I have been an ardent reader of Barrie Jean Borich for a long time and once even had the pleasure of reading with her at Women and Children First in Chicago, the city where she makes her home.
Barrie is the author of Restoring the Color of Roses (Firebrand Books, 1993), My Lesbian Husband: Landscape of a Marriage (Graywolf, 1999), and Body Geographic (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), all works of lyric/mosaic nonfiction.
This year, I taught her newest collection, Apocalypse, Darling (Mad Creek Books, 2018), for the first time, concurrent with this interview. We spoke about the joys, challenges, and implicit queerness of creative nonfiction, and beyond the scope of this interview, Barrie graciously fielded some questions from my graduate students, too.
The Rumpus: As we began this interview, much of Twitter is atwitter with talk of Marie Kondo and her KonMari Method for decluttering homes and workspaces. So let me tap into this aspect of our zeitgeist by asking: First, what do you require and/or desire as a writer, in both tangible and intangible terms, in order to fuel the good work that you do? And what, in Kondo lingo, sparks the most joy for you in your writing—as well as your reading, teaching, and everyday living—life?
Barrie Jean Borich: First of all, I love Marie Kondo and was in middle of bingeing her show episodes, and refolding all of my clothes, when the social media wars hit. I was shocked, as most of the negativity in my feeds was coming from writers and academics. I know this isn’t really your question, but I want to say I agree with the critical race theory analyses that rose out of the push back from writers and academics of color, in part because I find the aesthetic of the KonMari Method pleasing, and familiar in a cultural sense. When my spouse Linnea and I visited Japan to meet in-laws (through my brother’s family), we were in awe of meticulously tidy public spaces and elaborate wrappings of the most mundane store purchases. But also, I was shocked that some of the complaints from usually brilliant people were so racially dismissive and cluelessly cynical. And so joyless. So finally to your question—I think much of the old left white-cis-het-academic literary world distrusts joy. And I distrust that distrust of joy because I can’t write or teach without those little fires. (As I type these words, one spark that comes to me is the title of one of your books, Small Fires.)
What sparks joy for me is the daily quest to find beauty in the cracks of commonplace apocalypse. My standard poodle Blossom Dearie sparks joy, as does the work of the jazz singer and pianist we named her after. My collection of mid-century poodle paraphernalia sparks joy, as do my collections of teapots, and TV lamps, and slag glass shoes. The view of the ballet of the street from my apartment window in Chicago sparks joy. The sound of Linnea’s key in the lock, and the sound of the L train a block away when the windows are open, and the sound of the opera singers practicing in the church across the street—these are all things that spark my artistic energy and spirit, from which I set out to find echoes in my writing and teaching, even when writing from the ruins. But first I need the sparking world.
Rumpus: My mind flashes back to a moment in My Lesbian Husband, the first book of yours I read, where Linnea goes outside in the dead of winter, shovel in hand, to clear the yard of dog shit. It’s an unpleasant chore, but it has to be done, and it’s one of the many moments in your writing where the rendered moment itself does not exactly document joy, but the way in which the moment is rendered is undeniably joyful at the level of language.
So: Has writing always been a joyful practice for you? When and how did you discover that you were/wanted to be a writer? And while we’ve already recognized the presence of joy in your life and work, it doesn’t preclude challenges or frustrations with both the private writerly process and the public authorship that accompanies it now. When and how did you decide that writing as vocation, as central to your life’s studies and career, was worth even the less-than-joyous parts?
Borich: I need to make joy so that my ruins don’t overtake me, but joy is not my default. So that’s interesting, what you say about My Lesbian Husband. I was very intentional about writing joy when I started that book. The book before that one (which not many people know, as it was published by the now defunct Firebrand Books) was an addiction memoir. It was experimental in form for its time. (I called it montage prose—this before the segmented essay became common among nonfiction writers), but in terms of content it was what AA people call a drunkalogue.
That first book was also my first nonfiction writing (after beginning as a poet), and so it was difficult and painful in the ways all recovery narratives can’t avoid. After I turned it in, I proclaimed to myself that next I was going to write a “happy” book about love, and in all the ways you mention here, I think I did. But then not entirely, because it was the 1990s and there was no way to talk about being in a long-term lesbian love relationship without grappling with what was then called the “same-sex marriage” question. I was hurled into the subject by the obvious situational comparisons when my brother announced his marriage engagement, and so the book came to be this investigation of the “are we married” question. Did we want to use that language to describe ourselves? Was the model inherently heteronormative? Still, all the way through, I held tight to my original goal to write about love and joy.
But has writing itself always been joyful for me? Well, first off, I am one of those have-no-choice writers, so it’s less of a question of joyful vocation for me and more of a question of breathing. Like so many indie writers I make a living as an academic, and my workload does sometimes lead me to lose hold of my writing. But when I am not writing, I am a desolate human. Nothing’s any good when I am not doing my own work. When I am writing—well sure sometimes there is joy, but mostly the process is something else, closer to spiritual practice I think, which can contain all the emotions and still be a necessary effort.
I “decided” to be a writer long before I knew what that meant. I was in high school, coming from a family who believed in education but had deep working-class roots. Becoming an artist was not an option, and I was in fact told by family and teachers that becoming a writer was just not possible, and so I pursued the goal sideways for a while, studying journalism (training I don’t actually regret, now, as a nonfiction writer).
But I didn’t really want to write for newspapers. I had this idea in my head, barely articulated, that I remember as a thought bubble that contained a cartoon image of a book. In order to line up that image with my life path, I had to first drop out of college, come out as a queer woman, meet lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and feminist artists, get in some trouble with drugs and alcohol. I am not saying I knew the reasons for my choices then, but now I can see how hard I was trying to reroute myself. When I did finally go back to college, I was lucky to find a program that somehow allowed me to self-design a creative writing degree that got me into Master’s level writing nonfiction workshops as an undergraduate—which was then a new thing because nonfiction was just starting to be seen as a “genre.” Sobering up (another joy-sparking path) and moving from poetry to nonfiction came at the same time in my life, which is what the title of that first memoir, Restoring the Color of Roses, is all about.
Rumpus: In your response above, I learned something that I didn’t know before about your genre history—which of course makes sense given that I consider you a “lyric essayist” and many lyric essayists come through the door of poetry. I’m wondering what it was that drew you to poetry to begin with—a particular poem or poet, etc.—and how poetry gave way for you to prose forms like the “montage” style you describe. Is poetry still a part of your writing practice and/or your teaching repertoire? And do you consider “montage prose” distinctive from the “lyric essay”? (Perhaps I’m imposing a term on your work that you would not choose for yourself?)
Borich: My beginnings in poetry are the foundations of how I think as nonfiction writer, and where my “logic” as a writer comes from, but my structural ideas come in from a few directions.
“Montage-Prose,” for instance, was a response to the film studies courses I added into my self-designed BA degree. While taking a history of film course, I became obsessed with the Soviet montage experiments that led to the art of film editing as we know it today. Back at the beginning of cinema history, before editing became normalized and so often invisible to the average film viewer—this was in the 1920s, so an interesting part of that high Modernist period when so many artists were committed to “making it new”—montage was a radical new way of seeing because of the impact of bringing together unlike things to create new meaning. (Which sounds very queer, right?) I loved the idea of applying this concept to my own writing, and so began to play. This was before Brenda Miller published her game-changing “braided essay” craft piece, and before terms like the “segmented essay” were a part of creative writing parlance.
I was exposed to the beginning nonfiction discussion because I was in workshops with Patricia Hampl and Mimi Sprengnether at the University of Minnesota, and on my own I discovered what I now consider the great collage essays by Annie Dillard, Gloria Anzaldúa, Albert Goldbarth, and Maxine Hong Kingston, as well as the point of view flights in John Edgar Wideman’s books and Audre Lorde’s remaking of genre in her coining of the term biomythography. I invented myself as a writer with influences from my odd undergraduate access to a grad writing program at Minnesota but also in the queer world, through self-study and with my longstanding lesbian writing group Bertha. I’m not claiming to have invented anything, but now I find it fascinating that so much of what is our alternative nonfiction “canon” today was happening in a scattershot zeitgeist of nonfictional “making it new.”
I don’t still write poetry, really. I did publish poems early on, but never went on to study the history and tradition that poets know—while I did do that in nonfiction—so I don’t consider myself a Big-P-Poet. I will teach a book of poems, or individual poems, maybe once a year or so, if I am assigned to teach Intro to Creative Writing. I don’t break lines in drafts. But what did draw me to the poem when I started writing, and the reason poetry was a thing I just started to do, well that was because I was pulled toward the sound and breath of language from the start, and was completely pulled into the intuitive and ear-tune composition process of the poem, and that hasn’t changed. This is still how I engage with the sentence.
I do identify with the term “lyric”—particularly in Apocalypse, Darling, which I think of as a prose cover of a poem—but I think of my work as lyric nonfiction rather than the lyric essay, as what I do is too hybrid to be described as just essayistic. It makes sense to my ear to say I write in the spaces between poetry, memoir, reportage, and essay.
But I guess this also depends on how you define the lyric essay. Do you have a clear definition for what falls in those parameters? Or is it a know-it-when-I-see-it thing for you?
Rumpus: Clear? No. Definition. Hardly—though sometimes I wish I did! I do feel like I know a lyric essay when I see one, though, and I’m always working with my students, both undergrads and grads, toward recognizing properties or elements that give rise to lyric essays.
As it happens, in this very same graduate seminar, we’re gearing up to read Apocalypse, Darling—your newest work of lyric nonfiction—in just a couple of weeks, so I’d like to ask a bit about how you see this fourth book in relation to those that precede it. I love having in mind the collection as a “prose cover of a poem,” but I’m curious to know more about what you mean by this description and how you see your own books as diverse but perhaps also overlapping representatives of what lyric nonfiction can be/do. If a reader read them in order—Restoring the Color of Roses, My Lesbian Husband, Body Geographic, and now Apocalypse, Darling—what would they learn about the evolution of your craft, style, and relationship to genre as well as, well, the evolution of BJB?
Borich: One of the ways I introduce students to the lyric essay is to simply bombard them with over fifty fragments from many writers who have attempted to define the category—lines like: pause/gaps/silence and polyphonic and invites readers into gaps. They don’t necessarily leave with the ability to articulate a definition, but they certainly come to feel what lyric means to be.
As for my own lyric play, Apocalypse Darling is a cover really in the way any cover is a cover. I don’t know what the origins of that term are in popular music, but I am borrowing the language from a couple of literary sources, such as the special issue of the journal McSweeney’s featuring literary covers of classic literary works, and Patrick Madden and David Lazar’s After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays. When I think about what the term “cover” means to me, what I come up with is that the original is always present, if only because the listeners/readers are likely to know the first version so well, but the new version covers the original with a completely different voice—covers over, but not completely, so that original voice is always leaking through. This is how the Eliot poem, The Waste Land, operates underneath Apocalypse, Darling. Some of the repetitive pacing is in play, and a bit of the language, mostly in the headings, and in a twist of a line here and there, as well as in the sense of wasteland wreckage, and of hope achieved by a kind of praying through the ruins. I wrote the book while reading the poem repeatedly, and by listening to the poem as performed by various speakers—including Eliot himself—but where I went in my not-poetry-but-nonfiction work is nothing like the poem. My project is narrative, is very queer, is foundationally feminist, and is as much about the actual land, this particular wasteland, as it is about toxicity and forgiveness in American families that my wasteland signifies.
What a reader might see across my body of work is that the wasteland has always been there, as have actual tangible places—cities and regions—and actual queer bodies. All of my works are geographies. All are fragments seeking a slant wholeness. All are grounded in a historical palimpsest version of Chicago, and all are rooted in the vanished prairie beneath the city and reaching across the Midwest. All of my books are also in a way about addiction and recovery. The earliest work is more-so about the mess, and wreckage, while the later writing, especially what I am attempting now, is about defying inebriation, witnessing with a sober lens, remembering and evolving with a fully conscious body. None of the books after the first one said this outright, but that’s always what I’ve been up to. I love form—especially the surprises that come of working against the parameters form provides—and forms can be instigators, but they are also containers, providing respite along the way toward that elusive whole.
Rumpus: Apocalypse, Darling struck me on all the registers you describe. I was drawn deeply and personally into the speaker’s narrative journey to attend a wedding—in this case, the speaker’s partner’s father’s wedding to his high school sweetheart, the two reunited after more than fifty years—and all the foundationally feminist and queer content undergirding that narrative. I couldn’t not think—even as your own story is so precise and inimitable—about traveling from Pittsburgh to Tennessee with my partner for her brother’s wedding in 2006—how the family couldn’t explain me, how I was excluded from the photos, and how later, my sister-in-law (not the groom’s wife), whom I love more than I can say, photoshopped me into those pictures, right there beside Angie, where she felt I should have been all along!
So let me ask this: Do you think there’s something about lyric essays/hybrid forms/poetic prose/montage styles of writing—enterprises that are often lumped together as “experimental”—that call out to you in particular because you are queer and feminist? What do you think? Is there such a thing as “writing queer,” regardless of the sexual orientation of the writer, e.g. Eliot seems to have been writing queer in The Waste Land—one of the most enigmatic, experimental poems I know!—and how do “writing queer” and “being queer” (plus also feminist!) inform your work?
Borich: The short answer is of course! I have always felt that refusing linear narrative form is, for me, not only the way I think but also a radical composition practice.
But does that mean all experimental form is queer? I don’t know. Probably not. The Nonfiction Studies journal Assay published a craft essay last year, written by Jen Soriano (a former student you have worked with as well) that explores nonlinearity and fragmentation through the lens of intersectionality. In “Multiplicity from the Margins: The Expansive Truth of Intersectional Form,” Jen writes about the ways narratives from people of color and queers need to be fragmented to adequately represent our experience and ways of being.
I invited Jen to video-visit my undergraduate nonfiction class to talk about her intersectional form ideas, and one of my students asked if what we were talking about, in works by contemporary writers such as Lauret Savoy, Kazim Ali, Lily Hoang, T Clutch Fleischmann, Elissa Washuta, and others—was the same sort of thing we saw from modernists such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. What Jen talked about, in response, was her interest in broken narrative form as an expression of not just aesthetic desire but also as a response to power, which I find to be an interesting and crucial distinction.
Certainly works by Woolf, Joyce, and (in terms of my influence in Apocalypse, Darling) Eliot maintain race and class canonical power structures. If we think of these writers as the canonical inside against our outside, then our queer forms are a break from the past. But if we look at these writers’ intersections and communal collisions, perhaps we can call some of their books queer adjacent? I am thinking of: Woolf’s bisexualty/lesbianism; Joyce’s rebel Irishness (not to mention his then-scandalous serial publication of Ulysses in The Little Review, whose editors, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, were lesbian Modernists who believed experimental form could revolutionize the social order); Eliot’s then-radical urban poetics, as well as speculation from some scholarly circles that he was secretly homosexual. Scholars who work closely with these authors could parse this out better than I am able to here, and I will not downplay the colonizing power of the literary order, particularly in regards to race, but at the same time queerness has long had sneaky and slant ways of infiltrating the canon, and so probably also form—all of which must somehow thread into our own queer nonfictions, right?
I have always felt that CNF was a queer genre, and years ago, at that grand old queer lit conference OutWrite I organized one of the first panels on the subject called, in fact, Creative Nonfiction, A Queer Genre? (in which I self-identified as a Boho Femme—which probably still stands as my queer identity). Literary experiment overall may be more small-q queer than big-Q-Queer, but I guess what I am getting to is that I still believe these anti-forms is are great strategies for big-Q-Queer writers. We many not upend the state with our queer forms—unfortunately—but this way of working can at least give us back the lens of our own discernment and provide ballast against the controlling forces of power.
Photograph of Barrie Jean Borich by Laura E. Migliorino.