DISTINGUISHING AREAS: ONE EXPERIENCE EDITING FENCE
- Little Debut
Margaret Anderson said that the first issue of the Little Review "betrayed nothing but my adolescence" During the magazine's fifteen-year lifespan (1914- 1929 ), Anderson worked confidently within and through this editorial adolescence, allowing the magazine to grow and change as she (and later her partner Jane Heap) discovered new ways of thinking and writing. Anderson, for example, heard Emma Goldman speak and "just had time to turn anarchist before the presses closed [for issue #3]." While the magazine had various political and aesthetic incarnations, its final legacy involves not a set. of ideas but the writers and work published within its pages (including Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound—who served as a contributing foreign editor—Mina Loy, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce). It was, perhaps, the very adolescence Anderson describes that allowed the magazine such a breadth of interests and, eventually, such impact.
As writing communities and publishing technologies changed, so did the role of the literary magazine. The "mimeo revolution" of the 1960s opened the parameters of magazine publication greatly: "In a very real sense, almost anyone could become a publisher." The magazines and presses that followed often operated with the goal of nurturing specific groups of writers and readers, more than selecting the "best" work from various communities of writers. Writer-editors interpreted their roles differently, of course, but many felt that developing a venue for a specific community was the purpose of their work. Ron Silliman, for example, wrote that it was the role of Language poets to share "the responsibility of creating the institutions through which [their] work can be made public."
When Rebecca Wolff first described her ideas for Fence to me, in the mid-1990s, it seemed to me to be in the model of the Little Review and its inheritors. A return to the idea that a magazine could serve a spectrum of writers, readers, ideas, and trains of thought sounded right to me. 'Some of what appealed was the opportunity to "betray our adolescences" by exploring the work and ideas we admired, all over the literary spectrum(s), as well as writers we had never read before—without conscription to a specific agenda beforehand. It seems to me that this "gesture" (if you will) was timely and useful to many writers. Fence recognized a fluidity that already existed in contemporary literature, but had not yet been fully grappled with. If, in addition to being timely and useful, the project also had a certain naiveté to it, I think of that as a largely positive thing. The project started as an invitation to ourselves to know more about the literary world(s) in which we functioned and to document our process. If you imagine a feminist component to the project, I share your thinking.
Fence came into being in 1997, a matriarchy from the start—identified in many ways with our founding editor, Rebecca, and then ably lifted into being by Frances Richard, Matt Rohrer, Jonathan Lethem, Adam Hurwitz, and my good self. One of our original board members said something after our first board meeting about Fence being a "lesbian magazine"-probably meaning more than anything that women had a particularly large role in defining its scope. It seemed to me that it was never possible to parse out the role the women editors played in curating and publicizing the magazine from the way it functioned in the world--the strange ire it has sometimes inspired and, also, the way people dressed up to come to our parties. We are in a literary field in which many women are published and respected, but it is still unusual to see. female poets also functioning confidently as arbiters. Of course there are some terrific counterexamples to this (Explosive, Chain, Belladonna, etc.) but I don't think you can underestimate the disturbing power of women claiming complete editorial authority in a literary world that is so used to seeing men in that role. We didn't, however, anticipate controversy in the editorial meetings preceding the publication of issue #1- a gorgeous glossy tome featuring the art of Elliott Green and writing from folks including Shelley Jackson, Lynne Tillman, Rae Armantrout, Fanny Howe, Rick Moody, Anne Carson, Thylias Moss, Barbara Einzig, Tomaz Salamun, Christine Hume, Sam Truitt, Norman Dubie, Heather McHugh, and Michael S. Harper. The point was more or less made right away. We were celebrating and staking out an open space for writers. The credo that the "exigency" of the work was the defining criteria rather than allegiance to a specific camp or tradition has since been taken up by many other magazines (I won't name them here because you know who they are), but at the time of our first issue, this was a fairly bold position to take. We articulated our views firmly in our early issues, but truly the work spoke for itself. Yes, Michael Harper and Rae Armantrout are vastly different writers and people, but they also share a cultural moment and concerns, and reading them side-by-side can illustrate the ways in which they are grappling with the same ideas and influences, and, indirectly, with each other.
- The Third Society
The first few years of Fence were extremely exciting from an editorial stand point- we had long, heated meetings in which ideas on how to define the critical pieces in a given issue spilled over into talk about the kind of poetry we wanted to publish. The fiction Jonathan was publishing/ talking about made us think differently about ways that the critical pieces could function. Etcetera. In the beginning, we were concerned, in part, with creating what we called a "poetic literacy" through our nonfiction, where folks with all levels of literary or artistic or philosophical interests or non-interests who, for various reasons, felt excluded from poetry could be pleasurably introduced to some of the lexicon, the movements, the thinking, and the poetics—or readers who still thought a poem had to be crisply accessible on all levels could expand their thinking. In practice, the critical pieces we solicited often reflected a more "insider" tone than we had anticipated and were not necessarily instructive to a more general reading public—but, in being so while addressing reasonably straightforward topics (a symposium on narrative, one on confessional poetry, etc.), they released influences and results that we had not directly intended. The conversations we published, on tried and true literary topics, surprisingly, became intensely interesting to the initiated—to poets in particular.
Because of the editorial ideas we articulated--and the range of authors we published, Fence did not gather a specific community of writers to itself. Or, more clearly, there were writers who came to all of our events, read our magazine regularly, and were part of our extended world—but they represented several distinct communities and also no—or their own, unidentifiable to us—communities. This was generally a lovely situation for us. By the second year of publication, however, some of our readers were disturbed by the miscegenation. We held a big loft party in Chinatown in 1999—at least 200 people came to a party that cost $5 and featured dancing and beer. One partygoer reported that a noted Language poet looked out on the sea of people, a mix of "avant-garde" writers and editorial assistants at the New Yorker, and proclaimed, "It's the end of an era." And perhaps it was.
In 1999, three Fence editors (Rebecca, Matt, and I) came to work at The Poetry Society of America, a New York-based poetry organization responsible for, among other things, Poetry in Motion on the subways. It was not long into our (successful from a programming and fundraising point) tenure that the PSA Board was complaining that there were too many "Language Poets" on the staff and that the programming had become too radical. In the end, I got into a deep standoff with several board members, over this and their labor practices. This finally resulted in my unceremonious departure in November of 2000. Rebecca and Matt left not long afterward in solidarity. After this experience, I realized that I couldn't again combine the experience of life in poetry with working for a corporate board.
As if to echo the PSA experience in a through-the-looking-glass register, not two months after the PSA showdown, there appeared on a website entitled Third Factory (mostly identified with avant-garde and post-Language work) a harshly-worded attack on Fence, and most specifically on Rebecca, that went out to a large but undisclosed email list and denounced our editorial practices. Fence, according to Third Factory, stripped certain ideologically committed writing of the cultural and historical context in which it functioned and juxtaposed it callously with work that cavalierly imitated the aesthetics of, or ignored entirely, its commitments and rigors. The purported effect of this was to offer up politically charged writing in a denatured medium, thus rendering it ineffective and safe for popular culture. In the weeks that followed the initial posting, friends and poets wrote responses to the site that were then sent out to the entire list. The scent of blood spread quickly and a lot of poets posted to the online conversation (which is archived at www.umit.maine.edu/%7Esteven.evan/s3F-index.htm ) with their complaints or thoughts or praise or rants about Fence and/or Rebecca.
The online discussion took several weeks to unfold, weeks during which time many of the participants who had chimed in most harshly to the original posts apologized privately for their public speech against us (either in response to a question from one of us about their posting or without any prodding/questioning)-but no one would publicly articulate their second thoughts to the listserv when asked, by us, to do so. In the wake of these disheartening experiences with the two supposed poles of the poetry world (the official verse culture of a large monied institution and the experimental online alternative), it seemed like our project had gone from utopic to grimly pragmatic: Instead of representing a glorious space in which the agency of the artist is primary and trumps established aesthetic and political camps—all of which have import—we were instead being perceived as a refuge for writers who wished to write and publish outside of the pressures and limitations of long -ago established agendas. More than before, writers were forced to truly choose to publish in Fence, and thereby risk alienating those who publicly reviled us. Our editorial practice had matured but the context seemed more treacherous than it had. If our conviction that the project served a purpose remained high, our enthusiasm for open-ended conversations with writers and poets dimmed.
3: A Note on the Reading List
The poetry I have selected to reprint from our first six years of publication should, hopefully, complement the ideas and musings in this essay. With one exception, all of the poets presented here are ones I invited to submit because I admired their work and valued its and their place in the poetry world. The poetry editors always worked as a team, and we each had our own interests and ideas. My own proclivities are for work that is intellectually rigorous and/or courageous and/or dexterous, that is self-aware and self-reflexive, that is beautiful, that might be funny or hover on/around the knowledge of its own absurdity, and that has a dazzling quality to it. I sought a range of cultural influences and ideas and a whiff of translation-either from language to language or culture to culture or realm to realm.
Barbara Einzig's Distance Without Distance is a smart, crystalline book that seems unique to me in its brilliant capturing of the paradoxical, inevitable claustrophobia of travel/journeying/visitations/explorations. She was one of the first people I solicited for Fence and her eccentric, touching "I Can Control the Car, But I Can't Control the Road" in our first issue had the kind of sly momentum and impact that I adored in her books. I felt it laid a complex, psychologically charged road (uncontrolled) for the journal.
Christine Hume also had poems in our first issue. She had not yet fully become the purveyor of insects and northern climes that gives her the air of bedazzled librarian mystic in Musca Domestica and Alaskaphrenia, but the poems she sent us, lo those ten years ago, display all of her curiosities and humor and helped to give the initial issue its air of erudite, seductive, mutually satisfying convocation. These two strong voices helped set the tone in that first issue: The work we publish was and is wide-ranging, but the shared traits of curiosity, resistance, strength, and expansive outlook hold the voices together in surprisingly—perhaps shockingly—given the slightly reckless amelioration we laboratoried up— cohesive cohesion and resonant resonance.
Lee Ann Brown's Steinian riff is not exactly "on the fence" as Brown, and at that point in particular, has long been associated with a specific community of writers-but the power of her work feels, to me, stronger, more perplexing and perhaps more secretive than would seem to be implied by stable residence on either side of the field.
The lyrique of Stacy Doris' perfumedly thuggish lovers, the wry and probing "essay"-poems of Eleni Sikelianos, Harryette Mullen's unparalleled meta-linguistic exploration, Eugene Ostashevsky's tour-de-force-y, witty, touching, questing poems (and translations, though none are reprinted here), Hoa Nguyen's deftly transportive and infinitely decorticating poems—these poets have various affiliations and proclivities and allegiances, and some resistance to same. But all of these poems thrilled me, and thrill me still.
- Babies, Books, Blogosphere
The most recent chapter of Fence has been, happily, defined by the extracurricular projects of its editors as much as their commitment to the project. When the magazine started, we were all relatively unattached, unencumbered. By 2004, that had largely changed and the early editors of Fence had greeted books of all shapes and sizes, literary tours, a number of babies, various commitments to other magazines, various literary awards, several marriages, some fairly high-octane jobs, and numerous relocations including three moves out of NYC. The commitments of time and emotion that marked the early years were no longer possible. Several editors left and new ones got involved. The tone of the magazine changed and the way we functioned in the literary world necessarily changed too.
I myself left in 2004 and so my narrative, such as it is, ends here. Fortuitously, as I type, I am planning to re-involve myself in the magazine, which is now housed at SUNY Albany's New York State Writers Institute. With Rebecca and our current fiction editor Lynne Tillman both based, entirely or in part, in the Hudson River Valley, where I now live, and the Fence office nearby, it will be easy to devote some time to the magazine, while hopefully not feeling too much like Steely Dan on a reunion tour. (I love Steely Dan, don't get me wrong.) The magazine has not been driven, in the time between 2003 and 2007, by the feverish editorial meetings and agitated parties that defined the early years. It has been a communal project, with different editors taking larger roles at different times. Charles Valle, Matt Rohrer, and I have all edited issues. Occasionally, the magazine has come out once, rather than twice, a year, etcetera...
In considering what matters most to me about the magazine and what seems to have mattered most to readers, I think that the editors' ability to anticipate, represent, and judiciously capture moods and points of curiosity—where they overlap and what happens on contact, all in a sort of "everything you wanted to know about •·fill in the blank' but were afraid to ask" format-would seem to me to best describe the impact we have had. For better or for worse, we examined what writers were, or could be, thinking about rather than setting or representing an /our agenda. That we were not particularly cautious about what we "betrayed" about ourselves in the process seems to me to have been one of the most unusual, accidental, and courageous elements of our process. That the women involved felt this luxury, casually, easily, was particularly meaningful.
The magazine has lived long enough to outgrow and, in many ways, reinvent itself. It has outlived its original raison d'etre and way of being—which is both a challenge and a privilege for the current editors. Develop in g a new reason to continue will be a complicated process that I hope the editors take on with the brash attunement of the original founding editorial board. Certainly, the original, vaguely polemical mission of creating "a distinguished gray area" between literary camps is rather moot. That gray area now envelops many magazines, MFA programs, anthologies, presses, reading series, awards programs, and loft parties. Some still object, but most find the fluidity workable, even companionable. The rise of poetry web sites and biogs has largely overtaken the thrill of "everyone" reading a specific article or critical piece in a magazine. But print pieces still have a role to play. What role ours will play remains a question.
The concerns about what literature or poetry can accomplish/rear range/illuminate in troubled times are incredibly apt just now, as our country rises to ever more saddening feats of warmongering and incompetence. Ambiguity has been abolished from public discourse and we seem to be in a virtually pre-analytic state most of the time. I hope that Fence continues to advocate, though in newly wrought ways, for the agency of the artist and the complication of allegiance. That we would be doing so within a much-changed literary arena, one that we helped to change, in fact, should make the project a hopeful one. And, as Emily Dickinson tells us, "hope is the thing with feathers."
 My Thirty Years' War
 Ibid. A Secret Location on the Lower East Side
Essays by FENCE editors et al from THE BEST OF FENCE 2009
Articles, Exchanges, and Interviews 2000-2019