An Interview with Aaron Angello
Photo Credit: @michaelmasonstudios
Aaron Angello is a poet, playwright, and essayist from the Rocky Mountains who lives and feels remarkably out of place in the charming, but very Eastern, town of Frederick, Maryland. He received his MFA and PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder, and he currently teaches writing and theater at Hood College.
As part of a creative writing class that focused on process rather than product, Aaron Angello chose to meditate on and be prompted to write by a single word from a single work—Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29—every day for a semester. The result is The Fact of Memory: 114 Ruminations and Fabrications (Rose Metal Press, April 2022), a collection of 114 short prose pieces, each a stand-alone but also part of what Angello calls a “long, lyric essay.” Described as “a fractal memoir,” this book uses language as a jumping-off place for deep dives into memory and creativity and Shakespeare’s sonnet as the current flowing through it all. To try to categorize these pieces is to do them and the entire book a disservice. No one is like another, and though repetition is a key to the volume’s unity, the recurrence of a word or an image is not a duplication but a transformation, a reminder that memory is not fact but the memory of fact.
Patrick Parks: In the Author's Note, you detail the origin of this book, but could you explain a bit about the workshop approach and your response to it?
Aaron Angello: As I mention in the Author’s Note, the class was led by the poet Julie Carr, who decided to run the workshop differently from the way they are usually run. I don’t want to speak for her, but many of us who teach creative writing feel that the traditional workshop structure isn’t all that effective, and my guess is she wanted to experiment with another way. The workshop included peer critique, but much less than one would expect, and most of the critique was positive. Instead, the focus of the course was on process—specifically, daily practice as process.
By the second or third week of the semester, all of the students in the class had decided to commit to a daily practice that would last the rest of the semester, and most students really committed to it. In one assignment, we were to meet with another student in the class and do their practice. I did this twice. The first was with a visual artist who had started a daily drawing practice with very particular constraints—a certain pencil, one book, something ordinary had to be drawn from life. I can’t draw, but I gave it a shot. The second was with a guy who was a progressive Christian who was choosing, at random, a passage from the Bible to meditate and write on. I’m not a Christian, but I found the practice excellent. I’d like to fully commit to that one sometime. A daily practice, like meditation or yoga, is only effective when done for an extended period, over time. Trying it out is cool, but its value is in the practice.
As I describe in the author’s note, my practice involved waking up early, sitting in a very specific chair near a window in my Boulder apartment, meditating upon a single word from Shakespeare’s 29th sonnet, and then writing. My self-imposed constraints were 1) to fill the entire page of my notebook with writing and 2) to not write beyond a single page. I think the regularity of the practice, the time of day, and the process of meditating upon a single word allowed me, in some small part, to bypass the conscious part of my mind, the part of our consciousness that traffics in the repetition of existing linguistic and thought patterns. The creative mind lies beyond that place; we just need to figure out how to get there.
This was the genius of Julie’s workshop. From my perspective, she gave us, her students, a pathway to our beyond-conscious, creative minds.
PP: Have you found ways to duplicate this same experience with your own students? If so, how have they responded? What tasks did they undertake?
AA: I haven’t done an entire workshop that centered upon a single daily practice (but once I’m tenured…). At the moment, I only teach undergrad writers, and I find we need to spend more time focusing on the sentence. That has to be there first. However, I do often try to find exercises that help students reach beyond their conscious minds and into their creative minds. Interestingly, I’ve found acting exercises work well in this respect.
I was trained in Stanislavski’s Method as a young actor in New York. Much of that training focuses on what is called “emotional memory,” or “sense memory.” Essentially, the way I see it, you are training your body to respond honestly to imaginary stimuli. I’ve found that using some of these exercises in a writing class helps the writer get to that creative mental place. I may ask them to close their eyes and focus on their breath. I ask them to pay attention to the places in their bodies where they are holding tension and to try to let that go. Once they are relaxed, I ask them to get a sense of something from their memory. I usually ask them to think of something like the carpet in a room from their childhood home. What did it look like? What did it feel like beneath their feet? Was there a smell associated with it? And that could be enough. It’s amazing how an exercise like this can drop you into this mental space. Actors call this “getting out of your head and into your body.” You don’t “think” about how you’re moving through space or speaking a line; you’re responding, honestly, in the moment. This translates really well to writing. One could even use that language—getting out of your head and into your body—to talk about writing. Hélène Cixous did. So did Susan Sontag. It’s a metaphor, of course—the vehicle is the body, the tenor is the beyond-consciousness—but it works.
So, no, I haven’t done a semester-long daily practice assignment, though I’d like to at some point. But I learned from Julie that the point is to get the mind out of its ordinary mode of operation.
PP: You also discuss the idea of memory and fact, as evidenced by your title. Could you elaborate a bit about that, especially in light of your having written and then revised some of the pieces? Did your revisiting the pieces over time solidify them into a whole, what you called "a kind of long, lyric essay?"
AA: I would never say that fact and truth doesn’t exist. Of course, they do. The problem is that all perception of factual events is subjective. Also, I think creative writing, like the lyric essay or the poem, can come closer to “truth” than most other nonfiction writing because it’s not reportage. The reader doesn’t come to it to get an unbiased recounting of events. Humans have never made up stories because they were trying to get further from the truth; they make up stories to get closer to it.
"Isn’t it fascinating, then, that memory is not real? It’s a creative act, a recreation of some former memory. What, then, are we? What is real?"
Clearly, throughout the book, there are pieces that read like a straight recounting of events. There are also prose poems that are not doing that at all, and there are stories that are entirely made up. When I was writing the individual pieces each day, I didn’t impose any generic restrictions on myself. I just wanted to let my mind do what it would with the word I meditated upon. It wasn’t until I had written the entire manuscript that I realized what I had written was “a kind of long, lyric essay.” Each piece was a moment of thought. The book is a record of thought over time. One way you could define a lyric essay is as a kind of record of thinking. I think a big part of the joy of reading personal, literary essays (and poetry, for that matter) is the empathetic experience the work allows the reader. The essay tunes the reader’s mind to think the way the author’s thoughts are recorded. There’s a primal pleasure in that.
I did revise a lot, on the line level, on the paragraph level, and on the level of the entire manuscript. Like I say above, this piece isn’t meant to be a straightforward accounting of anything. It functions, I hope, as a work of art. I jettisoned some pieces entirely and rewrote them according to the original rules and constraints. And yeah, I’m sure, once I realized what the book was, my writing changed a bit. That’s okay.
I know your question was about memory as well, and I haven’t talked about it in my answer. It’s huge in this book, obviously. I’m fascinated with the fact that memory isn’t true, yet it is all we have of our past. In fact, it makes us who we are. I’m thinking about Blade Runner, which I love. The thing that made Rachel, and probably Deckard, believe they were human was memory. Tyrell figured out that that is what makes us human—our memories, and he was able to create a replicant that was, for all ethical intents and purposes, human. Isn’t it fascinating, then, that memory is not real? It’s a creative act, a recreation of some former memory. What, then, are we? What is real?
PP: While ekphrastic poetry finds its inspiration in visual art, would you say that The Fact of Memory and its relationship to Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 is in some ways a cousin of that form? You do mention in the Author's Note that the poem is a favorite, but you also say you might have had a similar result with a different poem, so, in retrospect, how did the poem—if it did at all—shape your responses?
AA: I’ve though about this a lot, and I’m not entirely sure I can give you a satisfactory answer. I genuinely think I could have chosen any piece of text and done the same thing. It could have been operating instructions for a vacuum cleaner. Of course, the resulting collection would be different because the words are different, but the interesting question, and I believe it’s what you’re asking here, is this: Is there a more abstract connection? Did Shakespeare’s sonnet influence my thought as I meditated upon the words? I think it must have. Each morning, as I focused on the word, the poem was also in my mind.
A Shakespearean sonnet is very formulaic. The first quatrain introduces a problem and the second develops the problem. Then, the first word of the third stanza is usually something like “But” or “Yet” because we’ve reached the volta, the turn. The third stanza complicates the problem; it provides a counterpoint. Finally, the final couplet sums the whole thing up. This is the structure of almost all of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In Sonnet 29, stanza one can be summarized as “my life is terrible.” Stanza two can be summarized as “no, really, my life is super-terrible.” Then, we have that wonderful line and a half, “Yet in these thoughts, myself almost despising / Happily I think on thee,” and the third stanza is all about how the speaker’s love for the beloved makes it all okay.
I think The Fact of Memory does, in a certain way, echo the sentiment in the poem. It’s not structured chronologically, of course, but there is a kind of struggling through a lot of tough stuff to get to the good stuff. And in my book, as in Shakespeare’s sonnet, it’s the beloved that ultimately matters; there’s a realization that it’s the beloved that makes life worth living. Of course, Shakespeare did it in 114 words. It took me 114 pages, and it ain’t in the same ballpark, as a work of literature.
PP: In writing about your book as a long, lyric essay, you say, "The essay tunes the reader's mind to think the way the author's thoughts are recorded." Building on that idea, how would your ideal reader read your book? Would you want the person to read one section and ponder it before moving on to the next? Would you want your reader to look for the connection between successive entries? Would the person come away with the impression you're striving to achieve only after reading the whole volume?
AA: This is a fascinating subject to me. I do believe, as I mentioned before, that an essay or poem is a record of the author’s thought, and the reader, in a certain sense, has an opportunity to experience that kind of thinking while reading—and I love that; the implications can be beautiful. I always do try to have an ideal reader in mind when I write. It’s usually someone that is a little smarter and a little more interesting than I am—helps me push a bit more, I guess.
At the same time, however, I think it’s a mistake to assume or expect a reader to read one’s work in any particular way. I tend to enlist the reader in meaning-making. I’m very influenced by poststructural thought and by reader-response theories. I also really admired what the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets were up to in that they were trying to shift the power of meaning creation away from the writer and to the reader. Of course, what I write is in no way language poetry, but I do allow for a lot of moments that don’t “make sense” in any typical way. Many of the individual pieces in The Fact of Memory are disjunctive, surreal, imagist—in other words, they do the things poems do. What I’m saying, I suppose, is that the experience the reader has is up to them, and I don’t think any one experience is better than another.
Interestingly, though, the way I read the book has changed since it’s been finished. When I was writing it, I really thought of the individual pieces as stand-alone pieces. I knew, of course, that there would be some connection because of the process, but I didn’t think of them in relation to each other at all. It wasn’t until I started revising and editing the book that I began to realize that as a whole, it reads like a fragmented memoir, even though some of the pieces are clearly fictions or lyrics. Each piece is enriched because of its place in the whole, and together, they all take on a function of shedding some light on the “I” throughout it. That’s why I think of it, now, as a long, lyric essay.
When I read from it at readings, on the other hand, I hand out cards on which the sonnet is printed. Audience members just yell out a word, and I read that piece. If a reader chose to read the book that way—randomly, bits at a time—I’d be fine with that, too.
"We are narrative animals, and we make stories out of experience. We make stories to make sense of our lives."
PP: Along similar lines, in the first section, "When," you draw a clear distinction between narrative and lyric, particularly in regard to time. As a long, lyric essay, is there some thread of narrative in the whole, some connection between one section and the next apart from the poem's structure?
AA: Yeah, I think there is, but it wasn’t really intentional. The narrative thread is there because, in most of the pieces, I am the protagonist. There are true stories, certainly, and then there are prose poems, which equate to thought. When the two things (along with other sub-genres that one might identify in the book) come together, the reader, I think, will read a connection there.
A friend of mine recently wrote a review of the book in which she pointed out the fact that I use the words “house” and “home” a lot, and I use the word “apartment” like fourteen times or something. I had no idea I was doing that, but it makes sense. The impact of place on me, and therefore on this book, is profound. There are throughlines, echoes, repetitions, recurring themes, and recurring images throughout the book because it is composed of fragments of my story.
Creative nonfiction, I think, works really well when the form is fragmented. We are narrative animals, and we make stories out of experience. We make stories to make sense of our lives. Maybe The Fact of Memory provides a series of experiences, and the reader gets to make the story.
PP: You mentioned in an earlier response that your writing changed when you looked back on the book in its entirety. Would you say that changes in your life, events significant or otherwise, which occurred during the time from inception to completion, clearly—in your estimation—are reflected in the book?
AA: Yeah, absolutely. There are characters in the book who I didn’t know when I wrote the first draft. They made their way into the manuscript during revisions. When I started writing the book, I was dating the woman who would become my wife, and we were married well before the book was finished. I moved from Colorado to Maryland during the revision of the book. (I guess, when you spend several years working on something, these things are bound to happen.) So, literally, there are life changes reflected across the pages of the book. For example, I think I revised more of a sense of contentedness into the book, especially in the last several pages. Certainly, during the writing and revising process, my life settled down a bit. In the penultimate piece, “With,” I see this reflected pretty explicitly, and that is a piece that I revised extensively.
PP: Returning for a moment to your ideal reader, when that person gets to the final section, "Kings," and revisits in part the first section, "When," how do you hope they read that, in terms of the overall effect you're trying to achieve?
AA: That’s a tough question to answer because, as I mentioned above, I try to resist expectations of how my readers will experience the book. However, I really like beginning and ending the book with “the imposition of narrative,” because that’s what I and the readers, presumably, will be doing—imposing narrative upon a collection of experiences. If the reader chooses to do so, they can read the collection as a whole, and they must make sense of it. I think there is great value in understanding our own lives as a series of experiences upon which we impose narrative. This happened because of that; if I’d only done x instead of y; clearly, I was always meant to end up here. This is what we do, and I suppose it’s fine. But I love knowing that the story I’ve imposed upon my experiences can be reexamined—and revised.
The other reason I ended the book with the language from the beginning of the book is I wanted my reader to have an opportunity to read the whole thing as a circle instead of a line (it was never a line). There is no chronological order of events in the book, and the connection between fact and memory is tenuous at best. Nothing really resolves, but the reader is sent back to the start. At least I think that’s what I was trying to do there.
PP: Your comment regarding a vacuum cleaner instruction manual as a structuring device is unlikely (though it would be intriguing to read), so what is your next project?
AA: I'm not exactly sure what it is I'm working on now. I'm collecting fragments that have a lot to do with ghosts and grief. I'm thinking it's going to evolve into a longer essay about my father and his adherence to a belief in television mediums—a kind of new spiritualism that he swore by. I was inspired, formally, by Lily Hoang's A Bestiary, a book I absolutely loved. Hoang is a master of the fragment in nonfiction. I figured I'd try working in that mode for a while and see where it goes. So far, I'm having fun with it. It's still in the very early stages, but who knows? It might turn into something. Other than that, I'm writing a lot of feedback on student papers (the genre I spend most of my time on).
PATRICK PARKS is the author of the novel Tucumcari and has had fiction, poetry, reviews, and interviews published recently in OxMag, Sledgehammer, Another Chicago Magazine, Six Sentences, and Heavy Feather Review. He lives near Chicago.