44.1 Feature: Craft Essay by Angela Pelster

Jan 10, 2018Archive, Feature

Angela Pelster’s most recent book Limber won the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writer Award in Nonfiction, and was a finalist for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her work has also appeared in Granta, The Kenyon Review, River Teeth and The Gettysburg Review amongst others. She was recently awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, and is the founder and director of the screening series, “Writers Go to the Movies.” She teaches at Hamline University and lives with her family in St Paul, Minnesota.

On Invention

by Angela Pelster


“What I want, more than anything, is a sense of simultaneity. A nod to the fact that we all float on a sea of history, whether we acknowledge it or not.”

I say this to the class seated before me one night, and feel my face scrunch up in the attempt to find the right words, my brow wrinkles, eyes narrow. It is a dark Monday night in fall, when the weather has turned to face winter and we move through the world hunched, as though protecting the organs hidden beneath our softest parts

“Like this,” I say, and hold my hands in front of me, fingers threaded above and below one another. “I want my writing to be a visual representation of the ideas I’m trying to get at.”

I have been asked to speak to the new class of MFA students in the program I teach in, to talk to them about my collection of essays, to share something helpful about my writing process, to tell them something about my new book. But I am getting lost in the process again, because process is hard, even if you’ve done it before, and I have a pile of words before me that I don’t know what to do with. So, here we are now, with my new book. The way I am stuck; the way I’m not sure how to move forward, prodding to see if these bright, new students understand what I am trying to do, have similar questions of their own, ideas we might share.

Some of the students are nodding, excited, some are clearly deciding not to take a class with me next semester, some look bemused, some bored. I am trying to explain this thing that I have done – my collection of hundreds of pages of court rulings and decisions that shaped the civil rights of this country from its first years after the European invasion until the present, and that I don’t know what to do with it all, but that there is some mist of an idea floating around in me that I’m still trying to grab at.

“Last year,” I tell them, “I watched this film. Man With a Movie Camera. It was. Well. So. It was. Amazing. You know? Great. Have any of you seen it?”

No one has seen it. So I go on to tell them that Elizaveta Svilova (the film’s editor) and her husband Dziga Vertov (the camera man) made this silent Soviet documentary in 1929, and that it spliced cuts of urban life from four different cities together, to ultimately present what seems to be a portrait, a documentary, of a single city. There are no actors; there is no narrative. It whirls and rushes and pauses and stares. It offers up the city as multi-faceted, layered and turning, full of a rhythmic energy akin to breathing, a being itself. There are so many things going on at once, that it feels impossible to keep up with the camera, and it also feels unnecessary. Experiencing it is enough.

No one knew what to do with the film when it first came out – people were annoyed by its lack of clarity, scared, confused, but then, in the way these things go, the British Film Institute named it the best documentary ever made, 89 years after it was originally released

In 1926, Virginia Woolf wrote that in film, “the past could be unrolled, distances annihilated, and the gulfs which dislocate in novels could… be smoothed away.”

When I first saw Man With A Movie Camera I knew I wanted to write a book like it, and I wanted the book to do what Virginia Woolf said only a film could do: I wanted to unroll the past and annihilate distance. I wanted to create a picture of a city past and present, in all its complicated, wonderful glory, fast moving, layered, off-centered, unexpected. And I wanted it to all be about Baltimore, the city I had newly moved to and instantly fallen in love with.

As a white Canadian with little knowledge of the history of the United States, I knew that if I wanted to exist here in a way that lined up with my beliefs about justice and equality, and that if I wanted to make art in this country, about it, because of it, that more than anything else, I needed a better education on its history of violence against African Americans. To function from any other space would be a continuation of that oppression.

And so, like Elizaveta Svilova, I started to gather. I spent years reading old diaries, journals, letters, ledgers, history books, and then I jumped into the law and piled together all the major rulings and court decisions that pertained to civil rights in this country. I snipped and cut and taped and moved and placed them next to one another until I had a collage essay in chronological order that chartered the history of racism in the United States. It was terrifying in its architecture, and heartbreaking in the way that it lurched, how it fell forward and then backward, forward and then backward, again and again and again.

“I didn’t realize,” I tell the class, “that editors are the real movie makers until I watched Man With a Movie Camera.” I had assumed, like most people I think, that the directors and actors and even set designers had more to do with “filmmaking” than editors who sat hunched over a desk in a dark room. But when I watched Elizaveta’s film, I quickly saw how an endless number of movies could have been made from the footage she was given, that decisions of what to keep and where to put it were the same as what to say and how to say it.

“It all comes down to what you want to put beside something else. We all have the same small pile of words to pull from, so the question becomes one of order.”

Not a lot of people get crazy about formal invention these days. It doesn’t sell. The poets have that market mostly cornered, and even the poets don’t expect poets to make any money. But lately, I am finding the old ways inadequate. Our words, our forms can’t seem to keep up with the need for new ways to say, “NO,” and “not here,” and “not ever again.”

That night when I visited the new MFA class, I didn’t know what I would end up with, or what I would do with the pile of laws I had collaged together. But later, when I went over the more than three hundred years of legalized oppression, I knew that I needed to do more than just present the “facts.” I needed to turn the words of the oppressors against them, to somehow find within the original language an act of resistance, a betrayal of the idea of superiority, and to pull out the seed of justice buried so deeply within the injustice. And I thought of Elizaveta again, of her snipping scissors splicing reels of film, her new way of seeing, and how one small idea placed beside another small idea could turn into something whole. Single words could be plucked from that pile like frames in a film, set beside one another, gathered into a new form, a new kind of sentence, a new way to stand together and say something. It could be enough.

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