Interview with Catherine Taylor @ The Conversant
Lots of great ideas about essays as a genre as well as authors to read and presses to follow.
Here’s an excerpt in which Catherine Taylor describes her reasons for starting Essay Press and discusses “essay” as a genre:
Tags: Andy Fitch, Catherine Taylor, essay, Essay Press, experimental, prose, The Conversant
Catherine Taylor: 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.
Andy Fitch: 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. . .
Catherine Taylor: 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.
Andy Fitch: 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?
Catherine Taylor: 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.