Rebecca Wolff founded the biannual literary magazine Fence in 1998—and Fence Books three years later—in order to publish idiosyncratic, engaging writing that resists classification. Originally an independent, nonprofit enterprise, Fence recently entered into a partnership with the New York State Writers Institute at SUNY, Albany, where it's now housed. Wolff, the author of two poetry collections, Manderley (University of Illinois Press, 2001) and Figment (Norton, 2004), recently spoke about her magazine's tenth anniversary.
There's a bunch of things we do a little differently than most journals, like really looking for people who are not being published elsewhere—we really read our slush.
unique in 1998?
Yes, but I think it was like a zeitgeist moment. There were a lot of people feeling the same need that I felt; we just weren't in touch with one another. I have letters from people—C. D. Wright or various other people we solicited work from—saying, "I'm so glad you're doing this. I really feel like this is an important thing you're doing." That was why we felt so incredibly chuffed at the beginning. The response was really strong.
If there are more similar journals now, how does Fence stay relevant?
There was a time when that question really seemed decisive for me. And I'm sort of past that point. I don't think we have to be doing something that no one else is doing. But there's a bunch of things we do a little differently than most journals, like really looking for people who are not being published elsewhere—we really read our slush. The reason that is important is not just for the sake of being different, but it fulfills my deep antiestablishment stripe.
Given that antiestablishment stripe, did your decision last
year to merge Fence
with the New York State Writers Institute at SUNY, Albany, worry you?
It would have worried me if there was any attempt on the part of the university to affect the editorial process, but there hasn't been any, not even the first little encroachment.
In your Spring/Summer 2001 editor's note, you wrote,
"Literary magazines together are an experiment. Parts of this experiment will
be boring and other parts will be crass...." In hindsight, any crass parts?
Gee, I can't imagine what you're thinking of.... [Laughs.] Do you really want me to talk about the booby thing?
The Summer 2005 cover, yes.
I had some real hate mail from women who were outraged. There was one in particular who I had a long dialogue with. I said to her, "Well, you know, I'm learning a lot," and she's like, "Fuck you. You shouldn't be learning. You're the editor of a literary journal. You should know this already, and I shouldn't be in the position of teaching you what's cool to do." What I've learned is that I'm quite jaded, my sense of humor is quite decadent. I thought I was making a joke...and this is why my magazine is called Fence—I can see all sides of the argument. I can totally see where she's coming from. I will never put another naked girl on the cover of Fence again.
Didn't you say it was
Well, yeah, but that was not my...my goal was to make a joke about literary journals having the same eye-candy factor that any other kind of publication does. People still buy them the same way.
Think fast: poet or editor?
[Laughs.] That is a fucked-up question right now. That is like the worst. I would have to say, right now, I have been demoted to editor, but I'm working hard at figuring out how to become a poet again.
If not Fence,
what literary magazine do you wish you could have founded?
The Partisan Review, because it couldn't be more different from Fence. But it was [founded during] such an engaged moment, I would have loved to have been part of that scene, which was exactly the opposite from what I've created for myself in my sort of désengager way.
Kevin Larimer is the deputy editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.