Portal del Sol

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Interview: DIAGRAM

An Interview with Ander Monson, Editor of DIAGRAM

Ander Monson edits the magazine DIAGRAM and the New Michigan Press. He is the author of Vacationland (Tupelo Press, 2005), Other Electricities (Sarabande Books, 2005), Neck Deep and Other Predicaments: Essays (Graywolf Press, 2007), Vanishing Point (Graywolf Press, 2010) and, most recently, The Available World (Sarabande, 2010)Vanishing Point’s associated website can be found at http://otherelectricities.com/vp/index.html.  Ander maintains the blog Essay Daily (http://essaydaily.blogspot.com/) and an epicenter of things Ander can be found at (http://otherelectricities.com/).  He lives in Tucson, Arizona and teaches at the University of Arizona.

An interview with Ander Monson, editor of DIAGRAM, in which online journals, editorial practices, inclusionism, anonymity, dudes and the Spice Girls factor heavily.

Benjamin Cartwright: I remember being advised (more recently than one might imagine) to privilege, in an absolute way, print journals over electronic journals.  This seemed like a prejudice to me then.  It still seems that way.  Do you feel like the public response to electronic journals has changed during the past ten years of working on DIAGRAM?  If so, would you mind sharing some of your thoughts on those changes?

Ander Monson: I always find this sad and odd. The responses we get from very many of our contributors indicate that they get a lot more play from their work that we publish (in terms of readership and responses, etc.) than from most of the print journals they appear in. But I agree that in certain circles there’s certainly a prejudice–it’s hard to imagine it being anything other than a prejudice, albeit one based in a certain experience of the world–toward print. For poetry I think this prejudice has receded significantly over the last decade. For prose, less so, but thinking has certainly changed. For instance, the Best American series now reads and considers, and, at least in the instance of Poetry selects work published online. DIAGRAM had a Notable Essay last year or the year before. Stories is probably going to be the toughest nut to crack, but I’m sure that’ll happen sooner or later if it hasn’t. And granting agencies like the NEA now consider electronic, as do most tenure committees for those teaching at universities (a growing number of practicing writers). To me all this is inevitable, and to the good. Don’t get me wrong–I love print, too, but not exclusively.

BC: Could you discuss some of the methods you use for finding the diagrams and schematics included in issues of DIAGRAM?  I’m fascinated by the DRAINAGE OF ENTRAPPED WATER INTO IMPROPERLY SEALED UTILIDOR diagram in issue 10.6.  The names of the original volumes publishing the diagrams are indicated, but I guess I’m curious about how the original volumes themselves caught your (or someone else’s) attention.

AM: That particular image–and really all the images in 10.6, the winter issue–are taken from this volume that I got accidentally through interlibrary loan. I was looking for snow-related books that were issued in Braille for this video adaptation I was doing of my essay “I Have Been Thinking about Snow” (on youtube now incidentally), and ILLed a bunch of books that came up in my searches. As it turns out all of the books I asked for in Braille only didn’t arrive in Braille, so I sent most of them back after paging through them, but that one was a great source of diagrams, so I scanned a ton of them. About 80% of the diagrams we publish I find wandering through estate sales, goodwills and less obvious resale stores, and the basements of various libraries, where they keep all the great books. The other 20% are found by one of our editorial interns, or more usually by readers who happen to share this particular love for the schematic. I’m a fan of happenstance combined with an openness to what presents itself for my attention.

BC: Has your role in the editorial process changed, over time?  Are there things you miss from earlier days?

AM: I no longer read every single submission we get, though I used to. Because of the volume it’s become impossible. Now I probably read 10% of what comes in when it comes in when it comes in, and forward the rest. Then about 5-10% of submissions come back to me vetted and agitated for by our editors. And we converse from there. I do miss being involved in absolutely everything, but even if I wanted to (which I don’t really–part of running a good journal is getting editors you trust and not micromanaging the fuck out of them), I couldn’t.

BC: I’m curious about the way the editorial staff, collectively, goes about putting an issue together.  Would you mind describing some of that process?

AM: The reading/accepting/rejecting process is independent of the actual issue-assembling. We read and respond constantly to work (sometimes independently as editors, sometimes in conversation), and once stuff gets accepted, it comes in to me. From there I do all the design and sending out of proofs. From there when it comes issue time I’ll select what goes in which issue, trying to create a balanced or interestingly unbalanced constellation of text and diagrams from what’s scanned and ready. So the diagrams in the winter issue (10.6) were all cold-weather-themed, for instance. Sometimes an accepted work will sit for up to a year. Sometimes, more rarely, it’s accepted and published within the week.

BC: Does the editorial staff engage in any bonding activities, beyond your actual work on the journal?  For instance, do you knock over banks together, or tag buildings with graffiti?  Do you play ping-pong?

AM: One of the functions of being online–or well maybe not a function of being online, but a corollary–is that most of us are pretty well spread out geographically. One poetry editor lives in Michigan, one in Illinois. Another in Alabama. Fiction editors in South Carolina, Alabama, Virginia. Nonfiction editor and myself in Arizona. And our reviews editor’s in Michigan. So it’s pretty hard to get together to do anything other than chatroulette (which we also do not do or admit to doing). We actually might consider forming a raiding party in World of Warcraft if any of us played it. Or maybe some sex group on Second Life…

BC: Are there any things you absolutely do not miss about the early days of putting together issues of DIAGRAM?

AM: I don’t miss having so many old books clogging up my life and work space. I had about a hundred old dictionaries at one point that were just massive. But when we moved up to Michigan I couldn’t bring them. Actually I kind of miss being surrounded by that much paper.

BC: DIAGRAM takes more risks with layout and design than many other electronic journals, and makes good use of the ease of publishing even complex multi-genre, or text-and-image projects electronically.  Could you name some other electronic journals you admire, for the way they seem to be using the electronic medium?

AM: My favorite online journal extant is–or was, since they JUST folded–Born Magazine. They paired writers with designers and sound artists and so on, so that everything they published was a collaboration. Some worked spectacularly. Some didn’t, also spectacularly. But that’s how collaboration goes. I’m interested in Electric Lit, but haven’t spent enough time with them to feel like I’m knowledgeable enough to talk about it. They’re not doing anything super progressive with the medium, but the app methodology is very slick. Ninth Letter, while not an electronic journal, has a digital component which generally makes a lot of sense to me (and is usually beautiful and intricate). I’ve spent a lot of time trying to catch up on print journals for the Essay Daily blog I’ve been running, so it’s actually been longer than I’d like to admit since I’ve spent the time in online litspaces that they deserve.

Shifting gears a bit, I’d like to ask you about your own work—more specifically, about Vanishing Point, and its associated website.  In one section of the Vanishing Point website, you write that “the suburbs have a different anonymity than the city.”  Could you discuss these different anonymities, as you’ve experienced or observed them?

AM: The city’s anonymity is fueled by density of population and of story–you don’t know anyone because there are so many anyones, so disappearing is easy. I’m not a big city person, but as I understand it this is part of the appeal. It’d certainly be part of the appeal for me. Suburban anonymity is fueled by sameness and by distance. It too has a density but its density is space and yard. Anyone could be doing anything–and we often are–within the confines of the American yard, the American house. These things are sacrosanct in the suburb–and the town, too–and ask us to breach them, at least with our intelligences and imaginations.

BC: I’ve been collecting found-slides for the past ten years and obsessing over preserving the hand-written titles people put on them, so when I got to “The Essay Vanishes” in Vanishing Point and the section dealing with Wikipedia deletionists and inclusionists I wanted nothing so much as to buy you a beer.  I felt simpatico.  I have a question, though; in one of your footnotes in that section you seem to be championing inclusionism when you write that “worthiness can be assessed later.”  Are there any potential hazards to completely egalitarian methods of collecting and cataloging information?

AM: Well, sure. If you’re totally value neutral then the collection of information is going to sprawl infinitely, and the bigger it is the harder it is to navigate and actually use, so the less useful it is. It’s also becoming far more difficult to police and updated and correct vandalism and ensure some sort of standard of quality, which is important if you want people to use it, but I believe we should tend toward inclusionism. Wikipedia has evolved a group of users–or let’s just go ahead and say dudes, because it’s mostly dudes, probably unsurprisingly, who overpolice the content people add to the site, probably out of a sense of their commitment to the site since it’s a volunteer-run operation. There’s a real pleasure in being one of the knowledgemakers who actually has a specialized knowledge about something (even if it’s the esoterica of the rationales Wikipedia has evolved about what merits an entry for any particular subject). Once you achieve that kind of authority it’s pretty easy as a human to want to swing it around. I mean, we’re also talking about the canon, right?

BC: Yes.  Absolutely.  It’s amusing how the “Comments” sections of wikis often parallel debates over other canons, literary and otherwise.  A Wolverine comics wiki has its own little Northrop Fryes refusing to acknowledge certain retcons, and championing others.  In the “Discussion” section of the Spice Girls Wikipedia page there’s an interesting debate over verb tense; does one refer to the Spice Girls in the past tense if they never officially broke up?  One might as well replace “Spice Girls” with “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets” or with “Sandinistas.”  Do you really feel like it’s dudes doing most of over-policing, though?  Why is that?

AM: I am nearly certain it’s mostly dudes (the number of fudge words in this sentence–“nearly”, “mostly”–suggests that in actuality I am not certain at all). To be clear I am not sure that there’s anything biologically inherent in dudes that makes us want to be completists, or to want to assume authority, or patrol our shrinking beats with our little frigates, hassling internet trolls. I imagine most of this is socialized. But in my experience the exact sort of person who does this, most of the time, is a dude. Likely a geek. Someone used to a marginal social position, and with specialized knowledge that he is happy to wield like a particular sort of athletic prowess which he likely lacks. Maybe it’s a marking territory thing, the sort of thing that, as a sex, we should be embarrassed about, and usually we are, but yet there is something of the animal in us. Which is all to say I don’t know, but I only know one or two women who take to these sorts of policings and rankings and taxonomies and completistings with the glee that a rather large number of my male friends do. (I find the Vida project–quantifying the ratios of women to men in various publications, and using them to raise awareness about the situation–to be rather in line with this kind of geekery, albeit with a particular political aim (which might differentiate itself from the sorts of pointless taxonomies that my friends have done, for instance, polling, ranking, and arguing the top 500 movies ever). However, I am a geek, so it’s no surprise that I surround myself with geeks. Maybe this is one of those instances of collection explored below.

BC: I am puzzled by “spice girls” and “how do I memorize my lines” listed in the Irrgarten of Reader Response section of the Vanishing Point website, where user entries into the search box with no corresponding pages are collected.  Do you have any speculations as to why someone may have entered either of these?

AM: I am a rather serious fan of the Spice Girls, so I presume that particular entry is a result of someone who knows this about me. No clue about memorizing my lines, but I am rather spectacularly bad at memorizing my lines. I used to act, and that probably deserves the scare quotes, since I was so bad. But I’d be cast in these awful roles like the butler in The Man Who Came to Dinner that would require me to do some minor action in every scene, so I had to show up for every rehearsal, even though I had maybe ten lines total. I directed a production of Woody Allen’s God, which is a pretty great play, and gave myself a bit part, and every performance I’d fuck up my two lines. So maybe or maybe not that’s why someone wants to know why they can’t memorize their lines on my website.

BC: What were your two lines in God? Do you remember?

AM: Unfortunately no–even now, 18 years later, I flub it.

BC: Your use of Braille in the video adaptation of your essay, the re-purposing of schematics and diagrams in the journal–even the video you made on the Amazon page for Vanishing Point–so many of your projects seem to have something of the joy of salvage in them–or the joy of finding a new use for something neglected, or overlooked.  Were you like this as a kid?  Did you used to collect or re-purpose things then?

AM: Joy is an apt word for it. I don’t know if I was a joyful kid, but I was a gleeful kid. In my view of my childhood I was always either getting away with something or not getting away with it at all. In retrospect I should probably add a third state of being, that of being sure I was getting away with it, but actually not getting away with it, my father having presumably decided to let that one slide. I mean to say that I was a collector, certainly. I collected stamps. And baseball cards. And coins. But that seems usual to me for kids, or the kids I knew and know. There’s that desire to taxonomize and collect–and by so doing, expand–the universe that feels essential to me in childhood. My brother collected facts about gibbons. I collected software, later. I don’t know that I repurposed things. I don’t know many kids who do that. But my dad is something of a tinker, a carpenter, always working on a project, so that connects. And in my earlier years on my earlier computers I would write little batch files or do some simple coding in order to produce delight or get the computer to do something that it wasn’t already programmed to do. So that’s a sort of repurposing. But the computer is made for that very thing. It’s meant to be programmed. But in most operating systems (excepting perhaps the open-source ones that are meant to be tinkered with), there are large swathes of the computer that you’re not supposed to touch. And the hacker instinct in me still loves a boundary, something you’re not supposed to do. In the early days of copy protection on software, for instance, that just drove me nuts. I’m not sure why. It’s nothing noble, in that I wasn’t trying to make information freeeee, man, but that it presented itself as a problem to be solved, and there were ways to do it. So there’s that transformative thing again.


Benjamin Cartwright’s work has appeared in Sentence, Prick of the Spindle, The Stinging Fly and Pure Francis.  He is a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Kansas.  Ben records and archives the works of writers and poets in Kansas at www.kansasblotter.blogspot.com.  He can be reached at bendeancartwright@gmail.com.

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