Gathering Stars: An Interview with Randon Billings Noble by Curtis Smith

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her collection Be with Me Always was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2019 and her anthology of lyric essays, A Harp in the Stars, was published by Nebraska in 2021. Other work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, The Rumpus, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. Currently she is the founding editor of the online literary magazine After the Art and teaches in West Virginia Wesleyan’s Low-Residency MFA Program and Goucher’s MFA in Nonfiction Program. You can read more at her website, www.randonbillingsnoble.com.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on A Harp in the Stars. It’s a great collection. Your essay collection Be With Me Always was published by the University of Nebraska Press, who’s also your publisher for Harp. When did you first start talking to them about Harp? Did they approach you or had you been kicking the idea around for a while? If the idea was yours, can you tell us how it took shape?

Randon Billings Noble: Thanks, Curtis!

The idea for A Harp in the Stars came to me through my teaching. I wanted an anthology of lyric essays that I could give to my students—but there wasn’t one. There are some great anthologies out there—the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, Between Song and Story, Shapes of Native Nonfiction (which wasn’t yet out when I was putting Harp together)—but none of them focused specifically and entirely on the lyric essay. I started to think about how I would put together an anthology of my own.

Some time later I was at the NonfictioNOW conference in Arizona when I ran into my editor at a breakfast bar. We sat and talked a bit before I said something like, “This probably isn’t the time or place to pitch this, but I have an idea about a lyric essay anthology.”  And she said, “This is absolutely the time and place!” and asked me to solicit a few contributors and write up a proposal when I got home. So I did, and A Harp in the Stars was on its way.

After I had chosen a few published essays I love (like Elissa Washuta’s “Apocalypse Logic”) and a few lyric essayists I admire (like Lia Purpua) I put out a call for submissions. I knew there were all kinds of lyric essays that I didn’t yet know about and hadn’t yet read—and the response I got was overwhelming.

CS: When you put out the call for subs, you focused on asking for specific forms. Can you break down these forms and what you find intriguing about each?

RBN:  Because lyric essays are so slippery to define, I found myself focusing on form because it’s more discernable than, say, the use of intuition or poetic language. I thought about the lyric essays I had read and loved and saw them fitting into four basic categories:

  • Flash essays, which I define as 1,000 or fewer. I love how a very short essay can encompass a very big idea. It feels counterintuitive, but oftentimes the more closely one focuses on a specific moment or theme, the broader the idea that emerges.
  • Segmented essays, which are divided into sections. The sections could be numbered or titled or separated with a space break. Segmented essays are also known as fragmented or collage or mosaic essays. (I think the name for the essay matters most during the process of writing it – if you’re thinking about breaking your subject matter or content or thinking into fragments vs. assembling them into a collage or mosaic. That “motion” can influence the meaning.) I love the intuitive leaps a segmented essays makes – and the ones they ask their readers to make.
  • Braided essays, which are segmented essays that have a particular pattern to them, where multiple segments return and continue throughout the essay the way multiple strands take their turn in the center of a braid. I’m fascinated by the way different strands can interact with each other and combine to form a complex idea.
  • Lastly, hermit crab essays, which borrow another form of extraliterary writing to use as their structure. SA hermit crab essay might be told in the form of a recipe or a syllabus or a Yelp review or a medical advice site. Using this kind of rigid structure can act as a helpful container for content that feels emotionally or intellectually messy; the structure can protect that content or hold it together – like the shell of a shotgun or the plumule of a seed – until the ideas within can burst out into the reader’s mind.

CS: Is this the first anthology you’ve edited? If so, how was the experience? Were there any surprises in the process? Did the experience have any impact on your own creative work?

RBN:  It’s the first anthology I’ve edited and it turned out to be a lot more work that I had first thought!  Part of the work was reading and deciding on the hundreds of essays I received when I put out the call. I got more than 300 submissions for maybe thirty spots. It was a true pleasure to read all that work—but some of the decisions I had to make were real heartbreakers.

Throughout the whole process I tried to treat the submitters and the contributors the way I want to be treated as a writer. I did very minimal editing. I wanted each essay to really be the contributor’s own. And I set a goal to have every contributor participate in some kind of reading or event. (There are fifty contributors so I’m still working on this one!)

I felt—and still feel—a deep sense of responsibility for nearly every aspect of the publication process. When it’s your own book it’s just you making editorial decisions or working at publicity. But with an anthology you’re bringing everyone who’s in it along with you. So I had a higher level of anxiety about, well, everything—writing acceptance letters, those heartbreaker rejections, the timeline of publication, the cover, the reading venues. But it’s a happy kind of anxiety. It comes from really loving this book and wanting to do my best for it.

CS: What do you think the current status of the lyric essay is? Are we in a different place than we were twenty, thirty, fifty years ago? If so, what do you attribute those differences to?

RBN:  I think the lyric essay is really flourishing because more people know what it is (or sort of know what it is, since it’s always changing and challenging its own definition). Once you put words to a thing it’s easier to recognize it, and I think that’s one of the big changes in the lyric essay over the last twenty years. There are certainly older essays that read like lyric essays even if the writer didn’t intend them to be (I’m thinking of works like Sei Shonagon’s lists in her Pillow Book, or Kenko’s Essays in Idleness). But now that writers are more aware of some of the forms an essay can take— especially lyric essays—they’re discovering new ways of writing. Intuition can be as valuable as exposition, a space break can function as a deliberate (non)transition, and the use of metaphor can push an idea further than a paragraph of logically rendered thought.

In my introduction to A Harp in the Stars I list some metaphors that the contributors have used in the Meditation section of the anthology: a lyric essay can act like “a panther, an iceberg, an on-ramp, an artichoke.”  I think of it as being like a platypus, an animal that pushes it back against its own classification—a mammal who lays eggs, is semi-aquatic—and venomous. Once there’s a platypus, what else is possible?  I look forward to seeing how lyric essays evolve in the coming years.

CS: What’s next?

RBN:  The pandemic has been very rough on my writing life but I’m starting to get back into a project that I started in the before times: a book-length lyric meditation on shadows. In it I think about shadows in the physical world (eclipses, nighttime, x-rays, etc.) as well the way shadows function in myth, literature, idiom, and art.

I like how the darkness of shadows can be revealing. And I think that now in particular is a good time to examine contrasts, the unconscious, darkness—and light.

Curtis Smith’s most recent novel, The Magpie’s Return, was published last summer and was named one of Kirkus’s Indie Picks of the Year.

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