Grace in the Striped Room
from vol. 54, 2012.
Grace in the Striped Room
from vol. 54, 2012.
They paint peaches. Hazed
with impressionist light, their fuzz
a palpable halo. Or material peaches,
rude with juice. Serov, Monet, Flegel,
Galizia, Cezanne. The museum’s an orchard.
Some Flemish still-life painters
(do they know the world better
than God?) paint them like flesh suns.
But we don’t go to the museum.
We end up instead on a restaurant patio,
eating white peach sorbet
grainy and bright with tang.
From vol. 56, 2014.
As an undergrad, occasionally some really amazing things happen to you. Sometimes you are really lucky and one of those things is meeting a professor who reminds you why this whole “going to school” thing is way more magic than drudgery. I’m not going to say we all get a Dead Poet’s Society Robin Williams letting us stand on his desk while words of wisdom drip from his tongue like honey, but if you take a class with Dr. Jaudon you might understand why getting to share some jasmine tea with her on a rainy Monday afternoon while I pestered her with a few questions for The Aonian was actually somehow even more wonderful than her talking about reading Fifty Shades of Grey.
KATE HENRICKS: I know that I’ve asked you this before. Just a general: how did you get here to Hendrix College? Or into teaching, I guess?
TONI JAUDON: For a long time, when I was a freshman and a sophomore in college, I thought that I wanted to be a lawyer, I really thought I wanted to be on the Supreme Court. I had an internship in D.C. after my freshman year, on Capital Hill in a Senator’s office, and I hated it. I hated everybody I met and I just hated the whole thing. I was really unhappy. And at the same, the one thing that I was doing that I loved was I was taking English classes.
I went back to school that fall and I realized that somebody had that job to teach those classes. And I started to think, “Oh, how do I get that job? Because, I could do this for a living and get paid for it.” That was when I realized that I was going to go get a P.H.D.
Fast forward, I did my PhD and I had a short-term job, like many people do, at another small liberal arts college. I had come from a small liberal arts college, and I really wanted to work at a small liberal arts college. It took a while but the ad came up for Hendrix and I was interviewed by Dr. Vernon and Dr. McKim. When I met them I was just like, “This is where I want to work. Like I really want this job.” I came here to visit and it was wonderful. I was contemplating a couple different possibilities but it was a very clear choice that I wanted to come here.
KH: Kind of going off that, you’ve said before that undergrad was a pretty influential time for you. What books, authors, writers were really important to you or influential to you during that time?
TJ: Oh man, that’s a good question. I had this unbelievable adoration for Charlotte Bronte. Charlotte Bronte’s Villette was the first paper that I wrote that I can still look back at it now and I’m like, “That’s okay. That’s not bad.” It was the first paper that, kind of took over my life while I was writing it. And, I can still remember what I was writing about but also how it felt to write about it. It was this complicated experience where I had just gotten shamelessly dumped by someone I really liked and I was consoling myself by writing this paper. It was spring time and as I was holing up writing this paper, it went from miserable and gray to everything out and blooming the day that I turned it in. It just all came together. And, the paper was about the experience of being alone.
It’s one of those things where you’re like, “Right, I think I’m probably in the right line of work.” If you can have that kind of charged relationship to an assignment that went something like, “write a 5 to 7 page paper on a Victorian novel using a theoretical text.” Right, that was where it started and then that’s where it wound up.
KH: So back in the day it was Bronte, what book are you currently reading?
TJ: Let’s see, the book that I just finished was called The Design of Everyday Things. It’s a nonfiction book about objects, how we make objects, and why. It’s by an industrial designer and it’s about like why your toaster oven is so hard to use or why your iPhone feels so great.
KH: That’s so cool!
TJ: Yeah! I got into this kind of thing because of my interest in the relationship between books and hands, and how people use books. The feeling I’m still really, really interested in is why it is that I love books so much more than digital reading. Even though I would never give up digital databases, it’s such a valuable thing, and yet, there’s something so profound about the way a book works when you hold it in your hand.
I’ve been reading as much as I can, in my spare time about that and trying to understand like “How does a psychologist answer the question of why we love objects? Or how does an engineer think about how to make an object more compelling to you?” Your iPhone is strategically engineered to make you want to pick it up all the time. And it works, right? I can’t keep my hands off that damn thing. I’m really interested in those particular choices. As somebody who is thinking about literature, there is a school of thought that suggests that you can separate the verbal from the material and I’m interested in… Well, there are more scholars now who are trying to go back and close that gap, and I don’t know if I can, but I think I can probably count myself in that number.
KH: So you are definitely not a e-reader kind of person?
TJ: I am not, I don’t have an e-reader, although, I may get one at some point. Even when I get PDFs of things I print them out. It’s because I realized that I cannot read without a pen in my hand. I actually think differently when I am holding a pen. And it’s because of the habits of annotating. That’s part of my culturation.
KH: You mentioned a moment ago your interest in the relationship between books and hands. I think the last time we spoke about that was when you were talking about your research in pop-up books. Could you talk a little bit about that?
TJ: Yeah. It was so weird. I came to the pop up book project in a really weird way. I was writing an essay about religious encyclopedias. That sounds like the most boring thing in the universe but I’m a dork, I guess. Anyway, I was writing this essay and I was shelf reading. I knew that I needed a book at a certain call number and so I was just looking at what was around it. And one of the things on the shelf was a book called A Bibliography of Pop Up Books and it was about an inch and a half across at the spine. I remember thinking, ‘There are that many popup books? And somebody cataloged them all?’ Because, something like that, all it is a list on entries of different popup books that exist, in order, with references to the library’s that you can find them in. It’s an extraordinarily boring thing to have made. But, the person who did this is a grand service to the profession, it’s amazing.
I pulled it down and I was like, wait a second, there’s this whole thing waiting there for somebody to look at and think about. I had some summer research funding from Hendrix and I was at Yale, which happens to have a wonderful children’s book collection in its archives. So, I got done with the work that I was originally sited there to do for the day and I just started asking them to bring me popup books. I was saying to the curator, “Please bring me Curious Kittens and Their Frolics.” So they started bringing them out.
The thing that I noticed, first it was just unbelievably delighting to look at these things. But also, all of these other researchers stopped what they were doing and starting looking at what I was doing. It was as if I became this distraction in Yale’s book room. Which annoyed some people, but other people were like, “Why am I not working on that project?” I was like, yeah! That was when I knew that this was going to be a thing. Odyssey generously funded me taking a couple of students to do some research at Boden on popup books, where we just got to see tons and tons and tons of them.
And like you said, I think the fundamental common denominator there is my interest in the book as a thing, as a material object that you hold and operate and do things with. And, a pop up book is the one textual forum that does not register in the same way when it’s digitized. You can’t have that same experience of operating it with your hands even if you’re looking at a video of someone opening it. There is something about the thing-ness of it that’s unavoidable.
KH: So the other thing I know about the research you do is that you said in class once, that you were something of a scholar of early American trash literature. I had 2 questions about that. The first on was, what’s your draw to that specific sub-field?
TJ: Well, I like to read for the plot. I like stories. But I started grad school and I was going to do post-modern fiction, I was as rarefied as they come when I started. But at some point I was like, “I just want to enjoy something that I read again. I just want it to be fun. I just want to fall into a story.” And then I realized that; well wait a second, that’s what stories are for socially. That’s what people get out of narrative. That goes back across time. Many, many, many more people read Uncle Tom’s Cabin than Moby Dick. And that’s not to say that we shouldn’t read Moby Dick, but for a long time it was an argument against reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I wouldn’t call Uncle Tom’s Cabin trash, there are much trashier things that I assign people. I got there because I was interested in the sociologically side of literature. What have books actually meant to people? What books and narratives have functioned in people’s lives? As opposed to what is the best that has been read? I think that if you really want to understand how the written word works in a culture, you need to know both of those things.
KH: So what are your guilty pleasure, widely read books of today’s culture?
TJ: Oh man. Oh gosh, I can’t believe I’m going to let you put this in print… I have not laughed so hard as I laughed when I read Fifty Shades of Grey. I laughed, I still laugh about it. I found it so funny. I read it one afternoon and I laid on the bed and howled. I realize that, in saying that it’s funny, there are plenty of people who find it offensive. I certainly think that’s true. In particular, I think it does some very bad things for sexual minorities. I would want to put that out there. And I see and understand, as well, the objection that some feminists have had to it as a kind of deeply retrograde representation of femininity. Which I think is true, but I don’t think that helps us understand why it’s a popular cultural fantasy. It’s just bad though. It’s just so badly written. It’s implausible. The prose is terrible. The imagery is weak. It’s just so bad. That, to me, was what was so… so funny about it! It was like, really? She said, they did that and she said that? I’m pretty sure that’s not the way it works. That is probably the guiltiest of the guilty pleasures. But, let’s see, what else? I’m not above a gossip blog now and again. Take the edge off at the end of the day.
KH: On ‘Fifty Shades,’ I heard once that it was written as Fan Fiction. How do your feel about that whole sub-culture of writing?
TJ: See, I think this is really interesting. The idea that it was Twilight Fan Fiction… which ‘Twilight’ is itself deeply derivative.
KH: It’s probably even more problematic than Fifty Shades of Grey, yeah?
TJ: Yeah, right. There was a great round table on Fifty Shades of Grey, that if I ever taught Fifty Shades of Grey I would assign, by scholars of the 18th and 19th century novel writing about Fifty Shades of Grey and what’s problematic about it. And its fascinating stuff! The argument to me that was the most compelling, that I saw there, was about the resonances between the seduction plot of Fifty Shades of Grey and the seduction plots of early American and early British fiction, of the variety that people have read with me: The Coquette or something like Clarissa or Pamela. The thing that these scholars pointed out, and I think is totally true, is that the 18th and 19th century texts tend to be more subversive and do a better job of giving their female character’s agency than Fifty Shades of Grey does.
A novel like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela has a similar conceit; young, naïve heroine, who loves books and writing, who is simultaneously attracted to but endangered by a capable, powerful man who she will need to win over and domesticate. That is the baseline plot structure of Pamela. But Pamela is smart and funny and self-aware and she doesn’t take any crap. She has a very different relationship to herself and her femininity that I think is quite a bit more progressive than the portrait that we see in something like Fifty Shades of Grey. But, at the same time, people enjoy what they enjoy for the reasons they enjoy it.
KH: You say that, and now I can’t help thinking of Disney’s ‘Belle.’ That’s the same plot.
TJ: Yeah! And I think that this is one of things that’s most interesting to me about the novel, is how it’s the same story over and over again. And we really dig this story of the neophyte woman who needs to be initiated by dangerous man who be domesticated by valuing her. That’s a really bad way to live your life. That’s terrible life advice that people get from the novel. But, there is something interesting. If you go back and read feminist scholarship on the novel, it’s just fascinating to get a years and years of perspective on how people have answered that question of “why do we love that story?” Even students will write me papers on this and I’m like, “Yeah, I didn’t think of it that way but that’s there too.” I think that’s part of the work that we do as scholars and students of literature. One reason to study and think about these things is because you want to understand why we keep telling this story. What are we doing here?
KH: The world may never know… but maybe you can let the world (or the readership of The Aonian blog) know a couple miscellaneous facts about yourself? I’m sorry, that was an awful segue.
TJ: Its okay! Shoot.
KH: Okay, so first: tea or coffee and why?
TJ: Tea for sure. Coffee tends to give me a stomach ache. I do drink coffee on occasion but tea just keeps me at a more even keel.
KH: Favorite movie?
TJ: Oh man. I am a fan of documentaries. I actually really love that intersection of story telling and truth telling that a documentary does. One that I go back to over and over again, because it has different personal and political and academic and formal resonances with me, is the documentary Jesus Camp which came out in the mid 2000’s. It chronicles the experience of a couple of young, white Pentecostal children. They’re from Missouri, or that part of the country. It chronicles their experience of learning to hear God’s voice in every sense of that word. It was quite controversial when it came out. But, I think it’s complex and starts to do justice to some of the experience of being someone who can hear God speaking to you, which is a subject formation that I don’t think we take seriously enough. And to take it seriously doesn’t mean that you are going to have God speak to you, but rather that you can understand that some people are configured that way. That’s part of being in the world, understanding the range of human experience.
KH: Worst summer job you ever took?
TJ: There were so many. The job that I actively hated the most was working as a checkout person in the equivalent of Macy’s in Cleveland. I hated that job immensely just because it was so tedious and so weirdly complicated. That was definitely the worst. The worst job that I ever had, I would not do that again.
KH: I believe that. Last song played on your iPod/music device?
TJ: I’m actually going to answer this question accurately (she did in fact get her iPhone out and play me the song) Okay, this is a band called His Name is Alive. It’s an EP from ’96. It’s basically a bunch of people in a garage in Detroit making a 6 song EP called Nice Day that involves a lot of Indy-rock guitars and a Detroit gospel choir. It’s like… imagine the Beach Boys got together with a Detroit gospel choir and some guitarist came in and everybody was drinking a little too much and made an album. It’s one of those that was on this Indy-rock label called, 4AD, that has gone by the wayside I’m sure now but was a big deal when I was in college. A friend of mine sent it to me on a mixed tape and I was just like, “Right!” It’s excellent driving music, summer driving music. I highly recommend it if you can find it. It’s on Spotify at this point.
KH: What’d you have for breakfast this morning?
TJ: I had Fage peach yogurt with some kind of crunchy granola stuff in it and black tea with milk.
KH: Okay, so this has always been my secret question for you. But the shoes that wear usually… they look like Doc Martins?
TJ: Yes. These are Doc Martins and they are originals in the sense that I acquired these when I was either 18 or 19. I’ve had them that long.I feel like I should wear more professional shoes perhaps but part of the reason that we work all the time and don’t get paid as much is so we can wear the shoes that we want to wear. I put them away at some point in the middle 2000’s and had other boots that I wore, but I never got rid of them and I just came back to my love. They fit great. They’re perfect. I never want to give them up.
KH: So cool. Okay, my last ones are both “advice for undergrad” kind of questions. First, what book or author, text, etc. should all undergrads read?
TJ: If you read nothing, I think Moby Dick is the thing you should read. But, the other book that I would recommend, I actually assigned it to my thesis writers, is a book called Manage Your Day to Day. It’s a collection of advice by creative types about how to manage the creative process. That book was really helpful to me in thinking logically and consistently about the habits that develop creativity. There is one school of thought that suggests that people are born geniuses and they just do genius things by expressing their inner genius selves. And I do not subscribe to that. I think that we are creative and have ideas because we enact certain behaviors and disciplines that put us in the way of good thought. The question becomes, what are those things that you can do that maximize the odds of you having an idea? That’s something actually that I learned from my friends who are poets. The first 2 hours of the day belong to your writing if you want to get things done. You can’t always, you certainly can’t always do that. But, the principle stands. What are the habits that you want to have if you want to be a person who gets things done?
KH: Last question, what is your ultimate piece of advice for undergrads, and I guess you could say specifically Hendrix students?
TJ: You all need to sleep more. Go to sleep. Seriously. Your life will change if you actually sleep. I see people really push themselves to stay up late and work on things or whatever. There is a law of diminishing returns. I think it’s much better to be regular and habitual and take good care of your body and recognize that that’s what makes your minds work and makes you a more evenly tempered person. It makes you more resilient when bad things happen. Sleep is really important and good. That extra 2 hours that you think, you know ‘Oh I’ll stay up 2 more hours and I will only sleep 4 hours and then I’ll get more done’. You realize you’re only going to do about 15 minutes of work. You might as well go to sleep.
KH: I’ll pass that along to my roommate as she’s finishing her thesis tonight… I’m sure that I won’t get a book thrown at my head. I’ll let you know how it goes. Anyway, thank you so much for this interview!
TJ: My pleasure!
–Kate Henricks, Aonian staff member (2015-16)
On February 4, 2016, writer Sarah Manguso gave the annual Robert and Lillian Drake Endowed Lecture in Reves Recital Hall. I settled in to listen, aware of the title of her lecture: Writing and Desire. I was unsure of what to expect from Manguso, as sometimes, listening to writers talk about writing can get a little tedious; it’s often so tied up in our daily lives that talking about writing can be like talking about the particular patterns used when brushing teeth. We all do it (mostly) every day, but everyone does things a little differently, some more thoroughly than others. Claiming that “writing is the craft that defies craftsmanship,” though, Manguso lead the audience to insightful recognition of how little our actions, our craft, really matter at the end of it all, if we’ve refused to relinquish authority over what we should be doing when we sit down to write. She asked us to change the way we think about writing, and in doing so, change the way we think about life.
Manguso’s opening idea was an argument against trying to write exactly what we want to produce when we begin a project. Manguso related writing what we want to that feeling that occurs when we actually get what we want. While occasionally satisfying, when we do get what we want, it often falls a little flat if there’s no surprise included. Sarah Manguso made it clear that while yes, we need desire to write, we cannot be set on a final product before the end of a piece has happened, because it kills the possibility of something unexpected and great coming about on the journey to what we think we want. The process of writing should probably veer the work away from what we desire, in order to produce “potentially good work”.
Beyond changing the way I think about how a piece of written work comes into being, I’ve generally decided that Sarah Manguso is a magical kind of human being. Her statements about writing being an expression of “extreme empathy, and in the end, a kind of love”, and pointing out the differences between imitation and influence, that “imitating a revolution does not produce a revolution”, were astute and inspiring and a lot of my own feelings put into actual words. There was time for questions at the end of Manguso’s lecture, and some of her anecdotes and answers resonated with me, and many of my classmates: I also (almost) failed Chemistry and then decided I couldn’t be a doctor, also did not really do the undergraduate writing thing (at least, not nearly to the extent as some of my classmates), and many of my own previous relationships have failed because I was unwilling to let go of my own authority over them. Hearing a real human, an outstanding human, relate to us the steps that put her where she is now was reassuring for a large number of us. Her lecture, while probably something everyone in the audience needed to hear, was especially beneficial for those of us graduating in May, as someone telling us that we shouldn’t know what we want to do with our lives was particularly refreshing.
Manguso’s talk was wonderful in a lot of different ways, but it made me feel calm in this wild and unpredictable time, allowing me to feel okay about my lack of control over my life right now, if only for an evening. She argued this about writing, but I’m going to adopt this perspective on life, too: she said, “to write well, you must yield to the universe and impose your will on the universe in some particular ratio”. I don’t know what that ratio is yet, but it’s probably just a few sentences ahead.
–Shelby Morrow, Aonian Visual Art Genre Editor (2015-16)
I was first introduced to Visiting Professor of Creative Writing Jessica Jacobs almost a year ago now, during an English Department Discussion Series on the words and phrases from literature that we personally have carried with us throughout our lives, or something to that effect. (Side note: Dr. Maupin is a champ at coming up with really cool things to have those talks on and if you haven’t been to one you should check it out. Anyway, I digress.) She talked about reciting sonnets to herself while she runs trails, and I realized very quickly the Jessica Jacobs is a really cool human being. So cool in fact, that despite having to put up with me twice a week in her poetry class she was still willing to answer some ridiculous questions for me and the Aonian. Below is the incredibly charming by-product of that scenario, and I hope you enjoy learning a little bit more about the Hendrix-Murphy Writer-in-Residence for next spring as much as I did. Without further ado:
KATE HENRICKS: How did you get here (by that, I mean like into teaching poetry and non-fiction at Hendrix)?
JESSICA JACOBS: Long story semi-short: When I moved to Little Rock to be with my wife, Nickole Brown, a professor of Creative Writing at UALR, after getting my MFA at Purdue, the folks at Hendrix were kind enough to take me on as an adjunct. Filling in for Dr. Jaeger during his sabbatical this year then gave me the chance to teach creative writing. Now that I’ve had the pleasure of having Hendrix students for multiple classes, I can say that watching their writing deepen and grow stronger has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life.
KATE: I think I remember you saying at some point that you got interested in non-fiction later than poetry and I wondered if you could talk about why, and if/how you think that affected your poetry?
JESSICA: After college, I wrote a novel. Though it will live out its papery days in a locked drawer of my desk, what I learned from writing it was to love the guiding hand of that little thing called “plot.” The wonder and terror of poetry is that you can write about anything. So, when I began to write the poems that would eventually become Pelvis with Distance, I created a loose outline of its narrative arc, which was invaluable in helping me know where to focus my attention.
As for nonfiction, when I looked back at my novel during grad school it was clearly just thinly veiled autobiography (something true of many first novels). Like a good thug, I stripped it for parts and used it to write what would eventually become my first published essay, an account of the summer after my first year of college in which I had my first real experience with love and loss.
Now, I find essays and poetry to be fine complements for each other. My work in whatever genre tends to share the same preoccupations, but while a poem lets me zoom in closely on a particular moment or idea, essays give me room to expand and follow thoughts through more extended journeys.
KATE: I’m sure you’ve only been asked about four thousand times lately but, can you talk a little bit about your book and general interest in Georgia O’Keeffe?
JESSICA: Pelvis with Distance braids two primary strands—poems in the voice of O’Keeffe, which follow the trajectory of her life as an artist, as well as her relationship with the photographer Alfred Stieglitz; and the story of a month I spent living alone in a small cabin in the New Mexico desert. As a little background, O’Keeffe was born in 1887—three decades before women even had the right to vote—to a poor family in rural Sun Prairie, WI, and went on to become one of the most famous artists of her day. Writing these poems was my attempt to try and learn from O’Keeffe’s fierce independence, the passion and partnership she found with Stieglitz, and her perseverance as an artist.
KATE: What book/author, in your opinion, should all undergrads read?
JESSICA: Phew. Answering this feels like a lot of responsibility. Everyone has a different book that’s going to call to them and creak open that little door inside of them, but here’s some possible options across three genres:
Anthony Doerr’s short story collection The Shell Collector is a master-class in capturing essential details of the sensual world; Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, though far from perfect, is a valuable lesson in writing about even the darkest moments of your life without apology; and Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems is, for my money, the finest exploration of love, loss, faith, and poetry I’ve found—though I first read him when I was 19, his poems are ones to which I’ve never stopped returning.
KATE: Book you’re currently reading?
JESSICA: At this busy time of the semester, I’m reading (more specifically: re-reading) what my students are: David Grann’s The Lost City of Z, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, essays by fantastic writers like Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, and Lia Purpura, as well as by Hendrix students Daniel Grear and Marie Kressin, who were part of last semester’s Creative Nonfiction Workshop and were kind enough to share their work as impressive examples of undergraduate writing.
KATE: Tea or Coffee. Why?
JESSICA: Tea, because I try to limit my addictions to reading, writing, running, and my wife.
KATE: Spirit animal?
JESSICA: Patti Smith.
KATE: Last song played on your iPod?
JESSICA: Smith’s “Gloria,” from her classic album Horses. To settle my nerves before a reading, there’s nothing better than a long run and the bracing wail of Patti Smith.
KATE: Worst summer job you ever had?
JESSICA: One particularly warm Florida summer when I was 14, I worked in my parents’ law firm re-organizing their storage area. This meant hauling 100 lb. crates of crumbling files through un-air-conditioned rooms, with bonus points for the days I found flattened lizards desiccating between files.
You can learn more about Jessica and read poems from Pelvis with Distance at www.jessicalgjacobs.com
—Kate Henricks, 2014-15 Aonian staff member
In the process of writing my thesis, I’ve been thinking a lot about plausibility. At first, the notion might seem rather simple—use your best judgment not to contrive ridiculous, fantastical scenarios and you’ll be just fine. But maybe that’s not quite it. I’ve heard some say that issues of believability are much more about failing human emotion than failing to capture reality. As in, no matter how surreal or bizarre a story is, if the characters you fill it with are dealing with things that can somehow resonate with the humanity of a reader, then plausibility should no longer be a concern. In my opinion, Miranda July and George Saunders are some of the best and most innovative negotiators of this policy.
Though I love this line of logic, what about us who are writing fiction that attempts to, more or less, actually resemble reality? Unfortunately, I think the level of scrutiny is, and has to be, higher. For example, in one of the short stories from my thesis, I’m working to somehow get a devoutly Baptist, sixty-year-old woman to enter a fortuneteller’s shop. The scene is crucial because it leads to an indispensable epiphany for her. That said, no matter how beautifully human this moment may be, how true the emotions I’m trying to portray are, if I don’t do an adequate job convincing the reader that my character would actually make the decision to visit a psychic in the first place, then there’s very little chance of my story succeeding.
What this ultimately displays, I suppose, is that no matter how grandiose and respectable our intentions are, we, as writers, must be scrupulously attentive to detail. The reader will not, and should not, be forgiving, even if they like the point we’re trying to make. In other words, we cannot prioritize the conceptual over the nitty-gritty.
—Daniel Grear, 2014-15 Aonian staff member
Last week on February 19th, author Kevin Brockmeier gave a reading at Hendrix College hosted by the Murphy Foundation. He has published a number of books (two short story collections, three novels, one memoir, and two books for younger readers) and I was pleasantly surprised that he happened to choose to read a story from the one book of his that I’ve actually read. (To be fair, “actually read” is a bit inaccurate since I have yet to finish the book because I lent it to a friend two years ago and still haven’t gotten it back, but I digress.) The story was “Andrea Is Changing Her Name” from the collection The View from the Seventh Layer. The story, rooted in nonfiction and real life events and people from Brockmeier’s high school adolescence, is an unusual one for him whose stories usually contain aspects of sci-fi and fantasy. However, I’m not here to talk about the story itself (it’s lovely and worth reading) but how it was read aloud.
The first time Kevin Brockmeier said the words “white space,” I’m sure it caught many people off guard. What does that mean? Was that a part of the story? Where did that come from? When he said it again later on, and then again after that, and then several times after that as well, the audience began to understand. When he said “white space” he wasn’t reading any written words but was letting us know that there on the page in front of him was a divide in the paragraphs—an actual white space. To part of me (and I’m sure to others) it felt awkward. When reading a story to yourself, the white space of a paragraph divide calls no attention to itself. It subtly and seamlessly lets the reader know that there will be a change in scene, setting, time, or even point-of-view in the next section of the story. In this sense, there’s a practicality and utility to this writing convention.
This semester, I have the privilege of taking Kevin Brockmeier’s creative writing special topics class on sci-fi and fantasy writing and he has offered our class another function of white space that I hadn’t thought of before: White space on a page gives emphasis to what comes directly before it. It creates a visible pause—visual silence—that makes the reader linger and ruminate on the last paragraph or sentence of that section of prose, giving that final moment an importance and weight it might not have otherwise. Considering this, it made sense to me why he decided to give us a verbal cue to when those white spaces occurred. How could we have known otherwise without looking at the page?
Of course reading a book silently to yourself and hearing a book read aloud to you are inherently different experiences, but what do you do when aspects of the former aren’t directly translatable to the latter? There are obvious examples of this, such as e.e. cummings’ poem “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” (an extreme example) and other poetry and prose that experiment with formatting and the way words and letters are arranged on the page. But the white space of a paragraph divide—so commonplace, so ordinary a typographical feature to prose—doesn’t immediately stand out as one we give much thought to when it comes to oral recitations. But should we give it much thought? Clearly Kevin Brockmeier does and he has made a choice to represent it in his readings. Whether it’s the right choice or the best choice is up for debate. Perhaps a slightly extended pause would be more effective, creating physical silence to represent the visual silence. Perhaps for some stories or poems, it doesn’t matter as much and the gap between reading and hearing literature isn’t one that always needs to be bridged.
Depending on your experiences with literary readings, you might have strong opinions about this or you might not care at all. It’s a minor issue, a slight nuance, that hardly effects the quality of writing being read. However, it also speaks plenty about our interactions with words and literature and the limits of such interactions and because of this, I think that it’s worth the time to consider.
—Carl Napolitano, 2014-15 Aonian Editor-in-chief