YOUNG AND GREEN
A prehistory of Fence would include my first encounter with Rebecca Wolff, then seventeen years old, when I was twenty and about to finish dropping out of college and begin a decade's exile in California. This would have been 1983, unless Rebecca tells me otherwise.[i]1 Her hair dyed inexpensively the color of an expensive beet-carrot beverage. Rebecca was a sort of glaringly provocative and impulsive person who made me crazily nostalgic for the New York City f'd those days barricaded myself from. We forged our friendship over mutual uneasiness in that place, Bennington College, and mutual love of Neil Young and Al Green, tastes which sound easy now, but there and then felt renegade and furtive.
So call us Young and Green. Which is what we still were, really, when, twelve or so years of mostly long-distance friendship later, Rebecca one day corralled me, wanting to relate her big idea, and to put forward an offer and a challenge: Would I be willing to be the fiction editor of a magazine which, first, didn't exist, and second, was going to be mostly a poetry magazine? We'd been to the Film Forum that day in 1997 (I don't know what film we saw, but it might have been during a Truffaut retrospective. Shoot The Piano Player?[ii]) It was a nice enough day that we circled around some blocks, probably with slices of pizza in hand, and ended up sitting on a stoop discussing Rebecca's vision.
There was talk of essays and stories and artwork and even unspecifiable amalgams right from the start, but I think the sense was from the beginning that Fence would mark "itself most boldly in poetry's turf. For one thing, we started out sure two pieces of fiction per issue would be enough (it wasn't enough for long, see below). There was a ghost of a predecessor: Rick Moody had already accepted the post of fiction editor and then backed off, and onto our board of directors, but would be willing to help out (he did, see below). I'd never edited anything except myself but didn't hesitate. I could immediately think of some writers I knew who I'd enjoy soliciting for stories and finding four pieces a year didn't sound onerous. "Fence" was a concept I could get behind, calling as it did in its kindly, non-confrontational way to doubleness, transgression, marginality, paradox, "both-not-either" (because, really, why choose?), and also, in the pointless way of a good rock band moniker, to something arbitrary. Unless it was a farm? The Silos were around then my favorite rock band, and they were from New York City too.
I remember (I'm falling into a Joe Brainard rhythm here) early meetings at a fabulous duplex apartment on Duffield Street in downtown Brooklyn, where attractive roommates lurked everywhere, and where I met the attractive "fellow founding editors" Frances and Matthew and Caroline. Rebecca has petitioned us to avoid self-congratulation here but my oh my were we all good-hearted, and boy oh boy did Rebecca whirl us into a tizzy of fulsome intentions! It is the nearest thing to a Communist cell I have ever had the privilege of joining. (This is sad for me, I realize now. I should have joined many more, when I was still young and green enough to do it.) Before there was a magazine, it glowed in our collective imagination and will, a needed thing.
And then there was a magazine. I'd invited, in a shameless ecstasy of nepotism, my ex-wife Shelley Jackson. Rick Moody, helping out, had steered me to his friends (or were they friend-students?) Julia Slavin and Stacey Richter, and I'd tugged on the sleeve of my legendarily generous and prolific personal hero Stephen Dixon-this made up my first round of solicitations and filled the first year 's issues. It's worth emphasizing that I'd soon turn to friend and fellow Sycamore Hill workshop attendee Kelly Link (the story of Kelly's we published in Fence was the very one I'd helped workshop at Sycamore Hill) and my own student Alan DeNiro,so there's no mistaking that the shameless ecstasy of nepotism, my own and Rick's, was one of the defining creeds of Fence's founding, at least on the fiction side.
But that's why I circulate so avidly among writers I admire: in case l get a chance to drag us all to glory! Since Link, Slavin, Richter, Jackson and DeNiro were all bookless when I published them, and all are by now in hard or soft covers and celebrated for being so, I'm either a great fixer or a great predictor, or just lucky. Select whichever answer suits your personal conspiracy.
Two stories twice a year doesn't seem like much editing work, but soon I wanted help reading submissions and we always needed more hand s at the envelope-scuffing parties. So Zoe Rosenfeld, Adrian Taylor, and Justin Haythe were brought aboard—in what order, I can no lon ger recall. Now I was a " we:' As the magazine found its place in the world, and the listings, we got a good flood of blind submissions, and with dogged optimism read them all, vowed to publish at least one a year. Too, we began writing encouraging notes to the writers who'd gained our attention and several re-readings for their near-misses. (We also developed "medium-discouraging" and "highly -discouraging" form letters, to be used as needed: triage.) By the end of year two the magazine had landed in an underground office, loaned by some small press publishers, and there the fiction-adjunct would meet and filter through the heaps. Once we started finding a few things we liked in the slush pile we felt our project was growing more important than its limit described, and so asked the magazine (Rebecca, I mean) for more pages, for the chance to publish three and sometimes four pieces each time out. We got it.
I sought joy, first and foremost. Excellence! Excellence! Unprecedented sentences and syntaxes, undeniable shudders, guffaws, chills, moistened cushions, moistened eyes, balled tissues, balled fists! If a piece defied some boundary, even better: what I love often does. The Fence "argument" was explicit in the poetry world, some quadrants and fiefdoms of which quickly set about hand-wringing at the magazine's defiance of its quadrants and fiefdoms. We in the Fiction Dept. stood no chance of courting any similar controversy. Fence's chosen battle, its picked fight , was only analogously relevant to fiction, unless you propped up the straw men of "realism " versus "fabulation " (or "genre," that hopelessly misapplied word ), minimalism versus maximalism, or language versus story. Wait a minute, I hear you protest: Those straw men are propped up everywhere you look! Their crispy straw voices rule many a critical outpost! Sure, right, but for so long now, it has seemed to me, fiction's mightiest practitioners, a great bloody parade of them, have been steering between the propped-up straw men lightly, gaily, effortlessly. It has been my preference to think so, anyhow. So I let the Fence stories be a celebration of earned freedom, rather than a rattling of any slavish chains.
I lasted three years. Six issues, fourteen or fifteen stories. Not all of them were stories. From another of my heroes, Pamela Zoline, I got a libretto. That was the last piece I commissioned or edited (I doubt I touched a hair on its head). There was no ruptur e, no bad break-up. I felt my priorities changing—I mean, I needed to write fiction again, exclusively—and warned Rebecca in time, and made an orderly selection of my own successor. ( My wish list had two names , Ben Marcus and then-board member Lynne Tillman ; both came true eventually.) First enlisted, I was neither the first nor the last of the founders to wander off. I've never edited anything as seriously or extensively again. But I'll always call myself an editor now, for that interval with Fence felt as crucia l as Cyril Conno lly's or Wyndham Lewis's tenures: The venue Rebecca and the other editors opened up was vibrant and glamorous, a real site of thrilling action. A real part of the history, now.
 RW: Things couldn't have been/ be more different over on the poetry side. While we have always published work by poets we know—we know a lot of poets!—it has been of prime importance to maintain the self-pe rmission to reject work by friends /colleagues, and, more to the point, to actively seek out and even give precedence to work by poets we don't know . This was really one of the biggest reasons I wanted to start the magazine: Nepotism, or my perception of it as a younger poet, gave me the hee bie-jeebies . I' ve actua lly be e n thinking I ought to go back into therapy to try to work out why I am so resistant to the whole concept of "people, people who need people," otherwise known as coterie publishing. I have often shied away from situations in which another, sometimes older poet or publishing type might be offering help, or involvement, or even just friendship! to me, as a writer. I just want everyone to be like an island .
 RW: More worthy folks for who m there is not enough room in this anthology.
 RW : The heroically business minded James Sherry, publisher of Roof Books and director of the Segue Foundation
Essays by FENCE editors et al from THE BEST OF FENCE 2009
Articles, Exchanges, and Interviews 2000-2019