Course Syllabus

Writing the Lyric Essay: When Poetry & Nonfiction Play

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Experiment with form and explore the possibilities of this flexible genre.

Some of the most artful work being done in essay today exists in a liminal space that touches on the poetic. In this course, you will read and write lyric essays (pieces of creative nonfiction that move in ways often associated with poetry) using techniques such as juxtaposition; collage; white space; attention to sound; and loose, associative thinking. You will read lyric essays that experiment with form and genre in a variety of ways (such as the hermit crab essay, the braided essay, multimedia work), as well as hybrid pieces by authors working very much at the intersection of essay and poetry. We will proceed in this course with an attitude of play, openness, and communal exploration into the possibilities of the lyric essay, reaching for our own definitions and methods, even as we study the work of others for models and inspiration. Whether you are an aspiring essayist interested in infusing your work with fresh new possibilities, or a poet who wants to try essay, this course will have room for you to experiment and play.

How it works:

Each week provides:

  • discussions of assigned readings and other general writing topics with peers and the instructor
  • written lectures and a selection of readings

Some weeks also include:

  • the opportunity to submit two essays of 1000 and 2500 words each for instructor and/or peer review 
  • additional optional writing exercises
  • an optional video conference that is open to all students(and which will be available afterward as a recording for those who cannot participate)

Aside from the live conference, there is no need to be online at any particular time of day.
To create a better classroom experience for all, you are expected to participate weekly in class discussions to receive instructor feedback.

Week 1: Lyric Models: Space and Collage

In this first week, we’ll consider definitions and models for the lyric essay. You will read contemporary pieces that straddle the line between personal essay and poem, including work by Toi Derricotte, Anne Carson, and Maggie Nelson. In exercises, you will explore collage and the use of white space.

Week 2: Experiments with Form: Braided Essay and Hermit Crab Essay

We will build on our discussion of collage and white space, looking at examples of the braided essay. We’ll also examine the hermit crab essay, in which writers “sneak” personal essays into other forms, such as a job letter, shopping list, or how-to manual. You’ll experiment with your own braided pieces and hermit crab pieces and turn in the first assignment.

Week 3: Lyric Vignette and the Prose Poem

Prose poems will often capture emotional truths using juxtaposition, hyperbole, and absurd or surreal leaps of logic. This week, we’ll investigate how lyrical vignettes can stay true to actual events while employing some of the lyrical, dreamlike, and/or absurd qualities of the prose poem to communicate the wonder and mystery of life.

Week 4: Witnessing the Self: Essays by Poets

Poet Larry Levis has written of the poet as witness, as temporarily emptied of personality but simultaneously connected to a self, a “gazer.” Personal essays by poets retain something of this quality. Examining essays by poets such as Ross Gay, Lucia Perillo, Amy Gerstler, and Elizabeth Bishop, we’ll look at moments of connection and disconnection. Guided exercises will help you find and craft your own such moments.

Week 5: Hybrid Forms and the Documentary Impulse

As we wrap up the course, we will continue investigating the possibilities inherent in straddling and combining genres as we explore multimedia work, as well as work in the “documentary poetics” vein. We will look to writers like Claudia Rankine and Bernadette Mayer, Roz Chast and Maira Kalman for models of what is possible creatively when we observe ourselves as social beings moving through time, collecting text, images, and observations. Students will also turn in a final essay.