For Writers Who Are Going To Do Big Things
Sandra Allen co-founded and is the Managing and Essays Editor of Wag's Revue. A recent recipient of an MFA from the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, she currently works for the digital publisher, Byliner.
Interview by Rob Hochschild
On page one of each issue, you provide dictionary-style definitions of “wag” and “revue,” citing phrases such as “ludicrously mischievous,” “numerous unrelated scenes,” and “entirely new form.” In what ways do those terms (or any others you’d like to bring up) define your magazine’s philosophy?
"Wag" was meant as a portmanteau of "web" and "magazine." On the long night three and a half years ago during which my cofounders (Will Guzzardi and Will Litton) and I decided to start a magazine, we found that wag.com or something like it was already taken. We therefore added the word "revue" to our title, spelled like a vaudeville--it was a long night--to signify that this "wag" was related to, but not exactly like, a traditional (printed) literary "review."
We do conceive of the digital magazine as being an "entirely new form" inasmuch as we can publish the same materials as can a traditional printed magazine, and more, such as electronic literature, video, audio and so forth. There are distinct benefits to our mode of publication, for example the cheap cost of production and wide dissemination of our issues. There are also distinct drawbacks, such as the problem of universality. (On that topic read this fantastic essay by the Triple Canopy editors.) But like vaudeville was still clearly theatrical performance, our web magazine is still clearly a literary magazine, not a blog, website or anything else. The second meaning of "wag" we give on each title page is a droll, witty joker. This attitude is exemplified by a great deal of our content, both in the issues and to a greater extent on our newly-founded blog, The Wag, and our escapades as editors and humans.
As an online-only literary journal, you take advantage of the creative possibilities unleashed by the medium—“100 Trillion Poems” in Issue 5 and the English-Spanish “stir-fry” translations in Wag’s 3 are two great examples—but you also take a traditional print literary journal approach in other ways, including each issue’s unique cover design and sequential page numbering. Explain this paradox and how you arrived at the publication’s very clear and well-designed look and functionality.
When we were founding the magazine, we wondered: why did so many smart people believe that the internet was hostile to quality publishing? Was it that people just hadn't done it well yet (that we knew of) or couldn't? We then discussed what was different about holding a new issue of a literary quarterly in your hands and online reading. One answer was the weight and texture of the cover and paper, which of course we couldn't replicate in the digital space. On the other hand, though, it's also the promise of quality that comes with that weight and texture that is so coveted. It's a metaphysical as well as a physical feeling. To quote our founding Manifesto, which says it better than I can, and super bombastically: "A high-quality print magazine—a Harper’s, a Partisan Review, an n+1—is a micron filter of minds applied to the endless wellspring of human creation, allowing only the finest trickle to pass through. As it stands now, the internet is the opposite: an unbridled and infinite purveyor of information—creation unbound—and it has all the delicate subtlety of a tidal wave."
Our pages imitate white, rectangular, printed ones because we wanted our readers to be reminded of a traditional magazine. We also wanted to have very spartan pages so to prioritize the content itself, above all else. Generally online content is fringed or even interrupted by advertisement, distraction, broken up for added hits. In this same spirit, we also release a new issue on the quarter rather than update periodically, even though the latter is much more the culture of the internet and advantageous when it comes to preserving traffic.
We really enjoy publishing digitally innovative pieces. (I'd add Robert Moor's hotel-shaped profile of HTML literature founder Robert Coover to your list.) As of this year, we have a new interface developer working with us who's going to be enabling the publication of more such pieces in future issues (that is after he helps us build our new website this summer).
Tell us about how you and your cofounders came together and what inspired you to create a literary magazine. What journals—print or online—do you feel set the standard for what you’re aiming to do?
The Wills and I were seniors in college and all writers (each of the respective genre we went on to edit). The night we founded the magazine we were discussing the difficult situation we therefore faced. Print publishing as a whole--literary magazines included--were in decline. At the same time, the internet was widely understood to be somehow hostile to literary (meaning quality) publishing. The year before, I had taken a course on the little magazine with n+1 founder Mark Greif (he has his PhD from Harvard on the same) and had been surprised that neither he nor my literary-savvy peers could name digital magazines they had read let alone respected. The Wills and I questioned, though, whether the stigmatization of literary publishing was in fact founded.
By about 2 am that first night, we'd not only decided to found a magazine and brainstormed its first issue's content, but given it its easily misspelled name. I should add that that unlikely "-ue" serves as our proverbial Van Halen brown m&m's removed from the bowl in the green room. Meaning I can easily tell when writers have read the magazine before they've sent us work and when they haven't.
You’re the essays editor of Wag’s Revue and a published nonfiction writer. What excites you about someone’s writing when you’re going through a pile of submissions? Are there a few essays you've run in Wag's that you're particularly proud of?
I'd first say that there are very few pieces we've published in the magazine in its 1500 or so pages that I don't stand behind whole-heartedly, still, that I don't re-read on occasion and laugh and sigh and giggle and swear. To put it crassly: we publish fucking great shit by fucking talented writers. We've been the place of first or early publication for writers who are going to do big things. If I worried too much about their talent I'd stop writing myself. But it makes this job so worth it, promoting them.
That said, here are, in my opinion, the best essays I've published, working backwards in time. From the most recent issue, Andrew Marantz's essay on Louis C.K.; MJC Clark's profile of the world's premier UFOlogist, Dr. Leo Sprinkle; "The Heavenly Holographic Soul Doctor"; Brad Fox's "Tsunami Story" (its first page, an elaborate description of a woman so horny she literally bites into a man who rejects her as a metaphor for a tsunami, was the most attention-getting first page I'd ever encountered in a slushpile); Beau Watkin's 10,000 word, definition-defying masterwork, "From The Unofficial Horso Wiki Project: Pardon Our Progress!" (if you read one thing from Wag's Revue, read it); also from the "truthiness" issue, Rachel Yoder's "Story Per My Therapist's Request: A Story By Rachel Yoder"; Lucas Mann's "On Glee"; Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas' "After the Colonel", a work that can only be described as magical realist nonfiction; and from our first issue, Rob Moor's seminal essay on the douchebag / hipster dichotomy, "On Douchebags".
Re-reading this list, I'm trying to answer your question regarding what I look for. All these essays are full of beautiful sentences. They are driven by inquisition. Their authors are self-aware and therefore there is a level of irony if there isn't outright humor, which occasionally there is. They are innovative but never at the expense of literature.
I know you didn't ask for it, but one of my favorite fiction pieces would be Viktor Vasquez (of Das Racist)'s "The Idiot" (from our Music Issue) and my favorite poem would have to be Mathias Svalina's google screenshot epic, "I Am Extremely Terrified of Chinese People".
Besides typos and other crimes, what makes you drop a piece into the “rejected” bin?
I wouldn't put typos at the top of "crimes," at all. I'd put submitting content that obviously doesn't fit with our "take" on the various genres or our wit. A writer shouldn't submit to a journal he or she hasn't read and that he or she doesn't really believe is the absolute best place for his or her particular poem, essay or short story.
Also not following directions. Submit through our manager, not via email, like it says on our website.
What would you like to see more of in the submitted essays that land on your desk?
"by Salman Rushdie."
What about the fiction, poetry, and other genres that make it into Wag’s? What are the strengths of the work that you and your coeditors want to expose to your readers?
I think their answers would be similar to mine. If a writer is knowledgeable about the magazine and feels he or she is a fit, he or she should go for it. We might agree.
Having recently completed a nonfiction MFA at the University of Iowa, you must have incisive ideas about writing programs and what they can or can’t do for aspiring writers. Well? We’re waiting…
Et caveat emptor: We're just wrapping up the semester, having awards and farewell banquets and such so I'm feeling pretty schmaltzy. I think a lot of different kinds of writers, and people, can "get" a lot of various kinds of things out of an MFA program. And I can only speak for mine, in this moment, with this set of peers and professors, and not any other. It's been three years of time to obsess about my own work and its failings, to be surrounded by people doing the same, in a place (Iowa City) where literature is visible and important. Like anything, it is what you make of it.
You cofounded Wag’s Revue in 2009 as a quarterly and just announced that, for your 11th and most recent issue, Spring 2012, you paid your contributors. This is huge news in the world of literary magazines. What led to the decision to begin compensating writers now? Was this always part of your plan? To what extent is the evolution of the journal unfolding as you had envisioned?
Yeah it's pretty dope. We'd wanted to pay our writers for a long time. We waited, more or less, until we had enough money that we knew we could promise it and keep the promise, based on what we take in from writers contests. We also, as of early this year, are officially a fiscal sponsoree of the New York Foundation for the Arts' Artspire project, meaning we're a non-profit. Legit with the IRS, able to take donations and grants, whole shebang. One activity we plan on pursuing next with all our free time is grant writing. Also losing ten pounds each.
You also hand over cash to writers who take the top three spots in two annual contests. Tell us more about the contests from the magazine side of things. How do submissions differ from what normally slides under your door?
How do submissions differ... I'm not sure they do. Perhaps more people apply to the contests who seem to apply to a lot of contests and don't necessarily read the magazine? The first prize for each contest is $1000, the second $500, and the third $100 (which is now the regular pay per piece). There's guaranteed publication to that first place winner and all submissions are considered for publication. It's also happened that pieces that don't "place" end up getting published anyway. The contests are a way to attract new people to the magazine. It also feels awesome to pay a writer $1000 for a poem, essay or short story. That's not a negligible amount of cash in the literary publishing world.
You’ve interviewed a number of major literary figures for Wag’s Revue, like Lauren Slater, Dave Eggers, Lee Gutkind, David Rakoff, Wayne Koestenbaum, and—holy moly—Stephen Colbert. What does this ongoing feature add to the publication and what do you enjoy about the experience, as an up-and-coming writer yourself?
It's the coolest. I've had the opportunity to ask some of the writers I most admire the questions I'm asking as a young writer myself.
Per the Stephen Colbert fiasco, I'll simply recall the aforementioned waggish editorial escapades.
I read that you cofounded an improv comedy troupe during your Brown undergraduate days. This discovery begs many questions. Describe a favorite character you invented. Have you ever done standup? Who are your favorite comedians and why? What writers who deploy humor in their work are the rock stars of the practice?
The Wills and I were three of the five founding members of the longform improv group on campus called Starla and Sons, which we hear is thriving. Improv is notoriously terrible to describe after the fact so I'm going to politely decline to answer your first request. I've never done standup, no. I once wrote a joke about the awkward sexual politics of Cleveland Steamers. Nothing ever came of it.
Louis C.K. is important, which is why I commissioned three writers to write about him in our last issue. Honestly, though, picking a favorite comedian feels really shitty. As does picking a favorite funny writer. I have a soft spot for David Rakoff, though. Because of his unmatched vocabulary and knack for figuration. Also George Saunders.
Favorite book(s) of all time?
An equally shitty question. In Cold Blood?
What book(s) are you reading right now? What’s next?
Michael Herr's Dispatches is in my bag. Also Marilynne Robinson's newest essay collection which I've been reading even though I've been skipping her class (behavior I don't make sense of either). I've been re-reading Ulysses, which a friend pointed out is a pretentious thing to do and so I'm mostly doing it to bother her now. Next is either an Infinite Summer or reading the entire Joan Didion, which I bought the other day and is beautiful and makes me want to die. Also I want to read The Divine Comedy out loud but am worried the neighbors will think I'm crazy. Only half-worried.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I've been stuck on this question all week. All sorts of pithy-to-the-point-of-seeming-obvious answers have popped into my head, like 'writing is reading,' or 'writing is re-writing.' But here's the answer I want to give: I had this fiction teacher once who never gave us proclamations like the previous two. She was somewhat old and encumbered with purses, she walked with a gnarled stick. Once she interrupted a student who was reading his story and in the harshest tone I'd ever heard her use, said, "Never use the word strange."
So never use the word strange. Which I think is the same thing as 'there's no such thing as normal,' which is something I've yelled at a lot of Iowan undergrads at this point.
What’s in the future for Wag’s Revue? Now that the first three years are behind you, how would you like to see the next three years go? Do you anticipate changes in web design or anything else? Do you think you’ll print an anthology someday, as some notable online journals have, like Triple Canopy?
The state of the union is strong. Perhaps stronger than it's ever been. You should read our most recent editorial statement to get the full list of things we've accomplished recently and are working on now, like paying writers, like the blog. The big one is we've got a new website in the works. It'll be launching towards the end of the summer. While our site is...unique...it's far from as fast, universal or aesthetically pleasing as we'd like it to be.
My coeditors and I long ago decided that if we ever go back on our famed "suck it print" ethos and publish something on bleached plant matter, it'll be the full Horso, which apparently is twice as long as the 10,000 word version we published. Seriously read it.
What has been the biggest surprise and the biggest challenge of launching and editing a literary magazine?
Both the biggest surprise and the biggest challenge is the fact of doing it, if that makes sense. I'm constantly shocked that Wag's exists and people read it and like it, etc. But on the other hand I'm not because I know how much work so many people have put into creating it. I'm very blessed that I founded this magazine with people I love who have taste I will vouch for. The editors we've brought on since, I likewise fully trust, respect to no end. To someone aspiring to launch a magazine, I'd say, make sure you're willing to do it all, and make sure you actually like the people you're doing it with.
Rob Hochschild is a Boston-based writer, editor, and teacher. He is a graduate of the MFA program at EmersonCollege, and has written or reported for the Boston Globe and NPR, among other outlets.