I’m home from a postgrad conference at Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program, where I graduated in fiction in 2009. Since graduation, I’ve missed the craft talks and readings so much that I’ve shown up uninvited in June and January, sneaking in the back and hiding among current students—and I’m not the only one. The university apparently decided to turn stealth visits into a paying proposition and organized an official visit for us during the regular June residency. We didn’t have to pay much (at least this time) for three days of new information, fellowship, organized meals, and no homework.
It’s pretty great for an introvert to party with people she already knows but doesn’t see very often, most of whom are as weird as she is. I brought home a cold, though, and I’m writing this on cough medicine.
One of the craft talks that fell during our visit was given by Cheston Knapp, managing editor of Tin House magazine, and formerly director of the writers’ workshop held every summer on the campus of Reed College in Portland. In trying to describe the collective aesthetic of the magazine (all the editors and interns meet once a week to champion and vote on submitted material, about 14,000 ms. per year), he referred to the following:
- Marie Howe’s poem “The Meadow,” for what it has to say about how we enter pre-existing language. The concluding words of this poem: “Bedeviled/ human, your plight, in waking, is to choose from the words/ that even now sleep on your tongue, and to know that tangled/ among them and terribly new is the sentence that could change your life.”
- Paul Valery’s essay “Man and the Seashell” for the connections it makes between form and content. I haven’t read the essay, but Knapp seemed to say that it speaks against thesis/explanation/bald statement of theme and for the centrality of tone and tenor.
- Frank Bidart’s poem “Lament for the Makers”: “Many creatures must/ make, but only one must seek/ within itself what to make.” This hit home with me because only the day before I’d found myself asking novelist Bonnie Jo Campbell how she described to herself what kind of writer she is, what her subject matter is, and who her readers might be. She said that telling me these things wouldn’t help, that each of us has to figure this out for herself, and it will take time.
- William Gass on Borges’ creation of a verbal world.
- Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark”—in which the husband of a beautiful woman becomes obsessed with removing his wife’s one flaw, a hand-shaped birthmark on her face. In trying to make her perfect, he kills her. “Stories that are wound too tight,” Knapp said, “never take their first breath.”
Knapp’s talk was both evocative—calling up many things that taken together suggest one thing—and declarative. Tin House wants a writer’s vision—“a way of knowing more deeply . . . of uncovering things as they are”—that “restores to our world the very possibility of meaningfulness.”
Knapp pointed out that the book that is big news today will barely be remembered in a few years. We have to write for other reasons.
I haven’t done what Knapp said justice. It was a brilliant talk, which I hope will show up in Tin House or elsewhere in its entirety.