An Interview With Katy Lederer

Poet and memoirist Katy Lederer also spent a decade (1997-2007) editing the beloved, hand-stapled Explosive Magazine. THERMOS interviewed herabout scope, roots, range, and the point of it allthis December.

TH: Could you describe the history of Explosive Magazine?  How and why did it start?  Did your thinking about its purpose and/or production change at any point?

I started Explosive Magazine in 1996. The short of it is that I had recently moved to Iowa to attend the writing program there and missed my poetry friends from the Bay Area (I had attended undergrad at Berkeley, and, mainly through one of my teachers there—Lyn Hejinian—met poets from not only UC, but also from Oakland and San Francisco; Lyn was great at introducing students to coteries and scenes that existed outside of academia).

Some of the younger poets I considered peers in the Bay Area (and later published in Explosive) included: Hoa Nguyen, Dale Smith, Anselm and Eddie Berrigan, Pamela Lu, Lytle Shaw, Mary Burger, Lauren Gudath, and Alex Cory. I also read and met (at readings) non-Bay Area poets like Juliana Spahr, Bill Luoma, Alice Notley, and Jordan Davis.

Some of the new peers I met at Iowa (and later put in the magazine) included: Robyn Schiff, Josh May, Nick Twemlow, Rick Barot, Max Winter, Lisa Lubasch, Emily Wilson, Jen Hofer, Ishmael Klein, and Summi Kaipa. I also encountered other “Iowa Poets,” either through the reading series there or during trips I made to New York, including Rachel Zucker, D. A. Powell, and Martin Corless-Smith.

I knew David Larsen, the fabulous artist and writer, from high school, strangely enough. I used to call him and some other friends from the Bay Area and cry with home sickness (I found Iowa very difficult—extremely competitive and most of the students at that time thought it was absurd that I would produce a stapled zine). During one of these calls to Dave, I said, “Hey, let’s you and I produce a magazine. I will edit it. You will make the cover.” The first cover, which was modeled on a No Parking sign, read “Berkeley – Iowa – NYC” at the bottom. The primary motive for the magazine was, therefore, what one might call “socio-geographical” in nature.

Katy Lederer

As the magazine evolved (and as I went from being 23 to 33) there was a diaspora of sorts. While young poets flock to the Bay Area, Iowa, and NYC, older poets with families and bills to pay tend to flock to whatever location will offer them benefits and tenure (teaching being very clearly the default profession for poets right now); the geographical mix of the magazine’s contributors therefore changed a great deal from those early (and much simpler) three-city days.

If I were 23 now, I would probably not produce a stapled zine. I would instead make a website and distribute it electronically. I might, alternatively, produce some painstakingly and exquisitely hand-made limited-edition publication (like Jeff Clark’s Faucheuse).

TH: I found your first five issues in a friend’s living room in Iowa City.  I felt lucky to find them there; it felt like the poems came from friends, reminding me of graduate school poem-swapping and zines handed out at punk rock shows.  That kind of intimacy seems productive—supportive of a community it helps document and develop—but like it also limits a magazine’s readership/distribution. What do you think the role of magazines like Explosive is (especially, compared to chapbooks, online journals, institutionally-supported literary reviews)?  What shouldn’t such magazines try to do or be?

Well, this is a very large question—and a profound one on many levels. I can make some statements, but they likely won’t answer your question fully.

I chose the stapled zine form because I was itinerant, broke, and wanted to be able to use original, hand-produced works of art for the cover. The circulation for every issue of Explosive was no more and no less than 300. Initially, this seemed like a small circulation, but I learned a few things along the way that made me realize the difference between small, coterie-based magazines like Explosive, and glossier, nationally distributed magazines like, say, Fence Magazine, is smaller than one might imagine. That said, “the narcissism of small differences” can never be underestimated. Artists (not to mention liberals) are always going to hate each other over differences that to them seem great (the difference between a 300 and 3000 circulation, for example), but are actually very small. This tendency is almost always against everyone’s best interests, but that’s another interview.

Juliana Spahr's CHAIN magazine

First, I got a mailing list from one of my idols, the poet Juliana Spahr (she had assembled it mainly through editing her brilliant and beautifully produced magazine, Chain). This mailing list included the addresses of poets like Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, John Ashbery, and Michael Palmer. I almost died all over myself. Basically, what I did was input this list into a FileMaker Pro database, make labels and send probably 200 of every 300 copy print-run to all poets on the list that I had heard of—i.e., the magazine was always distributed (and for free) to basically the highest quality poetry readers on the planet. I would send another 50 to contributors (free) to give to their friends; the last 50, I would try to sell or (more often) give away to people at readings. The magazine was basically free (I funded it mainly by donating plasma twice a week at the Iowa City plasma clinic—this netted me $35 a week as long as the nurse didn’t poke me the wrong way and ruin my vein), and I used it as a form of idol worship. I died all over myself constantly because I would sometimes receive notes from people like Michael Palmer saying: “I like your magazine.” So yes, it was a way for me to support my passion—and a way for me to pass on that support to my peers by being passionate about their work in public.

TH: The poetry in Explosive, and the magazine’s format, is expansive, including a big range of poets.  How did that expansive variety interact with your choice to steadily publish artists like Larsen and Morice in multiple issues and to include, I assume, some poets you knew personally?  When considering unsolicited submissions, how did your goals for the magazine affect your decisions?

Well, basically, I knew a lot more poets than I knew artists, so Larsen and Morice were kind of it on the visual side. Plus, their work was fantastic. On the poetry side: I solicited almost every single thing that ever appeared in the magazine. Basically, I went to a reading every night while I was living in San Francisco and whenever I would visit New York (there weren’t as many readings in Iowa, though sometimes I would host them at my house); if I liked a poet and/or poem, I would ask for the work. Most people would give it to me. Some people (all students at Iowa) refused because they were saving their work for the New Yorker or something like that. In other words (speaking to your question) I did indeed know probably 94% of the poets that appeared in the magazine personally. The other 6% were mainly poets whose books I had read and admired, but hadn’t met (I wrote them).

TH: Are there poems or poets you are particularly pleased to have published?  What has it been like to see what Explosive’s contributors have done since being in the magazine?  To see some critics and anthologies connecting some poets from your pages to period styles of lyric hybridity etc.?

Not to be disingenuous in the least, but I am incredibly pleased to have published everyone I published. I feel like I published everyone! And of course the poets I published are connected to period styles—because I published everyone, and “everyone” is what makes a period!

I used to use the word “hybridity” a lot back in the late 90s. For me, it was derivative of the science fiction writer Octavia Butler’s Xenogensis series, in which aliens land on earth after a nuclear apocalypse, rescue several humans, and then incorporate human genes into their alien genome (producing alien-human hybrids). The aliens love the humans because humans have in their genes such incredibly destructive and creative impulses at once. The aliens also love (and are fascinated by, in an almost erotic way) our cancer. When I edited the Poetry Project Newsletter, I would write weird editorial things, one of which was based on these Octavia Butler books… all of this said, I find the current use (and abuse, mainly) of the term “hybrid” pretty demoralizing. It makes me sad that the alien-human (read “School of Quietude”-LANGUAGE POETRY—or wait, LANGUAGE POETRY is the marked category here, right? So that would be the alien side of the hyphen) aesthetic miscegenation that happened in the 90s didn’t end up producing a richer and more interesting discourse (which isn’t to say some of the poems produced during this period aren’t absolutely fantastic). It is, in some small part, because of my disappointment with the way the “hybridization” thing panned out (especially during eight years of the Bush administration—my God!) that I ended up writing poetry about my day job at a hedge fund (talk about creative and destructive at once! Talk about the grotesque seductions of cancer!). I wanted to get dirty. I wanted to sin! I thought: I am going to “hybridize” with something as far outside of academic poetry as I can think up.

And I’ll just say it: I was the first to do, editorially, what one would call active hybridation, right? I mean, Explosive came out in 1996. (Fence was basically concomitant, coming out in 1997.) The anthology American Hybrid came out in 2009 (!), and that compendium didn’t include most of Explosive‘s contributors because they are—even 13 years later—still too young to be included in a Norton anthology (!).

Actually, I will back off from this a bit and credit the journal O-Blek with being the true radical forebearer of what would later be called—formally in the academic sense—”hybridization.”

But I don’t want to do the narcissism of small differences thing here, either. Poets do good work. Poetry is God’s work. However they want to write or talk about writing, it’s all good as far as I am concerned. That said, I do think most poets are in denial about what the real taboos in writing are—the real boundaries. In The Lover, by Marguerite Duras (copyright 1984), which I was reading just this morning, she writes:

Before, I spoke of clear periods, those on which the light fell. Now I’m talking about the hidden stretches of the same youth, of certain facts, feelings, events that I buried. I started to write in surroundings that drove me to reticence. Writing, for those people, was still something moral. Nowadays it often seems writing is nothing at all. Sometimes I realize that if writing isn’t, all things, all contraries confounded, a quest for vanity and void, it’s nothing. That if it’s not, each time, all things confounded into one through some inexpressible essence, then writing is nothing but advertisement. But usually, I have no opinion, I can see that all options are open now, that there seem to be no more barriers, that writing seems at a loss for somewhere to hide, to be written, to be read. That its basic unseemliness is no longer accepted. But at that point I stop thinking about it.

This perfectly captures my feelings about how it has felt to write and edit during the period that started around 1990, when LANGUAGE poets and poetries started trickling into academe, and ended this year (2009) with the publication of American Hybrid. But maybe every young editor feels this way in their time. Actually, I think yes, this is (like all things structural, I suppose) a very timeless way for a young editor to feel.

* * *

Katy Lederer is the author of the poetry collections Winter Sex (Verse Press, 2002) and The Heaven-Sent Leaf (BOA Editions, 2008), as well as the memoir Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers (Crown, 2003). She serves as a Poetry Editor of Fence Magazine and is on the advisory boards of Fence Magazine/Fence Books and the Millay Colony for the Arts. From 1997-2007, she edited the magazine Explosive, which she also founded.

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