Writing the lyric essay with Christopher Citro

Christopher Citro will host writing workshops at the Oak Bluffs library on Jan. 25 and 26. — Courtesy Christopher Citro

During a recent interview with poet Christopher Citro, I admitted that the term “lyric essay” was new to me.

“It’s new to a lot of people,” Citro graciously informed me before launching into an explanation. “It’s a type of personal essay on the more experimental side, where you have one foot in the world of poetry, with an attention to language and an openness to the world of flight and fancy, and one in the world of narrative nonfiction, where you’re writing factually about the world.”

Citro is a Pushcart prizewinning poet who is coming to the Vineyard to teach a creative writing seminar on Friday, Jan. 25, titled “Leaping Before You Look: An Introduction to the Lyric Essay,” and for a poetry reading on Saturday, Jan. 26. Both programs take place at the Oak Bluffs library and are sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and are free and open to the public.

I mentioned that Citro was gracious because it turns out that the term “lyric essay” was coined two decades ago, in a 1997 issue of the Seneca Review. Review editors Deborah Tall and John D’Agata wrote, “The recent burgeoning of creative nonfiction and the personal essay has yielded a fascinating subgenre that straddles the essay and the lyric poem. These ‘poetic essays’ or ‘essayistic poems’ give primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information. They forsake narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.”

According to Citro, the lyric essay can look like a poem or a personal essay. He calls it fragmentary and capacious. It is a method of writing about personal experiences without adhering to a straight narrative throughline; it encourages drifting into the imagination while telling a true story. But if this is all starting to sound a tad too academic, perhaps the lyric essay can better be understood through example.

I’d like to invite you to the party but I don’t
know your name, have your address, or
know you well enough to really want you
around my cat.

So begins Citro’s poem titled “If We Had a Lemon We’d Throw It and Call That the Sun.” Surely many Vineyarders can relate to the next line in the poem …

I feel a kinship with all people
and then I share a beach with them and want
to yell use your inside voice.

And this passage, from “It’s Something People In Love Do,” his Pushcart-winning poem:

I’m not saying we should watch less old movies.

What I’m saying is maybe everything’s not

a metaphor for trying to pay the bills on time.

I love your credit score. It could pin my credit score

to the late summer soil and pee on its head.

Citro calls the lyric essay a “powerful tool.” “It doesn’t ask you as a writer to make your mind up about what you want to write about,” he says. “By exploring the material and letting what happens happen.” A passage from his poem “Our Beautiful life When It’s Filled with Shrieks” by way of example, and because I’m admittedly now hooked …

I’m doing a balancing act with a stack of fresh fruit

in my basket. I love you. I want us both to eat well.

We’re not allowed to buy blackberries anymore

because they’re mean to their workers and you

read left-wing news sites. Till when? I asked and you

said nothing. So that’s one healthy food off the list.

I’m still buying pineapples and you’re still eating them.

I guess you’ve never seen the websites about those.

Citro received an M.F.A. in poetry from Indiana University and currently lives, writes, and teaches in Syracuse, N.Y. He has been a frequent instructor at the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and his work has been published in numerous journals, including Ploughshares, the Missouri Review, the Massachusetts Review, and Columbia Poetry Review. His book of poetry “The Maintenance of the Shimmy Shammy” was published by Steel Toe Books in 2015. One of the book’s blurbers extolled, “Christopher Citro is a poetry pirate, plundering language and images to get to the human heart, in these luminous inventive poems.”

Citro, the M.V. Institute of Creative Writing, and the Oak Bluffs library invite you to pirate and plunder from your own lives and language, and start to explore the possibilities of the lyric essay.

On Friday, Jan. 25, from 3:30 to 5:30 pm, creative writing workshop with Christopher Citro: “Leaping Before You Look: An Introduction to the Lyric Essay.” On Saturday, Jan. 26, from 10:30 to 11:30 am, poetry reading and book signing with Christopher Citro. Both events take place at the Oak Bluffs library and are free and open to the public.


  1. Drives me crazy when someone writes, “…we should watch less movies”. FEWER. FEWER. FEWER. Can you hear me now?

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