Cracking Open Traditional Academic Prose

I’ve been drooling over Laurel Richardson’s Fields of Play (Constructing an Academic Life) this afternoon. In the section I read most carefully, she describes the process and reaction to her composition of a 5-page poem using the words from a 36-page interview transcript from a woman named “Louisa May.” It’s a beautiful piece, resonant in all the ways a poem should be. Here’s the beginning:

The most important thing
to say                           is that
I grew up in the South.
Being southern shapes
aspirations                shapes
what you think you are
and what you think you’re going to be.

(When I hear myself, my Ladybird
kind of accent on tape. I think, O Lord,
You’re from Tennessee.)

And so on. Louisa May tells the story of her divorce, pregnancy, and decision to raise a child on her own.

Richardson describes many reasons for the decision to use verse–including the admission that there are probably several reasons that she doesn’t quite know yet (147-48). In part, though, the form is apt because:

In the routine work of the sociological interview, the interview is tape-recorded, transcribed as prose, and then cut, pasted, edited, trimmed, smoothed, and snipped, just as if it were a literary text, which it is, albeit usually without explicit acknowledgment or recognition of such by its sociological constructor. (140)

She’s got me thinking about times I’ve broken the boundaries of the academic prose I was expected to write, and how those are some of my most pleasant memories as a writer. And that’s interesting–that it’s specifically boundary-crossing that I remember most, not the times when I wrote a poem in a place where a poem was expected, or a traditionally memoir-ish piece when that was expected. There’s something to the act of cracking open a seemingly closed door that appeals to me (though I think I should/could find a less violent metaphor for such a playful activity). So as an act of trying to create the memory of those activities, I’ll list them here. For example:

  • In 12th grade, I turned in some crazily obtuse poetry when asked to reflect on some of my academic writing.
  • Similarly, in a magical realism class in my 2nd year of college, I couldn’t find it in me to reflect on my semester’s writing–it was a portfolio class–in an unmagical, too-realistic way. So because I was 19, I typed up a poem in courier font with vague references to the impossibility of describing the magical in prose, which I remember included the (uncited) line from the liner notes of The Smashing Pumpkins’ The Aeroplane Flies High box set, “And don’t you forget it for one second,” to which the teacher wrote in, “I won’t.”
  • In my final semester in college, I prepared a portfolio of my best papers written throughout my four years and wrote a retrospective on what I had learned. Instead of an essay (which I think everyone else did), I pieced together a hodgepodge that is still one of my favorite pieces of writing ever, including a frame story of a witch threatening to suck my brain out with a spoon, a dramatic scene where an old Kyle talks to a young Kyle about the books he’ll like, a story about my granddaughter putting on headphones that allow her to hear the thoughts I was thinking as I drafted college essays, and a poem in iambic pentameter.
  • For my undergraduate honors thesis on Atlantis in literature, I included an introductory story about me drowning and two short stage interludes between chapters, where I tried to express different sides of my ideas about Atlantis, the uncertain complexity of my feelings and all that. Stuff like this:

Dorothy: I really like that I got to go here.

Silence. Phyllis gives no indication of hearing anything and stares directly into the audience.

I mean, it’s all kinds of stuff. But especially the name. I like that we go to Atlantis High School.

Pause.

Phyllis: It’s the same as every other high school.

Dorothy: No it’s not, it’s . . . different because of something about. . . . It’s different because it’s Atlantis. That’s cool, I don’t know.

Pause.

Phyllis: It’s not really very cool.

  • In my first course in grad school, I managed to offend James Slevin by writing another short drama between balding, full-of-themselves academics in a panel discussion and Walter Ong, back from the grave, who had some questions for them from the audience. Professor Slevin thought I meant the balding jerks to be him. Oops.
  • In a recent creative nonfiction graduate workshop I took with some brilliant MFA students and the brilliant-er Ira Sukrungruang, it was stinking hard for me to write standard memoir-fare. I kept feeling the need to play around, tell things out of order, overload the page with footnotes, make stuff up, and generally be an ass to my patient readers. Now, there was a lot of support for this buffoonery, even though I didn’t always pull it off, but it was clear that some of the better writers in the class thought my stuff was unnecessarily quirky, flashy, whatever. They were probably right.

So what am I saying? I’m not sure yet–like Richardson, I’m comfortable figuring out what I think about my writing practices after the fact. But I do know that some (all?) of my dissertation interviews are going to appear as poems. Updates shall appear as I proceed.

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One response to “Cracking Open Traditional Academic Prose

  1. Pingback: Transcribing Sound « Transmedia Me

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