Objects of Our Depiction

Objects of Our Depiction: A Material Culture Survey is my new material cultures studies project that asks contemporary writers to answer questions about tools, toys, keepsakes, art, and other objects in their work.

That survey can be found here.

Material culture often refers to an angle of scholarship in which academic readers extrapolate on the meanings of objects in literature. Objects of Our Depiction approaches material culture differently, instead asking how writers conceptualize objects in their own work. The project aims to collect responses from a diverse set of writers on the roles of objects in their work, study those responses, and finally present some perspectives in an essay. The project may also include an archive of responses and a series of follow-up interviews.

What is Material Culture?

According to the Center for Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware:

Material culture studies is an interdisciplinary field that examines the relationship between people and their things, the making, history, preservation, and interpretation of objects. It draws on theory and practice from such disciplines as art history, archaeology, anthropology, history, historic preservation, folklore, and museum studies, among others. Anything from buildings and architectural elements to books, jewelry, toothbrushes, or bubbles can be considered material culture.

How do material culture and literature overlap?

A wheelbarrow makes an apt example to explain how material culture engages with literature.

Using handles to increase leverage, a tray or bucket to hold materials, and a wheel to reduce friction through rotation, a wheelbarrow increases the efficiency of work a person can perform. Historically, wheelbarrows did not appear in Western culture until 1220 CE, but Chinese culture used wheelbarrow for millennia prior. Today, they are widely used in construction, agriculture, and mining.

From this knowledge, one could generate many questions about wheelbarrows and labor. Who uses a wheelbarrow rather than industrial machines? Is there a socioeconomic or racial disparity in wheelbarrow usage in US cultures or cultures around the world? How have wheelbarrows been owned and used historically? Who owned them? Who used them? Has there been change over time?

When focused on literature, objects like wheelbarrows adds layers of symbolic meaning, layers that inform cultural and historical understandings of things. The most famous literary wheelbarrow, of course, is the subject of Williams Carlos Williams’s poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The poem depicts a wheelbarrow with familiar descriptions – it’s red, wet, and outside by some chickens. When the poet proclaims that “so much depends upon” a wheelbarrow, we encounter the archetype of wheelbarrow cast in a new role, a symbol of labor and subsistence.

Studying material culture encourages readers to turn outward from literary representations of objects to ascertain how objects depicted in literature exist in the real world. In 2015, William Logan published an analysis of Williams’s poem in Parnassus: Poetry in Review in which he pieced together clues from census records and interviews with William Carlos Williams to identify the owner of the poem’s red wheelbarrow as Thaddeus Marshall, an African American fisherman and farmer. Using a historical map, Logan confirmed that a large chicken coop once existed in Marshall’s yard.  

What does it mean that an affluent, white doctor/poet captured the tool of an African American laborer in a famous poem that has been read by scores of high schoolers and undergrads? What does it mean for Marshall’s real wheelbarrow which he literally depended on to become the symbolically depended-upon archetype of labor? What about the object is erased when the poet excludes the person who owned and used it?

Logan’s scholarship on “The Red Wheelbarrow” makes one wonder, what if we had always known who owned the red wheelbarrow and Thaddeus Marshall’s name had been remembered along with his tool? What would change if Williams himself had said, “I used Thaddeus Marshall’s wheelbarrow in my poem because…”?

Objects of Our Depiction intends examine objects through the eyes of the writers who depict them, to see what we learn and to make a record. To gather writer’s impressions, I have created a survey with six questions that prompt writers to reflect on specific objects in their work and the roles objects play in their writing more generally. Again, that survey is here.

In the coming months, I will be looking for participants in this project. I hope to meet some at AWP in Seattle soon. Maybe I’ve already met you there?

New Interview – Ander Monson – Full Stop

Few people in the literary community create as many fun and meaningful opportunities for writers as Ander Monson. From editing the magazines DIAGRAM and Essay Daily, to running New Michigan Press, to hosting an annual March Madness-inspired writing tournament dedicated to essays about music, Monson creates unique spaces for many writers of all stripes to share their work.

In his new book of nonfiction, Predator: A Movie, A Memoir, An Obsession (Graywolf Press, 2022), Monson explores the culture and fandom surrounding Predator, the 1987 action film starring eventual governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse “The Body” Ventura.

Predator: A Movie, A Memoir, An Obsession shows what films, books, games, artworks, or sports can reveal through analyzing a thing and the culture around it. Even campy “big dumb movies,” as Monson calls them, offer entry points into deeper understandings of the self and others. When Monson explores why he’s obsessed with Predator, it’s an invitation to ask yourself why you’re obsessed with Slayer, or My Little Pony, or Keith Herring, or The Raiders. What does that obsession say about you? About others? What can an action film teach us about masculinity, violence, eroticism, fear, or love? When the book examines what Monson’s love for Predator reflects, or fails to reflect, about his values now and throughout his nearly life-long relationship to the movie, we can ask the same questions about our obsessions.

Read the interview here.

Purchase Predator: A Movie, A Memoir, An Obsession here.

New Review – Madness by Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué in Rain Taxi

A few years back, I reviewed the poetry collection Losing Miami by Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué for Terrain.org. The collection was later a finalist of the Lambda Literary Award in Gay Poetry, which didn’t surprise me at all, because the work was outstanding. It was so outstanding, in fact, that when I learned about Gabriel’s new collection with Nightboat Books, Madness, I was excited to read it and curious where the poet would go after Losing Miami.

Where Gabriel went was a faux-collected works format, a book that created a fictional poet (Luis Montes-Torres) and attributed the real poet’s work to the fictional one. Each section represents a fictional collection of Montes-Torres’s and a preface by the fictional editors provides a biography. It’s a poetry collection in a fictional frame. Totally brilliant.

The poems themselves present the same accessible insight as those in Losing Miami, often focused on themes of ecological change and queer identity explored in the previous work, but in new, fresh ways.

I ended up reviewing Madness for Rain Taxi Review of books. The review is in the print edition, which you can get here. It’s only 5 dollars and there’s lots of other great content and leads to new reads. You should pick up a copy of Madness and then read my review and let me know what you think!

New Interview – Bojan Louis – Full Stop

Tomorrow, September 27, 2022, is the release date of Bojan Louis’s new short fiction collection, Sinking Bell (Gray Wolf Press). Sinking Bell is Bojan’s latest book since his 2017 American Book Award-winning poetry collection, Currents (BkMk). I asked Bojan some questions about Sinking Bell for Full Stop and you can read our discussion here.

New Review – Gag Reflex by Elle Nash

Elle Nash’s novel, Gag Reflex, takes place on Live Journal and chronicles a young woman’s transition into adulthood and her struggles with body dysmorphia and an eating disorder. It’s an extremely fast read and feels like an artifact of the early 2000s. Dark as the character’s struggles are, the book maintains dark humor and prurient action to keep readers from despair. It also contains a classic mall metal playlist.

Read my review of Gag Reflex here on Full Stop.

Get the book from Clash Books here.

New Essay – “What’s the Bear’s Name?” – Deep Wild

I never met the bear who is the subject of my essay’s title, “What’s the Bears Name?” It lived in the Galiuro Mountains in Arizona in canyon called Rattlesnake Canyon near an old homestead called Powers Garden. Deep Wild was so kind as to include my essay in their newest issue. The essay asks why we don’t see animals as individuals and what effect that generalization of other species has on how we consider and treat them. Of course, people generalize each other, lumping people into groups and losing sight of individuality, so it’s not surprising that we do it to animals. Still, it’s interesting to think about what might change – in our thoughts or in our actions – if we allowed ourselves to acknowledge bears, and many other creatures, as individuals.

You can get a copy of Deep Wild Issue 4 here. It’s full of nature and adventure.

New Essay – The Brain of Ozzy – Essay Daily

Essay Daily always features fun and creative ways to think about writing essays. One of their ongoing events is their semi-annual advent calendar featuring one new essay each day of December leading to Xmas. This year’s theme was cover essays. Think like cover songs, but with essays. Participating writers chose an essay to cover and wrote an original piece.

My essay, The Brain of Ozzy, is a “cover” of Roland Barthes’ The Brain of Einstein, which was in his collection Mythologies. What Einstein and Ozzy Osbourne have in common is a public interest in their brains – Einstein’s brain because of his genius and Ozzy’s brain because of his drug and alcohol tolerance.

Thanks to Essay Daily for featuring my piece! I’ve really enjoyed the other advent essays, too.

Two Reviews – As You Were by David Tromblay and Alien Stories by E.C. Osondu

I have been a bit negligent in updating this site over the summer, but I have been writing and reviewing books.

David Tromblay’s memoir, As You Were, recounts the author’s abusive childhood and military experiences. The memoir pulls zero punches, describing physical abuse at the hands of Tromblay’s father and grandmother in fairly graphic ways, but somehow the author’s dark sense of humor manages to take some of the edge off. The book also addresses the cultural erasure that occurred at boarding schools for Native American children, like the one Tromblay’s grandmother attended.

Read my review of As You Were at Full Stop here.

E.C. Osondu’s Alien Stories uses extraterrestrials as metaphors for immigrants in US culture. That sounds like a simple premise, but Osondu gets great mileage out of it, describing immigrant experiences in accessible and empathetic ways. The stories are often quite funny and always clever. Osondu is from Nigeria but now teaches in Providence, Rhode Island. I’m hoping he attends the Tucson Festival of Books because I’d really like to hear him speak or read from his work.

Read my review of Alien Stories at Full Stop here.

Full Stop Reviews Supplement: Summer 2021 cover with art by Ashon T. Crawley

In other news, my review of Anna Zett’s Artificial Gut Feeling is featured in the Full Stop Reviews supplement, which is available for Full Stop’s Patreon supporters. The supplement includes several feature essays and many reviews. Definitely worth checking out.

I’d also like to congratulate Full Stop on their recent Whiting Literary Magazine Prize. It’s a real accomplishment and well deserved. I’m proud to be a contributor to their important work!

New Story – Misoprostol – Fugitives and Futurists


Fugitives and Futurists were kind enough to share my story, “Misoprostol.” The pic above is the image the editors of the site chose to accompany the story. It’s a very short piece of near-future science fiction that imagines how prohibition of reproductive rights will manifest similarly to drug prohibition. As someone who grew up around religion-based opposition to reproductive rights, particularly women’s reproductive rights, I see religion-appeasing prohibition as irrational policy and an ideological poison in our society.

Read Misoprostol here at Fugitives and Futurists.