A Record of an Inverted Retreat
by Jesica Carson Davis
The urge to create is fundamentally human, whether we write poems, sing songs, or paint pictures. Creation is a form of record keeping, one way of saying I was here, this happened. In an attempt to capture some of the magic I got to experience as Editorial Assistant at Inverted Syntax’s first staff retreat, I present here a record of what it was like to be at the beginning stages of an exciting project, meeting the other editors, finding our own way together. Inverted is a journal about exploring hybrid forms, finding out what happens when we go outside the given lines.
Our Founder/Editor-In-Chief, Nawal Nader-French, had planned a full agenda in which the primary purpose was to work on Inverted’s first online and print editions. However, the retreat weekend up in Boulder County was balanced out by fun, creative events, such as a poetry workshop, meditation time, a painting session, video calls with other editors and writers, and of course, writing. There wasn’t anything on the agenda specifically about team-building and camaraderie, but those were some of the best outcomes of the weekend.
The other Inverted editors knew each other from Regis University’s Mile-High MFA program, but I’d never met any of them in person (though we’d had plenty of communication over email and Submittable--the digital platform we use to track submissions). This could have been nerve-wracking, but immediately upon arrival, Nawal made me feel beyond welcome in her gorgeous home with thoughtful gift-filled tote bags and conversations about poets we both admire. The other Editorial Assistants, Melanie and Allissa, greeted me with warm hugs, and soon enough we were all bonding over wine and a massive welcome dinner. Melanie, a nonfiction writer, drove in from Oklahoma, and Allissa, a poet, had driven in from south of Denver, so we all appreciated the decompression.
Friday evening we attended a local poetry workshop at the Firehouse Art Center in downtown Longmont. Getting there became an impromptu team-building adventure after we discovered someone’s notebook had been left on the car’s rooftop and we had to work together to retrace our path, joining forces to find it. Luckily, it was recovered and still intact; the tire treadmarks gave it extra character. The workshop itself was a quietly meditative experience in which attendees got a prompt (write 10 lines about “Home” and then edit them based on a series of suggestions), followed by everyone reading their work and giving each other feedback.
Though we knew that Saturday would be starting early and packed with activities, we all stayed up past midnight talking about life, getting to know each other better, playing with Nawal’s adorable beagles, and sometimes even discussing writing.
Saturday morning began with a guided meditation led by Melanie, who teaches yoga and has a perfect voice for leading such an exercise. I’d thought the meditation lasted about 15 minutes, and was stunned when she told us that it was closer to 50. A focus on the creative chakras and Melanie’s guidance put us in an open mindframe and made us more receptive to creativity, ready to read, organize, and assemble upcoming issues.
Nawal opened up the day’s editorial duties by proclaiming that “We are rewriting the rules,” setting a tone of freedom without expectations, which we ran with. Since Inverted Syntax is a new journal, there isn’t an inherited, existing framework to adhere to; we can make new decisions as we go.
The next 30 hours passed in a blur of reading, conversation, and good times: When we began assembling the online and print magazines, Nawal encouraged us to look for themes, such as boundaries, disruption, and relationships.
A video call with Andrea Rexilius, a poet and Program Coordinator for Regis’s Mile-High MFA, confirmed this approach: consider the journal’s layout like you would organize a manuscript. Stay open to a narrative arc, or consider folios (chapters within the journal), which will be subconsciously informed by our aesthetic and the pieces we’d already selected for publication.
Thus, we spent Saturday morning reading each accepted piece and writing down three or four keywords (like tags or metatdata) for each piece, simple descriptions of themes. Later, when reading the pieces aloud, we compiled a list of the most common keywords that would be used for grouping. It became clear that many of the pieces we’d selected were linked, through tone and imagery, sometimes even subject matter. These links weren’t consciously intended, so it was cool to see them appear as we read.
One of my favorite parts of the weekend was sitting in a circle, reading accepted work out loud to each other. We savored favorite lines, sometimes gasping, getting goosebumps and tears from being moved by pieces we’d read before. It was a gorgeous reminder of how art can break against you again and again, like a wave, how delicious it can be to get drenched.
Throughout the weekend, we kept up a lively discussion about the differences between publishing online or in print. We talked about how a piece posted on the internet has a better chance of reaching many more people than one that’s perfect-bound and physically distributed. How some pieces feel more urgent, like witnessing refugee experience, and thus should be published in a way that gives them a chance at the greatest possible audience. How online issues have a spatial advantage over ink: a 25 page piece would take up a quarter of the print version but can unfold at length on a website, without restrictions. How lucky we are to have both routes available to us now.
We skimmed dozens of print and online journals, charting what we liked and didn’t like, to stimulate discussion. We covered everything from the table of contents organization and serif vs. sans-serif fonts to letters from the editors and placement of contributor bios. The exercise made my tech writer brain begin to assemble a style guide to capture the editors’ decisions on pressing issues, like whether to use indentations or line breaks for paragraphs and how capitals would appear in the titles of pieces. Writing our own rules as we go.
It is exciting and a little intimidating to realize that since Inverted Syntax is a new journal, there’s no formula for how to run it; we can collectively decide the best way to do things, find ways to make the form best fit and reflect the content. For example, while some Editors-in-Chief wait until their readers finish going through the slush pile to narrow pieces under consideration, Nawal was in Submittable for hours every day looking for new work. Instead of sticking to one genre, readers were encouraged to provide feedback on submissions in every category. After all, Inverted’s mission centers around hybridity.
As the day grew long, we decided to skip a yoga session in favor of tea time, and to keep working, though a dance party broke out because we needed to reinvigorate. A sense of urgency began to set in: the retreat will end soon and we will disband in the morning, so let’s make the most of our time together.
Soon it was getting dark, and it was time time for a video call with David Hicks, the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Regis Mile-High MFA. After some discussion of the retreat life and what we’d been up to, he generously invited all of us to attend one of his writers’ retreats next spring! As part of the support that Inverted Syntax receives as a journal partly supported through The Mile-High MFA, the retreat invitation included a personal manuscript consultation, for those of us working on our own books. It felt like winning a small fellowship.
Once we hung up, it hit us that we’d been at it for almost 12 hours, and that we were approaching the end of our productivity. It was time to pour wine and take a break. Canvases and paints appeared, Nawal’s Ghanaian-influenced curry released its enticing aroma from the stove, and we finally put our work aside. I’m still thinking about that curry, topped with tomatoes, onion, peanuts, banana.
As we unwound from Saturday by collaging and painting with acrylics, we took turns reading from our own work, pieces that not many others had yet heard. Reading poems-in-progress felt like making proclamations: I am here, I made this. Creating and sharing art as a way of raging against, or embracing, the void.
Sunday morning rolled around, and once again we collectively decided to forgo physical activity (a planned hike) in favor of focusing on the journal. There was still so much to do! By then we were fresh enough to want to keep working but brain-drained enough from the previous day to take a break from the creative side, which meant focusing on marketing and logistics.
We discussed our wish list, dreams for the future: possibilities of a local reading series, the AWP conference, poetry contests, maybe even another retreat someday for other writers. Then we pivoted towards administrative duties and deadlines, playing with design for the online issue and entering pieces onto the draft site in advance of October’s online publication.
Too soon, it was time to go home.
Being at the start of something, being part of an endeavor’s nascent phase, feels exhilarating. There is no rulebook, and we are not writing one so much as recording our choices, creating documentation.
Most writers and artists are compelled to some kind of record-keeping, including sculpture, comics, poems, and songs. To create something is to cheat death a little: this thing you make may outlive you, if only on a bookshelf, or in someone’s memory.
As a record of the retreat weekend, I offer this account. For the future, we will create Inverted Syntax.
Since I got my first digital camera in 2001, I’ve been thinking about ways to integrate words and imagery. Until recently, my concern was focused on how to mix poetry and photographs, with some attempts more successful than others, but in the last couple years, I’ve expanded my inquiry to additional media and dimensions.
This has included making poemboxes (sculptural interpretations of my poetry that usually involve a box), playing with geoboard poetry, collaging image with text, and including text when painting and sculpting. When you have another medium to incorporate beyond the written word, one you interact with using your more physical body, such as drawing or assembling, it helps you to approach the work from a new perspective.
Sometimes I am literally holding words in my hands. How does that feel, how does it differ from just reading them? Do some words weigh more than others? How can I embody what poem fragments like “blue stone” or “compilation of silhouettes” or “body as shelter” mean in the work, visually, not just linguistically? When we convey meaning beyond words can comprehension work at a more fundamental, primal level?
Lately, my joy in creating hybrid works is playing with their physical presence: I want words I can touch, turn over in my hands instead of just seeing them. Wondering how to translate a poem into a sculptural format was how my poembox project began. Sometimes I write sentences on pieces of ribbon and wind them around a geoboard to see how fragmentation and viewing from different angles changes the way I experience a piece.
I’ve made poems as flowcharts and mind maps (similar to some of the work in DIAGRAM magazine), chopped up a paragraph into small pieces and mixed it with dirt, played with spreadsheet poetry (inspired by work like Jamie Mortara’s “Parse Table”), buried a prose poem in the ground, wrapped lines into scrolls to sleep with them under my pillow, and used a wooden box with 31 paper slots as a daily writing prompt (asking: what gap do I want to fill today?).
Objects can invoke non-verbal associations: symbols, the collective unconscious, etc. Anything can become an ingredient in your art, but not much starts as a totally blank slate. How can use of materials with pre-existing connotations enhance or affect a piece of work? What happens when you add text to the mix?
Of course, people have been creating mixed- or multimedia art for many years. But assigning these labels tends to focus on ingredients, prepares the mind to experience a piece based on its raw materials, potentially making it more difficult to see the whole through the sum of its parts.
If we instead speak of a piece that goes beyond text to span several media as hybrid, perhaps we can better focus on its holistic composition than the boundaries it incorporates or transcends. Would that change how we experience a piece of completed art? Would it change the way you’d want to compose new work?
There is no limit to ways you can play with integrating your words with the three-dimensional world. If you could carve one sentence into a stick, what would it say? Can you make a shape with clay or play-doh and then write a poem about its existence? What if you gave yourself $5 and 10 minutes in a thrift store to make a visual collaged poem? What would a poem look like as a movie? As a comic book?
Taking words off the page and onto unexpected materials gives us new ways to process their potential, to uncover what they mean to us. Working outside your comfort zone can be intimidating at first, but that’s the point: to see what grows from exploration of unexpected places. That’s one of the beautiful things about hybridity: it can include whatever you need it to.
By Ashley Spurgeon, fiction editor
Many of us read to find a sense of familiarity, to know we are not alone in the world. We read to see ourselves. And we also write for the same reasons. When I write, I’m trying to process the current events that flash like an afterimage when I close my eyes. I’m trying to understand the people I’ve encountered whose voices I find compelling. I’m trying to make sense of my world, my humanity, and sometimes that’s easier when I can set it in a place outside of my day-to-day life and let my characters figure it out.
In many writing workshops and craft lessons, I was taught, “Write what you know.” It was a common refrain that I jotted down in my notes but didn’t really think about until I had finished the first draft of my first novel. I finally knew exactly where the plot ended up and what my book was about, and when reading back through, I realized just how much the narrative reflected events in my personal life, the current political climate, and social issues I had been struggling to understand.
When I sit down to write, I don’t disappear into my fiction and forget the world around me. Yes, I immerse myself in the world that exists on the page in front of me, but that world is informed by the reality that I live every day. The real world crosses over into a fictional world, whether it’s intentional or not.
This blend happens because all creative work strains to get closer to what we are all looking for--a better understanding of the complexity and vulnerability that comes with being human. Our truth sits at the tips of our tongues waiting to be formed into words, and it doesn’t matter whether it is laid bare in a piece of flash fiction, a lyric essay, a sestina, or a graphic novel.
Fiction allows me to reach for truth in a less literal way than nonfiction does, but it still presents something real and relatable for the reader. Nonfiction presents a literal truth that isn’t attainable in fiction. Both genres challenge the reader’s ideas and enlarges their world simply by putting words on a page.
Perhaps that is why there is a draw toward hybridity. Perhaps one genre just isn’t quite enough to reach the level of truth we work so hard to find. If we can weave fiction and nonfiction, with elements of visual art and music and moments of poetry, we can lift the veil a little higher and expose a bit more of our humanity and remind ourselves exactly why we are here.
Fiction and nonfiction are not opposites--genres do not function exclusively of the other, they are parallel, and sometimes intertwining, quests to find truth.
By Kateri Kramer
I think I have always been drawn to hybridity, that is, drawn to the combination of two different elements to make something new. Last week I was looking through my father’s, well really my grandfather’s, flat files. Amongst the old ski posters from Arapahoe Basin, Colorado, and the inky woodblocks of tiny carved fly fisherman, there were two canvases next to one another. On the first is the face of a woman that looks a little Picasso-esque with a pronounced nose and hues of Caribbean pink and peach. Hanging from the woman’s ear is a fishing lure. It’s not painted, it’s an actual lure which I realized when the other side of the hook punctured the flesh of my index finger. On the other canvas is another, different, face far more kindergarten-esque than Picasso-esque, which was apropos seeing as I was likely around four when I painted it. Covering the face are glued-on pieces of torn paper, glitter, and Number 2 pencil shavings.
Human beings are by nature hybrid beings. We are made up of so many different things; stories and cities, joy and sorrow, our mother’s influence and our father’s influence. Maybe then, hybridity in nonfiction (or fiction or poetry for that matter) is really the best way to convey who a person is. That is, the essence of a person distilled into words and whitespace. I found this was the case for me when trying to write about my father or grandmother. I needed the influence of other media or art forms to build a more fully formed version of the person I loved and knew.
The essaysist, David Lazar taught me during one of the residencies in the Mile-High MFA program at Regis University, that the essay, in its true spirit is hybrid. He writes,
"Nonfiction is in many ways a non-genre, the un-genre. Do we need to be liberated from generic pedagogy in the same way that some English
Departments were liberated from periodicity,not avoiding periods (Oh let
not time deceive you/You cannot conquer time) but not being so rigidly
structured by them? They only pay me to ask the questions. Which is why I write essays, and why I continue to believe that the essay is the ultimate
hybrid, or if you will, Hydra form.” (Hydra: I’ll Be Your Mirror”)
In the essay Hydra: I’ll Be Your Mirror, Lazar reminds the reader that humanity has been using hybridity since the 3rd Century B.C. in “prose and poetry in letters and prosimetrae, satires, and plays” and argues that all nonfiction is indeed hybrid in some way or another (biographies stepping into the realm of history, essays meandering into poetry).
It wasn’t until I found hybridity that I felt like I’d found a space for my work, or at least found an avenue in which I could write about my father and grandmother more fully.
Whether I am attempting to write an essay similar to the form of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, or shifting from conversational speech to formal in a more traditional piece, the essay, as Lazar points out is “hybridic almost by definition.” Writing (and reading) hybridity can sometimes be a balm for the writer’s soul- providing new opportunities for exploration and beauty on the page, nudging a new investigation into the parts of self that before seemed unreachable by the language and form that we’re most accustomed to. Ultimately, hybrid essay, cannot but equip us with a new understanding of art and humanity.
A List of Hybrid Nonfiction Books to Check Out
I’ll Be Your Mirror, David Lazar
Bluets, Maggie Nelson
My Body is a Book of Rules, Elisa Washuta
Imagine Wanting Only This, Kristen Radtke
Two or Three Things I Know For Sure, Dorothy Allison
Lost Wax, Jericho Parms
Limber, Angela Pelster