Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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What’s Essential About All This Stuff

An essay, for me, usually begins by picking up on a particular resonance between things, between images or ideas or places or people or experiences. There’s something like a feedback between whatever two or more things seem to be pinging around my head. What is the essence of the connection I’m detecting, is usually the question I’m asking myself. Or, what’s essential about all this stuff anyway? For the essay here in Blackbird those pings happened to be ‘collections’ and ‘grief’ and ‘movies.’ Perhaps this comes from poetic practice, the tendency to want to come up with metaphors for experience, to get at the essential nature of something by looking at something totally different. I often think of poems as spaces made/inhabited by what’s otherwise unsayable, and the essay to me often operates the same way, just with different parameters.

My introduction to the essay involved writing plenty of ‘imitation pieces,’ trying to emulate some facet of a really great essay. So, for me, even if I have a germ of an idea, it still takes a lot of reading to jump-start the essay-writing process. With this essay in Blackbird, that catalyst happened to be an essay called “Cat Stories” by Kyoko Mori, an essay I came to in Marcia Aldrich’s amazing anthology Waveform. “Cat Stories” is, in part, a portrait of someone who comes to rely on a cat as a primary way of developing self-expression and finding a foothold in the world. What struck me about “Cat Stories” was the patience with which Mori lets all of the details of memoir build and build slowly over a vast span of time, before arriving at what seems to be this inevitable conclusion. My own writing does not feature the same depth and magnitude of personality that Mori achieves. Still, that sense of gradual accumulation in “Cat Stories” was something I wanted to apply to “Movies You Must See Before You Die,” that sense of scale, not just in terms of characterization, but also with this thread of collecting. I imagined the snippets of film description in the essay as reflections or memories, but also as a way to recreate that sense of taking on more and more, that urge to gather and organize which seems to drive our impulses to collect, to have some measure of order against the chaos.  

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