Picturing the essay

When I speak to Leila Philip, multi award winning non-fiction writer and Associate Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the College of the Holy Cross in the USA, our conversation lilts over the work of many others. She talks about Wallace Stevens, Walker Evans and James Agee. I hear of Errol Morris, Merce Cunningham and John Cage. At the centre of all these references is the ongoing idea of collaboration, be that between photographer and writer, musician and dancer, photographer and viewer, or writer and reader. Collaboration is ostensibly the topic of Philip’s paper in the Picturing the Essay session at next week’s NonfictioNow conference in Melbourne. The precis describes the paper somewhat pragmatically ‘Leila Philip will discuss the process of working with an artist to put a book of text and image together.’ Reading this a few weeks ago my initial reaction was to envisage some kind of illustrated fiction-like book. But what Philip and her collaborator (husband, Sculptor Garth Evans) have undertaken does not involve a literal illustration of either words or pictures, and rather than being fiction-like, it sounds closer to a new perspective for the non-fiction genre.


‘We talked about doing a call-and-response type of process where I might write a poem and then he’d do a watercolour in response. Or I might write a poem after looking at some of his work. But we rejected that idea,’ Philip says. She’s talking about the planning for their soon-to-be-published book, ‘Water Under the Bridge’ (Argian Press, 2013). It’s a collaboration between her lyric essays and Evans’ watercolours.

Both felt that a ‘trap of illustration’ would be of no interest to anyone but themselves. Instead they agreed on a theme and then produced their work independently. Philip and Evans were keen that their contributions would stand up as independent pieces. Yet the very nature of collaboration is that their work must also stand together.

‘I want my writing to realise the full potential of what words have to offer. I want to make sure that they have their full power – and then I’m totally excited to have them go play with the image,’ Philip says. This word ‘play’ would probably be better than ‘process’ as is applied in the conference precis. It recognises the need for independence in a work, but it also shows the chance for unexpected ideas that conspire from collaboration.

Something new – specifically the idea of chance operations as Cage describes it – interested Philip and Evans. ‘We were both committed to this idea of letting chance happen,’ she says of their collaboration. To wit, the two of them tried to ‘rigorously shut down over thinking,’ to make room for the unexpected and spontaneous.

‘I think there is an aspect of listening that happens in the interplay as well. You can’t determine what someone’s taking away from your words just as you can’t determine what someone’s taking away from your image. But maybe that’s what’s exciting about it – a third thing will happen that you can’t anticipate. To me that’s really what art is about,’ Philip says.

The opportunity to draw on something less literal has fueled Philip’s personal engagement with this project. She appreciates lyric essays and the ‘gaps and associative leaps’ that the format can bring.

‘It’s in those silences and in those gaps that I’m finding a lot of meaning.’ She compares it to other non-fiction forms that aim to give the reader a sense of place. ‘There’s so much more movement [in the lyric essay] because there isn’t such an emphasis on [a] scenic, finite moment of time… it’s part of what makes it possible for the words to connect with the non-verbal image that is the world of the visual arts,’ she says.

These ideas of collaboration are not often discussed in the non-fiction worlds in which I engage, but they’re exciting to reflect on and talk about. Philip’s own interest is engaged with this new arena of discourse, ‘One of the reasons I’m excited to be coming to [NonfictioNow] is because a lot of the panels are about the new, and where we’re heading. It’s really trying to look at and establish a dialogue for these dynamics.’

Leila Philip will be discussing her collaborative project in the session Picturing the Essay with David Carlin, Ross Gibson and Kathryn Millard on Thursday 22 November at 10.30am.

She will also be presenting in Lyric Nonfiction: Memory, Image, Trauma with Elizabeth Kadetsky, Threasa Meads and Brandon Schrand on Thursday 22 November at 12.00pm.

Visit the NonfictioNow website for more detail.