Interview with Melissa Watterworth Batt (2012)

Melissa with writer Michael Rumaker, whose collection at the Dodd Center officially opened on April 10, 2012

During these past two semesters, I have worked as an intern in the archives at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, first blogging for the SideStream section of the Fresh Pickin’s blog and, more recently, writing biographies for the finding aids. As an intern I have had the privilege of being mentored by Melissa Watterworth Batt, Curator for the Alternative Press, Literary, and Natural History Collections. Additionally, as a Long River Review staff member, I also had the pleasure of browsing through many of the little magazines and art books available at the Dodd Center, which Melissa put on display for us on April 3rd. My fellow staff members and I were very impressed by these magazines, many of which served to inspire our own small magazine/art books projects in the latter half of the semester. We were, of course, also eager to feature Melissa on our blog. The following interview was conducted via email last month.

LRR: What are the most exciting and least exciting aspects of working as the Curator of the Literary Collections?

Melissa Watterworth Batt: The most exciting aspect of being a curator is that I am fortunate to have a position that allows me to apply my training toward a greater public good and service.  Next to making archival materials available to students and researchers, the most important role of a curator is to actively collect and preserve personal archives and historical records.  Working with writers, performers, small press publishers, and individuals who engage with the world in unique ways and express themselves creatively is an honor as well as my professional duty.  It is also the most difficult part of what I do!  Developing trusting relationships with creators and potential donors, and determining what to collect and how is careful, often delicate work and takes time.  It requires that you understand your role as a steward, that you follow a professional code of ethics, including legal statutes, and that you work in partnership with a wider community of cultural heritage organizations.

Cultural heritage is valued and preserved differently throughout the world, we all know.  In this country, cultural materials are collected and preserved – and are defined as such – by a panoply of institutions and organizations, from town halls, churches, and community organizations to corporations, museums, and the federal government.  We all compete for limited public and private resources to carry out our missions, and most folks in the general public don’t realize how tenuous and challenging it is for these institutions to stay afloat year to year.  This is our continuing challenge, particularly in these tough economic times.  The Dodd Research Center is a part of the research library of the University and is fortunate to be supported, but we too rely significantly on donations of both collections and funding to continue our work for future generations of students.  I will say though that I have never met a more resourceful community. The ‘lone arrangers’ who work in small institutions keep me inspired, and I have been in this field for 12 years.

The composition of the historical record has changed drastically in the last 15 years.  Archivists, curators, and librarians have to continually develop new collecting methods in order to keep up with human expression, and communication, and cultural change.  Blogs, email, digital video, websites, Facebook and virtual workspaces, news sites, online commerce, are all examples of born-digital documents, the raw material of daily life and activity.  These materials are a challenge to preserve, and to capture, because they are not static!  Digital materials require machines to display and use, and the historical record has become much more fragmented and fluid as a result.  In order to preserve these fragile documents in a way that will retain as much of their authenticity and value through time (as human and historical artifacts), we build new tools and make use of the best strategies available.  It is very technical and requires that we speak often, often, often to the general public about how and why to preserve their personal digital stuff, and to do so through time.  Automation is our best friend in this effort; make your personal computer do the regular back-up and storage for you. The Preserving Your Digital Memories site by the Library of Congress has terrific tips.

LRR: How were you inspired to pursue this career? Is there any way that students, especially those that are unsure of what working in the Archives and Special Collections entails, can determine whether or not becoming a curator is a good career option for them?

MWB: I am afraid my story is not very exciting and may be a common one among history majors.  I was getting my masters degree and working in a library.  Several friends, this was in the mid-1990s, with PhDs discouraged me from pursuing the advanced degree for economic reasons – many could not find positions.  Some library schools offered dual-degree programs for students interested in the field of archives management and public history.  I was very curious about these programs, particularly because they had such a rigorous requirement for field work.  By the time I completed my degrees at Simmons College, I had completed 4 internships and gained applied experience at various organizations and archives in the region, including the Schlesinger Library of Women’s History at Harvard, the ACLU in Boston, and the Massachusetts Historical Society.  So much of the work we do has to be applied — the preservation principles such as retaining original order, and professional standards for designing a collection strategy, have to be honed and practiced to be effective.  And that is what interested me and continues to interest me.

I regularly speak with students about a career in the field as it is right now, and it is becoming much more diverse in terms of potential employers, particularly corporations, looking to employ professionals with a library degree or a history degree with an archives certificate.  Students should know though that the work and skills required today are much more technical and focused on process analysis.  And I see on the horizon a time when self-archiving is the norm.  Personally I am interested in investigating the impact of the hybridization of one’s physical and virtual ‘self’ on the historical record, and the public record.  But the future of the archival field is very uncertain; it is difficult to know where these materials will be preserved and made accessible in the future and by whom.  It will likely be done by the creators themselves, their family, or their designees.

LRR: The literary holdings at the Dodd are quite impressive, from the archival materials on the Black Mountain poets and the Beats to the collection of small-press magazines. What sparked the Dodd Center’s interest in these specific areas?

MWB: In 1971, at the request of faculty and scholars, the University Libraries purchased the literary papers of the poet, essayist, and teacher Charles Olson who, then and now, was identified as a seminal force behind post-1945 American poetry.  Donald Allen, an editor at Grove Press, in his 1960 anthology THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY, identified a new generation of American poets, he called the Olson Generation, who following the Pound/Williams tradition.  The book increased the reading and recognition of a range of experimental writing and writers.  Olson was a prolific correspondent and his papers chronicle the lives of many of these poets, including those identified with the Beat, Black Mountain, and New York schools of poetry.  The University set out to collect the papers of his students, contemporaries, and affiliates in order to foster research and critical study of their work.  Today the literary collections include the papers of over 100 American and English writers and include the records of a number of small presses, like Oyez Press, in addition to first editions, artists’ books, and literary magazines.

LRR: A few weeks ago you were kind enough to display an array of small magazine publications, for which the Dodd Center is renowned. The LRR editors were able to browse through magazines from the Modernist era (1910-1928), the Post-War era (1949-1956), the Mimeograph Revolution (late 1950s – mid-1970s), and the 1980s. Are any of these eras your favorites? Do you have one or two magazines that you especially admire?

MWB: I relish the opportunity to show students the gems in the little magazine collection and each time I do the class, I highlight the latest news and research about them that I am aware of.  Lately, I have been exploring and cataloging the large collection of mimeograph periodicals.  Many little magazines, particularly the early ones from the Modernist era, seem to me very intimate, meant for readers whom the editor expects are ‘in the know’.   And then in the 1950s, the mimeograph machine came along and put inexpensive printing technology in the hands of poets and artists.  By the early 1960s, we see an explosion of cheap, hand-bound magazines, sometimes only a few pages in size, publishing fiction, criticism, drama, and poetry.  My favorites lately are the irreverent and experimental magazines that feature collage, screen printing, and drawing alongside the writing, like La Bas and Meatball.  I see how genres like short fiction and language poetry have been shaped by these mimeos.  But this is a small yet growing area of research right now.  It appears that there may have been more writers than readers during this fertile period.

LRR: You’ve mentioned in conversation that people from around the world are currently visiting the Dodd Center. Are there any specific collections that are attracting them? To what do you attribute the attention paid to these collections?

MWB: The Dodd Center offers grants to researchers to travel to the university to use its collections.  In recent years, scholars and students have visited from Great Britain, Ireland, Spain, India, Argentina, Japan, China and Canada.  The most heavily used collections are the literary manuscripts, political papers, Spanish periodicals, human rights and alternative press collections.

LRR: Additional thoughts?

MWB: It is always a thrill to listen to students read their work, to know what they like to read, and to hear about the new and the weird.  Student input at UConn has driven much of our collecting of literary magazines and alternative press periodicals.  I hope they will continue to share and I will do my best to add their favorites to the collections at the Dodd Center.

It was a pleasure to chat.

An Interview with Kay Ryan (2012)

On April 9 and 10, Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan visited the University of Connecticut as the 49th annual Wallace Stevens poet.  Amanda Norelli wrote an introduction for Ms. Ryan on the blog last week, which can be read here for those unfamiliar with Ryan’s accolades.  The interview was conducted by the Long River Review‘s Devin O’Hara.

In 2008 you told The Paris Review that “During the laureate year [you] won’t write poems. [You] won’t have any time. And [you] won’t have the freedom of mind that it takes to write poems. But that might give [you] an appetite to get some writing done later.” How does it feel to finally get back to writing?

I was the laureate for two years, it turned out, because that interview was in 2008, and I accepted another year in 2009.  Following those two years, it has felt really wonderful to be liberated from a lot of public engagement; I really think it does take a lot of empty time in order to write—with no obligations, no external demands—so, it’s been great.

Have you been busy juggling all of the other awards, appointments, and speeches you have to give?

You know, this is the first trip I’ve taken this year, so I’ve really been at home for three months without any external requirements.  In April I’m doing a lot because of poetry month, but it’s been great to have a lot of free time to “wool-gather.”

Have you encountered any difficulties and felt like you were rusty, or have you fallen naturally back into rhythm with your writing?

You know, I recently wrote a little poem in the last year or so called “Monk Style,” and it’s talking about Thelonious Monk. Do you know Thelonious Monk?

Wasn’t he a musician?

He was a jazz composer and piano player. I was listening to NPR at the time, and somebody was talking about Monk, probably a biographer.  He said that when Monk came in to record, it took him maybe forty-five minutes to get his stride, that it was hard for even Monk to play Monk, which I thought was so cool! I have this little poem I’ll say it for you:

(For an audio recording of this poem, click the link here: Kay Ryan- “Monk Style”)

I think I got it a little bit wrong; it’s hard to quote myself. But in any case, the point I’m trying to get at is that whatever in me it is that composes is always there and it doesn’t always get bigger, or littler, or change, but it requires a few tricks and some approaching in order to engage it. It’s kind of wonderful, a mystery to think that it’s something sort of busy with itself all the time, something that I can reenter, and yes, having more time makes that possible. But it always has to be reentered. I mean, I don’t know — maybe there are some people that get on a roll, but for me, every day is a new day; writing seems happily to be accessible to me.

You released The Best of It: New and Selected Poems last year to critical acclaim.  What made you feel that a “best of” collection was right at this point in your career as opposed to a book of entirely new material?  What do you feel a book like The Best of It signifies about your career as a poet?

Well, you know, that’s really a trick title. It does sound like I’m saying “this is the best of my work,” and of course, if I’m publishing a New and Selected it ought to be. I mean, what in the world else would it be besides what I consider the best of my work? But also in the book there is a little poem called “The Best of It.” May I read it to you?  It’s very different:

“The Best of It”

However carved up

or pared down we get,

we keep on making

the best of it as though

it doesn’t matter that

our acre’s down to

a square foot. As

though our garden

could be one bean

and we’d rejoice if

it flourishes, as

though one bean

could nourish us.

So this is about, you know, that old expression “making the best of it,” thinking about how people work so hard to make the best of it and keep trying to make the best of it. It’s a very different kind of poem. So what does the book signify about me as a writer? Well, I published it when I was sixty four. It’s sort of the highlights of my career to date, which one might imagine is the bulk of it in the sense that I probably have most of my writing years behind me. I don’t mean the best ones, but probably the majority of them, unless I live ridiculously long, which I have no interest in doing. So I guess that’s what it is, it’s saying, “This is it.”

Then, in essence, it’s the work you’re most proud of and want to show people?

Well, yeah. It’s the work that, in my mind, holds up the best. I left out two entire books when I put it together. It’s a combination of four others: Flamingo Watching (1994), Elephant Rocks (1997), The Niagara River (2005), and Say Uncle (2000). With the first two books it was apprentice work; I was still figuring out how to do it, which took me a long time.

Is there any difference between Kay Ryan the performance poet and Kay Ryan the poet of written word?

Utterly. That’s a good question, because I feel that the great thing about writing for me is that I have access to levels of thought and discrimination that are entirely unavailable to me in other situations. In sitting down, in quiet, in manipulating language, that door is open, the key is turned. And in public or on stage, I am a show person, I enjoy making people laugh, and I do it. In a way it’s kind of deceptive; I present my poems in a way that shapes people’s understanding of them — it may make them look easier, more accessible. I don’t mean accessible in a bad way or a good way, just that they may seem more immediately knowable than they actually are. In other words, the reader might have to actually work with them longer to know them than I might make it seem, and I do that because I really love the exchange with an audience. I love generating a kind of sense of rapport and a sense that we are understanding these things together, that we are doing these things together. I hate leaving an audience out or leaving them behind, just talking at them; I want to engage them. Of course, the paradox is that if a poem is an interesting poem it’s not going to be gotten that way, you know? Some portion of it will be exchanged, but it is still going to remain a mysterious object and is still going to require or invite private contemplation. So yeah, I like to stand up and put on a good show. And it’s a much more… it’s just much more superficial. I think that my main interest in poetry is that I read it silently. I mean I don’t even like to go to poetry readings. I like to give them but not attend, because I like to read the work and I want the voice in my brain to do the work. How about you?

I like to read them out loud to myself, in my own space, in my own quiet. I can just make out the rhythm and rhyme a little better. The craft aspect comes more natural to me that way.

Yeah, I don’t really want the intervention of the writer’s voice. I want to see what’s there myself. I know I’m in the minority. I really am. It’s very popular to have poetry readings now and to think that’s a very good way to encounter poetry first. I might like to hear a poem read by its author if I’ve already read it, but maybe not. I mean, what would it be like to hear Emily Dickinson read her poems? I bet some of those were never said aloud at all. Never ever, ever, ever, said—never spoken.

So do you think that something is lost when an author reads her poetry, or is there something added?

Oh, that’s a very good question! Well, I think a very good reading can cover over the fact that there might not be much there. In other words, when you’re hearing a poem you’re hearing it in real time, you can’t go back, you can’t really investigate. Sometimes, something superficial works better than something profound, because the profound thing can’t be perceived in real time. It requires a different kind of time. So, what is superficial can seem very pleasing and work very well, but if you had to hear it repeatedly it might begin to pale. I think that things that are not deeply interesting can be wonderful presented. They can create an extremely agreeable living experience. And that’s a good in itself, but if we’re talking about poetry, that’s not what interests me. So there is value added there: perhaps the agreeable or interesting personality and the reading skills of the performer, plus the fact that you have a voice. To me one of the glories of the written word is that it is every voice. When I read something, it isn’t restricted to any particular voice, so it’s enlarged in that way.

How is reading to an academic college audience, like you will do tonight, different from reading to a younger, high school audience, like you will tomorrow?  Do you approach it differently?

I really try to pay attention to my audience. I will work harder tomorrow with a high school audience to make connections, probably. I mean, it won’t make a lot of difference, but there will be some. I might allow myself more…oh, actually it probably won’t make much difference at all. I work hard to make a connection in any case. I’ll feel it out when I’m there. Because high school audiences can be absolutely fantastic and just as sophisticated as a college audience. I’ve been in some very sophisticated high schools.

Do you think that there is an extra effort from a college audience to “get it” and engage instead of a high school audience that might just “enjoy it?”

It entirely depends on how they have been prepared, in a sense. Sometimes high school classes have studied the work. I was in a wonderful arts high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico with students drawn from all over the state from various Native American tribes, just everywhere. Students were chosen on their own artistic aptitude. They had to be auditioned. They were just leaping off their chairs, engaged. They had read the work and they were so eager to respond in every possible way, personally and intellectually. They were one of the most exciting audiences I’ve had, and they were kids. I mean that’s the wonderful thing about poetry, when it can be stripped of the fear factor. Sometimes that factor is learned in college because people think it’s a test, and they think they may fail that test. These kids were going at it hammer and tongs. They understood that it was for them. Poetry is for everybody, of course. So there might be a difference, but I’m not expecting one.

If you had to suggest a poet to Professor Pelizzon and The Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens to be next year’s fiftieth visiting poet, who would you suggest? 

Well gee, why don’t you get Seamus Heaney—I’m reading his Beowulf translation. I’d never read Beowulf before; it’s marvelous. I like it very, very much. Dragons, and monsters, and swords, and helmets, and gold, and treasure, and glory. I seem to like those things.

Is there anything you’d like to add? Maybe some advice for some of our young Long River Review poets?

I would say, expect to practice for a long time. Don’t be over-eager to publish before you’ve worked, before you’ve practiced, before you’ve got your chops. I think there’s an awful lot of impatience to see yourself in print. I think that it’s a very demanding, extended interest and occupation, and it should be thought of as something that one begins with an eye to the long haul. That’s what I think. I don’t think there’s any requirement to make it look like it’s your life. That certainly wasn’t the case with Wallace Stevens; it can be something that can be going on internally and very, very privately. I think one of the problems that young people are facing at this point is the loss of private life, the loss of private thought, where everything is instantly shared on Facebook or tweeted, and that the whole notion of an interior life may have become something very different than what it is for me. What do you think?

I share the same feeling. My friends think I’m weird for wanting time for myself to read a book, to think about it, to digest it. I just like to sit alone at breakfast and take it all in with my coffee. If I don’t do it I’m just not amiable for the rest of the day.

Yeah, if you don’t do something for yourself, it seems to be you can become really scattered — if you don’t have the habit of being interior or doing something that is entirely your own. Do you have Facebook?

I do.

And do you spend much time on it?

Yeah, sometimes in school it’s a great means of procrastination. It ends up being a lot of wasted time, so I force myself to pleasure read. It feels like a much more benign way to procrastinate.

Yeah, well, here’s another thing that I’d like you to remember that will console you: we don’t know what’s procrastinating and what’s your real work. In other words, what you may be thinking isn’t your real work right now might end up being your real work. And what you think is your real work now may not end up being so. At any time, there are a lot of assumptions about what are the requirements of the world or about how life is to be lived, and you always get to say, “Nah-uh.”  You always can, you can say, “This assumption isn’t my assumption.” I mean, I talk to a lot of people who feel pressured, required to, say, be on Facebook. They ask why I’m not on it. I mean, there are pressures, and they don’t have to be agreed to. And I’m not talking just about Facebook, just that you can always do otherwise.


LRR Interviews the 2012 Design Team (2012)

Come and show your support for our talented artists at the senior art showcase Friday, April 27, 2012!

This year’s team includes Rebecca Hawley, Dana Haddad, Daryl Wu, and Taylor Diglio.

LRR: Favorite medium?

Rebecca Hawley:  As a designer it is hard for me to pick one medium, so I would say mixed media. Design is about creative and strategic problem solving. A good designer is open to working or experimenting with a variety of different materials.

Dana Haddad: Blood…. Just kidding. I enjoy film photography.

Daryl Wu: My Macbook Pro.

Taylor Diglio: A sharpie pen

LRR: Favorite quote or lyric?

Rebecca Hawley: “Life isn’t measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”

Dana Haddad: “SHE DOESN’T EVEN GO HERE!” (You would be surprised how many situations that is appropriate for.)

Daryl Wu: “I wanted to do hoodrat stuff with my friend.” – Latarian Milton

Taylor Diglio: “If peeing your pants is cool, consider me Miles Davis” – Billy Madison

LRR: Favorite superhero (or heroine)?

Rebecca Hawley: Dana Haddad

Dana Haddad: Rebecca Hawley

Daryl Wu: Wolverine cause he’s badass.

Taylor Diglio: Batman (and my mom)

LRR: If you could travel to any place in the world, which do you think would grant you the most artistic inspiration?

Rebecca Hawley:  London, Berlin. Copenhagen and Florence. I am indecisive and love traveling.

Dana Haddad: I have no particular destination, I would just love to be somewhere where I am completely out of my element. However, I believe one can find inspiration anywhere.

Daryl Wu: I would definitely want to visit Hawaii again. Its culture, scenery, and history could prove to be very inspirational. Also, the people there are very hospitable.

Taylor Diglio: Switzerland

LRR: If anyone who ever lived offered to draw a portrait of you, who would you like it to be?

Rebecca Hawley: Paul Rand or Walt Disney… but really I just want to be best friends with them; they don’t have to draw me.

Dana Haddad: I would want Picasso to draw me, so I could sell it for millions.

Daryl Wu: Chuck Close. Check out his paintings and you’ll see why.

Taylor Diglio: James Dean

The showcase will take place at ArtSpace, 480 Main Street, Willimantic, CT 06226. 6PM-8PM. This event is FREE!


Long River Review interviews Sina Najafi (2012)

Since February, we here at the Long River Review have been accepting submissions for Long River Rapids, our new online flash fiction series, where each month we ask readers to submit short works in response to a general theme that has been suggested by our editors. For March, it was “falling down.” This month’s prompt was “tattoos.”

In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, we can’t pretend that the idea for LRRapids was completely our own (as much as we’d like to); in truth, we owe its spark of inspiration to the folks at Cabinet, an award-winning arts and culture quarterly published by a small nonprofit in Brooklyn, New York. Founded by Sina Najafi and Brian Conley in 1999 with the prospect of bridging the divide between the worlds of journalism and academic writing, Cabinet has since worked to do so in part by redefining the way we think about “novelty.” Each issue brims with an array of adventurous content from artists and writers, many of whom have been drawn out from the candlelit corners of academic esoterica to tell their stories. As such, a fierce commitment to the historical and factual paired with non-prescriptive themes that range from the narrowly focused (“Horticulture,” “Insects,”) to the more interpretive (“The Average,” “The Enemy”) and obscure (“Invented Languages,” “Pharmacopia”) can account for the ambitious nature of the material itself. In the most recent issue, “24 Hours,” for example, London-based artist Jonathan Allen calls forth the story of a mountainside village in southern Spain that was repainted blue in promotion of this summer’s 3-D Smurfs movie to consider the evolution of the color’s psychological and ideological power. All is featured in an open rotation of columns, essays, interviews, and special art projects that challenge the bounds of the glossy pagein a sense, literally: bookmarks, audio CDs, posters and postcards may often be found tucked away amidst the large color print.

Brian Dillon working around the clock as the first participant in the nonprofit’s “24-Hour Book” series. His text, I Am Sitting in a Room, will be released by Cabinet Books next month.

As editor-in-chief of Cabinet, Sina Najafi has also organized a number of events with the magazine throughout the years, including “Cabinetlandia,” a project inspired by Issue 10, “Property,” and started in 2003 on a half-acre parcel of desert property in Luna County, New Mexico. Events are often held in the magazine’s own art space, which doubles as a production office to cut costs, including “At the Eleventh Hour,” an exhibition from 2009 of paintings by Victor Houteff, founder of the Branch Davidians sect that reached national attention under David Koresh’s leadership. Najafi also serves as the editorial director of Cabinet Books, and has put out ten titles to date, including Brian Dillon’s 2011 historical look at the scenography and architecture of writing, I Am Sitting in a Room, penned in a day at Cabinet headquarters as the first of its “24-Hour Book” series. Born in Iran and raised in England, Najafi holds degrees from Princeton, Columbia, and New York University, and has taught art theory at Cooper Union and the Rhode Island School of Design. We had a chance to speak about roots, “the industry,” and other key aspects of running a small magazine in a short interview from earlier this month.

Long River Review: In keeping with Cabinet’s central statement that the unmarked histories behind our everyday experiences demand critical reexamination, I should ask first—how did your career predating the magazine lead to founding it? Where did you get your start?

SINA NAJAFI: The magazine was founded in 1999, but I had been part of two magazines before that—one was a Swedish magazine based in Stockholm, the other was an English-language magazine based in Stockholm and New York. So I had some experience in making magazines before. My particular background, however, is in literature, theory and cultural studies. When we started Cabinet, I was writing a dissertation in comparative literature at NYU, which I never finished.

In the early 90s, I was living in Stockholm, which is where I first got involved in magazine making. This happened more or less accidentally; in 1992, all the editors of a non-profit arts quarterly called Index left it, and a friend of mine was asked if she’d like to take it over. She called me up and asked if I would join her, which I did. Since no one had any expectations for the magazine to succeed, we jumped in. Luckily for us, neither of us had ever run a magazine before, so we got to make it up as we went along. It turned out that, though a lot of work, running a magazine is in some sense very simple—it’s basically words and images, and it’s not that difficult to imagine how to do it. In 1997, I left Index to start a new magazine with two other friends. By that time, I had moved back to the United States, and after a couple of years, I decided that it’d be interesting to start a new non-profit magazine based here in New York.

LRR: Do you have any advice for young people starting off in the industry today?

SN: Well, the first thing is that you should not think of it as an industry for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that you’ll start to think that the industry’s “wisdoms” are things you need to pay attention to. In my opinion, those “wisdoms” are in fact often obstacles to running an interesting magazine.

My second piece of advice would be to remember that a magazine is just a collection of words and images. If you’re passionate and want to put together a magazine, the hardest part is not coming up with the ideas. No, the hardest part is distribution. So my advice is plunge in, if you can, and start making, because you will learn a lot by just making something. Doing will be your best teacher.

Third: If you have an idea that everyone around you thinks is good, take a closer look at it; it’s probably no good. After cowardice, consensus is the most direct path to mediocrity that there is. And a final piece of advice: someone I know once told me that the only texts he has ever written that he still feels for—and he’s a truly great writer—are the ones that have left him slightly ashamed. And I think this is very important. In making your magazine as well as in your writing, if you don’t feel anything at risk, if you are not unsure half the time, you’re doing something wrong. It’s not possible to do all these things all the time, but I think they are useful to have in mind as goals.

But let me go back to my first point. The “industry” has a whole bunch of wisdoms, many of which basically act as barriers to keep out “amateurs.” Here’s an example. The very first person I approached to join me when the idea of Cabinet was brewing decided not to come on board because every expert we talked to at that time told us that any magazine with less than three million dollars in startup money would definitely fail within two years. When Cabinet was finally launched, we had 80,000 dollars, and we’re still here twelve years later. Some things would have been a whole lot easier with three million dollars, for sure, but some things would have been harder or even impossible, and years later we learned that the small size we started at was in fact a very good size for the specific project we had in mind. So, there are a lot of things that people are taught about how to run a successful magazine that I think you should just ignore. McSweeney’s is a perfect example of how to ignore all those rules, follow your convictions, forget all the consensus around you, and do a terrific job.

All this is true for writing too. Journalism courses often teach people to write in a particular way, and I think it’s important to unlearn all that stuff— about having a hook in the first paragraph, moving efficiently from A to B, etc—if you want to be an interesting writer. Your readers are much more curious, much smarter, much more intellectually agile than is usually assumed by these sorts of rules. I should point out that everything I’m saying here is for running a small, hopefully interesting, magazine—not for running a large publication with a staff of 100. Then it really is the industry and it’s best to learn all the rules I’m telling you to ignore.

LRR: Over the last twelve years, you’ve run a fairly tight ship at Cabinet— before opening up your art space on Nevins Street in 2008, you were working with a staff of five out of your Boerum Hill apartment—which readers might be surprised to hear, given the high volume of material you publish in each issue. What’s more, you offer just a six-week response time for submissions. How does your editorial board collaborate in such an extensive selection process?

SN: Well, we’ve never had a full-time staff of five at the office. At the moment, we are one full-time person and three part-time people. We have a few other core editors too who we are in touch with regularly by phone, email, etc, as well as a freelance art director who designs each issue. We also have two part-time interns at any one time, and a large group of contributing editors all over the world who are in touch with us as they see interesting material.

One thing that streamlines our work is that we don’t have an elaborate system of copyeditors and proofreaders. Instead, we have a very unusual and efficient editorial system, which is based on every single text being edited by Jeff Kastner, senior editor at the magazine, and myself in real-time. What this means is that Jeff and I sit together, side by side, at a computer and we read each article line by line to each other and put in all our suggestions, from large-scale suggestions to tiny proofreading fixes, as we go along. I’m sure this system has disadvantages, but one of its advantages is that it’s incredibly efficient. I also think that having us read everything at the same time means that we are both more tuned into the nuances of the text than we would be if we read the text individually. What we end up with is not just the sum of what each of us would have noticed on our own. The text is proofread again later by other colleagues at the office, but the joint editing saves us a lot of time.


Najafi [center] and fellow staffers at Cabinet headquarters in Brooklyn, NY. The team is currently in mid-production of the magazine’s next issue, “Games,” due out May 31.

LRR: As an aspiring writer myself, editing for a small journal has raised a few cardinal questions that I’ve taken to deliberating in my own writing—for instance, at what point does a piece’s style deny its content? How has acting as editor-in-chief of an award-winning magazine affected how you see yourself as a writer? As a teacher?

SN: I used to write in almost every issue in my other magazines, but now I am too busy and I write very little. I write mostly short things, usually in other venues. For Cabinet, I do a lot of interviews instead, with all kinds of people. For our next issue, I’ve interviewed Bertell Ollman, a professor of history at NYU who created a board game in the early 80s called “Class Struggle.” But I’ve also interviewed, for example, a guy who created a database of sneaker soles for the FBI because 99% of crimes in the US are apparently done in sneakers. I love doing interviews more than writing now, because one of the magazine’s goals is to advance the idea of listening to the world around us. We live in a culture that celebrates self-expression, but forgets to encourage listening. Doing interviews is in part about being a student again, and about listening again. When we interview people, we want the interviewer to take up the position of the “intelligent ignorant” (that’s a phrase coined by the great Mary Beard). We imagine our reader will be a smart person who nevertheless knows nothing about the field of the person being interviewed, and we want the interviewer to occupy the same space.

Anyone who is part of a magazine is obviously engaged with pedagogy by definition, since any serious magazine thinks that it can offer interesting intellectual perspectives to others. We’re not different, though our pedagogical impulse also dictates our belief that very complex material can be presented in simple, approachable, jargon-free language . My personal model for this would be the late Foucault, whose books on the history of sexuality are written in such clear, simple prose, even if he is proposing an incredibly complex argument.

And one of the other things that’s related to all this is that we have an office where everyone helps out with all the tasks as much as possible: all of us at the office help stuff the new issue into envelopes for our subscribers, we all help out with cleaning up the event space, etc. This may not seem to have anything to do with pedagogy, but it does. We share all this as much as possible because doing all these things reminds everyone here, including me, that every aspect of what makes an organization go forward is equally important. And I think that’s an important lesson to remember, no matter what institution you’re at. You could say that we’re so small that of course everyone needs to help out with everything, that it couldn’t be any other way. But it’s also the case that having more division of labor would probably have made us grow larger more quickly. In some sense, we have acted in ways that have kept us a certain size, but this is also a choice. We want to stay a certain size, which for us is the size at which we can continue to have an artisanal relationship to what we do. This is not to fetishize artisanal production, but for us that’s the scale at which we can still feel connected to what we do, and the scale at which the ethical question of how an institution goes about doing what it does still feels like a relevant one. I’m of course just talking about us; I’m not saying this is the right size for every project.

There’s been a disturbing trend in recent years in the fields of arts and culture where every organization is supposed to “develop” and get larger, as if the corporate model of development is one that is also necessarily the right thing for arts and culture organizations. Staying small is no longer a viable option, it seems. And alongside this trend is a related one, which has always been there in some form but is, in my opinion, getting more and more pronounced, which is the tension between what an institution says about the world and how it behaves in it. For example, we don’t think twice when we see that a cultural institution makes statement after statement in its programs about democracy, critiquing power, dismantling hierarchies, etc, but then still operates in ways that basically negate all these statements, for example in a salary structure where the director makes half a million dollars and someone at the bottom barely makes 30,000 dollars; by having all sorts of elitist perspectives; and where the director would think certain tasks done by the staff are beneath him or her, etc. One advantage of being small is that it more or less forces you to avoid some of these dangers!

LRR: The next issue of the magazine, “Games,” is due out this spring. Can we expect new exhibitions, events, or books in the coming months?

SN: Long before we decided to do the issue on games, we had planned to do a weekend event called “Parlor” where we would basically turn our space into a salon for playing all sorts of games. We delayed and delayed, and now this issue is the perfect time for us to finally do this. There will be tables with all kinds of games on offer, ranging from ordinary ones like backgammon to “Class Struggle,” the board game I mentioned before. In addition to board games, we also want to offer some of the classic games that game theorists developed, among other things. Leading up to the weekend, we’ll invite speakers to come and do presentations about various aspects of the history of games. Games are a very rich topic, philosophically, historically, and culturally, not to mention the economics of it all—as you may know, the game industry today has revenues that rival Hollywood. 

LRR: Is there anything you’d like to add?

SN: Good luck with your plans.

For more on Cabinet and to view an entire sample issue online, be sure to check out

To submit to Long River Rapids for the month of May, send any short work (prose, poetry, photography, paintings, drawings, videos, facts, etc.) on “glasses” to by April 28. We ask that written entries remain at 500 words or fewer, videos 1 minute or less.