Ander Monson, Editor of DIAGRAM
Jendi Reiter conducted this exclusive email interview with Ander Monson, editor of DIAGRAM. Published by New Michigan Press since 2000, this distinctive online journal features innovative and genre-bending poetry and prose, alongside "found art" consisting of diagrams from obscure reference works. Contributors have included Jason Bredle, Diane Glancy, Catie Rosemurgy, Margot Schilpp, Patty Seyburn, and Peter Jay Shippy. Recent illustrations include "Path of Dough Piece in Umbrella-Type Rounder", "Instructions for Growing Out Legs", "Crimean Goth Eating Bread", and "Typical Feelings Man".
DIAGRAM offers three annual contests. The Diagram Innovative Fiction Contest (most recent deadline was March 8) offers $1,000 for a story up to 10,000 words. The New Michigan Press/Diagram Chapbook Contest (April 30) offers $1,000 for manuscripts of poetry, prose, or mixed-genre work. The Diagram Hybrid Essay Contest (most recent deadline was October 31) offers $1,000 for essays that are in some way outside the traditional boundaries of the genre, such as a fusion of prose with poetry or audiovisual elements. Finalists from contests are sometimes published. All entries are considered for publication.
Ander Monson is the author of the poetry collections Vacationland (Tupelo Press, 2005) and Our Aperture (New Michigan Press, 2007), the novel Other Electricities (Sarabande Books, 2005), and the essay collection Neck Deep and Other Predicaments (Graywolf Press, 2007), along with two books forthcoming in 2010: a nonfiction project, Vanishing Point (Graywolf Press), and a poetry collection, The Available World (Sarabande Books). Visit his website at http://otherelectricities.com/.
(Photo of Ander Monson above by Joshua Blake.)
Q: How did you get the idea for DIAGRAM? What other multimedia or innovative publishing outlets influenced you?
A: DIAGRAM arose from a long-term interest in collecting antiquated dictionaries along with lots of old books with their corresponding and often beautiful illustrations. I was then editing Black Warrior Review and a little frustrated with the decision-making apparatus there, which too often (I felt) chose work that we as a staff could agree on, which meant not publishing some work that took more risks. And as far as I could tell, there were not many places to send riskier, cross-genre work. So we started one up, and diagrams just offered themselves up as an identity. After all, what is art but a way of diagramming the world? I believe we're among the oldest online journals still extant, and the design of the journal as well as its oddity seems to have struck a chord with readers, which has been gratifying. 57 issues later, we're still going bigger than ever.
One of my favorite journals has always been Born Magazine, which started around when we did. Other influences were Chain, a now defunct (I believe) print journal, and a number of artist books and boutique presses.
Q: As technology advances, how have you seen writers take advantage of the online format to marry the written word to other media? What kinds of cross-genre projects would you like to see more of?
A: There's a lot of work still to be done in this direction. I don't think most writers tend to be very good at this by nature, but younger writers, those who grew up with more transparent and accessible technologies available to them, are working increasingly in between the lines of what traditional publishing has historically (or, well, at least in the last twenty years) allowed. I certainly hope to see work that marries more than just prose and poetry, which often consists of poetry fragments inserted in prose, not usually to an interesting effect. I love work that uses found or received forms and really does something with the form besides just aping or subverting the form. Form's great, but it's a starting point, something to compress and create interesting language. And obviously we're interested in work that's diagrammatic or visual in some way, not just deploying visuals as illustrations.
Scott McCloud, in his seminal book Understanding Comics, lays out some of the ways in which image can interact with text (not the only ways, but some of the most obvious). I'd strongly encourage writers messing around with visuals to read at least that section, and probably the whole book. Both images and text need to be active and making meaning in texts. Which is what we're hoping to see. And I think we will see it. Though any kind of experiment is welcome for this reader. And for this writer. As a writer I hope to keep pushing in this direction, too. It's either that or get bored and die.
Q: As I understand it, DIAGRAM has a distinctive sense of humor that relies on absurd juxtapositions and dislocations. Textbook illustrations appear suddenly comical or pathetic when ripped out of the original context that lent them authority. How do you discover these illustrations? What makes an image perfect for DIAGRAM, and how does that relate to the type of writing you seek for the magazine?
A: I go to a lot of garage sales, Salvation Armies, Goodwills, and more esoteric thrift stores like St. Vincent De Paul or Alabama Thrift Store (now America's Thrift Store). I always look at the books. I have a rather large collection. Too, we get photocopies and weird scans from people fairly often who run across something bizarre and found that seems like it rocks. And we trawl old academic and medical texts, scientific journals, and so on. We are always looking.
It's hard to explain what makes for a perfect fit for us, but it has something to do with how it works outside of context, as you suggest. We also love intricacy and people trying to diagram ridiculous or hilarious things, preferably with an entirely straight face. And we love beauty. And invention. And a good piece of writing needs all those things: to work in and out of context, to be strange (as all good art is) and beautiful. Or, rather, good art creates its own context and exceeds the boundaries that it starts out being contained by.
Q: Do you have any advice for writers who are attempting the challenge of writing a hybrid essay—sources of inspiration, literary role models, common pitfalls to avoid? What possibilities does this form open up, which are not as available for a standard prose narrative?
A: That's probably too big of a question to answer even remotely reasonably. I would say that the best thing to do is to read lots of odder work. Good reading spurs good writing. You get ideas that way. And there are a number of traditions involving hybridity: even in the days of illuminated manuscripts you saw hybrid texts. Or think about William Blake. It seems to me that it's especially in the last hundred years, maybe the century-plus of the typewriter, that text became divorced from image. Typing is, after all, something different from drawing. Whereas handwriting isn't so far away. Read. Read. Play.
Q: You are a successful author in your own right, with books from several of the top literary presses. How have your experiences as an editor and contest judge informed your own writing and publishing strategies, and vice versa?
A: I can say that in my experience as a writer, it's been both harder to get my work published when it's stranger (because you have to find the right editors or readers), and sometimes easier, too: stranger work usually cuts through slush piles, at least if any readers there are paying attention. Sometimes it gets you rejected more quickly when you stand out, but not always. Not that writing something strange or hybrid makes it necessarily good, of course. But I've had pretty good luck entering contests, for instance, partly because I think my work has at times seemed a little bit different than what other writers were doing. But any writer thinks that: otherwise why write?
I will say that I used to enter contests and tailor my work to the judge of the contest, which is, I think, a mistake. Judges don't necessarily like work that is similar to their own. In fact as a judge I'm often much harder on work that seems to me to be exploring the same territory that I am as a writer, in the way that I hold myself to a higher standard than I think editors or readers might hold me. So don't feel obliged to send funny poems to Billy Collins, for instance. Lots of funny people like depressing or emotionally heterogenous work.
Q: Are there certain techniques and topics you feel are over-represented in DIAGRAM's contest submissions, and conversely, are there others that you'd like to see more often?
A: You know, it differs every year. One year for some reason there were a lot of breasts that appeared in the chapbook contest. Another year there seemed to be a lot of "fucking". I don't think you can plan for this as a writer or a reader, but I do wish that writers would read the contest guidelines carefully. For instance, because the Innovative Fiction Contest is such a cheap entry fee ($5!), we don't stuff envelopes or return SASEs or manuscripts. And we keep getting SASEs which just get recycled. We read the submissions of course, but unless the writers are finalists or winners (or if I want to send them a note), they're not going to hear back in that way.
Same with entrants to ANY contest: please, please, please make sure you spend some time reading what the press or magazine publishes before sending. It'll take you longer to prep contest entries, but you're much more likely to get good reads that way. We used to get lots of black power sorts of submissions at Black Warrior Review for instance, sent by people who had obviously never read an issue or even looked at the website. Not to say that you can't write a great black power poem, but we wanted great poems, not anything necessarily thematic in that way. So as a writer, do your research.
Also, we'd really like to see more prose or hybrid/cross-genre work in our chapbook contest. We get mostly poems. Don't get us wrong: we love poems, but it's open to prose and cross-genre work too. And we get much less of that, probably because the chapbook has been traditionally allied with poetry. But we'd like more variety.
Q: What factors make the difference between a collection of good poems and a coherent, prizewinning poetry chapbook manuscript? Any advice for entrants with respect to selecting and arranging their work into the best possible book? Please share any helpful insights from how you compiled and revised your own published books, as well as what you've learned from running the DIAGRAM chapbook contest.
A: A lot of the manuscripts we like the best have some way of creating a cohesive and satisfying reading experience, whether that is thematic, narrative, unified by voice or by image, or by formal constraint or conceit, or by something else. It's not necessary, of course: plenty of good manuscripts don't do anything overt in that direction, but the great thing about a chapbook is that it is a smaller-scale book. It should really be its own project, something that works on its own, that the writer thinks of as an experience for readers, a thing in itself, not just a random collection of work. Sometimes those intended connections are only obvious to the author. But thinking about reader experience is important too. They definitely don't have to be diagrammatic; NMP (who publishes the books and so on) is not DIAGRAM. The things are separate, though related by common personnel.
Q: How do you (and your authors) publicize your chapbooks? Which books have sold especially well, and why?
A: We send out lots of review copies, and are often represented in places like Verse Daily or Poetry Daily. We do occasional ads, both print and online. And we send copies to anyone who entered the chapbook contest who provided a suitable SASE. We try to support our authors' reading and writing plans (many, many have gone on to publishing full-length books). But finally a lot of it is up to the author, as it is in most small press publishing. The books that have sold the best are usually written by writers who are actively giving readings and getting their work and selves out there. It doesn't make a difference to us when we acquire a book if the author's going to be the sort who's comfortable really pushing the book or not, since we don't make any money at this (none of us are paid; we all have other jobs), but it's nice when a title (like Mathias Svalina's Creation Myths from two years ago) sells well. Mathias seems to be really involved in the world, writing and publishing, and publishing other books usually helps drive sales of ours. G.C. Waldrep's work sold well too, selling out in fact, though we haven't reprinted it since it's contained entirely in his full-length book that has since been published. Paul Guest's another poet who's gone on to bigger (much bigger) things. He's a great poet who's written and published his ass off. And he's been deservedly successful. We're thrilled when our writers continue their success.
Q: Which contemporary authors do you find particularly exciting and inspiring? What can potential DIAGRAM contest entrants learn from them?
A: I'm a big fan of Lisa Robertson's work, particularly The Weather and Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. Lucy Corin's fiction. Kellie Wells' fiction. John D'Agata's new book, About a Mountain. Jenny Boully's work. I just read a good book of poetry (sort of poetry—more like prose, but an interesting project) by Heather Cousins called Something in the Potato Room. Albert Goldbarth is a great essayist and poet. And Joy Williams' guidebook/anti-tourist manifesto, The Florida Keys, is a brilliant book-length hybrid essay. All these writers are interested in the sentence, how it can be made to sound and mean. The sentence is a powerful thing. I don't think prose writers think about it often enough: or, the ones I like do. Almost all those prose writers I admire are trained as poets. Everyone should be trained as a poet before you're allowed to do anything else in the world.
Q: What is your favorite diagram? Why?
A: I'm still really drawn to two diagrams in our first issue: "Clothing Insulation [M]" and "...[F]" because of their oddity. I come back to them a lot, and we might yet try to make a t-shirt out of them. They're strange and wonderful, how they try to quantify the amount of clothing you're wearing as a standard unit of clothing (CLO). How much CLO does wearing underwear contribute? How much for a skirt? A jacket? Plus the photos are excellent, which doesn't hurt.