Steven Church’s fourth book of nonfiction, Ultrasonic: Essays, is a sublime meditation on the act of listening. With stunning range and an uncanny ability to speculate beyond the objective facts, Church transforms and personalizes cultural noise and everyday news stories. In the award-winning essay, “Auscultation,” he re-imagines the first pulsing sounds of life detected by rescuers after a 2002 Pennsylvania coalmine collapse. “The King’s Last Game” invites the reader to listen while Church conjures a boisterous game of racquetball with Elvis—his authorial attention pinging between Americana kitsch and major existential questions about birth, death and grief. Ultrasonic does more than confirm Steven Church’s status as a major force in the world of creative nonfiction: it broadcasts the message like a sonic boom in a subway tunnel.
Church teaches in the MFA Program Fresno State University, where he is a Founding Editor of The Normal School Magazine. On a recent visit to celebrate The Normal School’s seventh anniversary, we spent an afternoon touring Fresno’s legendary Forestiere Underground Gardens. Using nothing but a pickaxe and shovel, visionary Italian immigrant Baldasare Forestiere spent forty years carving the exquisite system of catacombs and subterranean citrus orchards. This historical site felt entirely appropriate for our subsequent conversation: sound and noise are primary concerns in his work, but Church is also a tunneler of sorts, an explorer of depths and echoes, a tour guide through the alcoves of the human heart.
Justin Hocking: The subject matter of the essays in Ultrasonic is wide-ranging and pleasantly digressive, with riffs on fatherhood, heavy metal, infant cardiology, Elvis, and personal loss, just to name a few. Can you discuss how you employed the concept of sounding to navigate and unite all this disparate material?
Steven Church: Sounding has this really interesting etymology as well as a variety of meanings. It’s a word with literal and figurative weight, a word with physicality, defined in part by the human body. And one of its meanings is to “measure the depth” of a body of water (measurements recorded in fathoms), and I kind of think of what I’m doing in the book as taking measurements, dropping lines down into a deep well of meaning, gauging the depth, and occasionally dragging sediment or other stuff up from the bottom. Much of the form of the book was a kind of reaction to the traditional analogies used to talk about form in nonfiction, most of which relied heavily on allusion to visual form—line, collage, thread, web, braid, etc. I wanted to think about form differently, in terms of the creation of echoes, where there are recurring sounds throughout the book, patterns of meaning, rather than solid linear threads or narrative lines.
JH: The first essay, “Auscultation,” was chosen for the Best American Essay anthology, and it’s easy to see why: The narrative performs a kind of brilliant alchemy by combining the history of the stethoscope, two mining collapses, and the moment you first heard the wish, wish, wish of your unborn daughter’s heart. This feels a little like asking a magician to reveal his his tricks, but I’m wondering if you can trace moments when these associations first began to click for you?
SC: That piece started, I think, with an imitation assignment given to my students after we read Eula Biss’s wonderful essay, “Time and Distance Overcome,” and talked about the subversive history of everyday objects. Around the same time, for reasons that hard for me to articulate or explain, I became obsessed with stories of trapped miners. There seemed to be a succession of these incidents in the news, and I’m a somewhat obsessive reader of the news and I often find that my writing is an attempt to explore and understand why certain stories stay with me, lingering around in my consciousness or commanding my repeated attention. So I think I started doing research into rescue efforts for some of these trapped miners, focusing on how they “listen” for life beneath the surface using things called “geophones,” and I think this led to me thinking about “life beneath the surface,” “chambers” in the earth and the human body, and eventually to stethoscopes and how they are used to listen for life beneath the surface of the human body or to diagnose sickness dysfunction, which then led (inevitably I suppose) to a consideration of my own personal connection to the subject matter, to my role as a father. When I discovered that the stethoscope is a relatively simple and new technology, it got me thinking a lot about how the stethoscope is tied to the formation of identity. I knew pretty early on that the essay would have four parts or “chambers” to correspond to the subject matter in some way, but I played around with the organizations of the sections a bit. Much of it came together pretty quickly, which makes it a bit of an anomaly for me. Most of my essays take much longer to find their shape, form, and focus.
JH: The idea of transcendence through sound is mentioned several times in the “Ultrasonic” essay. Can you talk about how this idea played out in the piece, both as a philosophical concept and a personal need?
SC: That essay, of course, is about a time of great anxiety and uncertainty in our lives, a couple of months in the summer of 2007 when my only relationship to our unborn daughter was through sound and touch, and a time when we didn’t know for sure if she was going to be healthy. But it’s also an essay about racquetball and transcendence, and a kind of sound-induced trance or fugue state that I could enter while playing racquetball. I’d taken up the game again and found that I needed it more and more to cope with and escape some of this stress in my life. That essay also became kind of like the mother-ship from which many of the other essays in the book were spawned.
JH: You’ve made it clear over the years that you’re not a fan of confessional memoir. Yet, I’m not the first to describe your writing as highly personal. Many of the pieces in Ultrasonic deal—often indirectly—with sorrow, loss, worry, etc. In “All of a Dither,” the resurrected figure of Wallace Stevens careens precariously above an orchestra pit to render your personal anxiety about parenthood. Later, tucked into an essay about Elvis and racquetball, we learn that your therapist suggested exercise to help you cope with stress. Would it be fair, then, to describe your work as “oblique confessional” or “covert confessional”?
SC: Sure. I can deal with that. I guess I’m mostly interested in approaching the personal material in increasingly oblique ways. This may be because I find that it’s often the same material, the same emotional subjects that get dragged up from the bottom with those sounding lines. What I’m hoping then, I guess, is that the introduction of those subjects (fatherhood, loss, tragedy, etc.), helps amplify the stakes of the essay and expand its range, letting it partake in both the public and the personal. But I guess I’d also argue that the best sort of personal essays are always working to complicate the personal. I think of what I’m doing is not so much confessing things about myself but instead constructing a more nuanced or conflicted self on the page.
JH: Part of what I’m getting at with the previous question is that you write with quite a lot of restraint, but the essays occasionally swell with moments of such demonstrative emotion. Case in point, from the “Seven Fathoms Down” essay: “My son . . . seems to have long shed my baggage of fear, and it does crank and flush the valves of my heart to see him happy. Such moments with my children stretch the intimate muscle until it pumps so full I think it might break some ribs.” How do you know when and how often to slip free of aesthetic restraint like this? How do you manage to create essays that are both erudite and huge-hearted?
SC: I do think it’s important to look away initially. I’m not so much interested in emotional catharsis as I am in something more like intellectual catharsis, where I’m getting new thoughts out, letting them build on the page until I can construct a new lens or window through which to see my personal experience, or the experience of others in a different way. I guess I’m always chasing ideas, bouncing from one association to another, guided as much by echoes as anything, allowing my curiosity to drive the essay initially, trusting that there’s some kind of pattern to it all, that I’ll eventually reach something deeper or more emotionally resonant. Sometimes (often many revisions later) I have to consciously ask myself, “Why does this matter? What’s at stake? Who cares about cockles or catfish?” which are what I think of as reader-focused questions, where I’m actively considering how a reader would move through and essay and where he or she might need something emotionally resonant to anchor them or make some more overt connections between perhaps disparate material.
JH: You describe Fresno as “a city I’ve grown to love in the way one loves one’s own scars.” What were some of the frustrations and joys of writing about Fresno, and especially its unique sonic soundscape?
SC: Fresno is a strange, often weather-less place (unless you count unrelenting heat and air pollution as weather) in the Central Valley of California where they don’t have thunderstorms, or at least not like the ones I grew up with Kansas, but where they have police helicopters that circle my neighborhood at night. It’s a city ringed with humming six-lane freeways and, every New Years Eve, defined by the constant cacophony of gunfire echoing throughout the night. It took me a while to get used to this. I’m still not used to it. But for some reason I kind of love it here. Fresno is, in many ways, the most real place I’ve every lived. It’s a place of great contradiction. So in that regard it offers a lot of interesting material and opportunities to be curious about what is often morally and emotionally significant sound. And I suppose that’s what, as essayists, we do in the face of a foreign sonic landscape. We try to understand it, explore it, and complicate it in compelling ways.
JH: In the endnotes, you mention that you were honestly surprised and satisfied when later drafts of the “Crown and Shoulder” essay took a very unexpected turn toward the personal. You describe it as a kind of Doppler effect that muted the personal material until suddenly you were right in it. From what I understand, though, you gave yourself some strict aesthetic constraints when drafting this piece. Can you shed any light on the paradoxical and rewarding loss of control—and subsequent discovery—that can arise from self-imposed controls/constraints?
SC: It is a bit paradoxical, I suppose, that putting handcuffs or constraints on my thinking also allowed my thinking and research and essays to expand in fascinating ways while also leading to many moments of discovery; but I’m guessing those poets who work within traditional forms might understand this paradox. At the most basic level for me, having an assignment or constraint of always (in the case of the essay you mention) writing either about “crown” or “shoulder” also gave me an assignment. I always had a focus and something to write about. I didn’t always know where it was going but I always had a starting point. Many of the other essays were written with similar handcuffs or constraints. I highly recommend it.
JH: In “All of a Dither,” your father says childbirth and parenthood will “reset all your meters.” You take that a step further by claiming it “pins the needle into the red zone.” What sort of new writerly questions or concerns do you find yourself working with now that you operate in the full rev of parenthood?
SC: Well, having children fills your life with uncertainty and doubt, the lingua franca of essay writing . . . so there’s that. And I believe it’s important to embrace that stuff, to accept that parenthood rarely confirms what you think you know about yourself but regularly challenges it, and the way it does this can often be the best material for personal essays. I also have to think about how I’m using them on the page or in my essays. My children change on the page and actually become mutated versions of themselves, suspended in time and identity or, as my colleague likes to tease me, “very convenient devices.” And I can accept that this is often how I use my kids in my essays, but (for me at least) there’s a big difference between a device in an essay and a gimmick. For me, a device in an essay is a character that serves to illuminate or amplify an idea, and I believe that most essays traffic more in ideas and devices than they do in what we think of as traditional characters (or at least most of the essays that I like). Any emotion I express toward my children in an essay, however, is honest and authentic, not entirely manufactured for the sake of the essay, even if it’s occasionally surprising (to me and perhaps to the reader) how I get there. But as I talk about in my other essay, “It Begins with a Knock at the Door,” I also struggle at times with my role as an “efficient parasite,” who sees all of the people in his life as possible material for an essay and what the ethical implications are of this role. It’s perhaps more of a burden than any artist should shoulder, but it’s one that I think a nonfiction writer necessarily shoulders to some degree.
JH: The essay “Playlist for Finishing a Book” catalogues the music—mostly 80s-era thrash metal—that helped you finish your previous book, The Day After The Day After, on a tight deadline. I’m curious to know if any particular music provided a similar kind of “source sound” while you wrote Ultrasonic?
SC: Yeah, it’s funny. Every book seems to have it’s own unique soundtrack. This one was written on a pretty heavy dose of old school country, folk, and roots rock, especially Waylon Jennings, Jackson Browne, Johnny Cash, and Neil Young, combined with a LOT of music by the singer songwriters, Boris McCutcheon, Neko Case, and later, Taylor Goldsmith of the band, Dawes; but I also occasionally mixed in some Otis Redding and Al Green, along with new-school dance/hip-hop like Lyrics Born, the Scissor Sisters, and the great mash-up artist, Girl Talk.
JH: As a longtime essayist and editor of The Normal School magazine, you’re front and center at what many refer to as the “Lyric Essay Movement” or the “Creative Nonfiction Movement.” But lately it seems that not a few writers (even John D’Agata, who coined the termed) are beginning to shy away from the entire label of “Lyric Essay.” If indeed we’re part of a growing movement, it seems like maybe we need a better title—something with a little more kick and fire. Want to take a shot at it?
SC: I agree with D’Agata that the term “lyric essay” is meaningful now mostly as a pedagogical term. It gives us a way to talk about and teach a certain kind of essay. But it’s probably also a term that is overused to the point of being meaningless. I’ve also written before in the anthology Blurring the Boundaries how the push to trade terms like “memoir,” “creative nonfiction,” literary nonfiction,” or even just “nonfiction” for something more like “modes of writing,” where we’re interested in the “essay mode,” doesn’t really absolve us as nonfiction writers from what I think of as a collective burden of definition, of constantly negotiating just what it is that we’re all doing on the page. That being said, I think that much of what we think of as the “lyric essay” has been done to the point of being canonical and pretty much subsumed under the broader term, “essay.” So for example, I think your memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, is an essayistic memoir of the best kind. I’d put it in the same categories of books like Nick Flynn’s, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City; and I also like to think of my memoirs, The Guinness Book of Me and The Day After The Day After, as book-length essays or an essayistic memoirs, but I’m not how much these terms really clarify anything. This is good, I think. I like books that somehow both confirm and challenge our expectations for form, genre, and labels. I’m kind of glad that nonfiction is constantly in flux, forever being defined and redefined, perhaps because it is always (often) ultimately defined by what it is not.
Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, Ultrasonic: Essays (Lavender Ink) and a forthcoming fifth book from Dzanc Books. His essays have been published in Passages North, DIAGRAM, Brevity, River Teeth, The Rumpus, AGNI, The Pedestrian, Colorado Review, Creative Nonfiction, Terrain.org, and many others. He is a Founding Editor and Nonfiction Editor for the nationally recognized literary magazine, The Normal School; and he teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.
Justin Hocking is an avid surfer and skateboarder, and the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld (Graywolf Press, 2014). He edited Life and Limb: Skateboarders Write from the Deep End, and his work has appeared in The Rumpus, Thrasher, Orion Magazine, Portland Review, and The Normal School. A former executive director of the Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland, Justin now teaches in Eastern Oregon University’s Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing, where he is a co-founder and lead instructor of the Wilderness Writing Concentration.