An Interview with Carl Phillips, Poet and Professor by Sten Spinella (2016)

I only had 30 minutes to speak to poet Carl Phillips, which was just enough time to access his worldview, yet a woefully insufficient amount of time to truly get at the thickness of his poetry. It was by far the friendliest interview I have ever conducted. Phillips was flexible with his schedule and would make a joke in the same breath as a philosophical aside. I reserved us an awkward space near the lobby of the Nathan Hale Inn on the University of Connecticut campus where we sat across from each other in armchairs looking over a small table. People continually passed by, but we were relatively alone.

With an impressive catalogue of 12 books of poetry and two books of criticism, as well as being a professor and winning countless awards, Phillips seemed almost as honored to be interviewed as I was honored to interview him. Phillips wore a blue button-down shirt and had a neat crop of facial hair. I couldn’t help imagining him as a quality professor, for he made my questions seem smart when I thought them vague, and he always doubted the adequacy of his answers, as if he wasn’t giving me enough to go on.

Phillips is about as established as an American poet can be, but his manner seemed unchanged by the fact that the Long River Review was interviewing him, not the Kenyon. When we had wrapped up, he thanked and complimented me before being rushed away to speak to a group of high school students an hour removed from UConn.

Sten Spinella: Going through your biography, you’re impeccably educated, as both a teacher and a student. I was wondering, can you contrast how your poetry has been influenced due to your teaching versus you being taught?

Carl Phillips: In terms of being taught, I’ve studied Greek and Latin, so I feel like that’s had a lot to do with what I write about, because I was interested in Greek tragedy, and in the Greek tragedies, people get in a lot of trouble for being innocent. They’re sort of randomly caught in a bind, with the Gods, usually. I was interested in this idea of how come just by being who you are you can suddenly be cursed, or damned. I feel like I’ve been writing about that intersection between how we behave and how we’re told we’re supposed to behave, and how they don’t always connect. Also, I think the way I write sentences is kind of connected with how Greek and Latin work. They’re kind of flipped aroundverbs are at the end and things like that. Is this too…It sounds boring as I’m saying it.

SS: Not at all!

CP: But teaching, I think, has taught me more as a writer, partly because, first I was a high school teacher for a long time, teaching high school Latin, where you really have to know grammar. You can’t just go in and tell students ‘This is a verb’ because they don’t know what a verb is. So I find that teaching has made me really understand things I took for granted so that I could explain them to other people. Poems are, in a sense, doing that; trying to explain something to an audience, but now that I teach in college, what I learn most from the students is things they bring up I’ve never heard about, like things they’re reading that I wouldn’t think to read, or else we’ll read something I’ve read many times like Homer’s Iliad, and some student will have a totally new idea I’ve never had after all these years. I actually think that’s the best kind of teaching; when you’re learning too and not just some big rock of wisdom, beaming wisdom to people. Plus, it makes it exciting. It would be boring if you knew everything. It seems like it’s symbiotic, kind of feeding off the students and vice versa.

SS: Continuing on education, obviously you did go to school for creative writing at a certain point, and you are a creative writing professor. There’s of course this school of thought that writing can’t be taught. Where do you stand on that?

CP: I believe you can’t. The way I always put it is you can teach technique, but you can’t teach vision. You can teach someone the rules of a sonnet and they can write a fourteen-line poem and it can rhyme a certain way, but there’s a reason why Shakespeare is Shakespeare – just because that’s who he was. Or like Emily Dickinson, in a way, was very messed up, weird, but that is what makes her poetry, her poetry. There’s reasons to go to a writing program, you can learn and read a lot of other poems, and learn styles of other people, but it’s hard to tell whether someone will go on to be a poet who has a unique way of seeing the world that people want to hear about. It’s hard to explain that to students because it’s almost like saying ‘Well, it’s just a magical gift. You either have it or you don’t.’ I secretly kind of believe that.

SS: You don’t tell your students that, though?

CP: Well, it seems like they want to believe if you work hard enough, and I’m sure that’s true in some cases, but for the most part it feels like someone has to have some weird…

SS: Story?

CP: Yeah, some strange angle on the world. Most poets are pretty much a mess in some way once you dig deep enough. I think that’s where their weird way of seeing the world comes out on the page. That’s a long sentence, cut it off whenever. That’s what I always  tell my students: ‘Just stop me.’

SS: This is going to sound weird, but, when I was reading your poetry, my favorite color is blue

CP: Good choice.

SS: I noticed there were a lot of references to the color. Of course there’s the poem “Blue” and I noticed it in “Cortege” and “Hymn” that you alluded to the color blue. Does the color have some sort of significance in your writing?

CP: I never thought it did, but, I too have noticed it comes up, and maybe I’m just redundant, but in some ways, in that poem “Blue” it’s like it stands for some kind of space in-between where we can never quite get to, of who we actually are, and I feel like if I think about the color, it’s some kind of abstract thing that we’re aiming towards. To me, being alive is an ongoing wrestling to figure out who we are, and it’s always changing. You never can say, ‘Oh, I got the answer now to who I am, and what love is, and what life is.’ It’s always like this wrestling, but it’s towards this space of blue that would be perfection. But, if we really reached it, there’d be no point in living, so, that’s my latest theory of it. It’s like some ideal that we’re always striving toward even though we can never make it, like a calculus curve, from what I remember of calculus.

SS: On a personal note, just from people’s accounts of you, especially at the event last night

CP: Oh, are they talking already?

SS: (laughs)

CP: I read the article. I mean first of all I appreciate that they did it. One of the things I’m always bothered by about myself is that I want to seem personable, and also, in my nervousness, I say things that I guess are, they do come across as sort of funny, that’s fine, but then I don’t want to seem like I’m not a serious poet, but I don’t want to seem like a pompous

SS: You’re not allowed to have a sense of humor then?

CP: Right, but I hate going to these poetry readings where they just go up like they’re a priest or something, and they just read, and I just feel like a lowly nothing. So, I like it to be more human. But then, when I read the article, I thought like ‘Oh, it just sounds like I spent the evening saying ‘Gee, I’m stupid.’ I know that’s not what the intention waspeople like that at the same time. But you were going to ask something based on accounts.

SS: Who am I to know, really, but it seems that there’s this idea that you’re humble.

CP: If it comes across that way, that’s good.

SS: At this point in your career, how can you still be humble?

CP: I think because I’ve never expected anything to happen. I wasn’t raised to think that I wasI don’t think I was ever told ‘You don’t deserve anything’I just wasn’t privileged. It seems like I was on paper, like going to Harvard and all that. They don’t mention I went to Harvard on a scholarship where I cleaned toilets and dormitories for the first three years, and that really has a way of, if you want to get all cocky about ‘Oh, I’m a Harvard student,’ but then you’re carrying a bucket and a mop across Harvard Yard each day. I was raised very working class, my father was in the Air Force, we moved around, so I’m always sort of grateful. I can’t believe this is happening. It’s kind of weird because I know people get sick of how Taylor Swift acts shocked every time she wins something: get over it girl, you win everything. Or Sally Field when she wins the Oscar and says ‘You guys really like me, I can’t believe it,’ it’s like she’s not acting like a dignified actress. But I feel that way. Like last night I thought, ‘People are actually here.’ I don’t know why I think there should only be three people. Then this woman gives this introduction that’s so smart and everything. To me, I don’t feel like that person. I feel like I just write, but I don’t have any thoughts, or ideas. It could be humbleness, maybe it’s a lack of self-esteem, but maybe that’s healthy sometimes. A lot of times, especially poets beginning out these days, they sometimes seem like, ‘Wow, I’ve got a first book, I’m a superstar.’ That’s hard to call. Even when you have 10 books, it could all end. It’s safer to be grateful, and it’s a privilege for people to come and want to listen to poetry. There are lots of other things you could do that are probably more fun. I host a lot of poetry readings at my school, and after someone is introduced they’ll get up there and they never even say thank you. You shouldn’t take that for granted, anymore than if someone had invited you to dinner – you don’t just eat and leave.

SS: Do you think that when you write you shed that humbleness and lack of self-esteem? Do you have to have a sort of arrogance to write?

CP: I’m glad you used that word, because I tell my students a lot that a writing career involves a combination of arrogance and humility. You do have to have some belief that you have something new to say and people should hear it, but you can’t just think ‘I wrote something, I’m great.’ You have to have enough humility so that if you get rejected or people don’t like the work, that you think ‘Well, I’m not perfect all the time.’ At the same time, if people reject you, you can’t think ‘Oh, I’m a loser, I’ll never write again.’ You just say ‘Well, screw them.’ It’s a mix, but that’s probably true about everything. There are parents who think they’re the perfect parents, and that’s a guaranteed way to screw up. But then if you’re just a slacker who never is doing anything and think, ‘I’ll never be a good parent so I may as well just be high all day,’ that probably isn’t the best model either, but I’m not a parent, so I don’t know.

SS: In reading your interviews, it seems like there’s this obligatory question about the lens of your identity, race, sexual orientation. What are your thoughts on this common question and how are, for example, white, straight writers treated differently in that way?

CP: I was just writing something about this. I feel as if people – well, there seems to be a movement right now, partly because of different events that have been happening like Black Lives Matter and Ferguson and those issues of police shootings. Everyone thinks the only kind of poem there’s room for is a certain kind of political poem. This article I’m writing, it’s about how it can be political just to be yourself in different ways. Not all of us are supposed to – well first of all, if you’re a black person, it doesn’t mean you have to speak about race at all. That kind of thinking doesn’t make room for straight, white writers and readers. Everyone has some political statement to make about who they are, and I think choosing to live how we live is a statement in a way. Some of the stuff that people are thinking is political, like race or sexual orientation, those are just parts of identity. I don’t go through the world each day and think, ‘Here I am shopping, I’m gay and I’m black.’

SS: That would be a huge burden.

CP: It would be! I’m also a shopper, a dog-walker, I’m all these things. It’s more like I don’t think about those things too much until something happens to make me aware of it. Some of those things go away, but they’re just parts of identity, and there are equally valid other parts. There was a straight, white male student at the University of Cincinnati recently who was asking me – he felt like he didn’t have the right to write poems now. I was thinking that we’re all supposed to be recording, in some way, what it’s like to be alive right now, and we need all the voices, because it all counts. In some ways I think it’s especially important to hear straight, white voices because now there’s been this tendency to think – there’s this whole thing of whiteness, which is just as bad as saying ‘This is what all black people are like.’ Poetry is a great way to understand who other people are and how they feel. I think the world includes everyone. People should be able to write the poems they want to write, and knowing what those experiences are informs my understanding of the world. I feel like that sounds very Pollyanna-ish, but I truly believe it. I understand a certain kind of guilt that straight, white men might be feeling, like they’re sort of under attack, but I feel like that doesn’t leave room for the fact that everyone’s an individual. The thing is too, when I get lumped into being black, one of my parents is black and one is white, so I don’t immediately think of white people as the enemy, nor do I think that they all think the same way. If anything, that makes it all the more important for them to keep writing so we can see there’s just as much diversity of voices.

SS: This has been an issue for a long timeI think back to the Harlem Renaissancedo you think that black writers are pigeonholed by political events, and who is doing that pigeonholing?

CP: In the Harlem Renaissance there were white expectations of how black writers should be, writers like Countee Cullen would write based on white models, like a Keats sonnet. Part of his agenda might have been to show that black writers were just as educated and skilled. At the same time, there are writers like Langston Hughes who were saying that black writers should be writing the way black people speak, so he would go into Harlem and try to record that kind of language. I find that even back then, and now too, there’s an expectation on both sides. I’ve often been told that I’m not correctly black. In this article I’m writing I mention that I’m not appropriately black if I’m not writing about black things. Why is it not a black thing to write about love, or sex, or desire? They seem to mean you’re not writing about a black identity experience that we all are supposed to relate to. If that includes a certain inner-city life or living in projects for example, or having been raised in certain ways, I didn’t have that experience, so it wouldn’t be authentic for me to write about it. It happens with gay writers too. You’ll have people who will say ‘You stopped being gay after your second book, because there’s no graphic, gay stuff.’ I didn’t stop being gay, maybe I just had other things to write about besides that.

SS: I want to get back to your writing. I’ve always really liked your titles.

CP: I like them, but sometimes I can’t explain them.

SS: I’m not asking you to necessarily explain them, I just think that they’re very lyrical and I’m wondering how you find your titles and how that relates to your writing process.

CP: The title is always the end, I never have a title until after I’ve written. The problem is – I’ve been traveling around for a couple weeks with this poem that has no title – and I feel it would be like if you had a child and you haven’t named it yet. It’s bad luck, you should name it. Sometimes they just come to me. Truly, I’ll just be walking my dog or something like that. Some line, I don’t even see how it works, but I’ll put it on there. I like titles that aren’t exactly what the poem is gonna be. Say the poem is about walking a dog, I don’t want the poem to be called “The Dog Walk.” A lot of people do that, but I think it’s boring, so I like something where you think ‘What? How does that title fit with the poem?’ I get a lot of titles from song lyrics. One night I was listening to some chorus where this women kept singing ‘Bow down to me,’ and suddenly I thought “Bow Down” is the name of this poem that’s striving for a title.

SS: So they really just come to you, it will just be a feeling.

CP: I know it sounds lame. It’s the hardest part for me.

SS: It is the hardest part of your writing?

CP: Yes. The poem, it seems like it just happens when it’s ready to happen. I always think ‘If it doesn’t have a title you don’t know what it’s about, Carl. If you don’t know what it’s about, what’s the point?’ I think that poems are supposed to surprise us. First we think ‘I don’t really know what this is about,’ and then over time you’re like ‘I see, I was wrestling with this or that.’ Not every poet works that way. Some people decide they’re gonna write a poem about doing a reading last night, and they’ll sit and write about that, but I can’t write toward an assignment like that. I was a bad student in that sense because someone says ‘Write about this’ and I don’t want to do it, so I write about something different.

SS: When I was researching you, which is weird, I was thinking about it while I was walking over, to look someone up on the Internet.

CP: It’s weird to me to think that I’m on the Internet.

SS: I wanted to know about how your skill in translating, criticism, and essay writing – do you compartmentalize those, or do you think that they’re conducive to poetry?

CP: I really hate writing essays. I’ve written two books of them, but mostly they were talks I gave, and then later I was able to turn them into an essay. I can’t do that thing where someone says ‘Write an essay about this.’ They’re not conducive to anything. What I found though is that how I write, I figured out a way to write essays how I write poems. My problem with essays is that I feel like I have to hold an idea and develop it and all that. I can’t do that, and I don’t like reading essays like that. But then I thought, ‘You could just leap from idea to idea like you do in a poem, and maybe the pieces will all start to come together like a kind of collage.’ So that’s often how my essays are now, like a little section and then an asterisk, a little thought here. After a while I think, ‘That makes sense,’ you know, they all came from the same mind. To me an essay becomes an invitation to think about this thing a little bit here and there. It’s like if an essay were a many-faceted diamond, and so each time you turn it, it catches the light in different angles. That would be, to me, a fun essay to read, where I’m invited to tumble through an idea. I feel like freshman comp ruins people. You have to do a thesis statement, and then the body, and then the summary.

SS: Now does that start in high school, or college?

CP: I guess it does start in high school. I hate those papers. I hated writing them. My students think it’s weird because I don’t assign papers. I don’t want to read them! You’re gonna turn in those essays that I hate.

SS: That’s great. That’s all I’ve got. Let me save this.

CP: What if you hadn’t been recording and you didn’t find out until now?

SS: Honestly, it’s a recurring nightmare.

Sten Spinella is a junior English & political science major at the University of Connecticut. He is Interviews editor of the Long River Review.

Make It A Big Deal: An Interview with Matvei Yankelevich by Carleton Whaley (2016)

Matvei Yankelevich is the Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Ugly Duckling Presse, which he started in the late 1990’s with a group of friends. He designs and edits books for UDP, curates the Eastern European Poets Series (since 2002), and co-edits 6×6 magazine (since 2000). He shares duties as UDP’s Co-Executive Director with Anna Moschovakis. His most recent publication of poetry is Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt (Black Square). His writing has appeared in A Perimeter, ActionYes, BOMB MagazineBoston ReviewThe Brooklyn RailFence, and others. His translations of Daniil Kharms were collected in Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms, and his translations have appeared in The New Yorker and other places. His co-translation of Alexander Vvedensky’s An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB) with Eugene Ostashevsky received the National Translation Award in 2014.

Matvei Yankelevich

Matvei Yankelevich reading his poetry in the Co-op Bookstore in Storrs Center at the University of Connecticut (Photo/Asiya Haouchine)

Carleton Whaley: So, a simple—well, I guess it’s a simple question, but it might not end up being one—Why did you start Ugly Duckling Presse?

Matvei Yankelevich: That’s a very good question. Sometimes I wonder the same thing. You know, I don’t know why. I was doing the zine, traveling with it, doing it in different places, collaborating with people, just doing this very small 8 or 16-page thing. I started to think about what kind of writing I liked, how it was hard to find, and what it felt like to present work to other people that they didn’t know about. New work, old work, whatever. I did a book of my own poems when I was in college, and put this Ugly Duckling Presse thing on it, and I didn’t know what it would be. I thought it would just be my own little Xerox thing. But then when I met friends in New York, you know: poets, a theater director, artists; we were all making little one of a kind books for each other, or collaborating on little things that weren’t really meant to be published. On the one hand they were fun, but we were talking a lot about what would it be like to produce more than one copy, or more than ten copies. And the form of the chapbook, which was then not much of a word that people knew, seemed the most accessible and the easiest to produce, so we were sometimes making little chapbook runs and just producing them for each other, and just putting Ugly Duckling Presse on them, even though we didn’t really have a publishing house then. And when we started getting serious about what kind of organization we could become, the name stuck. So when I first started doing something under this name, there was no vision at all. It was just sort of happenstance that it became something. It was mostly the accidental connection I had with other people. But why is a really good question, because I don’t think it was clear to us why, except that we wanted to put work out into the world that wasn’t getting attention. When we started the magazine there were people that I corresponded with that sent me stuff for the zine, and just by accident the zine got sent to other people that did zines, would get listed somewhere, sent back to me. So I would get stuff in the mail that said, “Hey, I heard you do this zine, do you want to publish these poems?” And then again, when we started 6×6 in 2000, I contacted some of those people, so there was some continuity there. Something about publishing work, making literature public, it was really energizing to all of us. To me in particular. I don’t know how to precisely explain that feeling, but I’m sure some of you guys probably have that bug, that “We’re gonna make this happen” bug. You feel like you’re doing something bigger than yourself, you’re participating in the world in a way that is meaningful, and you’re also in some ways drawing the outlines of how you think one should engage with the world.  For Ugly Duckling it was like we wanted to do things in a way that was different from the way literature was presented. We wanted to make it accessible. Which meant cheap, partly, but which also meant not daunting, because we were dealing with a lot of contemporary, experimental poetry, so we wanted people to say “I’ll pick this up, it’s five bucks.” You know, like, “I’ll take a chance.” The first issues were two dollars each, so we were actually running at a loss.  There was a lot of hand labor involved, especially early on with collating and all that, which we don’t for these [6×6], because we do the interiors where we get our books bound. But before we used to have to collate by hand, and before we had a big cutter we’d have to cut these ten at a time, and that’s a lot when you’re doing a thousand. There was something about that engagement, too: putting all this free labor into something that, in the end, was not profitable. Something about the absurdity of that was exciting, in that it suggests the kind of model or thinking around literature that didn’t put monetary value around it. It underscored the fat that literature wasn’t very well-funded here, and it’s also something that most people don’t engage with seriously, especially difficult or contemporary work, and especially poetry. Ask anyone on the street and they’ll say, “I love poetry,” but they’re not necessarily engaged with it in the same way that they are with the movies or with TV. It’s no longer a popular literature, and it’s probably ok to not be sad about it. But at the same time, we wanted it to be accessible, especially to younger people. We thought it would be good to have events for younger people where there was music and poetry, where poetry can remain complicated and experimental and contemporary, and doesn’t have to exist in a cloistered space, its own ivory tower or something. So that the experience of poetry can be like the experience of music: listening to a band that’s somewhat experimental is similar to listening to a poet. We wanted young people to be able to afford these things, so we had some chapbooks that were sold for 25 cents. They were really cool looking too. So yeah, I still have no idea. For me the real excitement around writing is sharing writing that you’re excited about with other people. That’s more interesting to me than just sitting alone at home and going “I love this book.” I want to be out and sharing that with other people. More recently, I think the why changes a lot over time. More and more, I think about—when I started the Eastern European Poets Series I really thought, how do people in the US think about what Eastern European poetry is? Why are the names always sort of the same? Wasn’t there other stuff going on? So I wanted to highlight people who weren’t big prize-winners, who weren’t up for the Nobel or anything. I wanted to bring a sense of the plurality of Eastern European poetry to the American reader. That worked to some degree, actually. A lot of it had to do with remapping history, showing that history wasn’t so black and white, or so uncomplicated. We’re doing a lot of Latin American poets right now, and a lot of Uruguayan poets that have never been published in English.

CW:  Yeah, I actually grabbed the copy of Sor Juana’s Enigmas last night from the pile of UDP books.

MY: Even though that particular Sor Juana work is well-known, we did that book because we wanted to pair it with a chapbook of this contemporary poet who’s kind of based on Sor Juana, or in dialogue with her, in kind of a fun way. So apart from a couple of things where the name is familiar, we’ve done a lot of stuff where the author or poet hasn’t been translated before. We’re trying to reimagine “What is Latin American poetry to us in the states?” It’s an important question. Is it just Octavio Paz, or Sor Juana? What is it and what kind of expressions have we overlooked?

CW: So, that was not a simple question then.


CW: So, can you think of some of the first hurdles you had to go over in starting—well, I guess the zine itself, since you mentioned you started that in college.

MY: There weren’t many hurdles for the zine. It’s sort of a very small version of what happens later, when you start to look for funding from the NEA. Like, we just needed to become a student club and get access to the photocopier. That was pretty much it, so once we did we had a couple hundred dollars, and we printed the magazine and did the whole student club thing. There was hardly any question of funding. So in a way there were many fewer hurdles doing a zine, and when I was traveling around, working in New York, I would just use the office photocopier. The only thing needed was time to do the collages, and hang out with a friend to go through the different submissions. So not many hurdles. It was a game, it was kinda fun. And UDP still has its fun moments, for sure, but the zine was definitely its own thing. Sometimes I would distribute it by hiding it in other journals, or the Village Voice, the college newspaper, the newspaper boxes on the street. You know where you can get a free newspaper? I would just stick them in, and they would just go out into the world. Someone would get it by surprise, and that surprise was always interesting. What happens when you find something like that? What is this doing in my Village Voice? And my college newspaper, what does it mean? I always thought that element of surprise, of mystery, was an important part of the experience of art, because it would take people out of their daily experience. To me it was interesting that you could do that in print, because it worked in multiples. Each book wasn’t a precious work of art, you could give it away, or tie it to a tree and see who found it. But the hurdles certainly happen quickly when you start to produce a thousand copies instead of a hundred. Then you’re like, “How do we distribute this?” So there was a lot of talking to bookstores, and silly little receipts written out by hand, figuring out how to consign different books in bookstores, talking to distributors and getting them to take you seriously. We had to get the Council of the Arts to take us seriously, like “We’re gonna do this Eastern European Poets Series, but all we have to show you right now is this flimsy little magazine.” But somehow, we managed to convince them and other people that we were serious. And it’s still a struggle to convince people, even last night, that guy who asked the question like, “These are just pamphlets, aren’t they cheap to produce?” and I’m just like, “You don’t actually understand anything about what it takes to edit and produce a book of poetry.” It was probably because that guy had not encountered these kind of books before, because they’re not in most bookstores, they’re not in the college bookstores, because those are usually a Barnes and Noble subsidiary, even though people teach our books, so they’ll sometimes be there, but it’s not something that people necessarily know. A small press book, and the history of small press books, isn’t everybody’s bread and butter. So it’s not surprising that that attitude exists out there. And it’s very hard to get people to understand that on one hand there’s letterpress on this cover, but that doesn’t mean we’re a boutique publisher. We actually have distribution, our books are all over North America, and some in Central and South America, Europe and Japan, they’re everywhere, but only in niche spaces where you have to look. It’s not going to be at the biggest book store in Buenos Aires. It’ll be at the little poetry book shop. So, the hurdles have to do with that way that people think that if it’s not Penguin or Random House, what is it? Can books look like this? We’ve always tried to play with that, to push those boundaries, to push against people’s expectations. If the content is going to be different, or announce itself somehow as being different from your mass-market book, then the look of it should tell you something about that difference. We like the idea that people will touch this, that it’s not about the screen, it’s not purely about information, it’s about experience.

CW: From your reading last night, you seemed like a jack-of-all-trades in the literary world. You do translation, you write poetry, you do critical work, you’re an editor, you teach—so basically, do you find that difficult to manage, or does it come naturally?

MY: It is difficult to manage, but it comes naturally to me to say yes to a lot of things. So I become over-obligated often, which is good and bad. At some point I’ll have to take a break, organize this mess that I’ve created for myself, and I don’t know when I’ll get to do that. It is kind of a mad life, but at the same time I’m really happy about it, in the sense that I get to follow all of these interests. I don’t like the idea of “I’m a novelist,” or “I’m a poet.” I don’t feel comfortable just staying in one place. But once you’re working in literature, I think it’s weird that—well, when you think about Kafka, or Dostoevsky who’s also writing very journalistic work as well as novels, and doing a lot of polemical work—literary production has never been that separated into disciplines. And I think that’s partly the university system. More and more in the US university system, instead of making things interdisciplinary, it’s about creating these separate disciplines. There are programs that are interdisciplinary, but they run into problems. It’s easier when you can define everything, when the university can say “this is that kind of thing.” Where I teach at Columbia for their MFA, and I understand their limited resources, if you’re a poet it’s very hard for you to get into a fiction workshop. And likewise if you’re a fiction writer it’s very hard to get into a poetry workshop, or nonfiction. So it’s like “Wait a minute, shouldn’t we as writers be familiar with all of these ways of working?” Some of my favorite novels are written by poets. The same goes for novelists who also have polemical work, or translation, which some of them have done either to supplement their income, because that is actually one of the ways that writers who may be doing work that’s not easily sellable can actually make somewhat of a living. In America it’s harder, but translating in other languages is a way to get published and get a job. My most visible publications are my translations, more so than my own work. And I don’t feel weird about that, because these were writers whom I admire, who were formative for me, who were historical. I know they already have a place in history, as writers, whereas my work, if people like it that’s great, but I’m not expecting it to be in history books or something. As far as criticism, it’s interesting to engage in all those different ways. I don’t really write book reviews anymore because I feel weird about it. I publish books, and I don’t want to review the books of other small presses. It just feels uncomfortable. I’ve been writing longer critical pieces about more general things in poetry, or sometimes about specific writers. Writing critical work is so hard, just trying to make everything clear, to clear you own head and clarify your writing so that you really believe in it. You’re no longer in the fictional world of poetry where you can write outrageous things and not really believe in it. All these different ways of interacting with the written word, with the literary world, seem so complementary to me, seem so tied up in one another that it would be hard for me to sort them out. Teaching, for me, is really great in that context. I get to talk to younger writers who are just starting, and I get a lot of energy from that. I feel really lucky, but it is a lot of juggling and a lot of different work all at the same time. Even the correspondence, which is luckily, or I guess not luckily, my email—it’s worse because it’s email and people can write back really fast. Correspondence is a really important part of the writer’s life, and of course the editing life. All of these things merge, and it’s hard for me to imagine just writing poetry.  Especially because it doesn’t pay.

CW: There is that. One last quick question—or not, I should stop saying that—anyway, do you have any advice for people looking to start their own zine or little magazine?

MY: Before I answer that, could you tell me a little bit more about that magazine you guys are doing?

CW: Oh. So, well, ours is—well, we’re on issue—well, here’s the most recent edition, actually.

MY: So a faculty member works with you guys, and this is kind of a longstanding journal, but the people who work on it change every year?

CW: Usually, but sometimes we’ll have the same professor for a few years. Ellen has done it before.

MY: Yeah, and she has experience with Salt.

CW: Yeah, she worked on Salt Hill at Syracuse. And Penelope Pelizzon did it for the last few years, and Sean Forbes is going to be leading it next year. So now they’re getting more into a rotating schedule.

MY: But the students change every year?

CW: Sometimes you’ll have individual students who get in earlier in their college careers and are there for a few years. But most of the time they tend to prefer juniors and seniors.

MY: How long have you been doing it?

CW: This is my first time.

MY: And you’re a junior? Senior?

CW: Senior, yeah.

MY: So first and last time.

CW: Yeah, and it’s been a great experience. I’m the Nonfiction Editor.

MY: Excellent. And can you tell me how much in the journal is actually student work?

CW: We only accept student work, actually. We accept graduate and undergraduate, and there’s really no preference between the two.

MY: This is beautiful! It’s crazy looking—really odd. I love it. So what is your role in the magazine now?

CW: Well, I’m the Creative Nonfiction Editor. I had to lead a panel, and we reviewed all the nonfiction submissions and, as expected, we had the fewest. I think by the end we went through about forty different pieces.

MY: That’s significant, for nonfiction.

CW: Yeah—it was exciting, just kind of managing everyone’s tastes, trying to figure out what an essay is supposed to do. I’m really lucky in that in my first class with Ellen, we went over creative nonfiction, and I got a really great exposure to it there. I actually got published in the last issue, so it’s kind of surreal to be working with the same magazine now. I was thinking about this the other day, because I had to send out the acceptance letters along with some rejection ones.

MY: Cool. So you work with the Design Center, and that’s here at the college?

CW: Yeah. I think it’s led right now by Edvin Yager, he’s their faculty member, but they do a lot of really great work.

MY: So your question is more along the terms of actually starting…something.

CW: Yeah, like—anything, really. Myself, I’m interested in starting a zine this summer, but we’ve talked a lot in class about online magazines, which seem to be getting more prevalent.

MY: So in the class are you talking about doing something different from the LRR?

CW: No, the class hasn’t been talking about it, this is more a question for anyone, really. We’ve been looking at online things because Ellen’s trying to get us exposed to the whole world of little magazines, which is daunting. And I’m trying to figure out what I want to do in there, and I’m sure the more people start to learn about these things—well, they get that bug, like you were saying.

MY: Yeah. Well, it was really helpful for me, when I started the zine, to think about how I would distribute it. It was sort of a funky zine—like a really wacky look, it was never the same and it was really messy, which I think was was exactly what it needed to be. So, giving it to people that I didn’t know, I kinda had to think “Oh, that person seems like they might not be offended if I give it to them.” You know, when handing it out to people, we made an event out of it. My friend who helped work on it would yell stuff, like “Get your free copy!” We’d make a bigger deal out of it than it was, and often I think that’s what makes history. People are always making a bigger deal out of things, like, “me and my friends are doing this thing” and as long as you’re really loud about it, it sounds like it’s important. And if you read someone talking about the Dada group, the people in it are always arguing about who started it first, or who thought of it first, all these avant-garde groups, and then you realize that they’re all just hyping themselves up. And in a sense, that’s what makes them important in history. They constantly publicized themselves as being important. It’s kind of silly, but it does work. In these different fields like teaching, I end up teaching some of our books. And they like it, it’s not like I’m pushing stuff that doesn’t have to do with the content of the course, it’s not like it has no bearing and I’m just like, “You’re assigned to read this UDP book.” So I think all the ways that I’m trying to get this work out into the world, that nexus, is really important. It’s similar to starting a zine, you need to talk about it to people, tell them you’re doing this new thing, ask them if they want to trade. When we started the zine, and later when we started 6×6, we started to trade a lot with other magazines. We’d say, “Hey, we’ll give you a subscription if you give us a subscription.” So we also got to see what was coming out in these other magazines. And then going to fairs and conventions, we’d do a lot of trading with other publishers, who might not have the money to buy your stuff. That’s a really great way to get things going. As far as starting something, Cid Corman, who ran a magazine from the sixties through the eighties, who was really important for American poetry, said something like “your magazine is only as good as its submissions.” So widening that, through correspondence, makes for a much greater pool of writers. And once you start corresponding with people, or trading with other magazines, you’re actually finding an aesthetic unity that shares some ideas. And you’re more likely to get submissions that you like that way, from people that you correspond with, or who are fans of those people, or who you might be trading things with. So yeah, I think when you’re starting a new thing, it’s really important to identify what it is, both visually and content wise, that you want people to know about it. In our case, we actually withheld things. These covers don’t say 6×6 on them, and we didn’t include contributor bios. And at first that seemed like a hurdle, you’re like “who are these people, why am I reading it,” but the real point is that it doesn’t matter who these people are, or why you’re reading it. We’re not coercing you into it. Maybe you looked at the work and you liked it, and that’s why you’re reading it. We’re not going to tell you who the contributors are, where they got an MFA or whatever, we’re not going to explain why they’re together in the journal. We’re not even going to tell you the name of the journal until you open the front cover. And I think, for us, that kind of engaged different ideas about how you could engage someone in a book. Because it has some kind of mystery, or this strange shape, or the strange binding, to us that felt like it was fun to do, just wacky, but more importantly it was a way to say “there’s something different here.” And the cheap price is a way for you to take a chance and not regret it. That posed, again, certain problems. We can’t distribute it through a normal distributor the way you could a perfect-bound magazine with a durable cover, a normal binding, a spine that tells you what the magazine is. Things like that are really important, actually, when you get into the commerce of it. So we had to think about the integrity of it, we had to ask, what is it that we want to do? Do we want to make a magazine that is very prestigious? Do we want a magazine that is very work-focused? Part of the reason we did this is so that each author would get more space. Six pages, instead of two or three, and that someone would get a sense of their work. Also this gives them visual space. A blank page before each section might seem like a waste of space, but each author felt really good about that, like “Whoa, that’s my section. I’m a writer, and that’s my space.” There’s also the idea that you could read the whole thing in a subway ride, it doesn’t take long. We were working against the intimidation factor of a big journal, where there’s a hundred names and you don’t know who to read. I found it that way, at least, especially in contemporary American poetry. I found it daunting, I couldn’t make heads or tails of a journal with hundreds of submissions. How do I read it? Do I go straight through, or pick people based on their bio? Anyway, all those minute decisions are really important. Some magazines start out right away and they get somebody famous to be on the cover. That’s one way to get readership. Think of ways to change the rhythm of how a magazine works, rather than just turning pages. How are they different form each other? Where does the art go, is it integrated or kept to its own sections? There are so many decisions to make, and they all seem to me to come back to what the mission of the work is. If one is to start something like a solo zine, there’s that question of whether you just want to do all the writing yourself. Some people do that and are really successful at it. When you think about the beginnings of the graphic novel, even, like the one, what’s her name, the funeral home? Fun Home?

CW: Allison Bechdel.

MY: Right. That kind of thing starts with a zine, often, with the artist writing and drawing about their personal life. And that’s a really interesting form, and sometimes people subscribe just because they’re interested in that one person’s views on things, critical or autobiographical. I’ve found that the easiest way, and one of the most productive, was just to ask people that I was friends with first, and just work with stuff from them, or someone I knew well enough that I could say “Hey, you’re interesting, write something for this journal, or send me a drawing,” or whatever. Just people I liked, and that way everyone was happy. I would give them copies, and nobody felt weird about it, because I didn’t have to reject anyone. We were just like “Oh, let’s cram this poem in somehow.” It started with just asking people to give us work, and then we tried to do something interesting with the way it was presented, so that they were kind of involved. They could tell people, “oh yeah, my poem was in this cool, kinda wacky thing, check it out.” They’d give it to people, and that proliferates. It’s hard to say what the first thing to do is, but it’s some combination of that kind of thinking around what the object is going to be, how it’s going to stand out, or if it needs to stand out. Sometimes the better decision is to not make it stand out. It depends on the kind of avenue you want to take, what kind of ethos you want to project to the reader, and then where are they going to encounter it. But asking people you know is a really nice way to get started, and then having events and bringing people in, and then people that those people know come to hear about the journal or zine, and then you meet the friends of friends, and those people are your readership, and once you publish them, then their friends are your readership, and then it just grows organically from there.

CW: So, a steady world domination.

MY: Until you’ve covered the whole world through this pyramid scheme.

Carleton Whaley is a senior English major at the University of Connecticut, and has the privilege of working with the Long River Review as Creative Nonfiction Editor

An Interview with Novelist and Short Story Writer Laura van den Berg by Carleton Whaley (2016)

Laura van den Berg is a short story writer and novelist known for her collections What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth, as well as her debut novel Find Me, which was listed as a “Best of 2015” by NPR, Time Out New York, Buzzfeed, and others.

Portrait of the author (Taken from the UConn Creative Writing Program Facebook).

Portrait of the author (Used with her permission).

This interview was conducted in the fall of 2015, while I was in a creative writing class with that had read and reviewed Find Me. Meeting the author of a book you’ve been poring over is always surreal, but on top of that I had been selected to have a one-on-one tutoring session with Laura van den Berg. Part of the deal was that I would also attend a dinner with her, and at that dinner my professor (who is also the Associate Director of Creative Writing) prodded me to ask for this interview. She had mentioned it months ago, but I thought it was just a nice idea, not something that would actually happen. I suddenly regretted wearing a shirt I was only 80% sure no one could tell was stained. I hesitantly asked, and although Ms. van den Berg looked at me curiously, she almost immediately said yes, she’d love to sit for an interview. We met the next day, after the tutoring session, and it was clear I had never interviewed anyone before. She was at ease, however, joking around and giving me some advice before we started. Much later, long after the interview had been completed and she had flown back home, I found out that it is customary to arrange interviews at least a month in advance, usually through an agent, and this only heightened my sense of gratitude for her graciousness.

Carleton Whaley: You mentioned at your reading last night that you only started writing in college, which is admittedly a lot later than some. Can you say how this has affected you, what kind of place it’s put you in?

Laura van den Berg: Just to clarify, you mean how has it affected me to start writing later?

CW: What I mean is, do you think it puts you in a different mindset than other authors?

LB: I actually think that’s an incredibly interesting question, I don’t know if I have a great answer for it. Every writer has their own trajectory, so like I mentioned at the reading last night, if you asked the same question to twenty different authors, you’d get twenty different answers. I know some writers who were writing when they were practically toddlers, and some who didn’t start writing until they were in their 40s. I find that the trajectories can be so incredibly varied, that to me my path doesn’t seem like a particularly strange one. Starting to write in college is still relatively early. It’s not like waiting until middle age and then starting to write. I think for me the bigger divide is actually my reading life. Not only was I not writing as a younger person, I wasn’t reading either. I think that one of the consequences of that is that it was something I was very self-conscious about. I know that everyone has gaps in their reading, but I knew mine were a lot greater than most people’s. So when I was in graduate school I felt, appropriately, that I had a lot of catching up to do. There’s a self-consciousness around that, but also it was really good, because I was super motivated not only to do as much of my own work as I could, I was also motivated to read read read read read. Poetry, nonfiction, fiction, story collections, novels; I just wanted to know. Another thing, and this is something I’ve started to think of more recently, I have met some writers who I think books and literature were a kind of solace and safe place as children, and who really had that experience of disappearing into books as kids. You talk to them and you can sort of tell that the majority of their energy put into the world, as a person, is sort of directed toward that imagined sphere. Not having that until I was a young adult, I think I’m very aware of the larger world. And I don’t mean the larger world in some grand way, but I’m not someone who thinks—I mean, being a writer is a crucial part of my identity, and I think I would become undone if I couldn’t write, and certainly if I couldn’t read, but I’m not someone who thinks that what you put on the page is the only thing that matters. I want to have contact with the physical world and sort of cultivate a meaningful lived life alongside a meaningful writing life.

CW: That’s really interesting, because something I noticed while reading Find Me was that as much as a lot of the book is in Joy’s mind, there’s this sense that the geography around her is so important to the structure. I’ve been trying to figure it out, actually.

LB: Yeah, and this came up a little bit last night. I feel that growing up in Florida, with such a pronounced sense of place, place is so important to me. Even if it isn’t named, it’s physical and it’s pronounced. I was thinking in Find Me, specifically, especially in the two different parts, apart from the basic differences in plot, the aspiration was in part to create a world that was more closed, cloistered, and isolated, both psychologically and literally. Even in the pallet in Part One there’s a lot of silver and white and gray, sort of monotone, and you’re in the Midwest, which is of course landlocked. Also I think that it’s nodding more to genre in more explicit ways, in terms of the genre of dystopia and even that of horror—you know, you have this hospital where malevolent things might be happening. And the intention in Part Two was more to disrupt and challenge some of what had been built in the first part. You now, they were designed to oppose each other in some respects. I think you get this sort of looseness in the second part in terms of plot and also Joy’s voice. She gets angrier, and there’s more color. But to get back to your question about geography, they’re also moving toward the coast, toward water, and for me that has some more openness to it in terms of psychological connotations. Winter is fading, and they’re moving to a place of warmth. The idea of starting in a landlocked placed and moving toward the sort of warm, coastal edge felt to me like an important part of Joy’s trajectory.

CW: Having finished it recently, and just hearing that—it just makes so much sense. And you talking about genre brings me to another question. Some of the criticism that I’ve seen of Find Me has been from people who sort of qualify themselves by saying how well they know dystopian fiction. Their comments range from people saying your book doesn’t line up with the genre to people saying, paradoxically, that it’s just another dystopian novel. I guess I’m just wondering; how would you answer that?

LB: It’s been really interesting to see the divide between review coverage. Between reader reviews on sites like Goodreads, for example, versus paper and magazine reviews. I got one very bad review, and everyone gets a bad review, from NPR, who did not like it at all. I mean, it was a really odd book in a lot of ways, so I had no idea what people would think of it, and what reviewers would think of it, so I was really excited and relieved to see that by and large the review coverage was really positive. It even made me think about the book in new ways—it wasn’t just dumbly positive reviews. Anyway, a lot of the conversation around the novel was very gratifying in that regard. And so with Goodreads reviews, if you sort of line up reader reviews next to critic reviews, you’d see that the reader reviews are much more critical. I think you find that one of the tricky things about writing a book that seems like it has a sort of genre premise is that it pulls in people who normally read in that genre, people who think “Oh, I love science fiction,” or, “I love dystopias.” And in my case, it’s not that. The book is more about Joy’s strange, sometimes violent trajectory through the world. It’s not really a dystopian novel in the traditional sense of the word, in that the dystopia sort of fades into the backdrop. And I think that’s actually a common thing. The good thing is that having a book that appears to belong to a genre, but doesn’t, can pull in readers to your work that wouldn’t normally read it, or might not have seen it otherwise. And if they connect, that’s amazing. But it can also pull readers to your work who are hoping for your book to be something that it just is not. People who come to my book hoping for an engrossing, labyrinthine science fiction plot are gonna be super disappointed. Someone who comes to it with a contagion-esque or epidemic standpoint, looking for what would actually happen during an epidemic or crisis, is gonna be disappointed. Anyone who goes to Threats for a Gone Girl-esque book, where everything is tied up in this amazing way at the end, is gonna be super disappointed. But I don’t know that it’s necessarily my job to respond to criticism, whether it’s from a professional critic or a reader. I think anyone who connects to the book, who connects to the world, who connects to Joy, is the right reader. You can’t write for every reader. I’m glad you got it, I’m glad you read it, it’s obviously still good for my book sales, and I’m glad you gave it a try. It just wasn’t for you, and that’s ok.

CW: I think that’s a really great way to look at it, without getting too emotional. I mean, I was reading the criticism and I was getting mad, so…

LB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, I think sometimes you see the divide there, on Goodreads, and Amazon too, but I think people who review on Goodreads do it more and get really into it. It’s very interesting to see the divide between books that do well critically and books that do well—I mean, there are books that appeal to both professional critics and readers, so it’s not to say that books are one or the other, but there are definitely some that critics will love, and they’ll say “this is the best/most innovative thing ever” and readers will say “this is the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever encountered.” So I think it’s more that people who review books for a living are used to reading a certain kind of fiction, like people who review more experimental fiction are used to reading experimental fiction. And then someone reads a review in the New York Times and they see this review for this kind of fiction they’ve never read before, and they read it and think “this is not at all what I was expecting!” I think the easy thing for writers is to just be really snobby about things like Goodreads, and just say “Well, they’re just a bunch of idiots,” and I don’t really like that. I think anytime literature elicits an impassioned response from someone, even if it’s a negative response, I think that’s ultimately not so bad.

CW: I definitely understand. So, this is back to starting out, who were the first people you gravitated toward, as far as literary influences? And would you say those have remained somewhat constant, or have you drifted?

LB: Well, I didn’t know anything about fiction, or contemporary fiction, so I just read whatever my professor handed to me. Some early people, for sure, were Amy Hempel, you know her story “In the Cemetery Where Al Johnson’s Buried,” is still one of my favorite contemporary short stories; Laurie Moor was a big one; Charles Baxter; Richard Bausch; Alice Munro; Edward P. Jones, a lot of people we would consider to be contemporary classics in short fiction; Jim Shepard, you know, the contemporary canon for short fiction, and so that was my reading life for a long time. But there were two big turning points for me after that. The first is when I started reading things that were departing from realism. Things that you’d call magical realist, or fabulist. And also people who approached realism in very different ways. You know, Joy Williams is one of my favorite living writers, and most of her work is in more or less of a realist vein, but often feels very surreal, so it’s like her realism feels very different from Richard Ford, who I also love. His collection, Rock Springs, is really amazing. Flannery O’Connor is a really great one too. But definitely reading people who were departing from realism was just really exciting for my brain. And then the second point was reading, or learning to read, a lot of literature in translation. One of the most important classes I took while in grad school was a class in the contemporary French novel, and it was just a totally different vision of how the novel could operate. It opened up all these avenues of structure.

CW: You’re starting your new novel, right?

LB: Yeah!

CW: Do you have a go-to process for coming up with ideas, or are there certain habits you fall into when creating new work?

LB: I don’t have too many novel ideas, and I’m sure you’re like, “You just finished your novel and you’re already working on a new one, so that’s not quite accurate,” but actually this new one grew out of a short story I wrote a few years ago. In the summer of 2012, I wanted to continue along with the characters, which hardly ever happens with me and short stories, but I just had that impulse. So I just wrote a really messy draft of a novel, and then I put it away. And then I sold my second story collection, and Find Me, so I needed to work on those books and sort of go through the publication process. But I was interested to see what would happen when I put it away: would I just forget about it? Or would it stay with me? And it did. I found that I was longing to go back to it, but having the time to think about it was really helpful, because I found that I couldn’t just continue with the story. I had to keep the characters and the place, but chuck everything else. I thought about it all the time, and finally in the fall of 2014, I think, I did go back to it in a really serious way. And I’ve written some short stories in the interim, but that’s pretty much what I’ve been working on since.

CW: We talked a bit about this at the reading, but do you find generating ideas for short stories easier?

LB: I don’t really think in terms of generating. It will be interesting, because I think after this novel it will be a while before I write another novel, because I don’t have a single, solitary novel idea, or even close. Not even vibrating on the outskirts. So I’ll have to see if I’m more proactive about generating story ideas. I think I sort of only want to work on something if I feel compelled in that direction. And I don’t mean “it comes to me” like the Muse visits, but I think I’m waiting for those moments where I see, hear, or feel something that really catches my attention in a particular way. And I think that’s where ideas come from. It’s not so much me sitting down and thinking “well, what if I wrote a story about this, or a story about this,” it’s more about really trying to be attuned to the world, and seeing what comes back.

CW: I think that’s really interesting, because I’m constantly having ideas and trying to write them down, but I don’t stick with it.

LB: Yeah, and I know a bunch of writers who are very conscious in giving themselves assignments and exercises to get at new ideas, so everyone is very different in that way.

CW: So, Salon Magazine—and I’m sure you get this all the time—Salon Magazine called you “the best young writer in America.” What was it like to hear that?

LB: I mean, it was very kind, and it was the day before Find Me came out, so it was very exciting. And obviously it’s a great joy, a great privilege to put a book out into the world, but you know you’re nervous too, so that comment would have meant a lot to me in any context, but particularly right before the book came out. At the same time, it’s not something I would take literally, and I would not suggest anyone else take it literally either. There are about 200 people I would put ahead of myself. And certainly, when you put something online you’re thinking, “What will encourage people to click this link?” and “Best Young Writer in America” encourages more than “Interview with Debut Author.”  So I don’t know if Salon meant it to be taken literally either. But it was great for the book, and it was exciting, but I wouldn’t for a moment internalize it at all. The one downside, and it’s not a real downside (this is like the world’s smallest violin territory), but it definitely does invite people to say (like on Goodreads) “This is definitely not the best young writer in America.” Which is kinda funny. So it’s interesting to see how it really does bring out that contrarian response. As soon as you say “this is the best” their inclination is to demonstrate how it is, in fact, not the best.

CW: Do you think that since then there’s been more pressure? I mean, I’m just imagining myself in that situation, and I don’t deal with pressure well, so—

LB: Well, I mean, there wasn’t any pressure because the book had already been written and published, so you can’t do anything to it after that. Your job is essentially over, so I was doing the book tour and readings, and chances are that wasn’t going to impact the book’s life in a really significant way. So then it was just in the hands of the gods, you know what I mean? And you don’t know where it’s going to be reviewed, or how people will review it, and there’s not a blessed thing you can do to control that either. So I think there wasn’t a lot of pressure, because the part of the process you can control is over.

CW: Is that title something that pops up still? That was earlier this year.

LB: Yeah, publishing is funny because it has a very short memory. It feels like it was a while ago, but it was only in February, like, it was this year, it’s not like it was three years ago or something, but it feels at once very recent and very, very far. It comes up, it’s something that people ask me about, because it was such a bold statement, and people wanted to know what its impact was.

Carleton Whaley is a senior English major at the University of Connecticut, and has the privilege of working with the Long River Review as Creative Nonfiction Editor.

Deciphering DIAGRAM with Ander Monson by Allison McLellan and Alexandra Cichon (2016)

Screenshot of DIAGRAM's website

Screenshot of DIAGRAM’s website

DIAGRAM is an online magazine that, as its name suggests, stands out in the unique use of obscure diagrams and schematics accompanying written works displayed in refreshing, innovative ways, including fiction, poetry, and comics. Although the magazine stands out by charging new ground, I find I cannot try to sum it up any better than the editor’s words themselves: “DIAGRAM is an electronic journal of text and art. As our name indicates, we’re interested in representations. In naming. In indicating. In schematics. In the labeling and taxonomy of things. In poems that masquerade as stories; in stories that disguise themselves as indices or obituaries.”

The editor is Ander Monson based out of Tucson, Arizona. When asked about the publication, his laid-back attitude in his responses (he describes himself in his editor bio simply as “a super-cheap date”) emulates the same tone that shapes DIAGRAM’s sardonic and light-hearted humor. Outside of DIAGRAM, Monson also edits for the website Essay Daily and the New Michigan Press and he has authored six books and the website . The Long River Review was fortunate enough to be given a few of his spare moments to look into how he has developed DIAGRAM over the years.

1. How did the magazine begin? Was it a tumultuous beginning or smooth sailing?

It started in 2000 after I came off a stint editing Black Warrior Review. It was kind of half-assed, as most things begin, but almost immediately it seemed to strike a chord. I’m still not sure why.

2. What inspires DIAGRAM’s unique layout?

I don’t think the layout’s all that unique, though maybe I’m understating what it is we do: I mean, it’s modeled after principles of classical typography and design, particularly as seen in print publications from, like, the 19th century. I suppose that does add up to a unique aesthetic, at least in terms of online magazines, which tend to be more forward-looking. We are in terms of the work we publish, but not in terms of the design. We’re not the only ones, though: Public Domain Review and McSweeney’s come to mind.

3. What have been your biggest challenges working with DIAGRAM?

Two come to mind: one is keeping on top of it, month after month, year after year. We’re in our sixteenth year at the moment, and have never missed a publication date. That takes some dedication. The other, maybe more concerning, is keeping track of the editors and magazine as it’s gotten bigger. Our stated goal is responding to submissions in two months, which we hit maybe only 60 percent of the time, I’d guess. It’s hard to keep all our editors on task when I don’t see most of them often, if at all. So finding and managing people is a big part of it.

4. How do you promote and distribute your publication?

As we are online, distribution is just putting the issues up on our website. As for promotion we don’t do a lot of that, honestly; we have a Facebook that one of our editors tends and a Twitter that one of our editors tends, and that’s about it aside from putting calls out for submission periodically for our contests, and running notices and doing interviews at times via Poets & Writers and so forth. Then there’s AWP, which is our only yearly real splash-out.

5. What are your do’s and don’t’s for submissions?

Read the magazine, and if you like it, submit work. That’s about it. There’s not a lot of mystery. I’d say 25 percent of our submissions are by people who have obviously never even read the magazine, which remains baffling, since it’s all online and free. I guess read the guidelines, too, which everyone says, but everyone says that for a reason. It takes us a lot of time to read and respond to submissions, so spending a couple minutes looking at what we’re asking for (and not) seems like the minimum price of admission (especially since we don’t charge a reading fee).

6. Which submissions are more difficult to choose, diagrams or text?

Text. Diagrams (we get many fewer since most of our diagrams are discovered and selected by our editors in Goodwills and garage sales and university libraries) are easy. It’s usually an obvious yes or an obvious no. Poems and essays and such are much more time-consuming and occasionally psychologically difficult.

7. Do you ever choose the schematics based on the written pieces you’ve chosen first, or vice versa, to reflect a certain mood?

Yup, though we don’t tend to do super-thematic issues, we usually have about 30 pieces and maybe 15 diagrams in the hopper in any given issue, and the issue gets assembled out of that. Occasionally there are exceptions for our sound issue (which had sound-themed diagrams), and for the erasure issue we’re going to do in late summer.

8. Is humor an important part of the magazine?

Yeah: I think it’s obvious that we’re more than occasionally interested in publishing things that are funny (humor’s one of the outcomes of divorcing diagrams from their contexts, oftentimes). But it’s also the case that we rarely publish things that are only funny.

9. Was there ever a moment where the magazine was close to not picking any diagrams for a specific issue/vice versa, not picking any written pieces?

No, mainly because we have about nine months worth of backlog for accepted work: the average time between acceptance and publication is six months, probably, which means we don’t read for individual issues: we just accept work, so there’s never a time when there’s not a mass of excellent work we’ve selected, awaiting an issue. Diagrams are a little trickier, since those come in more sporadically. I have a huge collection of my own (which about 60 percent of the diagrams we use come from), and the rest are found by editors and like-minded diagram lovers, but still there’s a pretty good backlog for those too (intentionally).

10. What is your take on online vs. print magazines?

I like them.

11. Do you think written art could exist without physical art (drawings, paintings, diagrams, etc.)?

Sure, but I think it would be lonely and impoverished.

Allison McLellan is an English major, Communication minor on the poetry panel of the Long River Review.

Alexandra Cichon is a senior studying English at the University of Connecticut. She is on the poetry panel at the Long River Review.