Portal del Sol

Author Salon, Fiction, Novels, Editors, Books & More

Archipelago Interview

On the “A” List

by Tim McGrath

An Interview with Katherine McNamara of “Archipelago”

Katherine McNamaraa is the editor and publisher of Archipelago and author of “NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, A Journey into the Interior of Alaska” (Mercury House) , a non-fiction narrative. Her essay “Organizing a Literary Journal as the World Changed: the Formation of Archipelago” appeared in “WITHOUT COVERS: Literary Magazines in the Digital Age” (Purdue University Press) and Publishers Research Quarterly. Her non-fiction essays and reviews have appeared in journals, anthologies, and newspapers, and her poetry collected in several anthologies. She has received grants from the Government of France, the Alaska Arts Council and the Alaska Humanities Forum, and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy. She is working on a book about the Dena’ina Athabaskan writer Peter Kalifornsky.

TM: First, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. I want to jump right into talking about the most recent Archipelago special feature – An Leabhar Mor: The Great Book of Gaelic. How were you first introduced to the project and how did Archipelago become involved? What attracted you to An Leabhar Mor?

KM: In May 2003, a remarkable conference took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I live: “Re-Imagining Ireland,” a gathering of 70 or so poets, novelists, musicians, politicans, journalists, politicians, civil servants from Northern Ireland and the Republic. Among there were my friend Theo Dorgan, a poet, former director of Poetry Ireland, and Malcolm Maclean, director of Proseact nan Ealan / The (Scottish) Gaelic Arts Agency. They had co-edited An Leabhar Mor / The Great Book of Gaelic, which was composed of a hundred Irish and Scottish Gaelic poems – a great many by living writers – and 100 pages of artworks, visual responses by as many Scottish and Irish artists. It was a remarkable collaboration among these Irish and Scottish Gaelic poets, visual artists and calligraphers, inspirited by The Great Book of Ireland, which Theo edited early in the 1990s.

At the conference, 20 of the artworks were on display in the Rotunda of the University of Virginia. Theo and Malcolm gave very fine, detailed, deeply informative talks about the vitality of the living Gaelic language in both countries. The whole effect – poetry, visual arts – was thrilling to me. In Archipelago we’ve always offered works from other nations, by writers in languages other than English. Theo and Malcolm both agreed to let us produce an exhibition in our journal. I was very pleased to be able to do it. Let me add that the Proseact nan Ealan was invaluable, supplying us with texts and very fine graphics, and that Debra Weiss, our designer, made a remarkable version in our pages. This issue of Archipelago is, for now, the principle presentation of An Leabhar Mor on the web. (It will remain on the Contents page for sime time.) We are talking with Proseact nan Ealan, as they are interested in using Debra’s design as the basis of their website for the book.

TM: How did you launch Archipelago and how have you witnessed your journal and literary/media arts evolve between then and now?

KM: The story of Archipelago is involved with the harsh years of the early nineties, when the trade book industry went through its hyper-spurt of conglomeration and realigned itself according to the so-called values of the market. The new owners began to treat books, for God’s sake, as “product.” Their primary purpose was gaining return on investment, rather than serving literature. This was a qualitative change from the more modest demands of tradtional, serious, responsible publishers. I’ve written and given a number of talks about this; interested readers can go to our Contents http://www.archipelago.org/contents.htm, scroll to the bottom of the page, and download the pdf “KMLibraryTalk”.

Now: have the literary/media arts evolved in the last eight years since Archipelago first went up? Perhaps they have, in that, more often now, serious, good writers are interested in publishing their good work on the web, as an alternative to the clogged yet rather flattened-out book industry.

TM: Your journal is remarkably unique in both content and form – what goes into producing an issue of Archipelago? Where do you find most of your material? Besides an obvious desire for eclectic variety, do you believe in a certain theory of aesthetics? What sets apart an Archipelago piece from one we might find in another journal?

KM: How to answer your first question? At a guess: education, affinities, travel, a developed reading habit, history. Time. Curiosity. Interest. Anger. Who knows? More important: the fact that remarkable writers and artists are willing to offer their work to readers through the pages of Archipelago. Much of what I publish is solicited, but a fair proportion comes from submissions. And yet, I don’t think I have a desire for “eclectice variety,” at least not that I’m aware of. Rather, I think our readers are likely to be people who have read and traveled widely, have lived in more than one society and been formed by more than one culture, and who are very aware of the state of the world, its politics and ecology. They are wide-minded people.

As for what sets an Archipelago piece apart: isn’t it a matter, surely, for reviewers and readers to decide?

TM: Your politically charged endnotes to Volume 7, Numbers 1 and 2 are pointedly unreserved pieces (and I thank you for writing them). Also, the current issue of Archipelago features Peter Turnley’s enlightening audio/photography presentation titled “Seeing Another War in Iraq in 2003.” Could you talk about the way that Archipelago lives up to its name by spanning a wide range of topics and genres? Particularly, as a writer, editor, and defender of Free Speech living in these times, do you feel that artists and writers have an obligation to make their work politically relevant?

KM: In fact, in various ways many of my Endnotes have been politically charged since Vol. 1, No. 1, which was highly critical of the capitalist/market-oriented re-working of book publishing. Since the highly irregular presidential election of 2000, a mistake we will recover from with great difficulty if at all, I’ve been writing about how I observe this deeply ignorant president and his cohort are changing – have changed – the nature of the country. Internationally, militarism and unilateral war-making have trumped diplomacy as the means of treating with other nations. At home, our civil liberties have been directly threatened – and the civil and human rights of certain citizens and non-citizens directly violated – in pursuit of the chimera of “security.” I do not understand why the security of Americans should be considered more precious than defense of our civil rights, let alone respect for the lives of any other human beings. Gore Vidal said that he expected that this Bush would go down in history as our most reviled president. I can only hope he is right.

But when you ask whether I think artists and writers “have an obligation to make their work politically relevant,” what do you mean? We might be better off if our politics – that is, the use and distribution of power and the disposition of monety – were informed by the arts in their best sense. I myself think and believe that artists and writers have the highest obligation to make their art by working as accurately and honestly as they can. I wonder whether, in America at least, that doesn’t become more and more difficult to do, as artists and writers are barely heard in the larger culture as witnesses or moral voices. They are there, of course, but the popular media ‘culture’ has narrowed the base of public expression and made it ever shallower.

A cautionary note is useful. We should not assume the “politics” of any particular artist until we have a look. Ezra Pound, after all, was imprisoned and tried as a traitor in Italy after the Allied invasion, and he was imprisioned in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington for the rest of his life. It was a compromise; otherwise, he would have been shot, as he broadcast on the Italian radio in favor of the Fascists. We might note that some of our greatest Modernist poets – Eliot and Yeats, for example – privately had fascist or proto-fascist sympathies, although fortunately they were politically inept.

TM: Interviews, considered by all good writers an art form, are a staple at Archipelago. Your interviews are thorough yet casual and natural. How do you approach, strategize, and carry out your interviews?

KM: The interviews you refer to are in the series “Institutional Memory,” which I began with the second or third issue (and which are still available, with a link from the Contents page). At the time I was a writer whose book mansucript had been treated very roughly by its prospective publisher, for reasons having nothing to do with literature. I had seen respected imprints shut down because they weren’t making enough return on investment – “It’s just business,” as the Godfather said. I wanted to understand what had become of this business about which I had been so naive. And I had undertaken Archipelago, and thought I had better learn how to be a responsbile publisher. Therefore, I considered, why not find out by asking those who knew?

When I decided to approach some publishers and editors whom I respected or knew of, or who were suggested to me, I thought the best method would be the following. If they agreed to talk to me, our conversaations would be recorded on tape. There would be at least two sessions. The tapes would be transcribed. Then I would do the first, light edit, the purpose of which was to cut away the hems and haws of normal conversation while keeping the substance intact and retaining the energy of talk. This edit then went to the subject, who was asked to correct errors and clarify thoughts or statements as needed. I asked each of them not to censor him- or herself, though in several cases much rewriting was done. I then edited the piece once more and asked my subject to read the new version. Further corrections were made. Then, I made the final edit and published the text. I doubt this is an art form, but it is a craft, and I am still learning it.

TM: Perhaps most importantly, how do you figure the relation between writing and the web? You offer the option of downloading print-friendly versions of Archipelago issues, which suggests that you occupy some space between print and web publishing. Do you anticipate ever publishing and distributing Archipelago in print? Could you talk about the way the Internet opens doors and creates possibilities for writers and artists?

KM: I see the web as a means of distribution and appreciate your idea that Archipelago occupies a space – incunabula? – between print and web publishing. I found that whatever standards one might bring to the publishing venture – careful selection and careful editing, for instance – did not have to suffer because of the new medium. Our design is meant to please and interest readers who – like us – love books and love reading them. I will never believe electronics will replace print, nor do I believe that print values have no place on the web. Now I expect that Archipelago Publishers will expand into other media over the next few years, as we reform ourselves from a small, voluntary non-profit group into a more structured, larger non-profit organization. I love editing and organizing the journal, but I know it’s time for change of some sort. I anticipate finding new people with vision and energy, and finding a way to support us all, for the work is too large and demanding for Debra Weiss and me to continue without a regular staff.

Yet, here is a note worth remembering. Among trade publishers used to be the received wisdom that there were only 60,000/40,000/25,000 – pick your number – “serious” readers of books in the U.S. This was a marketing response, I think, to the question of why so many good books were not being taken by publishers who, five or ten years before, would have welcomed them. Well, those “serious” readers must also use the web, because last year Archipelago clocked in about 60,000 “unique visitors,” as readers on computers are called, and we’re told by a number of librarians that they download the pdf edition and print it in their media rooms. This is interesting, I think, and a fact serious publishers and writers might take note of.

TM: Where do you see Archipelago heading in the future? Is there any genre or class of literature/media that you’d like to publish but haven’t yet? What can we expect from the next issue and from issues far down the road?

KM: I hope Archipelago will continue to grow in breadth and depth, and that the organization itself will diversify. As the world grows ever more dangerous, I hope we will publish larger works of serious political, military, economic and social analysis. I hope to find new fiction that is as visionary as, say, Zamyatin’s or Orwell’s. In the end, though, what I would hope and expect is that readers will continue to hold us their own high standards.

About the Interviewer

Tim McGrath is the former editor of Portal Del Sol. He can be reached at mcgrattf@bc.edu.

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