Monday, September 30, 2013

David Lazar in Conversation with Robert Burton, author of Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), vox es, praeterea nihil

David Lazar: Some of our readers might say they wouldn’t be caught dead reading a thousand-page, seventeenth-century compendium of quotation, essay, digression, and aphorism about the state of our incorporeal infirmities. What might you say to such a reader?

Robert Burton: No go and brag of thy present happiness, whosoever thou art, brag of thy temperature, of thy good parts, insult, triumph, and boast; thou seest in what a brittle state thou art, how soon thou mayest be dejected, how many several ways, by bad diet, bad air, a small loss, a little sorrow or discontent, an ague, etc; how many sudden accidents may procure thy ruin, what a small tenure of happiness thou hast in this life, how weak and silly a creature thou art.

DL: Thanks. I’m sure Amazon sales have now reached the torrid zone. Considering the intensity of your achievement, your influence on Johnson, Sterne, Lamb, Keats, so many others, does the fact that you are so little read sting you at all?

RB: A modest man, one that hath grace, a generous spirit, tender of his reputation will be deeply wounded, and so grievously affected with it, that he had rather give myriads of crowns, lose his life, than suffer the least defamation of honour or blot in his good name. And if so be that he cannot avoid it, as a nightingale . . . dies for shame if another bird sing better, he languisheth and pineth away in the anguish of his spirit.

DL: It’s good to hear such a balanced perspective. Within Melancholy are some of the great essays in the English language, the “Digression of Air” (“what God did before the world was made? was He idle?”), and “Artificial Allurements.” Can you speak to the way you assay, how you crafted these bold, wandering Montaignian essays in your swift, barely post-Elizabethan prose?

RB: One must needs scratch where it itches. I was not a little offended with this malady, shall I say my mistress Melancholy, my Egeria, or my malus genius, and for that cause, as he that is stung with a scorpion, I would expel clavum clavo, comfort one sorrow with another, idleness with idleness, ut ex vipera theracum [as an antidote out of a serpent’s venom] make an antidote out of that which was the prime cause of my disease.

DL: So you’re saying that writing is therapeutic? Many writing professors reject that idea.

RB: Cardan professeth he wrote his book de Consolatione after his son’s death, to comfort himself; so did Tully write of the same subject with like intent after his daughter’s departure, if it be his at least, or some imposter’s put out in his name, which Lispsius probably suspects. Concerning myself, I can peradventure affirm with Marius in Sallust, “That which others hear or read of, I felt and practiced myself; they get their knowledge by books, I mine by melancholizing. “

I am of Catullus’ opinion, and make the same apology in mine own behalf: I write for the most part to satisfy the taste and judgment of others; I am not mad myself, but I follow those who are. Yet grant that this shows me mad; we have all raved once. And you yourself, I think, dote sometimes, and he, and he, and of course I too . . . Howsoever my lines err, my life is honest.

DL: Point well-taken, and I see you’ve read my work.

RB: I have not offended your chaster ears with anything that is here written, as many French and Italian authors in their modern language of late have done?

DL: I’m from Brooklyn. Moving on, Do you have any new projects planned?

RB: Give me but a little leave, and I will set before your eyes in brief a stipend, vast, infinite ocean of incredible madness and folly: a sea full of shelves and rocks, sands, gulfs, euripes and contrary tides, full of fearful monster, uncouth shapes, roaring waves, tempests, and siren calms, halcyonian seas, unspeakable misery, such comedies and tragedies, such absurd and ridiculous, feral and lamentable fits, that I know not whether they are more to be pitied or derided, or may be believed, but that we daily see the same still practiced in our days, fresh examples, nova novitia, fresh objects of misery and madness in this kind that are still represented to us, abroad, at home, in the midst of us, in our bosoms.

DL: Sounds great. Almost like Anatomy II. There was a rumor floating around that you hanged yourself. Comment?

RB: Corpora cito extinguuntur.

DL: Isn’t that a somewhat coy response?

RB: Do you wish to be freed from doubt? do you desire to escape uncertainty?


David Lazar’s books include Occasional Desire (University of Nebraska Press), The Body of Brooklyn and Truth in Nonfiction (both Iowa), Powder Town (Pecan Grove), Michael Powell: Interviews and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher (both Mississippi). Forthcoming is Essaying the Essay (Welcome Table Press) and After Montaigne, co-edited with Patrick Madden (University of Georgia Press). He is the founding editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika, now in its thirteenth year, which has featured groundbreaking issues in transgeneric writing and the aphorism. He teaches at Columbia College Chicago.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Prose Matters

When I teach nonfiction writing, I tell my students that an essay needs to have something that it’s about; that it’s better if takes the form of a story; and that a good first question to ask oneself is: What makes me a good teller of this tale? A lot of what I believe as an editor comes out in these classes, and a couple of years ago a student of mine, an experienced journalist and a wonderful writer who had taken the class in order to experiment with form, did me a tremendous service. He made notes of all my observations—my exhortations, my admonishments—and at the end of the class he printed them all out and gave them back to me.

It was a remarkable gift. I have almost never tried to codify my views on writing. After more than twenty years of editing and a dozen teaching, I just trust in my reactions to the work. But, of course, there is a philosophy behind what I tell my students, and it is essentially the same as the philosophy that animates my editorial decisions at Harvard Review.

I believe, for example, that nothing should terrify a writer more than the prospect of being boring; that writers should aim for something bigger than an essay about themselves; that obscurity is not a virtue; that simplicity is; that emotional honesty is important but that confession is distasteful; that the single most important thing about a piece of writing is the quality of the prose.

This last point is worth emphasizing because not every editor feels this way. Many years ago, I had an exchange on this subject that I’ve never forgotten. At the time I was the editor of another literary magazine and I was having a conversation with a professor who was a member of the board. We were talking about the kinds of work that we considered worth publishing and he said that it didn’t so much matter to him how a thing was written, what mattered was what it said. “That’s funny,” I told him. “Because that’s exactly the opposite of how I feel. I don’t care what a piece is about. To me, what really matters is the prose.”

Of course, it’s not really true that I don’t care about content. But what I meant was that I don’t judge work based on its subject matter. I am not looking for pieces that make certain points or take certain positions or express certain views. I am not, essentially, interested in the political angle. What I am interested in is artistry, that is, an author’s demonstration of mastery of his craft.

I like writing, for example, that shows evidence of control. I like to feel that an author has made conscious decisions, has considered the weight and heft of his own writing, has toyed with his sentences and read them aloud. I like writing that’s witty and playful. I have a soft spot for erudition but not for self-regard. I often like writing that’s unpretentious: it doesn’t always have to sing, sometimes clean and clear is exactly what’s called for. On the other hand, it’s always exciting to come across something that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard.

It’s actually impossible to define good writing in the abstract since it comes in so many different forms—which is why, when editors are asked what they are looking for, they throw their hands up in despair. The best tactic is always to give examples. So, here are a couple of opening paragraphs from essays published in Harvard Review that illustrate some of the qualities I look for.

The first, from an essay called “Manatees” by Patricia Vigderman, appeared in HR 26 in 2004. What I particularly admire about this lovely, unhurried opening is the way it perfectly mimics the action of the gently bubbling water and the slow-moving creatures.

By late January the manatees have swum up the St. John’s River to a warm spring in central Florida. A ring of such springs comes up from the vast Florida aquifer, rising at the edges of an uneven circle around the limestone under the land between Daytona and Gainesville. The place where the water comes up is called “the boil,” as if the heat and rumble of the earth’s core had forced it up against gravity. In fact, it’s a very gentle motion, a quiet flowing movement, transparent water spreading out into a strong current, so clear that the algae living beneath it turn the whole stream a brilliant, glowing green, and the submerged manatees become great, quiet green blimps until they rise slowly to the surface. Then their gray, leathery skins make apparent the patterning of sunlight on the water’s surface, a wide net constantly in motion. The unruffled beast ruffles the surface briefly with its rudimentary snout, breathing and then sinking down into green again.

A deft and graceful stylist, Vigderman exemplifies for me the idea of a writer with a perfect ear. But there are many kinds of wonderful. For a completely different effect, consider the opening of an essay called “Unprepared” by Jerald Walker, which appeared in 2010 in HR 39 (and was reprinted in Best American Essays 2011), and which contains a line so unexpected that it made me laugh out loud in the line at Starbucks where I happened to be standing when I read it for the first time.

We drove cautiously through the downpour, making the kind of small talk one would expect of strangers, when my companion slid a jacket from his lap, exposing his penis. It rose up high through his zipper, like a single meerkat surveying the land for trouble. To be sure, there was trouble to be had because, despite being a skinny seventeen-year-old, I never left home without my razor.

Walker’s essay is about cultural attitudes toward mass murder and also, to some extent, about race. It is not only wonderfully well written—direct, funny, confident, and slightly understated where it could so easily have gone over the top—it also does something at a structural level that I greatly admire, which is to move fluidly back and forth between narrative and exposition.

What I really like—what I’m always looking for—is writers who know what they’re doing. This is not necessarily the same as those who have been writing a long time, though, to be sure, practice helps. The real difference, I think, is between those who see writing simply as a means of communicating something they feel needs to be said, and those who see writing as an art form. While there is certainly a place in the world for the former, it is not Harvard Review. Harvard Review is for people who are trying to create something and who see words as the medium in which they work. This notion, which would be completely self-evident to any poet, holds just as true for writers of essays. In fact, I am increasingly inclined to see the essay as a kind of poem—just one with an explicit argument composed in unbroken lines.

Christina Thompson is the editor of Harvard Review and the author of the memoir Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Instability and the Essay, or: Why I Love the “Dialogue of Pessimism”

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up” (1936)

In the Babylonian “Dialogue of Pessimism,” c. 1000 BCE, a master suggests an activity to his slave, the slave heartily agrees, the master changes his mind, and the slave again agrees. This pattern repeats itself in nine dialogues, with a shift in the tenth and last. While “Dialogue of Pessimism” may seem to be a dialogue between master and slave, then, it is in fact a dialogue between the master and himself. Every idea the master has is echoed by the slave in such a way that, except in the final section, the master changes his mind. This is why “Dialogue of Pessimism” is such a pleasing example of the essay to those of us working in the form today: because it shows a mind in conversation with itself, a mind whose two opposing ideas must jockey for preeminence.

An anachronistic interpretation might even take “Dialogue of Pessimism” for a parable about writing: the slave is the master’s page, reflecting back his every whim with unexpected force and vigor. The slave’s echo instigates the master’s doubt, just as the act of writing so often results in changing one’s mind. The successful essay will capture this mind-change in print, as “Dialogue of Pessimism” does.

The dialogue thus takes place also between master-and-slave and master-and-slave: for example between “I feel like causing some trouble, what do you say?” “I like the sound of that, sir. By all means, let’s wreak some havoc!” and its opposite, “But evildoing’s not very proper, is it?” “Well they either end up killed, or flayed alive and blinded … no, it’s really not worth doing” (section five). And the pleasure of this doubled or tripled dialogue—master/slave, master/master, or master-slave/master-slave—the way it becomes a dialogue between dialogues, at once all and none of these possibilities—is where my real excitement about this essay lies.

Often when we think of nonfiction—I use the term deliberately here to mean that which resists falsehood—we think of a search for stable meaning. Certainly when I was in college, writing an undergraduate thesis about how autobiographical fiction would always make better autobiography than earnest nonfiction, this was how I perceived it. Static meaning, I knew, was impossible, and antithetical to the act of writing itself. Putting words into print may seem to freeze them for perpetuity, but in fact their meaning will change infinitely over time—so the very idea of nonfiction, as I then understood it, was founded on the fundamental falsehood that one’s intended meaning might be fixed permanently to the page.

Later, I’d encounter in Mikhail Bakhtin’s concepts of monologism and dialogism another expression of what I took to be the same idea: the multiply-voiced novel, precisely because it avoided the authority of a single voice or view, could approach truth more effectively than the story that used a single voice or vision throughout. I continued to believe that, by refusing to moralize or deduce explicit meaning from its own story, fiction could come closer to truth than nonfiction could. But Bakhtin’s framing of the matter helped me understand that old idea in a new way. Now, I understood that there were two types of fiction, monologic and polyphonic, and in my mind these categories corresponded to two types of meaning-making: static writing, which aimed to present a unified, unchanging meaning; and dynamic writing, where any meaning lay in the tension between a multiplicity of voices—somewhere off the page, in the mind of the reader.

What now seems so obvious—that nonfiction, too, can be categorized this way—didn’t occur to me until sometime around my first encounter with “Dialogue of Pessimism.” Here, as in the ideal of the dynamic novel, the essay’s meaning lies between its voices. Even better, the in-between space, like the voices themselves, refuses to be easily defined. Does the essay’s central tension—the thing that holds it together and keeps us reading on—lie between the master and slave, or between the master and himself? Is the slave’s response to the master a true reply, or only a kind of crescendo? Do the demarcations of “master” and “slave” even make sense here, when with his words the slave seems to exert such power over poor, suggestible mister master?

These instabilities delight me in a way that I once believed only fiction could. And though it’s probably important to note that this essay would not have been composed as or interpreted as “nonfiction” in its day, its truth-seeking is clear from both the aphoristic nature of its content (“He who has children secures his name in the future”; “He who starts a family ends up ruining his house”) and the punch of its conclusion. That tenth section’s break with the essay’s established pattern and its final words—“You agree with me, then? Lower your neck for me, slave, and I’ll put us both out of our miseries”; “Yes, sir. Of course, sir. But may I first say, sir: I am not as miserable as you”—suggest some moral, or meaning, to the dance of absurdity that has brought the reader to this point. Unlike in the previous sections, here the master sticks to his original idea, even after hearing the slave’s reply, and the slave achieves the direct impudence that his heightened repetitions of the master’s ideas have been threatening all along. Our contemporary reading of this as an essay is justified, then, even if no discrete meaning, in these final lines, can be named. Even if—as in all good literature—the essay’s meaning is left to interpretation.

The distinction between fiction and nonfiction is one sometimes structured around action and reflection: the action of fiction which, taken alone, offers no definite meaning, versus the reflection of nonfiction, which interprets and so makes seemingly definite meaning of the actions it observes. Just as dialogue is a form of action, though, in which two characters appease, conspire, or contend with each other, so too is reflection a kind of action, as unstable and open to interpretation as any struggle between selves. The best essays, like “Dialogue of Pessimism,” will enact this uneasy work of reflection, perhaps the most common and most human act of all.

All quotations from Emily Dimasi’s translation of “Dialogue of Pessimism” by Ennatum of Akkad, published in John D’Agata’s Lost Origins of the Essay, Graywolf Press, 2009.

Helen Rubinstein is an MFA student at the University of Iowa.

Distorted, Misascribed, and Reworked: Form and Intent in Diogenes’ and Heraclitus’ “Aphorisms”

When we read aphorisms, we are looking for the kind of certitude that a definition is supposed to contain (the word is derived in part from the Greek “aphorismos,” which means “definition”). When we consult a dictionary, we are looking, in a sense, for a last word, and that, too, is the kind of authority we are looking for when we read aphorisms.

In American culture, we tend to associate aphorisms more with kitsch than with literature. We find aphorisms on bumper stickers (see David Shields’ “Life Story,” an essay composed of the sayings on these stickers), embroidered pillows, coffee mugs, and calendars. And yet in spite of their easily mockable commercial applications, aphorisms persist for the uncomplicated fact that they teach us something, and the pithiness of aphorisms is essential to both their interest and their effectiveness. An author’s use of just a few words to say something major lends them an authority perhaps only shared by authors who make use of thousands of pages to do the same (Lev Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, David Foster Wallace).

My introduction to Heraclitus and Diogenes was in the form of aphorism. Diogenes’ tend toward the sharply witty (“In the rich man’s house there is no place to spit but in his face”), particularly his jabs at Plato (“Share a dish of dried figs with Plato and he will take them all”), while Heraclitus’ are philosophical in a way that’s broadly recognizable to the modern reader (“The same road goes both up and down”).

Contrast Diogenes’ more concrete aphorisms:

The darkest place in the tavern is the most conspicuous.

The art of being a slave is to rule one’s master.

To live is not itself an evil, as has been claimed, but to lead a worthless life is.

with Heraclitus’, which dispense with metaphor entirely:

Change alone unchanges.

Knowledge is not intelligence.

Those who wish to know about the world must learn about it in details.

I can be hesitant to seek out context for literature—I am divided, perpetually, as to whether historical background and particularly authorial intent should be relevant to my reading at all; as a writer, I very much want to it to be, but as a reader not so much. Because of this, for years, these were the terms by which I read Diogenes and Heraclitus and other authors of wisdom literature: as practitioners of the pithy, as wordsmiths so wise they required just a sentence to say what many of us endeavor to say in many pages.

It wasn’t until my fourth or fifth reading of their texts that I learned that I was not reading Heraclitus and Diogenes in the form in which they intended. In fact, the lines I read as aphorisms were just fragments of their work that had survived through quotations in others writers’ books, rather than complete excerpts from their own. Not only are we not reading these authors in the form they were intended, we may not even know the form in which they were intended to be read. As Guy Davenport, translator of both authors writes, “All of Diogenes’ writings are lost […] What remains are his comments passed down through folklore to be recorded by various writers. These obviously have been distorted, misascribed, and reworked.”

Despite or maybe because of my indecision about the importance of context, I was surprised by how unsettled I felt by this revelation—why did I feel unsettled, and did that discomfort stem from my role as a reader, or as a writer? As a reader, I was immediately curious about the original context of the lines I’d read so many times, and also wondered if knowledge of it might make me less invested in this work—the conciseness of an aphorism is most of what gives it power, and without that, would these sentences be so moving? I tried to imagine what kind of “cushioning” the aphoristic lines might have been accompanied by: was Diogenes’ “They laugh at me, but I’m not laughed at” not in fact a generalized lesson but instead the concluding line to a very concrete personal anecdote? What if Heraclitus’ “Lightning is the lord of everything” was not a striking commentary on the universe but instead just a melodramatic description of the weather? That my mind immediately went to these hyperbolic examples demonstrates, if in an extreme way, both how much context affects our readings, and also the precise nature of my reaction: what I felt, as a reader robbed of context, was deceived.

And as a writer? Is there a greater fear than your work being “distorted, misascribed, and reworked”? To subject my writing to just that treatment, and to give an essay of mine an aphoristic-like rendering, I went through a few paragraphs of my own and removed all concrete descriptions, details, and actions, leaving behind only the single-sentence summaries I imagined (preposterously) might be the ones to hang on through history. What remained were the bare essentials, the succinctness of which lent a conviction to my observations that my usual, adjective-laden narrative voice undermines. And yet the result made my writing nearly unrecognizable, even to me.

It is impossible to write and not be aware of the fact that as a writers we cannot control how we are read—in workshop and in unexpected responses from other readers in the world beyond—but it is rare, I think, to discuss the ways in which we can’t even control the form our work will take after we are gone. Methods for archiving are better than they were between 300 and 500 BC, during the time of Heraclitus and Diogenes—but the truth is that we don’t yet know what our technological means will end up preserving and how (certainly, the context-optional nature of the internet lends itself to archiving that may "distort"). Perhaps those of us who both seek and fear context can take some comfort in a line of contemporary aphorist E.M. Cioran: “No one approaches the condition of a sage if he has not had the good luck to be forgotten in his lifetime.”

Translations of Diogenes and Heraclitus by Guy Davenport.

Lucy Morris is a student in the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program and previously worked as a translator.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

On the strange brevity of Montaigne's "Of Thumbs"

The first strange thing about Michel de Montaigne’s “Of Thumbs” is that it reads like a Montaigne essay's worth of historical references, but instead of the quotations from Martial and Horace coming couched in between the author’s own anecdotes, reflections, and arguments, the whole thing is condensed to such a degree that the references are the essay. From Tacitus in the first line to Lacedaemon in the last, the piece is really just a series of notes on the symbolism and history of thumbs in the classical world, six short, bursting paragraphs of examples of the human thumb in law, war, and language:

The doctors say that the thumbs are the master fingers of the hand and that their etymology in Latin is from pollere. The Greeks call it Aντιχєιρ, as though to say “another hand.” And it seems that sometimes the Latins also take it in the sense of the entire hand:

                        But not excited by the gentle voice,
                        Nor summoned by the soft thumb, does it rise

            It was a sign of favor in Rome to close in and hold down the thumbs —

                        Your partisan with both his thumbs will praise your game

— and of disfavor to raise them and turn them outward:

                                    When the people’s thumb turns up,
                        They will kill their man to please them.

There are no interjections of Montaigne’s own opinions about thumbs and their best uses, and certainly no Montaignian digressions about kidney stones, morality, or sleeping habits. The essay is, essentially, a list. There is no connective tissue, which gives it, as a piece of writing, a great sense of pace and a kind of limited depth of field. And like any list, its meaning comes first from the arrangement and juxtaposition of the items it contains. “Of Thumbs” is brief but concentrated, finding room in its scant 350 words for accounts of Roman citizens who cut off their thumbs to avoid military service (apparently the blighty wound of its day), for “barbarian kings” who sealed deals by pricking each other’s thumbs and sucking the other’s blood, and for Greek schoolmasters who bit their students’ thumbs as physical punishment. The examples function kind of like images in a montage, and, after giving a couple sentences of etymology, the images Montaigne selects to focus on become increasingly bloody and specific and human: the knight who “maliciously” cut off his young sons’ thumbs, the gladiators who lived and died by the crowd’s thumb signals, the Aeginetan prisoners of war whose thumbs were severed by their captors so that they could not raise arms again in future. In Montaigne’s juxtaposition of these facts, he makes a case for the thumb as both an instrument of war and a symbol of human frailty, our other Achilles heel.

The essay takes a turn in the second to last paragraph. For the first and only time, Montaigne himself appears, speaking in the first person. “Someone,” he writes, “I don’t remember who, having won a naval battle, had the thumbs of his vanquished enemies cut off.” Someone, I don’t remember who. This is the only time Montaigne addresses us as I. The only time in the essay that the essayist sees fit to remind the reader that he himself is a presence in the piece — that all these images and examples of thumbs were written and revised and ordered by an author, that an essay is always filtered through a human mind — is when he is telling us not what he does know, but what he doesn’t. In this whole piece, Montaigne only makes his presence known in an expression of doubt. (Which is perhaps typical.) Then, suddenly, he comes up with another example, another item for the list, and leaves the stage. It’s an abrupt ending, but its lack of resolution has a certain elegance.

A little bit like a stoner who has spent so long staring at her own hands that she’s only just noticing how weird thumbs are, if you really think about them, I feel like I see thumbs in a new way having looked at them through Montaigne’s eyes. Homo sapiens have more thumb dexterity than any other primate — the pads of our thumbs can touch the pads of any other one of the hand’s fingers, even the pinkie — and this adaptation makes possible so many human activities. Including war, but also writing. Reading Montaigne, I am glad to live in an age where fathers no longer cut off their sons’ thumbs to save them from the draft.

The very brevity and compactness of “Of Thumbs” help to give the reader a sense of Montaigne’s mind in action as he contemplates our first digit. He looks at a mundane part of the human anatomy, and he sees something that contains hidden significance and historical and cultural resonance. This point of view, typical of Montaigne, has a sort of leveling effect across the essays that comprise his oeuvre: he understands the humble thumb as being as worthy of contemplation as his other topics, like education, repentance, the relationship between age and wisdom, and the nature of cowardice. And the essay he gives us has a disjointed quality that is perhaps more revelatory of the feeling of a mind at work, turning over the thumb and studying all of its areas of significance, than some of Montaigne’s longer essays. Someone, I don’t remember who. We feel more keenly in “Of Thumbs” the sense that this is a portrait of a line of inquiry as it is taking shape, and one of the essay’s great joys is that the author chose to preserve that sensation and transfer it so seemingly directly to the reader.

Jenna Sauers is a student in the University of Iowa's nonfiction M.F.A. program. Previously working as a journalist, her work has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, The Village Voice, Bookforum, and the New York Observer, and she was a longtime blogger at Jezebel

Sifting through the Creases in Twain’s “About Smells”

Scratched onto the corner of my desk on the first day of junior high were the words “Sucking Mr. Patterson”, underneath which was a drawing of a part of anatomy that I would not recognize for several more years (in full disclosure, I also didn’t know what “sucking” entailed, only that it was most likely derogative). When I got home, I did not tell my parents about this message sent to me by some unknown student so confident in his assertion – so convinced that this image should be preserved for the next generation – that he chiseled it into the desk over what must have been several class days. I have, indeed, never told anyone about this message, and yet it is the first memory that surfaces whenever I sit at a desk I have never sat in before, or sharpen a new pencil. The words on the desk sounded coarse whenever I tried to rehearse saying it out loud then, and so I stuck with other memories, other images. Yet the words are as tangible as if I were running my finger over them now, as I did so often then.

Such was the memory that surfaced upon reading “About Smells”, a brief essay by Mark Twain that appeared in a May 1870 version of The Galaxy. In this essay Twain responds to a recent sermon given by Reverend Thomas De Witt Talmage, a prominent Presbyterian minister during the mid- to late-19th century. In his sermon, Talmage declares that the “working man”, should he wish to avoid making “one-half of Christendom sick at their stomach”, should bathe himself properly before attending service. He concludes by stating that he himself will “have nothing to do with this work of evangelization” if this issue continues to persist. Twain – in typical ironic fashion – responds to Talmage by pointing out the necessarily vulgar work of the original followers of Jesus (“St. Matthew without stocking or sandals; St. Jerome bare headed, and with a coarse brown blanket robe dragging the ground”). Addressing the belief that Jesus himself was a carpenter – a Mike Rowe-level dirty job that doubtless generated its fair share of smelly individuals – Twain insinuates that Talmage would not make for a very effective disciple, regardless of his fresh pine smell.

With regards to analysis, it is not, I believe, relevant to spend time expounding upon the thread of sarcasm that runs rampant within this particular Twain essay, as said sarcasm is not only a generally agreed upon marker of the author’s style, but also a component that has been run into the ground by academic analyses. It would thus be more beneficial for this brief platform that I find myself standing upon today to attempt to illuminate the connections that may be made between Twain’s 19th century censure and the 21st century essayist – a title that many of us are still attempting to claim for our own.

In describing the differences between the church’s early predecessors and their eventual mutant offspring Talmage, Twain deduces that the real disparity is that “Dr. T. has had advantages which Paul and Peter and the others could not and did not have. There was a lack of polish about them, and a looseness of etiquette, and a want of exclusiveness, which one cannot help noticing” (emphasis mine). Here, Twain is recognizably contrasting the very words that Talmage may have used to describe himself – polish, etiquette, exclusiveness – with the negation of their meaning – lack, looseness, want. In so doing, Twain is attempting to collapse the ethereal quality of Talmage’s church environment by pointing out that the church itself once belonged to those same “working men” that he now rejects.

What, then, can we – as writers, as readers, as living, breathing templates of today’s “essay”, which sways Jenga-like with each new contribution – take from Twain’s “About Smells”? Namely, that we must remember that the essay must not only acknowledge the “villainous odour” of everyday life, but also invite said odour onto the page itself. Too often young writers – I’m including myself in this category – tend to edit their pieces to within an inch of their lives, sometimes cutting out the more unpleasant steps of their writing process in order to reserve room for other, more pleasing components. This is periodically done, unfortunately, for the sake of misguided artistry (“An artist finds beauty in everything.” “An artist thrives on heartbreak because it spurs tragically beautiful poetry.”). On and on, until nothing survives but the mindless repetition of dried tears and brave faces.

Too often I find myself wanting to skip over the ugly details hidden in the creases of my writing, not because they are too difficult to give flesh to, but because they are simply unappealing to my sensory lens. By avoiding these details, however, I neglect to acknowledge the benefits of turning the toaster over to see the crumbs – it is these crumbs that, like Twain’s church predecessors, construct the very foundation of what we as essayists should be attempting to do through our work, which is to dig deeper into the folds of life, acknowledging that no space – not even holy ones – are immune to the scent of work, of real heartbreak, of the simple confusion of not knowing how to manage grief. Those readers who are unable or unwilling to locate the beauty in their own troubles will find no solace in the writer’s neglect of these troubles; they will look elsewhere for another who is willing to acknowledge the exposed pain that comes before the acceptance, only because they themselves are dwelling in that pain, that messiness.

A modern adaptation of the writer’s grasp on the grotesque can be seen in the following excerpt from Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”, taken from a point in the narrative when the speaker remembers a doomed last-ditch attempt at reconciliation with her then-boyfriend, Law:

Everything I know about love and its necessities   
I learned in that one moment   
when I found myself

thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon   
at a man who no longer cherished me.   
There was no area of my mind

not appalled by this action, no part of my body   
that could have done otherwise.

I am drawn back to this passage because it so vividly offers space to the physical monstrousness of one person’s heartbreak, without attempting to package it in a way that the rich, poetic language eclipses the vulgarity of the scene. Carson’s nakedness – both metaphorical and literal – invites the “villainous odour” of the situation to enter the room. In so doing, Carson (like St. Matthew, like St. Jerome) addresses the fact that life is often messy, and vulgar, and once too often not present anywhere on the page. The essay, unlike fiction, has not only the capacity but the obligation to expose what can only be exposed on our watch, which is the understanding that to sacrifice the grotesque (the strange smell wafting from across the pews, for example) at the alter of aesthetics is to avoid altogether what can be learned by dwelling upon the crude words on a desk, left by a stranger whom we may never meet.  

Monday, September 23, 2013

E-mail from Bonnie J. Rough

Ok Ander, I just accepted the Blogger invitation to post on Essay Daily and then I faced the fact that for a second embarrassing time in a row, I have to let the opportunity go to someone else. I have a rare opportunity to write for the month of September in Amsterdam, and I am going to accept it and focus intensely on my current book project. I realize you probably won't bother with inviting me anymore to contribute to Essay Daily, but when I have something, maybe I can just query you. I hope you won't mind my adding that I really am not a big flake, but I am a mom of young children with a delicate balance in my work life. I say no to things I want very much to do. Anyway, perhaps sometime, this very predicament itself could lend a fresh thought to Essay Daily, although I fear it wouldn't strike quite the right scholarly tone. But, for example: I'm right now in the Dordogne very close to Montaigne's chateau and library, and I confess I have found myself thinking of the father of the essay and how decadent it might have been for him to be the father of the essay instead of the caregiver of his daughter, because an essay waits patiently and never interrupts with anything but a gift. Sarah Bakewell's scholarship about Montaigne in How To Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer describes his distress at interruptions in the year of his riding accident (1569 or 1570): "He was thirty-six at this time, and felt he had a lot to escape from. Following his father's death, he had inherited full responsibility for the family chateau and estate in the Dordogne. It was beautiful land, in an area covered, then as now, by vineyards, soft hills, villages, and tracts of forest. But for Montaigne it represented the burden of duty. On the estate, someone was always plucking at his sleeve, wanting something or finding fault with things he had done. He was the seigneur; everything came back to him." 

This burden of duty explains why Montaigne's library and writing room stood in a tower separate from the chateau, and also why he loved to escape on horseback to find solitude in the vignobles and walnut groves. Would that little mouths crying for peaches and saucissons could wait as patiently as the servants, I thought grumpily after I read this, resenting neither my daughters nor my partner but the idea of Montaigne working--essaying--more or less as he pleased. 

Because I was jealous, I plunged into uglier thoughts: Western intellectuals worship too many bright personages who may in fact not have been particularly genius but only had extra time to ramble their brains. I even dared to think that the essay, inasmuch as it challenges the essayist to try, to attempt, really doesn't stretch one intellectually or existentially so much as parenthood. Maybe motherhood in particular. And so I had my own backward little insight, as I looked up from wiping tiny sticky hands to glance out over the green Dordogne just as our seigneur did those 450 years ago: I get more haughty about my status as a mother than about my identity as a writer, perhaps in the same way that a servant might privately disdain of the master of the house. Such coddling! I'll think, shaking my head, imagining my essayist self on the other side of the river, perched over bear rugs in a tower, surrounded by books and favored quotations, quill poised. In comparison, domestic work is harder and the pay is less (if you can imagine). And yet, one accomplishes the job rather honorably. It always both surprises and disappoints me to feel a strange frustrated pride in that, a small-minded sour-grapes kind of comfort. 

So those are my curmudgeonly thoughts on the essay at the moment, perhaps not in the right spirit for the blog, but you can decide. 

Warm wishes, 

Bonnie J. Rough is the author of the 2011 Minnesota Book Award-winning memoir Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA. Her essays have appeared in numerous periodicals including The New York Times, Huffington Post, The Sun, The Iowa Review, Ninth LetterDefunctBrevityIdentity Theoryand Sweet: A Literary Confection, as well as anthologies including The Best Creative NonfictionThe Best American Science and Nature Writing, and Modern Love. She teaches in the Ashland University low-residency MFA program in creative writing, and she is a prose editor for Versal, an award-winning international journal of literature and art based in Amsterdam. Both abroad and at home in Seattle, she is at work on Mama Bare, her second nonfiction book. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Amy Butcher: Preserving Activity Within The Art Of Essaying

I’m interested in the strange, the abstract and the archaic. As an editor, I find I turn to nonfiction not for absolute authority or the permission to feel a specific way—indeed, that’s another impulse altogether—but to be taken on a journey, to feel a story as it arrives, to emerge into a clearing where, as Vivian Gornick so eloquently puts it, “the sense of things is larger than it was before.” 

It’s not an easy feat.

As a writer and reader in my own right, I understand—or at least, have some small sense—of the complexities and impediments in crafting a successful, evocative essay. There is, for example, the essay’s story and its equally unique storyteller—a fact that's often overlook by outsiders to our genre or those just dipping their feet into the proverbial genre pool—and it can be difficult to discern whether the narrative voice selected best services the subject—and essay—that follows. As the editor of Defunct, an online-only journal that publishes flash nonfiction on all things—you guessed it—antiquated, that mode of voice is most important: it's what sets apart, in my mind, the good essays from the lackluster. In Allison Green’s forthcoming “Séance,” out on October 15th as part of Defunct's sixth issue, a handful of 1970s tween girls sit in a basement, attempting to resurrect the spirit of John F. Kennedy. Their sleeping bags are “spread across mattresses on the floor,” the girls are “perched on the edges of [their] mattresses in flannel pajamas,” and their “stockinged feet [are] on a frayed square of green carpet.” The reader is instantly transported into the unique point-of-view of a young girl’s Friday evening, a simultaneous nightmare of peer pressure and preteen yearning. Green writes, “Who among us brought the séance lore? Not me. But we all went along, closing our eyes and holding the sweaty fingers of our neighbors.” The essay—both its experience and how the way it is expressed is fun, pleasurable, and entertaining. Later, when the girls cry out at their own futility, an older and unmistakably wiser Green reflects, “I was crying for more than my young self; I had absorbed my parents’ feelings. My tears were vicarious tears; I wanted to feel a pain as deep as theirs.”

There’s also, of course, form, and this is something I’m increasingly interested in as an editor, especially considering the founding nature of Defunct: to salvage the dead, resurrect the past, and quell the existential unease of nostalgia. Founded by Robin Hemley—our beloved former editor-in-chief who's recently assumed the role of Publisher as he embarks on an exciting new job in SingaporeDefunct asks of essayists that their work reflect the way the world used to be, or perhaps what we wish it would become, and while the subject of defunctness is in itself plentiful—teen crushes and fads and objects, antiquated social norms and civilizations—it’s easy for essayists to fall into the tired trap of wistfulness and nostalgia. The work must move beyond the reminiscent voice and melancholic yearning to the clearing Gornick asserts: the place where something meaningful is imparted upon a reader. As editor, I want to feel the pain of Pluto’s abrupt demotion, see the child angry at the inaccuracy of outdated textbooks, experience the heartache as Britney Spears takes a razor to her soft, blond head—the metaphorical shedding of her once sane self. And how better to do that but through experimentation with form?

It’s what fascinated me most in my edification of the essay as a graduate student at the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program: the many shapes the essay can take. A site such as this doesn’t need a reminder that the essay is, after all—and has been since its inception—an attempt, a trial, an experiment, but as an editor and avid reader, I’m moved most by essays that uphold that artful process—essays in which the act of essaying itself has not been lost in a quest for elegance of language or loftiness of prose. It was one of the most meaningful lessons imparted on me as a student of The Essay Prize, a course run simultaneously by Ander Monson at the University of Arizona and John D'Agata at Iowa; the course was designed around a foundation by the same name that seeks to annually celebrate essays that best exemplify the “activity of a text” rather than its “status as a dispensary of information.”

We’re into that, as well. As a writer, I know firsthand the relative ease with which one can fall into the trap of predictability over complication, and what moves me most as an editor are essays that question that narrative path and deviate from the expected. Take, for example, Ander Monson’s 2012 Defunct essay, “Questions for Megatherium,” structured as an open letter to a long-defunct ancestral reptile whose appendages resemble human hands reaching out, grasping, clutching. While it’d be easy for Monson to reflect stoically and from afar, he instead essays through a series of queries both practical and poetic. “If you knew,” he writes, “you would be modeled by a company called Paleocraft in resin 10,000 years after your death, at 1/35 scale, what would you think?” And, later, “Was your world filled with sadness or with hope, if you know what those things are? Is happiness knowing you will be remembered as a monster? What do you know of happiness, of fatness, of the poetry of pain?” Monson doesn’t lose sight of the physical act of essaying; his work is both heartfelt and endearing, entertaining and amusing, and the vessel he utilizes—an open letter form—is surprisingly effective.

It’s something I hope we’ll see more of in future issues: sharp works that employ form as a compliment to content. We’re always hungry for experiments in voice and style, in language and chronology, and in fact recently established a separate call specifically for multimedia works—essays that employ illustrations, audio, and film to further encapsulate a defunct experience. We release our sixth issue next month, and in one of the essays I’m most excited about—our first-ever animated work, "Papel Picasdo," by Los Angeles-based artist Javier Barboza—readers will witness a sense of romantic disenchantment through a series of hand-drawn illustrations. Each, Barboza explains in his accompanying artist’s statement, were torn by hand and serve to articulate the nightmare that is the loss of a couple's future.

I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, but it couldn’t be done without the terrific contributions of our authors and the steadfast diligence of our editorial staff. We’re a small group, and we exist because we care. Because we love and wish to promote the essay's continued emergence and its ongoing evolution. In our five-year tenure, we’ve had the unique privilege of publishing work by many admirable contemporary essayists—among them, Lia Purpura, David Shields, Ryan Van Meter, Roxane Gay, Joe Wenderoth, Elizabeth Kadetsky, Dinty W. Moore, Joe Bonomo, Chris Offutt, Marion Winik and the aforementioned Ander Monson—and we’ve garnered the attention of both The Atlantic and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. We've held readings, conference panels and book fair booths in Iowa City, Boston, Washington D.C., Chicago and Melbourne, Australia, but what I’m most proud of is the ways in which our contributors have responded to our call with unparalleled enthusiasm: reflecting whimsically on the art of raking and cursive writing, the Jart and the Jheri curl, their childhood backyard, country, culture or even continent. It's what makes our work rewording as editors and readers, and what sustains us as practitioners as we seek careers in this inspired genre.

This fall, we’ll debut twelve evocative and heartbreaking essays on pay phones and cooking trends, distorted perceptions and carnivals, cities composed of tents and the call-to-arms nature of the word “Hark!,” and of course, we hope you’ll join us. And, if the subject suits you, submit to our spring issue.
Amy Butcher is the editor of Defunct, a journal of flash nonfiction founded by Robin Hemley. Prior to her promotion, she served for four years as inaugural Managing Editor and organized events, panels and readings in Iowa City, Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., and Melbourne, Australia. She is a recent recipient of the Olive B. O'Connor Creative Writing Fellowship at Colgate University, a recent graduate of the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, and a recent recipient of an International Research Award from the Stanley Foundation. Her own essays and short stories have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Tin House, Salon, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review, The Indiana Review, The North American Review, The Colorado Review, American Short Fiction, Hobart, Vela, and Brevity, among others.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Jill Christman on Jo Ann Beard

5 Reasons I Can’t Stop Reading & Teaching
Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter"

1) This is an essay that never gets old.  If you read it seventeen years ago, in 1996 when “The Fourth State of Matter” first appeared in The New Yorker, or later when it was reprinted at the center of Jo Ann Beard’s collection The Boys of My Youth (Little, Brown, & Co, 1998), read it again.  Then proceed to step two and don’t blame me for any spoilers.

2) The beginning: In graduate school I had the privilege of studying narrative structure with the novelist John Keeble who argued that the first page of anything should contain the concerns of the entire work. Tapping the board with a piece of chalk, Keeble explained that a writer working hard at her job would tighten that first page so a reader could touch it anywhere and the meaning would resonate across the fiction like sound across the taut skin of a drum. “Look at the first scene in ‘The Fourth State of Matter,’” I instruct my students. “All the way to the break. Knowing what you know now, how can you see that this opening scene contains the concerns of the whole essay?” From the first word, the essayist has the opportunity to teach us how to read the essay she has placed in our hands: how does Beard make the most of that opportunity?

“The collie wakes me up about three times a night, summoning me from a great distance as I row my boat through a dim, complicated dream. She’s on the shoreline, barking. Wake up.” As readers, we are prodded into motion in at least three ways:there’s the difficult rowing through the “complicated dream,” and the call to action—“Wake up”—from the insistent dog, as well as the invitation to wade into metaphor. Here we go.

As first-time readers, we can’t fully know from these three leading sentences that we’ve entered an essayistic world bound by one unifying, central metaphor (plasma, the fourth state of matter) and five meticulously threaded concerns—a dying collie with a Maserati muzzle, an attic of marauding squirrels, a wayward husband, an editorial gig with a best friend in a physics lab, and a horrific mass shooting—but even in those first thirty-three words, we’re touching the ancient dog, difficult dreams from which we might not wake, the idea of a shoreline and the hard to reach space beyond it, and the love between a woman and her dog. Even in these preliminary gestures, we have the sense of all there is to lose as we travel into the essay with our just-waking narrator.

Likewise, moving sentence-by-sentence to the first scene break, we discover that it’s all here somewhere in three opening paragraphs disguised as a simple scene in which the narrator takes her geriatric, weak-bladdered dog out into the yard for a nighttime pee—the betraying husband who used to love the collie (and the narrator); the sense of direction and mapping (echoed later in the scrupulous recreation of the shooting); the restless squirrels and the expanding universe; the Milky Way’s smearing light and the erased chalkboard we’ll encounter later in the physics lab with her friend, Chris; the not yet fully comprehended news that the lives of her space-physicist companions are already ticking down; and the time-posted routine of woman and dog, bonded and bound, in the dying game. It’s all there, and it’s a great lesson in beginnings.

3) The middle: As a writer of nonfiction, I try to heed Nabokov’s charge to make meaning of this crazy world through the identification of patterns and connections. In Speak, Memory Nabokov sidesteps time and chooses to "follow the thematic design, of pattern and order, through [his] life”: “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip.” Here, Beard weaves five seemingly disparate, but finally inextricable concerns—and we do not trip. We walk with her.

Here is an exercise I do with my students: breaking them into five groups, I assign each group one of the concerns above—dog, squirrels, husband, friend in physics, or shooting—and charge each group with the task of a) tracing their element through the essay (in large and small ways), b) connecting their element to the binding metaphor of plasma, and c) arguing why their thread is the most vital and urgent strand in thinking about what the essay is really about. (Hint: the shooting will not always win. Every group has a chance here.)

What the students discover is that Beard refuses to privilege one species of trauma or loss over another, and in this refusal invites us into a space of deep grief where we consider our own losses and plasmatic stillness; in other words, through the conscious patterning of images, concerns, and closely observed scenes, Beard opens up a place for the reader to have an experience. Obviously, the 1991 University of Iowa physics lab shooting—which older readers will remember—is the biggest event in this essay, and yet, Beard doesn't let it take over. The collie matters. The squirrels matter. The wandering husband and her friendships matter. Love and loss matter.

4) The beginning, middle, and end—in that order. What really interests me in “The Fourth State of Matter” are not the subjects of Beard’s narrative, but the way her mind works: the way she sees and the way she filters what she sees through her interesting brain. Life doesn’t come with plot, nor do we get credit for our lives, and I propose that much of this essay’s success lies in the way Beard controls time and pacing as she transforms life into art.

I get that as real people we cannot reasonably (and sanely) partition our daily lives into clean strips—e.g., today you're helping a terminally ill friend, so you don't have to feed the dog or finish that article or call your mother—and although our narrated selves often require just that kind of thematic division, the remarkable thing to me here is that I feel as if I’ve entered the folds of Beard's brain, working with her as she tries to locate patterns in the chaos, to find a place to rest between marriage and divorce, liquid and solid, love and loss, life and death. Whether she's a grieving woman prone on her couch, stretching out her “dog arm” to nudge the collie out for a pee, or the dispassionate reporter piecing together the grim details of the shooting, Beard’s journey with the animals and the people she loves always, always feels urgent and necessary. In this way, “The Fourth State of Matter” does what Virginia Woolf says a good essay must: “draw its curtain round us. . .”—“a curtain that shuts us in, not out.”

5) The end: "In a few hours the world will resume itself, but for now we're in a pocket of silence. We're in the plasmapause, a place of equilibrium, where the forces of the Earth meet the forces of the sun. I imagine it as a place of silence, where the particles of dust stop spinning and hang motionless in deep space.” Chris is gone, the husband is gone, the squirrels are gone, and the collie—her "peer," her "colleague"—will be leaving soon. Jo Ann is hanging motionless in all this, and as a reader, I hold my breath (I really do, every time) and listen.


Jill Christman’s memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, won the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction in 2001 and was reissued in paperback by the University of Georgia Press in Fall 2011. Recent essays have appeared in Barrelhouse, Brevity, Descant, Harpur Palate, Iron Horse Literary Review, Literary Mama, River Teeth, and many other journals, magazines, and anthologies. She teaches creative nonfiction in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Seneca Review: Three Editors Take The Essay “Beyond Category”

One of the great things about Seneca Review, we feel, is the blurring of the boundaries between and among genres. We tend to order the magazine’s content for this purpose. Starting with our last issue, we decided to stop making a genre distinction between the “poetry” and the “lyric essays.” Eventually, it became too difficult and probably too unnecessary for us to do so.

The work we publish happens mostly in the borderlands between the two to begin with—the interstices or fusions of poetry and essay, of one genre and another. That’s often what excites us most. So we wanted to harness that preference and push it a few steps farther. We don’t like to be stagnant even in our editorial preferences, so we wanted to push ourselves and SR into a new space.

We wanted to start crossing bigger lines of genre and form. Not just between poetry and essays but between writing and visual art, between analog and digital. Not that this is exactly new, but it is surprisingly absent in the majority of literary magazines around. Though, our Lyric Essay Special Issue did feature photographs that we considered essays—still, we felt like that was just a start. We wanted to cross lines of form in a much more concerted way.

We asked ourselves, what if we collected just hybrids and outliers and anachronisms? Work that went beyond the lyric essay, beyond the prose poem, beyond just words or just images even. We wanted to let the essay happen in the porous, often unsaid context its always been in: intermingling with experimental typography, splicings, documentary poetics, visual-textual hybrids, collage, live coding, new media, old media with new applications, audio, video, bio-art, book arts, and the like.

In other words, we wanted to invite poignantly difficult work into SR. That was the impetus of our upcoming special issue Beyond Category. To accommodate the type of dual or multiple media work we’re looking for, the special issue will appear simultaneously in print and online. To have a nexus point or gathering place for writers and artists working in more than a single medium or working in an original way in a single medium felt pivotal to us.

It also seemed vital to have a particularly hybrid editorial approach to our Beyond Category special issue. So we three of us on the masthead—Kathryn Cowles (poetry editor), Joshua Unikel (assistant editor), and David Weiss (editor). All three of us work several forms—from radio essay to installation art, text-and-image to graphic design, new media to pen-and-ink drawing—and we all make work that’s in-between, so it made sense for the three of us to team up for this one.

In fact, gravitating toward work that’s “beyond category” is a rather natural progression for SR as far as we see it. From the 1970s until the late 90s, we focused exclusively on poetry. Since 1997, we’ve championed and published the lyric essay. A large part of each issue now is devoted to the more experimental forms of creative nonfiction. For the past five years, we’ve let the essay reflect back at itself by publishing online interviews on the lyric essay with practitioners whose work is simultaneously appearing in the magazine – writers like Thalia Field, Stephen Kuusisto, Brian Christian, Christine Hume, Aaron Kunin and Dan Beachy-Quick.

So now in the 2010s, we’re continuing what’s actually always been in our editorial mindset: keep it current and keep it quality. This is simply our way of doing so in the Age of Information, at a time when it’s become almost impossible to think about the essay in a vacuum, literary or otherwise.

Our Beyond Category special issue is slated for this January. The deadline for submissions is October 31. To submit, send your hybrids and outliers to our Submittable page.

Feel free to contact us with queries via email at

—Kathryn Cowles, Joshua Unikel, David Weiss

Kathryn Cowles is a poetry editor at the Seneca Review. Cowles has her PhD from the University of Utah. Her book of poetry Eleanor, Eleanor, not your real name (Bear Star Press, 2008) won the Brunsman Poetry Prize. Her writing has appeared recently in Drunken Boat, Free Verse, The Offending Adam, and the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day.

Joshua Unikel is the assistant editor of the Seneca Review. Unikel has an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Currently, he is an MFA candidate in the University at Buffalo’s Visual Studies Program. His art has shown recently in New York and Buffalo. His writing has appeared recently in [PANK], Sonora Review, Fugue, and Booth.

David Weiss is the editor at the Seneca Review. Weiss is the author of a recent book of poems, GNOMON, two previous collections of poems, The Fourth Part of the World and The Pail of Steam, and a novel, The Mensch, which was published by Mid-List Press as a winner in their first novel contest. He has also published numerous essays on poetry.