Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Caryl Pagel: Notes on the CSU Poetry Center’s Essay Collection Competition

One question you might have is why a poetry press with a 40+ year history of publishing astonishing collections of contemporary poetry by established and emerging poets—a university-based nonprofit that actually has the word “poetry” in its name—would suddenly throw open its doors to those long-winded and relentless space-fillers, those sentence-loving truth-tellers we know as “essayists”?

And another question you might have is why, if the Cleveland State University Poetry Center is of a mind to invite other genres, don’t we attempt something sensible like a novel or perhaps a collection of short stories or for god’s-sake why not a book on craft? And I would respond that all of those lovely forms might still find a home with us in the future and that we do have some prose precedent, specifically a small series of smart novellas, but that right now we are particularly smitten with the essay as a result of its utterly charming and rambunctious wildness, its preoccupation with structure, its emotive, nostalgic, and tragic potential, its messiness, its love of inquiry, its ambivalence toward permanence or conclusion, its hesitations, its qualms, its idiosyncrasies, and of course its sense of music. Sound familiar? Many of the more absorbing elements of the essay echo those of a poem and of course there’s a rich tradition of transition between them. Just think: Mary Ruefle, Eula Biss, Lia Purpura, Ander Monson, Claudia Rankine, John D’Agata, Eileen Myles, Kristin Prevallet, and our inaugural judge, Wayne Koestenbaum, all began as or currently identify as poets too. Even Megan Daum, Charles D’Ambrosio, Eliot Weinberger, Leslie Jamison, Hilton Als, Amy Leach, Roxane Gay, and Rebecca Solnit write with an attention to the sentence that is poetic at heart and we’d like to celebrate the kinship.

It follows that one might wonder where in the contemporary publishing scene we can find work like this; work that is exploratory and documentary, that stretches the boundaries of observation and fact, and that asks hard questions of this thing we’ve named “nonfiction”? Well, Graywolf. Sarabande. A few NYC houses. Essay Press is back up and running, thank god. And from there any avid essay reader quickly turns to a handful of poetry presses for the rest of the best of this genre (Wave Books did Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Letter Machine Editions published Andrea Rexilius’ New Organism: Essais, Flying Object posts Dara Wier’s Inside Undivided series, Noemi Press recently came out with Julia Cohen’s I Was Not Born, Ugly Duckling’s Dossier series, etc.). The CSU Poetry Center hopes to join these publishers in supporting this still underrepresented (strange, since 2014 was supposedly “the year of the essay”?) and dynamic form.

Wayne Koestenbaum, our inaugural judge and a “cultural spy” according to John Waters, is a model of these modes. In his most recent collection, My 1980’s and Other Essays, we find that his sentences are striking, his memories entertaining, his criticism illuminating and fluid. Koestenbaum’s work is unlike any other’s except, of course, his own heroes, other poets and artists who are always on the forefront of his mind (Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, Susan Sontag, and Elizabeth Hardwick, among others). In the first of what will be an annual Essay Collection Competition we are looking for writing that demonstrates a sustained attention to its own interests whether those interests are technical, imaginative, thematic, or factual. The essays might be lyrically buoyant or journalistic in nature, they might come to us fragmented or personal or hybrid. The essays will ideally serve as a location for our imaginations and a map of the author’s mind at work. They will remind and provoke.

The 2015 Cleveland State University Poetry Center Essay Collection Competition is accepting full-length manuscripts from January 1 to March 31st. For more information and to send us your work, go here:


Caryl Pagel is the author of Twice Told (H_NG M_N Books, 2014) and Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death (Factory Hollow Press, 2012). Her poems and essays can be found in AGNI, The Iowa Review, Jacket2, The Mississippi Review, and Wave Composition, among other places. She is the co-founder and editor of Rescue Press, a poetry editor at jubilat, and the Director of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. She is also an Assistant Professor of English at Cleveland State University and teaches in the NEOMFA program in northeastern Ohio.

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