'Chain' interview (pt. 1) and statement for OEI

Chain Letter icon, Chain no. 1, designed by AnJanette Brush
Chain Letter icon, Chain no. 1, designed by AnJanette Brush

Opening an email conversation on Chain with editors Spahr and Osman, I sent the following two introductory questions:

1) In the final issue of Chain, you note that the intellectual (and actual) climate in Buffalo prompted you to begin the magazine. The first issue — one of only three edited while you were both in Buffalo — presents a brilliant response. Originally slated to publish writing by women, Chain no. 1 features an editorial forum on editing magazines, a transcription of a panel on the ethics of small press publishing, and a series of poems composed via chain letters. Perhaps we can begin with a conversation on your plans for this first issue. What role did you see Chain performing in the poetics community at the time, in Buffalo and further afield?

2) The editorial forum in the first issue is particularly illuminating — offering a fascinating survey of female editors on gender and the work of editing. You interrogate the format of Chain itself in a following section entitled “Editors' Notes: Frameworks,” writing:

It is impossible to make a frameless frame (although that is the vision from which this project derived). We have instead begun the journal with a forum that takes a look at how and why journals are created and in what ways questions of gender have informed those decisions. It sounds absurd to edit a journal that's about the editing of journals — a nightmare of self-reflexivity — and yet it is a way of creating a body that shows its own skeleton.

How do the preliminary editorial statements from the first issue read to you now? Opening with this intensive self-reflexivity, in what ways did surveying experienced editors inform your own editorial position(s)?

In response, I was cheered to learn that these questions in particular were addressed in a short statement the editors penned for OEI magazine. We've decided to reproduce that document in full here. The statment can be read as a retrospective introduction to Chain from the persepective of 2008, resurfacing along with the magazine online today.

Chain Statement for OEI
Jena Osman and Juliana Spahr

Chain started, like many magazines, with a combination of homage and discontent. We were both graduate students at the State University of New York at Buffalo. And we felt restless and uncomfortable with the journals that we read even as we respected them. Most of the journals that we read and respected felt aesthetically dynamic and yet at the same time we felt their map of this dynamism to be too small. Our restlessness was not that much an aesthetic restlessness. We wanted, like many of the journals around us, to continue to think about nonstandard forms and poetries; we wanted to continue to gather together and support work that was in the tradition of that optimistic moment of turn of the century modernism when language sputters and fractures in unusually beautiful and aesthetically fulfilling ways. But we wanted a wider and different map. A map that had more than just our friends on it. A map that had more women on it. A map that had work that was happening in other languages on it. A map that transgressed the recognized borderlines of genre. This mainly felt important to us intellectually. Yet at the same time we are sure it was important to us in many other ways. We are sure it had some impact on our creative work but it would be hard for us to document that impact. We have been shaped so much by the reading that we did for the ten or so years we worked on Chain that to imagine our work without that conversation feels impossible.

Our first attempt to create a new map was to issue a chain letter. For the first issue, we asked a number of women editors to very simply talk about “Editing and Gender.” We wanted to learn from what other women were doing. And we wanted to think about our own editorial practice as an extension of what a number of amazing women editors had already done. Among the questions we asked were “what obligations do you answer to as an editor?” and “How have issues in current feminist theory influenced your editorial practice?” and “How do you think women fit into the exchange economy of editorial practice? Is editing an issue of economy or an issue of aesthetics, or both?” Responses varied; some dismissed gender as important, others argued that it was crucial. We also solicited a number of women writers to write a poem and to pass it on to another woman writer they admired, who would then write a poem in response and pass it on…etc. The result was a series of associative chains. While we did come up with the lists of poets who started the chains, we didn’t give them any aesthetic guidelines. Our hope was that they would introduce us to all sorts of new writers. A few did. But mainly we remember feeling at the time that the chains tended to circulate among writers we already knew (we discuss this problem, as well as our initiating editorial ideas in the introduction to the first issue). So we went back to the drawing board.

The issues of Chain that followed were further attempts to chart an unknown course, to discover writers and artists not a part of the scene we already knew so well. And in order to reach beyond our own aesthetic comfort-zones, we organized each issue around a special topic — usually a formal constraint — with our goal being to include as wide a variety of responses to that topic as possible. Past special topics have included Documentary (issue 2), Hybrid Genres (3), Procedures (4), Different Languages (5), Letters (6), Memoir/Antimemoir (7), Comics (8), Dialogue (9), Translation (10), Public Forms (11), and Facts (12). In the call for work for the Dialogues issue we asked our contributors to help us broaden the conversation by asking them to send us dialogues where they talk to someone they haven’t talked to before; the stimulus that led to the chain letter format of issue 1 still spurred us on.

In terms of nuts and bolts, our editing process went something like this: We had several months of conversation, often via email, where we would try and figure out the topic for the next issue. During this stage we often argued before we reached a compromise. We remember these conversations as incredibly useful and educational. Once we settled on a topic, we often researched it. During this early stage we contacted various people we knew asking them for a list of people to solicit for work; the lists that people sent us were invaluable and often shaped the issue. We published the call for work at the back of each previous issue and we also sent it around widely, at first by letter and later by email. We also directly solicited (i.e. begged) people whose work we felt was really important to have in the issue. If we were lucky enough to have gotten a grant for the issue we sometimes paid people to do some sort of project for us that they might not otherwise do. (For example, in the “dialogues” issue we solicited and financially supported six of the dialogues.) In December of each year, we would read all the material we had received. And then we would sit down together and discuss each work. We read and discussed everything that we got, whether we had solicited it or not. The actual editing of the journal usually involved both of us sitting down on the floor and putting work into various piles: There would be the pile for work that both of us wanted. And then there would be the pile that we weren’t sure about. And then there would be the pile for work that we disagreed about. This stack of work took the longest. These meetings often took days and were exhausting, but ultimately we would find a combination of works that opened up the selected topic in multiple directions. Once this was done, we sent out letters and then came up with a plan for typesetting the work. Each of our issues are arranged alphabetically according to the last name of the authors, because we found that this “chance” system would lead to the most interesting juxtapositions between the works. We weren’t interested in arranging them in a way that created an editorial narrative, that called attention to us as “assemblers.” Our presence was pretty much restricted to the writing of the introductions, which we did collaboratively. One of us would do the first draft. Then the other person would edit it. And we would go back and forth until we felt it was finished. The rule was that either of us could edit or cut the other; neither of us owned our sentences. It is a way of writing that we still often do (we’ve written this piece the same way). It works for us. After all of these steps were completed, the issue would come out about five months later.

Although our editorial practice with Chain was an attempt to widen the map as much as we could, a number of limitations came into play: We eventually had full time jobs. We had limited language knowledge and thus limited contact with writers from various places outside the US. We also resisted the business side of publishing; subscription development, advertising, and distribution were things we knew we should work on, but we could never quite find the time or energy. Although we considered the quality of our content and production values to be high, our attitude towards the “business” of putting out a magazine was very DIY. For all these reasons, the map of Chain has never been as wide as we might like it. But we like to think of it as a start. During its twelve years of production, Chain has introduced us to writers and artists that have changed our thinking.

Right now, Chain is on a hiatus. We needed a break. But we are working on a related project we are calling ChainLinks. ChainLinks is a book series, modeled around the same idea of interdisciplinary conversation as the magazine. Our call is not for work this time but for editors. And we want editors who can bring together three or so people whose work is in different media together around a topic. The first three books in the ChainLinks series are Intersection: Sidewalks and Public Space (edited by Nicole Mauro and Marci Nelligan), Borders (edited by Audun Lindholm and Susanne Christensen), and Refuge/Refugee (edited by Jena Osman). They will be appearing in spring/summer 2008. More information can be found at www.chainarts.org.