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Determined Indeterminacy: Q&A with Fence Editor Rebecca Wolff

V1n1In 1997, Rebecca Wolff got a few friends together at her apartment to talk about starting a magazine. Carolyn Crumpacker, Jonathan Lethem, Frances Richard, Matt Rohrer, and Wolff drafted a manifesto for an art/lit/criticism mag called Fence. In their words:
"Fence is a resting place for work that we recognize by its singularity, its reluctance to take a seat in any established camp, its insistence on the reader's close attention to what is not already understood, digested, judged."
Nine years later, Wolff asked each of the editors--they've changed a few times over the years--to pick their favorites of the poems, stories, or essays they edited, and to introduce their picks with an essay about Fence. The result, A Best of Fence: The First Nine Years, Volumes 1 & 2, is more than just a chronicle of the early years of a literary magazine. Reading or re-reading the poems and stories is like watching the arc of recent contemporary literature. There are many familiar names here, and it's fun to revisit the pieces and realize that you probably read them 10 years ago in Fence before the authors were widely known and published. Even more fun are the editors' essays, which take you to the inner circle of Fence; reading them feels, just a little bit, like having been there.

I've been a long-time fan of the magazine, so I was thrilled to have a chance to talk to Wolff about it: What made you decide to do a Fence retrospective?

Rebecca Wolff: My largest goal with this anthology is to make a record of Fence for the ages. Fence happened right around the time that jaunty email became the given form of even literary communication--no more beautifully crafted letters from editors, at least not in the fast-paced world of start-up journals--and I have been particularly bad at archiving anything about Fence. A library had expressed interest at one point in buying "the Fence archive" and I literally had nothing to sell them. So it occurred to me that a wonderful way to remedy this would be to ask my many editors, over the almost-decade, to tell the Fence story in their words and so to create a record, with hindsight.

And I was proud of our accomplishments and wanted to trumpet them to the world! But there is a backstory: I conceived of the idea in what was really our ninth year--2006--and just then things were changing in the Fence environment. I was, actually, having quite a time figuring out how to keep things going, structurally and financially. It was uncertain that we would continue. So it felt almost elegiac, in a way, to ask these editors to recall their versions of how we got Fence going and what were their parts in the whole effort, which I liken to that of the famous adrenaline-crazed mom who lifts her car off her toddler.

But then a significant juncture happened: Our providential affiliation with the New York State Writers Institute (and consequent move from NYC to Albany) occurred in 2007, and it made sense in a happier way that this anthology talk about our independent years, so to speak (though happily Fence retains all manner of independence in its current arrangement). It’s quite a feat: two volumes, 953 pages total. How long did it take to pull it all together? What surprises did you encounter?

Wolff: It took years and years. Three, to be exact. I put out the call to my editors in April of 2006, and we limped along from there. The editors, some of them, were tardy, permissions were excruciating, and I really don't think that it all would have come together, in the end, if I hadn't been able to finally, in 2007, hire an associate editor (Colie Collen) to help manage all the details. The biggest surprise was how prone to folly I am: I neglected to give my editors any kind of limitation on how many pieces from the magazine they could select for their sections, and so that's how it ended up being 953 pages.

Fence1Fence2 It was fascinating to see the Fence manifesto--mostly because I had always thought that the driving aesthetic behind Fence was innovation. But it was really openness. Am I characterizing that correctly? What made you decide to include the manifesto?

Wolff: You are characterizing that so correctly, and what a relief. The funniest thing about Fence has been the kind of mirrored quality it has, for readers: they see in it what they want to see--which I guess is not so much like a mirror as like a dream, or perhaps a chimera. Someone once wrote Fence a letter about its being an organ for "post-New York School" writing. We hear about how we publish only writers from Iowa. Or only writers from New York. Or how we are groundbreakingly experimental. The fact is we have been painstakingly diverse, in many registers: accomplishment, derivation, gender, culture--literary and otherwise. There is no inherent value, right now, as far as I can tell, in innovation in writing, and I have always instead championed what I clunkily call idiosyncrasy, over alignment with particular models; indeterminacy over overdeterminedness. I feel I probably should have published the manifesto much sooner, perhaps in every issue of Fence. I loved reading the stories from each of the editors about their experiences with the magazine. They have such diverse voices, perspectives, and memories. Some felt gossipy (in a good way), others were more academic or focused on particular Fence office activities or conversations. What was it like to read these essays?

Wolff: Here's what I asked them to do, for the anthology: "In the spirit of Fence these essays don't have to be totally positive; you can let it all hang out and say how confusing, annoying, frustrating, baffling, and enervating your experience with Fence has been (if it has). I really am interested in trying to get on record some "true" (and therefore multifarious) stories about how we got this thing going and what the going was like."

Only a few of them took me at my word and included some of the downer stuff about being an editor of Fence. Reading these essays was exactly what I wanted it to be: Heartwarming. It's very maternal, my whole relationship to Fence and its editors. Reading their essays gives me exactly the same feeling as getting a handmade Mother's Day card from my kids.

It's also of course fascinating for me to be reminded of certain things I'd forgotten (how possessive Lethem can be of the playlist for a party--this pre iPod; how the decision to ask Ben Marcus to succeed Jonathan as fiction editor went down in whispers during a reading by Anne Carson--though this didn't make it into anyone's essay), and also to be made aware, by repeated mentions in various editors' essays, of what kinds of things really stuck for all of us. Something I learned that I didn’t know about Fence was that, in the early days, the events were a very big deal, and a big part of the buzz that surrounded the magazine. Do any events stand out as being particularly momentous?

Wolff: I think by virtue of its firstness and its bigness, the very first Fence fundraiser, which happened before we had published an issue, will never be forgotten by any of us. We had four poets read for us at the Public Theatre, in New York, and hundreds and hundreds of people came. We made more than four thousand dollars! And signed up our first subscribers. And drank donated Lillet like it was going out of style at the reception afterward. What really stands out for me about that event was its gigantic optimism, shared with the Fence editors by a theater full of people. There was a real need for what we were proposing at that time--with our manifesto--and those with whom it resonated came out in force. I wish I had thought to take a picture. Even one! But I still have the dress I wore. Fence has had its share of criticism over the years, but that really seems small in comparison to everything you’ve been able to do. The magazine and the press have inspired a lot of young writers, and inspired a lot of other like-minded journals, both in print and online. How did you feel about all of this as you were looking back over the first nine years of Fence? Do you feel that you’ve done what you set out to do?

Wolff: This is such a complicated question, and a recurring one, and it begs me to ask myself the question: What did we set out to do?

We set out to bring a certain kind of independence of mind into the reading imagination--to make that kind of writing (idiosyncratic, not overdetermined) have a place in the published world. We even had a feature we called "Precedents"--writings from the earlier part of the 20th century that we considered foundational. As we went along the goal emerged to help make sure that young writers did not feel forced into one style or another, one set of ideas or another--but it has been interesting to see that those kinds of pressures create themselves, manifest themselves even from the best intentions such as ours. I have had writers bemoan, wistfully, that their work isn't "Fence-y" enough for Fence: this makes me feel that I have failed in getting the message out (again, that darn manifesto!). There was a dark period in the early 2000s when it was easier to think, I think, that Fence had a "house style"--really it was that our editors were just finding a footing in dealing with, even dispensing with, the waves of trends that come through the transom. Now we are experts at dodging trends, or so we like to think.

I am very pleased to think that Fence has made a difference in letting writers, um, "be themselves," to put it in loose 1970s pop-speak. I am not pleased to think that Fence may have unwittingly contributed to some writers feeling that they needed to write one way or another, however unconsciously felt. As for the literary journal culture: I am glad to think that Fence, along with a few other journals of the late 90s (Open City, McSweeney's), made it seem possible to other editors that they could do what we did and do. How has the experience of editing Fence (the magazine and the books) affected your writing? Is the impact commensurate with, say, motherhood, which I know has been a strong influence for your writing?

Wolff: Well. Motherhood's effect has been similar to Fence's effect in that they have both directly effected a vast reduction in my literary "output"--a terrible word but there it is. Motherhood offset this reduction by at least providing me with some subject matter (my book The King is just out, with motherhood's forced encounter with the Other as a central theme), while the themes of running a nonprofit independent press have happily stayed where they belong (sterilely lit from behind on my G4's screen).

I do think that being an editor, and being exposed to such a vast outpouring of literary effort and ambition and desire, has inculcated in me a respect for minimalism, for a certain kind of dry intentionality, and this has found its way into my writing for sure. My poems get shorter and less syntactically dense not just because of time constraint--or perhaps I should say that time constraint has shown itself to be a wise teacher. It seems like you’re so busy—working on a novel, blogging at Harriet, touring with your new book. Are you still heavily involved with Fence, or do you have a pretty good system now that frees you up to do other things?

Wolff: Heavily involved! I've recently adopted the mantra Delegate or Die, but it's all too recently. Just in the last three months I've hired a wonderful freelance book publicist, and the addition of the aforementioned Colie Collen has taken a major load off, but I'm still figuring out how to create these as ongoing positions without bankrupting Fence (major fundraiser coming soon), and just lately daydreaming about finding someone who wants to be my co-publisher, to really take on the mission and vision of this thing with me. I'm in the office almost every day, getting things done. Where do you see Fence going over the next nine or ten years?

Wolff: Wow. You ask the tough questions. It's easier now than ever before to see A Best of Fence: The Second Nine Years coming out in 2016. The long view foreshortens with age.

Thanks, Rebecca!

In addition to editing Fence and Fence Books, Rebecca Wolff writes for the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog. Her latest book of poetry, The King, came out earlier this summer, and her novel The Beginners has just been bought by Riverhead Books.



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