FENCE, OR, THE HAPPY RETURN OF THE MODERNIST ALLIGATOR
As far as I know, none of the people who shaped Fence expected or hoped to start a self-conscious movement. More like the reverse: the early 1990s—especially in poetry, but in fiction too—seemed thick with schools and movements, manifestos and charismatic teachers, who mapped out the routes they encouraged young writers to follow. Some of those routes looked far too much like plans of attack: New writing, during those years, defined itself too often, and too earnestly, by divisions and by taken sides. Who did you represent? who did you attack? whose work, and what program, had your work "come out of"? whose work would you come out against? Were you a Post-Language Poet? a New Formalist? an Identity Writer? a Confessional? An Apostle of Craft, or a Poet of Witness? A Minimalist, or a Maximalist? A Big-Ender or a Little-Ender?
The first editors of Fence knew those sides up close: All of them lived in New York, and most had come from graduate programs in writing (Iowa, Columbia, NYU). Those editors (principally Rebecca Wolff, Caroline Crumpacker, Matthew Rohrer, Frances Richard, Jonathan Lethem, and, slightly later, Max Winter) recognized (as the magazine's title implied) that there might be fertile ground on both sides of a fence, fun to be found, and aesthetic profit to be had, in conducting a quasi-covert trade (" fence" as in "fenced goods"), despite the embargos that kept older writers apart. Fence wanted to see new writing that felt new, and Fence knew that such writing would more likely arise the less we felt restrained by inherited rules; would more likely arise the more we felt able, not to shrug off, but to combine, to play off against one another (as a fence might "play" rival buyers, or rival sellers) supposedly incompatible aesthetic goals. Like any set of intelligent readers, the editors favored some kinds of work, some effects, some tones over others, and you could see which ones (that is, you could say something about the editors' tastes) by seeing, even after the first issue, what work—especially what work by not-very-famous writers—they chose.
In not becoming a movement ,Fence became, as very few literary journals become, a moment. The late-comers' interests in hearing all "sides," the supposedly immature refusal to choose among competing rules of thumb, the "fence-sitting/ Raised to the level of an aesthetic ideal" (John Ashbery), the eclecticism as a goal, the defiance of anything that looked like a set of rules, turned out to be, not quite a' new set of rules, but a description of where the arts that used words seemed, to the builders of Fence, to be headed-and, ten years on, of where those arts have been.
Fence was expansive, inclusive, eclectic by temperament and by conscious declaration, happy (like Ashbery) to let everything in; careless of hierarchy; unafraid of frivolity; attracted (like Ashbery) to surface difficulty, to unresolved dissonance, fragments, and loose threads. Fence preferred questions to answers—Fence liked questions so much that it even liked questionnaires: witness the reprinting of Wallace Stevens' "Response to Twentieth Century Verse Questionnaire," the contributors' notes that answered the question "What are you reading?," and the symposia (live and then on paper) on such questions as "What Makes American Poetry American?," later satirized in a poem itself published in Fence. The magazine later played host to manifestos (note, especially, the Black Took Collective), but the manifestos- manifesti? manifests?-themselves defended ambiguity, open-endedness, puzzlingness, ambitious attempts to become and remain multiple, on the part of the artist and on the part of the art.
That attraction to open-endedness, to pieces of puzzles (but not to the puzzles as wholes), extended to the wide, even comically overstretched, range of reference within the stories and poems. Fence works referred to many, many things, sometimes without explaining any of them: a nineteenth-century painter who died in a Vermont insane asylum, "maxillofacial kisses" that somehow presaged "total emasculation," old-time radio ("Don't touch that dial"), a never-built "ocean front temple substantially resembling the Pan Am terminal at Kennedy," the decadent Roman emperor Heliogabalus, Gertrude Stein's non-character "Susie Asado," Robert Coles' work on the moral lives of children, Ashbery himself, the Beach Boys, the Pretenders, and some purely figurative personages who might feel at home in the verse of Wallace Stevens, e.g. "in the case of Miss. Fleur vs. The State." All those references come from the last half of the same issue (Volume 2, Number 1); Miss Fleur joins us courtesy of a poem entitled "How All Things Vestigial Gained Prestige"—long titles, at once winsome and ungainly, became another Fence hallmark (see, here, especially, Lutz and Kocot). You weren't supposed to know, or even to look up, all the bits of culture (high or low or middle), all the references, in the poems; rather, you were supposed to notice their range, to say to yourself (I paraphrase): "This world is more various and weirder than I had expected, and, at least in principle, a work of art can be made from any subset of its parts."
The risk in such an approach involved callow irony, a superior skimming over the surface of all things, and an attitude that therefore treated all things alike. The reward—which, often enough, proved worth the risk—was a space that seemed to welcome experiments in tone, in scope, in "voice," without committing itself to one clear goal. (Fence became more "experimental" in this sense than the magazines of the self-declared avant-garde: It's not an experiment if you already know the results.) Fine as a venue for new poems and stories (especially for those stories that would not fit well in commercial venues—too open-ended, too caustic, too weird), Fence may have had its greatest success in encouraging the creation, the completion, the discussion, and the dissemination of works of art that were neither prose narrative nor yet lyric poems:"new essays" and quasi-journals in verse and prose (see, here, Rankine, Truitt, Wenderoth), mu lti-page explorations of personal-but-not-merely-personal experience, organized so as to parody kinds of nonfiction, or else shot through with verifiable fact.
Fashion-forward, eclectic, friendly to irony, unapologetic about the chaos in some (but only some) of its parts, a place for the young, but a place for the famous too: that clutch of descriptors fit the magazine, but it also fit the city from which the magazine came. Though it's pullished from a campus in Albany now, the look and feel of the journal still reflects—as the first Fences certainly reflected—the lives of fairly young, fairly optimistic writers in New York City during (till late '01) fairly optimistic years: Its melange of qualities, its difficulties and its eclectic frivolities, its busy surfaces and its obvious ambitions, its eagerness and its hypersexuality, characterized the city at that time too. No wonder the dead writers who looked to the living writers of Fence like appropriate models were, with one exception, cityphiles themselves: Ashbery, John Berryman, the Gertrude Stein who spoke to the art-world of Paris, the Russian post-revolutionary avant-garde; the Frank O'Hara whose post humous collection of verse received the appropriately paradoxical title Standing Still and Walking in New York.
The exception was Emily Dickinson, whose influence on the present generation of writers—the ones who placed poems from their first books in Fence, the ones who "grew up" reading it (if we can say that any young writer now does grow up)—exceeds her influence on any generation of writers before. You will find in Fence -ish poems, and even in some Fence-esque fiction, some characteristics straight from Dickinson: the whimsy, the oddball stanzaic construction, the tolerance of ambiguities and privacies, the sense that a clear public declarative voice is for others, but never for me. At their best these writers channel both Dickinson's frivolity and her seriousness: literature is a kind of private game in which each move may change all the rules, but it is also a way in which we react to the parts of life, the truths of life, that we would otherwise find ourselves unable to face, unable to say.
There are dangers in trying to separate yourself from the supposed battles that slightly older, or less attentive, writers want to fight. One risk: You might seem to cast aside not just those older writers' combative rhetoric, but also their accomplishments, leaving the next generation with little to build on. That danger Fence did well to avoid: It solicited work from those older writers, and ran some of the best things that those writers did, at times alongside their own explanations as to how they did them (see here, especially, Revell, C. D. Wright, Hejinian, Lydia Davis). Litmags that are all youth, all the time, find it very hard to get attention; new litmags that are all Names have no reason for being, since the Names have other places to publish good work. The trick is to combine the first with the second: Fence, more than any other new mag in its decade, did the trick.
It's important not to make, about this or any magazine, claims that no magazine's print run could support. Considered under the aspect of eternity, set beside "Lycidas" or Mrs. Dalloway, most of the work in any issue of Fence—most of the work in A Best of Fence, even—might not look so good: but that has been true of almost every issue of every literary jo urnal that has ever been. The good magazines are the ones that can find some good work; the best are the ones where even the less impressive works can either entertain an alert reader, or else say something notable about the state of the language, the state of the age. When we look back (sometimes not very far back), we find that such magazines defined a moment. The moment of Fence, it may be, is not over yet.
The turn of the century blessed or cursed Fence with the sincerest form of flattery: Like woodears on treetrunks, literary journals turned up· in sudden clusters in Brooklyn and Manhattan, in Buffalo and Oakland and Internetland, with one-syllable titles, sans-serif fonts, post-surrealism in their tables of contents, declared policies of youth and eclecticism, and obvious admiration for some of Fence's most prominent contributors (Wright, and Davis, and Dean Young, and Anne Carson). Popularity, as always, attracts ressentiment: Poets and critics committed to avant-garde programs said Fence had sold out the avant-garde on which it drew, whose tricks—like an unscrupulous TV magician—Fence had exposed for gain. Old-school defenders of High Culture As Such disdained the journal, as their forebears once disdained William Carlos Williams; at best, those defenders instead noticed (with some justice) that the range of reference for most Fence writers extended back confidently to Williams' generation, to Spring and All and Tender Buttons and a pack of firecats let loose in the 1910s, but came to a halt right there.
Williams, twenty years afterwards, wrote that The Waste Land—the poem that turned Modernism into an Authority, that made collage techniques, speedy juxtapositions and unstable speakers connote not so much Brave Experiment as All-Knowing Gloom—had "wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it and our brave sallies into the unknown were turned to dust." The springy, deciduous, gaudy, unscholarly, optimistic immediacies of the New York modernism that Williams and his allies hoped to create was, Williams had reason to fear, gone for good.
It wasn't gone; it was just sleeping, fitfully, somewhere under the Hudson River, where the metal walls of its tunnel eventually echoed with old sitcoms, indie -rock practices, twelve-tone recitals, and the stray jokes of insult comics, where the ducts got clogged with disposable cameras, soggy road maps and high school alumni newsletters (see Lipsyte), with the detritus of the recent past, which we had mocked but could still make into art. An optimist about literary magazines in general, a reader who enjoyed the 1990s, a sometime subscribe—and I have been all those things—might say that with Fence that modernism awoke.
Essays by FENCE editors et al from THE BEST OF FENCE 2009
Articles, Exchanges, and Interviews 2000-2019