‘Memory of Everything at Once is Fiction’: a Workshop on Innovative Prose

For my fieldwork, I created and led a workshop on the lyrical novel out of Berl’s Poetry Shop—a poetry store and community space in DUMBO, Brooklyn. Taking as a starting point the novels of two poets—Fish in Exile (Vi Khi Nao) and Dahlia’s Iris (Leslie Scalapino)—this workshop investigated the possibilities of innovative prose and the lyric novel, moving towards questions of how these forms articulate inner experience in the social world. We approached questions these authors bring up within these works regarding the US as “occupied by ‘itself’” (Scalapino). How do these books use form to encounter and trouble borders of nationhood and citizenship? Where does language meet solitude, pain and mourning? How do these books challenge conventions of “the novel” to critique social relations and histories of violence? Spurred on by these discussion, we worked towards our own writing into the overlaps of poetry and novel. I planned on splitting sessions between discussing these two books and other texts that participants decide on as a group, and on writing and discussion on our own prose writing.

Vi Khi Nao’s novel Fish in Exile—published winter of 2017—conveys mourning as an encounter between inner being and outer perception through its morphing language, where grief links with ritual and myth. Grief becomes home and exile. Its narrative seeps slowly upward in richness of its prose. In Dahlia’s Iris, Detective Grace Abe investigates a series of murders of migrant workers—murders linked to shadowy multinational tech companies based in San Francisco. In this densely overlapping novel where autobiography, fiction and social critique of USAmerican empire entwine. The narrative begins to mirror aspects of the films Blade Runner, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Terminator 2, at times turning into essays about these films.

The workshop ran every Sunday, 11:30 AM–1:30 PM from April 23 to May 21 at Berl’s Poetry Shop in Brooklyn. There was no fee for the workshop, but participants needed to purchase copies of the books from the bookstore. Eight people joined the workshop, most of them were people I did not know who heard about the workshop through the bookstore. It was exciting to find ways to link the multi-generational community that exists around Berl’s Poetry Shop with some of the thinking and writing happening within the Pratt MFA in Writing. As the first workshop at Berl’s and the first workshop I have taught, it created a model that I look forward to bringing into other spaces and communities.