The Hobart and William Smith Colleges literary journal, Seneca Review, recently released a special anthology, We Might As Well Call It The Lyric Essay, edited by John D’Agata ’95, associate professor of English at the University of Iowa.
The double issue was initially envisioned as a compilation of D’Agata’s favorite essays from Seneca Review, in celebration of his 15th year as the magazine’s lyric essay editor. But the project developed into a year-long course at Iowa in which D’Agata enlisted his students to help choose and edit an anthology to showcase the genre, if not define it.
“We might as well call it the lyric essay because I don’t think ‘essay’ means for most readers what essayists hope it does,” D’Agata writes in the book’s introduction. “Or, we might as well call it the lyric essay because ‘nonfiction’ is far too limiting. Or, we might as well call it the lyric essay because ‘creative nonfiction’ — let’s face it — is desperate….Initially I liked the term [lyric essay] merely for how it sounded, and then for its slight implication of literary nonsense, and later for how it seemed to eschew the story-driven ambitions of fiction and nonfiction for the associative inquiry of poems.”
Since 1997, Seneca Review has featured pieces of this hybrid form by renowned writers such as Anne Carson, Bernard Cooper, Fanny Howe, Wayne Koestenbaum, Honor Moore, Mary Oliver, David Shields, Joe Wenderoth, Terry Tempest Williams, and many others. HWS Professor of English David Weiss is editor of the Seneca Review.
Seneca Review is an internationally distributed magazine with an emphasis on poetry and the lyric essay. Publisher of numerous laureates and award-winning poets, including Seamus Heaney, Rita Dove, Jorie Graham, Yusef Komunyakaa, Lisel Mueller, Wislawa Szymborska, Charles Simic, W.S. Merwin, and Eavan Boland, Seneca Review also consistently publishes emerging writers and is always open to new, innovative work. Founded in 1970 by James Crenner and Ira Sadoff, Seneca Review is published twice yearly, spring and fall, by Hobart and William Smith Colleges Press.
D’Agata is the author of three books, including “About A Mountain,” named by the New York Times as one of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books Ever Written. He is also director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He completed an M.F.A. in both poetry and nonfiction at the Iowa Writers Workshop, but says, “The Colleges are where I first learned how to write, and where I was first encouraged as a creative thinker to imagine a place for myself in the literary world. It was a tremendous gift to have such an experience.”
Each essay in the new anthology, all of which straddle the line between poetry and “traditional” nonfiction, is accompanied by a critical essay written by the student-editors, as well as an interview the students conducted with each author.
The anthology, D’Agata writes in the introduction, is ultimately “about the beautiful gangly breadth of this unnameable literary form, and how nomenclature, while often limiting, polarizing, inadequate, and always stupid, can also be the thing that opens up our genre to new possibilities and new paths of inquiry, helping us to shape our experiences in the world in ways we have not yet imagined. We might as well call it the lyric essay, therefore, because we need as many terms as there are passions for this form.”
The anthology and Seneca Review are available for purchase at the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Store.