One of the longest-running departments in Orion is the Coda department—the short and sharp, elegant and alive final page of each issue of the magazine. Hannah Fries, Orion’s associate editor, poetry editor, and Coda aficionado, gives us a tour.
Ever tried your hand at writing a Coda? Or maybe you’re one of those people who always turns to that final page first, reading it before anything else in Orion. What is it, exactly, that draws you there?
You might have noticed that at less than seven hundred words, a Coda has to be sharp and tight. No messing around here—not a word that doesn’t belong. Aiming for nuance in the particular, many writers keep the piece very focused, zooming in on one vivid thing. See how David Gessner paints those skimmers “scything along the shoreline” in his Coda “When You See a Skimmer,” or how Barbara Hurd forces herself to look long and hard at an unlikely creature in “Wentletrap.” In “Melting a Car,” Brian Doyle tells us exactly how.
Being on the last page of the magazine, Coda holds an exposed place, so it has to grab the reader somehow and leave them feeling satisfied—whether it’s because they laughed, or saw something differently, or were moved. Think of the poignancy of Katrina Vandenberg’s “On Cold-Weather Vegetables,” or the unexpected journey of Leith Tonino’s “Creeking.”
In all cases, the piece has to take a step beyond the writer and their personal experience. It also has to have an extra little lift or zip to it—the surprise, say, of the Joshua tree’s voice in Deanne Stillman’s “Message from the Mojave.” “‘Hey, slick’ says the tree, an alfresco support group minus the sob stories and cigarettes. ‘It’s been way too long.’”
And then, of course, there’s style. A flat or overly expository style probably won’t do much for a Coda. The best Codas have a real sense of voice, a freshness to them. Have a look at the structure of Peter Friederici’s “Long Returns,” how it mirrors his theme. And, of course, you can pick out a Brian Doyle Coda any day. Try on “The Slather” for style… or, well, you might as well learn from “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever.”
Are you a read-the-last-page-first Coda lover? Catch up on your reading with back issues of Orion, available for mail order in our store.
“On Cold-Weather Vegetables” is one of my favorite pieces of writing. I’ve made photocopies of it that I sometimes tuck into letters to friends in the wintertime.