The following is a guest post by Jessi Fuller Fields, whose poetry appeared in issue 20 of Typehouse.
Religiously homeschooled until college, I grew up a famished reader. Though I had a constant stream of books in hand, the content was often more instructive than literary. I consumed nearly every title on the shelves at home from courtship manuals and Creationism guides to decades-old encyclopedias and Atlas Shrugged. Whenever we went on our semi-regular trip to the public, I chose a Holocaust memoir or A Tale of Two Cities. I avoided short books and graphic novels, the YA section and magazines. In my head, I’d constructed a strict idea of which books merited my attention. Memoirs were always allowed, as were historical novels. Anything remotely contemporary was off the table, unless it was by a Christian author. These were not rules explicitly expressed by my parents, but I thought them best to avoid conflict.
As an English major in college, I began to read more broadly. For the first time, I had friends and faculty to recommend books. I began developing more defined preferences in what I read, no longer choosing something for its instructional merit, but for sound, imagery, and story. It was words, I decided, that made a text. Then Dr. Trakas, my contemporary literature professor, assigned Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Listening to the audiobook, I fell in love with the story, the interwoven narratives, and the precocity of the child narrator. I came to class with pages of notes, prepared to discuss heavy boots and the aftermath of global disasters. Instead, all my classmates could talk about was how the text appeared on the page, something that had never before seemed important to me (see figure 1).
A classmate lent me their physical copy of the book and I peered inside. What I saw flummoxed me. There were pictures. There was handwriting. There were empty pages and pages with text piled onto itself. Words were not all that made the book. It was a visual experience as well. The more I read, the more I noticed this visual aspect drawing me in. I had never considered literature a visual art. Though I had always presumed writers worried away at words and artists manipulated images, that no longer seemed true. There was meaning to be found in how a text appeared on the page and I found myself needing to pursue that artistry deeper. Five years after finishing undergrad, I completed an MFA in Creative Writing and Poetry, where I learned to delight in poet-artists like Rachel Zucker, Diana Khoi Nguyen, and Claudia Rankine. From these women, I began to see poetry as an approach to writing which encompasses more than word choice. Their attention to the entire composition of their work shows us that all writers must consider their own work as a sensorial experience that focuses not only on the sound of words, but on the visual appearance as well.
From Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,
by Jonathan Safran Foer.
Jessi Fuller Fields is a queer writer and poet from the US South currently based in São Paulo, Brazil. She completed an MFA at Queens University of Charlotte in June 2020. Her work explores silence, traumas, and the things best left unsaid. Twitter: @jfullerfields Instagram: @jessi.fullerfields