On the Essay Collection

by Mike Coakley

For some time now, I’ve been hungrily purchasing essay collections. I used to avoid them; when an undergraduate professor of mine assigned pieces from Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, I haughtily skimmed them and sat mostly silent in class. I cared little for Montaigne’s musing on monstrous children, and sitting down to read from Kenko’s Essays in Idleness sounded like a dreadfully—well—idle thing to do. The essay as a form seemed sickeningly personal, a woolgatherer’s trick to circumnavigate narrative, and essay collections and anthologies struck me as repositories of unrelated smatterings of directionless thought. But I’ve converted, and repented. Just last week, Mark Slouka’s Essays from the Nick of Time and Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth both arrived in my mailbox. I’d placed the order voluntarily.

I’ve come to love the essay collection for the same reasons I used tPortraitInsideMyHeadCovero avoid it, for the same reasons so often cited by champions of the form. “The advantage of the heterogeneous essay collection by a single author,” writes Lopate in his River Teeth essay “In Defense of the Essay Collection,” “is that it shows you how a particular mind moves through the world. If you are attracted to an essayist’s mentality and way of speaking, ideally you can surrender happily to his or her take on various subject matters, the more diverse the better.” Maybe he’s just defending his own practice, having essayed subjects as seemingly disparate as empathy and baseball in the same book. He admits such a possibility himself. But there’s something about that word— “particular”—that immediately justifies the grouping of unlike essays. For a writer in any genre, particularity is a valuable commodity.

The idea is that the elements of a collection are unified by the mind that puts them there, and by the very fact of their proximity. A writer can place a piece about American politics next to one about his or her affinity for Frito Lay snacks and the essaying mind unifies the two—the writer’s approach, the writer’s voice, the writer’s way of seeing. Even the most dissimilar essays reveal a sudden likeness. Essayist Lia Purpura has called it the “cohering eye.” Whether this is enough or if a collection requires a more purposeful unity is up for debate (it’s admittedly hard to publish an essay collection without a “topic”), but the argument says something about the organizing power of the mind. It leaves its trace. It crafts narratives without having to try too hard, though it might be unaware of its own workings. It can spin a yarn using even the rawest material.


Mike Coakley is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona. His work appears in the minnesota review and on Essay Daily. He serves as co-editor for Sonora Review.

Ty Segall in Review: Old Miss

Now that Iʼm in bars surrounded by e-cigarette plumes rather than chain- ganging Marlboro smoke, observing bored chicks in matching spiked leather heels to their spiked leather jackets from H&M, and folks unlikely to be saturated in sweat in fear of ruining their makeup/clothes/hair, itʼs time to reassess my memories. I suppose Iʼm oldish now, and easily annoyed by open displays of the sophomoric cult of “fitting in.” This sort of fashionable dishonesty should not reflect the music on stage, yet often times it does when musicians care more about the presentation of their product, rather than the product itself.

Iʼm older, and with age comes nostalgia about how I was simultaneously lost in youth, and how lost I was in music. I (somehow) miss skanking, twisting a cold spoon on hickeys, passing out in a busy intersection, acquiring bruises on top of bruises, and returning home smelling of a distinct balance of sweat, vomit, rust, smoke, and rubber. But did this make music more earnest back in the good oleʼ days? I hope not. Perhaps, I find myself find myself seeking things which are…pure? No, I donʼt believe in purity, nor enlightenment. Maybe Iʼm searching for things which have less layers, less eruptions, less acne flare-ups associated with being so perpetually lost in time and place.

Yet seeing Ty Segall brought back such fuzzy, multicolored bruised memories for me, and perhaps it is because he does care more about his musical product than his presentation, and itʼs obvious. The guy is popping out albums like hipsters knit scarves, or drunks losing twenty dollar bills in cab rides. Reminiscent of garage grunge and 60ʼs psychedelics, his music is a rose-colored rash of movement, swerving back and forth between a scratchy, scissored guitar and thoughtful cooing.

Yet unlike the desperate aggression of grunge, there is a quality in Segall which is more earnest; his music is strung within a place of hope, rather than disgust. Heʼs warmer. That hot neck from a head-banging whiplash. That skinned knee from beach sand. That hurt-heart of yours, summoning you into a long “fuck it all” road-trip, screaming (quite literally to the crowd) “Waffle House is on me.” Even though you may slowly or painfully find a position to sleep in, such pains/pangs are worth it. Segallʼs bleary vocals and hatcheted anthems, such as “Thank God for Sinners” can help you through any mode of survival. Like a bag of grapes, he knows when to be both sour and sweet.

I find myself searching for honesty in music (as I hope we all do), and frequenting venues where I canʼt help but roll my eyes at bullshit covered in glitter, Segallʼs honesty is a fresh, brassy, dirt-knuckled breath of air where I can pull the lawnmower cord and hear some grit. I think Segallʼs honesty occurs through his obsessive songwriting and creating. Honesty, as we all know, is really just doing your own fucking thing, and honesty will never be self-indulgent. Not announcing it, or apologizing for it, or spray painting it on a church, or molding your hair with Aquanet, or being socially “quirky,” but doing your own thing which mostly occurs in invisibility, isolation, and the imagination of creating.

After the show, I ask Segall how he would define poetry. “Poetry is everything that is undefined. It doesn’t need a definition, and never should it have a definition.” So go. Rather than define yourself, try not to.

-Emelia Reuterfors

High School, Hormones, and Telekinesis: A Review of Chronicle

All right, I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m a sucker for super hero flicks.

I grew up in the era of Nickelodeon’s short-lived The Secret World of Alex Mack, about a girl who could turn to a puddle at will, and Doug, whose imaginary alter ego, “Quailman,” fought the mad scientist Dr. Klotzenstein. On the weekends, I ran around my backyard with my younger sister, making nonchalant calls to the president on my telephone (a branch) and shooting invisible enemies with my branch-turned-ray-gun (a forked branch). Up until high school, I went to used bookstores and stashed $2  X-Men and Ghostrider (pre-that-Nicholas-Cage-absurdity-of-a-film) comic books in my closets, convincing myself and my parents that I was collecting them for future value even as the pages went from “mint” to “good” to “acceptable” beneath my oily prying fingers over long, restless summer days. Not to mention on one delirious road trip back from Colorado just before college, where my sleep-deprived friends and I spent the last 2 hours arguing heatedly over which super power would be the best to have.

Which is probably why, when I heard the film Chronicle was coming out – the story of three high school students who receive telekinetic super powers from a cave – a twinge of nostalgia, maybe even envy, hit me. Told in home-video, low-budget, found footage style reminiscent of Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and the great Norwegian film Trollhunter, Chronicle (2012) centers on Andrew Detmer, played by relative newcomer Dane Dehaan, a sullen, chili-bowled, proverbially luckless teen who decides to escape his hellish home life by taping every minute of his day. In pseudo-typical high school movie fashion, Andrew’s underdog status is thoroughly (almost painfully) established in the early parts of the film. We get to watch him be rejected by cheerleaders; kicked around by his classmates; screamed at by his alcoholic father, who blames Andrew for his mother’s sickness; and cold-shouldered by pretty much everyone at the high school. Essentially, take Spiderman’s Peter Parker and throw out the brainpower, and what’s left is Andrew Detmer.

As the film continues, we follow Andrew, accompanied by his cousin, the budding high school philosopher, Matt (Alex Russell), to a rave with where Andrew, Matt, and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), the ever-energetic class president, stumble upon a hole in the ground emitting a bluish light and odd sounds. They travel inside to find a glowing crystal structure, the camera blurs among strange screams, and the screen goes black. The film picks back up, smartly I think, after what would be drawn-out “discovery” scene that’s been done to death in Spiderman, “Smallville,” and Unbreakable. Instead, we see the characters already fiddling with their powers – first alone in backyards, then at school, and eventually in public. They bond. They play pranks. They do very high school “dude” things: moving things around a table; turning a leaf blower on from yards away; knocking gum out of someone’s mouth; making a teddy bear chase after a child; changing parking spaces of a car. It’s everything, if you were a hormonal 17-year-old boy and telekinetic, you would do with your powers.

It becomes clear, however, by the time that Andrew knocks a honking, tailgating car off the road and into a lake, almost killing the driver, that his powers are the strongest as well as the most dangerous of the three. Yet, this disturbing scene is directly followed by one in which the boys learn they can fly, which, I know what you’re thinking, felt a bit contrived… right up until the point when they start throwing the football around in the clouds. This moment enacts a kind balance that the director, Josh Trank, uses often in the film – a balance between the fantastic nature of the situation-at-hand and the boys’ utter youthful enthusiasm in the face of it. By making these boys are perpetually more awed about what’s happening to them than the viewer, in addition to using the home movie style, the film never feels intrusive or forced. The characters’ sincere gusto in the face of these life-changing events makes these very same events feel genuine for the viewer, carrying the film through some of its more CGI moments.

Likewise, as these characters’ powers grow, so do the variety and interest of shots. Andrew figures out how to levitate the camera above his head and to follow his body almost unconsciously, which adds an element of cinematography – cameras spiraling upward, floating atop skyscrapers, for example – to the movie that it lacks in the first section. Some of the most vivid scenes, throughout the movie, are of Andrew alone in his room. Wisely, Trank lets these scenes breath on their own, omitting music for the extra-creepy and depressing sounds of Andrew’s mother’s hacking up god-knows-what in the back room. These scenes also give us the first hints of Andrew’s downward spiral – motivated by his mother’s sickness and, in one specific case, a drunken case of ED – in which he splits a spider apart with his powers, discusses his disturbing view of himself as “alpha predator,” and pulls the teeth out of a fellow classmates jaw.

And, just as Andrew begins to fall apart – wreaking havoc on Seattle – so does the found-footage aspect of the film. Camera phones, security cameras, and dashboard cameras start providing various perspectives on the (of course) final battle, which Trank uses to help to play down the high-flying, building-jumping, car-throwing aspects of this scene and, at the same time, keep the viewer grounded in the reality of what it would really be like watching this battle unfold from the ground. Like many other parts of the film, this final segment feels stripped down, bared, visceral, so pleasingly unlike the “Hulk Smash!” ideologies of the finale of recent super hero movies, where the camera ducks and weaves around flexed biceps, metal bent into balls, or projectiles and pavement zipping around the screen. As a result, even with a reportedly low 15 million dollar budget (“low” in the red-blooded American sense), Trank makes this film seem like the realest and grittiest super hero movie I’ve seen since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

Part sincere, part hokey, part high school, part fantastic, Chronicle is a super hero film that doesn’t ever feel like a super hero film, with a villain that, even at the end, never feels like a villain. Sure, there’s some parts that rely on clichés – the bubbly blonde girl Matt falls for; the ever-crowded high school party at a mansion with a pool (seriously, who owns that mansion?); the stereotypical jocks foaming at the word “nerd.” But, unlike other Michael Bay-esque high-budget action movies, which rely heavily on special effects, close-up shots of glistening (as opposed to sweating) damsels in distress, and explosions for explosions’ sake, Chronicle uses the bond between these three characters and the close-in POV of its shots to show how a super hero could be made in real life, rather than a studio or green screen.

Rating: 4/5 Saguaros

Adam Kullberg is an MFA candidate in non-fiction at the University of Arizona.

Interview with Beth Alvarado

Beth Alvarado is the author of Anthropologies: A Family Memoir (University of Iowa Press, 2011) and the story collection Not a Matter of Love (New Rivers Press, 2006).  A recent essay, “Days of the Dead” was published in Sonora Review, and a new story, “The Astonished Dead,” has just appeared in Western Humanities Review.  Not everything is about the dead, but everything is set in the beautiful Sonoran desert.  Beth teaches at the University of Arizona and is the fiction editor for Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts.  Recently, Megan Kimble from Sonora Review asked Beth a few questions about her process and narrative in nonfiction.  Also,  check back tomorrow for a review of Alvarado’s book, Anthropologies.

Megan Kimble: Why this book, now? What was the process of beginning?

Beth Alvarado: In 2003, my mother was very sick, and I was taking care of her. She was telling me a lot of the stories that she never told us when we were younger. So, I started typing them into a laptop. And, around that time, I was working with a group of graduate students for the writing program, and we went over to Jeremy Fry’s house for a potluck. He lived in a house on the west side of town, and it turned out he lived in the house that one of my husband’s cousins had lived in, probably 25 years earlier. I walked into that house and it felt so odd. It was a sense of being in this place where all these other people had been, and now these new people were there.

It was layers of time in one moment, and it was how I had been feeling with my mother, as she experienced all these different layers of time, [these past moments] as present to her as the now. Her memories were as vivid as anything that was happening now. [In Jeremy’s house] I felt, this must be what it’s like to be really old, to have all these times coexisting in my mind. So I started to write these moments that had as many layers of time in them as I could put. I didn’t know it was going to be a book for quite awhile.

MK: How did you approach creating a narrative out of these moments?

BA: That was the hardest thing. It was really easy to write those little moments. Then when I had a bunch of them, I thought, how could I compel a reader to keep reading without a narrative? I probably went through seven drafts, arranging and rearranging them until I thought to myself that there was a kind of narrative arc. That was the really hard part about the book—the arrangement. When I started to link things together with reflection or exposition, the prose didn’t have as much life as when I kept to these small, formal moments.

MK: Memory not only provides much of the content of the book, it is also itself examined. How did you approach your own memories when writing?

BA: I tried to think of writing as an act. What I wanted to do in the book was enact memory. Not just repeat, not just package these memories. What I was trying to capture was the process of remembering. It was more important to me to be faithful to the act of remembering, and how it felt to remember, than it was to get the memory accurate.

There’s so much present tense in the book, because when you go back and you’re in a memory, it’s the memory that’s present, not the time.

MK: In anthropologies, many other peoples’ stories become your own. What was your interaction with the holders of these stories—your daughter Kathryn, for example, or your husband Fernando—as you wrote?

BA: The book is all my memory of their stories and memories. There’s a way in which I spend so much time observing people and listening to them that their memories or their stories are things that I already knew. Anna Deveare Smith, who is a playwright who collects oral histories and then performs them, has written that “inhabiting” another person’s language, their dialog or the stories they tell, is the closest you can come to understanding them and so I think there was some of that spirit in what I was trying to do. I was really trying to inhabit other people’s memories and stories, to be as close to them as I could. It was a way of coming to understand them.

MK: You straddle two worlds in anthropologies—the English-speaking, Anglo world of your parents, and the Spanish-speaking world of your husband’s Mexican-American family. What were the particular challenges, for you and in your consideration of the reader, in bringing these two worlds together into a single narrative?

BA: I’ve thought about it a lot, because I’ve been married to my husband for 30 years. One thing that I’ve realized is that you’re always a kind of traveler or outsider in another culture, no matter how long you’ve been married to someone, or how much you love his family. We grew up in such different worlds… and you really don’t know what it’s like to grow up [there]. I wanted the narrative be a kind of bridge between things. I wanted to show that [these worlds] can maintain their own autonomy or individuality but still really have this kind of synergy, or co-exist, and that they aren’t really so different in the really important ways.

Megan Kimble is noticeably more cheerful since she stopped commuting on the freeways of Los Angeles and started biking around Tucson. She runs, hikes, and loves breakfast and chocolate chip cookies.

Interview with Jennifer Denrow

Jennifer Denrow is the author of two chapbooks: A Knee for a Life (Horse Less Press, 2010) and From California, On (Brave Men Press, 2010). She currently lives in Colorado where she recently finished a PhD program at Denver University.

Whitney DeVos: Being a CA native, [your thoughts on your most recent collection California are] what I’m most interested in hearing about—the disembodied place and the poetic voice of the 21st century—and how California (or California) speaks to both.

 Jennifer Denrow: I had to write something before about California and I said this: California is about the role of California in the contemporary imagination, as an imaginative trope within a dislocated psyche. The escape here has to do with the inability to make things mean—it feels like if I try hard enough there can be a resolution via the imagination. But sometimes when we make things they overcome us. It’s difficult to know the appropriate boundary for imagination—at what point it moves from an attempt to decipher the world into a construction of the reality of the world. I can’t ever tell the difference but I continue to try.

When you say “disembodied place”, I think that’s right—dislocation feels prevalent, necessary (for me, anyway). I think it’s important to stay inside uncertainty, to think about place and imagination as inseparable—I feel like I’m always trying to determine what place is, how it works. Fanny Howe says in “Bewilderment”: “Bewilderment is an enchantment that follows a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability.” Maybe when you say the “voice of the 21st century” this is the voice . . . .

WD: As regards bewilderment and imagination—how do you see these relating to our position in history, our collective consciousness, etc.? Also, poetry? Any advice for a young contemporary writer?

 JD: I think imagination and bewilderment are tops—wonder, for me, is the most important emotion—to be able to maintain wonder and be in the world (in order to be in the world, maybe). I can never know what anything means. It feels like I want to—like the correspondence I try to create with everything that’s outside of me is purposed to result in meaning, but I don’t think that’s it—I think it’s more like trying to understand how everything can mean so much and wandering around inside the suggestion that it does. It feels like an invitation I have to remain attentive to.

In terms of how this relates to our position in history, or in poetry, I’m not sure. There is something in the way things are made—or in the way they are made to be to one another: I was standing in a hole the other day, a hole in the beach, the sand had been moved, etc, and this couple walking by (it was dark) approaches, very suspiciously, and the woman says what’s going on here. And the man says, hey, you’re standing in a hole, why are you standing in that hole, and I said because it’s something i do—and then he said, so you know you’re in a hole and I said yes, I love holes. This was all very mysterious for the couple but for me it felt regular. I don’t know why thinking about wonder and our place within history and poetry made me think of this story but it did.

It feels necessary to always make things mean—maybe that’s what that story was about. they had probably narrativized my hole-standing to equate to some great act of faith, or maybe they thought I was stuck, or maybe they thought I had fallen into the hole and didn’t know and they were going to help me by telling me I was there. I don’t know. Maybe they were just drunk.

When it comes to advice, I’m not sure of that either. I know what’s important for me—that I continue to look at things, past the point of seeing them, and then past that, into not seeing them, and then staying out there, as far as I can inside of them, for as long as possible and seeing what that feels like and what can happen inside of that. Maybe other people have to do different things. Maybe obsession. I think that’s good advice.

 WD: It feels necessary to always make things mean—I can definitely relate to this… sometimes it is so hard! But necessary, of course, in the face of everything that asks us to find things meaningless or—everyone who tells “us” (poets/artists/English majors) that we are “just overthinking everything”. as humans, we are people of stories and meaning (ceremony seems relevant—and our loss of meaning within, lack of rights of passage, connection with nature, self reliance, commercialization of holidays (“holy days”)…

 JD: Meaning, it seems, comes from reference. And that’s why it’s so hard. Because everything feels like hypertext. One thing means not only itself, but it also means what happens when you click on it and when you click on it, you have all of the information of the new thing which is also the old thing and that of course means something else as well. There’s the thing about Stein making a rose mean a rose again, but then what happened—between then and now? Everything means so much. That’s why indefinite and demonstrative pronouns are so important. They are words dependent on external reference, some relation is indicated—to say this is here means nothing unless you can see or have some other reference to this and here. But now, these words feel complete without information outside of themselves because nothing is one thing anymore.

I don’t know. Maybe that’s not right. Maybe nothing has ever been just one thing . . .

WD: What is at stake for us today, as “Californians,” Americans, humans, citizens of planet earth, attempting to make meaning etc.?

 JD: What’s at stake: is it loss of wonder?

 WD: I wonder, how we can court/cultivate wonder in a world in which we may Google everything, or in which places we’ve never been look exactly how they looked on “Planet Earth” or in some movie, etc., What can things mean in a world in which the survival of wonder is at stake? How do we create worlds in which meaning is integral? Is the point of art to create a mirror/a two way mirror/a different mode of being?

 JD: I know. Wonder is so hard to keep. I was reading this article about David Eagleman, a neuroscientist who thinks about time. He says when we’re young, the world is unfamiliar so time takes forever to pass because we’re learning about the world, but as we age, time speeds up because we’re familiar with what’s here. That’s why it’s so hard—familiarity: it can mess everything up. His research was centered on near-death experiences or moments of fear when everything slows down. The best thing he says is that we’re in a time lapse—that our brains need time to figure things out and then what is figured out is revealed to us. That the brain is constantly making decisions about the information that’s important/necessary for us to have is something I like to think about. What else is really happening? What gets censored? How can anyone tell if what we get is the right stuff—it’s necessary for survival, I’m sure, but is it the right stuff?

There’s a book. It’s called The Truth About Stories and in it is written that “the truth about stories is that’s all we are.” That feels right to me.

 WD: But if dislocation is prevalent, how does this speak to place? Where might we locate ourselves? Within language itself? Within the wor(l)ds of others?

 JD: My estimation of place is very porous. I think everything is a place. I think people are places and I think my arm is. it seems like we locate ourselves in relation to the material around us or in relation to an emotional state or a psychological one. I’m here is one of my favorite declarations because it feels so true. And I don’t know what it means. I’m always wanting to say to people, maybe I do say it, we’re here. I like that there is something we can agree on–that we can know, momentarily, one thing that unifies our experience. I don’t know how to determine place, but I feel like I’m always in it. In something. Here. I always feel like I’m here and that seems important.

 WD: I’m here. I have a good friend, and one of his favorite things to do is overhear people on their cell phones telling the people on the other line where they are. I like when people explain their jokes.

JD: That’s so funny—listening to where other people are. Isn’t it weird that everyone is somewhere. I love it when people explain jokes—but that’s mostly because I’m so slow at jokes. Sometimes it takes me so long to understand it and then I have a hard time figuring out how it’s funny. This is my favorite joke: what did the zero say to the eight?

Nice belt!

You should just make that joke the interview.


Whitney DeVos currently lives & writes in Tucson, Arizona.