Interview


Stephen Elliott, the author of seven books including The Adderall Diaries, and the Editor of the online literary site, The Rumpus http://therumpus.net, sat down with 12th Street’s Jennifer Sky to discuss the politics of writing and the lure of the website for the literary world.  This is the premier interview of 12th Street Online’s monthly author series.  Enjoy – Liz Axelrod, Editor in Chief

12th Street Online: What was the catalyst to starting your online literary magazine, The Rumpus?

Stephen Elliott: I was done with The Adderall Diaries—that was my seventh book—and I didn’t really have the urge to write another book. I wanted to do something else. I thought, “Well, I should get into editing,” because that’s kind of what I know how to do. If you write long enough, eventually you learn how to edit because editing is such a huge part of writing. So I thought I would start editing somewhere.

I was actually talking to Arianna Huffington about joining The Huffington Post. I had all these ideas—pages and pages of ideas—about how I wanted to build a book section for The Huffington Post and all these cools things I wanted to do with it. Then at some point I thought, “Well, it’s just a website. If I have all these ideas why am I giving them to Arianna Huffington?” You know, I’ll just do it myself. So I started The Rumpus. I didn’t know if I was going to make any money or if anyone would read it. That’s the same way I write. You start it and see what happens. It’s like I do everything.

12th: The Rumpus has already carved out a pretty invaluable place in the online literary community. How do you account for its popularity?

SE:  Huh… “invaluable.” I don’t know about that description. Can a literary website really be invaluable? The Rumpus is good. There’s a lot of good content. It’s updated frequently. So if you have some shit job and you want to distract yourself and you want a website that is updated all day long, there are a lot of options, but there are also not a lot of options. There’s Gawker, which is really mean and kind of spiteful. There is The Huffington Post, which is so stupid, so full of so much overwhelming idiocy. There’s Slate and Salon, which are pretty good but they are writing about the same things. They’re chasing clicks all the time; they rarely introduce us to something new. They always have stories about Obama or whoever else is the popular person for that day. They are kind of always behind what’s happening, as opposed to setting the agenda. There are not that many options for somebody if you want a site that is about literature, smart, updated frequently, and is going to introduce you to new people—that strives to have some integrity. We never do any pop culture on The Rumpus. We never do any smart essays about Britney Spears. It’s a Britney-Spears-free zone. There’s no Paris Hilton on The Rumpus, ever. And even though we love Obama, we don’t do anything about Obama because he’s over exposed. We try to introduce people to new culture, to culture they wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. We are trying to take that role of curating a little more seriously than I thing people are currently taking it. And so I think that’s why The Rumpus is popular.

12th: Does The Rumpus have a mission statement? Do you operate under any specific guiding principles?

SE: If you go to the website, there’s a post describing what The Rumpus is, which is available from any page on the site. It talks about that, while the web was supposed to diversify content, it hasn’t; it has just focused attention on the same few things. It has become the lowest common denominator, in a lot of ways, and that The Rumpus is the place you can go to get away from pop culture. It’s okay if someone’s popular. We will write about Dave Eggers, Malcolm Gladwell, Joan Didion—these are popular writers—but we won’t write about mass-produced culture, culture that is created by marking executives.

(more…)

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.

oneiromance1

Ambulatory sisters—
sister somnambulists—
sorority of sleep-hikers—
we are crossing a bridge.
We’ve crossed our uncle
& our fiancés will be cross,
but we’ve got a long list,
a lot of items to cross off.
We’ve crossed ourselves
with the sign of the cross
& we are crossing the span
to the island of Valdares.

– from “Brazilian Wedding: Dream No. 3”

Kathleen Rooney is a poet, essayist, wife, editor, and one half of the incredible Gabbert-Rooney creative duo.

12th Street: I love your inventive narrative frameworks. I mean, in a poem like “Brazilian Wedding Dream No. 3,” it’s a wedding framed in a dream and it is not, the narrator tells us, “a western” or “a noir.” “Stop Motion” is a claymation movie. Can you talk a little bit about narrative forms (Christian Hawkey calls it your use of genres) from outside poetry and how they make their way inside yours?

Kathleen Rooney: Thanks! The press that Abby Beckel and I co-edit, Rose Metal Press, focuses on “hybrid genres”—prose poems, novels-in-verse, book-length narrative poems, short short stories and so forth—so it’s probably not a shocker to hear that I’m especially interested in the ways in which genres overlap/blur into/become one another. I like to read and publish work that incorporates more than a single genre, so I’m also drawn to trying to do this in some of my own work.

I approached the writing of Oneiromance as if I were assembling a bunch of imagined scenes and settings—dreams—in my head, like dioramas-in-shoeboxes (or claymation figurines for that matter), and then using words to describe and manipulate these images that I had built. I’m not a visual artist, but I wish that I were sometimes. My sister Beth is a professional photographer (a dream version of her figures prominently in the book, which is, you could say, “based on a true story”), so photography is another “genre” or medium that crept its way into the collection.

And I actually do love both Westerns and noirs, especially because for that basic narrative of a person on a quest—a person who is essentially alone and seeking something, be it physical (a missing person, a cattle thief, a bank robber, etc.) or intangible (a secret, a truth, some information, etc.) and who is faced with all kinds of absurd situations and impossible odds, yet who still forges ahead, doing a number of dire yet silly things. In a way, that’s how the search for romantic love strikes me. I also like works of which it can be said that they “transcend their genre,” which tends to mean that they are not just operating on one level (mystery, sci fi, fantasy, etc.) but rather that they are also “literary” or that they in incorporate layers and shades of other art forms, such as anything ever by Raymond Chandler or the Westerns of John Ford, or “horror” movies like Angel Heart (which, incidentally, is also a noir).

12th Street: You have a new book out! It’s an epithalamion! What inspired you to write one?

KR: I do! It is! Because weddings are crazy-nuts!

I was never the kind of girl who grew up dreaming about her Prince/Princess Charming or fantasized about her wedding dress or plotted what colors her bridesmaids should sport. In fact, I kind of thought in the back of my mind that I might never get married at all, but then I met Martin and all bets were off. It probably has a lot to do with my fairly intense Catholic upbringing, but I’ve always been intrigued by customs and rituals and superstitions and private desires and attractions that can be obsessed about, and with which this obsession can be performed in a spectacularly public fashion. Weddings, particularly ones that are even remotely religious, are sterling examples of this phenomenon.

My feelings about getting hitched—as a feminist, as a woman, as a progressive, as a fallen-away Catholic and on and on—were and remain super complex, and so one of the means to express this complexity and conflictedness was to write a whole ton of poems about the proceedings. Weddings and marriage are obviously a locus of a lot of joy—individual and social—but also of a lot of anxiety, and in this regard, Oneiromance could be read as a prolonged and joyful waking anxiety dream. The mixture of selfishness and self sacrifice—you are mine forever and at the exclusion of all others, you are saying to your beloved, but I am giving myself to you on the same terms—that a wedding and a marriage entails is remarkable, and I felt compelled to remark upon it.

A concern I had as I was writing this book, and that I still have now as it makes its way into the world, is that I want it to be inclusive. But of course a problem there is that the laws of most of this country regarding marriage and the right to wed are extremely, depressingly exclusive. I hope that people will read the book and give it a chance on its own merits in this regard, but I’d also like to take this chance to say: I am aware of the position of great privilege from which I am writing as somebody who happens to be legally permitted to marry the person I love, and I don’t take this privilege lightly, and I don’t think it should be a privilege at all, but a right for everybody.

12th Street: How does place affect your work? Would you consider yourself a Chicago poet? A Midwestern poet?

KR: Place seems to be incredibly important to me, whether I set out for it to be or not. All the poems in Oneiromance except for two have titles like “Brazilian Wedding: Dream no. 1” and “Midwestern Groom: Dream No. 3,” in fact, because it is that important that it be clear where they are happening. People often ask why I wrote my first nonfiction book about Oprah’s Book Club, and there are lots of reasons having to do with “highbrow” and “lowbrow” art and culture and where the twain do or do not meet, but I suspect that an equally huge reason is that I spent most of my formative years growing up in the Chicago area where Oprah is a source of a great deal of complicated hometown pride—the shadow of O loomed over skyline, love it or hate it. (And now, excitingly, another O is looming—Obama ’08!) I adore Chicago—it is my favorite North American city—and feel fortunate to live and work here. That said, I don’t consider myself a Chicago poet per se, mostly because I’ve never really written any poems about Chicago, or in a distinctively Chicago-esque style, whatever that might be. I do want to give a shout out to the super-diverse and supportive and community-minded literary scene that exists here in the city, though, before moving on to the other part of your question, the Midwestern part.

To that part I say yes, I suppose I am a Midwestern poet. I’m not an enormous fan of labels necessarily, or sweeping proclamations of identity, but I think, again, whether I like it or not, my sensibility is that of a Midwesterner. Hopefully not a circumscribed, small-town, Sherwood Anderson–character one, but more of a Weldon Kees-y, F. Scott Fitzgerald-y sort. I guess by this I mean I always find myself feeling pretty ambitious and striving, while at the same time trying to be humble and modest. Also? I love manners and decent behavior and get really irritated and sad when people can’t be bothered to be polite to others. Not to blow that up to too large a degree, but I think (and this relates to my excitement over the impending Obama presidency, too) that we are poised, as a country, for a large-scale revival of civility in our public and personal conversations, and that thrills me.

12th Street: You write essays in addition to poetry. Can you describe your different work habits/approaches to each?

KR: I can try. I like to be working in more than one genre at once both because some ideas seem destined to work better as poems than they do as essays or vice versa, so it’s nice to have that option, and because if I’m not feeling in the mood for one genre I can focus on the other for a while instead. I kind of think I might freak out and die if my creative output were limited only to poetry. While it is true that poetry is vast and that any subject can be addressed in a poem, it is also true that virtually any dish can be prepared in a rice cooker; it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the best way to go about it.

For a while, especially when I was teaching a memoir class and a class on the personal essay, almost everything that I read or did started to feel like it could be, or go into, an essay, so I ended up writing a book of them. Other times things feel more poetic, and other times I’ll be in a mode where I’ll think of a lot of stuff I’d like to include in my collaborations with Elisa Gabbert, who is awesome.

Kathleen Rooney was born in Beckley, West Virginia and raised in the Midwest. Along with Abby Beckel, she is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and the author of Oneiromance (an epithalamion), winner of the 2007 Gatewood Prize from Switchback Books. A 2003 recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from Poetry magazine, Rooney’s own poems, as well as collaborations, have appeared in a variety of journals, as have her essays and criticism. She has taught English and creative writing at Emerson College, Northeastern University, Grub Street, the Boston Center for Adult Education, and Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Chicago with her husband, the writer Martin Seay.

Brian Firenzi is a screenwriter by day and comedy video maker by night. He wants his tombstone to read “Free Candy Inside.” He made the following video, “Sarah Palin for President 2012.”

12th Street: Whose voice is that in the video?

Brian Firenzi: It’s mine—trying to do my best Sam Elliot impersonation.

12th Street: Why did you make the video?

Brian Firenzi: It’s pretty clear to me that Palin has her eyes set on the presidency, so I asked myself what would her platform run on. What identity would they pick to shape her policies? The first thing that came to mind was the Mother Figure—a smug, traditionally above-reproach matriarch who is right when she’s wrong; the source of all your anger, happiness, sadness; and, as Freud would interject, pent-up sexual frustration. How are you going to reject Palin, really, when “she” spent eight hours in labor for you?

12th Street: What went into making it?

Brian Firenzi: It wasn’t difficult to come up with a series of short, metaphorical vignettes that didn’t actually involve Palin, yet would be (hypothetically) indicative of her strong will, homespun wisdom, and immovable sense of right and wrong as a mother. I guess you could say that by proxy, my ad inadvertently painted the Democratic Congress as a spoiled child in need of a good spanking—an image small-government conservatives probably think fondly of.

12th Street: Would you elaborate on what you mean by “spoiled” and “small-government conservatives”?

Brian Firenzi: By “small-government conservatives,” I refer to the section of people who think it’s the Democratic-controlled congress’ fault for getting us into this economic crisis—claiming Bush vocally pushed for reform over and over, blaming Pelosi, Herb & Marion Sandler, etc. By painting Palin as a Mother Figure in these ads, I think I’m making the Democrats look like children.

12th Street: Are they like children?

Brian Firenzi: No, I don’t think so. But if I were serious about these ads, I bet I might.

12th Street: What kind of response did you get?

Brian Firenzi: On YouTube, some of the subscribers that I already get from my 5-second Film Series generally liked the Palin ads, whereas, when it got featured on the prominent comedy website Cracked.com, the reaction was far more mixed and interesting.

12th Street: Will you do more if she runs in 2012?  And do you honestly think it will happen?

Brian Firenzi: I may do some more Palin 2012 ads if time on my other projects (and of course, work) permits. It all depends on if I stumble across a funny story or hook that would be great. I have this fantasy of Palin disappearing into the Alaskan wilderness after the elections and never returning, but that won’t be happening. More likely, she’ll remain a minor tabloid fixture, do some PR image reshaping and become a New York senator. And if I’m the only one who’s made a Sarah Palin parody video, I’m clearly living in an alternate dimension where nobody can tell what’s funny.

Brian Firenzi, 23, graduated from the University of Southern California for Screenwriting. He is the co-creator of 5secondfilms.com, a short-form comedy website. Firenzi currently edits promos for daytime TV shows in Hollywood.

Kristy Bowen is a talented poet, visual artist, and editor, and is dedicated to supporting the work of other women poets and artists.

12th Street: What was your inspiration for dancing girl press?

Kristy Bowen: As far as the name goes, I have this huge poster of a can-can dancer in my apartment, and one day I was lying on my bed, hatching vague plans for a chapbook press, and it occurred to me that might be a fun name. I sort of like the whole notion of “dancing girls”—ballerinas, can-can girls, strippers, burlesque performers—as sexual/erotic object and subject, male gaze vs. reality, a nod to the feminist issues therein. I had been running the online zine, wicked alice, for a few years at that point, publishing writing mostly by women, and decided to join the upswell of small indie presses that was growing at that time. I also saw a huge divide between more traditionally oriented small presses and more experimental ones, but somehow felt that even my own work fell somewhere in the middle—lyric yet innovative, narrative yet not linear. If anything, that description sort of defines our aesthetic.

As for the nuts and bolts of starting it, about six months after coming up with the concept, I decided, spurred by a small press publishing class I was taking at the time, to do a trial run and publish one of my own chaps. I’d been looking over the chapbook selection at Quimby’s bookstore in Wicker Park [in Chicago] and thought, “Hey, I can do this.” All it took was a printer, a big stapler, and some cover stock and I had a book. We published our first official title (by someone other than me) the next fall, and it just grew from there. Granted, we have a better printer these days, a better trimmer, and the studio space now instead of my dining room, but it’s still the same bare-bones operation.

12th Street: You’ve written about Joseph Cornell (At the Hotel Andromeda); you’ve published Maggie Ginestra’s Deep in the Safe House: Ten Poems After Henry Darger; you run an online shop, Dulcet, that sells beautiful vintage accessories and ephemera; and your studio is across the street from the Art Institute! How do the visual arts inform/invade your work as a writer and editor? Do you think of what you do as little individual projects, or does everything fall under an umbrella of ART?

KB: I think these days, especially since I’ve been wearing so many hats, everything does sort of get lumped in under “art” since I’m in the midst of a lot of visually oriented projects that also involve written work—altered books, some collages with poetry, etc.…I’m also interested in the whole “art” vs. “craft” issue, how we experience each differently or how they appeal to different parts of the brain. Even things that aren’t traditionally considered high art, like fashion and jewelry-making. And this, as well, is all wrapped up in gender considerations, the things which were once dismissed as women’s art forms, like textiles and embroidery, vs. more historically male arts like sculpture and architecture.

I initially started to make some tentative forays into visual art and book arts about five years ago, which has also gone hand in hand with designing a lot of our chapbook covers, so it’s sort of a self-education in that respect. Because I like making things with my hands whenever I need a break from working with my head and writing, I love working with more tactile elements like paper, beads, wire, and fabric. And those things, in turn, give us a little extra cash when it comes to paying for the studio space, so it works out very well. And since I work at Columbia College, where I am surrounded by people in just about every art form, as well as the studio space, where my neighbors are composers and painters, it all sort of filters in….

12th Street: What have you been reading?

KB: On the bus over the last week or so, I’ve been reading non-fiction: Tripping the Prom Queen: The Truth About Women and Rivalry by Susan Barash, which has a lot to say about relationships between women, both personal and professional, in terms of destructive competition. Poetry-wise, I just finished Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life and Sun Yung Shin’s Skirt Full of Black. Otherwise, we’re in the thick of reading for next season’s dancing girl line-up, so it’s been a lot of manuscripts. I’m looking forward to getting my hands very shortly on Kathleen Rooney’s Oneiromance: An Epithalmion and Rebecca Loudon’s Cadaver Dogs.

12th Street: You began your online zine wicked alice in 2001, which is really early for an online journal! How has the world of Internet publishing changed since you entered, and to what do you attribute your staying power?

KB: There seems to be so many journals sprouting up out there, which is exciting, yet so many die out after a couple of issues. In 2001, when we started publishing, blogs and things like Myspace and Facebook were barely in their infancy, and people weren’t quite as connected to each other as they are now. When I first started submitting work when I was 19 (1993), you were pretty much sending poems out into the great unknown to a mailing address and a faceless editor. Now, the literary world is much smaller. People blog. Editors are accessible with the click of a button; you can even submit work with the click of a button. I’ve seen a lot of online magazines sort of dissolve when the people working on them decide they just don’t want to work on them anymore, and/or someone moves on to other projects. Some journals seem like a good idea for a few issues, then the editors sort of let them fall by the wayside, or decide they don’t want to work with each other anymore. We’ve probably survived this long only because I’m a total control freak so there’s no one to fight with.

12th Street: I’m from Chicago. I love Chicago. From what I gather, you, too, love Chicago. Can you talk about what role place plays in your writing? And what it’s like to be a part of the Chicago literary scene? Would you say there’s a certain Chicago style of poetics happening right now—even, specifically, among Chicago’s women poets?

KB: A few years ago, someone noted the ridiculously frequent occurrence of the color blue in my work, an almost obsessive occurrence, and I realized it was the lake’s influence—a constant, everyday [presence], right there on my bus ride down Lake Shore Drive, in all its various shades and temperaments. It’s sort of a touchstone of sorts, and it apparently invades my poems even subconsciously, as well as the more visual things I create. I also find myself obsessed with city history and architecture, which figures into a lot of my poems, especially a couple of years ago when I was working on a series based on Resurrection Mary and local urban legend. What’s crazy is I find most of my poems taking place in the more rural setting of my childhood, and less in the current one, but that may just be a psychological distance thing.

I don’t think I could say there’s a definite thing that all Chicago poets have in common, and maybe it’s because Chicago seems like the ultimate melting pot, a place where people come to from all over the place, so you have work by poets who now live in Chicago who are influenced by wherever they came from—the South, the rust belt, California. I’ve found the community of women poets amazing, however. Even the books we’ve published all seem very different and unique to each poet. I occasionally see strains of influence from one poet to the next, in terms of mentors and friends, and even in terms of just being immersed in each other’s work by reading their books.

A poet and visual artist, Kristy Bowen runs dancing girl press & studio, which publishes a chapbook series for women poets, produces the online lit zine wicked alice, and hosts an online shop, dulcet, featuring a variety of books, art, paper goods, and random fancies. She is the author of in the bird museum (Dusie Press, 2008) and the fever almanac (Ghost Road Press, 2006) as well as several chapbooks. Her third book, girl show, will be published by Ghost Road Press in late 2009.

This week I had the good fortune of interviewing the editors at New York’s fabled website, overheardinnewyork.com. (OINY) My reasoning behind the choice came from the fact that it’s hugely popular (four million pagehits a month), very funny, and sometimes important for us:

Slacker on a smoke break: Yeah, McCain said he is going to suspend his campaign so that he can work on the economy. I mean, really. It would be like me saying I’m suspending my pot distribution so that I can work on quantum physics. —Forest Ave., Staten Island

Or:

Fiction professor: I would find writing about investment bankers very difficult because I find them boring when I meet them. I start to like them when they start snorting coke. Then their dialogue becomes much more interesting. —The New School [I actually think I know who said this, but I won’t tell]

It’s impossible to live in this city without hearing the stupidity of others. And I can’t count the number of times I’ve left an elevator thinking, “God, I wonder what they thought of that!” Anyway, with a brazen attempt at making this piece somehow resound in a scholastic sense, I did, at some point, wonder whether there’s a link between OINY and Hell no Obama. Tenuous extrapolation over, here’s what David Barnette gave me.

12th Street: How old are you, and when/why did you start working for OINY?

David Barnette: I’m probably the oldest member of the Overheard staff. I was born during the Second Punic War. Mom was Carthaginian and Dad was Roman. You know what I’m talking about. In 2006 I started compulsively submitting headlines to the OINY headline contest. Morgan Friedman, Overheard in New York’s publisher, apparently got tired of reading all my entries for each quote and invited me to apply for a job as writer-editor. So, I did.

12th Street: What does your job entail?

DB: Several of us rate the hundreds of conversations people submit to Overheard in New York, Overheard in the Office, Overheard at the Beach, and Overheard Everywhere. And several of us then write suggested headlines for the quotes we think are the funniest. From that pool of quotes, other editors pick the funniest quotes with the headlines they like best and publish them. Then, our readers rate the quotes they like best and we monitor the data.

12th Street: How do you decide on the content—e.g., do you ever decide that something is too crude or offensive to publish?

DB: Hahahahaha! Oh, you’re serious. Sorry.

We don’t publish quotes that are merely crude or offensive if they’re not funny. Clearly, we have a broader definition of what’s funny than many people; those people often write to tell us we’ve crossed the line. We encourage people to savor our hatemail page and tell us why they’re angry at us.

We’re primarily about making people laugh. When readers write to tell us they loved something, it makes our day. We’re like, “Awww!” as if we’re all ironic and cynical. But inside, we’re clapping our hands like gleeful little children.

That said, I think that crude very often is funny. Take the word “booger,” for instance. Comedy gold, all by itself. I know you’re asking yourself, “Why would he pick that?”

Again, sorry. I’m the opposite of un homme sérieux.

12th Street: Have any of the posts caused a lively political debate, either amongst your staff or in the outside (or online) world?

DB: We’ll assume arguendo that “lively political debate” is possible. Maybe if Lincoln and Douglas were still alive. Now, those mofos could debate the ass off a frontier town.

Our debate’s never been political since I’ve been part of the team. We have had extensive discussions of what’s funny and why, though. We’ve also developed some sensitivity to the perspectives of persons of different color, ethnicity, and religious tradition than our own. (Ahem.) Sometimes readers take issue with something and, after some Jesuitical self-examination, we have to admit they have a point. We’re open to the ideas of others, is what I’m saying.

Well, except for the ideas of people from north of the border. They don’t seem to know their country is spelled “Canadia.”  We have a whole page of their mild expostulations.

12th Street: Who submits these New York quotes?

DB: Donald Rumsfeld. Every last one of them. Even when he was secretary of defense, he’d stand at his desk and crank ’em out for hours every day. Amazing, really.

Seriously, we respect our sources’ confidentiality so they’ll keep sending us quotes. I’ll go out on a limb and say that our OINY spies constitute a diagonal slice of New York. And, of course, our spies for Office, Beach, and Everywhere come from everywhere in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

12th Street: What does OINY tell us about human nature? Is that a positive thing?

DB: Human nature’s a chiaroscuro sort of thing, isn’t it? But OINY exists to capture what people say that’s funny, especially the stuff we don’t like to admit we say. It’s a documentary of how people talk today. And really, it’s a tribute to New York, where all kinds of people from every part of society bump up against each other on the street. Hobos, conductors, and suits, oh my!

This headline perhaps best captures my view of OINY: “I’m Sure It’s a Fucking Triumph Of the Human Spirit.”

12th Street: How do you tell if something is a piece of creative writing or fact?

DB: We hired Tom Servo from Mystery Science Theater 3000; he makes that call for us. He’s tough, but fair.

I won’t say we never get played, but real conversations sound different from jokes, or, as you say, creative writing.  We don’t print jokes or the fragmentary anecdotes people send us with no dialogue. Our guideline is worth quoting:

Our New Motto
Perceptive woman: Anytime you overhear people, if you only hear a second of what they say, it’s always completely stupid.  —Greenwich Village

Real conversations have the loveliest non sequiturs, whether or not the speaker is mentally ill. Like this guy.

12th Street: Do these quotes still make you laugh? Cry? Do you see your tastes changing over time? Do they still surprise you?

DB: My motto has always been “You might as well laugh.” So, I do. I have to say that some quotes initially make me sad or angry, but that I get over it and find the humor. I think that over time my tastes have become more nuanced, if you’ll forgive an overused word.

My own sense of humor tends to be silly. We do get deeply silly quotes that surprise me and make me laugh, along with God knows how many that’s-what-she-said quotes that generally leave me unmoved. But this quote still makes me laugh:

Presenting Our Catch Phrase for the Day
Woman #1: Ah, look at those beautiful puppies.
Woman #2: Puppies are bullshit.  —Bay Ridge

12th Street: Would this website work in any other city?

DB: Yo, what the fuck you talkin’ about?

I guess the straight answer to that is that there are other overheard-conversation websites out there in other cities. Since I stick to my knitting, I don’t know how well those other sites work. “Hands to work, hearts to God,” as the Shakers used to say.

But people look to New York for what’s cool, as well they should. Do you think Sex and the City would’ve taken off if the city in question were Cedar Rapids? And at Overheard in New York, you can hear real New Yorkers talking about real stuff in their real voices. You can’t tell me that’s not cool.

12th Street: There are a few David Barnettes out there, so it’s hard to find out what your “secret identity” is, as it says on the editors page. What, if you can tell us, is your outside life? Is there anyone out there who knows you in both roles?

DB: Psh, “outside life.” As if such a thing exists. I have deliberately chosen a minimal Web presence.  My “secret identity,” like most such secrets, is a Romulan cloaking device for a spacecraft of utter banality, an interstellar Starbucks, as it were. I refuse to go to reunions because relating my own autobiography bores me. I love making stuff up, though. Well, except for my answers to your questions, which are mostly factual. Eventually.

And does anyone out there really know anybody? You know, how after the murderer is arrested the neighbors all tell the TV people how he was such a polite guy who kept to himself? It’d be like that with me, except I’ve got that pesky murder habit under control.

12th Street: Anything to add?

DB: Yes! You know, the holidays are right around the frickin’ corner here. Buy the Overheard in New York book here, the Overheard in the Office book here, and, further, if you’re not walking around in awesome Overheard in New York gear, you should be ashamed of yourself.

12th Street: That’s it, and thank you very much for your time. It’s a privilege for us.

DB: This was fun. Thanks. I should also say that your site rocks. We’re flattered that you like ours.


Tao Lin is a prolific author, editor, and sometime Gawker rabble rouser. The Stranger calls him “a revolutionary.”

12th Street: You have two collections of poetry out, one novel, a collection of short stories, and you just finished your second novel Richard Yates. How do you manage your time? Does raw veganism turn one into a writing machine? Is Tao Lin a robot?

Tao Lin: I think I spend 80-95% of my time thinking about books, writing, and writing-career related things. I don’t know if 80-95% is accurate at all. It might be 100% or 30%. I also think about food, and without relating it to art, I think, though sometimes I justify eating something “bad” by thinking things like “I’ll be able to work on writing after I eat this, my goal is to produce writing, my body is a vessel.” The main reasons I am productive, relatively, are probably that I don’t watch TV or play video games and that I have social problems.

12th Street: I love your e-book with Ellen Kennedy, Hikikomori. In fact, I think I found your work through Ellen’s, but anyway. Can you tell us about it? The phenomenon, as well as the collaboration?

TL: Hikikomori are people in Japan and other places who stay in their room for many years. They only come out to use the bathroom or at 3 a.m. to buy fermented soybeans from 24-hour convenience stores. I think the term “hikikomori” refers mostly to children and teenagers, because probably a lot of adults also only stay in their rooms, especially in Japan, I feel, but it probably seems normal and acceptable for adults to do that, due to loneliness and the effects of contemporary urban life.  I think most parents of hikikomori are passive and just let their children stay in their rooms, and bring them food. There are people in Japan I think called “rental sisters” whose jobs are to try to get hikikomori to come out of their rooms. They get paid money and at first talk to the hikikomori through closed doors or on the phone or something, then maybe through a hole in the door, then eventually they go inside the hikikomori’s room and try gradually to touch their hands and eventually hug them or something, until the hikikomori can rejoin society. I believe there are “rental sister” agencies, probably there is a “rental sister” industry in Japan. The number of hikikomori is increasing, I think. I don’t think I will become a hikikomori because I like to walk around in sunlight and listen to music in a natural environment, or at least in sunlight with wind hitting my face. I feel like it is too sad if I “give up completely” like that, or maybe, more accurately, too “risky,” it would be really sad, the sadness would crush me, certain possibilities would be crushed, in my life. This is just how I feel today, right now, though. I just thought about becoming a hikikomori and had different thoughts than I just typed, I thought some things like “the benefits of being a hikikomori” and “freedom from alienation” and “the sadness will feel beautiful and good.” I could just exercise in my room and have my parents bring me fermented-soy-beans. Leaving one’s room at only 3 a.m. seems fun. Kobo Abe has a novel called “The Box Man” where people put refrigerator boxes over their heads and bodies, leave their homes, and live inside the refrigerator boxes, walking around, it was published in 1973, and that is like a kind of hikikomori maybe. For those who feel very uncomfortable in society the alternatives to becoming a hikikomori probably include doing drugs and drinking alcohol a lot to change reality, somehow training oneself to not care about other people’s feelings, taking anti-depressant or anti-whatever medication, or doing therapy a lot and joining a church or some other kind of group where acceptance and “love” are mandatory and I think unconditional. I like hikikomori because they choose not to do any of those things. They “choose” to do maybe the most “natural” thing, to just be alone, physically, which if enough people do will probably become “acceptable” in the way that it is “acceptable” for someone who is allergic to peanuts to not eat peanuts instead of building up a peanut tolerance, eating peanut-flavored things that aren’t really peanuts, or eating things that look like peanuts but are made out of sugar or something. I have thought in the past about what hikikomori do every day. I think someone said they play guitar. I imagine they probably use the internet a lot, and post on messageboards, and have the same kind of social obligations and troubles and drama other people have. I hope to move to Japan for at least one year in the future, to live in a land where I do not speak the language, to feel alone and write a book or something. My knowledge of hikikomori comes from an article in the New York Times Magazine, one or two short documentaries, things I read on Wikipedia and other parts of the internet, and things some people have told me.

12th Street: I’ve never read anything by Richard Yates. Why do you admire him so much, and what book should I start with? Why did you title your second novel with his name?

TL: You should start with The Easter Parade or Revolutionary Road maybe. I don’t think I “admire” people. If I admire anything I admire “things” like certain short stories or songs or something, for being “beautiful.” I can say that I like thinking about Richard Yates because he seems funny, depressed, sarcastic yet kind, and like he had self-hatred and doubt and a strong work ethic.

12th Street: What’s next?

TL: I started a press, Muumuu House, the first two books are “Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs” by Ellen Kennedy (March 2009) and “During My Nervous Breakdown I Want to Have a Biographer Present” by Brandon Scott Gorrell (June 2009). They are full-length, debut poetry books and will be published in attractive, perfect bound editions. When they are published they will be two of my favorite poetry books out of maybe like four or five poetry books that I currently consider my “favorite” poetry books. Then in Fall 2009 Richard Yates will come out. Sometime between now and Fall 2009 I want to work on either a novella for Melville House‘s “Contemporary Art of The Novella” series or 20-page short stories, I think.

Tao Lin’s second novel, RICHARD YATES, will be published by Melville House Publishing in Fall 2009. His other books include the poetry collection YOU ARE A LITTLE BIT HAPPIER THAN I AM. He is the editor of the literary press MUUMUU HOUSE.

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