Last year, at the AWP Conference in Denver, I attended a panel about essay collections. One after another, the panelists discussed how challenging it is to get an agent or publisher to consider an essay collection. These days, they explained, many publishers ask writers to reinterpret their essays as “chapters,” and to find ways to link distinct pieces so they can work together as a cohesive whole. It is easier to market such books (let’s call them “memoirs”) because they can be neatly categorized on the bookstore shelf, and will appeal to particular audiences. As a result, literary essay collections are often mischaracterized, or get lost in sections labeled “Humor,” “New Age,” or even “Self Help.”
Sitting and listening in the back row, I felt sad and discouraged. A newly minted MFA with a degree in creative nonfiction, I had fallen in love with the personal essay and spent two years honing individual pieces not heavily linked by topic or theme. Would I have to switch gears, I wondered, and attempt a memoir or novel if I hoped to publish a book?
It was a relief, a few months later, to read Kim Dana Kupperman’s debut essay collection, “I Just Lately Started Buying Wings,” and to hear about the buzz (including a review and author spotlight in the New York Times) that has surrounded this winner of the 2009 Breadloaf Writer’s Conference Bakeless Prize for Nonfiction, selected by Sue Halpern. True, Kupperman has made an effort to organize and link the 16 essays in her collection. And she has succeeded in selecting topics and ordering her work so that the book might read as a memoir that covers many watershed moments in a remarkable and complicated life (the divorce of the author’s parents, the loss of her mother to [End Page 131] suicide and a brother to AIDS, her transition to independence and adulthood in France, her search for the answers to family mysteries in Moscow and Kiev). But Kupperman, the founder of Welcome Table Press, which hosts educational seminars for essayists and plans to publish essay collections, is at heart an advocate of the individual, self-standing essay. And her collection includes some lyric pieces that seek to say something important and universal about topics as disparate as battered women, the color orange, and fried chicken.
What grips the reader from the first page of “I Just Lately Started Buying Wings,” and what ties the book unfailingly together, is Kupperman’s singular perspective and voice. In “Wings over Moscow,” Kupperman describes her viewpoint by comparing it to that of her travel companion, Irina
She focuses on the subject inside the frame, whereas I wander beyond the periphery of these compositions, into a short poem about the remains of worn gold letters on dishes in the restaurant where the singer performed, or a paragraph about the family huddled together under the eaves of the station saying their good-byes before the traveler among them boards the train.
Kupperman finds significance in small, tangential details, and after infusing these details with meaning, links them to a larger, sometimes devastating whole. In “Anatomy of My Father,” the narrator rehangs a picture, an “etching by Piranesi that I inherited from my mother.” She describes the scene in the picture this way: “people dressed in rags on a wide road under the shadow of a destroyed aqueduct.” Then she adds:
Ruins make up one of the first visual ideas that entered my mind, a maternal legacy now on display where I live. The word ruin comes from the Latin ruere, to rush headlong, fall, collapse. An apt description for my parents’ marriage, subsequent divorce, and seven years of custody suits; a perfect word to qualify Ron and Kevin’s lives—one lost, the other destroyed beyond recognition.
In “Wings over Moscow,” a Batman insignia painted on the roof of a building in the Russian capital becomes the catalyst for numerous ruminations. The narrator harks back to her childhood, and then wonders who might be calling for help...