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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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.

Elisa Gabbert is a poet, editor, and collaborator extraordinaire. From “Smoking Villanelle,” written with Kathleen Rooney:

The situation was not without charm
but I’d never, ever do it again.
There must be a better way to stay warm

than running a lighter up & down my arm,
which is dry as a bone & matchstick thin.
One situation that’s not without charm

is a ritual bonfire—there’s not any harm
in a little pagan frenzy now & then.

12th Street: I love your collaborations with Kathleen Rooney. Whenever I come across your two names in a contributors list I rush to that poem. How did you find each other? Can you tell us about the process of making a poem together? Who gets to title it?

Elisa Gabbert: Thank you! Kathy and I met in grad school (at Emerson in Boston). We always had similar sensibilities; we’d often jinx each other by making the same joke at the same time. The winter after we graduated, and shortly after I read Nice Hat. Thanks. (by Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer), I visited Kathy and her lovely husband Martin in Provincetown and suggested we try collaborating. We’ve been at it ever since, over two years now. It all happens over email: we’re both in front of computers a lot, so we write almost every day. Generally we go line by line, but we’ve tried many different forms and methods, e.g. writing from the bottom up or the inside out; leaving blanks in lines, Mad Libs style, for the other to fill in, etc. Whoever comes up with the best title first wins. When we’re stumped, Martin and/or my BF John (both tip-top writers) are often helpful in the title department.

12th Street: You’re one of the editors of Absent, an online literary magazine, and you have also worked with/at Ploughshares. What does this trend towards online publishing mean for print mags? What are the perks and pains of working for each?

EG: “In this day and age” I think it’s really important for print mags to have a strong online presence. Ploughshares has a very extensive website with archives going way back, an online submission system, and so on, but if a magazine can’t manage all that, the staff should at the very least present up-to-date info on the latest issue and submission guidelines. I think submissions are definitely heading in the online direction, which I applaud. I see no reason to waste all that paper, worry about stuff getting lost in the mail, submitters forgetting their SASE and so on. Embrace the web or be left behind. That said, print isn’t dead yet; print mags still offer things that online mags can’t. There’s a satisfaction to having something to hold and own and blah blah. Plus, for those who give a shit, and they number many, print publications are still more prestigious.

Along similar lines, I think online journals work best when they take full advantage of the online medium and offer things that print can’t. Take the format of No Tell Motel, with a new poem going up every weekday. That delivery model couldn’t happen in print; online journals can operate outside the “issue” model.

One of the benefits of reading for Absent over Ploughshares is that it’s relatively new and unknown, so there are far fewer submissions. Ploughshares is completely overwhelmed with submissions; not only is it difficult for our staff to keep up, but we have to pass on wonderful work all the time (not to mention slog through boatloads of less-than-wonderful work).

The disadvantage with Absent is more personal responsibility—fewer higher-ups to blame if things go wrong or quality is not high. Nothing is on auto-pilot at this stage. Our latest issue has been delayed by many problems, including editorial changes. It’s also tough to find a great web designer who will work for free. We have one, but he also teaches and has personal projects—we’re all busy and scattered across time zones.

12th Street: I think it’s safe to say we both like bringing pop culture into our poetry. Do you think it’s possible to go too far? Is there some subject, some term, some Internet acronym, anything, that really doesn’t belong in poetry?

EG: Nothing doesn’t belong in poetry. Poetry is a manifestation of thought, and anything we think about can go in a poem. Is it possible to go too far? Well, it’s possible to fail. One can fail in many ways. But sometimes the way to avoid failure is to go farther.

I like pop culture and lingo and brands in poems because they serve as a time stamp, like old photos sometimes have. I like when poems date themselves. Only we know what it’s like to live now.

Kathy and I do save most of our OMGBBQ’s for our collaborations vs. our solo work. We allow ourselves more freedom (and stupidity) there.

12th Street: What are you reading?

EG: I recently finished Hit Wave by Jon Leon, Poker by Tomaz Salamun, National Anthem by Kevin Prufer, and, in non-poetry, In Defense of Food and How Fiction Works. I especially recommend Hit Wave—it’s unlike any poetry I’ve read.

12th Street: What are you currently working on?

EG: Kathy and I are writing a lot, per usual—original stuff as well as translations of the French poet Max Jacob. As for solo work, I’ve been polishing a full-length manuscript and sending it out a little and obsessing about it. It’s a first-book kind of manuscript, not a concept book, so it’s hard to know which poems to include and leave out, how to determine order and so on. Also trying to figure out what to do next. I’ve been in kind of a writing lull and feeling restless in general and could really use some new project or source of inspiration … I want a ping-pong table. Maybe I’ll get depressed—that’s always good for poems. I’m also working on my running stamina, my tomato sauce, and my fall wardrobe.