Essaying the Body Electric

The idea for this feature originated, as have many ideas for Welcome Table Press, in conversation. In particular, a conversation with Robert Atwan, without whom contemporary practitioners of the essay—and in particular those publishing in the periodical literature—would have fewer readers. Bob reported seeing an increase in nonfiction narratives, many written by women, whose frankness about sex and/or the body was arresting. As a writer, editor, and teacher, I’m not really interested in “trends.” But this observation by one of the chief curators of American letters did get my attention. To essay the body on the page intrigued me.

Winners of the 2014 contest are (click on names/titles below to read the essays):
First place: Therése Halscheid, "A Patch of Sun"
Second place: Sheryl St. Germain, "A Country Where You Once Lived" 
Third Place: Thomas Gibbs, "The Nigerian Dentist's Cousin"
Honorable mention: Vanessa Carlisle, "Patpong's Ping-Pong Show" and J. G. C. Wise, "End-Stage Renal Delay" 
Original Artwork by Justin Weingartner 

Judge: Robert Atwan
Editors: Colin Hosten, Brian Hoover, Penelope Anne Schwartz
Copy Editor: Emily Nelson
Design: Mary Lide

Not long afterward, the Essaying the Body Electric Contest was launched. At the time, I couldn’t really have said what I meant by body electric, though I knew it applied to both human or nonhuman bodies. Whitman’s famous line was, of course, on my mind. I have some of my own ideas about what it means to inhabit a body that is electrified. But I wanted to provide very little by way of prompt with the call for submissions.

Out of this contest came the five essays published here, each of which sings various electricities: an adolescent girl’s body whittled to breaking by anorexia and her father’s body of memory diminishing with Alzheimer’s; a woman’s sexual body atrophied by aging, the genitally mutilated and pregnant body of a young woman, the sex worker’s performative body, and a young man’s body failing prematurely because of disease. Taken together, the essays form their own body, in a sum-of-the-parts-is-greater-than-the-whole way. It’s been singularly thrilling and joyous to complete the work of bringing them together.

Praise goes to all the people who gave their time to this project. And much gratitude.

—Kim Dana Kupperman, founding editor