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.

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