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Sister Sites: Angels, Disasters and Epiphanies

...an occasional series of talks by the editors of other publications
in print and on the Internet

Rebecca Wolff — The Story of


Fence magazine, logo

I WAS FRUSTRATED. Publication in a literary journal seemed, to a newly graduated ‘MFA poet’ in 1993, the pinnacle of achievement. I could not even imagine a book of my poems at that time, though the contests promised to make me rich someday, if only I would pour enough checks into them. And so I devoted two years, immediately post-grad, to the business of getting published: blanketing the Poets’ Marketplace with simultaneous submissions, keeping scrupulous track of my rejections on alphabetized index cards.

Occasionally I had an acceptance. And then the confused pleasure of seeing my poem printed in an obscure, unattractive journal alongside a brand of poem that I had come to realize was the dominant paradigm of the day: the mediocre narrative lyric. It did not take long to realize that my poems, to the average editor, must seem perniciously, whimsically, perversely ‘difficult’ next to the bland, pleasing surfaces of these carefully crafted blips.

It may seem odd to begin the story of a literary journal by talking about my own poetry, but that is in fact where it began. In beginning Fence I merely extrapolated from the need I felt — for a journal that would be unafraid of weirdness and which would respond enthusiastically to freedoms/constrictions of tone, music, and syntax — to a universal need. Several catalysts catalyzed:

In the spring of 1995 I received a two-page, single-spaced, typed rejection letter from Clayton Eshleman, editor of the now-over Sulfur. In this letter Mr. Eshleman announced (and I paraphrase closely) that my work was more interesting than 99% of the unsolicited manuscripts he received, but that he was troubled by my use of the ‘I’ — he found it clashed with certain prominent ideas he held as an editor, ideas about referentiality, ideas about the subject, etc. He suggested that I edit out of my poems such lines as pointed too directly to the establishment of an actual speaker in the poem. He did not say this explicitly, but as an example he typed out for me several of the offending stanzas, from a poem called ‘Roman Polanski":

"If you ain’t lovin
then you ain’t livin"
We paint glows on each other’s lips
riding this fine line between the absurd

and the fantastical. Just yesterday
he said to me ‘I don’t need to tell you
what we make with each other
here."  Because I spoke

through my skin he was fully
realized. At the flower’s center a burst,
a passionate expression. An expression
of passion. We long for (among

other things)
you to understand.
"My wife is dead...absolutely
mad, I said."

With editorial hindsight I can see what he may have been objecting to: a certain overly determined attention to the surface of things, to the aesthetic of personal interaction, to the beauty question — as aided by the presence of a defined observer, whose insistent observations can be felt as persuasions, as the rhetorical trick of absolutism. Basically, my use of the ‘I’ conflicted with his personal taste.

But at the time I felt this suggestion to be a slight: an oppressive, rather patriarchal (coming as it did from a figure of older male authority) imposition on my right to write my poetry as I saw fit, with absolute disregard for what might be the standing order of any particular editor. Of course this is a flawed reaction, for several good reasons, the most pressing to me now being the fact that I had in fact applied to this man, this editor, for his approval. That he had taken the time to be explicit in his disapproval, I see now, was quite extraordinary. Another flaw: I had not read Sulfur. I had picked it out of Poets’ Market for its self-expressed predilection for ‘experimental poetry.’ I had decided that what I wrote must be ‘experimental,’ since it certainly didn’t have much in common with what I saw to be the norm in magazines like Agni, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, etc.

If I had read Sulfur I might have started Fence earlier. Instead I forged ahead with publishing a few poems here or there, and working on a novel, and in a health food store. Later I went back to school and was hired, flukily, to be the associate editor of a journal called Gulf Coast, out of the University of Houston, in Houston, Texas (godforsaken town). There I learned that the business end of a literary journal is quite easily taken care of, and not that terribly expensive if you do it with a lot of volunteers and a close eye on the pocket-book. I also was ignited in a kind of paroxysm of repulsion for the editorial processes I witnessed, in which it seemed plain to me that the good work was being rejected and acceptances showered on that which was most familiar, most predictable, most safe, most debilitated. (I was a business manager, essentially, and had no say in content.)

It began to occur to me, after conversations with editors around me, and also after witnessing the pristine blandness that was the order of the day in the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, as run by Ed Hirsch, Richard Howard, and several others, that there were two poles in the globe of poetry, and that these two poles were quite handily represented in the then-current market of literary journals: on the one hand you had the thoroughly unremarkable brand of poetry as seen in the scores of undistinguished journals limping their way out of universities around the country (Southwest Review, Missouri Review, etc.) and on the other you had a small, practically invisible-to-the-naked-eye scene of impenetrable, closed-circuit, dogmatic, programmatic journals seeking explicitly to support work in certain types of experimentation.

Both poles felt like clubs, to mix a metaphor — to which I did not belong. In April of 1997 I hatched the concept of Fence, full-blown, title included, and immediately began announcing it to anyone I spoke with. My shpiel went something like this: I’m starting a magazine for idiosyncratic writing, poetry and fiction that is not easily categorizable in terms of camps of schools of thought and which therefore is unappealing to the current market place. I tried not to exploit the obvious metaphor of ‘fence sitters,’ or ‘sitting on the fence,’ but it has proved too appropriate to avoid, like the best clichés. (see Fence Manifesto of 1998, attached below)

My plans to move back to New York, city of my birth, coincided providentially — I began to gather co-editors in that city: first Jonathan Lethem, fiction editor; next Matthew Rohrer, poetry editor; then Caroline Crumpacker and Frances Richard, poetry and non-fiction editors respectively. These core editors are all with Fence still, though Jonathan Lethem has edited his last issue and will be replaced in September of 2000 by the incredibly talented and personable Ben Marcus.

The nonfiction aspect of Fence has proved to be the least controllable. Frances and I had originally conceived of a sharply delimited kind of prose piece for the magazine, a piece that would further our intention of gnawing away slowly but surely at the general reading public’s — whether to the left or the right of the ‘I’ — fear of ambiguity. We planned to include essays which would explain and describe what we referred to as ‘precedents": what has led up to people writing the way they do now, in these ways that can seem so mysterious and frightening to the average reader. But it has proved terribly difficult to find writers who are interested in speaking at the sort of plain, lay-person-oriented level we request.

For example: we wanted to try, in our first issue, to debunk some of the terror-filled mystique surrounding ‘Language Poetry.’ This sprang from my personal annoyance (as so much does) at being asked countless times in graduate school and other places where people could be expected to know better if what I was writing was ‘language poetry,’ simply because I tend to use some odd syntax, and some disjunctive, associative thinking.

This crazy ignorance must stop! I thought, as not only does it contribute to the intimidation of readers but also it makes it too easy for the conventionally-trained reader to dismiss writing that uses any method other than the most straightforward: ‘Oh, that’s language poetry. It’s from California. We don’t have to pay any attention to it.’ We commissioned West Coast poet Joshua Clover to write this essay, and because he is a clever gentleman he insisted on writing a clever essay, with innuendo, inspeak, and assumptions aplenty. This was exactly what we had not wanted, but then, once we had it we decided to use it anyway.

This same thing has happened over and over, and so Frances and I have come to some kind of resigned understanding that if we ask a clever, well-read person to write something about, say, narrative, or about subjectivity, well, they are going to write something clever and with presumptions of previous knowledge. Especially if they are academics of one sort or another.

Editorially speaking, the honor of Fence depends on our faith in our own good taste, and our commitment to the idiosyncratic voice, as we are pledged to avoid — and call each other out on — ideological distinctions.


The Mechanics of

Fence magazine, logo

We are all unpaid. I am editor-in-chief, and as such I do the bulk of the mechanical work of Fence. The mail comes to my home, and I pay the bills, keep financial records, and sort out all other logistical stuff. Until recently all Fence business took place in my living room; that included massive shipments of the magazine arriving on pallets and subsequently being stuffed into envelopes and mailed. Just this February, however, a marvelously kind soul donated space in a basement office and now my apartment has returned to being my home. I work three days a week at the Poetry Society of America, and take on freelance jobs to supplement my income.

Max Winter is Associate Editor of Fence, and when he’s not working at his nine-to-five he can often be found in the basement, entering names in databases and sending out copies of the magazine and all other such necessities. Fence is currently in the throes of an ecstasy brought on by having our first ever Summer Intern, a wonderful young woman named Rains Paden, of Brown University. We dearly hope that we will find another intern for the fall, though Rains can never be replaced in our hearts.

Currently our circulation is 2000, with 500 subscriptions. Sales in bookstores are just OK, what with the Machiavellian dishevelment of the periodicals distribution system coupled with everyone’s favorite habit of reading journals in bookstores and not buying them. One can subscribe using a credit card at our website athttp://www.fencemag.com/.


New Developments

We have recently launched a fiction website called Flood, which can be linked to off our website. We were invited to do this by iUniverse.com, which is one of these new ‘self-publishing’ or publishing-on-demand sites; they host ‘communities’ with the hope of attracting authors to their services; if you’re interested in making a few copies of your own book, I will be more than happy to broker the deal.

More significantly, we are happy to announce the invention of Fence Books. Fence Books will be starting out with two new book series, both resulting from book contests. The first is the Alberta Prize, which includes publication of a first or second book by a woman as well as a $5000 cash prize. This prize is made possible by the Alberta duPont Bonsal Foundation, whose aim is to support the careers of young female poets and visual artists. The second is the Fence Modern Poets Series, in conjunction with Saturnalia Books, and which is open to poets of any gender and any stage in their publishing careers, be it first or fifth book. This prize includes book publication and a $1000 cash prize. Guidelines for both book contests will be available on our website in September.


Fence in the Future

As with any venture, Fence will be continued until it is no longer fun. The question of utility comes up in my mind frequently, as I have witnessed in just these three years a sea change in the rigidities of both experimental and conservative communities, that which Fence originally arose to combat. Many traditionally conservative journals seem to be trafficking in ‘weird’ writers these days; the advent of Anne Carson’s popularity and acclaim may be a sign of some kind of opening up to intelligence once again. The experimental community continues to be a tiny dervish of self doubt and self-examination, reminding me of someone’s recent observation that ‘liberals continually fail at world domination because they’re too busy attacking themselves to attack the conservatives."



Fence Manifesto of 1997

Fence magazine, logo

-- the skeleton of a wall, the embodiment of a line...
-- a pause between fields and a conduit for pleasure...
-- a structure at once transparent and definitive..

Fence is a new journal of poetry, fiction, criticism, and art. Its editors are writers, artists, participants in the cultural throng who are dissatisfied with the stratified, self-consuming body of literary journals available. Our contributors are those whose work sits resolutely on the fence, resisting easy definition. We are convinced that mystery, as it is manifested in the subjective voice, is a legitimate and pleasurable by-product of the agency of the author. We have devised a journal with an explicit mission: if not to erase the lines as they are drawn, at least to expose, defy, and recontextualize them for a new readership: the converted reunited with the curious.


¶ a marker of territory

Fence is a response to a perceived need. We wish to provide a reliable home for the fence-sitters: those writers who are intent on following the lead of what they truly hear as opposed to what they have heard before or what they have read about and with which they hope to align themselves.


¶ a willful ambiguity, an informed non-commitment

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. Readers will be surprised and refreshed upon encountering in our pages an editorial presence that is unusually self-conscious in its attempts to contextualize, inform, and reciprocally reveal our contributors to our readers — to expose the skeletal cross-purpose of our document.


¶ a shared boundary

We intend to be literally didactic, to enclose territory for an unhindered, unburdened encounter with the discussion of theories, styles, histories, movements, and tastes. Fence offers its readers a richesse of literacy, one that is populist not by virtue of condescension, but by its lack of presumptions.


¶ a vantage point from which to see, simultaneously, several shades of green in the grass

There is nothing radical about this magazine. We do not see the erection of such a fence as a combative or exclusionary measure, but as a gesture of cultivation. Fence stands against the false obfuscation of the fruits of our culture’s labor, that which has been framed and sentenced to inaccessibility. We seek, above all, to increase the reader’s pleasure.


¶ a midpoint between the acquisition and distribution of stolen goods

There is nothing impenetrable about the work being done today; it is in response to what has come before, that which has been previously allowed; it is now allowed. Within the context of each issue of Fence we reinforce the realm of possibility and contextualize our contributors within it. Fence intentionally blurs the distinction between ‘difficulty’ and ‘accessibility,’ preferring instead to address a continuum of utterance.


¶ a dashing exercise, a good humoured parry-and-thrust

Our editorial strategy is a balancing act, undertaken in a spirit of inquiry rather than critique. From John Ashbery’s poem ‘Soonest Mended":

But the fantasy makes it ours, a kind of fence-sitting
Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal

Taken entirely out of context, these lines refer to our own aim and fantasy: to support poetry and fiction that is written without the safety of received theory or streamlined tradition but wholly out of impulse, knowledge, and the experience of necessity.


¶ a dissemination point

We wish to preach dually to the converted and to the curious. Our criticism is immediate and intimate, attempting an explicit address. We hope to break down the wall which we feel has been interposed between the reading public and the material of our individualities — our poems, our fiction — and to build in its place a fence.

Rebecca Wolff

Rebecca Wolff


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