A Review of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays

October 5, 2015 § 2 Comments

By Kristin LeMay

amonI’ve long harbored the suspicion that what’s best in Montaigne is untranslatable. His essence seems to me embodied in a diction, orthography, and syntax as unsubstitutable as any individual. To borrow Emerson’s praise for Montaigne: “Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.”

My prejudice dates to a summer when my husband and I undertook to read all of Montaigne’s Essais during an extended stay in Paris. Each day we’d set out with our respective volumes, my much-prized Pléiade—fat despite its onion-skin pages—rubbing against the shedding, leather spine of Eric’s translated edition. Before long, I’d be snorting or smirking at the man I was encountering on the page. Eric’s brow would furrow. “What’s so funny?” We’d compare passages. And every time, I’d find that the persona I so relished in the original French—the irascible man wheeling through the sixteenth-century prose—was somehow lost in the transfer. My Montaigne was not in his book.

That experience of reading comparative Montaignes primed me for After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays (University of Georgia Press, 2015). Twenty-four of today’s essayists rewrite Montaigne’s essays. What would these interactions reveal about the essay, in his moment and in ours? And what would these writers capture of the man who seemed—to me, at least—to live in the specific moments of language that, taken together, comprise his genre-founding work?

As After Montaigne’s subtitle suggests, editors David Lazar and Patrick Madden couch the interaction between each source essay and its contemporary rewriting as a musical “cover.” They explain, “Like an album of cover songs paying homage to an influential band or composer, these essays attempt to re-envision Montaigne’s topics through a contemporary sensibility.” And what, after all, is a cover, but a form of translation in which one musician puts a fresh spin on the lyrics and melody of another? Elvis Presley translated “Blue Suede Shoes” from the style of Carl Perkins into the style of Elvis Presley, just as, in 1603, John Florio translated Michel de Montaigne from French into English (adding a fair dose of Florio along the way). So After Montaigne promises to reveal twenty-four translations of Montaigne: Montaigne by way of Gornick, by way of Koestenbaum, by way of Purpura. And yet it also occasions a more surprising, ineffable mode of translation, one that runs the other way: Brian Doyle by way of Montaigne. As much as I was eager to see who these essayists would make Montaigne out to be, I was equally fascinated to see who they would become when they essayed under the banner of their forebear.

The anthology’s diversity makes for a lot of translations, so one of its most satisfying elements is the brief coda that follows each contribution, “explaining the process through which the essayist translated, transfigured, reimagined, or rethought some of the essential ideas, figures, and motifs in Montaigne’s original.” The contributions turn out to be as diverse as you’d expect from an array twenty-four writers wide. While Bret Lott sees his essay as an “offering . . . paying homage to M. Montaigne,” Shannon Lakanen finds herself surprised, on sitting down to write, “to argue against him.” José Orduña finds in his source essay from Montaigne a “sharp edge that ruptures,” and so his response is characterized by “challenge,” “discarding,” and “struggling,” while Elena Passarello goes at Montaigne more playfully, grafting “The Ceremony of the Interview of Princes” onto interviews with the musical artist Prince. “I thought it would be fun,” she riffs, “to score one man’s persona to the other man’s ‘music.’”

How to make sense of all this essaying? I found a useful lens for understanding and sorting the contributions once again in the realm of translation. Friedrich Schleiermacher pronounces that there are actually only two modes of translation (modes which, in fact, match the two primary tacks a contemporary essayist might choose in responding to Montaigne’s source text): “Either the translator leaves the writer alone as much as possible and moves the reader toward the writer, or he leaves the reader alone as much as possible and moves the writer toward the reader.” Schleiermacher advises against mixing the two modes. Any mingling, he predicts, will result in a confusing muddle that illuminates neither the original text nor the new audience’s context.

After Montaigne confirms Schleiermacher’s view. Its strongest, most memorable essays are those in which the contemporary writer has traveled the furthest toward adopting Montaigne’s style or, conversely, those in which Montaigne has traveled the furthest toward the contemporary writer. Mary Cappello’s “Of Thumbs” is the volume’s prime example of a writer becoming like Montaigne. Her coda clarifies her aim: “An essay like ‘Of Thumbs’ wishes for more contributors . . . I tried to ‘channel’ Montaigne . . . I tuned my writerly voice to meet the pitch of his.” The result is a lively, delightful continuation of Montaigne’s short essay. For an essayist who brings Montaigne all the way to her, look to Kristen Radtke. In “Against Idleness” she pulls Montaigne into the graphic mode for which she is best known. In Cappello’s essay, Montaigne might easily recognize his influence; in Radtke’s, he would likely wonder at the strange new world his work inspired. As a reader, I’m grateful for both.

So what new light do these “covers” shine upon Montaigne and the essay? Perhaps the most startling answer comes from Robert Atwan’s response to Montaigne’s “On Some Verses of Virgil.” He opens with the observation, “Personal essayists continually test the boundaries of shame and embarrassment.” This very testing is Montaigne’s most enduring legacy, since he inaugurated the naked, unadorned exploration of the self in his Essais. All of the contributors to After Montaigne write after that legacy. But Atwan’s essay also reveals how familiar, even commonplace, Montaigne’s once-revolutionary mode has now become. To mirror Montaigne’s embarrassing self-disclosures on sexuality and old age, Atwan must take recourse to quoting his own (self-professedly) bad poetry. He rightly senses that prose—even prose like Montaigne’s, confessing to a small penis or failed affairs—will no longer shock today’s readers. We’ve become desensitized to personal confessions in the personal essay. So Atwan’s contribution, in moving beyond the genre of the essay to achieve its ends, reveals both the lure and limits of Montaigne’s legacy in our moment.

Montaigne forged the essay into a genre for personal revelation and, for this innovation, he now inspires anthologies like After Montaigne. Yet paradoxically, this anthology—through both its most and least compelling pieces—hints at how the essay might now need to move beyond Montaigne’s style of confession and digression in order to channel his innovative spirit and, once again, feel “vascular and alive.”


Kristin LeMay’s book I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson is available from Paraclete Press. Her translation of François Bovon’s Last Days of Jesus was published by Westminster/John Knox Press. Her writing has appeared in TriQuarterly, Essay Daily, Harvard Theological Review, The Cresset, and other magazines.

Call for Submissions (and Pretzels)

October 3, 2015 § 6 Comments

From our friend Erica Trabold:

45th Parallel, a literary magazine affiliated with Oregon State University’s MFA program, seeks nonfiction submissions for its premiere issue. Submissions will remain open until December 1, 2015, and selected pieces will be published in spring 2016.

What’s the 45th Parallel? The 45th Parallel, the halfway point between the Equator and the North Pole, marks the Earth’s in-between space. 45th Parallel, too, indulges in in-betweenness — the convergence of seemingly disparate content, forms, genres, and styles. Great art tends to reject strictly defined categories. Great art is what we’re after.

What kind of nonfiction do you hope to publish? 45th Parallel considers all forms of creative nonfiction, previously unpublished, between 500-5,000 words. Researched or personal, memoir or essay, hybrid or true to form, our editors are especially interested in reading your obsessions, your edges, your prosy darlings—nonfiction with a sense of the in-between.

What’s your earliest childhood memory? Crammed into a back booth in a wooden bar talking about how we should start a lit mag. There were pretzels.

Where can writers submit work? Here, of course: http://45thparallelmag.com/

Do you charge a fee? No fee. Completely free.

TGIF: Our Culture’s Saddest Saying

October 2, 2015 § 15 Comments

Kate Parrish

Kate Parrish

A guest post from Kate Parrish:

Earlier this week I read through an online exchange between a few people who I look up to and admire expecting to find one set of opinions but finding something else altogether, something that made me sad, disheartened, and a little surprised. Rather than spend time going into the dangers of putting people on pedestals, having expectations that other people’s opinions will align with yours, or the hazards of online discourse in which, oftentimes, tone and additional context are absent, I’ll just say it gave me some food for thought about the role I play in my own life. The specifics of the exchange aren’t important but the takeaway, as I read it, was perhaps some people dream too big (dream too unrealistically—can that be a thing?) and would possibly be wise not to.

This summer I attended a writers’ conference in Sewanee, TN and sat in a lecture by Allen Weir, a writer from Texas. It was a craft lecture on writing fiction. I don’t write fiction and used that as an excuse to only half-listen while I wrote and re-wrote a list of things to do. Then I heard him say these words, almost as an aside, “TGIF: our culture’s saddest saying.” That we live in a society awaiting the 5 o’clock bell on Friday afternoons was disconcerting to him. It’s disconcerting to me.

I’ve worked plenty of jobs where the greatest perk was that I got to leave on Friday afternoons and not return until Monday morning. I’ve spent years getting the Sunday Blues, the Sunday Sadness, whatever you want to call that sinking feeling that creeps in around 5 p.m. on Sunday nights reminding you that life isn’t what you want it to be. I know the Monday Blues, the Tuesday Blues, the Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday Blues. I know the Waiting for Life to Start Blues and the Waiting for Life to End Blues. So, sure, Thank Goodness It’s Friday can feel like a relief.

But living for Friday isn’t living. At least it isn’t for me. I can’t wait for Friday and I can’t wait for someone to co-sign on my dreams, no matter how big or small they are, realistic or unrealistic. Monday can be Friday. Wednesday can be Friday. Any day can be Friday because Friday is just a name. It’s just a series of letters smashed together to form a word. Friday isn’t a lifestyle, it isn’t a state of mind. Friday isn’t the starting line to 48 hours of freedom, to pursuing hobbies or passions, to catching up with friends and family, or let’s be honest, a laundry list of errands and obligations. When I’m living for Friday, I’m dying six other days a week.

I want my dreams to be realities just like I want my Mondays to be Fridays. By the time I’m through living I want the word dream to feel embarrassed at how small it is, how monosyllabic it is, how unable it was to actually encompass what I end up achieving in life. And I don’t care how cheesy or bumper sticker-sounding it is, I want TGIT: Thank Goodness It’s TODAY to be what I strive for, not TGIF.

And the only person that can do any of that, can make those changes, can achieve those dreams is me. No one can want my dreams more than me. No one can believe in my dreams more than me. No one can do the legwork but me. But I’m not alone. I’m not operating in a silo where the only person that can pick me up is often the same person that puts me down. (And I know about putting myself down. I know about the inner monologue that is mean, rough, and downright abusive at times.) I have coaches and mentors and friends and family and books and TED talks and a belief that something greater than me (a God, a group of people, a big ol’ tree in the forest, it doesn’t matter) is in my corner bringing forth whatever I put out, whatever is written on my heart, lining my gut, coating the folds of my brain.

Please don’t wait for Friday to be who you were meant to be.


Kate Parrish is an MFA candidate at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN. She writes a weekly blog at AimingforOkay.com.

Lunch Ticket: The Care and Feeding of a New Literary Journal

September 30, 2015 § 4 Comments

A guest post from Arielle Silver on growing a succesful literary journal:

lunchWhen I took on the Editor-in-Chief role at Lunch Ticket, the online literary and art journal of Antioch University Los Angeles’ MFA program, beyond the obvious goals of ensuring we get quality submissions, publishing the next issue on time, and trying not to blow up the website, I also vowed to craft an official mission statement. We’re a journal strongly guided by certain values, but in the push to launch in 2012, and then with the rapid growth that has taken us from a nobody on the literary landscape to being a widely respected publication, formulating an official statement became a lower priority. In honing in on what exactly Lunch Ticket is about, I’ve reflected on the nuts and bolts of what make us unique, and how we’ve gotten to where we are. Unsurprisingly, our uniqueness has influenced our trajectory.

From its inception, Lunch Ticket was to be an ambitious literary journal with a special emphasis on community engagement and the pursuit of social justice. These two concepts are entwined, but somewhat separate.  As an MFA-affiliated publication we seek to publish excellent writing on any topic by any writer.  But as an Antioch-affiliated journal we also hope to promote the university’s mission of social justice by publishing work that fosters new conversations about the world in which we live, and helps enact change.

Arielle Silver

Arielle Silver

Early on, thanks to the three editors who came before me and an inspired advisory team of MFA faculty and staff, Lunch Ticket managed to break through the clutter and get the attention of writers whose work we wanted to showcase. One of the ways we did this was through our funded, no-entry fee contests. We launched The Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Nonfiction in our second issue, which helped us quickly garner outstanding CNF submissions by offering a prize of $250 to a winning essay every six months. Several issues later, we added a second contest, The Gabo Prize in Literary Translation and Multi-Lingual Texts. This contest, which offers a $200 prize, reflects the Antioch MFA program’s commitment to literary translation.  By supporting the work of translators who bring global literature into English, we strengthen Lunch Ticket’s dedication to community engagement and social justice. Both of these contests are offered with no entry fee and have been an invaluable boon for the journal. We currently review contest submissions each February and August, and hope to add additional no-fee contests in other genres in the near future.

Further, we have been able to build our readership by offering content published in between our twice-yearly full-scale Lunch Ticket issues. Amuse-Bouche is an every-other Monday feature showcasing work by a single writer or artist. We welcome new literary submissions for Amuse-Bouche twice a year, in January and July, across all genres. Our weekly blog, meanwhile, is published every Friday, and offers craft-based essays written by current students in the MFA program. Topics range from how to portray diverse characters, to approaching writer’s block, to creating tension in a narrative. Both Amuse-Bouche and the Friday Lunch Blog are headliners in the subscriber newsletter we send to readers every other week.

Lunch Ticket’s editorial team is scattered across the country (sometimes globe), due to the fact we are a low-residency MFA program, and represents writers of all backgrounds. As a diverse editorial team, we strive to support writers and artists of all colors, religions, races, nationalities, backgrounds, genders, politics, and sexual orientations. The Review Review recently lauded our gender balance. We stand behind our policy of blind submissions, but also know that we could do better at soliciting work from writers outside of our current networks. As I contemplate our trajectory and the mission of our journal, I am brainstorming new ways to reach underrepresented writers. This is, in the end, our primary mission as we solidify our standing alongside top-tier journals: to publish meritorious work by established and emerging writers, that reflects diverse experiences, and moves beyond well-worn grooves.


A NOTE TO WRITERS AND ARTISTS: Lunch Ticket accepts fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, young adult (13+), literary translation, multi-lingual text, and visual art submissions for the main issue twice a year, February 1-April 20 and August 1-October 31. We are currently reviewing submissions for our Winter/Spring 2016 issue. Amuse-Bouche reviews work in January and July. There is no fee to submit.

To read Lunch Ticket, go to www.lunchticket.org.

Arielle Silver daylights in the music industry, moonlights as a yoga teacher, and sunrises as a candidate for her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Literary Translation at Antioch University Los Angeles. She is Editor-in-Chief at Lunch Ticket, her songs have been licensed internationally, and her essays have appeared in Moment and RoleReboot.

Essay Press Digital Chapbook Contest

September 28, 2015 § 1 Comment


Essay Press Chapbook ContestEssay Press is now reading for its first digital chapbook contest. Submissions are open until November 1st, 2015, with elections will be made by January.

Judges include Essay Press authors Dan Beachy-Quick, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Amaranth Borsuk, Julie Carr, Mina Pam Dick, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, Joe Harrington, Lily Hoang, Krystal Languell, David Lazar, Shane McCrae and Jessica Smith.

Each of these 12 judges will select one digital chapbook for 2016 publication. Each judge will write an introduction to his/her selected work. Essay Press will then release a new winning chapbook each month in 2016.

The Press particularly welcomes “manuscripts that extend or challenge the formal possibilities of prose, including but not limited to: lyric essays and prose poems or poetics; experimental biography and autobiography; innovative approaches to journalism, experimental historiography, criticism, scholarship and philosophy. Simultaneous submissions, multiple submissions, collaborative manuscripts, digital and hybridized text/art manuscripts are all encouraged.”

The ideal manuscript will run roughly 30 to 50 pages, though no manuscript will be denied consideration on account of being too short or too long. The reading fee is $8.

For guidelines, visit essaypress.org.

How to Cure Writer’s Block in Two Simple Steps

September 28, 2015 § 9 Comments

Kelly Sundberg

Kelly Sundberg

A post from Brevity managing editor Kelly Sundberg:

I was coming down from a year of successes, and every time someone asked me “how’s the book coming along?” I felt like a failure. What had my minor successes gotten me?

Writer’s block.

I’m a single mom, and most parents have the “hunger”—that urgency that precipitates twelve a.m. writing sessions and random, text-free, MS Word documents titled “Essay about Ghosts in Astoria, Oregon” that are then saved in a folder labeled “Ideas” and never opened again. The hunger is good. The hungrier the mom, the more she’ll write. Hungry=output.

But my hunger had been eclipsed by fatigue. In addition to solo parenting, I work a lot, which I wrote about here.

In August, I went to a writer’s retreat in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico that was sponsored by the A Room of Her Own Foundation. I was the recipient of their Courage Fellowship, which is awarded to a survivor of domestic violence or sexual assault, and AROHO’s generosity put me in the same place as 119 other women. My Meyer’s Brigg score has me at 51% extroversion and 49% introversion. This means that I’m the type of person who hides in her room for the first couple of days, then is dancing topless around a bonfire by the end. On the second day of the retreat, I texted my best friend “I’m not having the worst time of my life, but close.” By the end of the third evening, I was blissfully sitting in the middle of a stone labyrinth under the Milky Way and asking the heavens what I needed to know for my future.

Yes, my conversion was that quick.

Although I abandoned organized religion years ago, my first job was in a bookstore that had a little, stone fountain tinkling on the countertop, Tibetan wind chimes, and an entire section dedicated to natural healing. When I graduated high school, the women I worked with gave me a set of Runes, and twenty years later, those Runes still sit in a bowl in my living room next to a bundle of sage. I have a history of appropriating religions that I don’t fully understand, so was I using this labyrinth correctly? Probably not, but I’m no stranger to sitting in nature and asking the heavens to speak to me (I spend my summers working in the wilderness for the US Forest Service), and although the heavens have never responded, my subconscious is pretty good at piping up with something adequate.

This night, my subconscious said to me, “Kelly, you have to know that your value is more than whether or not you’re in a relationship.” Actually, my subconscious was simply repeating what my therapist had said to me a few days earlier (she’s good!), but I hadn’t been able to hear her then because I hadn’t yet had the quiet in my life to listen.

Those words were important to me as a person because I’m a survivor of domestic violence, but those words were important to me as a writer because I finally knew how my memoir needs to end. As much as I want it, my memoir doesn’t end with Ryan Gosling moving into the house next to mine, working shirtless on a barn that he’s converting into an art studio, then holding a boom box up outside my bedroom window and saying, “Hey girl, how about I turn this studio for one into a studio for two?”

Realizing how my memoir needs to end (with me alone, yay!) was the first step towards getting over my writer’s block, but there was another step; I also took a master class with Joy Castro where she gave us writing prompts. I didn’t think I needed writing prompts; I mean, I was already ¾ of the way done with my memoir. Then she gave me the prompt that finally broke through my block.  She said, “Write about the most hurtful thing that anyone has ever said to you.”

Immediately, one sentence stuck out. It was my father saying “I just don’t know what to believe” in the days after I left my ex-husband. I wrote that sentence down, and as I surreptitiously brushed away tears because I refused to be that woman who had come undone in workshop, I realized I couldn’t write my memoir without writing that sentence. It’s not easy writing about family, and I’ve avoided it, but if I want to write this book, I have no other choice.

As Joy might say, I have to write what scares me the most.

When I returned from the retreat, I talked to my agent, and to her great relief, I told her that my block had been rooted in my inability to write about my parents. She was sympathetic, but all she said was, “I could have told you that. Now let’s get to work.”

And we have.


So here are the two easy steps to getting over writer’s block:

  1. Sit in a stone labyrinth under the Milky Way.
  2. Take a master class with Joy Castro.

If those options aren’t available to you, I have two more:

  1. Find some time for quiet in your life.
  2. Write what scares you the most.


Kelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared in Guernica, Slice Magazine, Denver Quarterly, Mid-American Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is included in Best American Essays 2015, and she had a “Notable” essay in Best American Essays 2013. Sundberg is a PhD student at Ohio University, a solo mom, the Managing Editor of Brevity, and she divides her time between Athens, Ohio and living off the grid in backcountry Idaho.

Lack of Apocalypse

September 24, 2015 § 13 Comments

3f1eae6279768ca1cb1237af7851fa58Like many of our readers, I’ll give up my paper books when you pry them from my cold, dead hands. I love them like I love the Oxford comma. I fill my shelves with books I adore, books I might like to read someday, and books so multiply-read I can open them at random, enjoy a section over lunch, and reshelve them without feeling incomplete.

The projected digital apocalypse worried me as both reader and writer–would having my book on paper no longer be an option when the time came? Was I just silly, as a constant traveler, to resist loading up a Kindle with everything I could possibly read on the train? Was I contributing to the coming devastation by downloading Harry Potter 7 to my phone and reading it under the covers, squinting at my close-held phone through one un-contact-lensed eye?

Apparently not.

The New York Times reports that digital sales have slowed sharply, falling by 10% in the first five months of 2015. Readers–even young digital natives–go back and forth between devices and paper. The American Booksellers Association counts more independent bookstore members in 2015 than they had five years ago.

Digital’s still strong–the statistics don’t include cheap, plentiful self-published e-books, and Amazon’s unlimited-e-book service is somewhere in the mix–but it’s nice to know print isn’t going away any time soon.

Check out the New York Times’ article here.


Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her latest essay, “Write About Indians” is part of Drunken Boat‘s Romani Folio this month.


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