Centennial Ballroom, Hyatt Regency Denver | April 8, 2010

Episode 19: The Real and the Imagined: Easing the Boundaries Between Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry

(Cornelius Eady, Danzy Senna, David Shields, Michael Thomas, Ofer Ziv) The task of writing one's life into a narrative, fictional and nonfictional, helps with our exploration of personal identity, the search for self, and our understanding of the world. These sharp and humane authors traverse freely from memoir to fiction and poetry. Through their cross-genre investigation we see what is gained and what is lost in writing the narrative from the perspective of each form—and that what ultimately drives the search is imagination itself. Come listen as panelists ease the boundaries of genre, delving into issues of race, poverty, the urban community, marriage, and divorce, while incorporating the past, both theirs and not theirs, both real and imaginary, into their writings.

Published Date: June 22, 2011


Introduction by AWP staff member Will Fawley: Welcome to the AWP Podcast Series. This event originally occurred at the AWP Conference in Denver on April 8, 2010. The recording features Ofer Ziv, David Shields, Michael Thomas, Danzy Senna, and Cornelius Eady.

Ofer Ziv: Welcome. I’m Ofer from Blue Flower Arts. We are presenting this afternoon’s reading with David Shields, Michael Thomas, Danzy Senna, and Cornelius Eady. I’ll first present the authors tonight in the order in which they will read and then tell you a little bit about the theme today.

David Shields is the author of The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead. He began his career by publishing fiction, and slowly moved toward nonfiction as his main vehicle of creative expression. In his most recent book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, he argues that the lyric essay is the literary form that gives the author the best opportunity for rigorous investigation, because its theater is the world, the mind contemplating the world, and it offers no consoling dream world, no exit door.

In Reality Hunger, Shields’ reality based art hijacks its material from other artists and doesn’t apologize. “There are no longer such things as fiction or nonfiction,” he writes. “There’s only narrative.” And then he adds, “Is there even narrative?”

Second reader, we’ll have Michael Thomas, who is the author of the novel Man Gone Down, winner of the 2009 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. In Man Gone Down the protagonist is a 35 year old African American man who we find broke and estranged from his white wife and three children, fighting his predestined reality, marked by abandonment and alcohol abuse. Though the novel is not autobiographical, there are certain surface similarities between Thomas and his created protagonist as he follows the path not taken to explore what might have been in an America who wants to keep the poor in its place.

His compelling narrative turns to nonfiction as he tells the story of the four generations of men in the Thomas family in his forthcoming memoir, The Broken King.

Third is Danzy Senna, who is the author of two novels, Caucasia, the story of two biracial sisters growing up in racially charged Boston, and Symptomatic, her second novel, which continues to examine the complicated issue of race. She is the author of the memoir Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, exploring the stories of her parents, a white woman with a blue-blood Bostonian lineage, and a black man raised by a struggling single mother.

Senna discovered an abundance of written records telling her mother’s story, while her father’s family history was completely unknown. She found that she can not tell her father’s story without ruminating about her own life and the fortitudes of a predestined narrative.

Fourth, and last, we’ll have Cornelius Eady, who is a poet, a playwright, and soon a memoirist. His seven books of poetry include Brutal Imagination, which is comprised of two cycles of poems, each confronting the subject of the black man in white America. His most recent collection is Hardheaded Weather, where he brings a voice of laughter, beauty, and melancholy to his small town in Upstate New York, finding furniture in the streets of New York City, and memories of friends who have passed away.

His work is a glossary of earthly objects and human events, and his linguistic responses provide pleasure even when they are provoked by injustice, pain, or loss. He is currently working on a memoir focusing on his childhood years growing up in Rochester, when he was just beginning to get interested in poetry.

Our theme this afternoon is “The Real and the Imagined: Easing the Boundaries Between Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry.” When we read a story, anecdote, or poem, we immediately ask ourselves, “Is this real? Did this really happen?” This curiosity, our need to categorize the fiction and nonfiction, exists not only for the sake of knowing where to find a book in the bookstore, but because of our inherent desire to decipher true from false, the real from the imagined. But we all know that many works of fiction are heavily based on reality, and that all memoirs adulterate the truth with the author’s subjectivity and the fluidity of memory.

To quote one of the passages about writing from David Shields’ Reality Hunger, “There isn’t the pretense that you try to arrive at the literal truth, and the only consolation when you confess to the flaw is that you are seeking to arrive at a poetic truth which can be reached only through fabrication, imagination, and stylization.”

We might then want to re-examine our definition of truth and the way we look at literary genres. The wonderful writers you are about to hear will read each from two genres: fiction and nonfiction, nonfiction and poetry. We invite you to listen to their narratives and to allow the boundaries of reality to blur a bit as they seek a different kind of truth.

Please join me in welcoming David Shields, Michael Thomas, Danzy Senna, and Cornelius Eady.


David Shields: Thank you Ofer and Alison for organizing this event, and thank you Ofer for those kind and thoughtful words.

I’m going to read from a chapter from my book Reality Hunger. The chapter’s called “Trials by Google,” and I’m just going to read from a portion of the book, or a portion of the chapter, which is a portion of the book. And the only thing that I also want to add, is that when I read aloud I sometimes stutter a bit, and I like to sort of come out and say that. I suppose the topic is about trying to ease the boundaries, so this is my attempt to ease the boundaries, I guess, between fluency and disfluency.

So without further ado, I shall read. “Trials by Google.”


Michael Thomas: Thank you, David. I want to thank Alison, Ofer, and all the Hunter people I see, who’ve come from New York City. You can jump up now.

So this memoir, I guess it’s dubbed a memoir and I always make this point, is a group of collected essays, which doesn’t sound very sellable. So we’ll call it a memoir. But in this series of essays, it’s about my two sons, my brother, my father, and my paternal grandfather.

What I’m going to read to you is a section from the first section, which is “Primo.” The first one’s about my oldest son. The second one is about my older brother. His name is David. And David and I have had these strange, divergent paths. When Grove/Atlantic bought my book he was pinched for grand larceny and crack possession. I think when I won the Dublin Prize he was pinched for grand larceny and crack possession.

My brother and I have never really gotten along, and so this book explores a number of things. Obviously fathers and sons, and brothers, but also, I think as David mentioned, what narrative is, what story is, and what  memory is. And my disclaimer is that I’ve had numerous head injuries so I don’t really remember anything clearly, so I can’t be lying. (laughter)

This chapter is called “Frankie,” and Frankie has a history and one of my head injury problems is that I have to go on tangents and explain things over and over. So I should read you the whole book. But anyway, Frankie, two meanings: one, there’s a Bruce Springsteen song, the refrain is, “I gotta brother named Frankie. Frankie ain’t no good.” I got a brother named Frankie, even though his name is David. But it also asks the question, what do you do; what kind of person turns his back on his family?

He’s no good. The other thing is, my best friend from high school and I, when we sobered up we used to drive around Boston, and every screw-head we’d see, we’d yell out of the car window, “Hey Frankie, why don’t you straighten up and fly right?” Invariably, the screw-head would just turn and, “ehh!” So that’s the other thing about Frankie. And you should try, just yell “Frankie” at somebody. They’ll turn around. It can be anyone.

So this chapter is called “Frankie.” I guess the back story is, my wife and I are going broke. We have a house that’s falling over in Brooklyn. We rented another house. And I’m engaged in bank fraud, trying to get, like, triple mortgages and construction loans for a house that doesn’t really exist. So 9/11 has just happened, and I have my mother-in-law’s car, and I have to drive it from New York City to Atlanta. And I thought I was gonna fly back, but obviously I’m not gonna do this.

My brother, who had been house-sitting for us after falling from real estate scams, to imprisonment, to numerous things. We had just had this renaissance as brothers, but when we got back after him house-sitting, we found that he had run up a $600 phone bill and paraphernalia, and he had found - he likes credit cards - so he had run some credit card scam and bought lots of food from take-out places, and my wife was getting the phone calls.

My wife’s name is Michael. There’s a lot of quotes from Baldwin, and Eliot, and Sam Cook. I guess I’ll start there.

(Michael Thomas reads a chapter, “Frankie,” from his forthcoming book, The Broken King)

Thomas: Thanks. (Applause)

Danzy Senna: Thank you Alison and Ofer. It’s wonderful to be reading with these great authors. What I thought I would do is just read a short scene from my memoir, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, which is primarily about my father and my family history, and then read a short scene from a new novel that’s forthcoming, called Other Languages Are All We Have. And both scenes involve fathers and daughters, and just put them out there.

This is from the memoir:

(Danzy Senna reads from Where Did You Sleep Last Night?)

Senna: And I’m just gonna read a few pages from this novel that I’ve been working on for many years, and is close to being done, I hope. And it’s a scene with the main character, an actress named Calypso who lives in Los Angeles. And it’s just a visit with her father.

(Danzy Senna reads from Other Languages Are All We Have)

Senna: Thank you. (Applause)

Cornelius Eady: I’d like to thank Blue Flower for inviting me, though I haven’t really finished my memoir yet. So this is probably the best of all possible worlds because it isn’t done yet. It can be anything still.

I still want to talk about what we’ve been talking about, the idea of truth and narrative. I thought I’d begin by sort of giving you an example that isn’t autobiographical, but I think is known in popular culture. A good example being the film Fargo by the Coen Brothers. How many people have seen the Coen Brothers Fargo? Do you remember the beginning of the movie, when the Coen Brothers say, “This is a true story?” Well it isn’t. It’s not true. It’s not true at all. But the reason they give you the story, they tell you a true story, ‘cause they want you to follow the story. And they thought if they say the words “true story,” no matter how outrageous it gets, how absurd it becomes, you will sit there and go, “wow.” (laughter)

So it’s not true. But you know, if I say it’s a true story, it’s a true story. So I thought I’d read a couple of the – the memoir is about my family, of course, and growing up in Rochester, New York. I’ve been writing autobiographical stuff about my parents all along, and I thought I’d begin with a story, a poem about my mom, who told me a story about how she and my father met. And I’m about to read the story that she told me. And I wrote the poem, and then she, after the poem was published, I asked her again and she told me it was a totally different story. An unreliable narrator! (laughter)

(Eady reads “I’m A Fool to Love You”)    

Eady: And I’m gonna read two poems from You Don’t Miss Your Water. Now, You Don’t Miss Your Water is not, again – it’s that kind of confusion between memoir and poetry. And my publisher at Henry Holt decided, and I decided, and she agreed with me that this is poetry and not memoir. But what would have happened if I’d simply gone along and decided to mark it as memoir? Maybe I wouldn’t be a poor poet anymore. (laughter) Who knows. But two poems that sort of frame my mother and father:

(Eady reads “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”)

(Eady reads “The Chapel of Love”)

Eady: Now this is the memoir. This’ll sort of give you a location. And I’m trying to - in the memoir, which is untitled and unfinished - I’m trying to sort of collect the background for what some of the later poetry would come from.

And here’s an example. Like I said, I come from Upstate New York. But both my family comes from Florida. My mother comes from around the Gainesville area, and my father comes from Tampa         . And they met up in the east, if my mother’s telling me the truth. (laughter) But of course they brought the culture with them.

(Eady reads “Florida”)

(Eady reads “The Arrows”)

Eady: I’ll read three more of these. Oh, okay, I’ll read one more, sorry. And this is another true story.

(Eady reads “Poetry”)

Eady: Thank you. (applause)

Closing by AWP staff member Will Fawley: Thank you for tuning into the AWP Podcast Series. For other podcasts, please tune into our website, at www.awpwriter.org.

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