Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #9

Note to Self: The Lyric Essay

Kathryn Winograd

Winograd(When we heard that Winograd has two lyric essays coming out in Fourth Genre and Hotel Amerika, we asked her to write a piece on that particular form.)

I must confess that what I first want to tell you is a lie.  That what propelled me to creative nonfiction was the owl my husband and I stalked in a ragged stretch of woods along the South Platte River some long winters ago, that symbolic air, I’ll want to tell you, thick with the crash and grind of a cement factory that halted only on Sundays in deference to a holiness I couldn’t name.  What I won’t want to tell you is that it was really the words of a humble Southern essayist—

he laughs in the yellow shade of his straw hat even now—who said, “I’m a failed poet,” words I have grappled with myself since my first book and that river of Poesies, that pushed me toward such compression, dammed.

What is creative nonfiction?  Or more specifically, what I yearn toward—the lyric essay? Even as I write down these questions, I see in my head the first
disconnected threads of my answer weaving themselves together—that owl in dead winter draping its nest with the carcasses of rabbit.  And the dry buzz of the electric wires overhead,
something like rain falling down over us in those cold woods.  (Note to Self: What is it about a suspended, hot electrical wire that makes the air weep? Look it up.)  And that student in my first creative nonfiction class —the round-faced, middle-aged housewife from India I broke the heart of—dead now.
Already I run my fingers over the weft and woof of my words —ahh, the terms of weaving again, and, better yet, the word baana, from India, derived, Wikipedia tells me, “from another hindi word, bun na or bunai, which means making with threads or strings.” (Note to Self: image of my Indian housewife unwittingly weaving her primitive essays with the long golden threads of her Indian childhood, what she never realized the beauty of—those pungent, spiced boxes from her own mother arriving overseas to her forlorn American kitchen.  Do something with this).  And now I think of Penelope, three years weaving and unweaving her shroud against the din and banter of her unwanted suitors who would marry her mourning for her lost Odysseus  —

Is this the siren call of the lyric essay? Its utter plasticity—(Note to Self: stick with weaving)—its intricate tapestry, its finger-worn threads guided into the freed forms the creative nonfiction writer calls braided, collage, hermit crab? The whole spectrum of writing—poetry, essay, fiction, drama, the personal “I” reflective, objective, ruminating—possible as opposed to the linearity and stifling objectivity of the journalist’s prose?  Or the rack and ruin of the purist’s freshman composition?

But how is this prose-making different from poetry?  I think of the crystalline globe of the lyric poem, of that Keatsian nightingale, “light-winged Dryad,” singing forever in the frozen moment as if truth or beauty—as if our postmodernist truth or beauty, multi-voiced, suspect—could be held to such a singular note. 
Floyd Skloot, poet, novelist, memoirist, author of In The Shadow of Memory, his account of the viral attack that left him brain-damaged, who left me dazzled one summer seminar, describes his writing process in creative nonfiction as a matter of folders, each day’s fragmented writing filed into subject-coded folders until finally amassed on his work desk, his fragments begin their weaving— he, himself, still novitiate to the silent loom of the soul.  

My owl, harbinger of death, it seems, beats like a moth at the long flame of my student. She sits, like Penelope, alone in the television’s blue blare, far from those she loves—mother, children, husband.  I told her once that she could write creative nonfiction, and when, much later, she came to me in despair and said that someone had told her there was no such thing as this, what she could love now, I laughed and dismissed her. And then nothing.  And then her death. And then this essay she wrote that some friend forwarded to me long after her burial in which she laments how I, (Note to Self: unnamed poet, failed poet), had deceived her, this creative nonfiction nothing she could hold onto.

I look up the names of Eastern spices, what I imagine her mother sent her, like Tulsi and Gulab Jal, Holy Basil and Rose Water, and give them to her in this world, and the other, so that she can taste them on her tongue, as I can taste them now. 
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Poetry is the purest of the language arts. It’s the tightest cage, and if you can get it to sing in that cage it’s really really wonderful. (Rita Dove)