ON BEING AN EDITOR FOR FENCE
What is compelling about contemporary poetry at this moment is the great number of poems being written and pub li shed in spite of the lack of public attention and influence poetry commands in our nation, even compared to other artistic fields. An endless discussion could be had about the various levels of quality, the motivating factors for so many, writing so many poems, trying so very hard to publish their work. Even given the abundance of literary journals (print and on-line), chapbook series, contests, anthologies, small press publications, et al, there still does not appear to be enough pages willing or able to accommodate the literary visions of a numberless legion that profess "poet." This phenomenon is not more apparent to anyone than a poetry editor for one of the highest-profile magazines in the given circle, namely one called Fence.
However curious a fact, so much writing going on is not necessarily something to be lamented. It may be something to be celebrated, save the conditions under which the enterprise of writing and publishing happens: It looks a good deal like all the other sociopolitical environments with all the vying, flouting competitiveness, and coarse, unsocial components of government politics. The American poetry scene from my humble vantage is not all bad. I don't mean to say that it's bad. But given the stakes are so low, there is an incredible amount of importance placed on this practice which for the most part doesn't mean very much to the very many people sharing the air in our country's borders (or does it ? ) It certainly holds no significant sway in the great scheme of pressing issues our, and, successive generations, face (or does it?).
In the fall of 1999, I met Rebecca Wolff while working for a start-up internet company, Urban Box Office, which functioned as a portal for several websites, one of which was called The Culture Channel. The Culture Channel's content was produced and managed by a woman named Jungwon Kim who got wind of Rebecca and Fence through poet Anna Moschovakis. We wanted to produce an audio/video segment on poetry and diversity, via a recorded roundtable discussion. We met in Jungwon's apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Of the half dozen or so in attendance, most notably at the time the poet David Henderson was there. Also at the table were three young slam poets—Bassey Ikpi, Beau Sia, and Steve Coleman. We discussed race, page-versus-stage, sex and gender, politics. Certainly, not every cultural or ethnic group was represented, but it was a mix of people with different vantages. A hard line was the one drawn between the slam poet and the literary poet (Rebecca had been invited that night to represent the latter). What struck me about Rebecca was her openness, a general willingness to listen to the conversation and contribute in a democratic way, accommodating a space for several points of view without compromising her own. David and l had to remain open as well, to some degree, as we were discussing poetics with a group (the slam poets) whose knowledge of poetry, whose sense of poetics was very limited in spite of their enthusiasm. A few of us still smoked cigarettes then, so after the session, we smoked some, drank a little bit, talked more informally after the tape recording stopped, and exchanged numbers.
There was something attractive about the idea of Fence. Rebecca didn't seem connected to the usual New York literary channels but was serious about the work she was doing. Fence offered a take on things that the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe, The Poetry Project, The 92nd St Y, Tribes, The New Yorker, Open City, the then recently debuted Tin House, various academic journals, other places and publishing tentacles didn't and aesthetically couldn't. The journal provided a real sense of on par diverse poetic styles, experimental writing, an unpretentious intellectual pursuit of high literacy. In my mind, then, Fence was as much a location as it was a publication. It functioned as a place where people from the past and present—the intergenerational, established, emerging, marginal, bohemian, and bourgeois alike—worked at shaping expression: In it, ideas and positions clash. That this chorus is cacophonous, at times superbly euphonic, is a tenet of democratic equality. Writers and readers alike are not used to engaging literary efforts of this kind, and as the record stands have found it challenging. Every one of its issues sits on my bookshelf, alongside other favorite journals collected –Poetry from the late 50's and 60's, Clayton Eshleman's Sulfur, The New York Quarterly, Journal of Contemporary Art, to name a well-known few. By the time l was asked to come on as an editor, I was somewhat primed emotionally. My first editorial experience had been with the newsprint magazine Big Fish, published out of Grand Rapids, Michigan in the early 90's. I enjoyed editing and wanted to do it again. Very much in the same way that 1 had been asked to work on that magazine, Rebecca asked me to work on Fence—no warning, no rhyme or reason, she just called after my visit to her folks' place on the Cape, summer of 2003, and asked. By this time she had published a poem of mine, we had read together a couple of times, and we were good friends. After giving it some thought I said yes, and have been involved with the magazine in one way or another since.
An unexpected condition of being an editor—of it being known by other poets and writers that one is an editor for a journal they would like to be published in, or hate, or love, or would rather not have to deal with at all—is that the editor is perpetually negotiating the temperamental social terrain of whatever literary community s/he finds themselves in. Someone whose writing has been rejected feels it a personal slight, or, when a friend's work you find exceptional is published it is seen as nepotistic. Perhaps both are correct, but more often than not, not. It would be foolish for an editor to publish work they didn't enjoy or couldn't stand by. At any given time, Fence has had better than a half dozen editors, including all departments, with varying inclinations. By no means does everyone agree on every piece that appears in the journal. There have been works included that the founding editor herself had not read, especially during a particularly long stretch when the coordination and layout were done exclusively by managing editor Charles Valle. In the beginning, during the first few editorial sessions, with Caroline Crumpacker, Matt Rohrer, Max Winter, and Rebecca, I was rather enthusiastic about my charge—to read poetry, make aesthetic judgments, and effect reflection and growth about contemporary literature in a community of writers who were paying attention. The fall/winter issue of 2003-2004 V6 N2, was already in production when I came on, and though I had voted for, discussed, vetted, a few of the poems to appear in that issue, only after over a half year of attending editorial and board meetings was my name included on the masthead of spring/summer issue 2004 V7 N2. By that time, fielding impetuous questions about and commentary on my role in Fence and the mission of Fence, or curious interrogations about what literary experience I had prior to involvement with the magazine, was common. What became clear to me is that people really did find the journal important; its editors, be they aware of it or not, held some sway that caused anxiety among the ranks.
Dealing with one's own insecurity about the value of literature, creative writing as a practice, as art in general, is tough, more so perhaps after realizing that all that one has, all that one wants, is to read, be read, and write, to make and engage art, in a culture that is demonstratively at odds with that. So, why are we doing this? To question this is an ordinary, for most of us, a perennial, practice. During the four years, I spent as a poetry editor, reading submissions for the magazine, sitting in meetings, and talking (not always affably) with poets, I tried to keep this in mind about potential contributors, published writers, and fellow editors. At a certain point being an artist (an editor can be one) just becomes second nature (dullness is the danger then unless dullness is the point ). When there are a few hundred submissions monthly to sort through, duly an editor's patience is tried even when his compassion is aflame. More often than was comfortable, 1 asked myself—what is the point? Why is this or that person writing? And how come so much good writing will for—some reason or another—go unpublished, or some good writer go unnoticed predictably for some time? There are as many reasons as there are writers. Ultimately people want to be heard: To be nonsensical, or to exalt the trivial is (or can be) artful and, unquestionably, a privilege the otherwise voiceless with something to say can't afford. Both those with something specific they need to say about their lives—their circumstances, how they perceive the world and those with something vague or theoretical to say about the art are published in the pages of this journal, together, and with something like both ends of the spectrum in the middle, but not the same. In short, we write—we participate actively in literature—to express ourselves, to make it known that we are here, we are alive and have lived. How one chooses to do that depends on individual circumstances. For me, that has been enough to go on and suffices to allow me to take all manner of writing seriously, and even to judge work that I have found to be not very good, by its own standard, its inherent premise. An editor should have established taste; when better than average, established diverse tastes. Keeping pliant perspectives ensures some grounding ability to adapt to the changeable conditions of a dynamic field.
Le t's agree to say definitively, for instance, that American literature began to distinguish itself from English Literature in the mid-to-late-eighteenth century; came fully into its own in the mid-to-late-nineteenth; by the early-mid-twentieth got the nerve to be "avant-garde.” Given that, here, a decade into the twenty-first, our literature is relatively young and recording vital changes in our nation's public landscape, along with the psycho-social effects of those dips, dives, boosts, turns, and returns. Our poetry reflects the increasingly complex web of difference indicative of the inclusive (or subsuming, depending on how we look at it) nature of this country. The most exciting area of experimentation in that regard lately has been in hybridized forms, new genres, and work that straddles what is acceptable and what is possible. " Poetry," as much as a class of writing, is an intention with terms set by a given writer. It may have always been that way—openly defined—or the potential for it to be that way may always have been there and implicit. This idea (poetry as intention) is what makes reading work that is considered "traditional" or "conventional" or "formal" continue to be so interesting in light of all the other possibilities. Poetry is made of something beyond the imported devices that make or build a facsimile of a poem. The recognition of for mal attributes of canonical predecessors is built into writer and writing, as is the urge to try what we imagine to be new; through the tensions of past, present, and possible we find a voice—hopefully, we find the means to express our own, unique voices. As an adjudicating reader, poetry-editor-as-critic for a journal, this means to me that there is "better " poetry. What begins to define that "better" poetry, granted originating expression, is the poetry that compasses and teases the bounds of literary discipline while actualizing a space for itself in literature.
In his essay, Fenced-In Fields (1972 ) X. J. Kennedy writes, "But it is clear that, in the present poetic climate, when practically anything at all is tolerated and there isn't much-searching criticism when readers never say "uncle" because there aren't any readers, or very few, bad poetry threatens to drive good poetry out of circulation—both metrical and non-metrical kinds." Four decades later that same kind of observation is made. I read Kennedy's essay, in addition to Audre Lorde's Poems Are Not Luxuries (1977 ), and What the Image Can Do (1981) by Robert Bly, in the collection Claims for Poetry (1982) edited by Donald Hall; juxtaposed with essays from that book, I have been reading selections from another collection, New Expansive Poetry: Theory, Criticism, History (1999) edited by R. S. Gwynn, most notably one called Neural Lyre: Poetic Mele1; The Brain and Time by Frederick Turner and Ernst Poppel (finding this one remarkably strange for its ambitious, diagrammatic, scientific approach to arguing for the necessity of meter and rhyme in poetry). New Expansive Poetry has a piece in it by Wyatt Prunty called Emaciated Poetry (1985), in which he questions the intellectual and creative abilities of both Robert Creeley and A.R. Ammons, in his opening paragraph saying they "produce[d] a stylish, highly marketable thinness," going on for twelve pages trying to prove why they aren't as good as people think they are - or at least not as good as his own friends and the poets he read s for aesthetic and intellectual food. That kind of ungenerous analysis of poetic sensibility has certainly been aimed at Fence, its editors and contributors at once, decorously; also, from the frothing mouths of the sociopathic unpublished, indecorously.
I have been directly involved with a couple of dubious critiques of the magazine: 1) a claim that the journal was "only interested in publishing porn"; 2) an attack on Fence's "high production values ... " and on the fact that its editors take the role of purveyors of "what's good in every genre." The former appraisal of our editorial position about pornographic literature was made during a back-and-forth with a writer who had submitted work of her own which she defined as being anti-pornographic. The work was rejected in an editorial meeting, but I thought it was interesting (I brought her poetry to the other editors' attention from the slush pile) and sent her an encouraging note (including my email address) along with a form rejection slip. The latter ad hoc bit of analysis came from an MFA student from the Columbia writing program at a small press celebration at an art gallery in Chelsea. I won't mention the names of those involved here, but I do want to include a little about those instances because I found them interesting. Each situation had some social legs, as I heard about them or was asked about them at readings and parties months after they occurred. The anti-porn activist (as she turned out to be) wrote about our exchange, referring to me by name on blogs and activist lists. We kept in correspondence for nearly a year until she wrote this:
I had been concerned about maintaining a relationship with you, in order to be able to continue to submit work to Fence [sic]. At that point, I had not yet seen the suicide girls [sic] cover from last summer. Obviously, I no longer want my work associated with the magazine ever.
I wonder whether or not, if sales dipped low enough, you would stoop to spreading your own daughters on the cover, pimping them out to sell extra copies-or is that just for "other people's" women? Maybe, if you were not repulsive outside and in, a real woman would want to touch you, and you would not have to resort to using pornography.
You might enjoy the following essay about Fence. Enjoy my poems in the spring in Colorado Review and the fall in Boston Review. Remove my name from your list.
Presuming that I was unaware of it, the email included, following her note, the full text of the essay The Resistible Rise of Fence Enterprises by Steve Evans. (She forwarded this piece to me five years after it originally began circulating.) The relevance that wordy essay had/has to literary porn (erotica) or my position on it, I wasn't sure of, but I read it again in this odd context. It could have only been sent along as evidence affirming for her that Fence wasn't really all that great after all, "see." Fair enough. I replied with a short note:
The cover with the Suicide Girl was not my choice actually. I found out about the cover after several thousand copies were sold, while visiting the Fence office and also, reading about it before actually seeing it. I am a poetry editor, not an art editor, nor the managing editor, and had no influence whatever on that particular cover. But the latest issue, Spring 2006, has the cover art of an artist, John Lurie, whose drawings I suggested. Sorry you feel the way you do, but happy that you feel comfortable sharing. Congratulations on your upcoming publications. That's great for you. I bet you're stoked. I personally wish you the best in your future. I will most certainly remove you from my list, per your request. Take Care-
l never heard from or about her again, until my name popped up on those blogs I came across a year after her final note. I commend her still on believing that poetry can make a difference in the lives of its readers. That is a point we can agree on. She came to Fence with her work, thinking it an outlet for political poetry, a notion that is not untrue. Passionate commentary on poetry or via the use of poetry is admirable and time-honored. Though she may have meant to insult me, or to remind me that Fence isn't 'all that' or that there was someone else furnishing less than positive analysis of the magazine's efforts, her take on it was basically fine.
As grating as I found Joan Houlihan 's essay Post-Post Dementia: How Contemporary American Poets Are Denaturing the Poem Part VfI ,5 for instance, I think it's fantastic that people who care about poetics express themselves with fervor, clarity, and, when capable, at least a semblance of comprehending the full range of influences on contemporary poetry. J did not begrudge Mr. Evans' miscalculations upon reading them again either and can concede still he had some points and that his work has been effective. Not only did the anti-porn activist find it useful, so did the Columbia graduate student who, in a public forum, disrupted a presentation I was giving on Fence to harp on " production value,"" marketability," and " the apolitical nature" of Fence. He rather adeptly borrowed some of Evans' logic and tone, and took it a daring step further by injecting race and class into his argument, suggesting that as I am a " black man " the "apolitical nature" of Fence ran "counter to [my] interests." This, coming from a young "white" male Ivy League graduate student, who was interrupting a presentation I was giving at the moment, made me somewhat curious about what of my "interests" he knew, or what he had in mind to tell me about what those interests "should " be. He never asked me anything—he told me what my concerns are to be, what Fence is in relation to, and quite simply why the way he thinks is better. This man and I had never met before. He did not know me. He heard me talk for all of three minutes before going into Marxist spiel. Writer to writer, person to person, at that moment I questioned his sense of decorum and his sense of himself. It was to me equally worth examining the fact that the man pub li shed fine- press books of literature, of extraordinary quality, using the best materials and letterpress printing, which by virtue of these features is creating books as objects of art for a relative few. His publishing practice could well be considered elitist, and a marketing ploy in its own right—steadfast integrity is, after all, a selling point, and according to the most " radical" stream of poetics and publishing, virtuous.
One of the dullest attendant complaints related to the Columbia student 's and to that of at least one of his probable sources is the "resistance" to Fence on the grounds of where and how the magazine and books are sold. Advertising, handsome cover art, and well-done perfect binding show care for the work of contributors and authors that a publisher supports. Perhaps it would be more advantageous and productive for all to look at the economic machinery that shapes multiplex relationships in our society—including poetry society, and general literacy for that matter—of which each of us is a product. Whatever tactical approach Fence has taken, it has essentially been taken to make room for more writing, to make readable different kinds of writing, to add energy and excitement to the "enterprise" of literature and Iiteracy. If in that purpose there is an attempt to make reading contemporary writing of varying stripes fashionable, or stylish, so be it. For that to happen, the pages have to be on the shelves, the World Wide Web, the fairs, the conferences, and everywhere else books have a place. Taking all of its issues to date into account, the core focus of the journal has been to reach readers—to reach a multiplicity of specific readers. Bringing contingent writers together to perhaps compare notes this way is not a bad thing. A classic illustration of this effort in extremis is when in Fence V7 N1 two poems by thirteen-year-old Kyle Kenner were published alongside the poetry of Vladimir Nabakov, used by permission of Vintage Books/ Random House. (That issue also included writing by Tory Dent, Clayton Eshlema n, Thalia Field, Miranda a July, James Tate…). If someone reads that issue cover to cover, having the aptitude, a context is formed that includes and exposes the work of a “very" young writer who may be burgeoning. Perhaps that editorial gesture gave that young person a push. If so, that is for damn sure great. Even greater is if that thirteen-year-old and his friends suddenly develop an appetence for reading diversely in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, while attempting to comprehend various logics contained in all the differences. That eventuality might be threatening to some, but for me the possibility is invigorating.
 RW: Maybe it was precipitous, but actually I had lots of rhyme and reason: Chris is a dynamic thinker-actor about poetry and art, and I was excited to include him and the range of poets he would surely bring, and did bring. The precipitousness, or providentiality of the invitation is true of the method in which almost all of my editors have been selected. (Lynne Tillman is the one exception: She we tracked for years before swooping in.) At the beginning of Fence, when it was really just an idea I had and had determined to make manifest, I was happy to let fortune fill the ranks for me. If I spoke long enough, and with enough depth, to someone about my idea, and that someone expressed their interest with a certain special spark of conviction: Voila. "Come aboard," I said, and they did, and it worked out beautifully. l quite literally barely knew several of these people: Caroline Crumpacker, Frances Richard, even Matthew Rohrer, with whom I went to graduate school but hadn't really had serious interaction with. This method has extended to interns, several of whom became far more than that, and I'll shout them out here: Sam Stark, the original wunderkind of Fence; Cody Clevidence, whom I trust more than almost anyone to screen manuscripts (and take care of Margot); Charles Valle, whose gift for organization may have almost been the death of him.
 RW: Summer house on Cape: Not a big, old, glamorous WASP-y place; a small cube built in 1965 on a then undesirable plot of wooded land by savvy parents.
 RW: Someday I will convince a host of influential/"powerful" people in the poetry community to contribute to a Fence forum on literary nepotism. Perhaps it will have to be anonymously. Or posthumously.
RW: Again, she really needs to read that Hart Crane letter to Harriet Monroe. Historically, nobody wants to be Harriet Monroe.
Essays by FENCE editors et al from THE BEST OF FENCE 2009
Articles, Exchanges, and Interviews 2000-2019