Vacationland

Ander Monson edits the online journal DIAGRAM and the related printing house New Michigan Press. He’s an essayist and poet whose work has appeared in The Believer and The Best American Essays 2008.

12th Street: In “Essay as Hack” you write, “The history of literature is the history of experimental literature.” Submission guidelines at DIAGRAM include the following: “We enjoy traditional forms. We eschew traditional forms. We lie. Send us annotations, schematics, poems, sentence diagrams, definitions. Make us love you.” To me, these point to a desire for both the refreshing and surprising. What surprises you, literary-wise? Is there work that other people think is refreshing and surprising and that you find…less so?

Ander Monson: I suppose some people read to see what they already know, what they are already accustomed to reading, but for me, I’m interested in new experiences, at least as they are able to still render or distill experience to emotional truth. For instance, I can’t stand most romantic comedies, but the film Amelie, quirky as it is, and smart, gets around my instinct against that particular plot arc. I want the same satisfactions everyone else does out of what we watch or read, but I don’t want to feel like I’m being pandered to. I don’t believe it, can’t take part in it, if I’m not made to work at least a little bit, if there’s not more to distract me. I’m interested in work that is formal in unusual ways, or fresh on the sentence level. Or both. (Ideally, the form of a piece pressurizes its content and mode of transmission so it is rendered as something new.) What doesn’t interest me, generally, is experiment for experiment’s sake, which is to say experiments that don’t yield any kind of truth or emotional experience—even if it’s existential. My reading is incredibly idiosyncratic. There are lots of reasons I don’t like something (or that I like something), and I’m not always cognizant of these tic or able to articulate them. Are we ever?

12th Street: The diagrams you feature in your literary journal DIAGRAM are not
only bizarre, wonderful, and useful (now I know how to make a unicorn), but also well named. I’d be happy just reading a list of titles. Maybe I like them because they’re so clear and specific that they become poetry. Anyway, can you tell us about DIAGRAM and diagrams? Is there a catalog in your brain of all the diagrams you come across? As a writer, are you prone to thinking of your essays diagrammatically?

AM: There’s not a catalog; more like a queue, or stack, probably, in computer programming terms. I can only hold so many at once (god, I wish I could hold more, so many more) before they vanish, and when they reappear (like when I read through some of our back issues), I’m surprised again. Really that’s a great feeling. Same with reading some of my work that is no longer as fresh in my mind. Occasionally I’ll read something and be embarrassed of it, but then there are those moments where I see a sentence and marvel at it, because who knows, finally, where this stuff comes from? I think of essays as tiny brains. Or a guide to an individual brain as cross-sectioned or put in action at a particular moment in time. Each is, of course, a simulation. But then again, all literature is.

12th Street: What have you found to be the perks and the pains of online publishing?

AM: Perks: availability, connectivity, community with writers whose work I love; also immediacy, interactivity, and our ability to publish color and sound and video without consideration for the costs that would be incurred in doing so in print media.

Pains: no money (so we can’t pay our authors, which I’d love to do). And the limited attentions of some of our readers (though perhaps the fault is ours for not entertaining/engaging them better).

12th Street: What are you reading?

AM: Right now I’m reading B. S. Johnson’s novel in a box, The Unfortunates, Manuel Muñoz’s The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and The Futurist Cookbook.

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