclination to write predictable punditry. My inclination is to just write the traditional, standard essays that will make people say, ‘that’s a smart African-American man’ as opposed to being a potentially revelatory Black human being.” Later in the panel he added, “I come from a community where sadness, funk, funny happens all the time and I was being encouraged to take the funk and funny out.”

“Dani, you’ve written about your family in two memoirs, and this book Still Writing, it looks like a book about writing but then it’s threaded through with all these tiny memoirs,” Freeman asked Shapiro. “Did you find that to write about writing did you have to write about your family?”

“When it comes to form and when it comes to realism, it feels like in the last ten years of my writing life things have been breaking apart. The more I try to make something whole the more it breaks apart. I think what you just said about realism and the surreality that is at the core of it in some way is so true: the puzzle like structure, my last memoir Devotion was puzzle-like, every essay that I’ve written in the last five years. When I started Still Writing I was writing a blog because my publisher told me I had to write a blog. And I was thinking what can I blog about that’s not going to make me want to stick pins in my eyes every day. What I wanted to write about was how to do this every day. I didn’t want to write another book about craft. I wanted to write about what it takes: the courage, the tenacity, the persistence, the resistance. Then I started getting letters from people says, ‘I really needed this today’ and I thought, people are actually asking me to write a book. How often does that happen?”

“I’m reading this and what is it like to revise your life, the story of your life in public.” Freeman said.

“I think it would be an amazing thing for the same writer to spend an entire writing life writing the same memoir every ten years because it would be a different book every ten years because the relationship between the self and the story is the story. When I wrote Slow Motion [arising from the death of her father] I had feeling that this was the before and after moment. I wasn’t old enough to know that there is more than one before and after moment. It was also my son’s illness fifteen years later, and my mother’s death.

There was an essay in Ploughshares that was called “Plane Crash Theory.” I think it’s my best essay. It began shortly after 9-11, my infant son was dropped down a flight of stairs by a baby sitter and for months and months I couldn’t write a thing. It was all in the shadow of 9-11 and felt like a shadow had flown over our house and was hovering there. I was having coffee with a friend of mine in Brooklyn who’s a writer and I said, ‘I haven’t written a word since Jacob fell down the stairs’ and she said, ‘that’s your first sentence’. I couldn’t tell the whole story because the essay couldn’t contain that he was dropped down the stairs but that a few weeks earlier I had noticed these little movements and he was later diagnosed with this rare seizure disorder. An essay couldn’t contain both of those, so I took all of my anxiety and my fear and my feeling of–writing, what is the point of it–but finding a way to pour all of that into a very disciplined form and tell the whole story emotionally and not tell the whole story, what to leave in and what to leave out, which is such an important part of writing memoir and essay.”

“I think one of my most popular essays to write was the hardest to write,” Gay said in a comment that resonated for me in the post-Katrina room. “It was about The Hunger Games, because I love, love, love the Hunger Games to insanity. I started to think what is it about the Hunger Games that captures me as an adult because they are YA . There is a young woman in the novel Katniss, she has to endure the unendurable over and over again is that it showed PTSD as it is, as something that cannot necessarily be cured but something that you learn to live with, and as something that will shape the decisions you will make.”

Freeman asked the panelists if there was someone, an essayist, who opened a door and what they did. “I would say in a word [Joan] Didion if it was an essayist,” Shapiro said. “Grace Pailey was for me an example of the life of a writer, a life I wanted in some way. When I think of Grace I think of her sentences, I think of her fiction, the distillation, a certain kind of minimalism before there was minimalism. She was tremendously important to me.”

Gay, after citing the encourage of her parents from age four, cited Edith Wharton. “She was doing it when women weren’t encouraged” to write. “She is the master of the elegant sentence.” And Zadie Smith: “she is fierce. She makes me feel like I can do anything with the word.” Laymon also talked about his grandmother’s influence. “My grandmother taught me how to work. She worked at a chicken plant and the way she talked about it, the craft, she made me feel I was beautiful.” His essayist pick was James Baldwin. “The Fire Next Time was the first book that I really, really read. I would tear it apart. Ultimately I think I became the writer I want to be because in The Fire Next Time, someone who was so great could not make space for Black women. You could be so sublime and so great and not make space for this entire group of people you should make space for. Baldwin’s otherworldliness is something I could aspire for, not just because of his prose but because of the gaps in his prose.”

Crisp November 3, 2013

Posted by The Typist in Fortin Street, geo-memoir, lyric essay, New Orleans, NOLA, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
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To say the insubstantial  air is crisp is to notice the absence of summer floral profusion, the sweet olive blossoms fallen and the jasamine gone to pods. Deprived of garden aromas and the spice smell of crawfish and shrimp boiling, the hearing becomes more astutue; the sounds of football and concerts carry through the evening air with the alacrity of flocks of starlings. As the flowers dwindle to funereal marigolds, the evergreen oaks’ deep green is familiar and comforting as a favorite sweater, the cypress and odd fellow’s oaks that dot the landscape like Jazz Fest banners echo the marigolds reds and oranges and yellows, hearth colors announcing the imminent birth of the cool.

A Bend in the River December 30, 2011

Posted by The Typist in lyric essay, New Orleans, The Narrative, Toulouse Street.
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In the stillness of the night air damp and cold as Pacific fog but clear and starlit, across two nautical miles of low roofs rolling above the flat land like the waves of the sea, I sometimes hear the bellowing of ships horns as they make the blind turn at Algiers Point.

I spent last night buying textbooks online from Amazon. I dislike Amazon, but I have to be careful with money. I think about how it will feel to sit in a desk in a classroom, surrounded by people decades younger then I am, if professors will treat someone my age differently. Going back to school on my severance and retraining allowance 30 years after abandoning my baccalaureate for a newspaper job is a blind turn.

I also finished ordering a bed, dresser and small desk from Wal-Mart to put in my new, two-bedroom apartment. I dislike Wal-Mart more than I dislike Amazon. My lawyer says I need a two bedroom apartment if I want my son to divide his time between his mother and I, and he needs furniture. He sleeps now on a first rate sleeper sofa in my front room when he comes. I wondered if the lawyer had scheduled the meeting she promised for next week. More compromises, like buying from Amazon and Wal-Mart. Another blind turn.


I remember the reason the ships use their horns in spite of radar, radio and the Coast Guard system that works like air traffic control for ships. Then I remember how two vessels meeting signal their intentions. One blast means “I moving starboard and leaving you to port”, two blasts the opposite. In this day and age this could be negotiated by radio but the Algiers turn bound downriver is a difficult moment.The current wants to push the tow or ship into the Esplanade Avenue Wharf. The vessel has to pivot on the left hand side of the river, analogous to a car going into the other lane, engines turning furiously in counter directions to pivot while drifting slowly on contrary current to aim themselves downstream and get back into the down bound channel. This must be an intense and frantic moment, requiring the perfect alignment of forces.

Its easier to follow conventions on a blind turn. Perhaps that is why I am going back to school. I have bullshitted my way into several degree required positions but as I get older I wonder if I can do that again. I had two recruiters fighting over me last week for a local contract job. The one I worked with (he found me first) insisted the job was bachelors or eight plus years experience, but the description he sent me read and not or.

I had originally planned to spend my severance time furiously reading and writing, following the autodidact path that led me from the English Department to journalism, from journalism to politics and Capitol Hill, out of politics and into IT, from It to project management. Perhaps returning to school, at least to get one semester out of the way before the retraining money expires and the severance runs out, is as simple as following convention, choosing to use the signal horn at a difficult bend, a blind turn.


As I simultaneously apply for jobs and buy textbooks, and try to furnish a room for my son while dribbling money out of the severance pool as slowly as possible I feel the tension of that turn at Algier’s Point, left engine full ahead, right engine full astern, the dangerous insistence of the current, the intensity of the moment. There is no time for negotiation over the radio. The down bound ship has right of way. Just blow the horn and let everyone know your intentions.

Unlike the river pilots who guide the river boats and ships, I do not know what is around the bend. They cannot see the hidden low tow of barges but know every trick of the current, every sandbar. They sound two blasts–I am leaving you to starboard–and confidently navigate the turn. I am bound blindly upriver, and so a certain adherence to convention is wise, yielding right of way. I have no certain idea of what lies ahead: the gold of Eldorado, the madness of Kurtz, or the death of de Soto. I emulate the early explorers, conserving my supplies and proceeding with caution. I have my own obligations like de Soto’s to his king and his god, and like Marlow I have my own, sometimes dimly understood compulsion toward the unknown.

I sit outside, and light another cigarette, listen again for the sounds of the river but none come. The ships only sound their horns when they meet another to negotiate the difficult turn. I have my own difficult meetings and turnings to negotiate ahead. I have to learn the confidence of the river pilots as they dodge the ferry and the upstream traffic, master the difficult currents they have launched themselves upon, to signal my intentions when necessary and not trust any other to simply follow the rules of the road.

Call to Post November 28, 2011

Posted by The Typist in lyric essay, New Orleans, NOLA, The Narrative, Toulouse Street.
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It cannot be the sound of school’s out or a playground, that excited babble in the distance, but this is your first thought. The high pitched voices, the pure joyful noise of it. It is the middle of the holiday weekend. There is no school. The quiet returns and as you contemplate what it might be you hear the bugler play First Call and realize it is the sound of the crowd cheering their horses that has carried just over a furlong and into your living room.

It is third day of the racing season at the Fairgrounds and looking out your window at the full parking lot you realize the crowd is no doubt large. Two days ago the season opened with its typical Thanksgiving fan fair: a festival of morning cocktails, women in elaborate hats, men handling their unfamiliar cigars as if rehearsing for their new riches. The crowd is divided into several sets: the horsey sort (who make the greatest effort at their hats and clothes) who are put off by the lottery now used to assign the clubhouse tables their family have occupied for decades; their less sporting associates, desirous as a climbing English solicitor to see and be seen in their finery on this canonical holiday; and finally the teeming masses of the grandstand.

Many of the large crowd of groundlings ape the clubhouse crowd. As I stood on my stoop across from the top of the stretch I watched a couple pass, complemented her hat and admired his jacket-less gray silk vest and walking stick. Last year a small parade passed, two dozen people well dressed for opening day, following a small brass band, a hired Mardi Gras Indian cavorting to the music. While the rest of America settles with its coffee in front of the television for the Macy’s parade or hurries home from church, New Orleans makes a Bloody Mary and goes off to the races.

I love the horses but have not been on Thanksgiving Day in decades, but I doubt the scene has changed much from my description from memory. I prefer the routine days of racing, and like the notorious player and poet Charles Bukowski tend toward the grand stand counter bar where the conversation over beer and coffee of the betting regulars is, if not entirely reliable, the most entertaining. I trained by reading Ainsley but my real education came from a co-worker on Capitol Hill who was a very serious player. A math graduate of Berkley who thoroughly digested Edward O. Thorps’ book on card counting Beat the Dealer and he financed his education in part be making himself persona non grata in every casino in Reno. A perfect racetrack character whose other favorite place was the strip club near his suburban apartment, he spent entirely too much of his taxpayer financed time entering the daily results of the Maryland races into a large statistical analysis spreadsheet he had made himself. From this he developed a very reliable system specific to that circuit and certain classes of horses by sex and age that I won’t divulge.

From Mark I learned not only how to apply the secrets of his system to the Daily Racing Form, but also the habits of watching past races on the handy television monitors that allowed you to call up past performances, looking for telltale clues. More important, I learned to make the circuit. This involved lifting ourselves up from our cigarette-butt littered spot in the bleaches and traveling down to the paddock to have a look at the horses conformation and temperament, then following the parade out to a spot on the rail to see them in motion, how they reacted to the condition of the track and the handling of their jockeys, how they loaded into the gate (although this last often came too late, after the money was down) Once the horses are passed, we would watch the convolutions of the horse board, the statistical presentation in lighted numbers of the complex sociological dynamics of a crowd which–nine or ten times a day–attempts to define and redefine a consensus. The late bets are the most important, the other self-appointed experts laying down large wagers in the last minute so as not to start the crowd stampeding toward their choice and lowering the spread. Then a sprint to the window, a quick bet and back to the bleachers. I don’t know at what point in our weekly jaunts to Laurel and sometimes Baltimore I realized how closely we modeled the horses themselves: the paddock, the parade, the anxious waiting in front of the tote board just as the horses waited at the gate, then our heated, last minute sprint to the cashiers and back.

Which brings me back to the sound that intruded into my reading on Saturday morning, the crescendo of the crowd that follows the crash of the gate and the announcer’s barked “they’re off”, the bettors urging their horse, hats waving, rolled-up Forms brandished like magic wands or threats of punishment, the tension released in the operatic cacophony of a thousand howling ticket holders intent on winning. If all this rings a bit nostalgic that because my track attendance has been near nil since returning to New Orleans. In between the Senate campaign of ’86 and my departure for Washington, D.C. I spent a fair amount of my idle time sitting in the grandstands, buying only a Form and a couple of cups of coffee, practicing my handicapping while staying away from the cashiers (who have sadly been largely replaced with machines), passing the afternoon pleasantly It always seems there are a million other things calling for attention.

I often start my days on a plastic resin chair next to my stoop, cradling my morning coffee and watching the horses’ morning exercise. For a while that seemed enough, just my proximity and the relaxation of watching them run in the distance, but I think its time I got back to the track with a brace of sharp pencils, if only to escape for a while into the arcana of the past performance and the moderate excitement of watching the horses run without the pressure of a win or a loss. The exercise of making the circuit while avoiding the blood pressure spike that goes with a ticket can be filed away under fresh air and exercise, stimulation of the middle aged mind by mathematics. All in all a doctor-approved activity, if I can stay away from the hotdogs.

Great Gutenberg’s Ghost November 5, 2011

Posted by The Typist in cryptical envelopment, lyric essay, New Orelans, New Orleans, NOLA, Odd Words, Toulouse Street, Writing.
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Click to open image and read.

P.P.S Yes, I misspelled Gutenberg. I think the careful exercise of typewriting will ultimately do much to break me of lazy computer habits.

Another publication, another typo June 27, 2011

Posted by The Typist in literature, lyric essay, New Orleans, Odd Words, Toulouse Street.

And my own fault, a lesson in the perils on online submission of web-ready manuscripts.

Read “sparse” for “spare” in the first line, although it sort of works with the typo, but sparse is better.

So it goes.

The micro-piece Sparse is up today Metazan, a top-shelf Net Lit online publication I read daily. And therein lies a lesson: read where you submit and if you’ve got something going on, you’ll pick the right piece to send them.

And get someone to read it one last time before you hit Send on Submishmash.

A wise literary friend suggested there are periods in your life when you pour you soul out onto the page filling notebook after notebook which a wise writer will then burn.

I disagree.