Interview: Randon Billings Noble
As a writer and professor, I am often on the lookout for books on craft to expand my thinking when I write and to expand my explanatory powers when I teach. A new anthology edited by Randon Billings Noble is certain to achieve both goals for those engaged with the lyric essay. A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays begins with an introduction by Noble herself that reaches as far back as the Classical Era, forward to the shift in terminology in the 1990s, and beyond to the essays in the anthology. Noble has an ease with tracking this history through etymologies while acknowledging the slipperiness that remains in any definition she might provide. She explains the lyric essay as “a piece of writing with a visible / stand-out / unusual structure that explores / forecasts / gestures to an idea in an unexpected way.” With such a description, the lyric essay has wide-ranging potential, and the anthology fulfills that possibility and versatility.
The anthology is organized with a large section of lyric essays that utilize multiple approaches. That section is followed by craft essays and then a final section called “Meditations” that incorporates short thoughts from the contributors. I am glad to have this work on my bookshelf, and it is sure to grace the shelves of other writers and teachers soon.
Noble helmed this project as an essayist and educator herself, bringing both her knowledge of the artform and the importance of such learning guides with her. Recently, I had the chance to learn some elements of Randon’s process in building this anthology and in working with the lyric essay.
Abby Manzella: Randon, let me start by saying simply, I’m glad that this anthology exists. That said, I know that putting together such a collection of voices, which incorporates the work of so many people and tries to be inclusive with a form, is incredibly time-consuming. I’d love to hear how and why you decided to take on this project.
Randon Billings Noble: The idea for the anthology came to me through teaching. I often teach lyric essays and wanted a book of them. There are a lot of great creative nonfiction anthologies out there—The Touchstone Anthology, Between Song and Story, Family Resemblance, Shapes of Native Nonfiction (which wasn’t out yet when I was putting A Harp in the Stars together)—but none of them focused specifically and exclusively on the lyric essay. I started toying with the idea of putting an anthology together.
Then I was at the NonfictioNOW Conference in Phoenix and ran into my editor at a breakfast bar. We sat together and chatted. And then I said, “I don’t know if this is the time or place for this, but I have an idea for a lyric essay anthology.” And she said, “This is absolutely the time and place!” I told her my ideas, and she told me to send her a proposal when I got home. I did, it was accepted, and I was off and running.
AM: You included essays that are flash essays, segmented essays, braided essays, hermit crab essays, and some that are a mixture of these categories. How did you determine what to include and how to organize it?
RBN: Lyric essays are slippery to define (it can be hard to point definitively to “lyricism” or “intuition” or “poetic language”), so I focused on an aspect of lyric essays that’s more visible and more graspable: form. I decided that there were four basic forms: flash, segmented, braided, and hermit crab. (Of course these forms can overlap and mix; there are also lyric essays that defy these categories. But I wanted to try to pin down some basic, discernable traits.)
When I first ordered the anthology, I grouped all the flash essays together, and all the segmented ones, and all the braided ones, etc. But that made for a dull reading experience. Not many people read an anthology straight through, but if anyone did I wanted them to have a meaningful and pleasurable experience. So I ordered the essays in what I thought of as waves of theme or emotion, and mixed them up so a flash essay would be followed by a longer essay, a hermit crab after a segmented, etc.
I kept the craft essays together at the end for easy reference, but they have their own arc too, beginning with Heidi Czerwiec’s thinking about the circular nature of labyrinths and ending with Julie Marie Wade’s open-ended question “What’s Missing Here?”
AM: The book itself is lovely to behold! We all know the old adage, but the materiality of a book matters when we hold it in our hands. This one has a soft-touch cover that I admire. I also appreciate its classically influenced title and art, A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays. How did the title and cover come together?
RBN: Titling this anthology was hard! First I brainstormed things about and around lyric essays —the lyre, the idea of “trying,” phrases and images of elusiveness. That didn’t get me very far. So I pulled some evocative lines from the craft essays, thinking that one of those might be the title…but I didn’t want to privilege one essay over any of the others. So I let the title sit until after I wrote the introduction. I knew that I wanted to play with mythological origin of the lyre, and when I remembered that the constellation Lyre is supposedly Orpheus’s lyre, I felt I was getting closer to a title. I love that there are stories behind the shapes of different constellations, and I thought that was a good metaphor for the way lyric essays function: “The stars are there, but their shape is what your mind brings to them.” Since “harp” is a more familiar word, I chose that over “lyre” and titled the anthology A Harp in the Stars.
The cover was designed by the wonderful design department at Nebraska. They asked me what kinds of ideas or visual metaphors the cover should address (I said, “Smart thinking with poetic imagery. Poignancy. Hard topics expressed with beauty. Unexpected structures. Lyricism.”) and for a few words to express the tone of the book (I chose dark, dynamic, edgy, and introspective) and what book covers—regardless of subject—that I admired (the one they designed for Be with Me Always was first among them!). I was thrilled when I saw the cover. They did a terrific job of capturing the overall mood of the book, which is no small thing for an anthology of fifty different essays!
AM: I was drawn into your introduction with this line: “to the ear, ‘lyre’ and ‘liar’ sound the same, which I resist because I do not condone lying in essays, lyric or otherwise. But mythology tells us that the origins of the lyre come from a kind of lie.” You take readers all the way back to the Greeks and their music to understand this form. What was your approach to the research for this book?
RBN: I deliberately wanted a light touch in the introduction, in part because I wanted to keep the openness of lyric essays, but also because I wanted the book to appeal to a general, not necessarily academic, audience of readers and writers. So I began with the mythological origins of the lyre and gave a (very) brief history of how essays and lyric essays have developed over time. Then I defined the forms as I see them. And then we get straight to the essays themselves.
Because there are so many different ideas about lyric essays, I asked each of the contributors to write a mediation on them, which are included at the end of the anthology. I like to think of this as more of a conversation among essayists rather than a single voice proclaiming its ideas about this multifaceted form.
AM: There is so much to enjoy and contemplate in this book. Right now, Jenny Boully’s piece “On the EEO Genre Sheet” comes to mind. Her piece brings together questions about the self with questions about the form that open up possibilities for readers even as she acknowledges how others wish to shut down such possibilities. She starts with her experiences on the job market where interviewers would ask her to define “nonfiction” and how she didn’t want to give the safe textbook answer: “Because I have a natural inclination to be rebellious, I always chose to go the road of the untraditional. The interviews then became centered less on my qualifications and more on my transgression.” In your introduction, you also mention that “When I’m writing a lyric essay, I’m not worried about what it is or what to call it.” How do you balance those complexities around definition and “transgression” in this anthology?
RBN: This was hard. I’m more of a taxonomist by nature—I like to name things and then arrange them in my mind. But I both appreciate and admire the elusive nature of lyric essays, and part of me rebels against trying to define them at all. So I tried to find something of a middle ground, labeling them by form. The forms are fairly straightforward: a flash essay is under one thousand words, a segmented essay is divided into segments, a braided essay interweaves those segmented into some kind of pattern, and a hermit crab essay borrows another form of extraliterary writing to use as its structure. But within (and beyond) those forms a lyric essay can do what it likes—start all its sentences the same way, be comprised of only one long sentence, incorporate images and shapes, hint at but not fully reveal its thinking, mix flash with a braid, blend segmented and a hermit crab, etc., etc. The boundaries of the forms, while highly useful to some extent, are all at least semipermeable. I hope that writers of the lyric essay take from this thinking what’s useful to them—and then write whatever and however they want to write.
AM: I just brought up Boully, can you point readers to one or two examples of things they should notice about an essay or a craft essay in this anthology? What’s something that delighted you in these pieces?
RBN: I’m very fond of the craft essays—“lyric essays about lyric essays”—because they do what they’re talking about as they talk about it.
And the essays that play with the shape of the text on the page—Sarah Minor’s flowing three-section “Vide,” the grimoire of “Practical Magic,” the footnotes to Elizabeth K. Brown’s “Informed Consent,” the X’s that separate the sections of Elissa Washuta’s “Apocalypse Logic,” the lowercase letters in Marina Blitshteyn’s “Finding Your Voice.”
And the essays that explore hard things with a beauty that burnishes without softening that hardness: “Woven” by Lidia Yuknavitch, “Elementary Primer” by Michael Dowdy, “My Mother’s Mother” by Davon Loeb.
And the essays that mix hardness with softness, humor, and sting, like Sarah Einstein’s “Self-Portrait in Apologies” and Sandra Beasley’s “Depends on Who You Ask.”
I’m trying to restrain myself from saying something about each of the fifty essays here—I’m having a hard time picking just a few!
AM: I also want to hear a bit about your own writing as an essayist. How does this experience compare to how you approach your own writing, for instance in Be with Me Always? Is there any lesson on form you will take back to your own writing?
RBN: Putting together an anthology is very different from putting together your own collection. It’s kind of like making a quilt from shapes that are already cut versus knitting a bunch of different things, each for their own purpose—random squares, scarves, a mitten, a sock—and then seeing how (or if) they might fit together.
I also felt a huge sense of responsibility with this anthology. When it’s your own book, whatever mistakes you might make affect only you. But with A Harp in the Stars I was carrying forty-nine other writers with me. And I was new to this process—soliciting pieces, putting out a call, organizing everything into spreadsheets, editing others’ work (which I didn’t do much of—I wanted each essay to be the writer’s own), copyediting others’ work, arranging group readings (fourteen and counting!), and more. I knew early on that I wanted to treat the contributors the way I want to be treated when I’m the writer and not the editor. I vowed to communicate openly, answer questions promptly, edit lightly and respectfully (if at all), be transparent about any hiccups in the process, arrange for as many reading and presenting opportunities as possible, and promote the individual writers along with the book. It’s been much more work than I thought it would be, but it’s been meaningful, enjoyable, even happy work.
One thing that this anthology has inspired me to try in my own writing is to ask “what if…” and then fill in that blank with possibilities that I haven’t fully thought through. What if I expressed my thinking in equations (as in Julie Marie Wade’s “What’s Missing Here?”), or made huge space breaks (Amy Bowers’s “Manual”), or incorporated images (Rowan McCandless’s “Practical Magic: A Beginner’s Grimoire”) or games (Laurie Easter’s “Searching for Gwen”), or my essay was the image (Sarah Minor’s “Vide”) or got meta (LaTanya McQueen’s “Of a Confession) or started each sentence the same way (Leslie Jill Patterson’s “Against Fidelity”) or was only one sentence (Nels P. Highberg’s “This Is the Room Where”), or or or….
And then, with that formal constraint in place, I write to see what happens next.
RANDON BILLINGS NOBLE is an essayist. Her collection Be with Me Always was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2019, and her anthology of lyric essays, A Harp in the Stars, was published by Nebraska in 2021. Other work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, The Rumpus, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. Currently she is the founding editor of the online literary magazine After the Art and teaches in West Virginia Wesleyan’s Low-Residency MFA Program and Goucher’s MFA in Nonfiction Program.
ABBY MANZELLA is the author of Migrating Fictions: Gender, Race, and Citizenship in U.S. Internal Displacements, which won the Society for the Study of American Women Writers Book Award. Her work has been published by places such as Literary Hub, Electric Lit, Catapult, Colorado Review, and The Boston Globe. An Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Truman State University, you can find her on Twitter @AbbyManzella.