The Essay State/The State of the Essay: An Interview with Ander Monson and Craig Reinbold

Guest Article by: 
Lawrence Lenhart

How We Speak to One Another is the new Essay Daily reader from Coffee House Press. Don’t know Essay Daily? I’ve got your back. As Essay Daily is the pituitary gland of creative nonfiction, it makes sense that this anthology of essayistics abounds with some of the genre’s heavy-hitters. Philip Lopate, John D’Agata, Albert Goldbarth, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Robin Hemley, Joni Tevis, Nicole Walker, Elena Passarello… they’re all here. 

While the appetite for the essay has been steadily growing over the past couple decades, only Essay Daily has offered itself to us as a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet. A not-quite daily offering of critical/creative engagements, Essay Daily is helmed by Ander Monson (also of DIAGRAM). So, who’s this Craig Reinbold guy? According to Monson, Reinbold was the “Managing Editor since pretty early on… now he’s just a bad ass nurse man.” (“Almost nurse,” Reinbold clarifies. Before he went to nursing school, Reinbold was a classmate of mine in Monson’s Collections class at The University of Arizona). I remember him best for his giant backpack and affinity for PJ Harvey, Fiona Apple, and other female rock contraltos.

While Reinbold now curates the Int’l Essayists series (Will Slattery has since taken over the managing editor spot), he recalls a solitary weekend he spent in Wisconsin in thrall to Essay Daily and this very anthology: “making a spreadsheet of essays [they’d] potentially want to include, with quotes and justifications, and arguments, and page counts.” Even though the essays have been harvested from the site, this anthology is not just a re-reader. Its 47 essays wink across the pages. With their shared literacies, prosaic disguises, madcap readings, and possible plagiarisms, the essays in HWSTOA form a beguiling echo chamber.

Most mornings, I begin the day by checking to see if there’s new content on Essay Daily. This morning though (April Fool’s morning), I share a Google Doc with Monson and Reinbold. This is our agreed-upon method for speaking about How We Speak to One Another.


 

Brazos Bookstore: Let’s begin with the end. I’m looking at the bibliography for the book, and it kind of looks like a note I might have amassed on my phone over the course of an AWP or a party with a lot of smart writers. I can’t think of an anthology that would ever include all of these essays, but it makes perfect sense that all these conversations would all be contained in one place. Why is that?

Craig Reinbold: Because they all somehow speak to one another, right? In the beginning we’d thought about trying to actually include the piece being written about alongside each essay. Would have been cool though, to give readers such easy access to so many different, conversing texts. The bibliography idea came along later in the game and seemed like the next best thing.

Working with so many different writers writing about so many different essays and types of essays has turned me on to a lot I probably wouldn’t have found on my own—which of course is also a benefit of getting an MFA. It’s always been a personal goal of mine that Essay Daily mimic—if not replace—that classroom conversation experience. Some good MFA advice I got was that whenever someone mentions a book or an essay or a writer, you should go get that book or essay, or everything written by that writer, and read it so you can really join the conversation. Works the same way here, I think. Our end-of-the-year lists can be pretty overwhelming, but if someone new to essays wanted to get to know the genre, this would be a good place to dive in.

Ander Monson: I also think of Essay Daily as a secondary avenue for the kinds of conversations we often try to have in the MFA program (sometimes we are even successful!). Often when I talk about the site, I talk about it as an MFA in a box. It’s funny that we’ve become accustomed to universities—and grad programs in particular—as where students go to become writers, because that’s a very recent phenomenon. I tell my undergrads that while MFAs are great, there are a lot of routes you can take. What you want is mostly just to seek out conversations like the kinds that we try to foment here. Those will almost certainly happen in MFA programs, but they also happen whenever writers meet and talk or write to each other, and if Essay Daily can carve out a bit of that space, it’s all for the better. And while talking to or about an essay is great, as Craig says, you always want to go to the original. It would have been a very different kind of book if we were able to include the texts being discussed here, but because of permissions difficulties as well as just space considerations we decided against it. Most of the essays discussed aren’t going to be too hard to find. This is just the beginning of the journey for readers, I hope (and these essays in the book are a small sliver of what we publish on the site). Use these as a trail to get yourself to more. This is just a tool, among other tools. (But it’s a very reasonably-priced and dense one.)

BB: Someone (I think it was Eileen Myles) once theorized we choose our friends because we “fall in love with their shit” and/or browsers. Some of the writers in HWSTOA are friends of yours, friends of mine, friends of one another; there’s bound to be some strangers too. Can you talk about the social function of Essay Daily? How does that benefit the genre?

AM: I think that’s a very strong insight into how the site in part functions. There aren’t enough central places for we lovers of the essay to gather online, because things are always tilted in one direction or another. That whole Edward Hoagland idea of speaking to one another in print is just hella accelerated when it goes online. I do think that it’s a potential downside, though, too, if it feels like we’re just speaking to one another. The hope (for me anyhow) from the start was that, while a lot of us are at universities and whatnot, that we’d create a space for a less-academic conversation about the essay. That’s one thing I fear about the genre—already seemingly-borified and –rarified—that it’ll stultify if it’s just the tower. Though, I mean, universities are incubators of the contemporary essay, so it’s no surprise that a lot of us have some involvement with them. Still, I’ve always thought that one real benefit of the site is that it gives me reasons to get in touch with people I might not otherwise have the excuse to search out (like Yiyun Li, just to name a recent example). When I approached writers—especially early when I pitched this to various writers who I interacted with coming through the AZMFA program (or in a couple cases, like with Chelsea Biondolillo, who we accepted to the MFA but ended up going elsewhere)—one of the things that got me excited about it was the idea of conversations, which also really came into focus for me when I read that early Chekhov translation essay of Craig’s. In some ways the site really took off once he got involved, because it became more of a social back and forth between him and I (and now between a lot of us).

CR: Back in the earlier days I was really conscious of not soliciting people I knew, at least not too much. DISCOVERY is a compulsion and each solicit is an opportunity not only to discover a potential friendship—or at least a collegial friendliness—with another writer, but also to discover the writers that writer has been reading and thinking about. For me, that’s the appeal of being an editor - here or elsewhere. There’s the thrill of discovering a great piece of writing, but there’s also the thrill of discovering the person behind the project. Maybe we’ll be friends? Or at least colleagues. Or we’ll just follow each other on Twitter. Whatever, our worlds will overlap and I’m a little less lonely just imagining the possibilities.

I was also conscious of soliciting writers I was genuinely interested in. Being eight feet tall, Ander kind of towers over the masthead and it might have been tempting to focus on writers and writing I thought would appeal to his taste. Our tastes overlap, for sure, but not entirely, and seeking out writers we each find personally compelling has certainly kept the conversation growing in interesting, and probably unexpected, directions. Not working in academia myself, I’ve also been trying to snag more writers from outside the tower, but for many writers not subsidized by academia money is an issue and there’s also just limited time in our lives. If it weren’t your business, would you still be writing and thinking about essays? One hopes, but in my experience the shit gets trickier the further away you get.

AM: As an aside, Craig, I keep telling you that you and Sean Lovelace should have a conversation about some stuff, since he was an RN (Emergency Room especially) before he decided to do the MFA—and after. Now he’s professoring, though he likes to remind people of how the problems of the workshop often pale in comparison to the problems of the ER. I mentioned to him how you were doing the degree while working and he thought that was fucking nuts. So I suspect you two would have a good talk. Maybe I’ll just try to assemble you both on the disc golf course sometime?

And also, yeah, I think these kinds of things suffocate if they feel like they’re too close to one aesthetic or another, so what I don’t want is for it to be all friends of mine or people who Craig or Will feel are people I’d like. I mean, to some extent that’s natural: writers and readers who feel like they’re already part of the conversation are more likely to feel invited in and ready to join it, and it’s definitely the case that knowing someone makes it easier to make a compelling ask for a contribution, but if it’s all the usual suspects talking to all the usual suspects it’s going to calcify and die pretty fast. So I particularly value those outside of our usual orbits who contribute. And features like the Malcontent, this pseudonymous space Will and I created for saying unpopular things about too-popular writers (also as a kind of antidote for the mutual back-patting feeling any largely social site inevitably seems like it leads to), feel like they’re useful in terms of how they might take the piss out of some commonplaces. (“Taking the piss” is a very odd construction, now that I think about it.)

BB: One of my favorite aspects of this anthology is the layers of conversation. It’s equal parts intra- and inter-. It’s not just Pam Houston speaking to Rick Reilly’s “Need a Fourth?” and Dave Mondy speaking to Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, but it’s also Pam Houston speaking to Dave Mondy, Rick Reilly speaking to Jim Bouton. Can I put you two on the spot for a moment? If I were to pick four essays at random, could you, as editors, speak to one another about how these essays speak to one another?

[Note: If you are in fact game for this Q, the essayists I choose are Ken Chen, Peter Grandbois, Marcia Aldrich, and David LeGault, respectively assigned to the E-S-[S]-A-Y semaphore on the book’s cover.]

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AM: Sure, I’m game. There’s definitely a seven degrees of Kevin Bacon sort of thing that connects them. Though I think I’ve only met one of these folks in person (LeGault is one of my favorite students from GVSU where I taught before I took the job at Arizona: really there were a lot of students there whose work was formative for me. LeGault’s new book should be right up your alley, Lawrence…).

So Chen’s is a favorite of mine in the book, just because it’s so unhinged (and unhingedness is a quality I value greatly in an essay: it’s definitely something I always liked in Craig’s work) …

CR: What a compliment, seriously.***

AM: … It’s also the last essay that joined our ranks, since it came in (as it suggests in its own intro) so late. I’m also very drawn to the way the dialogue becomes comic. Immediately its Q&A format speaks back to the Aldrich essay which is basically composed of a conversation (if an author-centric one) with Bernard Cooper. So they’re immediately echoing back and forth. Plus, if you want back and forth, well, here we go into Grandbois, an essay about fencing (itself an art of back-and-forthing, of attack and counter). And I swear I’m doing these in a random order, revisiting them one at a time, but then we go from Bernard Cooper on “The Fine Art of Revising ‘The Fine Art of Sighing’” to Grandbois’s “on the Essential Art of Failing.” The whole collection is kind of like this: buried connections of one sort or another.

I was asking my nonfiction students just today, partly on account of reading David Shields, how much of what they did felt like arrangement, and how much like creation, and to describe the space between those acts for them. To them I wondered out loud (and maybe pointlessly: it’s hard to know how much of one’s thinking really can ever settle into another): how much of writing is collection? Here I can go right back to LeGault’s forthcoming book which I wrote about a bit on Essay Daily recently, if not yet his essay in HWSTOA, so I’ll tread water for a moment (and in doing so I’m also reminded of a conversation I had today with my MFA thesis student Caleb Klitzke in which we ended up mostly discussing the subtleties of the skits in the first and second De La Soul albums. The first one, 3 Feet High and Rising, features a kind of adventurous ramble through a little adventureland called “Tread Water"). I can usually tell how well conversations with my students go based on how much we talk about vintage hip hop or, say, the production values of the second Garbage album (which is excellent, and they put on a hell of a show).

Grandbois’s essay reminds me a lot of what David Shields is up to not just in Reality Hunger but also in his newest one, Other People: Takes and Mistakes, in terms of his willingness to embrace failure and to rely on others’ quotations, which is of course an easy segue to LeGault’s essay on Claudia Rankine’s first essay-poem-book, the one published well before Citizen blew way the hell up. Rankine’s is an image-text book-length essay that was wayyyyy ahead of the curve that the other cool kids have been following, and LeGault’s take on it is an essay in part about the ways in which quotations etch themselves in us (and each memory of those quotations reinscribes the memory and the original text). LeGault knows this territory well: he’s got an excellent essay on latrinalia, as he calls it, being the language and jokes and brags etched into bathrooms from the Romans on to the Kum-and-Gos that weirdly and dirtily populate rural Iowa. So his essay is addressing the indelible way in which language scrates into the surface (to quote him) of us. It’s an essay about permanence (something that we’re all—rightly–concerned about, especially when publishing essays about essays on a website, being a space that is in many ways tentative and temporary, though we don’t really like to think that way, and the more the web seems to have embedded itself into us and our lives as an ‘essential’ thing the less we’re willing to feel this sense of transience). LeGault ends with a commentary on quotation that he’s adapting from Rankine, which offers a fitting endpoint to this little quest you’ve set me on: “To quote another is to share knowledge, to connect, to never be alone.” Which, hmm, seems a whole lot like the raison d’etre of the essay and thus Essay Daily.

***CR: I take “unhinged” to mean something like a willingness to go where your thoughts lead, to really let yourself go, to let things get a little crazy, maybe? I think the best essays are often slightly unhinged, or their authors are, because this unhingedness can lead to such interesting places. Claudia Rankine is at times and writes about being unhinged in Citizen, which I am only a little embarrassed to admit I only read, I swear, last week, for the first time—and I just clicked on Ander’s link to the De La Soul bit above, but then got distracted by videos of soccer star Zinedine Zidane headbutting that Italian asshole in the 2006 World Cup final, an assuredly unhinged act that reads truly righteous in Citizen. Maybe it takes becoming unhinged, even momentarily, to really be honest, to let truth fly, and do we really want to read—or experience—anything less?

BB: These pieces run the gamut from essay to craft essay to review-like essay to interview-like essay to a combination of all of the above. And then there’s Kristen Radtke and Danica Novgorodoff. Can you talk a bit about what’s happening in these pieces—with respect to the anthology and the genre more generally?

AM: We really pushed for there being more visual stuff in the book—and on the site in general. This seems to me to be one of the greatest opportunities for the essay as it expands into toolboxes beyond text (like I’m thinking here of the work of Sarah Minor or Margi Kimball or Noam Dorr: all of these writers/artists are doing wonderful stuff in the world and helping to enlarge the conversation about what nonfiction looks like and can contain); …

CR: I was on the phone with Noam Dorr the other day and asked him to send me the essay he was telling me about, you know, email it to me, and he paused for a second, then said, Well, it’s actually a giant box that I made and gave to everyone.

AM: That’s super Noam. That kind of artifacting doesn’t always intersect well with print publishing, though, just because the cost involved in producing, presenting, or distributing that kind of work can be substantial. While that cost is going down thanks to digital printing and on-demand and electronic whatever, the tradeoffs between cost and availability highlight the distance between the literary and art worlds. Sarah Minor got at that some in her conversation with Julie Chen as part of that series of visual conversations she’s curated that I found fascinating. David Shields gets at this stuff too in some of his provocations.

BB: Speaking of the visual, in John D’Agata’s allegorical piece on the “The Essays of Ansel Adams,” he talks about how Adams “[manipulates] the mountain he loves… [wrangling] the reality of the world around him into what he has needed it to be.” Adams himself says, “photography is really perception… all of my photographs are photographs of myself.” So which pieces in this book stand out for you as most invested in the perceptive act? Which of these pieces are actually selfies of the reader reading?

CR: Oh shit, that’s a hard question. Or not, maybe—all of them?

AM: Yeah, clearly—I don’t know how you disambiguate the reader from the act of reading or the thing being read except I guess to talk about how you’re reading what you’re reading, and to compare notes with others reading the same things (this then is a social function too); I suspect that it’s mostly a case of some essays just being more honest/self-conscious about that always-subjective quality. That’s one reason why our positioning these as essays—not just as “readings” or “criticism”—is important: it’s way too easy to forget how subjective of our responses are to everything.

CR: Actually, Danica Novgorodoff’s visual essay “On Losing Yourself” actually is, if not a selfie exactly, a self-portrait of herself against the backdrop of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and the solitude of travel, the loneliness of experiencing a loved one’s death, and returning home, changed, but the same. It’s a portrait of disappearance. And it’s her willingness to show her own fragility that makes this work so beautiful, that opening of herself to the reader even as she herself disappears in the essay.

AM: I agree with that: the visual’s also something that immediately reminds us that what we’re seeing is seeing, and that the thing that the artist’s drawn is drawn by the artist’s actual hand. I wish that we’d also remember that what we’re reading is also a reading.

CR: Right. Danica is probably the most obviously present in her piece, but even if a writer isn’t actually drawn into their essay they’re still there in every sentence and every scene.

Some writers, some of us, undoubtedly experience essays as academic challenges, as texts to investigate and unravel and understand, or not. Others of us experience essays instinctually, as something more like a cudgel, or in a less violent but equally visceral way, like I like to experience grass—by rubbing my face in it. I don’t really need to think about that experience—just take it in. Think: Robert Atwan’s “The Assault on Prose” John Crowe Ransom, New Criticism, and the Status of the Essay” VS Bethany Nitz-Maile’s “We Sought but Couldn’t Find,” which begins: “When my father was five, his heart stopped beating.” So some essays, like Nitz-Maile’s, are more personal, for sure, with the author more directly addressing the camera. But in any case, the writer is always there. The selfie—pre-meditated, artful, not us exactly, but us in a weirdly self-aware and fixed moment. Aren’t all essays then, kind of a selfie, even if we’re not always looking at the camera? Selfies of writers or writers reading and writing. Some showing the writer much more serious than others, but still, there is the writer in the frame.

Moving on to a slightly different metaphor, I think the joy in a collection like this is that it’s like a well-curated bookshelf, with some of everything, to get us started reading and thinking and writing. And the joy of being a website, too: rather than boxed up in the basement, those that didn’t fit here, for whatever reason, are there for the browsing, online, everything being both enduring and ephemeral. And when you yourself have something to say, to no one in particular, but to everyone, when you have a selfie you want both immortalized and forgivingly lost in the shuffle, there is always Essay Daily.

AM: Maybe selfie is less the word than shelfie.

BB: Ally-oop CR to AM. Ok, one more question. Seeing as it is Essay Daily, can you tell me something about your daily rituals with the essay? What is your first and last interaction with the essay on any given day, for example?

AM: I often begin the day with a read of the Essay Daily piece of the day, if we have a fresh one up. That’s only around 18% of days of the year, though, so more often than not the first time I really get to thinking about an essay is in the couple hours before my class, if it’s a teaching day, or if I get the chance to do some reading (maybe 20% of non-teaching days) before noon. That reading might well be in an editorial role—typically reading subs or queries for Essay Daily or DIAGRAM, or, this time of year, the New Michigan Press chapbook contest. When I’m doing that I’m largely in an evaluative mode, which is necessary but not the role I’d rather play in relationship to essays. Better are days when I get to read something I was sent or came across, maybe for a blurb or like James Allen Hall’s new book, I Liked You Better Before I Knew You, which just came out from Cleveland State University Poetry Center. It arrived in my mailbox as if by magic (thanks James and CSUPC!), and I’ve been moving through it with great pleasure and an increasing sense of kinship. Or it’s also great when I begin something in an editorial role and it sparks something in me, which is pretty rare, but does happen. That’s when it feels like strands in my life are really coming together.

My days often / not quite always end in essays. I write in the last hour or two before bed most nights. Maybe I’m overstating it when I say most, but many, certainly. I’m not always working on an essay, but late at night I am in that essay state very often, which is to say that exploratory, thought-tracking state. Which is to say I try to make myself willing—when tired out like this—to let my mind off the leash a bit. It doesn’t always produce fun or interesting results, and I’m not sure this is the best strategy when it comes to quality of sleep, but when it goes right I find myself out there in some unfamiliar waters. That is, I suppose, the kind of unhingedness I was saying earlier that I admired in essays and that I try to aspire to in my own.

CR: I’m on Essay Daily a few times a week, to see what’s new and maybe revisit some old, but as someone who has very little time structured into my day for essays, or any sort of writing or thinking about writing, I just want to say I think Ander’s on to something with that essay state, and the importance of letting our minds off leash.

Last night a 2-week-old was brought into the emergency department where I work, her body was blue and she was minimally responsive. We put her on O2 and a cardiac monitor, and then I stepped back to watch a nurse from the NICU start an IV in her golf ball-sized hand. We don’t see many babies where I work and I’d never seen this done before so I was trying to pay attention, but, free of responsibility for the moment, my thoughts immediately drifted to an elderly woman down the hall who thought she was dying though there was nothing obviously wrong with her, and how when her daughter stepped into the room the woman had shouted, I love you! And how as this baby’s father tried to talk his voice kept cracking. And then that Lia Purpura line from “Autopsy Report”: Never again will I know the body as I do now. This wasn’t about the body, or bodies, no, but there was something else there, though I couldn’t put a name to it. Then the NICU nurse handed me a tube of blood and the MD wanted a test run. We were back in motion, but for a moment there the world was all associations and connections and grasping after that elusive whatever it was. Like Ander said, that’s when it feels like strands in my life are really coming together.

We can’t live in that essay state—with so much else vying for our attention—but we are certainly richer for visiting as often as we can.


Lawrence Lenhart studied writing at the University of Pittsburgh and holds an MFA from The University of Arizona. His essay collection, THE WELL-STOCKED AND GILDED CAGE, was published in 2016 (Outpost19). His prose appears in Conjunctions, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He is a professor of fiction and nonfiction at Northern Arizona University and a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.

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