BEING AN ORAL HISTORY OF MY WORK WITH AND FOR FENCE, 1998 TO THE PRESENT
French? French Magazine?
No, the name of the magazine is Fence, like fencepost.
Well, we've gotten in trouble for that very quality, but I suppose we're getting a little ahead of things, aren't we?
Yes, possibly. Why don't we go back to the beginning, and you can tell me how you became involved?
A friend of mine from college, Jennifer Tsai, worked as their lawyer when they were getting 501(c)(3) status, as a part of something called Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. When I left Iowa, she asked me if I knew Rebecca Wolff, said I would probably meet her at some point. Said she was very funny, and easy to work with because she liked to do everything herself. In any case, Jenn gave me a copy of the magazine, and when I was coming home on the subway from having dinner with her, I read it. The first thought I remember having when I read it was that these were all authors I liked or authors I was more iffy about who seemed, in this context, more interesting than they normally would seem.
Right, well, my main point is that my response was more visceral than intellectual, almost instinctive. So, I wrote to them. Most people would join an organization like this by arranging to be at a cocktail party where they were present, or working through a friend of a friend, but I've always just asked for thing s directly. Rebecca responded a few days later, and I met her and Caroline Crumpacker at Cafe Danal, a small place in the East Village that may not be open anymore. I think we were thrown out, for no apparent reason. Anyway, I talked to them for quite a while. We hit it off, and so that was that. I became an Associate Editor, taking a spot left by Caroline, who was in the process of becoming a Poetry Editor. I attended a reading they did at the Public Theater a short time after that, and I was amazed at the size of the crowd they had drawn.
Did it bother you all?
Why would it have bothered me?
Did you have some sense you were just going with a crowd?
No—my sense was the magazine was very new, and that it filled a niche—and that the attention it was getting was because of that.
And as far as your direct involvement is concerned . . . what did the work of an Associate Editor involve?
Well, at first, I went over to Rebecca's home in Manhattan, a place realtors would describe as "surprisingly spacious." Or something like that. I would go there every Saturday around noon and do things. Much of it was fairly menial, like mailing copies to contributors, data entry, that sort of scuff.
Was it boring?
How do you mean?
Just how I said.
Well, sure. But I did feel, when I was doing it, as if I was contributing to something worthwhile, and exciting, so it didn't bother me as much as it could have. Also, my mind was invested in about five or six different areas at that point, and so I didn't think about massaging one area of my life too much…
Did you do anything else?
I did, in fact. I helped to organize events, at times, or small get-togethers. We did a lot of mailings at that point. Subscriptions, advertisements for readings, invitations…We all worked well together—we would all gather at Rebecca's house, or in the basement office we held until recently, and get it done.
Were there ever arguments?
Oh sure. You never know what the mind is going to do at times like that. I found myself becoming intensely worked up about things like folding invitations, say, or what order we were inserting flyers in envelopes, so much so that the other staffers must have wondered what was wrong with me.
What was the function of all of this? The point is the work in the magazine, and making sure it good enough, and making sure the quality of the magazine itself is as high as possible—doesn't having large numbers of events and such detract from it?
Without all of that work and all of that grunting, as it were, information about the magazine would never have been disseminated. It takes a tremendous amount of work, but the result is that the publication accumulates momentum and becomes all the more deserving of further attention. We've fallen away from that sort of activity recently—which I'm not broken-hearted about, because it wasn't the most stimulating way to spend several hours, but I wonder if it hasn't affected the magazine's stature. When it needs doing, there's a perpetually changing installment of interns who do it, but it doesn't happen that often.
Did you ever find yourself wearying of the position?
Well, sure. One summer when I was covering for Rebecca while she was in Cape Cod, and I was living in a remote research station in one of the more remote reaches of the Upper East Side, I remember wonder ing,"Why am I not on the beach? What's wrong with me?" Eventually I decided that I had to change my role in the publication if I was going to stay involved with it.I cared enough about the magazine that I didn't feel comfortable just being its secretary, or its clerk-plus, my enthusiasm for that sort of work was starting to flag, and visibly. I was drifting. So I switched over, and I became a Poetry Editor in or around 2001—people have fairly fluid roles within the hierarchy, always have, so pinning down exact times and dates for title transitions is tough.
Were the other editors open to that?
Sure, I think they were. I think Rebecca might have been a little worried about tangling with the chemistry she had devised-she, Matt Rohrer, and Caroline had worked together since the magazine's inception and they understood each other and what they were looking for.
How did you feel you got along with them?
Oh, fine. I come from a fairly, how do you say, altruistic family. Our principle is to assume that, if we believe something, anyone who does not share our belief must be wrong, by dint of being in disagreement with us. So it was hard for me. The magazine's always been democratic, as are most magazines, and so it took some adapting to see things I didn't like voted into the magazine! Or, put another way, it was hard not to get my way. But one thing the experience taught me is that in a group of people, you must, to a certain extent, allow the groups feeling to carry the day. Otherwise you're not contributing meaningfully to it. So, it's a bit like working on an intellectual kibbutz. But as fellow kibbutzers, you couldn't have better.
So working this way has changed you?
Well, no. I'm still convinced that I'm correct about most things. I'm just a little more cooperative.
Were you happy you made the switch?
Using your mind, if you have one, is always more pleasant than not using it, despite what society might have you believe. So, yes.
And has editing the magazine become easier? Do the large numbers of submissions you get still seem daunting?
At first, it was tough. I tended to read each submission numerous times, and I tended to vacillate a lot before I put together a pool of works to show the other editors. If it's easier now, it's easier because I have a very clear sense of what belongs in the magazine and what doesn't. Or rather, what will make a good magazine and what won't. It doesn't always have anything to do with my preference, oddly enough. You have to keep in mind the service of a larger purpose…
Well, what belongs, if you don't feel you're giving away a trade secret?
A few years ago, I would have said writers with a certain left-of-center aesthetic, writers who had a hard-to-place aesthetic, writers who were gently unsettling. But at this point, that's the last thing I look for. The writers who fit are, in a sense, those who shouldn't fit.
Excitement? The thrill of the seemingly ill-advised choice ? The identity of the magazine has changed. That has to happen, in order for a publication to retain any currency, or meaning, really.
Some have said that there's nothing new in the magazine, that you're rolling out names people have seen before, just with interesting packaging.
We're printing the work we like and that we want others to read. What's important for Fence is the composite nature of it. You can't put it much mor e complexly or simply than that.
Well, just to push the issue of criticism a bit further, Fence has certainly gotten its share. A lot of people have criticized it for the way it disseminates information, or rather for the way it envisions itself.
How do you mean? Do you mean the Steve Evans thing, or…?
l guess we could start there- he responded very strongly in an essay to a piece Rebecca had contributed to Jacket. It seemed that the idea was that Fence was cashing in on a certain trend in poetry, a certain softening of aestheti c boundaries, and co-opting it for semi-materialistic purposes.
Right. I remember that. He thought he was responding to that, but in reality, there was something else going on. To paraphrase Alec Baldwin speaking about Ralph Nader, Evans was and is a spoiler. He spotted something that was relatively successful, figured out a way to make it seem wrong, and developed that into an essay, with footnotes and a carefully prescribed audience. Many people in the audience were people who had submitted, probably, or would have before they read his essay. The criticism meant very little to me—it seemed to function in a small and uninteresting world. I encouraged Rebecca and others not to squabble, to ignore it—but they didn't. She and Caroline and Frances Richard formulated highly intelligent responses to it. I was angered intensely by it, but I'm very reluctant, at this point, to engage with people who don't mean well. There have been exceptional cases, with Fence, even, and I'm uneasy with the way they turned out.
Care to go on?
Well, there was the Joan Houlihan experience. She wrote a column, the seventh in a series, in which she laid out her aesthetic objections to what Fence, and Slope, and a few other magazines were doing. The problem was not with her aesthetic—it's a free country after all, and as I mentioned earlier, cooperativeness is key. What bothered me was her approach, and somehow the assumption behind it. Her complaint about Fence and other magazines of its ilk was that, by and large, the poems didn't hold together, that they were clusters of verbiage around uncertain centers. If she had stopped there, with a complaint that sometimes the poems we chose weren't up to code in some way, that would have been fine. What outraged me was that she didn't stop there—she built towards the primary conclusion that the writers who published in Fence had no interest in communicating with "the reader." It's a common complaint about poetry—that it's about itself, that it's unreadable, etc. But the righteous tone to the essay set me off, and so I responded fairly angrily and lengthily. I even suggested that one statement, that the poems we printed were like poems written by stroke victims in nursing homes, was libel ous and legally actionable. Why so fierce? At this point, several years later, I can't say I also mixed it up, somewhat, with the members of Foetry, a website that presumed to expose the ills of poetry contests and the hypocrisy of the literary world in general, taking Fence as one of its targets. They responded to a (positive) blog post by Ron Silliman about one of Fence' s titles with general snarkiness about the author's pedigree (she went to Iowa, Rebecca went to Iowa, etc.) Again, I saw red. Categorical thinking tends to bother me, and so I should have attacked that, but at the time, I simply attacked their spelling, for some reason.
Had you heard of Foetry before?
Sure, and I didn't necessarily think launching a public complaint about the ills of the book contest system was a bad idea. That system is flawed, from the inside out. It was the way they criticized it that bothered me—it seemed primitive, tiresome, juvenile, warped, not at all something that might actually be taken seriously.
So why did you engage?
I don't suffer fools gladly, I guess.
Well, sure, but in what you're saying, I guess I'm not clear on your position.
Well, I understand you work for a magazine called Fence, and so being neutral might come naturally, but given that you've assigned some legiti acy to the criticisms launched at the magazine, how do you respond?
Well . . . it's an old response, one that's been given before. The goal is to print th e best possible work. We can't pay attention to whether or not we know someone, because then the issue becomes whether or not we know someone rather than the work itself. The decisions are made based on quality, and -
I guess you're not understanding what I'm asking.
I guess I'm not .
Is it any good? Is the magazine any good? Are the critics right?
These questions are absurd. Try a fourth time.
What makes it worth it for you to remain involved?
The sense that it provides a space for interesting work to be published. Not m any magazines do.
That's an abstraction. This still has nothing to do with you.
l 'm a person who has catholic tastes. I might read Jacques Roubaud one d ay, Dorothy Sayers the next, Kobo Abe the next. I want to rea d work that reflects and supports intellectual adversarialness and a certain amount of wit, also, in every sense of the word. So, if I can bring that work into the world, I feel good about it. And if the work has the power to intellectually unseat former mind-couch potatoes, all the better.
How do you feel about the way the magazine is going now?
Well, in the last four or five years, we've had a lot of changes. All of the original editors except myself and Rebecca drifted away—Caroline has recently rejoined us. For a while the magazine felt a bit lawless. Weird email spats developed, which was almost unheard of in the history of the publication. Given that 40% of all spats that occur are about something other than their ostensible subject, I guess you might say we needed to be led, and we weren't. The magazine was being edited somewhat collectively, which almost always means . . . je ne sais pas. However , I' m happy about the adoption by SUNY Buffalo, and about the online submission system, and about everything else.
Do you think you'll keep working with the magazine?
Well, I'm someone who does things. l work, yes, but I do other things, too, and that's very important to me, if confusing at times. I write reviews, I get involved , I try to put stuff out into the world. And Fence is certainly a part of that, a large part of it. Because th e magazine is by definition cyclical, it doesn't always occupy a tremendous amount of space in my life, but when it does, it really does. And I'm perfectly content to keep it there, right where it is. If it's not broken, I'd prefer not to fix it.
 . Rw: Oddly enough, I became fully conscious of the name for the magazine before I became fully conscious of Ashbery's poem "Soonest Mended."
 RW : Now we hardly ever mail anything out anymore, in the way of announcing things. Because of, you know, the internet. But when we do, interns do it. (see note about stuffing/mailing. I do agree that this old requirement, pre-email and Internet actually created a more palpable, visceral bond between us as editors; we rolled up one giant collective sleeve, forcing us to admit that we had one giant col lective arm , ere. ...
 RW: After about the first year I began a practice that was to expand and expand almost to the point of attenuation: trying to get away from Fence. My initial fervor for the care and feeding of Fence lasted a good long while, but in about year four I started to feel a certain amount of discomfort at what I had wrought, in terms of the demands it continually made upon me and upon my leisure time—let 's not even mention my time for writing—which had absolutely attenuated. This practice of abandonment reached its apotheosis in 2002, when I had my first child, and which marked a three-year period (during which my second child was born) of almost complete removal; this is when the inimitable and sadly silent Charles Valle stepped up in a most major way. Charles had contacted me in the spring of 2001 about a summer internship; he was a graduate student in poetry at Notre Dame and was coming to the city. It just so happened that I had been wondering how I was going to manage to do my usual summer evacuation, so I invited Charles and his lovely partner Kathleen to move into my deceptively posh apartment and basically manage Fence for the summer. He came and managed beautifully and then, after his final year of graduate school, returned to the city to take on what turned out to be a rather grueling four-year programme of double full-time jobs: a nine -to-five in the commercial publishing industry alongside a six-to-whenever at Fence. I cannot say enough about what Charles did for Fence—he kept it alive—but to my dismay Charles is STILL recovering from the stresses of this time and chose to keep quiet for the purposes of this anthology. Long live Charles, who is now a poetry editor for the magazine and hopefully has more time for his own pursuits.
 RW: Houlihan really needs to re-read that letter Hart Crane wrote to Harriet Monroe in response to her lame interrogation of his mixed metaphors.
 RW : see note in Matt Rohrer 's essay about Iowa.
 RW : Unsure if this is Freudian slip or sly jab, but either way it's hilarious.
Essays by FENCE editors et al from THE BEST OF FENCE 2009
Articles, Exchanges, and Interviews 2000-2019