2015’s Transformative Literary Essays

essays

There was a lot being said about many things in the literary world this year, and we want to keep those conversations going.  Therefore, in no particular order, 2015’s best online transformative literary essays:

1. “In Retrospect

by The Offing

“My advice would be that queer spaces can be anywhere. They can be in your backyard. They can be on your bookshelf. They can be wherever you are. Even somewhere as simple as in a letter to a penpal. Queer spaces don’t have to be in a club or bar.”

2. “How the Literary Class System Is Impoverishing Literature

by Lorraine Berry

“And while class disparity manifests in all sectors of society, for those who seek careers in literature, class differences have a huge impact on who gets hired and who gets published. This, in turn has a real effect on the portrayal of class in literature, and in media depictions of the writer’s life.”

“Literature should not function as a dividing line between the haves and the have-nots, just as the expansion of the literary world to more fairly represent a world in which people are more than white or male or straight has added untold riches to the canon, so too would the stories of working-class folk go a long way toward improving our representation of and understanding of the greater world.”

3. “Like It Never Happened: A former editor and columnist on why they left Revolution John

by Savannah Sipple and Stacia Fleegal

“I need not remind my reader our violent history of calling anything female “hysterical” or “crazy,” which these words tap into for its sap. To be feminine is to be out of one’s mind. That’s what this poem, and tragically the editor-in-chief Revolution John, said to its readers, both male or female, masculine and feminine…. Be gone. Erase yourself. Revolution John was telling critics that it doesn’t matter what’s problematic with the poem—the  problem was, again, with the female. Indeed. RJ did stand beside ‘Scowl.’”

“It’s Sizemore’s god-given RIGHT to re-traumatize sexual and domestic assault survivors with words, but for me to freely express myself on RJ, about that topic or any other my little heart desired? That was a gift, from a man to a woman—one for which I am expected to be grateful, as long as I shut up and don’t criticize that man or his publication.”

4. “What Is Literary Activism?

by Amy King

“…one needs to hear about the lived realities and ideas of ‘the Other’ so that we might begin to empathize, approach understanding and be willing to relinquish certain privileges, including risking our own safety, in order to demand the safety and platforms for others not automatically entitled or granted it by birthright. Of my own medium, poetry, I have much hope, despite the ongoing attempt to colonize and capitalize its very existence via white supremacist tendencies in the academy and mainstream publishing world especially. Poetry has been a vehicle unmarried, so far, to any ultimate “official” authoritarian definition, and therefore, it retains its powers of vastness, affordability and adaptability.”

5. “Letters to Best American Poetry

by Craig Santos Perez

“The reason why we advocate for people of color in positions of editorial power is not about nepotism, it is about protecting against institutional racism, which has shaped the literary world for too long.”

6. “80 Books No Woman Should Read

by Rebecca Solnit

“…I believe everyone should read anything they want. I just think some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty. Or they’re instructions in the version of masculinity that means being unkind and unaware, that set of values that expands out into violence at home, in war, and by economic means.”

 

7. “Men Explain Lolita to Me

by Rebecca Solnit

“I just made humorous remarks about some books and some dead writers’ characters. These guys were apparently so upset and so convinced that the existence of my opinions and voice menaced others’ rights. Guys: censorship is when the authorities repress a work of art, not when someone dislikes it.”

8. “To Being Unreasonable in 2015

by Jennifer Tamayo

“i will embrace not just disagreement but conflict, if necessary.
i will embrace conflict; when i see something fucked, i will call out its fuckery in a respectably loud voice.
i will embrace conflict; when i do something fucked and get called out, i will reflect on my fuckery.
i will support efforts following the trajectory of articulated vitriol and pain without exception. this is a good place to start: THE MONGREL COALITION AGAINST GRINGPO”

9. “A ROUND OF NO’S: LAMENT FOR THE DEAD: NO DEAR lamentforthedead@gmail.com

by The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo

“SOME POETRY EDITORS BELIEVE ONESIDED HEALING WILL BRING JUSTICE.
SOME POETRY EDITORS BELIEVE THE POLICE NEED TO TAKE UP AS MUCH SPACE AS THOSE THEY’VE MURDERED.
SOME POETRY EDITORS CAN GIVE UP THE MICROPHONE FOR A FUCKING MINUTE; WHO ARE YOU THE POET LAUREATE OF BERNIE SANDERS
SOME POETRY EDITORS NEED TO USE THEIR LIBRARY CARDS
SOME POETRY EDITORS NEED TO STOP IT WITH #NUANCE
SOME POETRY EDITORS ASK FOR CIVILITY INSTEAD OF ANGER
SOME POETRY EDITORS READ BLIND, LIKE JUSTICE, BALANCE THOSE SCALES!
SOME POETRY EDITORS CURATE AS IF THEY’VE NEVER HEARD US SCREAM”

10. “BENEDICTION: a note on our sprawling disembodiment or, THE WEEPING FLESH OF THE MONGREL

by The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo

“the wound that never shuts. we know it as everyday: work or look for work or bear the knowledge of not working feed the kids call the medicare office and the bank to translate for mom wash the clothes play with the kids vacuum take out the trash from the kitchen take out your mementos from your grandparents home so they can short-sell the house take out the trash from our facebook wall make signs for the protest stay home and ache in our bodies pass out candles at the vigil watch the bullshit news coverage and ache in our bodies fill out an AR-11 Alien’s Change of Address form ache for a home put the kids to sleep. we get caught up; we forget sometimes how we are alive against all odds when we were never meant to survive, when having arrived here is a miracle.”

11. “28 Lessons Learned from a Year of ‘Being Unreasonable’; for Brown and Black Poets & Our Chosen Families

by Jennifer Tamayo

“LESSON #3: Learn that your first English words, at the age of four, were HI! & PLEASE! & THANK YOU!—and that you were taught these words before you really knew what they meant. Learn that you performed them like a parrot to try to pass as American at an airport in Texas. Learn that from the moment you’ve entered this country, you’ve been excelling at passing, so this heartbreak you are feeling now, this unlearning that feels like death, this feeling that you’ve been a phony your whole life, is actually somewhat real, because, who are you? who have you been?

LESSON #4: You are a mestizx, yes. There are things that were taken from you that you are going to have to forcefully take back.”

12. “On Pandering

by Claire Vaye Watkins

“I am trying to understand a phenomenon that happens in my head, and maybe in yours too, whereby the white supremacist patriarchy determines what I write.

I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for them. The whole book’s a pander. Look, I said with my stories: I can write old men, I can write sex, I can write abortion. I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental. I can write an old man getting a boner!

Here are the lampposts, here is the single-screen movie theater. It’s all an architecture of pandering. It’s for them.

She can write like a man, they said, by which they meant, She can write.”

13. “Marlon James: ‘Writers of colour pander to the white woman’

by Sian Cain

“James said that because white women readers dominate the market, ‘the male editors will only accept one type of story. Everyone knows what a New Yorker story will look like. I could have been published 10 times over – I knew that there was a certain kind of prose I could have written; intense scenes that hinted, rather than explored….If I pandered to a cultural tone set by white women, particularly older white female critics, I would have had 10 stories published by now,” he continued. “Though we’ll never admit it, every writer of colour knows that they stand a higher chance of getting published if they write this kind of story. We just do.’”

14. “Goldsmith, Conceptualism & the Half-baked Rationalization of White Idiocy

by Joey De Jesus

“Ironically, nothing about appropriation and erasure is conceptually new or good; it is not an innovative mode of cultural production, but rather, the result of centuries of unfettered capitalism and the impulse it instills in people to commodify and consume everything, including your fellow human being.”

“The most notable example of “remixing” in his recent mess was Goldsmith’s intentional conclusion on the image of Michael Brown’s penis in the autopsy room. He read, ‘The remaining male genitalia system is unremarkable,’ which calls to mind that in the racist, objectifying paradigm, the black man’s penis is anything but ‘unremarkable.’ When rearranging the autopsy text to reveal what Goldsmith perceives is ‘objective truth,’ he is actually articulating his phallocentric gaze; his belief in the mandingo stereotype, and his anger and jealousy at the black male for what Goldsmith perceives to be the black male’s natural aptitude for sex. Brownness has a long history of being hypersexualized by the white gaze; by concluding this piece on the image of Michael Brown’s penis and reorganizing the text to semantically link his penis to the word ‘unremarkable,’ Goldsmith effectively stands over the body of the dead mandingo, who wasn’t quite, who lost.”

15. “Race and the Poetic Avant-Garde

by Stefania Heim

“We asked these writers—all publishing in or alongside various contemporary experimental traditions—whether there is now space for and openness to the exploration of aesthetics and race; we asked about tokenism and our allegedly ‘post-race’ era; we asked them to compare public engagement with these ideas in so-called mainstream and avant-garde poetry circles.”

Lyric Essentials: Kristin LaTour reads “Teaching Experience” by Marge Piercy

Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Kristin LaTour, whose full-length collection What Keeps Us Alive was released from Sundress this fall, reads “Teaching Experience” by Marge Piercy.

Kristin, before we dive into “Teaching Experience,” can you tell us a little about Marge Piercy? Where did you first come across her work?

Kristin LaTour: I first read a couple of Marge Piercy’s novels in a contemporary lit class in college in the early 1990s. Then I found her poetry when I was browsing a bookstore. I loved it. It was lyrical free-verse, something I hadn’t encountered in much of my reading or education up to that point. It spoke to me, my values of feminism, religion (even though we are not of the same religion) and finding meaning in daily life. I went to the local bookstore and bought every book of hers that was out at the time, and then every book after that.

Sundress: Are religion and feminism prominent themes in Piercy’s work? And, I’m assuming she taught at some point, is education also a reoccurring theme?

Kristin LaTour: Religion and feminism are pervasive in Piercy’s work. Her Judaism and concerns for women also come into her novels, although the feminism more so. She also writes about the environment, science and the intersection of politics with all of these. Her writing reminds me of Margaret Atwood, another feminist/environmentalist/humanist writer.

Education does come up now and again in her poems. It is usually brutally honest. She has a poem about how awful it is to go to colleges to give readings and stay in dismal dorms and have few people attend her readings. I can’t recall the title of that poem. She has another about the pointlessness of MFA programs, and that was long before the explosion of low-res programs. It’s titled “For the Young Who Want To” and includes the line: “The real writer is the one who really writes.” I thought a lot about that poem before applying to an MFA program, and it made me remember that a degree wasn’t going to turn me into a poet, and really, I’d have to be aware to stay true to my own voice and not become just like my mentors there. Piercy isn’t a formal academic, but she has lectured and given workshops at hundreds of colleges and conferences. She teaches in the best way, without all the trappings of a bureaucracy. I envy that.

Sundress: Being able to teach without the trappings of bureaucracy is certainly a privilege, or at the very least, extremely lucky. How do you feel about “Teaching Experience” as an educator?

Kristin LaTour: From the teacher side of me, especially when I teach developmental writing classes, the first part of this poem makes so much sense. The students don’t want to be there. I do everything I can to engage them, but usually all is for naught with the majority. And the second half, yes, that too makes me nod my head. When I have a student one-on-one we get more done, and the energy levels off in both directions. I can relax, and the student opens up. Also, teaching something like roasting a goose is much more fun than teaching writing, at least the fundamentals. Plus, we get to eat the goose. Commas, not so much.

From the student side of me, I get it too. Sometimes the things we are supposed to learn aren’t exciting. We go in with bad attitudes and shut down our receptors. I listen better in small groups than in large ones, like classrooms. Being a student who taken many poetry classes and workshops, there’s also the point that you can’t write poems from nothing. One has to have lived life to get all the nuances of it. We can’t expect high schoolers to write the same poems as people in their 50s. Both can be great poets, but they are different based on their experiences.

From me as a fan of Marge Piercy, I want to shake the students who wouldn’t give her every ounce of their attention. And I want to go on a nature hike with her. I also know I have students who have loved taking class with me and would say the same thing to students who get bored in my classes. “Pay attention! Open up!” And those few who gotten to know me outside of class know that teaching goes on outside of my classroom. So does laughter. And sometimes tears. Hopefully for good reason.

Sundress: I remember helping out in secondary classrooms during my undergrad, it made me laugh to hear her list her students, especially the one“pricing my clothing piece by piece”—I’ve met that student, the one staring intently at you but obviously not listening to a word you’re saying. And yet, the poem overall, is moving and inspirational; while listening to this, I picture this speech being given to poetry grad students. Stylistically, how does “Teaching Experience” compare to Piercy’s other work?

Kristin LaTour: This poem is much like her other poems as far as style and form go. Like I said, her work showed me how free verse narrative poems could work.

I like how this poem starts out with a command a metaphor. This is what teachers are told to do, and how a lot of teachers feel, at least once in a while. After the first two stanzas of metaphor and imagery, the poem gets more narrative, but by the third stanza, I trust that this is a poem, not just a story. I also like the line breaks in the 6th stanza. “I could show you how,” sets up a little mystery, makes me curious to know what she can teach me. The break that ends with “bones” is creepy. Then the last image brings in an element of environmentalism, another passion of mine as well.

The last three lines inspire me as a poet. Since Piercy’s poems were my first big inspiration for writing, having her teach me about poetry. And there’s the irony, that she can be in a classroom and not get through to students, face-to-face, but little me in Ashland, Wisconsin, is learning from her.

Sundress: If you could tell her students to read Piercy, to take that time to sit and read and learn from her, other than this poem, which ones would you recommend?

Kristin LaTour: I’m going to stick to Piercy’s older work since we’ve been focusing on that. In her 1992 book, Mars and Her Children, I’d like to look at “Softly During the Night” for a lesson on the environment. The poem is a simple one about an overnight rain that gives way to a cloudless morning, but the last two lines strike me. The leaves on roadside bushes hold drops of water that “bear witness to what came and left/ furtive as if it took instead of giving.” Our relationship with the natural world is complex. We take from it, and it gives to us, but there’s something more here. There’s a symbiosis that we don’t always understand. And Piercy leaves us wondering with her just what it takes from us.

Going back even further to her 1977 book The Moon is Always Female, which was the second of her books I read, there are two poems I think teach lessons. For a protest poem with some lessons on grassroots action, I like “The Low Road.” The poem starts with how “they” can take a person and torture her, and how there’s nothing the solitary person can do to stop “them.” But the rest of the poem grows to a couple fighting their way out of a mob, three people forming a “wedge,” a “dozen make a demonstration,” and finally ten million can make a nation. Together, as a group, we can make a lot of progress in the world.

The last poem is “For Strong Women.” Obviously this is a feminist poem, but it’s message is rousing and moving. The first five stanzas start with the phrase “A strong woman” and then develops what she does. She works, takes abuse and keeps going, doesn’t let others tell her she can’t accomplish a task. She deals with physical pain. The last stanza starts with the idea that a strong woman is comforted by those who love her for her strength and her weakness. The last three lines are a raising of fists and a kick to the chest at the same time. “Strong is what we make/ each other. Until we are strong together,/ a strong woman is strongly afraid.” I don’t know if Piercy meant the “we” to be just women, or both women and men. I like to think of it as both. Pierce was writing in the time when Roe vs Wade was new, and here, almost 40 years later, we are dealing with women’s health clinics closing, being attacked by men with guns, rape culture, and a continuing struggle for equality in many aspects of society. We all need to learn to come together and be strong for women and other marginalized groups.

Sundress: How do Piercy’s novels compare to her poetry? Which novel would you first recommend to those who like her poetry?

Kristin LaTour: Piercy’s novels are also very feminist, environmentalist, and she also varies from historical fiction to sci-fi/speculative fiction. The first novel I read was Braided Lives. While I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s when abortions were legal, I felt deeply moved by her writing about young women’s sexual lives and the freedom and danger that came with having relationships with men. I had never read anything so explicit and honest about young women’s sexual lives and it resonated with me like someone had turned on a light in a dark room. I loved He, She, and It a sci-fi novel that blends feminism, the pros and cons of artificial intelligence and religion. She’s never a one or two-dimensional writer. Everything comes to a full life. While I haven’t read either of the novels in years, I can bring the characters and settings up in mind easily.

Comparing the two based more on content isn’t as easy. Her imagery in both is vivid. Her wit and opinions come through in both. She’s honest, not holding anything back. I really admire that quality. I hope in my own poems I do the same. I can’t even say what novels I’d recommend based on her poetry. All of them, really. If you are a fiction reader and want to get into her poetry, I’d start with Mars and Her Children. It’s a good overall starting point. If someone wants to explore a more linear set of poems, Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing moves through the seasons, but also has a foot in Judaism, the image in the title coming from the story of Ezekiel. Her newest book, Made in Detroit, touches on much of Piercy’s life, and readers will find a lot there to enjoy, from friendships between women to gardens to cats. Well, you’ll find cats in all her books of poetry. Lots of cats.


Kristin-LaTour-polka-dot-author-photo-255x300Kristin LaTour’s first full-length collection, What Will Keep Us Alive, is available from Sundress Publications. Her most recent chapbook is Agoraphobia, from Dancing Girl Press (2013). Her poetry has appeared in journals such as Fifth Wednesday, Cider Press Review, Escape into Life, and Massachusetts Review and in the anthology Obsession: Sestinas in the 21st Century. She teaches at Joliet Jr. College and lives in Aurora, IL with her writer husband. Readers can find more information at KristinLaTour.com.