I can vividly remember my first encounter with the magazine Fence. l was in Prairie Lights, the great bookstore in Iowa City, rummaging the shelves of literary magazines, looking for one I'd really want to read. There was Prairie Schooner, which had never interested me, and Poetry, which usually ran a lot of bad poems by poets who had once been good, and the Colorado Review, which published a lot of people from the Workshop because Jorie Graham was one of the editors. And then I saw a magazine I hadn't seen before. It was glossy, easy on the eyes—square and rather thick. It reminded me of Grand Street, but it had more edge. I opened it up and read the Editor's Note. I didn't like the way the magazine's title was explained-as something someone would sit on. I preferred the idea that young poets would be more active than that—perhaps "fence" as an allusion to sword fighting—but I supposed that was also implied. I thumbed a little more—liked a lot of the poets and really loved the conscious mixing of aesthetics and geographies and ages.
I'd gone to undergrad at Berkeley, where I'd worked with several mentors from diverse aesthetic backgrounds and had read widely (indiscriminately, really)—Kumin, Whalen, Kleinzhaler, Hillman, Oppen, Shelley, Armantrout, Oliver, Roethke, Spicer, Blaser, Glück, Lowell, Plath, Sexton, Bishop, Olds, Byron, anthology after anthology. I could go on and on about what l bought and read back in those days, but the point of the story is that my poetry education had been all over the place and, in my first three years or so at Berkeley, extremely unselfconscious.
But then something changed. Lyn Hejinian started teaching at Berkeley and a lot more pretentious theory-head types started participating in the poetry scene. On the one hand, I liked the pretentious theory-heads and strove to become one myself—they were more interesting than a lot of the more "square" poets who had composed the Berkeley poetry scene before that, and I loved working with Lyn, who, aside from a habit of wearing sunglasses even when it wasn't bright outside, was notably down-to-earth. On the other hand, I found their self-righteousness and (in some cases literal) sophomoric overconfidence annoying. Though I could see how poetry might be a vehicle for social and political critique, I always thought it was kind of annoying for people to go around making overblown claims about the political content and efficacy of poetry. Poets being "the unacknowledged legislators of the world" aside, I thought and still think that more traditional genres of protest such as tracts, manifestos, and opinion pieces are better for effecting political change than poetry will ever be.
All of this said, the fact that I didn't agree with a lot of the conversations people were having at Berkeley in the mid-90's didn't mean I didn't find them interesting (and such conversations dovetailed nicely with all the reading I was doing in critical theory) and by the time I finished my BA, I was fluent in the languages of both "cooked" and "raw" poetries ( to use Lowell's descriptive formulation). This isn't to say I didn't have my preferences—I did—but these preferences didn't fall along the predetermined fault-lines the generation before me had so vociferously delimited (having to do with the nature of process and how much of it one should expose in one's work, the uses and dangers of figurative language, the extent to which poems should or should not be "finished" and discrete, etc.).
And so I read and read and continued to read. I lived in Las Vegas for a year, where I studied poker and hosted a reading series at the public library. Then I went to Iowa, for reasons having much more to do with their generous financial aid packages than for anything aesthetically inherent in the program. I arrived there and was lonely, having left all my San Francisco poet friend s behind and missing several poet friends I'd met through a guy I was obsessed with in New York, so I started my own magazine: Explosive. The idea of the magazine was to bring my friends together, and it just so happened that, because I was so aesthetically indiscriminate, my friends wrote in lots of different styles. I had been publishing this magazine—which was stapled and produced in a limited quantity of 300 copies—for a year when I happened upon Fence in Prairie Lights, and so it was a pleasant surprise to see my own implicitly mélange-like aesthetic preferences writ much larger—and more glamorously—in this thick, glossy, perfect-bound production. Rather than being threatened by what, on certain levels, was a more self-conscious, explicit, and powerful version of the magazine I had been publishing, and my dislike of the title they gave to their journal aside, I was excited: Other people also thought it was a good idea to put a lot of poetry that previously didn't go well together together.
f am titling this section hybridity, but in many ways this rubric is defensive and inaccurate, implying as it does that there are two things that need to be brought together. For, in the end, I wasn't self-conscious enough in my poetics to be doing anything so fancy as encouraging hybridity in my editing of Explosive. Rather, I was doing something social: publishing friends who wrote in different styles together and then receiving lots of flak for it from people who for various and sundry reasons had an interest in maintaining the institutional, aesthetic, and personal boundaries the poets of the generation earlier had prescribed.
In 1998, I moved to New York with my boyfriend. We had no money (] remember one night in the kitchen, looking at my boyfriend's neck, seeing the little rungs of his trachea, and realizing the two of us were l literally starving). I continued to publish Explosive, but only once a year instead of three times a year (to produce an issue of Explosive cost $6 per issue, while an issue of glossy, fancy, perfect-bound Fence costs more like $2 to produce). I walked around in Central Park and had crazy, maniacal fantasies about publishing chapbooks. I thought to myself that if I could just feed myself and remain a publisher of small press books, my life would be OK—that I would be like Frank O'Hara. I edited the Poetry Project Newsletter. I continued to publish my magazine, cried, spiraled into depression, felt like everybody hated me. I moved and broke up with my boyfriend, worked very briefly for the CEO of a hedge fund in midtown Manhattan, suffered interestingly when I heard that my old teacher had, during a discussion of plagiarism, cited a poem of mine that was featured prominently on the back of APR, as an example of crossing the line (I was living at that time in an apartment on the Upper West Side that smelled funny; a cat had crawled into the wall and died), and felt like everybody hated me. I felt the city hated me. I felt the poets hated me. I felt that the poets all hated one another. Didn't poets have enough to contend with (un-empathic employers, high rents, shrinking audience) without the other poets also being jerks?
And then there was the fabled fight, the fight over Fence as the symbol of a fin-de-siècle poetic co-optation that I am sure several of the other essays in this volume discuss, and that on many levels exemplified all my frustration over poets ' petty politics. Steve Evans is the very smart person who started the fight, which [read as partly based- at least in spirit-on a very good essay he wrote, one of my favorite literary essays ever, called "The Dynamics of Literary Change."] am going to completely ruin his essay here, since I am writing for a purpose, which is to describe to you what happens in my mind—at least in the background- while I am editing the poetry for Fence, and summarize it as follows: Steve's essay was largely about the fact that, historically, the avant-garde do es all the work and then the mainstream people co-opt its techniques-lift them from (political, aesthetic, intellectual) context.
The narrative is basically one of miscegenation (or positive eugenics, depending on your attitude toward hybridization) and answers the question: how do aesthetics develop and change over time? One answer Steve offers in his essay is that avant-garde and innovative writers develop new aesthetic techniques (alongside the new political and sociological perspectives that said techniques are made to signify) usually at a cost, since, because they are working outside of or beyond convention, mainstream audiences don't understand and therefore will not recognize, literally, their work. Over time, these techniques become palatable—and ultimately conventional—through a process of artistic miscegenation. If one is more positively inclined toward this process, one calls it hybridization).
Fence was problematic for Steve because, I think, he read it as wanting to appropriate avant-garde work in order to buttress the dominant aesthetic (and land its editors in tenure-track jobs, big-name prizes in-hand). By presenting avant-garde poets alongside traditionally mainstream fare, and by selling the resulting production—what amounted to an aesthetic bastard—in Barnes & Noble and other mainstream venues, Fence would be a powerful instrument of co-optation. I remember at the time thinking Steve was partly right-all those randoms and MFA kids would pick up Fence, which was shiny and pretty, and read it and think it was all the same, not bothering to delve further into the various communities that had produced the work being presented; this seemed a shame. Then again, I also found myself wondering how good a poem or group of poems could possibly be if one had to look so far outside of the actual text to read it "correctly." Overall, the debate brought up several questions for me, none of which will probably ever be adequately answered: What is the role of the author in writing? Does it matter if an author gets "the credit"? The community? What's the place of coterie in the development of art? Could co-optation be progressive? ls it true that the larger the audience gets, the less discerning it becomes, and the more passive?
But I've been writing on a certain axis—the marked and the unmarked: experimental vs. unmarked or mainstream aesthetic, female poet vs. unmarked or male poet, black poet vs. unmarked or white poet, gay poet vs. unmarked or straight poet, raw vs. unmarked or cooked poetry. All of these analogize well with categories, and the popular and fraught debates that revolve around them. It is easy to write on this axis these days, because it 's what 's in the air. It's so objective and it's easy to determine what is fair because, when you work on these sorts of quantitative and highly binary axes (which always include one dominant and one recessive component), you don't necessarily have to look at the poem to come up with an equitable arrangement: some of this or that geography, this or that ethnicity, this or that gender, this or that formal camp. (Then again, I have trouble swallowing rhetoric that implies the current avant-garde is in any way underprivileged or under-represented, certainly not the way many ethnicities or genders have historically been.) So, this conversation-about sociological or aesthetic or institutional categories and how they impact the editing of a literary magazine—is the easier conversation to have. But there is this other axis-of high quality vs. low quality, whatever the background or clique of the writer or poem-and this is much more difficult to talk about: It's really much more difficult to talk about what's good.
If I have a bias, it is not toward avant or mainstream or man or woman or old or young or any of that, it is toward the hyper-aesthetic. I live for really rich and unusual language. I could give a shit about narrative. I could give a shit about form, most of the time. As long as the lang·u age is original, sharp-edged, conscious, packed with working lexicon, I'm pleased. I love music—poetry as composition, mellifluous. No matter how riveting a narrative poem might be, if its full of clunky, clumsy lines, it's over for me.
What's good from my most personal perspective would include things like farneresque by Liz Willis or her Meteoric Flowers. I also love The Men by Lisa Robertson, Tremolo by Spencer Short, and the sonnets at the end of Oxota by Lyn Hejinian. 1think Response by Juliana Spahr is really good—all of it—and all of Fuck You, Aloha, 1 Love You. I would take all of that for Fence if I could (though I wouldn't necessarily take all of her This Connection of Everything with Lungs book, which doesn't mean I wouldn't call it good, just that I wouldn't wring the other editors' necks to make them take it—which is really the extent of the power I have in my current editorial position). I have gone through periods where I have read Erosion by Jorie Graham over and over on the subway. I would take all of those poems (and force the other editors to take them) if they were unpublished. I like some of the poems I have read by Ben Lerner.
But even my personal taste ends up moot in the sense that what's good, at least as I am able to fathom it vis-a-vis editing for Fence, depends entirely on what people deign to submit to our pages. The slush, it's really everything, because, at least lately, all of us have been too lazy or distracted to solicit anything actively, and this means that the content of the magazine is about 95% percent determined by what people submit (90% of which just isn't very good by any standard ).
So I can talk about what 's good, but in the end what really determines what gets in is what we call in the business world "operations": all those material things people do to increase their business, like crunch numbers, place ads, go to dinner, hawk a brand. Poets don 't like to think about operations, not only because it seems so un-poetically mundane, but also because poets don't have the money to implement all the improvements that would be obvious to anyone who took the time to look at even a small magazine's operations. The easiest thing to do in this situation is deny that they exist and/or to start a tiny magazine where the entire point is to avoid operations altogether, publishing lovers and friends only and call i ng it a day. This is an easier way of going about publishing a poetry magazine. If the chemistry is right, it can also encourage a coterie of poets. Coteries of poets can help poetry develop because the poets in the coterie feel comfortable dialoging with one another. They don't have to take the time to constantly define their terms, since they are talking all the time without an audience, and this means they can take more risks, do more creative things, and see what others who are also in the coterie think.
- I think that when Steve Evans said all the mean things he did about Fence, he was actually worried that Fence would break up his particular coterie—not so much the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, but the post-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E people, like his partner, Jennifer Moxley, and also Juliana Spahr, Lisa Jarnot, Bill Luoma, and other people with whom he was having a rich and productive aesthetic I can see how this could cause him a lot of anxiety. l think, though, that Fence can be really good for people who aren't in a coterie or don't have access to a coterie. I know a lot of poets who are working fairly independently, and they really like Fence because (perhaps contrary to popular belief) it's not a coterie magazine. It can also be good for coterie poets to get out every once in a while (I'm speaking from experience here)—not only to present what amounts to their findings to the larger poetry community, but also to get a little air, to think about some new ideas. Coteries can be like rooms in which a person farts and the windows will not open; in this they can resemble corporations.
From an operational perspective, Fence has been relatively passive during the years I have been editing its poetry. If a magazine decided it wanted to have only the very best work—from any clique or camp or group—in its pages, there are a few obvious strategic editorial things it could do (I always wonder why magazines with massive resources and prestige like the New Yorker don't do these things, but I suppose massive resources and prestige are always relative concepts): (1) Read submissions within a week and reply with either an acceptance or a rejection. If Fence did this, then everyone would submit their poems to us first because they would know we would get back to them with enough time left for them to submit somewhere else; as far as "competitive advantages" go in the world of poetry magazine publishing, the relative speed of response is an area in which any publication that put their mind to it could really shine. (2) When sending a rejection, be very specific about why we are rejecting. If we did this, then people would know exactly what we liked about their work and what we didn't like and could calibrate their next submission accordingly, thereby wasting not only less of their time but less of our time too. (3) Aggressively solicit work from poets we think are really good. By “aggressive,” I don't so much mean ask pushily as I mean do things like ask for the entire manuscript—for all their work—and then pick and choose as we please. If we did this, then we would be sure to get what we believe to be the very best work by the very best poets, not just some random work by people with reputations. (4) Get the word out that we're not just looking for "Fence" poems, or for any other sort of poem (and not just poetry by any sort of poet), but that we want the good—only really good poems. Put ads in a wide variety of magazines asking for excellent work, or trade email lists with other poetry organizations and make sure everybody knows we're looking for the really good—that we want to be active makers of contemporary tastes. But we don't do these things—we just don't have the resources; .
You may be asking what all of this operational fantasizing has to do with the axis of "goodness," and my reply is that, as an editor, all I can do is come to the table with some decent taste (developed in childhood, in school, among friends, and derived from much reading) and hope that my dinner shows up. I can think about things consciously—try to be conscious of my poetics—and I can prepare myself from a physical standpoint (coffee and a comfortable chair) to read tirelessly and fairly, but what I can't do is write the poems myself. It's really a matter of faith: to believe there's something good out there ( good poetry, in my opinion, is not a relative concept—there are years when no one writes much of anything good; I am perfectly prepared to think that decades in American poetry may not have produced anything good) and to hope that Fence attracts it.
 . RW : Good eye. Grand Street was the journal I most closely wanted to emulate, object- and content-wise.
 RW: This is my favorite thing about Fence.
Essays by FENCE editors et al from THE BEST OF FENCE 2009
Articles, Exchanges, and Interviews 2000-2019