This is no. 78 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
A nightmare: realizing I need to restructure this essay, again, and it’s due tomorrow.
A nightmare: COVID-19 cases on the rise again all across the country.
A nightmare: how often essayists, especially poets-turned-essayists, like to remind everyone that essay comes from the French verb essayer, meaning to try, to attempt, to test.
Not a nightmare: I love the try, the attempt.
A nightmare: the test. The test freaks me out.
A nightmare: how long it’s taken in the United States for COVID tests to become more accessible.
Why do I prefer the nightmare of being dreadfully stuck, working on a poem, over the nightmare of being dreadfully stuck, working on an essay?
A collective, ongoing nightmare: the pandemic.
Working on my essays for this series has been both a welcome distraction and (as I knew would happen) a dive into the deep end of my anxieties. The process feels nightmarish because my preferred method of exploring and articulating craft ideas is writing poems (and it seems I’ve gotten to the point in my poetry writing where I can befriend the dread, the stuck-ness). Or through conversation: engaging with students and connecting with friends, all of which happens these days over the shared nightmare known as Zoom.
Also, I hate paragraphs. The blocky-ness of paragraphs makes me anxious, like I’m trapped in a box and, in the essay form, can only move from one box to another. I feel I have to make sense. Too much sense. I like paragraphs in prose poems, because I’m freer to do—I know better how to do—weird things with sentences. Or not write sentences at all.
I think of Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey (Wave Books, 2012), a collection of essays based on lectures she was required to give as a teacher—at one point, Ruefle describes lectures as “bad dreams.” Ruefle has commented frequently on the fact that this one volume on poetry has far outsold her books of poetry; that people would rather read about poetry, than read a poem. That for many, poetry remains a nightmare.
Poetry, to me, is the best dreaming.
A form of breaking out of the Zoom room or the chain of paragraphs, into an expanse of fresh blooms,1 a field bursting with sunflowers.
Still I’m drawn to essays for how they document a thought process, an attempt to think clearly and deeply. And I love good essays on poetry. I love Madness, Rack, and Honey. I’d like to write craft essays like Ruefle’s. I’m not sure that is possible, given our very different brains. But maybe my brain can do something else and figure out ways to enjoy writing an essay, or at least dislike it less.
Could it be that my fear of the essay draws me to it? I’m afraid I won’t write as well in this genre, but the challenge entices. I’m nervous to delve into new subjects and discover scary truths, but surprise is also one of the key reasons I write anything. After all, in poetry it’s usually the door I don’t want to open that leads me to the room I most need to investigate.2
I’ve long wanted to examine nightmares in my poetry. I’m intrigued by how fear can act as a signpost on the path to truth; how terror can mean getting closer to a complicated reality. I’ve written poems based on dreams—wild dreams that contain some frightening revelation at their core—but I have yet to write a poem based on a straight-up nightmare. Specifically, I’ve been itching to write a poem about my two recurring nightmares involving high school French teachers.
One nightmare stars my sophomore year instructor, my favorite one, as a highly trained assassin. Her weapon of choice: one of my mother’s beloved Chinese cleavers. Somehow she manages very clean kills. In the nightmare I admire her and am also terrified. Sometimes I am the target, for getting a B on a quiz, say, and before the final blow she reminds me, “Cravate is a feminine noun, despite it referring to men’s neckties! It’s LA cravate, UNE cravate, SA cravate!” If I experience this again, I hope I remember to respond, “But anyone can wear a necktie!” Other times the nightmare gets loftier and the target is a corrupt politician, usually French. One time I am the corrupt French politician.
I haven’t had this nightmare in a while, and I miss it—perhaps because 2020 is a global waking nightmare. What sleeping nightmare of mine could compare with Trump, COVID, and the police? I hesitate to type it out, but I miss this assassin nightmare because I wish there were worse consequences for the Trump administration. I wish there were consequences at all. As someone invested in abolition, I can’t advocate for prison. I have to imagine and help build other types of justice and accountability, ones that don’t rely on punishment and vengeance. At the same time, the part of me that misses the assassin nightmare would love for something nightmarish to visit these leaders who’ve abandoned all duty to the people.
Another part of me misses this nightmare because seeing my mother’s cleaver in it is like seeing a part of her. I also associate high school language study with her because she teaches Mandarin at that level. I haven’t seen my mother since this pandemic was declared a pandemic. She’s immunocompromised and has been taking every precaution. Every call with her begins with her asking, “Have you been staying at home?” and ends with her command, “Keep staying at home.” My father, who never texts, texted me last week to say, “Avoid travel to any hot spots,” while travel ads pop up on my TV. Back in March my partner’s father was quarantined in a hospital in upstate New York after experiencing COVID-like symptoms. It was four days, but it felt like a year before the test results came back: negative.
I check the news and check the news. I check social media, texts. I pick up the phone. The friends of friends with the virus. The friends with the virus.
Perhaps my fear of writing essays has to do with how my brain always associates the act with an academic assignment, a requirement, a grammar test that I might fail. It doesn’t help that so far most of the essays I write have in fact been assigned to me. They do help pay the bills. I do love a prompt. But is it, on some level, masochism? Is all my writing, in some way, a testing to which I subject myself, over and over? Am I perpetually trying to win a French teacher’s approval?
The other French teacher nightmare goes like this: On an otherwise blissfully uneventful day, I receive a letter from my high school. I know something is amiss before even opening it. For a long time I just stare at it; it stares back from my coffee table. Then I open it. And it says because I never finished my senior year French project, I never actually passed high school. Therefore I have to return to school, where this time I will also reside. The second I step back into that memory-drenched building, I am met by my senior year French instructor. She looks me over then says in the most disappointed yet unsurprised way, “Bonjour.”
What terrifies me in this dream is not the disruption of everyday life (by a cleaver-wielding assassin like in my other nightmare), but the resurrection of days I’ve long put behind me, a time and a self I’d rather not reinhabit. Not that high school was all stuffy, all busy work. No, I had many brilliant teachers and classmates, many life-changing experiences. This nightmare is the nightmare that my life didn’t really change. What I fear is going back to school but never learning, never growing.
What I love is the school of poetry, which invites me to play anew and wonder differently and try strange things—to test in the sense of to experiment. To test in the sense of encountering nerve-wracking challenges, but trusting that the fear is a sign of one’s hunger for and effort toward real growth. Maybe one day I will experience essay writing more like that: an experiment in good fear.
A poem I find instructive for writing about nightmares is “The Dream”3 by Aracelis Girmay, one of my former professors, whose work continues to nourish as well as push me. Indeed, Girmay’s writing always reminds me how poems themselves can be the best poetry teachers. I also return to this one because it focuses on a mother, the figure beside or behind the French teacher of my first nightmare. Here is the startling start of “The Dream”:
Last night, all night
the dream, the dead
mother, my small sister,
tiny, her mouth
over my shoulder
(screaming) like a knapsack
when she heard the news,
& my brother playing
the stereo. I howled
like the coyotes; myself.
The poem then shifts from the howl to a sunlit, tranquil scene, the way dreams can, suddenly and completely. “The Nightmare” ultimately wouldn’t be the most fitting title for this poem. The word dream can encompass good ones and bad. That said, nightmare can contain the abject as well as the gorgeous (my favorite horror movies have stellar aesthetics). My French teacher nightmares feature both terror and tenderness—fear of disappointing the mother/teacher figure, but also admiration for her and a longing for a time when I could, on a regular basis, talk with her in person. Rereading Girmay’s poem I realize that at the heart of the poem I want to write are questions like: How do fear and affection sit side by side? Why do I connect French teachers and mothers in this manner?
This is what I mean by poems being the best poetry teachers: They offer an array of techniques to emulate, yes, but more fundamentally and expansively, they conjure up uncomfortable questions and encourage bewildering (sometimes frightening) leaps in imagination.
One week, feeling particularly defeated by this essay, I write a draft of my poem “The Nightmare.” It reads ridiculous, then not, which seems like how a lot of my writing goes. I’d like one day to write a poem that shifts from not one bit ridiculous to utterly. Still, this poem is some new occurrence. Every truly new poem4 is its own strange school.
I revise and revise. The poem teaches me about how my recurring nightmares are linked to the world’s shared nightmare of COVID-19. How afraid I am, as a teacher myself now, to be back this fall; how fortunate I feel that my university has allowed me to teach online; how much I miss teaching in person; how angry I am that not every teacher “gets to” do this.
I revise and revise the ending of this essay. I’m afraid of being so direct and so pared down in my diction. But I know from poetry that it’s often when I’m trying the least to be “poetic” that the most charged truths emerge.
Truths like: I’m afraid my students will get sick. I’m afraid of losing a student, more than one student. I think I should be more afraid of getting very sick too. I miss my mother, who, as a high school Mandarin teacher, knows that school is more than a building, but misses her classroom. I’m relieved she has the option to teach online as well. I miss many of my high school teachers and hope they are safe and finding ways to rest.
To dream, both literally and creatively. To speak back to the nightmares, both personal and collective.
1. A beautiful nightmare: how much poets adore the word bloom.
2. In life, I know better than to go exploring attics, basements, or other favorite hangout spots of vengeful ghosts and demons.
3. From Kingdom Animalia (BOA Editions, 2011).
4. I mean new mainly in terms of process; new to the writer. The big hope is that the poem will then do something new for a reader.
Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), which was longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry and won the Publishing Triangle Thom Gunn Award. His work has appeared in many publications, including Poetry and the 2015 and 2019 editions of The Best American Poetry. He has received a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from Kundiman and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence.Thumbnail: Chuttersnap