The Conversant is happy to announce its merger with Essay Press. Andy Fitch will be Essay’s new editor. Cristiana Baik will be its managing editor. Christopher Schmidt will serve as editor at large. We look forward to working with Essay’s founding editors Catherine Taylor, Stephen Cope and Eula Biss. Here we offer Fitch’s 2011 interview with Taylor concerning Essay Press. This interview first appeared in Cream City Review 36.1.
Andy Fitch: You’ve founded respected publications before, the Harwood Review and New Ohio Review. Could we start by discussing if, initially, you’d thought of Essay Press as an extension of those projects, if you envisioned the press making a pointed intervention into contemporary publishing (specifically into creative nonfiction or poetry, or as critique of any clear demarcation between those fields)?
Catherine Taylor: It’s true I’ve done many publishing projects. I think they’re all just symptoms of the way I live and work. But in terms of intervention: It might be too programmatic, or ascribe too much intention to say I meant to make an intervention. I just responded to a perceived lack. I was teaching creative nonfiction but struggling to find the kind of work I wanted to teach. I’d wanted to teach more innovative pieces, pieces that challenged students in terms of form or politics or were just a bit less mainstream than the essays that tend to get featured in anthologies. That was my first motivation. I was looking for pieces. And realizing they were in literary journals, some already defunct, and that there really wasn’t a place in the publishing world where my students and I could access this work. I thought, Well, I could start a press that gave essayists and creative nonfiction writers a home in the way poets had. And that became the model, that you can return to your favorite poetry book year after year, but it’s hard to return to a great essay you saw in an obscure journal six years ago if you’re not schlepping around your old journal copies. Sometimes I do that and sometimes I don’t.
AF: So initially you were attracted to work you hadn’t seen, or didn’t know. You wanted to find something?
CT: I had seen glimpses. I knew there was an alternative to most of what got published, and a lot of those glimpses came through introductions from poet friends who said, ‘Oh, you should read this essay by this poet.’ Most work that interested me at the time I learned of from poets, not nonfiction writers. Once I saw a few of those pieces I got excited, and wanted to find more. The other source, now that I think about it, came a bit earlier. In grad school at Duke I took a Creative Critical Writing class with Eve Sedgwick that really changed the way I thought about writing, my own writing and my relationship to critical work. So I’d run across amazing and innovative essays in Eve’s class, probably six years earlier.
AF: Could some of Eve’s suggestions at least be categorized as creative nonfiction? You’d mentioned the model of work coming out of poetry—not something these poets did all the time. . .
CT: I doubt they ever would have gotten categorized as creative nonfiction at the time. Some had one toe in theory, on a trajectory from writers like Roland Barthes.
AF: And then for the “essay” in Essay Press: Here I think of Wittgenstein’s concern that we might share a vocabulary but attach very different meanings to particular words. For me, it makes perfect sense why Essay Press is called Essay Press. But I’d assume the term might confuse others. So, to what extent, based on what you’ve said, are you redefining the term “essay,” making it contemporary, grounding it in an age of digital multimedia hybridity? To what extent are you restoring a broader meaning for the term, pointing back to Montaigne’s definition of “essay” as an experiment, an attempt? Could you define what “essay” means for Essay Press?
CT: I can give you what it means for me, or for my part at Essay Press. Since we have three editors, you’d probably need to get all three of us to weigh in. It has been a boon for the press to have three different ideas about what the essay might mean, and which essays may be most attractive. But for me, some of it may be seen as reinventing, and I like your questions about reinvention in the digital age. I worked a lot with digital technologies in grad school. I’d taught a hypertext literature class. My dissertation focused on electronic authorship. It explored changing cultural understandings of the author, especially as the author encountered different publication technologies. So that was one element. And I think my definition of the essay involves a selective choosing from its histories. John D’Agata’s editorial work was influential. I taught from Next American Essay at the time, and just wanted to find more than that, and certainly Montaigne was there. But I also read Adorno. I love Adorno’s ideas about the essay and felt attracted to questions both of ideology critique and the necessary place of the fragment. That all comes out of Adorno for me. Also there is an R. Lane Kauffman essay on the essay (“The Skewed Path: Essaying as Unmethodical Method”) that talks about the essay as extra-disciplinary rather than interdisciplinary, the sort of space that not so much sutures together disciplines, but tries to ignore the notion of disciplines or to reinvent this notion. That shaped part of my interest in Essay Press as a place where traditional notions of the disciplinary and of genre could be challenged.
AF: Well I may be reinforcing such notions with my question. But it seems that, in poetry, this challenge to preexisting definitions is embraced and encouraged—at least in experimental poetry. You certainly have received much praise from the poetry world for Essay Press: for accepting an eclectic array of books, for encouraging innovative modes of inquiry and idiosyncratic forms. Could you describe the response from people more closely associated with conventional nonfiction in the modes of memoir or journalism?
CT: You know I’d suspect I’ve heard more from the applauders than the detractors, but people seem excited by the range of possibilities. When we first opened for submissions we thought we’d get a handful, and we got hundreds almost immediately. Authors clearly had manuscripts they’d been sitting on awhile, with no obvious place to send them. And we continue to get over a hundred submissions each year. Ten or twenty are great but we just can’t publish them all. So certainly a faction in the nonfiction world seems excited by the possibilities. I do think we get some critique, and maybe some valid critique from. . .where we verge closest to journalism; we struggle with that. Once we’ve put ourselves out there as a place for innovation, we run up against the question of: Well, if you’re challenging notions of positivism or objectivity, how do you respond to moments of cultural or political representation where trying to get close to fact or truth becomes really significant? That might be a place where we push some buttons, raise red flags, or one of those clichés. But these are issues we’ve sought to engage, not ones that we resist.
AF: Essay Press encourages politically identified works by authors who otherwise could have difficulty placing these pieces since, in poetry, for example, such projects might seem too topical, or, as you’re saying, too journalistic. So while you may loosen standards of journalistic integrity, you promote an exploration of issues otherwise ignored by experimental writing.
CT: Yeah, though I might take issue with your idea of us loosening journalistic standards.
AF: Please do.
CT: That’s not really what we’ve done, so much as we’ve reconceived possible modes of representation from within a journalistic approach, or within more broadly documentary or investigate work.
AF: This brings up a question. I recently did an interview with Craig Dworkin, who emphasized the capacious breadth of 20th and 21st Century poetry—the variety of discourses that it’s been able to adopt and assimilate and reshape. By comparison, creative nonfiction’s range (at least prior to Essay Press, prior to David Lazar and Hotel Amerika’s interest in the transgenre, or John D’Agata’s work as author and editor) seems pretty narrow. Do you see this situation changing? Do you recognize interventions that parallel yours? In other publications? In critical responses? In how creative nonfiction programs define themselves? Or what would be needed for this greater absorptive power to manifest in creative nonfiction?
CT: That’s something I think about all the time. You’re absolutely right, poetry has demonstrated this capacious capability, whereas nonfiction has not. This started changing I’d say in the ’90s, and the early 2000s. The examples you give are great ones, both D’Agata and Lazar. I think there was a real expansion of interest in different forms, primarily through the venue of the so-called lyric essay (on which D’Agata has had such a strong influence in terms of broadening its appeal or making its name more visible). I wonder, though, if we had a bubble of excitement which then burst or hit something that kept it from expanding. Because I haven’t seen as much in the last few years as I would have expected in terms of curricula in schools, publications in journals, even mainstream book publishing. There was excitement for a few years and then a kind of stalling. I don’t know if people got nervous about the way they might have seen form outstripping content, or you know I’ve been hearing criticisms about innovation for innovation’s sake. Or, “It’s creative but it’s empty.” Some sense that formal experimentation forestalled deeper investigations, that a mismatch developed. I don’t know if that’s a problem this field just needs to work out, or (this seems related to a thread from before) if it has to do with technology. Sometimes the submissions we receive use images or have a filmic quality or might be trying to engage sensibilities from electronic writing, but they don’t always integrate these approaches very well on the page or in the form of the book. There are a number of online journals doing interesting work, but not as many working primarily with nonfiction as I thought there’d be.
AF: Do you think part of what’s lacking is sustained critical reception, or a redefinition of the field that takes place not just among practitioners, but among people who identify as professional readers? I mean I always go back to how many authors creative nonfiction has missed, how many of the best writers it could have claimed for its own and didn’t. I’ll think of the State Department in the 1950s saying, How did we lose China? Creative nonfiction should be asking, How did we lose Gertrude Stein? How did we lose John Cage? How did we lose Claudia Rankine? How did these expansive modes of inquiry come about and we just let poetry claim them for its own? To me much of what gets classified as experimental poetry also could be considered creative nonfiction.
CT: Yes. I’ll add Muriel Rukeyser, Charles Reznikoff and Jonas Mekas to your list. And now I’m thinking of all the contemporary Canadian poets who fall into this category: Lisa Robertson, Nathanael (Nathalie Stephens), Rachel Zolf. And American poets who often identify with “documentary poetics”: Jena Osman, Juliana Spahr, Mark Nowak. Now I have a question for you.
CT: Do you think we haven’t claimed these authors because of the field’s history and investment in something that looks more like reportage?
CT: And anxieties about moving too far away from that?
AF: And evaluations based on veracity, authenticity, ethics, popular relevance—none of which need be bad, but those terms are taken in very straightforward, simplistic ways. If your work can’t demonstrate that it’s obviously achieving these, then there aren’t criteria people have, no vocabulary to assess it as compelling creative nonfiction. Again part of what I admire about Essay Press is that it’s not as if you’re brushing aside questions of ethics or appropriate modes of representation, at all: Far from it. It’s that you’re encouraging people to adopt a more challenged/challenging position on such topics, putting their own credibility at stake.
CT: Those topics you’re naming are central places of exploration for our authors. The zone of ethics is one our authors return to again and again. You know I often wonder, if the label “creative nonfiction” feels limiting, is there some other way of defining this genre or discipline? I haven’t come up with one. D’Agata likes to refer to it all broadly as the essay. I’m content to work without a named genre, but I sense people need some other way to hang onto it, some ridiculously hyphenated thing, like sociological-historiography-aesthetic-representation.
AF: Sounds good. Or sometimes I think of “Gay Science,” from Nietzsche. Like the joyous science. Like there’s this exploration that’s perpetually stimulating and allows your interrogative breadth to grow as you pursue it, because it’s risky. Admittedly the term might not. . .
CT: Catch on? We could try making t-shirts.
AF: Something else that comes to mind, when you ask for alternative terms. What do you think of “meditation”—just because this term does come up in Thalia Field and Abigail Lang’s book, A Prank of Georges? There’s the Gertrude Stein quote at the beginning: “I tell all the young ones now to write essays, after all since characters are of no importance why not just write meditations, meditations are always interesting, neither character nor identity are necessary to him who meditates.” A Prank of Georges got me thinking about interactive, performative meditations, in which the reader’s invited to brood or ruminate on a particular topic though the work’s not going to provide any answers. The text provides space for reflection to happen, which seems different from what most prose traditionally has done.
CT: Many books we publish would feel comfortable under the heading “meditations,” particularly in that they don’t provide closure or answers to questions they pursue. But I think the word “meditation” can also seem weirdly apolitical, and the books we publish do provide some sense of critical inquiry or analysis as well as meditation.
AF: So meditation sounds too passive? Or insular? Self-contained?
CT: Maybe because of its associations with solitary, religious contemplation, it sort of smacks of literary work that sees itself as outside the world, as not dwelling in the intersection of the public and private, where most of our authors dwell. It doesn’t foreground the public nature of these investigations.
AF: Spring Ulmer’s book talks about purity that exists not just in language itself (you know a modernist sense of an autonomous medium), but a “purity of language as representation,” as if only in engagement with the reader does the work get revealed. Though examples I’m providing seem highly individualized, whereas you’re referring to broader political concerns?
CT: Yeah in moments when these texts look at personal engagements, what most interested us was that they didn’t do this in a vacuum—they did it with some cognizance of a larger context and a kind of shuttling back and forth between local, intimate concerns (even a kind of psychodynamics) and a set of larger cultural or political questions or structures.
AF: Could you explain a bit for people who haven’t read Essay books. . .like in The Body, the Jenny Boully book, how does this happen? Again we become aware, as Christian Bök mentions, of projections we put onto a text, and the reader’s relationship gets emphasized. But I’m curious about the broader social scope you find in The Body, or in Carla Harryman’s book.
CT: The Body’s a great example. It’s an essay in footnotes. Most of each page is blank. This absolutely draws on readers to fill in those blanks and start questioning themselves about what it is they’re filling in, and why, and the larger questions in that text, for me, are questions about absence, which demand that readers think not just about absence in relation to those footnotes, but in their own lives. The Body allows us not only to encounter moments of absence, in characters’ thoughts or in relationships depicted, but also in a larger theoretical or philosophical mode. And that’s what most intrigues me about the book—that it may have embedded in it a kind of story, perhaps even a love story, but one that explodes sensation into form. And I see this happening in Carla Harryman’s Adorno’s Noise as well. The explosion of sensation into form that then allows, or facilitates, a different way of thinking.
AF: Does something analogous happen in Kristin Prevallet’s book I, Afterlife, in which she theorizes the elegy based on deeply personal experience, but simultaneously pursues a parallel, more abstract inquiry into the incomplete nature of such accounts?
CT: I, Afterlife looks at constructing an elegy and, in tension with that, the impossibility of finding language adequate to death and to the dead. But when Kristin encounters the impossibilities or difficulties of elegy, she doesn’t give up. The text doesn’t shut down or refuse to look at that. It keeps this tension alive as a dialectic between making something and the impossibility of making that thing.
AF: And achieves its elegiac mode through that very tension. Also, on this topic of essays opening up broader inquiry: I notice Essay books tend to be very much intertextual. Part of their focus comes in direct response to other texts. Even Letters from Abu Ghraib is concerned with scripture, so intertextual as well. So is that important when deciding which books to publish? And is intertextuality a metaphor here in some way? When we think of the essay as an attempt, does that leave the essay always partial, incomplete, non-totalizing, always opening some broader network of reference beyond its immediate subject matter?
CT: Absolutely. This opening up, this fragmentary nature appeals to us as editors at the press, and is constitutive of the kinds of essays we find most provocative and want to bring to an audience. Your question about intertextuality is interesting: I hadn’t thought of that before. We haven’t consciously looked for that, though clearly it’s present in our texts. I think we just prefer complex works that ask big questions, texts where we can see the author grappling in a variety of modes and with a number of reference points.
AF: I do note centrifugal tendencies in Essay Press books, through which they’ll adopt many different perspectives on a topic. But then I also note a centripetal pressure. These projects seem carefully choreographed at the same time. They provide clearly executed concepts for books. So I’ll think of people like Cage, because of the inclusivity, the diffusive scope, but then I’ll also think of Mallarmé, Jabès, certain aphoristic writers—who stitch together intricate, tightly bound texts. Does the press partially emphasize this centripetal concision? Is that part of why you prefer shorter projects?
CT: You’re right to see that as a trait in works we’ve published so far. Here I wonder how much depends on the books’ design. Design seems an important component of these books. Jeff Clark is our designer. His influence on the texts is often quite strong, and brings more coherence, or what you are referring to as a centripetal aspect, to the texts. For instance, Adorno’s Noise is more open-ended than some of the other books we’ve published, and in somebody else’s hands, or another mode of publishing, that open-endedness might have received more emphasis. If we had published Adorno’s Noise online, in serial fashion, it would have produced a different experience than encountering it as a perfect-bound book. And the design of the book also shapes the text. Now, I wonder if we’ve unconsciously resisted some open-ended pieces since they don’t conform to the perfect-bound format.
AF: Because it’s hard to envision them as books?
CT: Our choice of medium and choice of design, our focus on the physical object may shut down the possibility for some more open-ended texts we might have been attracted to, or maybe those texts don’t come our way due to what we’ve already put out. I often wonder about that: How much has the small catalogue we’ve put out influenced the kinds of manuscripts people send us? I like the idea of exploring alternate media that could heighten the outward rather than inward motion, the centrifugal rather than centripetal. I really love serial work. Maybe by publishing the same author over time we could achieve more with seriality without abandoning the book. I was thinking of Nate Mackey’s writing, how I don’t want to read just one book—I want to hopscotch through all of them. And other people working in a serial mode, Rachel Blau DuPlessis for instance, whose work is complex and essayistic. I love the connections between her poems and footnotes. The footnotes form a kind of essay, and transitions between the poems and footnotes provide an essayistic way of reading. Again I love to read her work book to book to book, or back and forth between books.
AF: So you’d like to create space for people to conceive of a multi-volume project?
CT: I don’t know what that would look like for us, but I would. The obvious answer’s just to publish more books. But it seems there might be other ways as well. When we started the press, I wanted to produce a series of pamphlets. And then either Eula Biss or Stephen Cope, my co-editors, suggested we do perfect-bound books, and I’m glad we moved in that direction. But at some point we might find space to do series of pamphlets or something more casual or informal as a medium.
AF: Projects that can be more informally disseminated? Is that part of it?
CT: I think so. And projects that respond to an immediate political or cultural moment and need to come out sooner—I’d like to facilitate that.
AF: Could we return to the topic of design you brought up? The part Essay Press and/or Jeff develops? When you say design, does this refer to the book’s physical layout? Does that include. . .you know I’ll often find surprising section or chapter breaks, fluctuations between prose and poetry, inclusion of images, or sometimes the noticeable lack of images, such as in Spring Ulmer’s The Age of Virtual Reproduction when she considers August Sander or W.G. Sebald—do these count as design decisions, and do they get made collectively?
CT: They are made primarily by the authors, but there is also some collaboration. So, for instance Carla and Jeff worked quite closely on her book. Jeff added the images that separate the sections. Also, some of Carla’s work has line breaks across the page in the more open-field pieces, which in some cases almost demanded horizontal instead of vertical pages, so, in that case, Jeff expanded the page a bit because our original size couldn’t contain the text. I know Carla was really pleased with the way she said he “interpreted” her writing in the design.
AF: And what about manuscripts that don’t fit Essay Press’s sense of design? You’d mentioned a variety of types of work that Essay Press does not take but for which there ought to be a home. Can you list some?
CT: Probably the largest category of work that we don’t take would be lyric memoir. We get a number, many many beautiful lyric memoirs every year, though we’ve become less and less interested in publishing pieces that fit squarely within the memoir category. But many pieces we receive deserve publication. The other category would be texts that are too long for us. We’ve tried to keep to relatively short projects. Another sub-category would be pieces that rely heavily on illustration or photography. I’d love to find ways around that, and can’t tell if it’s a financial question or technological one.
AF: And again, why the short length? Is that due to financial concerns?
CT: Partly. But as much as I’d like to say I have the most expansive possible notion of the essay, there is a moment when a long text makes demands on a reader that depart from the nature of the essay. I’ll have to think about this more, because immediately I picture exceptions. But I think that as editors, we had a gut feeling to emphasize a circling around a question that had temporal closure to it as well.
AF: I reread your entire collection last week. Do you consider it important to be able to digest each of these works in a single sitting? Does that experience again relate to the idea that if the essay’s an attempt, it’s a partial attempt, one meant to push us towards a more expansive inquiry than the solitary text provides?
CT: I like that. I’ll say yes. Though I’d suspect this has to do with the various histories of the press and why we started it. We all were teaching then, and still teach. Shorter texts seemed more classroom-friendly. But now that the press has existed a while, and become less closely tied to looking for texts to teach. . .in fact now that they’re published by what my students might see as “my” press I’m hesitant to teach them. It feels inappropriate, which is frustrating. But to come back to your question about length: I don’t know; I’m going to ask Stephen and Eula.
AF: This interests me because often one expects a scholar, let’s say, a researcher, to present an immense, unchallengeable edifice—to have read everything, to respond to everything on a particular topic. But the inverse seems valued here. You seem to have solicited a deft, glancing engagement with a topic, which shouldn’t fully absorb readers, but should prod them toward further efforts.
CT: Right, maybe with larger texts there’s a sense that that topic has now been covered. We are not looking for texts that pretend toward expertise. They may be written by authors who have expertise in their field, but that’s not the motivation for these particular projects.
AF: Do you get submissions from people who identify as scholars? Do you get wacky dissertations?
CT: We do. We get “The dissertation I would’ve wanted to write but which never would have flown with my committee.” We get a lot of those. And you know, I was just thinking about economic questions—how these impact submissions and our field in general. The investigative pieces I think we all hoped for, certainly I hoped for, we don’t get many of, perhaps because it’s hard to fund that kind of research. That’s a serious problem for creative nonfiction. We’re often located disciplinarily in the English department subset called Creative Writing, where there’s no history of funding individuals to do long-term research, in the way there might be in say History departments. Few writers in the academy (which, let’s face it, is a large number of writers these days) have access to the extended time and funding it takes to do good in-depth reporting. And to work that material into what one might think of as an experimental mode demands yet another investment.
AF: Hmm I guess if you want your text to reach outwards in some way, then intertextuality, referring to previously published literature, sounds easier than other types of investigation.
CT: Right. Ethnography, or even archival research, makes a lot of demands. If your archive’s in Berlin and you need to stay there several months, or years, that poses a major challenge for most writers.
AF: Well along these lines: What are the works you’d expected to see but haven’t? What types of studies, when you founded the press, would have fulfilled everything you’d hoped for?
CT: I still would love to see more pieces that engage history, experimental histories, and we don’t see many of those. Submissions tend to be more on the side of literary history. But I would love to read more political histories and histories of nations in conflict. Examples of texts I return to a lot that would be in this space. . .do you know Susan Griffin’s A Chorus of Stones? “The Private Life of War” is its subtitle. It’s an amazing book, and I don’t know how many years it took her to research, but its series of braided texts combine personal and political inquiry, as some parts delve into the history of the holocaust while others take on art history, or chronicle the lives of workers in the atomic industry. I’d love to find something like that. There’s also anthropology, such as Michael Taussig’s work and Alphonso Lingis’ work. Texts that require a kind of institutional support we obviously can’t offer. And we’d like to expand our work around race, both in terms of the diversity of our authors, and also in terms of inquiry.
AF: In terms of decision-making processes for the press: What is the mode of engagement among you, Eula and Stephen? Does someone decide on a particular year’s selections? Are certain works more clearly identified with one of you? You don’t have to get specific.
CT: For the first few texts we made all decisions jointly. Then we’d hash out editing the manuscripts jointly, and it was very time consuming. Later we moved to taking turns each year, each editor having a book of his or her own. But we all had to sign off on it. We had to form some kind of consensus but then one person took the lead. In part that was due to living in different places. When we started the press we’d all lived in Iowa. Within a year or two Stephen was in Iowa while I was in Ohio and Eula was in Chicago, and communications became more difficult. But the truth is that even though we’ve been saying This is my book or This is your book, we still do collaborate a lot.
AF: Do the three of you bring slightly different interests or angles or fields into consideration?
CT: We do, but it hasn’t been predictable. Originally I might have said Well, since Stephen’s background is poetry, he’s going to be the one working with poets. That really hasn’t been the case. So while we do bring slightly different aesthetics and motivations, “our” individual books could be surprisingly miscorrelated.
AF: I’m refraining from guessing now.
CT: I’m not sure I would tell. And more importantly, I just hope to see a real proliferation in new presses.
AF: Well people look up to what you do, which should create space for more of these manuscripts to be published. But my question should have been: When you thought through the initial formation of Essay Press, did you hope to have this exemplary function—to launch others into starting their own presses, rather than to fill a particular niche?
CT: Absolutely. We felt that this larger conversation around transgeneric work wasn’t happening in book publishing. It happened among writers and in journals, and we wanted to expand it into books. And there are some presses doing amazing work. Do you know Fact-Simile? JenMarie Davis, a former student of mine from Ohio University is running that press with Travis Macdonald, and they are doing interesting work. And there is Renee Gladman’s Leon Works. And, of course, the Dossier Series at Ugly Duckling—our shared home. So there are related presses. I just wish there were more, and that we had even broader readerships. I do think there’s a real lack of space for interesting creative nonfiction. The big guns, the New Yorkers and the Harpers tend to publish work I find for the most part really predictable. For now the interesting venues are few. I’m tempted to start a new journal, but also tempted to write another book. We’ll see.
Catherine Taylor is the author of Apart, a mixed-genre memoir and political history that combines prose, poetry, cultural theory, and found texts from South African archives. Her first book, Giving Birth: A Journey Into the World of Mothers and Midwives (Penguin Putnam), won the Lamaze International Birth Advocate Award. Taylor is a Founding Editor of Essay Press. She received her Ph.D. from Duke University and teaches at Ithaca College.