David Lazar with Margot Singer and Nicole Walker

Margot Singer and Nicole Walker
Margot Singer and Nicole Walker

When I become interested in an idea, I want to know what I think about it—so I write essays. But I also, frequently, want to know what others think about the same idea. If I think enough people might be interested, I try to edit a collection of essays. Editors don’t talk to each other that often. There are organizations of writers, but editors are strewn about, having occasional conversations that are rarely recorded. For this series of dialogues, I’ve tried to gather some editors of nonfiction anthologies to talk together. I fed them a few questions, which they’ve responded to or not. Their conversations are as interesting, as lively, as their anthologies. —David Lazar

This interview focuses on the Singer/Walker-edited collection Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction.

David Lazar: To what extent do you think anthologizing is a radical act, or can be? To what extent might it be conservative, or the impulse to preserve? Can you speak to these impulses or tensions?

Do you see your role as anthologist as transparent or abundant; when someone picks up your anthologized volume, is your presence generous or minimal?

To what extent has the volume you have edited stayed close to the idea you originally envisioned for the anthology? Did it evolve?

Most anthologies have somewhat limited shelf lives—some rather short, some longer. The influence they have is not necessarily commensurate with the length of time the anthology stays in print. What did you most want from your anthology? To keep work in print, or to influence a discussion, or the literary zeitgeist, or some balance therein?

We all have favorites that we seek to supplement, or even competitively, to replace. In addition to your own work, two of my favorite essay anthologies are Lydia Fakunkiny’s The Art of the Essay (1990) (she just died this year after a long career at Cornell) and Christopher Morley’s Modern Essays (1921). Both have very sympathetic introductions. What are some of your favorites? And speak to your anterior and ulterior anthological motivations.

In making your choices, especially with contemporary writers, there are going to be cuts and inclusions that have consequences amongst one’s writer friends, since one is forming a canon of the included, a personal charmed circle of those who deserve to be in the book. Could you talk about your considerations and some of the responses you’ve received?

John D’Agata and Phillip Lopate

John D'Agata and Phillip Lopate
John D'Agata and Phillip Lopate

When I become interested in an idea, I want to know what I think about it—so I write essays. But I also, frequently, want to know what others think about the same idea. If I think enough people might be interested, I try to edit a collection of essays. Editors don’t talk to each other that often. There are organizations of writers, but editors are strewn about, having occasional conversations that are rarely recorded. For this series of dialogues, I’ve tried to gather some editors of nonfiction anthologies to talk together. I fed them a few questions, which they’ve responded to, or not. Their conversations are as interesting, as lively, as their anthologies. —David Lazar 

Voluptuously, Expansively, Historically, Contradictorily: Essaying the Interview with Mary Cappello and David Lazar

Mary Capello and David Lazar
Mary Cappello and David Lazar

Mary Cappello: You open your new collection of essays with a wonderfully suggestive epigraph from Terence: “That is true wisdom, to know how to alter one’s mind when occasion demands it.” Of course the words “occasion” and “occasional” function in variously meditative ways in your collection, and I don’t want this question to serve as a spoiler, but I was curious to hear your thoughts on the difference between being what used to be known (and maybe still is) as an “occasional poet,” and how the idea of the occasion(al) figures (differently) for you in these essays, or in the history of the essay. Mainly, I’m struck by the way the Terrence epigraph might speak to the utter adaptability of the essay form, and therefore—here’s my question: of the essayist? What might that mean for you?

David Lazar: Thanks for this question, Mary, because it’s rather central for me. The occasional poet, say in the Laureate sense (Larkin turned down the Laureateship because, among other things, he couldn’t imagine writing “occasional poems”) hews to an event, current or celebrated, of public import. The poem may veer to more personal moments, but it’s essentially a public form and its themes shoot larger rather than smaller. The occasion in the essay is frequently quite different. Certainly, large themes and events may come into play. One hopes they do. But more often than not essayists are moved to write by events, ideas, problems, questions, coincidences, conundrums…that are smaller and closer to home. Because the voice in the essay is so often intimate, we like to know, fairly early on, why it is the essayist is writing the essay, what brought her here, in short what the “occasion” of the essay is, what stirred her to write. And I divide the occasion into two crude categories, “ostensible” and “actual.” The actual occasion might be there right from the beginning, upfront. But it also might be discovered; it might be hidden from us, the way dreamwork hides our deeper anxieties, and the “ostensible” occasion, which got us writing, allowed us to wade into where we needed to go to find our “real” or at least more necessary subject. So this partially explains my invocation of Terence. The other part is simply the necessity of being able to think and change one’s mind while writing an essay. In fact, it’s impossible to write essays without being able to do this. Let me go further: I can’t imagine wanting to write essays unless this is an essential part of your makeup—the desire to change something in yourself, to move it off the mark, unsettle it. When I begin an essay, I have a rough idea of the subject and the occasion (the two might merge or overlap) and perhaps a few things I think I might want to say at some point, some pieces of narrative I think might be useful. But then when writing I might find that the essay needs to be broken up in a certain way (which I do very selectively) or that my original idea was just a hedge, or that some of the thoughts at the beginning of the essay were timid and that I need to go much further, or that they were reckless, and I need to pull back. If you look at the Montaignian essay or the Hazlittian essay you find coils of intensity. Part of my resistance to the subgeneric categorizations of the essay (segmented essay, ekphrastic essay [aren’t all essays ekphrastic?], lyric essay), in addition to the fact that they’re just academic inventions of creative writing programs that are mimicking the academic development of poetry, is that they stifle the ability of students to do what they most need to do: allow their minds to voluptuously, expansively, historically and contradictorily develop a sense of what they might say in an essay, and then how to write stunning sentences to speak them. The second part is hard to teach. I mean, you can always do forms.

Andy Fitch with David Lazar

David Lazar
David Lazar

As The Conversant continues its merger with Essay Press, we offer a 2012 conversation between Andy Fitch and Essay board member David Lazar concerning nonfiction publishing. This interview first appeared in Bookslut.

Andy Fitch: Amid the ongoing economic crisis, one neglected tragedy has been the postponement (?) cancellation (?) of your Transgenre series with University of Iowa Press. Can we start with you describing the types of work you’d hoped to include in this series, the creative/critical/hybrid discourses in which you’d hoped to make an intervention?

David Lazar: That experience was terribly disappointing for me. I had worked with editors at the press to create a series that would publish projects difficult to publish, works that didn’t have any obvious generic category, that perhaps included elements of clearly defined genres (prose-poem, essay) but also combined elements from other genres: fiction, poetry, any kind of nonfiction. Writers I’d talk to, whose work I’m especially interested in, were frustrated that, with manuscripts that weren’t easily identifiable, publishers (even small publishers) were loathe to take a chance. So I put together a board of writers who represented the full scope of what I was interested in doing: Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, Phillip Lopate, John D’Agata, Wayne Koestenbaum, and set out to identify works that I thought might be an amenable first group in the series. I was also interested in re-publishing work by women, especially essays that had disappeared or were absurdly out of print. I had been working, in the magazine I created and edit, Hotel Amerika, to publish works I call transgeneric. I’d hoped that the Iowa series would help such works see the light of day. I’ve always promoted work that I thought represented exquisite displays of writing from clearly defined genres as well, especially prose-poetry and essays. In any case, it didn’t happen. I’d be happy to re-locate.