Catherine Taylor’s memoir/political meditation on South Africa, Apart, was recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse’s Dossier Series. Taylor is the founding editor of Essay Press, The New Ohio Review, and The Harwood Review. Essay Press is dedicated to publishing artful, innovative, and culturally relevant essays in book form. These books often extend or challenge the formal protocols of the nonfiction essay—and include, but are not limited to, lyric essays or prose poems, experimental biography and autobiography, innovative approaches to journalism, and experimental historiography. For this interview with cream city review, Taylor addresses the broader intellectual and artistic contexts in which Essay Press seeks to intervene.
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)?
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 [End Page 161] around your old journal copies. Sometimes I do that and sometimes I don’t.
So initially you were attracted to work you hadn’t seen, or didn’t know. You wanted to find something?
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.
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…
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.
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...