An Interview With Poet Rebecca Wolff

Larissa Dooley

Rebecca Wolff's second collection of poems, Figment, won the 2003 Barnard Women Poets Prize and was published by Norton in April. Her first book, Manderley, was chosen by Robert Pinsky for the 2000 National Poetry Series; it was published by the University of Illinois Press the following year. That publication record alone would satisfy most poets. But Wolff's accomplishments don't end there.

Consider her position as editor of Fence, the literary magazine she launched in 1997, and the MFA she received from the Iowa Writers' Workshop (where she worked as an assistant editor of the Iowa Review) in 1993.

It looks good—some might even say glamorous—on paper (and on the screen), but Wolff's days are filled with some very hard work. Not only does she balance her responsiblities to Fence with her own writing, she also cares for her young son in Manhattan, where she lives with her husband, novelist Ira Sher (Gentlemen of Space, Free Press, 2003).

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Wolff about her dual roles as poet and editor, and whether she still considers herself—first and foremost—a poet.

Rebecca Wolff: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know anymore. Yes, I do, in that I have no professional training as an editor or a publisher. I just started doing Fence on my own. So I don’t know about a lot of things that I presume other people know about when they publish a literary journal. But if I just meet somebody on an airplane, and they ask what I do, I say I’m a poet. Part of it is that I don’t want to go into explaining everything. A couple of times I have found myself explaining Fence to people I’ve just met, and then I find it a little depressing. I think, "Oh God, I used to be a poet and now I’m an editor."

P&W: As the editor of Fence, has critiquing and editing other poets' work sharpened your critical eye towards your own work?

RW: I think so. I see such a vast sampling of what’s being written out there—I screen manuscripts for our two book contests so my eyes are cast upon about 900 manuscripts a year, in addition to the submissions to the magazine—that it has helped me to refine a definition of what I really require from a poem. There are, of course, a million little things that turn one off from a poem, but the most overarching term I have been able to reach is overdetermination. It's the sense I get sometimes when reading that the poem was already written before that poet set it down, that it’s not being made freshly, but is rather concocted from a sort of collective-unconscious pool of received ideas about what a poem is, or should do, or should sound like, etc.

When I pause to write something down (that’s about once every six months, if I’m lucky) I have in the back of my mind, at an unconscious level, a million bad poems informing my choices of what is worth writing down and what isn’t. It can get rather stifling at times.

P&W: On average, how many submissions does Fence receive per day?

RW: Twenty to thirty. Between the editors, we read all of the submissions. Each of the editors takes a pile home, and we all have the authority to reject what we think isn’t worth reading, and then we set aside the ones that we love, or want the others’ opinion on. It’s a laborious process. We Xerox them and make a big packet and mail it out to the other editors. Then we all read the packets on our own, and then meet and discuss. Maybe three will say yes, and one will say no, and the fourth is overridden. Personality comes into it: Some of us are more retiring than others. But when only one person likes a poem, if we can all recognize that it’s a poem that’s good, but just not our tastes, but is that editor’s particular taste, we try to let them have it. We sometimes respond with a note to submissions that were “close but no cigar”.

P&W: When Fence was starting out, the entire staff was unpaid. Does that still stand?

RW: At this point, I have a token salary, and the managing editor has an even more token salary. It’s not a living wage. The rest of the editors are volunteering. Right now I’m trying to work toward paying myself a full salary, because it strikes me as an injustice that I work so much on Fence, I’ve done this whole thing, and I’m still having to work dopey freelance jobs on the side to attempt to make ends meet.

It’s not so easy to raise money by selling ads in the journal, because the circulation is very small compared to other types of venues. The advertising we do get is mostly from other poetry book publishers that know that although we don’t have a huge circulation, we are influential, and people look at the magazine a lot, even if they’re not buying it. We’ve tried to branch out and sell ads to record labels and they’re just not interested. They just don’t know about literary journals. We would need a full time ad sales person if we were really going to try to make it work. It’s a little overwhelming. It’s the last thing in the world that I would want to do.

P&W: What’s the ratio of time spent on Fence to your own writing?

RW: Ninety-nine to one. Sob.

P&W: I read an article in which you spoke about how poetry is sort of an in-between activity—you write on the bus, or on the way to places—so perhaps it doesn’t matter that Fence consumes so much time?

RW: I think I’m stuck in a phase of writing like that because of the circumstances, so I make do with it, but I do also think that as you get older you have to establish a practice of writing every day, of doing things to keep yourself going—not that I do this yet, but it’s always been my dream that someday I will. When the hormones stop being so rampant. When I was in college, I wrote all the time, at least a poem a day. I was seized, like I had brain fever. It’s not the same way anymore.

P&W: Do you find that you outgrow your old poems as you mature?

RW: I do, yes. I graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1993, at the age of 23, and at that time I had what I thought was going to be my first book. But by the time I actually put together what became my first book in 2001, it contained almost nothing from that time. It was all gone. For some people, their first book is their best book. I always think of James Tate, who’s a great poet, but his first book was emblematic, and a huge success. He wrote it when he was 23, or something like that, and he basically continues to write in that same mode now, in his sixties. But that’s also just character—he’s a very fixed character.

P&W: Who has influenced your own writing?

RW: I do like Frank O’Hara quite a bit. Also Elizabeth Bishop, although I don’t think you see her work in my work very much. Wallace Stevens, although, again, I’m not particularly philosophical. Also the absurdist Clark Coolidge. His work is kind of nutty and associative. He’s a master of that, and I learned a lot from reading him. I read him early on, at the same time as I was reading Anne Sexton, and I thought, "Oh, you can do that, too."

P&W: What’s the future of Fence?

RW: At this point I start to think, "Well, when should we stop?" as opposed to should we stop. Not to be grim about it, but unless I can get paid, I can’t keep doing this forever. I have a baby, I need to make money. I’ve basically been going into debt to do Fence. So while I really love doing it, I wonder, "Is it really important to keep going?" But when I hear of people that are excited about discovering Fence, I am reminded how important it is to show people the interesting writing going on out there that they might not necessarily know about otherwise. That has been our greatest success, I think. We've gained enough recognition for the magazine that we are able to fulfill our mission of exposing a larger audience to some of the more adventurous writing of our time.