This is one of an ongoing series of interviews with contributors to The 3288 Review.
German-born author and editor Chila Woychik is at home hiking in adjacent woods or regarding coyote calls at night. Her literary efforts have been acknowledged by Emrys Journal (forthcoming), Pithead Chapel, Stoneboat, Prick of the Spindle, and others. She occupies the near-space of another human and keeps numerous animals, including sheep and ducks, just outside her windows. Her lyric essay “A Place Called Place: Surrounds” appeared in our Autumn 2015 issue.
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3288 Review: How and when did you start writing? Was there a specific event or moment which sparked your interest in the written word?
Chila Woychik: As a child, I learned both German and English, having been born to a German mother and American father. Even though the bilingualism of everyday life changed for me once we reached America, my parents still spoke to each other in German on occasion, and from that, I believe, I glimpsed the nuances and beauty of spoken language. My childhood books were a dictionary and a set of encyclopedias, beyond what we received from our small town Illinois schools, and I relished each new section, each new word, as I moved through the entire set. I wrote my first poem in third grade; it was about spring, of course, and probably birds. In high school, I took every English, “office,” and writing class I could and loved every single one of them, in large part due to our fantastic teacher, Elaine Lowry. Then I set aside creative diversity for a while but took it up again at 34 after surgery on a herniated back disc. Again another long lull in serious creative pursuits. It wasn’t until 2013 that I discovered the literary journal market, so I’m definitely a late-emerging writer to this scene. The thing, person, who nudged me to finally and irrevocably cultivate literary writing was Annie Dillard’s book Holy the Firm. I read it and something died inside, while something else sprang wonderfully to life, something far far better.
3288 Review: How did “A Place Called Place” come about? It reads like creative non-fiction, but it is also structured like a letter. And it has a connection to the landscape that evokes Kathleen Norris or Ted Kooser. Is this part of a larger work?
Chila Woychik: “A Place Called Place: Surrounds” is indeed part of a series of essays I envisioned based on two things: regular emails between myself and a friend I’d been out of touch with for several years, wherein we discussed everything from life to writing to our love of nature, and second, reams of nature notes I had compiled over the past few years—how to find a place for all that Place. And that’s where the series title came to mind, “A Place Called Place;” each essay mentions Place in the title. I decided to make the faux-letters a little more inclusive, though, by changing the recipient from a female to a male, leaving off the personal aspects for the most part, and focusing on the deeper questions we’re often faced with in the presence of such intense beauty and inert power. Of course, nature in itself is somewhat humorous at times, so I’ve tried to include a little humor on occasion as well. It’s not part of a larger work beyond that, beyond the collection of about a half dozen of these essays, and another half dozen in a similar vein but not addressed to a named person.
3288 Review: You are also the founding editor of The Eastern Iowa Review, a project of Port Yonder Press, wherein you are the owner. From one small-press editor to another I must ask: How do you find the time to write? And how do you keep your editor mind distinct from your author mind?
Chila Woychik: I tend to not compartmentalize well, all projects jam together in my head, so I work best when I’ve divested myself of one thing so I can pursue another. For instance, after having had several essays accepted by literary venues in 2014, I decided in January 2015 to publish two last books then call it quits on the book publishing end. It was a great 6-year run, but I was ready to move on.
My focus now is the Eastern Iowa Review, a very different thing than book publishing, and it’s been fantastic — I love it in its entirety. Let me veer off a little bit here in my telling of it. It’s slow going, somewhat, compared to last year, as this year I’m fixated almost entirely on the lyric essay, and that’s a hard sell to writers, hard to do well, but it’s what I try to write and what I love reading. We also take experimental essays and hybrid pieces, but the lyric is my love, at least for now. Not many writers either understand the lyric essay or perhaps they’ve read what has been called a lyric essay but it really wasn’t, so they have a skewed perception of what it is. I recently received an email that said something like “I’ve tried you guys several times with lyric essays but you haven’t taken them; maybe I really don’t know what a lyric essay is. Can you teach me, give me examples?” Of course I love getting emails like that. I’m quick to tell them I’m not an expert but “this is what I’ve found.” I’m probably very bad in that I don’t generally reference the modern day “tried and true experts” but look to what I would call the founders, and go from there—those who were doing this before it became something that people wanted to capture and put in a literary zoo for everyone to gawk at, label, and try to observe, before they even came up with the name. The lyric essay was meant to be wild and free, a lioness of the writing world, if I can say it that way, and as such is a tough one to capture or even accurately categorize, tough to do it justice. The lyric or experimental essays we receive at EIR that I find to be truly on target, well, that only adds to my excitement with my own learning process, with my own attempts to get a better handle on this alarmingly beautiful and surprisingly elusive sub-genre.
As regards the “editor’s brain,” I think I’m a writer first and editor second, so it’s really not that hard to turn off my editor brain. And with less on my plate, I’m able to delve into writing regularly now; it’s fantastic. I’m actually finding the lack of publishing stress a little hard to grasp though, but that’s a good thing.
3288 Review: How do you distinguish the lyric essay from standard essays (if there is such a thing), or from, say, creative non-fiction or prose poetry, or even magical realism? Is it purely the style of writing, or is it also subject, structure, and the like?
Chila Woychik: Definitions differ so much from person or journal to school of thought. What I suggest may not be what someone else would say. But for me, the lyric essay must be “lyric” or poetic in its phraseology and word choices, and in the sound of it as it’s read aloud, but not (poetic) in form. I’ve seen what some have called lyric “essays” formed like poems, which I actually thought was pretty strange. Looking at the 2 parts of the descriptor individually, it would stand to reason that a lyric essay must be lyrical, sound lyrical/poetic, and a lyric essay must be formed to some degree on the page like an essay. Of course, essays can have titled points and breaks, and so can a lyric essay, and often does. To string together one long-form lyric essay that’s truly lyric without introducing new sections would be quite a feat; I’m not sure I’ve seen it done successfully very often at all. Many lyric essays, for this reason, are short, but they certainly don’t have to be. This form takes so much time to get the wording right that many authors choose to work at easier tasks or abbreviate their attempts. Further, is there a degree of lyricism necessary for the work to be tagged “lyric,” say, 25%? 75%? Does every line need to jump through hoops, every word choice make the reader dance? Do you know how hard that would be to write? To read? But, oh, the glory of attempting and somewhat accomplishing that feat. Maybe that’s what I find so tantalizing about this form — the sheer challenge of it.
A standard essay would be akin to a school research paper and have a strong research element, specific points, etc. Often this is true for the creative nonfiction essay, too, though there is more leeway in that form for linguistic exploration. I imagine that due to the general size of a creative nonfiction essay – longer – the author won’t take time to worry overly much about specific word choices as would be required for a lyric essay. With the lyric essay, the music of it, the language, is the first and only real consideration; everything else falls a distant second, third, fourth. Judith Kitchen, one of the modern pioneers of this subgenre, said it this way: “This past year, I attended a reading of ‘lyric essays,’ and nothing I heard was, to my mind, lyric. My ears did not quicken. My heart did not skip. What I heard was philosophical meditation, truncated memoir, slipshod research, and just-plain-discursive opinion. A wall of words. But not a lyric essay among them. The term had been minted (brilliantly, it seems to me) by Deborah Tall, then almost immediately undermined. Not all essays are lyric. Repeat. Not all essays are lyric. Not even all short essays are lyric. Some are merely short. Or plainly truncated. Or purely meditative. Or simply speculative. Or. Or. Or. But not lyric. Because, to be lyric, there must be a lyre.” There must be music, poetry, though not as some suppose, sections of lined poetry dispersed throughout a creative nonfiction essay; that would merely constitute a creative nonfiction essay interspersed with poetry, or perhaps some would call it a hybrid, appropriately so. You mentioned prose poetry. If there is one genre that I feel most closely resembles the lyric essay, maybe is the lyric essay, it would be prose poetry, though I think the poem vs the essay is probably distinguishable in most cases. The lyric essay isn’t an exact science, yet it’s beautiful art in its own right.
Regarding magical realism – to me this would be more closely akin to trying to interject obviously fantastical fiction elements into nonfiction, and this, of course, wouldn’t even come close to the heart of a lyric essay. I’ve found, personally, re: subject matter, that the lyric essay seems to be better suited to place/setting, nature/environment, and even ideas, because for some strange reason once we bring in the extremely prosaic elements of true dialog, human conflict, and strict narrative, we seem to want to water down the beautiful language in favor of the stark naked truth. But I’ve seen it done, and done well. Saying that, I will also add that the lyric essay is nonfiction and should present truth, but of course within that comes an author’s personal perspective, memory, etc.; however, we are not free to lie; we are only free to paint the picture interpreting it as the personal view of one artist: through his/her own eyes. At the same time, we remember that this isn’t a research paper or a piece of fiction but a language-focused poetic piece of nonfiction. When people ask for a favorite example, I always mention Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm, wherein is included what I feel are three separate rather stunning lyric essays. We’ve put up a page on our website with a few tidbits that might help interested authors.
3288 Review: I have in front of me a copy of the inaugural issue of your journal The Eastern Iowa Review; “A Journal of Good Spaces”, published in summer of 2015. What are the spaces around you which inspire you to write?
Chila Woychik: Nature inspirits me: the forest and hills lolling behind our small farmstead, and the stream that chutes between them; the trails around a nearby lake; a shy or bold sky in its many phases of creation. These are the things that fill me with wonder, and a passionate desire to engage them, then record my interactions to some degree. Yet even on a smaller scale, the minutest scale, life impresses. I can see why Emily Dickinson often wrote about seemingly unimportant elements such as a fly dizzying around a room or a snake slithering through the grass. The miracle of being continues to confound me in every good way possible, and life itself is the space that inspires me to write.
3288 Review: Of your own pieces, which do you consider the most successful example of the lyric essay? And where can we read it?
Chila Woychik: “A Place Called Context” which will appear later this year in Blueline, out of New York. For something already published and viewable online, I would say it would be “In This Space” which you can find here in the Sandy River Review.
3288 Review: Other than the next issue of the Eastern Iowa Review, what are you working on? Do you have anything we should look for in 2016?
Chila Woychik: I have a few developing ideas for a small collection of lyric essays, but nothing solid yet. In the meantime, I hope to continue growing in the lyric essay sub-genre, as well as honing my poetry skills.