A Writing Challenge from Tiffany Atkinson
A Suite of Adjacent Rooms
If you are a poet also working in academia, or you also do other kinds of writing for a living, perhaps like me you find yourself inhabiting two quite different modes in your writing: the logical and expository essay mode, where you emphasise topic and argument, a consistent and palpable ‘aboutness’ that leaves little room for linguistic play, versus the composition of poems where you may rely more on intuition, image and figure, and associative thinking to think ‘around’ rather than ‘about’, but where you may feel unable to tackle more extended themes or obsessions. The lyric essay is a form where you can inhabit the in-between space, an essay that works like a poem, or a poem that has the reach of an essay –and when I say essay, I mean something closer to its original meaning of a trial or an attempt, a venturing. John D’Agata and Deborah Tall, editors of the literary Journal Seneca Review, dedicated a whole issue to the term in 2007. They write, ‘The lyric essay does not expound. It may merely mention. As Helen Vendler says of the lyric poem, “It depends on gaps … It is suggestive rather than exhaustive.”’
‘Lyric essay’ is a rather dry term so I have chosen, perhaps because of the influence of lockdown, to figure it instead as a series or accumulation of rooms held in an overarching structure, though bear in mind that buildings may be complex and disorientating as well as four-square, that south-facing and north-facing building have different light qualities, and that the stanza of course is a word meaning ‘room.’ And you may call your lyric essay anything you like – a long poem, a meditation, an excursus. It is your invention. But you need to choose a subject or an obsession that you can approach from multiple directions – – or from which you may foray out – each of which will fill a room. A room may be any shape you choose – a block of text, a verse form, perhaps linked only by a common image in each, say, of the weather, (as Lisa Robertson does in her lyric essay of the same name) or a repeated phrase, or even a set number of words: Lyn Hejinian’s My Life for example consists of 38 stanzas of 38 lines each (the age she was when she wrote it in 1980). The important thing is that you allow yourself to range as freely as you like around or out of your subject. Dig deep, be architecturally inventive, switch off the internal censor, and have fun!
Please send your responses to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll publish your work as part of the Inside Writing showcase on our archive website.