“Writing things myself seemed the best way to participate in the memorialization of small parts of the world.”
The Long Weeping: Portrait Essays (Orison Books, 2017)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I grew up in the Whetsell Settlement in rural West Virginia, a small mostly-paved loop of thirty families or so tucked into the mountain. My family lived more toward the top, so the space was windy and open, and there was a fluidity between outside and inside—meaning, out through the screen door to the yard and field and back in to the kitchen, and meaning also inside the person and outside the person, both always seeming equally hallowed. I was the youngest of four, and as we watched Saturday morning cartoons, taking turns churning butter, I felt such a hugeness in my siblings, inner lives that always hummed, as we churned, as we flailed around and built forts with feed pallets. I was a lucky kid to have my imagination nurtured there. As young as eight, I tried writing poems. In second grade, I had a diary that locked, with a sleeping kitten on the cover, in which I took notes on the Book of Revelation. In college, after I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, my journals were addressed to A.D., or sometimes to God, or sometimes to myself but that seemed a riskier addressee. I wrote a lot of letters and still do. As a child, I had a penpal from Finland—Maria—who sent me Finnish paper dolls and cut-out flowers and enlarged my world. I didn’t live outside of West Virginia until I graduated college, so missives from the world from people I kind of knew (like Maria) and people in books were how I came to know things beyond my own boundaries. Writing things myself seemed the best way to participate in the memorialization of small parts of the world.
Could you share a representative or pivotal excerpt from your book? Perhaps something that that invites the reader into the world of the book?
Here is a short excerpt from the longest portrait in the book which shares the book’s title. It’s a sectioned portrait Rizpah, a concubine of King Saul mentioned by the biblical prophet Samuel; according to a couple of verses in 2 Samuel, when six of Rizpah’s sons and grandsons are executed, she spends seven months keeping animals away from their bodies. This fictional essay became, for me, a meditation on grief.
A Dream of Kites
She stands on a hill not welcoming the wind. She knows what it will bring. She longs for solitude. This is unseasonable, it’s winter with a warm spell whipped with wind which means a day for kites, and their boy-hands work at it all morning, to catch up with the wind before it dies, or goes elsewhere. They build the kites from dowels and newsprint, lace and coffee filters, screen mesh, T-shirt sleeves, ribbons. Come fly, they plead, and her voice is too sharp, No, go on, as her blown hair webs her face and hides her away, her dress wrung by the gusts and trapping her legs where she stands. The boys run ahead and she stays apart and it is almost sundown so the kites pink up in perfect light as they shrink into the sky. The trimmings tear off but the paper bodies stay solid and what she knew would happen happens, watching the youngest let out more string: You were one of the ones inside me, now on the outside—I see it for the first time when you fly the kite, the string wrapped around a stick, we are two and I don’t know you. Just like that. Strangers.
The wind pastes her dress to her body, each of her curves tight unto linen so it’s difficult to move, it is slow, but she makes it to the youngest whose head comes only to her navel, and she is not magnanimous, no: she grabs the spool of kite string from his hands and holds tightly, trying to rein it in, to bring the speck of translucent color back to the ground. It won’t be called back, she grips the spool more and more tightly round, frantic, trying to memorize his small face at the same time.
And that’s when she wakes on her rock by the river, and her hand is not on a wound spool at all, but around the neck of a bird, one of the smallest, one that has grown familiar with her. Dodging her stones and her swats, it often sleeps in her hair with its head tucked behind the lobe of her left ear as if about to tell her a secret, but it never speaks, and she has nearly killed it now—must have grabbed it in her sleep. She holds the tiny throat, feeling with her thumb the little bird heart like a white blister to burst, and she doesn’t want to let go because the kite will be lost, the boy will cry. She holds tightly and, oh, she can feel the heart like a tiny seed, loose and unencumbered by a large and clunky chest bone like hers. Just a grape seed loose in pulp and pressed, and pressed. But the eye of fright and appeal gets through to her dream-mind and the kite colors fade. She cannot call them back. She cannot save them. She cannot save the self that refused them. She saves the only part of her that can be saved: the thumb at the bird’s throat: lifting it, she lets go. Or, anyway, unpins the thing, but still softly rings the neck. Pets. Howls.
Why did you choose this excerpt?
I’m not sure, but it’s often been a magnetic section for me. The recurrence of imagery here is important to me, the kites, the birds, the estrangement from self and others. It’s a new kind of writing for me, too, to enter the dream-mind as an extension of the essayistic imagination. The section is a sample of the blur between pure fiction and the essay’s impulse to seek something doggedly through all the wrinkles in the brain. This long essay also tries to depict and embody the relentless instability of emotions in grief: regret, guilt, anger, relief, hate, love, regret again, guilt again, and so on. This section seems to exhibit that attempt. Also madness, the kinship madness has with grief in its power to unmoor. The section shows, in all that instability, that there are inexplicable moments of mercy.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
When I read Simone Weil the first few times, I was struck by her notion that “contempt is the contrary of attention.” I wanted these essays to be acts of attention. Contempt rules our world and tyrannizes the way we act with one another, whether it manifests as self-aggrandizement or ridicule or pity. That’s an Annie Dillard verb too, the imperative: attend. It’s perhaps one of the essay form’s highest functions.
What’s the oldest essay in your book? Or can you name one piece that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?
“Woman with Spirits” may be the oldest in terms of material I was trying to access. I first wrote about Eliza when she was still living and I was fifteen and my high school English teacher Fran Kirk (a wonder) used photographs to unlock our stories, and Eliza’s being photographed was a story I wanted to unlock. I knew her story only second-hand, but it felt central to understanding the place I came from. Fast forward many years and many theory books on photography later (Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, John Berger, Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber), I tried the material as an essay in grad school, first somewhat flatly, as a straightforward narrative about the photographers coming to Eliza’s during the War on Poverty media campaigns; in that version, the essay did explore ethics of photography and the nature of how we see one another, but it had no lift. Then I came across this line from Kafka: We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes. I tried the lines as an epigraph and meditated on the connection between photography and driving someone away, exorcizing someone, and then new strands entered the essay: a narrative of an exorcism I’d witnessed in Eastern Europe, and a sub-strand of an exorcism I’d heard on Christian radio as a child. I further researched Walker Evans’ documentary photography that was made in my home state and other material on the ethics of photographing the poor, and over time, I was able (I hope) to begin to show the complexity of portraiture itself. Since the essays that follow “Woman with Spirits” in the book are also portraits in varying degrees, they all exist for me in an uneasy space that I hope might provoke conversation about how we see and regard one another.
How did you decide on the title of your book?
The prologue to the book is a distillation of what used to be a very long essay called “The Beatty Portraits” that focused on members of Beatty Church in my home community. There was, as the prologue depicts, a hand pump for drinking in the grove across the road from the church which had no indoor plumbing. Its emblem of spiritual thirst has always remained central for me, a key image that helped my young self become. Once, describing the drink from the pump, I used the phrase “a long weeping kiss,” which eventually got cut for its inaccuracy, but I remained drawn to the mix of grief, longing, and love the image held. Thus, the title. Also, the book’s title is an homage to Dorothy Day whose spiritual autobiography The Long Loneliness is a major influence on my life and writing.
Which essay in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
The extended, episodic portrait of Rizpah may be the most meaningful to me because it best embodies the act of portraiture as the seeking of companionship, as the need to fix on someone’s face. I had my own versions of grief going on at the time of writing about her, and she was someone I could sit down in the rocks with, not as a mirror for me—her griefs are unspeakable and not to be conflated with mine—but as a soul that bore what was unbearable—as many people do every day—and as a way to embody the question (without answering it in a facile way): what’s on the other side of life’s disappointments and devastations?
Could you share with us a glimpse of your writing practice or process for this book?
This book evolved over twelve years. I did not work on it consistently; in fact, I wrote two novels during that period. But I always return to the essay form, even when immersed in a novel project. Essays written and revised over such a long span, though, shift significantly in voice and focus. So I had to revise, or revocalize, older essays as the manuscript came together. It helped me to focus on the portrait form, to limit the kinds of essays I wanted to include. And the theme of loss and grief also coalesced across essays, grief over immediate losses (like a divorce) and also grief inherent to human existence.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I don’t know if I have a favorite strategy, but it often helps me to cannibalize parts of essays, or whole essays (or even sections across genres—failed poems or short stories or novel chapters) and use them in new work. One short essay in the book, “Work Ethic,” is actually an outtake from the novel I’m working on. My mother still uses a wringer washer and she keeps a few other washers around (covered neatly with a quilt and used as a shelf for the time being) so she can cannibalize them for parts when she needs to. I do this a lot with passages—lone sentences or images, or big chunks, or scraps of dialog, phrases I obsess over that don’t work in another project. Sometimes it can lead to a happy accident of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called the “widowed image,” an image shaved from its context and used someplace unexpected so that it takes on new vibrancy. My process of writing “Without” was one of cannibalization (which is a pun of sorts, I suppose, since the essay focuses on eating and nourishment). I had an old essay about fasting that bore the title “Without,” and I had another called “The Slaughterers Copybook” which looked into the butchering of animals I did as a child, and I had a ton of notes on Simone Weil, as well as a long readerly autobiography from my history of reading her at various times in my life. The material started layering in together and became, I hope, a more dynamic essay than any of those singular pieces were on their own.
What has the editorial and production experience with your publisher been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?
I felt a strong resonance with Orison from the very beginning. Their commitment to spirituality as valid and relevant and highly fraught subject matter attracted me, and they’ve been great to collaborate with. Luke Hankins is determined in his work to produce quality books, and I loved going back and forth with Nathan Poole, the nonfiction editor, on revisions for the book. I felt they understood my intentions and honored them (and also reined in my sprawling syntax). I’m thrilled, too, that Vince Trimboli—a fine WV artist and fine poet who graduated from the MFA program at WV Wesleyan College that I direct—gave us permission to use his artwork for the cover.
Jessie van Eerden is author of the novels Glorybound (WordFarm, 2012), winner of ForeWord Reviews’ Editor’s Choice Fiction Prize, and My Radio Radio (Vandalia Press, 2016), and the essay collection The Long Weeping (Orison Books, 2017). Her work has appeared in Best American Spiritual Writing, The Oxford American, Willow Springs, and other publications. Jessie holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa and directs the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College.