Herzog and Siebert's Zoo Tour Guide for Parents of Excessively Curious Children

The Universal Zoo Tour Guide for Parents of Excessively Curious Children

(curated from the words of Werner Herzog and Charles Siebert[1])

-- compiled and edited by Steven Church

Welcome: Hello, Children and welcome to the Universal Zoo Tour Guide for Parents of Excessively Curious Children.

Here at (insert name of local zoo), it’s important that we begin with a baseline understanding of some rules. These tips and guidelines are for your safety and the animals’. First of all, it’s important to remember that the common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder. And it’s important to keep your hands, fingers, and toes outside the cages at all times. It’s also important to remember not to taunt the animals or tap the glass. Finally, we ask you to realize that with our new habitats, we are trying to conceal from ourselves the zoo as living evidence of our natural antagonism toward nature; the zoo as manifestation of the fact that our slow, fitful progress toward understanding the animals has always been coterminus with conquering and containing them. We also ask you to realize that the water features in animal habitats are not swimming pools. None of the animals you will see do, in fact, “just need a hug.” We hope you will find it far less depressing to proceed, as one did in an old zoo, from the assumption of the animals' sadness in captivity than to have to constantly infer the happiness we've supposedly afforded them in our new pretend versions of their rightful homes. The former premise, at least, seems less of a lie about what a zoo is. The old city zoo was designed, as a visit to an art museum is, to invite our immersion in the works and have us be edified by them in some way.

The Petting Zoo:

When visiting the Petting Zoo, please remember, children, that if you look into the eyes of a chicken, you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world. The goose, also, is a very troublesome animal; and to strangle a goat, that makes you feel really alive. Goat strangling, of course, is not permitted at most petting zoos. Please remember this. Please also remember to wash your hands after visiting the petting zoo.

The Reptile House:

Hello, Children and welcome to the reptile house, one of the few remaining “houses” in your contemporary zoo. Before we begin, let me remind you that life on our planet has been a constant series of cataclysmic events, and we are more suitable for extinction than a trilobite or a reptile. The universe is monstrously indifferent to the presence of man. So we will vanish. There's no doubt in my heart. But not before we press our noses against the glass and make faces at the bearded dragon or the tomato frog; not before, dear children, the Komodo dragon will sit there smelling us with his tongue, dreaming his lizard dreams, and the Madagascar hissing cockroach will scream silently behind the glass, envious of our large brains and advanced language skills.

The Penguin Habitat:

Is there such a thing as insanity among penguins? It’s hard to say for sure, kids. You might find yourself standing in front of the penguin exhibit wondering the same thing. After a few minutes pass then one penguin-the smallest and youngest, it looks to you-decides to make a move. Working himself free of the others, he makes his way slowly over to the door and, pokes his head around while holding the rest of himself back-two wings like little elbows lifting slightly for balance-peeked into the darkness and took in a narrow hallway lined with mops, buckets, and brooms, and the tall shadow of the keeper receding, and a light clinking of his keys. And you might begin to attach all sorts of human emotions to this penguin, the sorts of feelings you have some days working at your desk, emotions that in their most extreme manifestation might look a bit like insanity. But please do not let this temper your enjoyment of the zoo’s charming penguin troop.

The Aviary:

Dear Children, I hesitate to point out that the trees here are in misery and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain. But see how many different birds you can find and identify. Check them off on your list. Try to ignore their pain and misery.  

African Savannah and Snack Pavilion:

The African Savannah is a wide-open stretch of tree-dotted grassy plain with lions, gazelles, and peacocks. Imagine the newfound happiness of the lions, placed on a moated island of grass in sight of-but ever at a distance from-the gazelles, their natural prey. Imagine yourself, feeling happy and content as you recline in the faux thatched snack hut eating a personal pizza and a fruit punch served in a plastic bottle shaped like an orange giraffe or a purple monkey. Imagine that you can see elephants in the distance.

The Rhino Habitat (Currently Out of Order):

Unfortunately, children, Rudy the Rhinocerous and the others are gone now, and with them a way of looking, literally and figuratively, at animals. They've passed so quickly from being curiosities to being scattered sympathies; from being the captive representatives in crude cages of an extant, flourishing wilderness to being the living memories of themselves in our artful re-creations of a vastly diminished one. But please note that the diminishments evidenced by our artful re-creations are also non-toxic, eco-friendly, and child-safe, composed of high-tech polymers and plastics that will never deteriorate or break down. These habitats will, contrary to natural habitats, NEVER disappear. They are perpetual and perfect.

The Polar Bear Pool:

At this point in the tour we will seek out not the coldest pool but the pool of the coldest animal, the animal that stands for coldness—the polar bear. Please remember, however, that the polar bear’s pool is not open for public swimming. Please also remember that polar bears are one of the few apex predators known to hunt humans. You have to get used to the bear behind you. And if you’d like, this is often a good place for a selfie with the polar bear photobombing you in the background.

The Seal and Sea Lion Pool:

OK, children, we’ve now come to one of the most popular attractions at the zoo, the sea lion pool. Whereas the old pool on this same spot had brought delight to eighty-seven years' worth of past zoogoers, the present pool is modeled after an actual seal rookery found on the northern coast of California, thus securing the comfort and delight of the seals here as well as our own. We hope sincerely that you feel the delight as the seals and sea lions bark and flip, performing extravagant tricks for fish.

The Grizzly Bear Habitat:

Though the grizzly bears may look cuddly and cute, almost human in a way, what may haunt you, children, is that in all the faces of all the bears, you will discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. You will see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. There is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food and in your presence outside their habitat. And while we watch the bears in their joys of being, in their grace and ferociousness, a thought becomes more and more clear. That it is not so much a look at wild nature, as it is an insight into ourselves, our nature. Take this moment, children, to think about your own nature. Somehow, the strangely affecting dynamic of our day at the old city zoo is that while it begins with us standing starkly, face to face, with an animal, it always seems to end with us confronting some slightly confining truth about ourselves. People visit zoos, I think, to have some telling turn with the wild's otherworldliness; to look, on the most basic level, at ways we didn't end up being-at all the shapes that a nonreflective will can take. We hope you’ve enjoyed the view and all the shapes before you today, children. Thank you for visiting today and we hope you have a safe drive home.




[1] Most of what is printed here, with some (hopefully) obvious exceptions are either quotes from Werner Herzog or from the writer, Charles Siebert and his 1991 Harper’s Magazine essay, “Where Have All the Animals Gone: The Lamentable Extinction of Zoos.” The Herzog quotes are readily available through quote search engines, interviews, and in transcripts of his film, Grizzly Man. I’ve simply curated, compiled, and edited them together to create the text for a zoo tour. 



Review of Ultrasonic at

A nice review/essay on Ultrasonic by Bayard Godsave up at

I remember my first AWP conference, Chicago in 2006, seeing a group of earnest, good looking young people going through the book fair in black t-shirts with the word ESSAYIST in white letters on the front. There was something arresting about their presence. Clearly this was a statement, a declaration: There are not just two genres. It seems insane now that such a statement would even need to be made, but then, a mere ten years ago, many writing programs offered concentrations in only fiction or poetry. The two degree programs I attended both offered a creative nonfiction workshop, but there was no creative nonfiction track, unless a diligent student sought to carve one out for herself. At that time I was an editor at the Cream City Review and I remember the nonfiction editor being tasked with going through all of the submissions herself, without the help of readers or assistant editors, which was fine because there were rarely more than twenty submissions in a single reading period. Now, a decade later, creative nonfiction is ubiquitous. Not only has it become an institutionally recognized genre—and whether this is a good or bad thing is another question—it seems like it might be on its way to becoming the dominant genre of the three. That explosive popularity has a dark side to it.

When I read creative nonfiction submissions now, for another magazine and typically way more than twenty per submission period, I find some beautiful work, work that takes risks, work that is formally inventive, but I also find work whose sole motivation seems to be market driven. This is creative nonfiction, I get the sense sometimes, because the writer recognizes that, increasingly, there are more outlets for that genre than there are for short fiction. Worse, sometimes I get the feeling that writers are choosing that genre because it is easy—it’s not, of course, but there are a lot of talented writers out there right now who make it look so, just as good fiction writers make that look easy, but the fact that creative nonfiction is rooted in the writer’s own experiences, it is tempting to look at it and think, I can do that. Whenever I come across such submissions, I sometimes think back to those people at AWP. ESSAYIST they were declaring, and maybe with that declaration they were declaring something else too. We use the word essay often simply to mean something that is short, written in prose, and not fiction. But the essay as a form is something more than that. That declaration perhaps was also a taking ownership of that word; they did not, they may have been saying, write essays by accident, because what they wrote was short and based in fact. Rather, when they set out to write it was a deliberate essaying, a formal choice that shaped what they wrote, that shaped the life experience they set out to explore, and therefore shaped who they really were.

Steven Church is an essayist. His new collection, Ultrasonic, shows a self-conscious dedication to the form; these are essays that are very much aware of their being essays. Like many good essayists, Church often makes it appear as if we are watching him create on the fly, as if we are witnessing the very process of thought made external. It’s an illusion, but one that is thrilling to watch. As the title suggests, the essays included here are each in one way or another meditations on sound. What it is to hear, what it is to feel sound, what it is to try to put words to a range of sensory experience for which there often are none—or if there are, those words are typically either technical lingo, which is opaque and unfamiliar, or onomatopoeia, which is goofy. Church begins with an Author’s Note, itself a prose poem or mini-essay on what it is to write. He begins with the word Sounding, which he notes as an adjective means “sonorous or resonant,” then adds that sounding, as any reader of Moby-Dick knows, is a measuring of depth, but “it is also that depth ascertained, the thing itself. It is action and record.” This doubling is a fitting metaphor for Church’s essays. They are discovery and they are search. “In this book,” he tells us:

essays become sounding lines, explorations, probes and tests, each one a map of what lies below the surface; and the form is meant to mimic the way our thinking sometimes moves between points of engagement—navigating in the dark by means of echolocation, bouncing from one idea to another, searching and seeing through sound.

It is worth taking note of the attention being given here to form. In many ways the essays in this collection represent experiments in form, attempts to break from standard rhetorics and narrative structures. In the collection’s title essay, for example, Church continues the etymological examinations on display in the Author’s Note. Each of the semi-standalone sections in the essay begins with a sound, or word associated closely with that sound. Formally, the essay operates through the opposing forces of freedom and confinement: the vignettes free the essay from the expectations of conventional narrative structure, while their small size contains it, keeps that freedom from morphing into ramble. This opposition seems particularly fitting to this essay which continually returns to two central themes: awaiting the birth of Church’s second child (more on this later) and racquetball, which itself is a game that pits freedom (there are few rules, as Church points out, the ball can be stricken off any surface) against the containment of the closed-in court. In “Seven Fathoms Down,” one of my two favorite essays in the collection, Church continues this strategy, using the vignette, the fragment, to explore how we think about sound. It is here that he strikes upon one of the most profound observations in the book, as he considers the importance of thinking about the world as something that is not only a visible space (and, by extension, thinking about writing as something other than or beyond mimetic realism): “Sight promises knowledge; but perhaps it’s only by closing our eyes and listening, by echo-navigating through the landscape of memory that we can explore the unseen territory below.”

When essays are good, when they go beyond the mere dressing up of one’s life in the garments of literary fiction, they offer their readers an opportunity to engage directly with another human consciousness. They allow us to follow a writer’s thoughts. Sean Ironman, in an article in The Writer’s Chronicle called “Writing the Z Axis,” tells of writers who either fill up their essays with scenework, or write entirely in exposition. In either case, those writers are forgetting to engage in the one mode that belongs almost exclusively to nonfiction: reflection. The essay at its best has a modal quality to it, moving from description to exposition to meditation, and that modal quality is on display throughout Church’s essays—at one point he even ventures into the fictive, going so far as to imagine a racquetball game said to have been played by Elvis Presley the night he died. This ability to move from one mode of writing  to another allows Church to create a kind of topography of surface, one whose contours gesture toward the depths beneath it. Case in point: in the essay “Crown and Shoulder,” Church begins with a meditation on roads, exploring the ways that the language of grading and construction (shoulder, crown) mirror the language used to describe repetitive stress injuries incurred from roadwork—and, though never explicitly mentioned, the fact of this essay being included with so many others about the birth of his second child, echoes of that are unmistakable too—from the depths of all this, though, comes his grieving over his brother’s death in a car accident in Kansas, emerging in the final paragraphs in some of the most striking and resonant writing in the entire book. This approach, to come at his topic obliquely, propels many of the essays included in this collection.

Here he is in another essay describing his time in Spain, after he and his wife have gotten some troubling test result concerning their unborn second son. They are at a kind of celebration/demonstration in a local park and, as the police arrive, Church seems to arrest time at a moment of eruption:

[T]he cops in Day-Glo vests appeared suddenly, perched at the edge of the rotunda on the cusp of violence. They seemed like they wanted to bash some skulls, crack some melons open on the marble steps. I could just about see it happening, could almost hear the dull slap of billy clubs on ribs and heads, the crash of drums hitting the pavement. The blue cops—shattering the circles of noise, chasing vibrations out of the rotunda, scattering the musicians out amongst the trees, drowning their sound out in the paddleboat-filled retention pond, shaking carp and drum and sunfish to the surface. Ever since the test results I’d been lost in my own head. I was just waiting for something unbelievable to happen every day. Something to shake me back to the now. The park. The belly. The future. The boy clutching my hand in his own, pointing with the other at the silly man dancing. And the sound of the boy’s laughter ringing off the marble.

This passage, aside from displaying Church’s finely tuned ear for the rhythm of prose, illustrates something interesting about his approach to subject. As he’s told us from the start, the book is about sounding, the search. Notice he doesn’t give us the scene in the doctor’s office where the news is delivered, but a moment sometime later, when he is recalling that moment, reflecting on it, dwelling in it.

I think of modernists like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, detailing a single day in their characters’ lives, not a wedding, or a death, or birth, but a day like the thousands before and after it that, were it not put down on paper, would otherwise be forgotten. There is where life happens, they say, in the mundane. Where Church locates the stuff of life is somewhere perhaps a little different. A couple times recently I have encountered passages in nonfiction (and in nonfiction disguised as fiction) about the so-called “amnesia drug.” Often administered during a colonoscopy, it does not dull or mask the pain of the procedure, but instead triggers a temporary amnesia so that the patient is unable to construct memories of it later on. In each case the writer—and, to be clear, Church does not write about the amnesia drug—responds to the very idea of such a thing with a shudder of revulsion. It isn’t just the existential question it raises about what it means to experience pain even if it will soon disappear irretrievably, it’s the fact that those writers, like Church, recognize the importance of memory itself. It isn’t only event alone that is important, but the looking back upon it, the shaping of it, the examination of it that gives the event its resonance. That, the active looking back that seeks perspective, is the stuff of life, and that is the stuff of these essays.

Bayard Godsave is the author of two collections of short fiction, Lesser Apocalypses andTorture Tree. His work has appeared recently in This Land, Pleiades, Boulevard and The Gettysburg Review. He lives in southwest Oklahoma and teaches writing at Cameron University.



Contemporary Memoirs or Collections of Essays by Writers of Color: An Incomplete List

Thanks to the help of some Facebook and other crowd-sourcing, I've collected and compiled an incomplete, in-progress list of contemporary memoirs or collections of essays by writers of color. I do not intend this as a definitive or exhaustive source, but merely as a starting point. I'm sure that I've missed a LOT and I did not include all the books by some authors. My hope is that this can influence my own reading and teaching and become a resource for my students, perhaps for others as well. Enjoy! -- Steven

UPDATED 12/9/2015

Adiche, Chimamamba Ngozi: We Should All Be Feminists

Als, Hilton: The Women, White Girls

Anzaldua, Gloria: Borderlands/La Frontera

Anzaldua, Lorde, and Moraga, This Bridge Called My Back

Arnett, Marvin V.: Pieces from Life’s Crazy Quilt

Baldwin, James: Notes of a Native Son, Collected Essays

Bambara, Toni Cade Deep Sightings, Rescue Missions

Blanco, Richard: The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood

Brown, Elaine: A Taste of Power

Broyard, Bliss. One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life–A Story of Race and Family Secrets

Bulosan, Carlos: America is in the Heart

Cary, Lorene: Black Ice

Castillo, Ana: Massacre of the Dreamers

Castro, Joy: The Island of Bones, The Truth Book

Coates, Ta-Nahesi: Between the World and Me, The Beautiful Struggle

Cha, Therese: Dictee

Chin, Staceyann: The Other Side of Paradise

Cisneros, Sandra: A House of My Own

Coke, Allison Hedge: Ghost, Rock, Willow, Deer: A Story of Survival

Davis, Angela: Women, Race, and Class

Delaney, Samuel: The Motion of Light in Water

Deraniyagala, Sonali: Wave

Early, Gerald: Tuxedo Junction, The Culture of Bruising

Ellison, Ralph: Shadow & Act, Collected Essays

Erdrich, Louise: Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, The Blue Jay’s Dance

Galeano, Eduardo: The Book of Embraces

Gay, Roxane: Bad Feminist

Ghosh, Amitav: Incendiary Circumstances

Gilb, Dagoberto: Gritos

Gonzalez, Ray: Memory Fever: A Journey Beyond El Paso Del Norte

González, Rigoberto: Butterfly Boy

Guttierez, Stephen: The Mexican Man in His Backyard

Hale, Janet Campbell: Bloodlines

Hernandez, Daisy: A Cup of Water Under My Bed

Harjo, Joy: Crazy Brave

Hongo, Garret Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai'i

Hogan, Linda: The Woman Who Watches Over the World

hooks, bell: Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood, Ain’t I a Woman

Kimmerer, Robin Wall: Braiding Sweetgrass

Kincaid, Jamaica: A Small Place

King Jr., Martin Luther: A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr

Kingston, Maxine Hong: China Men, The Woman Warrior

Kumar, Amitava: A Matter of Rats

Laymon, Kiese: How to Slowly Kill Yourselves and Others in America

Lee, Li-Young The Winged Seed

Lourde, Audre. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name , Sister Outsider

Maathai, Wangari: Unbowed

Martinez, Domingo The Boy Kings of Texas

McBride, James: The Color of Water

Mock, Janet: Redefining Realness

Moraga, Cherríe: Loving in the War Years

Morgan, Joan: When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip-Hop Feminist

Mori, Kyoko: The Dream of Water

Morrison, Toni: What Moves at the Margin, Playing in the Dark

Momaday, N. Scott: The Names, The Way to Rainy Mountain

Mura, David: Where the Body Meets Memory

Nafisi, Azar: Reading Lolita in Tehran

Nelson, Marilyn: How I Discovered Poetry

Nguyen, Bich Minh: Stealing Buddha's Dinner

Norris, Michele: The Grace of Silence

Nye, Naomi Shihab: Never in a Hurry

Orduna, Jose: The Weight of Shadows: a Memoir of Immigration and Displacement

Ortiz, Wendy: Excavation

Ortiz-Cofer, Judith: Silent Dancing, The Latin Deli

Páramo, Adriana: Looking for Esperanza

Parms, Jericho: Lost Wax

Pemberton, Gayle: The Hottest Water In Chicago

Rankine, Claudia: Citizen: An American Lyric

Rodriguez, Luis: It Calls You Back

Rodriguez, Richard: The Hunger of Memory, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father

Rekdal, Paisely: Intimate: An American Family Photo Album

Roripaugh, Lee Ann: Dandarians

Royster, Francesca: Sounding Like a No-No, Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts

Rushdie, Salman: Step Across this Line,  Imaginary Homelands

Santiago, Esmerelda: When I was Puerto Rican

Satrapi, Marjane Persepolis

Savoy, Lauret: Traces

Sloane, Aisha Sabatini: The Fluency of Light

Smith, Carmen Gimenez: Bring Down the Little Birds

Sukrungruang, Ira: Talking Thai, Southside Buddhist

Staples, Brent Parallel Time

Trenka, Jane Jeong: Fugitive Visions: An Adoptee's Return to Korea

Tretheway, Natasha: Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast

Vaswani, Neela: You Have Given Me a Country

Walker, Alice: In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose

Walker, Jerald. Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption

Walters, Wendy S.: Multiply/Divide

Ward, Jesmyn: Men We Reaped

Whitehead, Colson: The Colossus of New York 

Wideman, John Edgar: Brothers and Keepers, Fatheralong

Wright, Richard: Black Boy

X, Malcolm: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley.

Yang, Kao Kalia: The Latehomecomer








[1] For the purposes of this list, “contemporary” means “post World War II” (roughly). 



Review of Ultrasonic from American Book Review

Here's the full text of a very generous and thoughtful review of Ultrasonic from American Book Review

Sound off

From American Book Review

By Lindsay Marshall



There are bodies in Ultrasonic: Essays, and lots of them. In Steven Church’s latest collection of essays, we encounter the bodies of babies and loitering teenagers and catfish, of elderly neighbors and younger brothers and miners trapped underground. Elvis’s body even makes an appearance, sweating through a final game of racquetball on the night of his death. One important thread links all of these very different bodies, pulling them together through variations in language and time and eventually bringing them into the same orbit: sound. Sound is something we probably don’t think about enough—or at least not deeply enough. We think about music, about our favorite songs, and the memories they bring to the surface. We think about the most conspicuous sounds, ones that signal danger (the scream of an ambulance) or happiness (a loud and genuine laugh), or that mark time in our day-to-day lives (alarm clocks, school-bells, buzzers). But how often do we really think about other sounds, the subtler ones we rarely notice and have maybe even stopped hearing? These are the sounds Steven Church is most interested in: the sounds that loneliness and grief and happiness make, and the sounds they ultimately make inside of us.

In many ways, Ultrasonic functions like a mixtape—a yoking together of connotations, thoughts, and emotions that stem from the instincts of the maker. In the old world of cassette mixtapes, there was fairly little room for error. You had to choose your playlist carefully, time the pausing of the tape deck just right, and make sure the songs you’d chosen would fit on one side of the cassette without cutting off mid-verse or leaving too much dead space between songs. You might base the decision to transition from one song to the next, from Eazy-E to Blondie, on any number of criteria: on the way one song sounded in relation to the next, or on the personal associations connected to each. No matter how offhandedly constructed it appeared to be, there was always some rationale to a mixtape, a series of links you hoped the listener (or even you, yourself, later) would recognize. And, as with any mix, the arrangement in Ultrasonic follows a particular— and in this case—a particularly interesting trajectory.

Church begins the essay “Seven Fathoms Down” by thinking through the definitions of the word “cockle.” Cockles are both muscles and mussels; they are both movement and sound. In the most familiar sense, cockles are what get warmed in the heart, but “A cockle is also a bivalve mussel, a shellfish with a heart-shaped shell. And, to cockle means to pucker or gather into folds. When you give someone a kiss, you cockle your lips. When your baby daughter reaches out her tiny hand and gathers up your shirt in her fist, she’s cockling the fabric. And when a wave breaks on a beach, you hear it cockling on the sand like a whisper.” The exploration of these definitions is interesting enough, but what is more intriguing is how Church shifts deftly from the semantics of cockles to a brief yet broader rumination on the relationship between sight and sound:

We see with sound when we are functionally blind or when light cannot penetrate the place we’re looking, when we need to see in the dark or beneath of the surface of something vast and impenetrable. We use sound to see under skin, bone, muscle, and tissue, beneath the earth’s crust on the surface of a planet, or to extend our vision deep into a body of water.


He then moves into a beautiful—and terrifying—discussion of catfish, specifically the practice of “noodling” for these “dumb, wet, and malevolent” creatures, who fishermen dive underwater to catch with their hands, searching around in the muddy darkness for the fish’s slick body.

The links between cockles and catfish and sound might not be immediately apparent, but Church manages to present the connections he draws in a way that feels both organic and elegant.

Ultrasonic’s first essay, “Auscultation,” is just over eight pages long, yet it effectively sets up the ideas Church returns to throughout the book: death and the fear of abnormality, our tenuous but precious connections to other human beings, and the investigative histories of words or objects in the world. (In the case of “Auscultation,” we examine the stethoscope). As Church puts it in the notes section at the close of his book, “If the moves in the essay don’t make obvious sense at first, I wanted them to at least sound right.” And in the end they do, which is no easy feat. Ultrasonic contains a broad range of topics, from the appeal of rap music during pregnancy to the use of white noise machines, from musical performances in Madrid’s El Parque del Buen Retiro to the frailty of an elderly neighbor. Despite this range, however, Church manages to avoid the trap of dilettantism: all of the essays in Ultrasonic that require historical inquiry feel thoroughly and affectionately researched, and all the moments that don’t require formal research—those which draw on significant moments in Church’s own life, such as the sudden death of his brother—manage to strike an effective balance between tenderness and bitterness. The moves Church makes “sound right” because they feel (and are) part of a larger network—a series of stories, memories, ideas, and language games whose careful connections sneak up on you.


Lindsay Marshall lives and teaches in Chicago. She is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English at University of Illinois at Chicago




Book Notes for Ultrasonic

In the process of writing my new collection of essays, Ultrasonic, I did an internet search for "sound as punishment," and came across a story about the use of music to torture detainees in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and other US detention facilities. The story had the effect of shifting my understanding of the world in strange ways. It included a "top ten" list of bands and songs, and I was disheartened but not terribly surprised to find many of my favorite bands and songs on that list. Around that same time, I'd written a Book Notes playlist for Largehearted Boy on my last bookThe Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst. I again discovered that many of the songs/bands on that Book Notes playlist were also on the list of torture songs that I'd scribbled down. I've since been unable to find the original article, but a quick online search will take you to several stories and lists of the most used torture songs. What resulted through all of this back-and-forth is the final essay in the book, "Playlist for Finishing a Book," which is a revised (or reconsidered) version of my original Book Notes piece; and what I've done here is repackage and rearrange some excerpts of that essay with new songs and some new material to create a different Book Notes playlist for Ultrasonic.




More Waves

Hey Folks,  A few more "waves" for Ultrasonic: 

I talked with Dan DeWeese at Propeller Mag about the book and the state of "not-knowing," 

"I guess I’m talking about that tension in a truly great piece of satire, or perhaps in any writing that risks putting the reader in a state of confusion or of not knowing what exactly he is reading or how he’s supposed to react to and engage with it."




New Waves

Hi folks,

Ultrasonic got a very nice review in the current Los Angeles Review of Books by William Bradley. Here's a short excerpt: 

"Church’s thorough exploration of the sounds in our world — echolocation, stethoscopes, music, the sound of a racquetball hitting a wall — are impressive in terms of his research as well as his linguistic dexterity. But what makes this book great is his ability to think about the way sound connects us to others — particularly those we love."


I also had the good fortune to "go off on tangents" with Joshua Teehee at the Fresno Bee about Ultrasonic and the upcoming Book Launch Party at Peeve's Public House on Dec. 11 at 7 p.m.. Here's a short excerpt: 

"Steven Church is the kind of guy you want at a dinner party or on a pub quiz team; an obsessive collector of information who is not afraid to let things go off on a tangent. In the hour spent talking with the author and Fresno State instructor about his new book, “Ultrasonic,” the conversation veers from Mike Tyson and Metallica to Parkfield, California, the earthquake capital of the world (population: 18), to racquetball."


p.s. I'm available for dinner parties and pub quizzes. 





Recent Waves

Heyo folks, 

Some new Ultrasonic waves out there. I'm trying to make use of this space and my FB author page for shameless book promotion. Feel free to ignore or indulge at your discretion. 

Here's an interview/conversation I did on Ultrasonic with the uber-awesome, Jill Talbot for Bookslut: (read it)

And here's a nice little blurb from The Review Review on the Winter 2014 issue of Passages North and my essay, "Crown and Shoulder," which PN kindly nominated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize: 

"As for straight nonfiction, the offerings are almost all strong, from the associative wonders of “Crown and Shoulder,” which charts Steven Church’s wandering path through highway accidents, knighting, crucifixion, grief, and Gilligan’s Island--and that only begins the list of topics touched upon."
(read the whole review here)

Finally, coming up on Thursday, Dec. 11 in Fresno at Peeve's Public House and Market in Downtown Fresno will be a Book Launch Party for Ultrasonic at 7 pm, featuring a reading, book sales, and performances by Fatty Cakes and the ska punk band, Iwanaga. (see the poster above). I hope to see lots of you there!



Buzzzzzzz: Some early press for Ultrasonic

Ultrasonic is getting a little early buzz. Here’s an interview I did with David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times:  

"Gathering 11 pieces, first published in journals such as AGNIFourth Genre and the Rumpus (“Auscultation” was selected for “The Best American Essays 2011”), “Ultrasonic” adapts Montaigne’s definition of the essay as a “try,” circling a variety of subjects, personal and otherwise."

Additional interviews are forthcoming at Propeller, the Tin House blog, and Bookslut. Also coming up in the next few weeks will be a feature on Ultrasonic at the blog sites for Essay Daily, Largehearted Boy, Brevity, and The Humble Essayist. will also publish an original essay from the book, “The King’s Last Game” alongside an exclusive interview I’m doing with Jeffery Gleaves.

Additionally, the Los Angeles Review of Books will run a review of Ultrasonic



Ultrasonic Essays Anthologized

Contracts for 2 anthologies signed this week. I'm very happy to have essays from Ultrasonic coming out in these places. "Seven Fathoms Down," from DIAGRAM will be out in, "Making Essays: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers" (2015 SUNY Press, ed. by Jen Hirt and Erin Murphy), and, "Of Idleness" originally published as "On Loitering" in The Rumpus will be in, "After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays" (2015 Univ. of Georgia Press, ed. by Patrick Madden and David Lazar ). Check for them in 2015! 



On Lyric Essays and Dancing in Sequined Pants

On Lyric Essays and Dancing in Sequined Pants

“We can dance if you want to. We can leave your friends behind. ‘Cause your friends don’t dance and if they don’t dance, well they’re no friends of mine. ”

-- Men Without Hats


When I give public readings of my nonfiction, occasionally afterward someone will approach me to say that he liked my “poems.”

            While I appreciate the kind words, I often feel compelled to inform him that I don’t write poems. I write essays. If I’m feeling particularly prickly, I will hold up the pages. “See? No line breaks.” And sometimes the person will argue with me and tell me that my essay, “just sounds like a poem,” to which I usually nod and smile and say thank you.

            But I die a little bit on the inside.  

Students in my graduate nonfiction workshop are forbidden from saying of an essay, “this sounds like poetry.” If a student utters this phrase, he’ll usually only say it once . . . not because he will incur some horrible draconian punishment (which is sort of redundant anyway in the gulag of a graduate writing workshop) but simply because I will ask, ever so politely, for him to explain precisely what he means by such a statement. I might ask him to read the section aloud and explain why it “sounds like poetry.”

It’s not that I don’t like poetry. It’s just that such comparisons, one, don’t seem to respect well-written prose and, two, feel entirely too reductive and simplistic to be helpful in understanding the difference (if there is a relevant one) between a poem and an essay.

The lyric essay, which posits itself as the cool compromise between the two, I’ve realized, is the skinny-jeans-wearing, ironically messy “hipster” of nonfiction writing, the leader of a movement dedicated to merging nonfiction and poetry, committed to promoting writing that lives between classifications and on the fringe of the status quo; and I like this new prose stylist with his chunky black-frame lenses, his odd juxtapositions of patterns and stripes, and his cool cardigan-sweater, singer/songwriter vibe.

I appreciate the lyric essay movement (and it IS a movement with all of the requisite prophets, acolytes, and haters) not because it seems ultra-cool and hip and fresh, but for the way it has opened up the discussion of nonfiction and pushed the emphasis away from confessional memoir, back toward a critical appreciation of the essay’s flexibility and reach; and I like it for the way it has tried to bridge the gap between genre provinces in MFA programs and in publishing; and the way it has even forced us to expand our understanding of narrative. What troubles me (though I’ve been guilty of it myself) is what I see as the attendant drive, the almost colonial push to plant a flag any prose or other territory that pays attention to or emphasizes language, and calling it “lyrical” or “poetic.”


A joke:

Q: How many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Eh, I could explain it, but you probably wouldn’t get it.


I was in graduate school when John D’Agata’s first book, Halls of Fame, and his ideas about the lyric essay, made the first splash in the nonfiction pond. At the time, the term seemed dangerous, revolutionary, and exciting, as if you really could be part of something new in literature—new but also old, as D’Agata was always reminding us. The lyric essay itself is not new. The movement to embrace lyric essays, to reclaim them from the grips of other genre classifications, did seem new—as if we were all explorers setting out across the frozen tundra or hacking through verdant jungles, planting flags in anything that seemed to fit under this maddeningly wide and colorful umbrella of the lyric essay. Armed with a new term and new permissions we claimed territory in poetry, fiction, art, film, philosophy and other disciplines. But perhaps like all colonial efforts, this one, too, was doomed to exhaust itself.

A couple of years ago, upon the release of his second book, About a Mountain, D’Agata visited the school where I teach. During a question and answer session, one student asked him if he could define the term, lyric essay; and what I remember most is the weariness with which D’Agata answered the question, as if the weight of this term, this idea, this movement in the essay, had become a burden after a decade. He looked like a man who’d opened a secret garden to the public and now couldn’t get the brats out of the fruit trees.

D’Agata readily admitted that he felt the term had become overused to the point of becoming essentially meaningless. Worse yet, the lyric essay has now become permission for a writer to “put on a pair of sequined pants and dance around because he has nothing to say.”

We all laughed at this.

But what’s interesting here is both the negative connotations of “sequined pants,” and the real challenge implied in this critique—namely that, as a writer of nonfiction, you must have something to say regardless of what kind of pants you’re wearing on the page. Though D’Agata was giving us tacit permission to wear them, sequined pants seem to be necessarily suspect; but what makes them REALLY bad is when there’s no serious thinking at work on the page.

D’Agata also said that he felt like the term, “lyric essay” is essentially just that: a term, and he believes it is most useful pedagogically, for teaching writers and readers how to embrace a kind of nonfiction writing that is artful, eccentric, elusive and perhaps impossible to define; and the lyric essay as a thing itself, distinct from other forms and styles of essaying or from other genres, may not exist at all.

A strange thing happened, though, after D’Agata’s visit. “Sequined pants” worked its way into the lexicon of our nonfiction workshop, morphing a little bit into “fancy pants” or “sparkly pants,” but retaining the basic critical analogy. It became a teaching tool, a kind of stand-in term for what we might call an overly poetic sensibility, one where the essayistic purpose of the piece is lost in the sequins.

If someone is showing off her linguistic pyrotechnics, maybe letting content serve the form (rather than the other way around), operating with an inaccessible internal logic, or just getting too gimmicky with form, one of the workshop members will likely raise her hand and say, “I think this is kind of a fancy pants moment,” and we will all understand what she is saying, nod gravely, and cluck our tongues in disapproval.

Though perhaps fading a bit in coolness, aging and growing out of its skinny jeans, the lyric essay still sounds like a poem and acts like an essay, still imagines like a short story, argues like a manifesto, performs like drama, and dances its dangerous dance.




Ten Crappy Books I'm Mildly Ashamed to Admit to Loving

It seems like this 10 book list challenge circles around every year and I feel newly competitive and subsequently humiliated. . . . Can we have a new challenge? 10 Crappy Books I Loved and Am Mildly Ashamed to Admit It? (because, obviously, if I was totally ashamed I wouldn't be posting this on a blog): 

1. The novelization of The Karate Kid. (Shut. Up. It was awesome. I stayed up all night reading it.) 

2. Every single sports biography or autobiography I've ever read (except maybe for Kareem Abdul Jabbar's Giant Steps, which was actually really really good, and I sort of hated Kareem because I hated the Lakers, but the dude is pretty badass. I mean, he trained with Bruce Lee.) . . . . anyway, there were soooo many others

3. Truly Tasteless Jokes (they really are truly tasteless)

4. 101 Uses for a Dead Cat (a book my dad had on his bookshelf)

5. The Playboy Book of Limericks (another book my dad had on his bookshelf)

6. All the books on my parents' bookshelf by Leon Uris (just because his named seemed kind of dirty. I mean, "Uris" just sounds scatalogical. . . I never actually read any of them)

7. Beautiful Joe: An Autobiography of a Dog (there were a LOT of dog books)

8. Metallica: This Monster Lives: The Inside Story of Some Kind of Monster (a documentary about making a documentary)

9. All that Hardy Boys shit (smugglers!)

10. the unabridged 14 hour audio book version of Mario Puzo's The Godfather, read by Paul Sorvino (road trip from Kansas to Phoenix, nothing else to do)