Fear, Love, or Both: A Question with Megan Harlan

AGNI: Your essay “Spider Season” (AGNI 85) brings so many wide-ranging things together, all connected to the central element of spiders: danger, superstition, beauty, home, cultural differences, childhood, and parenthood. How did you know, in writing, which connections you wanted to include, and which (if any) you would ultimately decide to exclude?

Harlan: “Spider Season” began when I noticed, one Fall day, just how many spiders were living on my front porch, because I refused to sweep them away, despite my longstanding arachnophobia. Spiders, as I say in the essay, comprise my one true phobia, yet you’d never guess it to see me near a spider now. How had this happened? Had I actually matured out of my fear? Not exactly: I’d instead developed a deep, if admittedly silly superstition surrounding them. My second awareness: This superstition had cropped up when I became a parent—which also coincided with my settling into the first real home in my life. I’d moved around almost constantly growing up, and “home” had always been a tricky, mysterious subject for me. Yet now I had one—and it was often crawling with spiders.

I started reading about spiders, and the more I learned and remembered about them, the more moved I was by their architectural prowess, their relentless and complex home-building. And that led me to consider my own relationship with the family home, with the psychological resonances of architecture. Though I wasn’t sure where I was headed, I wanted to write the essay as a patterning of ideas, memories, and emotions about spiders, using the simple structure of eight sections to both connote my subject and give me the freedom to wander within it.

It’s very true that—at the risk of confusing creatures and metaphors—this was magpie sort of writing: I kept noticing shiny things off in the distance and bringing them back to the nest. I filled the essay with all the spidery associations that occurred to me—whether pulled from mythologies, religions, the natural world, or aesthetics. And there were so many spider-related incidents involving childhood—my own and my son’s.

But each element had to pass what I’ll call the fear/love test: Did it matter enough to me to strike fear, inspire love, or—best of all—both? This was a very helpful measure in culling my material. I jettisoned almost immediately, for example, the time a spider dropped into my eyelashes while I was watching a movie at a theater: While an icky, startling, and somewhat comical experience (at least, I’m imagining, from the other movie-goers’ perspectives), it didn’t touch on much else.

This measure no doubt explains why family became a central subject in the piece. Parenthood can trip off spontaneous memories of our own childhoods, revealing a funny, everyday metaphysics, the time travel involved in our experience of raising children, as former children ourselves. I often find myself thinking, “When I was his age…”—while also trying to spare my son too many of these musings. But these ideas can be so rich to explore, and nowhere better—at least for me—than in the essay. It’s a form elastic enough to depict and structure associative thinking, the intuitions that give shape to our ideas.

agni blog logo smaller

Megan Harlan photoMegan Harlan grew up on four continents and now lives in Berkeley, CA. She is the author of Mapmaking (BkMk Press/New Letters), winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. Her nonfiction and poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse, The New York Times, Hotel Amerika, TriQuarterly, Catamaran, The Common, American Poetry Review, and Poetry Daily, among other publications. She holds an MFA from New York University’s Creative Writing Program and works as a writer and editor. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Trying to Make Sense of an Absence: A Question with Evanthia Bromiley

AGNI: Your story “If the City Falls” (AGNI 85) focuses on characters who are experiencing the same thing—a bombing—while keeping them apart for most of the story. It’s such a striking choice. I think the choice serves the story well, but why did you choose to isolate the characters from one another?

Bromiley: I think it has something to do with the inefficacy of language in times of trauma.

During World War II, my grandmother was interned at a work camp in Germany. Whatever happened in those years—and I know very little about her, can only surmise—drove her crazy. After the war, she had my mother, but she couldn’t care for her; she abandoned her. My mother and her brothers were split up and given to relatives to raise. That’s something my mother has never been able to forgive.

I never met my grandmother, but I remember the day she died; we heard over the phone. I must have been ten, about the same age she left my mom. The phones still had those long, loopy cords, and my mom kept wrapping that cord around her wrist. My grandmother was asking her to come, please come, to her bedside. And my mom couldn’t. She said no; she didn’t say much else. Afterwards my grandmother died, and the day went on as usual. Judaism, traditionally, is matrilineal: every child of a Jewish mother is considered a Jew. Yet in my family, there’s this rift in the maternal line.

So I think something of this absence made its way into the center of “If The City Falls”—invention in place of fact, feeling in place of memory. Your question makes me wonder if rifts like these open in the absence of words. We need words to express these things, with each other, I think. A lost story is dangerous. That’s why so many people tried, at all costs, to preserve testimony. Emanuel Ringelblum, for example, buried sheaves of archives in milk cans, beneath the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto—he knew these events were unprecedented; they must be preserved. It’s possible that if my mother knew my grandmother’s story, she could have forgiven her. It’s also entirely possible she wouldn’t have—but she would have had the chance to try, a choice. Instead we have this impenetrable silence: no one speaks of it. So when people say the Holocaust and the events leading up to it has been written, or can’t be, well, I think that’s not quite true. It’s this strange, human paradox: Words cannot rectify the evil truth of what happened. What might also be true is we have to try, anyway, to find words, to make sense of an absence. That paradox isolates my characters, and is what I’m trying to explore in “If the City Falls.” The characters try to reach each other through the ruin, and even though they’re very close… there’s the inefficacy of words to face up to something like that.

agni blog logo smaller

Evanthia Bromiley Evanthia Bromiley lives, writes and teaches in Durango, Colorado. She is the recipient of a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, a Lisel Mueller scholarship, and the 2017 emerging fiction fellow at Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop. Currently she attends Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. “If the City Falls” is her first published story. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Failing at Great Length: What I’ve Learned from Writing Bad Novels

by David Ebenbach

I can’t figure out how long it took me to write my first novel. It might have been two years—or it might have been twenty-five.

I mean, in a certain sense it obviously took me two years; in 2013 I sat down to write a short story about a woman on an erratic personal quest for well-being, and that story quickly ballooned until I accepted that it was a novel-in-progress, and I worked and worked until I finished the final draft of Miss Portland in 2015. So that’s two years.

But then I wonder: maybe the only reason I was able to write Miss Portland and have it be any good is because of all the work that happened before 2013—work that consisted of (among other things) seven bad, failed novels, work that went all the way back to 1990. Maybe each one of those failures was part of the process of learning how to write a novel. Learning, in fact, what a novel even is.

I definitely did learn some things along the way. From my first two novels, written in college and full of teenagery emotional hand-wringing, I learned that my personal ennui is not enough to justify several hundred pages of fiction. From my next four attempts—one of which was a magic realist novel with flat characters and the other three of which were very strained allegories—I eventually gathered that some ideas are so difficult to pull off that the manuscript ends up reeking mainly of the author’s effort, and that, in fact, ideas are not novels. Not on their own. I also learned from one of those tries—my fifth—that you can’t expect a reader to wade through hundreds of pages of unwavering misery. (In that one, structured as a metaphor for the Biblical Exodus story—fun, right?—the book was confined to the week or so after the protagonist’s wife died, meaning that he was at peak grief on every page.)

But the big moment came around my seventh novel. I was determined to get my seventh novel right. It was going to be rooted in feeling, in something I cared about, but it wasn’t going to be an angsty spill. There was going to be a range of emotion. It was going to take on something big and important, but that big and important thing was going to be an experience, not an idea. There wasn’t going to be any allegory at all. I set out to tell the down-to-earth story of a single woman who was newly a mother, and scrambling to adjust.

That’s when plot ruined everything.

Really all I wanted to talk about was the enormity of becoming a parent—I had just become a parent myself—but because I knew I was writing a novel, I felt like I had to keep jacking up the stakes as the story progressed. The main character was freaking out a lot about all the changes in her life, which is natural enough. And so she started fantasizing about leaving the baby alone in her apartment to go get a drink, which is also natural enough as a fantasy—but then she did it. She left the child alone and got a drink. And that was only the first step; then she started going out again and again, for longer and longer periods. The novel had started out as a realistic portrayal of a new mom, and rapidly became the story of a really dangerously off-balance and neglectful parent.

A nice agent read the book and, in her email response, basically told me, I think you meant to write a short story, and you’ve blown it all totally out of proportion. And I instantly knew she was right. I had been worried about that same thing, deep down, myself.

Here’s the thing: if your material wants to be a short story, it needs to be a short story. You can’t turn a motorcycle into a freight train. So I broke that book into pieces and made it the basis for a short story collection.

In sum: I had spent twenty-three years learning what doesn’t make a novel. Honestly, they were tough lessons, full of rejections and disappointment, and I basically gave up on trying to write novels for about five years after that seventh try.

Like I said, when I started to write the thing that ultimately became my novel Miss Portland, I thought I was setting out to write a short story. Just something simple about a woman upending her life in a desperate grab to fix everything. I had her step off a bus in Portland, Maine, having just given up her whole life in Philly in the hopes of starting fresh, and I imagined there’d be a few scenes—she had this dicey guy she was going to see up there—and she’d get back on the bus and head back home. But it didn’t go like that. Miss Portland the novel snuck up on me. This woman’s journey was bigger and more involved than I had expected. And she wasn’t me, spewing angst. And she wasn’t an idea. And though her journey was full of challenges, external and internal, Zoe had a resilience and earnestness and sense of humor that provided a range of emotional experience to put on the page.

And so I wrote a novel—a real one this time.

It took eight tries, but I did it. In either two or twenty-five years.

And here’s the next question: does this mean I’m all set now? Lessons learned and ready to write my next novel?

I’m not sure. Part of me thinks that things are never that easy. Maybe now I’m going to have to learn a whole new set of lessons. Maybe I’ll have to write seven new failed novels before I can write my second not-failed one. Or maybe not. I don’t know. I only know one thing, really:

I’m going to do whatever I have to do in order to learn to write whatever I need to write.

agni blog logo smaller

2017-03-23 01 King JoeDavid Ebenbach is the author of seven books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the debut novel Miss Portland. He’s also AGNI’s blog editor. Find out more at davidebenbach.com.

Repetition as Conjuring, as Litany, as Prayer

by Cecilia Llompart


The inimitable Annie Finch said, “Repetition is a physical force, not a mental one…” I doubt my ability to put it more concretely, but I’ll add that I definitely find repetition to be the most powerful physical force in a poem. The one which grounds us to the earth whenever the imagery and other forces at play would have us lingering in the clouds. It can make a poem more tactile, more responsive to the touch. It’s important for a poem to exist out in the world, rather than just in our heads. Important for it to have legs to stand on, as well as the wings on which it will rise. Perhaps a repeated word acts like a series of weights holding the rest of the bright canvas down.


The truth is, we learn nothing if not for repetition. The human brain is hardwired to respond to it above all else. A soldier’s drills rewire the instinct, train them to run towards the battle rather than—as sense would have it—away from. An actor’s rehearsals sync up every step with every word, so that the show can—as they say—go on despite the most rattling disturbances. A musician’s recitals introduce them to muscle memory, the only reliable way of remembering, the idea that we can count on our fingers and hands and sinews and bones even when the mind—as it so often does—fails us. From infomercials to meditation to rituals to sermons. . . Repetition—be it tedious, or soothing—has been used to teach us things, to sell us things, and to help us remember them in a real way.


I navigate my poems by instinct rather than by intention. I guess you could say I follow my ear. Every so often, while working out a line, I’ll find myself ending or beginning the following line with the same little flourish. I don’t set out to do it, and I don’t always see it coming. When it happens I tilt my head as if to say: I’m listening. At this point, the poem is trying to tell me something. I’m no longer holding the reins. I’m holding a metal detector and I’ve stumbled upon a mine. And the repetition will feel refreshing if it connects the writing to some deeper truth that exists—that reaches—beyond the work.


In the case of my bat poems (in AGNI issue 85), I closed my eyes while writing them and, instead of envisioning an existence for the animal in which everything was dark, a world in which it had no alternative but to swim through the absence of light, or to dodge the many shadows of things, I saw instead a world in which everything was a distinct shade of blue. As such, the word “blue” is referring to an ultimately different color each time it appears in the bat’s catalogue of sights (some of which are, obviously, also sounds). I hope the reader can see that—that a color can be more than a color, can be a variation unto itself.

Call it a disability, like blindness, or a disorder, like synesthesia, if you like. But the fact that a being uses its senses in a way we don’t understand doesn’t make that creature’s way of interacting with the world inferior to ours. I suppose that’s what I was trying to express in the other poem, with the string of “I see you.” Call it echolocation. Call it dreaming, or delusions of grandeur. The bat makes a point of seeing, of its ability to see, whether or not we share a definition of seeing, whether or not we underestimate the small prophet. This animal is a visionary, it sees beyond seeing, it knows that what is essential is invisible to the eye, that sight itself can be blinding, can distract us from hidden truths.

I can’t say whether the repetitions will achieve all of this.

But I’m content if the poems stay with you longer than a poem usually does.


I don’t remember when I first learned the word litany, but I do remember how beautiful I thought it sounded, and I remember how right it seemed that a thing like the use of repetition in poetry should have its very own word to reference it. The exact definition of litany involves other words meaning “supplication” and “prayer.” The word please comes to mind, as a word that comes to us when all other words have left us, when we are feeling hollowed out. A word that leaves us humbled even as it escapes our lips. Please. Perhaps repetition itself serves to humble. Perhaps it serves to bargain. But I think it can also serve to empower. To give us courage in a moment of fright to brave the flight.

agni blog logo smaller

Author PhotoCecilia Llompart was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Florida. Her first collection, The Wingless, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in the spring of 2014. Her poetry and prose have been published in numerous anthologies and journals. She is the recipient of two awards from the Academy of American Poets, a fellowship from The Dickinson House, was a finalist for The Field Office agency’s 2016 Postcard Prize in poetry, as well as a finalist for the 2016 Tomaž Šalamun Prize given by Verse journal, and lastly a winner in Neat Streets Miami “Growing Green Bus Stop” Haiku Contest. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Idling on the Highway

by Kelly Cherry

I am now older than I ever expected to be, though not as old as I hope to get. What this means in terms of my reading is that I am often exhausted by the work by younger writers. Yes, they are talented. Yes, I appreciate their accomplishments. Yes, I’m interested in the changes they are making in the literary landscape. But sometimes I want to pull a sheet over my head and rest my eyes. And my brain.

Contemporary fiction seems to have become snappy and cute. Now, I am not exactly against snappy and cute. In the forties and fifties there were a lot of movies that relied on snappy and cute, and they were fun to watch. Also, it’s true that as people age, they begin to struggle with the idea of death in a more personal way than they did a few decades back, and surely that tends to shorten the laughs, although continuing to be creative, whether as a fiction writer or a poet, composer or visual artist, craftmaker or glassmaker, makes the creating person smile again. And again. Doing snappy and cute can sometimes be a lifesaver.

So perhaps there’s really nothing to object to. We do what we can as long as we live, and we love what we do. Moreover, no one is required to read new work. One can always write one’s own new work. So stop reading new work simply because it’s new work, say I to myself.

But the world moves on. It changes. And changes almost impossible to imagine are quite likely forthcoming, given AI and the galloping pace of technology. Not to mention global warming and growing populations. And the exploration of space. And the threats of various pandemics.

Are you beginning to feel slightly sleepy? Has it occurred to you that you feel rather as if you are balancing numerous weighty bundles atop your head?

And what about that particular bundle that is Donald Trump? That bundle you so want to set aside? Including his atrocious “policies,” such as denying women the rights to their own bodies.

But we began with contemporary fiction, so I ought to return to it. It seems to me that I have recently read a number of American novels that are just too cute for words. Sentences are packed with more information than any reader can remember, every description so detailed that to visualize it requires time, and by the time you’ve visualized the details, you’ve forgotten them.

I am absolutely not saying that these books are bad or confusing. In fact, I admire their ingenuity, their remodeling of syntax, their collaborating, extended clauses.

What I am saying is that I miss the long drawl of the storyteller. Thomas Mann layered his novels with questions and answers that make us think. I just finished reading Neil Jordan’s book Shade, and though I have long loved his work, Shade, narrated by a dead woman, took my breath away: the lush sentences, the lengthy conversations, the Irish rhythms: nothing rushed, nothing left out, time to absorb every interesting, often captivating, detail. Or remember Joyce Cary: his novels are hilarious and allow us time to laugh to our hearts’ content. Funny doesn’t have to be fast.

I like funny. I like quirky. I like, sometimes, a touch of cuteness. But I also want to think. I want to understand these words that fly by me at the speed of light. And truthfully, I sometimes wonder if the speed is meant to obscure a lack of faith on the writer’s part. The faster we go, the less we actually see.

Then again, I worry that maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m too slow.

I wouldn’t feel right exposing writers whose sentences smash into each other like cars on a highway, which, after all, may on occasion raise the tension in a story or slip something shocking into it so slyly it registers with the reader only after the reading. These are useful conceits.

Then again again, read this from Shade:

“I would blame her, for many years, for a state of things engendered by him. His corduroy trousers, his tweed jacket, the military belt I loved to finger with its copper clasp, the linen shirt with its blue and red tracing pulled tight beneath it, the studded shoes that touched the gravel as he helped her out, all concealed something as banal and Victorian as a secret. And secrets, he should have known even then, will always out.”

This straightforward paragraph pulls us so deeply into the book that the reader can only keep reading. It enthralls. It covers us with a hood that leads us blindly into the plot. Jordan is patient, not in a hurry to spill everything; instead, he takes the reader by the hand and, as if the reader cannot see for herself or himself, shows every single and singular detail and its relation to the rest of the book. In the space of a paragraph, we find ourselves in the very early twentieth century, with its wars to come, the changes it will wreak, the lingering demise of the Victorian era. The reader aches to know what will come, wants to breathe the new year’s air, and at the same time recognizes the boundaries of manners and morals that will either hold or break.

One paragraph, not from the first or last page, undramatic in itself, but enfolding: these words enfold us such that we are reading not at a distance but in the midst of the events that have occurred, are occurring, and those that may someday yet occur. Jordan makes us live in the present tense even as time is passing. That’s what I mean by the long drawl. It takes us to a kind of heaven, the heaven in which we relax on a cloud, happily reading a marvelously convincing book.

agni blog logo smaller

KellyPhoto1EditKelly Cherry’s most recent poetry collection is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. She has also recently published Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories (Press 53); A Kelly Cherry Reader (SFASUP); A Kind of Dream: Stories (U of Wisconsin); and a poetry chapbook titled Physics for Poets (Unicorn Press). Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.


I Use My Demons as Fuel to Write: A Question with Qais Akbar Omar

AGNI: The story you tell in your piece “In the Ring” (AGNI 85) is singularly powerful. The way you tell it, when you were younger, you poured the horror of your wartime experiences into boxing. Now, though, you’re pouring those experiences into writing. How is it different (and how is it the same), turning to writing the way you once turned to boxing?

(Note to the reader: Omar’s answer includes necessarily graphic depictions of violence)

Omar: I feel two types of pain: physical and psychological. I can easily deal with the first kind. I either take a pill, or I bear it and tell myself to tough it out. As for the psychological pain, I have been grappling with it since I was ten. Most of it is related to the memories of the years of civil war and the Taliban, when thousands of rockets and bombs started raining all over the country.

The civil war in Afghanistan started in 1992. I was ten years old when the first rocket landed in our neighborhood and killed my friends who were playing on the street in front of our house. An hour earlier I had been playing with them, shooting marbles and flying kites. All that remained of them were some pieces of flesh clinging from the tree branches and their blood smeared on the road and walls. I wish my parents had stopped me from seeing all those things. But even if they had, how could they prevent what was to come in the next five years?

Human life was cheap. I saw hundreds of dead bodies, body parts, and men being killed in front of me in many ways: being pushed from a ten-story building, bitten by a man who acted like a dog, and shot by a sniper perched on top of tall buildings and mountains. I was also forced to watch women being raped and giving birth in front of me.

In 1996, when the Taliban took over Kabul, I was forced—along with my classmates—to witness the hands and legs of alleged thieves being amputated in the middle of a roundabout near our house. The next week, they forced us to watch how they toppled a wall on a gay man and shot a woman for infidelity.

At the time, when these horrors were happening in front of my eyes, I didn’t think about them twice. I was too busy struggling to survive, pummeling the punching bag for hours every day to get rid of those images in my head. After 9/11, when the Americans intervened and kicked the Taliban out of the picture, we had a few years of peace, and I did not have to worry about my survival every minute of the day. But my past started to catch up with me.

The memories of the years of war haunted me through nightmares, and other times they attacked me at unexpected moments. For instance, I could be having a nice conversation with some friends about movies, gardening, or something completely unrelated to war. Suddenly, a single word would trigger some of those horrible memories and bring them to the surface. I would feel hot and sweaty as though I had run for miles. Then I would get agitated, and my hands and body gestures would no longer be in my control. Immediately afterwards, I would feel a traveling contraction in certain parts of my body. Now it was in my legs, the next minute in my arms, or neck, or temples. Suddenly, I would feel an intense pain in my guts. I had to lie down.

Now let me tell you how I dealt with them. For about ten years I used boxing as a tool to get rid of the memories. Almost every day, I pummeled the punching bag for hours and exhausted my body so that I did not have any energy left for thinking and pondering over the past. Sometimes when I didn’t have the chance to do that, I turned to prayer and meditations. Other times I sat in a corner and pinched my legs or my arms, or I took a nail and poked it into my thighs, arms, and chest. Sometimes I read, or I watched a pleasant movie, or I listened to upbeat music. They all helped, but nothing had a lasting effect.

When I turned twenty-three, I started to write as a form of therapy. At the time, I was living in Kabul with my family, and there was no psychiatrist in Kabul. Even today, there are only a few psychiatrists in Afghanistan. Many people there don’t believe in mental health treatment, though almost everyone needs it.

Writing about the past was not easy at first. I cried writing. Sometimes tears rolled out of my eyes and blurred my vision, but I didn’t stop. After years of boxing, I knew how it felt to win a boxing match in the ring when hundreds of people cheered for me. Every boxer lives for those few minutes of thrill. While I was grappling with those memories and pouring them onto the page, I felt as though I was in a ring, not fighting my opponent but my demons, and the spectators were cheering. However, there were times that despair leaked into my heart and I felt I was losing because the intensity of mental pain was too high. While a boxing match in the ring can last for more or less than an hour, this new fight lasted for months. “How long can I go on fighting with my inner demons?” I have asked myself a hundred times. There were moments that I doubted myself. “Instead of rethinking those memories, I better push them to the far back of my mind,” I have told myself a dozen times. But my will did not let me stop and retreat.

The battle went on for almost three months, during which I lost about forty pounds from a lack of eating and sleeping, but every day I noticed that I was about to win because I could see the pile of papers building in front of me. I stopped when I reached page 750, and nearly half of all the major events from my past were recorded in those pages.

From that day onward, I felt as though my past no longer belonged to me anymore. It was contained in those papers. But my past is my past, and it will always be with me to the day I die. They still haunt me in my sleep, but not as much as they used to.

Years later, I shared those pages with some friends, and they encouraged me to publish them as a book. I did, and I called it A Fort of Nine Towers, which has now been translated into over twenty languages.

An engine needs fuel to run. Now I use my memories as a fuel for writing and telling stories of my countrymen and women. Sometimes they make me run so hard and fast, I crash for a few days or even weeks, and I can’t produce a single word. But over time, I believe, I will learn how to control the demons inside of me.

agni blog logo smaller

IMG_3422 BIO Qais Akbar Omar is the author of A Fort of Nine Towers, which has been published in over twenty languages, and the co-author of A Night in the Emperor’s Garden. Omar has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Sunday Times, The Globe and Mail, and The Southern Review, among other publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University. In 2014-15, he was a Scholars at Risk Fellow at Harvard University. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

The Reader’s Quest for Authenticity

by Samn Stockwell

Whether it’s about an appropriation of experience or an outright fabrication, the demand for authenticity frightens me. It’s the rightful concern of editors, and an ethical expectation of authors, but poems and memoirs appear and are embraced by readers because they are the authentic story of someone who has suffered greatly. Then the story turns out not to be true—it was written by an imposter—and the audience cries I wuz robbed and the work is discarded.

Writing is shaped by the intentions of the writer, regardless of the genre, and therefore, no matter how raw or immediate a work may appear, it’s a creation shaped by the tools of art.

It is not that authors should lie. It is reasonable to expect that writers represent themselves honestly. It is the idea of authenticity that troubles, as though the provenance of a work certified its value. I realize true is a far more difficult concept, but if the real story of Elmer Magoo was riveting and insightful before it was revealed to be fiction, isn’t it still riveting and insightful?

It is not that authors should trade on the status of being in a minority, for example, if they are not. Our origins determine the shape of our lives, with its attendant sufferings and grace. I am sure there is someone out there impersonating a lesbian to gain access to the tiny audience for lesbian poetry. However, if we as minorities claim sole ownership of experience, does that mean the experience is exclusive and beyond imagination? How authentic must oppression and suffering be to qualify? Oppression, violence, and exclusion are not rare experiences and not limited by class or race.

A friend from the Midwest told me about how successful selling dream-catchers was for a Indian tribe. They were so successful they kept selling out and had to farm out the work to some white women living nearby, white women with a serious meth problem. From the standpoint of authenticity, the safe assumption of the consumer was that, by buying directly on the reservation, they were buying an authentic product, certainly more so than a dream-catcher made in China and sold at a dollar store, although surely someone working in a factory in China might be imbued with the need to catch dreams and reveal them in twists of plastic beads?

In this case, authenticity is the idea that a defined group of people, by virtue of history and genetics, can create a talisman out of those entanglements of lineage that will transmit to the recipient some especially good aspect of that identity. It’s a borrowing of what seems like a richer, more powerful culture—the same impetus that makes us admiring tourists of other religions and lifestyles. It’s also profoundly sentimental.

Much to my disgust, in Vermont, photograph books appear of the ‘natives,’ which means elderly farmers. The photographs are carefully composed in front of old tractors and crumbling barns with not a cell phone in sight. And what casual skier from New York or Connecticut would not find that more ‘real’ than their own lives, and by this mean utterly foreign, a distance that could not be crossed?

A reader or a shopper wants an authentic property, even if the sense properties of the object are indistinguishable from the sense properties of similar products, whether it’s dream catchers or poetry from the survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima. The desperate search for something true and enduring, one of the sweeter aspects of human nature, is diverted into shopping for pedigrees of experience.

The authentic work is also a presumption that the other has an identity formed in secret from the world that surrounds us, despite the works’ participation in contemporary discourse. Rousseau raises his head and finds this ideal in the description of subversive voices—a genuine voice subverting the dominant paradigm, a voice of someone poor, black, disenfranchised, queer, as close to the wilderness as possible. With all that subversion, surely the dominant paradigm should be completely reversed by now. How much subversion is needed to subvert?

(And that is an interesting hope, that someone is going to say something that will reveal/dismantle some existing stereotypes or sentimental constructions. Or perhaps it has been done already in a book languishing in the remainder bin. The truth will out, but it is likely to be slow and fitful.)

Because of this idea of authenticity, the voices a poet houses can be evaluated for their authenticity: a way of saying you can know this, but not that—the voice of your native speech, the voice of your ancestral lullabies and war songs: mined for in distant regions, weighed, and elevated. Authenticity is a search for dislocation by the reader, a work wrenching the present to another perspective because it offers an opposing face. Identity cannot be the marker of that kind of authenticity.

Voice is malleable, democratic, and expansionist. Identity does not come in discrete, bound units. Although personality tends to be largely stable over time, it does not have a single, fixed perspective. Identity shifts, mixes, absorbs and repackages. However much the fiction of an identity may warm us (my race/gender/religion never does That!), it does not develop in isolation. It is a mirage to search for a conversation comprised of one voice reared in isolation. Voice is the result of conversation.

And if some voices are authentic, and others are not, then some lives are more ‘real’ than others. I hear this said: he really knows, he’s real, she is so much more real than I am. I mean I hear this from people who teach English and it saddens me. The time when I was sleeping in a car was not more real than the times I was reading Middlemarch. Poverty is not more elemental than art, violence is not a more human act than caring.

Much of what motivates the search for the ‘authentic’ work is the search for authentic suffering. The abused child, child soldier, raped woman, the exiled, the enslaved, the oppressed of any flavor…the hunger for these narratives seems blinding and voyeuristic. And they happen ‘out there,’ so they need not disturb our lives. They may induce guilt, but guilt only changes behavior when the source of the guilt is close enough to touch. At the worst, they encourage the cheapest of emotions: outrage and pity.

Readers must value their own suffering and use it to understand themselves and others. It is not less real because it is less horrific. Life is lived in its dailyness and the constituents of that bear examining.

A deeper problem I have with some of the authentic poetry and prose is how cloying and easy it feels. Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle is thinly constructed—if you don’t believe she has nearly perfect recall of her 3rd year as recounted in the opening chapter, the memoir falls apart. The ideal of authenticity ends any discussion of value—the authentic work, no matter how simplistic or reductive, is valued because of its pedigree, a reversal of the old hierarchy, when the right pedigree was male, white, and preferably landed. It is the same mistake. Experience cannot sound one note and be true, however real it may be.

agni blog logo smaller

Face shot 8 20Samn Stockwell has been widely published, and her two books of poetry, Theater of Animals and Recital, won the National Poetry Series and the Editor’s Prize at Elixir, respectively. She has an M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College, and has taught poetry and English at the New England Young Writer’s Conference and Community College of Vermont. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.