Tag Archives: non=fiction

An Excerpt from What Is The Grass | by Mark Doty

  Mark Doty From What Is the Grass     Poetry tends toward the unsayable as a compass needle loves the north; the poem wants to give words to longing, to desolation, to the persistence of hope. It wants to enter into the awareness of animals and of small children, and of the dead; it wants to strip away false appearances, and to address the divine, and light up the unseen movements of those forces which turn the seasons and move forward life.  A beautiful Robert Louis Stevenson poem, written for children,  begins   Who has seen the wind, neither you nor I, but when the trees bow down their heads, the wind is passing by.”   Poetry is a wind we shape; it lights up our mortal dimensions and the deep strangeness of things by showing us the evidence of invisibles, by showing us, as clearly as it can, the beautiful supplication of the trees, which have no choice but to yield.   _____________   When you love a great poet’s work, it can become a center to which all of experience may be referred, a locus of meaning that can spill out into many dimensions of a life. Indeed, I have had to check myself a bit in referring in conversation to Walt Whitman. “A bit eccentric” is a reputation I can readily accept, but I’ve seen that look on friend’s faces when they think I’ve once again dragged someone from another century into a conversation where he doesn’t belong. I know better; when it comes to a grand and encyclopedic poet, there really are no unrelated conversations. I don’t always say so. And of course there’s that thing that lovers do, mentally addressing the other when the beloved is absent. If I’ve seen something I think would interest Alex when I’m traveling alone, I may tell him about it in my head, and imagine his response; it’s a way of feeling connected, of spending time in relation to him. I’m writing now in early September, in the small square studio I love behind our place in the country. The door’s open, and at the bottom of the view Ned – my golden shadow – is sleeping on the diamonds of slate tiles, and at the top of the doorway I can see a slice of the pale blue portico Alex has just primed and painted for me, the color you’d get if you could dilute a morning glory with milk. He’s somewhere in the garden now, half-mending and half-creating a gate. He makes things with the focus and intensity I bring to this, and though I only see him moving from one part of the garden to another now and then, or hear the occasional burr of a power tool or a bit of that private muttering that goes along with seeking a solution to a puzzle, his presence is a part of this work. When I’m away, that relation is less constant, but it does go on. When you’re away, how many times a day do you think of the person you live with? It’s the same with the poets whose words and presence I have internalized, the ones most near to me. They seem to stand up and come forward when something that resonates with my sense of them occurs. In Key West last winter for a seminar, how could I not keep company with Elizabeth Bishop,…

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interviewed by Andrew Zornoza John D’Agata is the author of Halls of Fame, a collection of short essays, and About a Mountain, a meditation on the limits of human understanding, and, ostensibly, the disposal of nuclear waste. David Foster Wallace called him “one of the most significant U.S. writers to emerge in the past few years.” and Annie Dillard says of him: “A writer of rare intelligence and artistry . . . John D’Agata is redefining the modern American essay.” D’Agata is also an editor of two influential anthologies: The Next American Essay and The Lost Origins of the Essay. His new book, out now, is titled The Lifespan of a Fact. D’Agata teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where he lives. HOW:  I am curious about how you deal with the aftermath of a book like About a Mountain. A fiction or poetry writer is free to create a whole cosmology and not be responsible for it: the response, “I made it all up,” is always available. While your books have a poetic movement to them, your subjects are nevertheless out there in the world, still changing, and can talk back at you, call you in as an expert, deride you as a heretic. The essay writer seems to be beholden to many things after the creation of their work. D’AGATA:  A year after the book came out, almost to the day, Japan’s earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear emergency occurred. I was on my school’s spring break at that time, trying to get some work done. But what I spent that week doing instead was discuss with various news editors why I wasn’t the right guy to come on their TV program or radio show or to contribute to their Op-Ed page about my thoughts on Japan. I am agonizingly shy, so in truth that’s part of the reason why I was turning them down. But, more importantly, I’m not an expert on nuclear waste. Despite having spent nine years researching and writing about the subject, I knew I was not anywhere near the best person to be speaking about what was happening in Japan. Certainly there’s a lot of information in About a Mountain that’s about nuclear power, and in writing the book I had to learn how to turn on a whole new part of my brain that could process the physics and the politics that are involved. But, as a writer, my understanding of all that information was in the service of a metaphor, not in the service of the information itself. Nuclear power and nuclear waste were not really my subjects; they are a vehicle for discussions of larger issues. So, for example, when the book was initially rejected by an editor because he didn’t think it read like a “general nonfiction reader on nuclear power,” I was actually relieved. I was bummed too, of course, because I wanted the book to be published. But I was relieved because what that rejection indicated was that the book was indeed signaling that it was about something other than its information. And that’s the issue that so-called “nonfiction” writers grapple with—the assumption that their books are comprised of nothing but their information, that there could never be anything in them other than information, that they are, in other words, not literary works but merely dispensaries of information. HOW:  You’ve championed many contemporary writers (Jenny…

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