Wednesday, May 4, 2016

An Anthology of One: Joseph Bradbury on Sonora Review's Essay Contest

I’m thinking a bit about the nature of writing contest, their construction, and their purpose aside from winning a little money and publication. I like working at a journal. I enjoy engaging with other staff members in debates over the implicit meaning of a couple sentences, even just a few words. For the standard issue we look for cohesiveness within the genre, something that bears the identity and ethos of Sonora Review. In this way, with each issue we build small anthologies, even if that anthology claims only a small niche on the submissions we receive, we’re able to organize them, place the works in proximity to other work, and create something else. In an interview here on Essay Daily, John D’Agata reflects on his relationship to his anthological work: “these anthologies represent my take on the essay, and nothing else. They are my own personal explorations into the history of the essay, and they shouldn’t be viewed as anything but that.” I admire and enjoy D’Agata’s collections, to see how he shakes hands with the dead (and some living). But I’m interested in the writing contest for its opposite and antithetical constructions of an anthology.

At Sonora Review, we select somewhere around ten essays from different formal constructions, reportage, memoir, biography, historical reconstruction, etc. and we send them off to a judge to select a winner. This year it’s Elena Passarello for the essay contest. I don’t know too much about Elena other than a few conversations and email exchanges. I know her book, Let Me Clear My Throat (Sarabande, 2012) is a brilliant demonstration of the power of the human voice. I know she performs her readings beautifully and gazes out over the audience as she recounts long and lucid sentences from memory—I saw this at a conference as she read from her newest work, a bestiary of celebrity animals. But I don’t know what she looks for in judging an essay. And even if she explained her selecting process, I don’t think I could pick out her winning essay.

Regarding this process, the contest is the anthology reverse engineered. Instead of a collection of historically significant essays slotted in specific order by one person, the writing competition organizes a group of critics around one work. Behind every winner, there is a silent crowd of readers, deeply considering the work, telling every essay, for one reason or another, yes. As all the submissions are read, discussed, vetted, and judged, the winning selection becomes representative of something. Of American publishing culture? Of the few of us on staff at Sonora Review? Perhaps. Or it’s a small sample of one person’s individual expression, which we, and Elena Passarello, really enjoyed. I don’t know what comes out the other end of a reverse engineered anthology. But I enjoy these convoluted layers of mystery, wondering who was drawn to which essay, what they demonstrate and what that means in the future of the essay. So I read winners and I read slush. I sift through language and ideas and, at times, I get giddy finding something that I know is good because I read it and thought so, not because I was directly influenced by a bound collection of pages.

Send us your work. We’re looking for an anthology of one.

The competition at Sonora Review is open in three genres until May 7. Submit now at

Contest Guidelines:

Poetry: 4-8 pages, judged by Mathias Svalina
Fiction: 6,000 words, judged by Molly Antopol
Nonfiction:  6,000 words, judged by Elena Passarello


Joseph Bradbury is an MFA​ candidate at the University of Arizona and the nonfiction editor at Sonora Review. He writes about identity and mythology in the American West. Follow him on Twitter @JDeeBrad.

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