“I’ve been obsessed lately with seeing how much ‘play’ a fact can take before it breaks and becomes something else, before it loses its integrity.”
Junior Creative Writing major, Amelia Gramling, sent an email to Matthew G. Frank after reading his essay, “The Beginning of the End of Humming Bird Cake,” published in Prairie Schooner. For more of Frank’s work, visit his website.
Dear Mr. Frank,
I recently had the distinct pleasure of reading your nonfiction piece The Beginning of The End of Hummingbird Cake, and I felt deeply compelled to write to you upon finishing it, to tell you how seismically it, how you, moved me. Your dripping and disjointed prose seems to encapsulate on a conceptual level the metaphors you invoke throughout the piece which culminate in a composition of beautiful, menacing chaos, the likes of which I have yet to encounter in all of my various exposures to iterations of the essayistic form up till now nor do I imagine I am likely to stumble across again. I wonder how a writer born and raised in Chicago could embody a location like One Mile Creek in all its sugary sweet, contradictory and somehow harmonious decay. In my own writing, I am often plagued by the prospect of planting my voice in a particular soil. I may be writing from my front porch in Westerville, Ohio but what I am attempting to convey belongs along the banks of the Mississippi or in the boughs of James Island’s twisting, ancient trunks. How do you reconcile that distance? Can research ever be sufficient to transplant your reader? I was also struck by the fluidity of the body of this piece. Each paragraph could exist in a vacuum, it seems, which lends your essay the impression of a short series of vignettes, and yet, when read as one, it becomes clear that each consecutive paragraph serves to complicate and interrogate the ones before.
Hummingbird cake neither begins nor ends here, rather, through your richness of language, it combusts. In a synthesis of race, violence, exploitation, nuances of culture, and a retelling of the dirty South which would set my Granddaddy’s ear ablaze in order to dissipate, fizzle, come together and repeat on and on and on. I am wondering how spontaneous or methodical your process has to be in order to produce this effect. I see and appreciate the flavor of Hummingbird cake, but as someone who’d never heard tell of this phenomenon before now, how did you come to combine these specific ingredients in a way that is both satisfying and sickening? How do you embrace that edge of almost too much, almost unreadable, and refrain from going over?
Thank you so much for your time and for your work.
Amelia Christmas Gramling
Thank you so much for your beautiful email, and engaged reading. I’ve been obsessed lately with pushing against the parameters of the essay; with seeing how much “play” a fact can take before it breaks and becomes something else, before it loses its integrity. ‘Can research ever be sufficient…?’ That’s such a wonderful question, and I wish I had the answer. Of course, it’s all situation-specific, but, given the phrasing of the question (the “ever,” especially), I think the answer is Yes (depending on the intention of the research, the necessary surrender to surprise, the willingness to get lost in the research, to fall in love with it, to argue with it– both with and without the aid of other research; to girdle it in places; to allow it to stand alone in other places; to agitate; to allow it to lead you in new unexpected directions; to couple it with generous and good-hearted imaginative alchemy; the willingness to extend the archival research to that of the observational variety– to actually immerse oneself in a specific place, and to listen to people and talk to people, and bird-watch and river-watch. To meander. To digress. To try and find your way back to something that grows ever-hazier).
Thank you again so, so much, Amelia. You have no idea how much this sort of email message means to me.
All the best,