Friday, August 05, 2011

12 or 20 (small press) questions: Maxine Chernoff + Paul Hoover on New American Writing

Maxine Chernoff [see her 12 or 20 questions here] is the author of 12 books of poetry including the forthcoming To Be Read in the Dark (Omnidawn, 2011) and Without (Shearsman, 2012). She has also written 6 books of fiction including the NYT Notable Book, Signs of Devotion (Simon and Schuster), and the novels American Heaven (Coffee House Press) and A Boy in Winter (Crown Publishing). With Paul Hoover she translated The Selected Poems of Friedrich Hoelderlin, which won the PEN USA Translation Award in 2009. Also with Paul Hoover she is editor of New American Writing. She has been chair of the Creative Writing Program since 1996 at San Francisco State University. 

Paul Hoover is the author of thirteen books of poetry including the forthcoming Desolation : Souvenir (Omnidawn, 2012); Sonnet 56 (Les Figues Press, 2009), Edge and Fold (Apogee Press, 2006), and Poems in Spanish (Omnidawn, 2005), which was nominated for the Bay Area Book Award. With Maxine Chernoff, he edited and translated Selected Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin (Omnidawn Publishers, 2008), which won the PEN USA Translation Award in 2009. With Nguyen Do, he edited and translated the anthology, Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry (Milkweed Editions, 2008). Beyond the Court Gate: Poems of Nguyen Trai, edited and translated with Nguyen Do, was published by Counterpath Press in 2010. He is editor of the anthology Postmodern American Poetry (W. W. Norton, 1994) and, with Maxine Chernoff, the annual literary magazine New American Writing. His collection of literary essays, Fables of Representation, was published in the Poets on Poetry series of University of Michigan Press in 2004. He has also published a novel, Saigon, Illinois (Vintage Contemporaries, 1988), a chapter of which appeared in The New Yorker. He has won the Frederick Bock Award for poems published in Poetry in 2010; with Sharon Olds, the Jerome J. Shestack Award for the best poems to appear in American Poetry Review in 2002; the Carl Sandburg Award, Chicago’s leading literary prize; the General Electric Foundation Award for Younger Writers; and an NEA Fellowship in poetry. A founding board member of The Poetry Center at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he curates the poetry reading series at the deYoung Museum of San Francisco. He has read his poetry and lectured in Vietnam, China, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Lithuania, England, Scotland, and Belgium.  Born in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in 1946, he is Professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. 

1 – When did New American Writing first start? How have your original goals as a publisher shifted since you started, if at all? And what have you learned through the process? NAW began in 1971 as OINK!, a student-edited small magazine done on the University of Illinois, Chicago's, student activities budget, by grad students Paul Hoover, Dean Faulwell, and Jim Leonard. After all finished their MAs in the Program for Writers, it became an independent journal edited and published by the 3 on a small printing press done first at Jim Leonard's and then at Paul Hoover's apartment. It was side-stapled with a long stapler and folded by pressing hard with a coffee cup in its middle. By issue #5 both Leonard and Faulwell had gone elsewhere, and Maxine Chernoff joined Paul Hoover in editing, publishing and printing the magazine. By issue 9/10, a double issue, it had the look and format of the current NAW. At issue twelve we began getting it printed professionally though its cover for #12, an elephant-headed man with a penis, was a problem for the printers we had chosen. They thought it was obscene—it was actually an old drawing from a travel journal of perhaps the 1600s when people speculated on how "foreigners" would appear. We published OINK! for 20 issues and had several special issues which were single author editions, one of which was Russell Edson's Edson's Mentality. In 1985 when we, the editors, had twins, we ceased publication; in 1986 when we resumed publication, for reasons of maturity and hoping for better distribution, the magazine was "reborn" as New American Writing. Its circulation did miraculously grow at that point—many bookstores now deceased were then alive, and at our highest circulation, we would print 5000 copies. With so many bookstores gone, we, now in our 29th issue of NAW, are down to a respectable 1500, the same, say, as Denver Quarterly.

2 – What first brought you to publishing? Why was it that you started the magazine? I can't really speak for the three original editors, but I assume it was for the same reason most people do—to see oneself in relation and speaking to/with other writers on the topic in this case of poetry, to create a community through publishing of significant others who see the genre similarly, and to stretch one's view of the entire project of writing by being in a dynamic relation to it. Also, we began in Chicago, which was slightly off the poetry map, and we saw this as a way of connecting with a larger group of writers with whom we felt affinities.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing? Responsibility is a funny word--am I as an editor responsible to the world? Of course I am positing a role for a type of literature which I view as valuable and in doing so, I am of course articulating a "wish" for an audience who might very well at the same time be made of many current and future contributors. As a project over many decades now, this relation keeps changing and including new people, tendencies, and views which at the same time are possibly shaped by the role(s) and responsibilit(ies) of the magazine. 

4 – What do you see the journal doing that no one else is? Publishing spectacular poetry by some unknown and many well-known writers over a long period of time, thereby sustaining itself as a particular "culture." By making available to an audience an anthology of approaches to writing innovative poetry in a national/international sense rather than localizing or the project.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new issues out into the world? I wish I knew. We have distributors, subscribers both private and institutional, and also a website and FB page with about 800 members. Our website has had over 100,000 visits. The best libraries in the world have us in their collections --but we are not Vanity Fair. Nor have we ever been paid as editors or had a cushy budget. At some universities (and we've been affiliated with two, Columbia College, Chicago, and SFSU's College of Humanities) Editors such as ourselves have entire jobs or release time for teaching to do as we've always done because we care about this project and want to continue to be a part of a community and serve it well.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch? We are meta-editors in that we conceive of projects such as special issues and covers, etc., far more than we line edit. We are not a writing school nor do we have that kind of relationship w/our writers. We rarely take work that does not fully satisfy us.

7 – How do issues get distributed? What are your usual print runs? By Ingram, by SPD, by subscription and through bookstores. Currently 1500 copies per issue.

8 – How many other people are involved with editing or production? Do you work with other editors, and if so, how effective do you find it? What are the benefits, drawbacks? There are only the two of us. At a few points in life we've used screeners or interns and then the job becomes greater, to supervise them. As it works in life, I do more of the early reading and Paul Hoover does more of the production issues. We decide together what we will publish.

9– How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing? It has kept me constantly attentive to what people are writing and has kept me reading and therefore writing with a sympathetic and keen eye. Those attributes make one's own writing alive to oneself and also perhaps an "audience" or group, shall we say, of listeners or readers?

10– How do you approach the idea of publishing your own writing? Some, such as Gary Geddes when he still ran Cormorant, refused such, yet various Coach House Press’ editors had titles during their tenures as editors for the press, including Victor Coleman and bpNichol. What do you think of the arguments for or against, or do you see the whole question as irrelevant? I think it is fine in a long career to include oneself in the project now and then. And it is my co-editor taking the work if I am published and the reverse, of course. To publish oneself overly much would be odd, given the vast numbers of fine writers to publish.

11– How do you see New American Writing evolving? As we have organically over the years. You can trace in our issues our current interests, our enduring interests, our former interests and our newer ones. As one's own writing needs to feel "current," so does the focus of a magazine. Some people in early OINK!s still are published in late NAWs. Many newcomers arrive. Some writers have probably been published 10 or 20 times over the years, others only once or during a certain smaller period of time.

12– What, as a publisher, are you most proud of accomplishing? What do you think people have overlooked about your publications? What is your biggest frustration? I am proud that we have published at least what I view as a vital and often lovely magazine for nigh onto 40 years, that we are appreciated by other poets, and that so many young poets whose early publications were in OINK! or NAW have gone on to become well-regarded writers.  In addition, we have always published many translations and special international features, and other finer writers who haven't necessarily reached a wider audience despite their excellence, as is too often the case.  My biggest frustration is probably in this regard that life isn't fair, that too much writing, particularly poetry, published in magazines is dull or less than interesting, that people who don't sometimes deserve wide acclaim make too much noise and that many deeper, wiser people are largely "quiet" as to having listeners.

13– Who were your early publishing models when starting out? I'm not sure we had an exact model. One of the great early magazines though it no longer seems very great was Paris Review. Of the other magazines in our time one would have to mention Sulfur and Conjunctions and often Chicago Review and Denver Quarterly. Who knows finally what is important or many magazines are but none were really models. We were young people who loved poetry; now we're older people who love poetry.

14– How does New American Writing work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see New American Writing in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations? We engage with the community by publishing many newer writers for the first time and including them w/the more established community of writers with whom they are in dialogue. 

15– Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events? Sometimes we launch issues locally, but so many of our authors aren't located here. We had a lovely 40 year anniversary at AWP Washington. DC, in winter 2011. We've also had NAW-sponsored readings in NY and Chicago.

16– How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals? We have a website,

17– Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for? Every fall and winter. We aren't looking for boring or overly expressive poetry or extremely long work we can't fit in our pages.

18– Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special. Regular issues with special features: #29: eleven poets from Quebec, #28: many different translations including a long Osip Mandelstam and Aime Cesaire section. I could do this for every issue. Features are either suggested to us or given to us or sometimes solicited. Often when we've traveled, issues arise:  an Australian issue, a British issue, a Brazilian issue, a Chinese issue, a Vietnamese issue, for instance. In all cases these are sections in the larger magazine. The only topic issue we ever did was #5 about censorship.

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