Julie Marie Wade, “The Genre Waltz”
We often speak of writers as belonging to genres, or of genres as belonging to writers: Playwright So-and-So, Poet Such-and-Such. At the university where I teach, we host a writing conference every year, and the faculty members are listed according to the genres they teach and write. For instance, on this year’s schedule, you might notice Campbell McGrath, POETRY, and Debra Dean, FICTION, and beside my name, you will find a pretty French word, MEMOIR. Campbell is a poet, and Debra is a novelist, and I am a memoirist—this all rings true. But I am a poet, too.
Growing up, I always wanted to waltz with all the genres. I liked to keep my dance card full with every sort of literary suitor. My second-grade teacher, Mr. Whited, suggested my mother should type my Krystal Jordan mystery stories, which she did on her electric typewriter—page after page of crinkly, onion-skinned paper. Then, we laminated the pages and made a cardboard cover, and the books were displayed in the school library, complete with official manila pockets and lined white check-out cards.
“You’re a mystery writer,” everyone said. “Maybe you’ll be the next Agatha Christie, the next Mary Higgins Clark.”
In high school, I was as happy writing sestinas with Bridget Wilson as I was composing our series of one-act plays. I was as fond of enjambment as I was of the wraparound line. A paragraph seemed to suit me as well as a stanza. It was the words that mattered—their sounds and colors, their textures and tastes as I pressed them to the roof of my mouth or slid them between my teeth like bright, hard abacus beads. I liked the way that language keened my senses, the way writing itself was a physical act—moving words across a page as bodies shuffle and glide across a dance floor. Words could tango. Words could rhumba. Words could even jitterbug. It all depended on the cadence. The rhythm I heard in my head, felt in my pulse, dictated the kind of dance the words would do. And perhaps that is why, whenever someone said, “You’re going to be a novelist” or “You’re going to be an essayist” or “You’re going to write plays when you grow up,” I added a silent post-script. Yes, but I’m also a poet. Perhaps what I meant was—Yes, because I’m a poet.
I went to graduate school three times, Cinderella returning in succession to the Ball. The first two theses were poetry. The dissertation was creative nonfiction. My poems were often described as “hybrid,” “experimental,” “verging on prose.” My prose was invariably described as “poetic.” Because my first published book was a memoir, I became publicly associated with this genre. Now, each time I rise in a room full of aspiring memoirists, I must study my own feet again, my own first position. “Writing is like dancing,” I say. Perhaps I write because I can’t do with my body what I can do with my words. This is what I don’t say. Instead: “As memoirists, you must consider which foot you lead with. What guides you across the autobiographical floor?”
Everyone knows poets like metaphor, but writing and dancing seem aptly paired as art forms. In both, there is movement and cessation of movement, an intricate pattern organized around the interplay of stop and go, whisk and wait. There are “steps” we can take and “moves” we can make in our quest to find that elusive and desirable “flow.” But there is no formula, no exact science. The same style of dance, the same genre of text—yet all dancers and writers will inhabit them differently. I know now that I lead with sound. I like the slant rhyme of “now” and “sound” in the preceding line. “Now” guided me to “sound” on a soft, assonant current. Whether prose or poem, it is the aural sense, the sonic bop and boom that tethers me around the waist and draws me out into the center of the room. (Internal rhyme—boom/room.)
For someone else, the disco ball that beckons is an image: a man sipping punch in a frilled powder blue tuxedo, a woman drawing a dark line with eyebrow pencil over the pale curve of her calves. For someone else, it’s the conga line of conflict. Remember the time your father was driving home in his girlfriend’s car, and you had taken your mother’s car for a spin, and suddenly the two of you crossed each other’s paths at that intersection. Each knew at once what the other was up to…
I’m on the dance floor now, doing the Memoir. My students are doing it, too. Sometimes the Memoir looks like the Cha-cha, sometimes like Square-dancing or Swing. But more and more I notice in my own nonfiction prose, I lead with sounds, and those sounds lead me to poetry, explicitly. I find I am better able to explore my formative experiences in relation to the poems I have read, the poems I have loved, even the poems I have been troubled by. As it turns out, Poetry is my formative experience.
So I am waltzing with Poetry after all. She loves anaphora, and so she spins me round and round and round. My prose grows long, gangly and recursive in her presence. Poetry keeps her eyes on me. They are bright and hard as abacus beads, but her hands are as light as a dream.
The following is an excerpt from Tremolo: An Essay, selected by Bernard Cooper for the 2012 Bloom Nonfiction Chapbook Prize. Tremolo is forthcoming in October 2013 from Bloom Press.
Some nights Kirsten would read poetry to me with the fortitude of a woman reciting her rosary. She knew the words in such a way that she did not require the page. Her effortless turning and her wandering eyes gave her quickly away.
I remember best the image of a man holding a woman from behind. They had just made love, a ritual so rife with passion and pleasure I could not believe it existed at all. Yet—in this Ohio state, this blissful Epilogue, he held her, her small body propped against his larger, his large body propped against the pillows or the wall, with light seeping in from morning. And he was described as the “big, folded wings of her,” words I never forgot but turned over and over inside my mind, rotisserie of wonder and surprise.
The woman was an angel, of course. And the man a kind of angel too, watching over.
But some nights Kirsten didn’t stay in the room. She packed her pillow and an overnight bag—or valise, as she was fond of saying. We were both writers. We hearkened to the thrill of words, particularly those that were strange or out-of-date. Antiquation could only increase their value.
When she went to Nathan’s room, we never spoke about her destination, what acts of literature they might emulate beneath the dormitory sheets. She was gone, and I lay awake in my bunk with a book-light, envying those women of poems, their luxury of being seen so completely, their power to incite such desire.
There was a boy then. We were mostly friends. But one night, I had let the moonlight get the better of me, the way a Bronte would, and I had kissed him suddenly on the balcony with kids playing hacky sack below. He left my good red sweater wilted with palm-sweat. We didn’t speak again for days.
Then, the night came. We had only half-planned it. I waited quietly for Kirsten to leave. Lighting candles was a conduct violation, to say nothing of sneaking in men. I wore satin pajamas. He asked me to cover my eyes while he changed into his. Though bent on Mexico then, we were both prepared to turn back at El Paso.
“Here,” I whispered, thrusting the book into his hand. “I’ve marked a couple of pages. Kirsten doesn’t mind. We could read aloud to each other.”
This was sexy, right? This was what lovers did?
Clearing his throat, he began: “Just as paint seems to leap from the paintbrush…”
“No here…skip to here,” I directed, and my own palm-sweat wrinkled the page.
“When their mouths touch at last they linger, making small eating motions and suction squeaks. She licks three slithery syllables on his chest, looks up, smiles, shines him the same three…”
The words had lost their beauty. They came forced and stilted from his tongue, and the strange scene seemed to describe anything but love. We crowded onto my bed side by side. I tried, blushing hard, to continue: “In his gasps suspense and gratefulness mix…Her moans come with a slight delay, as if the sequence happens across a valley, the touch and then the cry.”
“I’m not sure I can do this,” he says.
“We don’t have to do anything much. You could just stay with me, hold me.”
“Should we blow out the candles?”
“Should we take off our clothes?”
In the dark, we shivered together, his body small and sharp as a paring knife, mine soft and self-consciously larger. Wasn’t he supposed to be bigger than me? He was the man after all, yet he seemed to have no instinct for it. We did not fit together right. Clearly, we were doing something wrong. And if we had unfolded from our Swiss Army spoon, he would have been flattened behind me like the short, crumpled wings of a Hobbit angel smooshed beneath the gooseflesh body of an Amazon angel—the scene carnivalesque and horrifying to behold.
I thought of the poem. Their bones almost hit—the purpose of flesh may be to keep the skeletons from bruising each other. Yet there we were, bruised and rattled. I could feel his ribs spearing me in the dark. As I listened to his shallow breath, I knew he was not sleeping either. We lay awake all night like toys in a box, longing to come apart.
The poem referenced here is "The Night" by Galway Kinnell.
Born in Seattle in 1979, Julie Marie Wade completed a Master of Arts in English at Western Washington University in 2003, a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh in 2006, and a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Humanities at the University of Louisville in 2012. She is the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Colgate University Press, 2010), winner of the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Memoir, Without: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2010), selected for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Series, Small Fires; Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011), selected for the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature, Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2013), winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series. Her forthcoming collections are Tremolo: An Essay (Bloom Press, 2013), winner of the Bloom Nonfiction Chapbook Prize, and When I Was Straight: Poems (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2014). Wade is the newest member of the creative writing faculty at Florida International University. She lives with her partner, Angie Griffin, in Dania Beach.