Nicole Walker is the author of the nonfiction book, Quench Your Thirst with Salt won the 2011 Zone 3 nonfiction prize and will be published next year and a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). She edited, along with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction, which will be released by Continuum Press in 2013. She currently teaches at Northern Arizona University’s MFA program.
Three of her micro-essays appear in Issue Thirty-Four of The Collagist.
Here, Nicole Walker talks to interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about small things, big things, and micro things.
1. Could you discuss how to came to writing these there micro-essays, about micro-words? (Did at any point you say/read/write the word micro so much that it became weird? Is it doing that now?)
I started writing about metaphors and what’s troubling about them. Do they in fact shrink the world by making two things one? Is the problem with comparing the large to the small that the world becomes reduced? Don’t we want to touch everything and if it’s smaller, can’t we hold it in our own hands? I was worried about forest for the trees, running in the woods, staring at tiny rocks while missing the owl flying overhead.
Some of this negative view persists but sometime last summer I decided to be less grumpy and cynical. I went looking for a more positive spin and found it while interviewing scientists down at ASU about microorganisms. I wrote a long, long essay about how microorganisms can reduce pollution in wastewater. Maybe the small, on its own, is the big thing. What came up in the writing about these microorganisms and in several other longer essays is a sense of interconnectedness. Things don’t interconnect on a large scale—a person is not a road. But, there is interconnection between the miniscule. If you look closely enough at what’s around you, it’s not that everything is one—there’s no collapse—but there is a link between the microorganism (water, yeast, horticulture, sanitation) and microbrew, (water, yeast, hops, wheat, barley, sanitation). It’s the word “micro” that brings them together.
If nearly every word can have a micro in front of it and still have meaning, then that digging down into the linguistic small might be a way to break the big ideas into their constituent parts to see where things might connect and build a link between this small and that small until the map becomes plainer.
2. In all of these essays, it’s the smallness that seems to make the biggest impact: the small sound that stopped, the small lump, the small environment. Could you talk about how these micro things are emotionally large?
Looking at the small is one way I train my eye to be more generous. I tune in, from the force of the form as well as from the title, and look out. That pressure of containment, which works sometimes well for me in formal poetry, has, at least sometimes, the power of sublimation. From the small solid to the large gas, skipping the liquid state entirely. Squeeze and explode. Don’t tell the whole story, just part of it. Don’t define the word, jump from it.
3. I read in your bio that you co-edited Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction. As someone who usually writes poetry, I could see myself writing something similar to this and just throwing it into that genre. What’s your reasoning for calling this non-fiction? Do you think it matters what’s it called or is that just a vehicle for finding it a home in something like a literary magazine?
I think about this a lot. In my classes, my students ask what’s the difference between a prose poem, a microessay and flash fiction? And then I get to roll around in discussions about genre for a semester which is my favorite thing to talk about. In these microessays, I claim the conventions of nonfiction. Etymology is a common trope of nonfiction which is why the essays begin with the word in its dictionary form, even if the definition abruptly veers away from the strict definition. I use lists, white space, voice, and actual facts to help propel the essay. I toggle back and forth between research and personal history.
Nonfiction relies on different tropes than poetry or fiction. Flash fiction relies, even when it’s brief, on character, scene and plot. Fiction is always starting with a character name: “Jimmy Houston bit the rattlesnake right back.” A whole different part of me writes poems. Poems are the domain of the metaphor and the leap. This is not to say that these genres and tropes don’t bleed into each other. Obviously they do. But when I look at one of these essays and think, could I line break this thing into a poem, for the most part I can’t. They’re born of the nonfiction part of my brain that says, your voice and those facts are the main thing here—not image, not metaphor, not believable characters. When they show up, they’re welcome, but they are not the impetus for the piece.
4. What’s worth reading these days (at least in your opinion)?
Because it’s summer, and because it seems appropriate to my micro project, I’m reading a lot of short things these days. Recipes and facebook status updates, flash fiction and tiny poems. Interview questions. I’m horrible at choosing books. I will read anything thrust upon me. Someone gave me Mark Slouka’s Visible World so I’m reading that. David Hawkins’ Lorraine Nelson: A Biography in Post-It Notes, Sean Lovelace’s blog. I’m also reading Little House in the Big Woods as I prepare for post-apocalyptic meat-preserving and jam making. I think everything’s “worth” reading, if you have the time.
5. What else are you working on? Are there other micro-essays written or in the works?
Speaking of the apocalypse, I’m working on a book about cooking salmon in drought-ridden world. I’m also writing the larger essays about micro—microclimates and micropreemies (which I think I’ll work on right after I finish this.) I do have a number of micro essays in the works but they have to be tight-fisted and full of turns and something about writing in the hot, dry summer seems to make everything open-palmed and loose-fitting. It’s a good time to write about beer. Microbrews!