Rebecca Wolff, Editor of Fence Books
Jendi Reiter conducted this exclusive email interview with Rebecca Wolff, editor of Fence Magazine and Fence Books. Fence Magazine, a biannual journal of poetry, fiction, art and criticism, was founded in 1998 with a mission to publish challenging writing and art distinguished by idiosyncrasy and intelligence rather than by allegiance to camps, schools, or cliques.
Fence Books advances that editorial mission through its two annual poetry manuscript contests: the Motherwell Prize (formerly the Alberta Prize), a $1,000 award for a first or second book by a woman; and the Fence Modern Poets Series, which is open to all poets and offers a $1,000 award. The Motherwell Prize submission period is November 1-December 31, while the Fence Modern Poets Series will accept submissions during the month of February. Authors published in these series include Ariana Reines, Daniel Brenner, Laura Sims, Geraldine Kim, and Aaron Kunin. Browse their backlist and new titles pages for samples from the prizewinning books. Meanwhile, poet-critics Ray McDaniel, Joyelle McSweeney and Jordan Davis take no prisoners at The Constant Critic, an online journal sponsored by Fence Magazine that reviews new titles in contemporary poetry. (Hint: they really, really don't like Billy Collins.)
Rebecca Wolff is the founding editor and publisher of Fence Magazine, Fence Books and The Constant Critic. She is the author of Manderley (University of Illinois Press, 2001) and Figment (W.W. Norton, 2004). She lives in Athens, NY, with her husband, the novelist Ira Sher, and their two children. She makes her living as a freelance editor. Read her interview “The Story of Fence” in Jacket Magazine.
Q: The poetry published by Fence seems more theoretical than what one finds in the average magazine or small press book. By this I mean that the poem's main goal is not to convey a self-contained meaning or emotional experience, but to call attention to the technology of poetic language and push against its constraints. What is the ultimate objective of this investigation? How can these authors' discoveries trickle down to the ordinary literature which most people read and write?
A: Jendi, I guess I'm not really willing to accept that description of the range of different kinds of work that Fence publishes. It is not possible to point to one kind of work that Fence publishes: Fence is all about juxtaposition. It has always been difficult for the reading public to interpret the vast variety, the truly dazzling plenitude of styles, attitudes, traditions, poems we publish, but I promise you that it is well within our purview to publish poems that are emotional, and that convey a self-contained meaning. We've published Nabokov, we've published Adrienne Rich, we've published Pushkin, we've published Paul Muldoon, we've published Terrance Hayes.
My own personal mandate as an editor and publisher is simply not to publish anything, in any vein, style, tradition, derivation, etc., that is without a sense of exigency. This has always been the way I've described the quality I am ultimately seeking in any work, and it sticks even now, nine years down the road. Exigency for me means that the language and the form must arrive on the page and in my ear, as I read it, as though it could not have been any other way. If that happens to be in a way that involves or includes a dedication to word as word, or an attempt to problematize syntactical structures, or to represent perceptual shifts by means of imagistic disjunction, or to be as honest as possible in every word and make those words sing a classically lyric song, then so be it. Another, more negative way of describing what we don't publish is work that is “overdetermined”: and by this I mean culturally, emotionally, traditionally, artificially, or by any other means overdetermined.
Q: Is there a better word than “experimental” to describe the school(s) of poetry in which Fence specializes?
A: Fence does not specialize in any schools of poetry. “Fence has a mission to publish challenging writing and art distinguished by idiosyncrasy and intelligence rather than by allegiance with camps, schools, or cliques.”
I tend to limit my use of the term “experimental” to writing that literally seeks alternative means of generating text, or that is conducting a specific formal experiment, i.e., something that hasn't really been done before. Or that which is following definitively in the footsteps of some prior experiments, such as Language writing, or Oulipian types of collaborative generative writing. We certainly publish many writers who are working in these ways, but much of what we publish, both in the magazine and on a book-by-book basis, could not be called “experimental” by any means. Take a look at Tina Brown Celona's work, or Michael Earl Craig. These are poets writing more obviously in the well-established, nearly antique tradition of Surrealism, but making it new by their free usage of a modern familiarity with Confession, with the New York School, with the writings of 1970s humorists like James Tate and Charles Simic.
But if you use the term “experimental” in the loosest possible fashion, as a sort of tossed-off catch-phrase meant to indicate anything at all that is written in a way that is not totally cookie-cutter narrative autobiographical lawnmower poem-style, then you could say that everything we publish is “experimental.” But you might as well say that it's eggplant, or zoologic, or dustbunny.
Q: How would you describe the movement(s) that you define yourselves against, and what don't you like about them? (The type of poetry that, while well-written by its own standards, would not interest Fence.) For instance, poet-critic Ron Silliman has coined the term “School of Quietude” for traditional formal or narrative poetry that is accessible to a middlebrow audience. Do you share his feeling that the only worthwhile poetry is stylistically innovative?
A: I like that term of Ron Silliman's, and find it fitting, but I do not share his feeling as described above. (I also don't wish to put words in his mouth.) As a reader I can be shockingly engaged, entertained, etc., by work that is accordingly shockingly “mainstream,” or middlebrow, whatever you want to call it. I was recently reminded of one of the most luridly successful poems ever, Sharon Olds' poem about the girls being raped in the woods, the one that ends with “she shakes the shredded pom-poms in her fists.” This poem provides every possible sort of thrill. Here it is, just for kicks:
They chased her and her friend through the woods
and caught them in a small clearing, broken
random bracken, a couple of old mattresses,
the dry ochre of foam rubber,
as if the place had been prepared.
The thin one with black hair
started raping her best friend,
and the blond one stood above her,
thrust his thumbs back inside her jaws, she was 12,
stuck his penis in her mouth and throat
faster and faster and faster.
Then the black-haired one stood up—
they lay like pulled-up roots at his feet,
two naked 12-year-old girls, he said
Now you're going to know what it's like
to be shot 5 times and slaughtered like a pig,
and they switched mattresses,
the blond was raping and stabbing her best friend,
and the black-haired one sticking inside her
in one place and then another,
the point of his gun pressed deep into her waist,
she felt a little click in her spine and a
sting like 7-Up in her head and then he
pulled the tree-branch across her throat
and everything went dark,
the gym went dark, and her mother's kitchen,
even the globes of light on the rounded
lips of her mother's nesting bowls went dark.
When she woke up she was lying on the cold
iron-smelling earth, she was under the mattress,
pulled up over her like a
blanket at night,
she saw the body of her best friend
and she began to run,
she came to the edge of the woods and she stepped
out from the trees, like a wound debriding,
she walked across the fields to the tracks
and said to the railway brakeman Please, sir. Please, sir.
At the trial she had to say everything—
her big sister taught her the words—
she had to sit in the room with them and
point to them. Now she goes to parties
but does not smoke, she is a cheerleader,
she throws her body up in air
and kicks her legs and comes home and does the dishes
and her homework, she has to work hard in math,
the night over the roof of her bed
filled with white planets. Every night she
prays for the soul of her best friend and
then thanks God for life. She knows
what all of us want never to know
and she does a cartwheel, the splits, she shakes the
shredded pom-poms in her fists.
So as a reader I am in heaven by the end of this poem. But as an editor and a publisher I feel like I need to take a bath after reading this poem: it's that manipulative, it's that overdetermined. My reading experience, and, more importantly, I would argue, Sharon Olds's writing experience, has been hijacked by a million other poems, a million musical crescendos, a million jackrabbits wearing sombreros.
Really I have a love-hate relationship with the whole divide; I had such a bee in my bonnet about it that I needed to start a whole magazine around the quandary. I am not naturally inclined toward the position that there is any actual weight behind the notion that differences in ways people write poetry will affect the world order (see my response below), but at the same time it is clear to me that there is something evil and hegemonic about the tyranny of the narrative, of the emotional epiphany, of the poem that is written with its tail in its mouth, the poem that, yes, as you say above, “conveys a self-contained meaning.”
It's a personally confusing issue for me, as some of it is irrational: I love that Sharon Olds poem above, and want to read it over and over. I want to take a bath in it. It's intensely moving, blindingly well-written, shocking for its creational power. The balls on that woman! But then when I sit down to write (ha, as though I sit down to write), or to look for my comrades in other people's writing, I know that experience cannot not represented accurately by such sentences, such sequences, such wholeness, to be blunt and trite about it. It represents a falsehood, to me. And so as an editor and a publisher I avoid it. When I read poems like this, the watered-down, less skillful versions of poems like this that come in over my transom every day, I think: Ah, what an interesting story. What a good person, to have taken the time to sit down and figure out what they are feeling about such and such a thing. But it almost doesn't strike me as a good use for a poem. It almost seems like a waste of a good piece of paper.
Q: Can poetry without an obvious narrative “meaning” or “subject matter” be political?
A: You've caught me at a moment wherein I feel that I can simply say: No. Or at least to the “meaning” and “subject matter” parts. I don't elide narrative with meaning, however. Unless you're implying something interesting that I'm not fully getting about the notion that we apprehend meaning only within the arc of narrative, i.e., the story of our own understanding.
A few years ago I would have wrung my hands and doubted myself about this, but I have to say that, if you ask me, and you have, I have to be honest and say that I don't believe that poetic form has real political value. And some of my best friends write poetry that they feel is deeply politically engaged, which I guess maybe is a different thing. Let me clarify, or at least qualify. Many poets write poems that engage political content by means of formal devices. But it is my opinion that these poems do not have any actual political efficacy, if we define efficacy as a measurable action that has a measurable reaction, or something like that. Seems to me lately that poetry can be a wonderful intervention into people's lives (and therefore politics), but generally the poetry that has that effect is poetry that is quite overtly subject-driven, and also quite accessibly presented.
Q: Is there a role for nonsense in poetry (other than light verse)? What work does it do for the poet, and how should the reader react?
A: If by nonsense you are referring to associative logic, than my answer would be a big old Texas YEA! For in associative logic (which is of course a part of any image-making, however close the leap from object to object) lies the poet's path to music, freedom, and risk. To make use of a slippery slope: If poets were confined to “sense,” we would be writing manuals, rather than poems. (See Favorite Poem Ever: John Ashbery's “The Instruction Manual.”)
As to how the reader should react, again, I would not dare to instruct a reader on such a precipitous journey. I recently had the pleasure of hosting a Q & A with aforementioned Favorite Poet John Ashbery, wherein a student asked him something like: “Could you please help me to understand how to read your poems?” And Ashbery replied something (priceless) like: “Well, you know, you don't have to read my poems, if you don't want to.” Similarly, if (and if, by “nonsense,” you are, as I suspect, referring to associative leaps/logic) you are not a reader who enjoys having your mind bent/opened in this fashion, then I suggest you simply leave it alone. But on the other hand, if you want to have your mind opened as if with a can opener, I suggest you read some of the poems of Clark Coolidge, who is the absolute King of the associative leap.
Q: I admit to being baffled by some of the poetry that Fence publishes, probably because the tools of conventional interpretation that we all learn in Poetry 101 don't apply here. Are there books of literary criticism or aesthetics that you would recommend to help an educated reader understand what your authors are trying to accomplish?
A: No, not at all. Did you really learn to read poetry by acquiring tools for its interpretation? Ghastly!
All joking aside, I must concede that part of my original goal for the magazine was that, by spreading the word about, and spreading the words, literally, I would help to make the world ready for the kind of writing I enjoy reading (and writing). What frustrated me, as a young poet, enough to make me want to start my own magazine, was the seeming lack of appreciation, lack of apprehension, among mainstream readers and writers, for developments in the art form that have taken place not over the last ten or fifteen years, but over the last hundred or so. I mean, Ezra Pound? Gertrude Stein? Wallace Stevens? Hello????? I suppose that if I were to recommend any particular reading to readers hoping to gain a better grip on the work being done now, it would be to suggest that they take themselves on a reading tour of what I have always called “Precedents” (we used to have a feature in the magazine in which we would simply reprint some old gem of earlier writing that was clearly related to the “experimental” work everyone thinks is so darned nutty): read your Walt Whitman, read your Dickinson, your Stein, your Stevens, your Mina Loy and Charles Olson, Creeley and Niedecker and Berryman, O'Hara, Notley, Coolidge, Welish, and then renew your subscription to Fence.
Q: The cover of Fence Magazine's 2005 summer fiction issue featured a controversial photo of a shirtless, large-breasted young woman from the alt-porn website Suicide Girls, accompanied by your tongue-in-cheek editor's note about how sex sells magazines. This struck me as ironic since the whole Fence aesthetic seems to be about refusing to pander to popular tastes, even by the standards of poetry publishing, which is already such a niche market. How did you want readers to feel about the disconnect between packaging and product—deceived, intrigued, amused, insulted? Was there any feminist backlash against an arguably exploitative use of the female body, and what is/was your response?
A: Ah, yes, well. I guess part of the joke was meant to be that this was the Fiction issue, and so we would have a set of big naked tits on the cover to refer to the fact that people actually read fiction. Kind of a broad joke, but I have a really really obtuse sense of humor. I guess part of the problem also is that I'm so damned progressive I don't even see anything basically shocking about having naked tits on the cover of a magazine—I run around naked all the time—so I wasn't prepared for the outrage, the hue and cry. I had thought it would register more for its irony that its titty-ry. I see now that I'm completely out of step with the general populace. You know, I honestly thought that all the academic feminist types out there would find it really funny. Whew! I was wrong! I got several quite angry letters, most of them something like this: “Examination of this topic has taken place for nearly forty years, but rarely in such a cheap, sensationalist, dare I say undergraduate fashion.” And going on.
I know this is hard to understand, and maybe nothing but an admission of my own lack of awareness, or sensitivity, but I live in a world (inside my own mind) in which this was not meant to be any real examination of anything at all, but just a kind of superficial joke about exactly what I wrote about in my editor's note, i.e., my amusement at noting that a recent boring cover (black and white, non-striking graphics) had sold really badly. The other part of the joke, also quite superficial, was one that got lost in the production shuffle: The original concept for the cover was that we would stage a photo-shoot with one of our Fence interns in a bustier, all greased up, as a pastiche of the cover of Maxim, or of Stuff, or of one of those cheesy men's magazines. And this just because I was so grossed-out and amazed by the cheap cheesiness of them that I thought it would be “funny” to mimic them. I guess I have pissed people off by my easy use of words like “funny” and “weird” to talk about things (exploitation, objectification, aesthetics, ideology) that other folks spend a lot of time thinking about but that I don't. I've never been much of a thinker.
Q: Which of your book titles have sold particularly well? What do you think accounts for their success? Please share any original marketing ideas that have worked for your authors.
A: Our all-time bestseller continues to be Joyelle McSweeney's first book, The Red Bird, which was selected by Allen Grossman for the Fence Modern Poets Series in 2002. This is completely baffling to me, as Joyelle's work is dizzyingly complicated—daft and deft at the same time. It's certainly not anything I would have predicted would appeal to a larger swath of readers than, say, Tina Brown Celona's first book, which is written in a style that is far more transparent and which contains more immediately emotional subject matter (love relationships, anger, mental imbalance, etc.). Our next best-seller is Catherine Wagner's second book, Macular Hole, and if you have never had the pleasure of hearing Cathy read, then I will just say that if you did, you would. I believe that Cathy's books sell well because her readers recognize in her a truly original voice, a strong and scary feminist and activist voice, yet one that writes about the very most personal effluents and effects. And she gives the most kick-ass readings.
It's very difficult to tell what books are going to sell well. Generally if a poet does lots of readings, that will help—but only if she or he is a strong reader. I am pleased to see that so far poets' second or third books tend to sell better than their first, indicating that there is the possibility of building up an audience for a particular body of work.
No original marketing ideas: Just the old standbys of readings (cross-country tours if possible), parties, press releases, etc.
Q: Once authors have won a Fence contest, are they likely to have a long-term relationship with the press? Some publishers automatically accept subsequent books by past winners, whereas others require the author to go back into the general submission pool. What is your policy?
A: We have a clause in our contract that confers on Fence Books the right of first refusal, and we do assume that we are going to pursue a relationship with our contest winners. So far we have not rejected anyone's second (or third) manuscript. I'm sure it will happen, as just mathematically speaking (financially speaking), it will not be possible for us to continue with every single one of our contest winners. But it is my true delight to be able to continue to support poets beyond their first lucky winner.
Q: Tell me about the judging process—number of entries, who screens them, how many reach the final judge.
A: We get about 450 entries per contest. These are screened by my trusty band of screeners—folks who I've worked with over the years and believe are capable of seeing beyond their own particular aesthetics to the larger frame of “quality” or viability. The first screening is generally just to cut out stuff that is truly not possible: The stuff in cursive fonts, or with illustrations, or the stuff that is really song lyrics, etc. Then there is a more intense scrutiny, which results in my being presented with about 30 semifinalists. From this I select something between 10 and 15 manuscripts, all of which I must have decided I will be happy to publish. Some years this is easy; some years this is difficult. In recent years I have taken over the job of judging the contests. This is in part because I love power (!) and in part because I am simply not convinced of the need or value of a “celebrity” judge, especially because we have never publicized the name of our judge before the contest anyway. And really, it's my press and I don't see why I shouldn't select the winning books. So there.
Q: Have you ever not picked a winner for one of your contests? Do you think contests should refund the fees if no winner is chosen?
A: This has never happened to us. But I do think that if the press has a disclaimer or whatever in place that says “It is the press's right not to select a winner if no winner emerges” (or something like that) then there is no need to return the entry fee.
Q: The Motherwell Prize is one of several prestigious awards for women poets. I'm not aware of any men-only writing contests. To me, women seem to be well-represented in the poetry prize lists and literary journals. What goals does Fence wish to advance with a women-only contest? Are the books in this series particularly concerned with “women's issues” (however defined), as compared with the open manuscript contest?
A: When you say “women seem to be well-represented in the poetry prize lists and literary journals,” is this just a vague sensation you have? I believe that if you actually scientifically tally up contributors to journals you will see that there are still proportionately many more men out there getting their work published. And when I say “I believe,” I mean that I have recently been privy to some folks who've done some tallying.
I have enjoyed publishing the Alberta Prize series, and now look forward to many years of the Motherwell Prize. The books are concerned with “women's issues” in that they are by women. See above for more about me as a feminist, but I am not apologetic about being a really kind of old-school, bra-burning type, when you get right down to it. I am aware of resistance to my own power, in the field, and I take a kind of peevish, fist-in-the-air delight in placing emphasis on supporting the efforts of sisters. Several of the books published in the Alberta Prize series, notably Chelsey Minnis's Zirconia, Tina Celona's first book The Real Moon of Poetry and Other Poems, Rosemary Griggs's Sky Girl, and Ariana Reines's The Cow, can be seen to have overtly feminist content. But so can some of the books we have published outside of this prize series: Catherine Wagner's books Miss America and Macular Hole, Geraldine Kim's Povel, Tina Celona's new book Snip Snip!, and Prageeta Sharma's The Opening Question.
Q: Any other advice for contestants, manifestos, pet peeves, book recommendations…?
A: Consider self-publishing, if you know somewhere down deep inside yourself that your book is not of professional grade. There is nothing wrong with it, and then you will have copies to give to your friends and family members, who will most likely adore it.