This year, Jenny Boully is judging Passages North’s Ray Ventre Nonfiction Prize (the contest formerly known as the Thomas J. Hruska Memorial Prize). Boully is the author of four books, most recently not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them (Tarpaulin Sky Press). Her other books include The Book of Beginnings and Endings (Sarabande Books), [one love affair]* (Tarpaulin Sky Press) and The Body: An Essay (Essay Press, first published by Slope Editions). Her chapbook of prose, Moveable Types, was released by Noemi Press and there may or may not be a rumor floating around the PN office that Boully is not a real person, but instead an essay wizard whose omniscient existence transcends simple worldly forms and structures and we are all helpless witnesses to her prose awesomeness. But that’s neither here nor there. In gearing up for contest season, PN Senior Associate Editor Michael Berry had a few questions for Boully, which we have for you here.
Passages North: What excites you about essays/hybrid work? Both with individual pieces and as a form overall?
Jenny Boully: In work that startles and surprises, it seems, to me, that what catches me off-guard, is a delightful or puzzling mimicry. How might one thing be disguised in another or hide within another? It seems as if the best of the strangest nonfictions possesses an amazing ability to morph and bend and rearrange. A work may begin as an informative treatise on one thing and very quickly nosedive into an elegy. I like to think that, whatever I am reading, I will find a startling and hidden life within, unexpected, feral, and struggling to free itself. The best hybrid work, I find, happens just like that–it suddenly take off like a swift cat. I find it exciting when a writer doesn’t have to or refuses to choose–when a writer is allowed to digress, to meddle, to stare, to let go, to turn into something else completely.
PN: What elements would make an essay a contest winner? What do you look for in “outstanding” work?
JB: I love when literary work teaches me something that I didn’t know before, when I can sense the bursting obsession of its author–an enthusiasm that simply cannot be contained. I love when essays take their time, when they aren’t rushing to get from point A to point B, when, in between the beginning and the end, there have been many pit-stops along the way. I like to feel displaced, slightly confused, unsure. I enjoy the trepidation of not knowing what the end might be. A deep emotional connection also helps, although a deep intellectual engagement does, too. More than anything, I relish sincerity. I crave the immediate, the present. I want to feel pressed against the wall as a reader. I want all of my senses engaged. Language does so much for me. I love work that relishes sounds, the way words rub and propel against each other. Images should be allowed to simply speak. I want to feel that the author has seen/lived/felt/thought something unique.
PN: What else should we and our readers know about you? And just because I almost feel obligated to ask (maybe as a fan, maybe as an editor) what’re you reading right now or what books/writers are you currently excited about?
JB: I love watching documentaries. They’re like candy to me. As soon as the little ones are asleep, I watch a film and love learning something. I’m a fiber artist. I’m obsessed with clutter and things and how to contain and minimize materialism. I read a lot of books that aren’t literature, but rather more informational–books about education and children and social concerns and cultural critiques. Literature-wise, right now, I’m reading Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. I’m very excited about the stack of Roland Barthes books my husband gave me over the holidays, books that I didn’t know existed! It truly was Christmas. Imagine that:I’m a die-hard Barthes lover, and I received four Barthes books that I had not seen before. I believe I will read those next.