The year we started Fence I was working at Books & Co., next door to the Whitney Museum, and Rebecca came in one day, which was a great surprise. We'd been friends in Iowa City and then, when I moved to New York, I wasn't really sure where she was for a couple of years. Still in Iowa or something, on an organic vegetable farm? We got caught up, there at the store, and she said she wanted to start a magazine, and would I be interested in being a poetry editor. It sounded like a good idea-we were both at an interesting place with our poems, where basically most people wouldn't publish them. Even though I had won a big poetry prize and had a book out, this came to seem more and more like a fluke as I got my poems rejected from the fancy magazines. Rebecca too. I remember feeling that not only was there no home for poems like ours, which seemed to fall somewhere between regular poems and experimental poems, but that there was an even bigger problem: no magazines would publish work by the famous poets we loved whose work was similarly idiosyncratic. And certainly, no magazines published all different kinds of poems together. I remember talking about how stupid the situation seemed, when we could love all sorts of poets regardless of camp or school, but there wasn't a magazine out there that could love them like we did. That's what we wanted Fence to do.
The first full-blown staff meeting of Fence that I remember was on the evening of John Yau's wedding and, since I considered him to be the patron saint of Fence's mission, and an emblematic Fence author, it seemed auspicious. But I got extremely high at his reception and when I left to walk through the Village to Caroline Crumpacker's apartment, I remember being really nervous about what was going to happen—whom I was going to meet; what I really had to offer. I had also misheard Rebecca say that she'd gotten Jonathan Franzen to be our fiction editor, so I really had no idea what to expect. But we all gathered there in Caroline's apartment, with the Pavlova pictures everywhere, and I remember sitting on the floor and sharing "manifestoes" with everyone—Adam Hurwitz, our original designer and art director, Frances, Rebecca, Jonathan. Rebecca had asked us all to write one. Mine mentioned that I considered humor to be a requisite ingredient to serious art, and I mentioned Ron Padgett. Jonathan Lethem said he loved Padgett, and his enthusiasm for Padgett and that slice of poetry was the icebreaker for me at that first meeting; from that moment he, as a fellow editor, and the project as a whole, had my complete trust. My manifesto began:
A magazine that recognizes and confronts the anti-inte llectual stance involved in choosing sides.
I imagine seeing somewhere in its pages this quote from Robert Anton Wilson: "Convictions Make Convicts"
I feel certitude should have little place in this magazine- rather, the work should represent those writers who are of two minds. Or of four.
Looking back at my proposed list of people to solicit for the first issue, I'm happy to see how many of them have been in Fence over the years:
John Yau, Tomaz Salamun, Chase Twichell, Lance Phillips, Regan Good, Geof frey Nutter, Heather McHugh, Karen Volkman, Mark Levine, Martin Corless-Smith, Cathy Wagner, Chelsey Minnis.
That we all agreed on this disparate list of writers right off made me think that not only was there a need for this magazine, but that it might actually work.
Then the next part seems shrouded in mystery. This is where Rebecca stepped up in a way that I don't think any of us quite understood until we were sitting around a big table at Pete's Tavern after the first reading, just holding the thing in our hands: holy shit! How the hell had she done it? There was a bar code, and we had a pro bono lawyer, and we were incorporated, and it was beautiful (that was Adam), and it was full of incredible poems and stories! She screwed up her credit charging everything to get it done. It really was almost magical. She had sent us all off to solicit the poems or stories or essays, and we sent that stuff in to her, and basically waited around, and suddenly there it was. Fence.
Inseparable from the magazine itself, though, were the readings-one thing I think Fence did well was to establish a sense of an event surrounding itself. Of course, there was money to be made doing them, and we did them as benefits until eventually we started to feel like the boy who cried wolf. For the first benefit reading, before our first issue was published even, we got Lillet to donate lots of syrupy liquor, and the Public Theater let us use a space for free, courtesy of Caroline, and the line-up was incredible: Tomaz Salamun, Sigrid Nunez, Gerry Stern, and John Yau. We charged $15, a lot back then, but it sold out. Or nearly. I remember we made a lot of money4 and it was terrifying to have to hold onto it all that night. The reading attracted all the interesting people in town and the energy was astounding. Reading after reading you could be sure you'd meet someone you'd always wanted to meet, or someone you'd soon enough be glad you knew.
The best thing about Fence was getting to meet so many amazing people. I like to think that happened because of the structure of Fence itself: that we put poems together that couldn't appear together anywhere else then, or that were simply not appearing at all in the late 1990s, and this drew the people to each other. Fence really did operate as a powerful social unit, and that helped draw people into its orbit, and that helped define it, and truthfully it couldn't have been done if we hadn't all felt so close to it, and to each other. Being a part of Fence also broght all of us together with great people around the country. It was something like a community without borders, something that William Carlos Williams talks about in his autobiography, when he says "[The little magazine] is one magazine, not several. It is a continuous magazine ... When it dies, someone else takes it up in some other part of the country)' "Ten years later I'm most interested in this continuous community that Fence became a part of. What I remember most is the people that made me happy to put Fence together and collate it by zip code and send it out to the world.
Rebecca lived in Brooklyn when Fence was first starting, on Duffield Street, downtown, and we had a few meetings there, but what I remember most about the Duffield Street Fence headquarters was a party we had there, when the energy was very great. I remember my wife trying to change the music on the stereo and Jonathan getting extremely protective; he had come up with a dance music program for the evening and he was sticking with it. As far as I can remember , it worked out well. There were many more early parties-usually someone was able to get a liquor company to donate something. Once I got Seagram's to promise us some wine. My friend Megan's father was a vice president or something there. When I showed up, it turned out he was just going to give it to me to take home; I thought it was going to be on the up-and-up— I'd even brought our 501(c)(3) number. He handed me bottle after bottle, which I put in my backpack until that was full, and finally stuffed in my coat and pants pockets and walked out of there and back to work. At one party at someone 's apartment at the far west end of Canal we sold Brooklyn Brewery beer, which we'd gotten donated. We sold a lot. And we drank a lot. There was talk of fighting amongst certain people in the crowd.6 I threw up on Canal on the way home. But it was a beautiful party for the very reasons I keep going on about: the people that Fence drew into its circle were varied and exciting. I distinctly remember sweeping up afterwards with Justin Haythe and just beaming at how successful the party had been- not only for the funds we'd raised (I'm sure we weren't even aware right then how much that was) but for the crowd. The crowd. There had been a huge crowd° there who'd come to play with Fence.
I met Joshua Beckman for the first time at a Fence reading. It was a launch reading at Labyrinth Books in Manhattan and afterwards there was a party at someone's apartment. Joshua was there, though we didn't really talk too much that night. I spent most of that party talking with Jonathan and Geoffrey O'Brien, whom I'd just met that night, about the best World War 2 movies. My nominations were obvious and lame. Geoffrey gently let me know that I should be quiet and go home and watch They Were Expendable.
At another benefit, in a church in Chelsea, Anne Carson was scheduled to read but something happened who knows what; all I know is that we didn't hold it against her, as we did later against another poet who agreed to read for us but never even intended to show. Ann Lauterbach was generous enough to sub for Anne Carson-what a thankless task. She was great, and lyrical, and completely Fence in the wielding of her philosophical and autobiographical hand. And she opened her reading by saying "Once again I'm the wrong Ann."
Anne Carson did participate in several readings for us in our first years, one at a small theater on Lafayette- it was a staged reading of Decreation. Wally Shawn participated too, and Susan Minot, and Larry Pine. I couldn't even concentrate on the reading—I was amazed to see them standing there in the same room, all wearing bright red lipstick, because we'd asked them!
Not long after the first issue was out, people began to take notice. It really was beautiful looking and because we'd solicited everything, it was packed with incredible poems and stories. Soon little articles about little magazines began appearing in Time Out New York and the Voice and places like that, and one day Rebecca and I met a guy at a little coffee shop in Soho to be interviewed for some article.7 We were still surprised that people were interested.
Fence inhabited some odd locales early on. First, Duffield Street in down town Brooklyn, which was only its very temporary home. Then for years Fence, along with Rebecca and Ira, lived in their little apartment on Fifth Avenue.  But because l worked downtown at Penguin and Rebecca was, I think, a receptionist for a downtown architecture firm, we often met in these unlikely Soho places. Once we met at the Gourmet Garage to divide up a huge sack of poetry submissions. I then purchased a roll, which was about all I could afford . Sitting there on a scaffolding beam eating the roll I remember us both kind of laughing about it—that we'd had one issue come out, and- now we were at the crucial moment when we had to put out the second issue and prove to everyone that we hadn't blown our wad with one issue.
We used to have board meetings at the bar in the Gramercy Park Hotel bar, when it was still dingy and extremely dark and had free chicken wings. The Fence board always seemed unlikely to me: John Yau, as if he actually had the time or inclination to really participate; Robert Polito, again, as if he wasn't doing too many other things already; and then later Rick Moody, who was always very enthusiastic; and later Jonathan Galassi.
Before a reading at the Friends' Seminary Meeting House on Ruthe rford Place, where Russell Banks read an incredibly powerful bit of Cloudsplitting, my wife Susie and I met Chase Twichell and him at the Gramercy Park Hotel. When Susie ordered a Seven & Seven, Russell looked up and said "what are you, in the Rat Pack? My father used to drink those." I'd read all his books and knew that that couldn't have been a good association for him. There was a furious snowstorm that night, and the reading, in the spare, white space, was thunderous and biblical.
Early on, before we even dreamed of interns, we had to get together and stuff all the hundreds of Fences into jiffy bags, and stamp them with the various stamps, and put the address labels on them, and then sort them out by zip code. We had to take huge boxes of them to the post office, to drop off in the sketchy back rooms there. Once Jonathan Lethem had us over to his apartment in Cobble Hill to do the stuffing—which was pretty generous of him. There was no reason for him to be sitting crosslegged on the floor with us except that he was truly devoted to it. I think what kept him so long was that he got to make the fiction in Fence be the fiction he dreamed of seeing in other magazines.
But then we did get interns, several of whom morphed into "managing editors," and they made our lives, and Fence, a lot better. During my time at Fence, the one who did the most, and who got the least credit for it, was Brett Lauer. I worked with him during the week, and I know he went in to the office almost every Saturday. Of course, there was something in it for him too (uh…I'm trying to think what that was…) but eventually he was doing all the piddly crap we wouldn't touch with a ten foot fence-post." Thank you, Brett: I don't know if we ever really thanked you for standing down there at the mailing table in the cold office all those Saturdays.
Right before my son Seamus was born, just after doing the big tour for NICE HAT. THANKS., I worked for Fence, for money even, in the basement office for a few months. Rebecca was on "maternity leave." It was the best job I ever had. Those 2 or 3 months were as happy as I'd ever been in the workforce. I felt such agency unlocking the door every morning, booting up the computer, checking the messages, going through the mail, trying to figure out how to pay bills, having to go buy a space heater, forcing myself not to steal books from the Segue Foundation, from whom we sublet our office...
And now the memories become dim, which is sad and also unlike me. Fence was a huge part of my life for 7 years; I spent hours working on it, meeting with my friends about the poems, setting up readings, attending readings, yet somehow the memories are fading. Even this piece of writing is devolved into fractured sections. Frances Richard says this is appropriate, because it is more or less what happened to Fence and to us: it began with a coherent concept and an incredibly close sense of shared will and excitement, but as the years went on its original foundation began to fragment, and the last year or so of the original line-up of Fence did lack the coherence and the camaraderie of the first days. It hurts me that I can't recall every single thing that happened to me with Fence. As with many old memories, the context and narrative is stripped away, and I'm left with the emotion. But it's a good, an incredibly collegial and exciting emotion.
And then I returned to my crappy hometown in Oklahoma a couple years later to be the guest of honor at the high school, and I tried to present the local public library with a complimentary and lifetime subscription to Fence. They wouldn't accept it; the periodical librarian wasn't convinced it was worthy to be on the shelves next to Glamour and US Weekly. Which is exactly why I left that shitty place.
She clearly wasn't a part of Williams' continuous small magazine community. Nor of ours. So the small magazine still has work to do, people to reach. An uphill task-perhaps a Sisyphean one. But somehow Rebecca, Caroline, Jonathan, Frances and I were all drawn into that community, and we found others- Max, Chris, Katy, Lynne, Ben, and so many others around the country who were not content with what they found on their library shelves next to Entertainment Weekly. So, go, my little magazine, and corrupt the complacent minds of America's youth. That is our only. hope.
 RW : No, I was, variously, on Cape Cod, working at a health food store; in Houston, TX, hating life; in Brooklyn , temping my heart out.
 RW: This seems like as good a time as any to state clearly and calmly that Matt and I knew each other from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Of the younger poets on this list, six out of seven of them are also graduates of the Iowa Writers Workshop. We each spent two out of our now forty or forty-five years in Iowa, and I think i t's fair to say that they were not necessarily even the most formative two years out of our lives, in terms of how we write/read or what we wr ite/rea d. That's just where we went to graduate school and where we met some of the poets whose work we felt excited by and wanted to include in our new journal. Over the years there were times when it got back to us that Fence was being perceived/pegged as an "Iowa" journal; like many other perceptions this is one that is only as sound as the minute in which it is formed.
 RW: I appreciate Matt thinking I did this, but actually I really didn't. We made all the money for the first issue at our first benefit! I did some charging for the second issue but was able to pay myself back. See more below about the benefit.
 RW: $4000
 RW: Ten years later it is mind-boggling to consider the volume of event-planning that took place in our first three or four years. Readings, benefits, parties: We averaged two a month in the first two years; gradually this number decreased and decreased until, by 2002, when my first child was born, we were down to three or four a year, where we have long stuck. Party-planning, like soliciting financial support from those with great wealth, is something that I never really anticipated specializing in but for which I had tremendous, adrenalin e-charged energy in the early days, energy which has grown more .and more dilute an d gradually been reconstituted as energy for putting out more and more books.
 RW: See Caroline Crumpacker 's essay for more about Fence's parties.
 RW: I'm sure we did. I have no memory of it, but I'm sure we did.
 RW: see Sandy Brown's bio note for note on mis apprehensions of Fence brought on by posh Lower Fifth Avenue address.
 RW: Rick Moody and i met in the spring of 1997 in Houston, Texas, when he was visiting the writing program at which l briefly studied; he was to be Fence's fiction editor but just as things were really getting under way so was his giant lit era ry career and he swiftly grew over-committed; he moved to the board and served a valiant three- or four-year term. See his lovely Foreword to Volume 2 of A Best of Fence.
 RW: Brett was Managing Editor! On the masthead and everything.
 RW : Honestly, I always loved doing all that piddly crap. I just eventually had to acknow l edge that if I did all that stuff all the time I'd never have time to edit the magazine.
Essays by FENCE editors et al from THE BEST OF FENCE 2009
Articles, Exchanges, and Interviews 2000-2019