'So I continued, issue by issue'

Seth Perlow interviews 'Jacket' founder John Tranter

Graphics by John Tranter from early issues of ‘Jacket,’ adapted from ‘The Left Hand of Capitalism: … about Jacket magazine.’

Note: I conducted this interview with John Tranter via email on May 7, 2013, as research for an article I was writing. After I sent John my questions, he replied with a .txt file that contained my questions and his answers. I cited some of his comments in my article, “The Online Literary Magazine: Some Preliminary Responses,” Letteratura e Letterature 8 (2014), reprinted in The Routledge Companion to the British and North American Literary Magazine (2022). The “Left Hand” essay mentioned below refers to Tranter’s “The Left Hand of Capitalism: … about Jacket magazine” (1999). — Seth Perlow

Seth Perlow: In the “Left Hand” essay, you mention that Jacket got about 290,000 hits in its first year online. About how many hits per month (or per year) were you seeing by 2010, when you handed things off to Al Filreis and the others at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia?

John Tranter: I’m not sure. I recall calculating that each issue of Jacket magazine had about twelve thousand to fifteen thousand readers, though I never researched those figures accurately. There were forty issues in all while I ran the magazine, and by issue 40, the overall number of hits to the home page had climbed to about eight hundred thousand. It was enough to me that the magazine was widely read. I didn’t have a board to report to with audience figures, and I didn’t have any advertisers to please. That last was due to incompetence, not choice.

Perlow: Why did you start Jacket? Did you imagine it as a web project from the start, thinking, “let’s try an online literary magazine”? Or did you have an impulse to start a magazine and then, secondarily, decide that online was the way to go? Why is it called Jacket

Tranter: I had done a lot of editing of paper-based literary magazines and anthologies over the years, and by the late 1990s I had plenty of experience with computers, mainly DOS, Windows, and Linux distributions. I’d also done thorough training in graphic design and lettering and typesetting and photography. When I discovered in 1997 that the web had moved to HTML, which allowed the proper design and typesetting of pages of type, I realized that I happened to have, fortuitously, all the skills needed to establish and run a literary magazine on the internet, so I put together an issue and waited for the response. Which was worldwide, and very positive. So I continued, issue by issue, just me and my computer, until it grew too big for one person to handle any more, which is when I gave it to the University of Pennsylvania. As for the name, I wanted a word that was short, easy to spell, easy to pronounce, with a clear definition, that sounded smart, and that had an unusual letter in it, in this case k. George Eastman invented the word “Kodak” on the same principles. “Jacket” may not be the very best word for a magazine title, but it’s not bad.

Perlow: When Jacket first appeared, online literary magazines suffered from what Marion Wrenn called a “prestige gap,” a widespread impression that web publications were less serious, less permanent, less important than print publication. In my view, that “prestige gap” has now closed. Do you agree? 

Tranter: Oh, absolutely.

Perlow: When Jacket first appeared, did you have difficulty convincing important writers to publish online?

Tranter: No, I just asked them for poems, articles, and reviews, and most of them gladly obliged.

Perlow: How soon did you start to see that Jacket and other online magazines were being taken as seriously as the most important print magazines?

Tranter: Within the first year or so. People came on board fairly quickly, and soon I was receiving more submissions than I could publish. I decided early that I would only accept solicited submissions — that is, I did not read unsolicited submissions. If I had decided to take unsolicited submissions, I feel I would have been completely swamped with material I may not have liked all that much. The downside of that decision was that I may have missed some excellent unsolicited items, but the risk of being drowned in the flood of gush from poorly trained egos was much greater. Of course people did send in things unasked, but if I had heard of them and liked their approach I usually looked at their work.

Perlow: Can you say a little about how you think the idea of an online literary magazine has changed over the past fifteen years or so, and the role that Jacket has or has not played in that development? Did Jacket’s public image and goals change as more and more online literary magazines appeared?

Tranter: Eliot Weinberger said (in Sulfur magazine, I think) that Jacket gave him the best recognition he had ever had as a writer. He said he’d send in a piece in the morning, and that afternoon people would come up to him in the street and mention that they had read his piece. Instant gratification. And Eliot generously gave me a lot of material over the years. That’s what traditional print magazines just cannot do. As for other online magazines, I didn’t pay that much attention to them. I was too busy with Jacket, and I had worked out over many years how best to build Jacket, and I didn’t see anything to make me rethink my approach. My goals were to publish as much of the best and most interesting writing I could find, the best way I could. I had as a model the first five hundred years of book and magazine design. It’s hard to better that.

Perlow: Can you say a little about the geographical distribution of your readers and contributors? It seems that from the very start, Jacket took seriously the globalist promise of the internet, publishing work by people from all over the English-speaking world and, I presume, finding readers in an even greater diversity of places. Is that an accurate impression?

Tranter: Sure is; they came from all over. Mainly from the East and West Coasts of the USA and from the United Kingdom, though Jacket published a lot of work from elsewhere: Mexico, Poland, Russia, and so forth. I would publish anything I found of interest, and there is a lot out there that interests me.

Perlow: Were there particularly intense clusters of participation in certain Australian, American, or UK cities? 

Tranter: Naturally the largest cities with the largest populations offered the most work. Though there were variations: I received more contributions than population size would predict from Cambridge, UK, or San Francisco, for example. 

Perlow: Did you find it especially challenging — perhaps in the early days — to resist publishing too much work from one part of the world (whether by local acquaintances in Australia, overweening Americans, or whatever)? Any further thoughts on what it means to construct a literary community that is so geographically dispersed?

Tranter: I’m not inclined to let anyone overween too much. I did turn many offerings down, particularly where I felt they were set up to be divisive or egotistical. You just have to act like a good editor — that is, like a good father or a good doctor: firm, but kind.

Perlow: In the “Left Hand” essay, you express some uncertainties about how to attract readers from around the world — how to publicize and distribute an online journal. What strategies proved most effective on this front? It seems to me that your including highly visible writers in the first few issues — people like Ashbery, Bernstein, Equi — may have been key to the magazine’s success. Did you personally know these writers before starting Jacket, or did you simply contact them asking for contributions? Here I’m wondering what practical measures you took to build such a vibrant community around Jacket.

Tranter: Well, work from significant names helps to attract the interest of lots of people, naturally. At the start I was uncertain about my ability to build a magazine that would attract a lot of attention, but that feeling soon dissolved. I have traveled a lot — I live in Sydney, and I have made over twenty visits to New York (halfway around the world), for example — and I have forced my presence on a lot of people. I figure I must be a fairly intelligent and decent kind of person, because I have made a lot of friends. John Ashbery and Elaine Equi I met more than a decade before Jacket, just because I liked their work and I found I liked them as people. I figure that must be mutual, or they wouldn’t still be friends. On a recent trip to New York, I talked to them both. (In fact I introduced them to each other, one evening ages ago, at Saint Mark’s Poetry Project.) And I spoke to Eliot Weinberger, and Charles Bernstein, and others. I only had three weeks, in April–May 2013, and I had to fit in a trip to Boston and another to Pennsylvania (and a bad cold), so I had less time for friends than I should have liked.

Perlow: To what extent did you set out, in founding Jacket, to support and represent a particular series of stylistic or aesthetic commitments — or a particular set of key questions or issues for thinking about literature? It would be wrong, I think, to see Jacket as a “movement” magazine, but I do think much of its success has stemmed from a willingness to publish innovative work. Would you call your editorial preferences “antitraditionalist,” then? That’s an awkward formulation, of course, but I would value your thoughts on whether Jacket came to be associated with a particular literary style or aesthetic and, if so, how that came about. 

Tranter: You’re right, and it is an issue I have thought about. In the end, I feel that people who were of a “traditionalist” bent just didn’t bother to send material to me, because I would not be likely to publish it, and writers who felt their work was innovative felt positively towards the magazine, and would seek to send their writing in. As for movements, some of the best “little magazines” have been founded to push a particular innovative barrow, true, and they have a good lifetime of about a decade. How long did Imagism last? Three years? Beat Poetry … ten, maybe? (Afterthought: so why is Language writing still around, forty years after it began?) But I started Jacket because I could, and I used it as a showcase for all the different kinds of poetry I liked, most of which happen to be innovative. Look at Ron Koertge, on the one hand, and J. H. Prynne, or Robert Grenier, on the distant other. I feel that inside that arena of innovation, there is a broad emphasis on a generous eclecticism in the magazine. And yes, I guess I am antitraditionalist, in that no Nobel Prize winner or Poet Laureate has ever appeared in Jacket. They have their own admiration societies. But I am more interested in the positive side of that: making good new exciting poems, and ignoring the dull safe things that win prizes. The safe and obvious poems are there to please dull people, and those readers don’t interest me as an editor.

Perlow: In editing Jacket, how did you negotiate the problem of selectiveness in the new medium of the web? In other words, since you weren’t paying for paper or shipping, the cost of publishing more and more material online would have been trivially low, but you presumably wanted to remain selective enough to produce a journal of consistent quality. Did you generally publish all submissions that you considered high-quality, or did you typically try to limit the size of each issue, no matter the number and quality of submissions?

Tranter: Yes, a lot of things came free of charge, but Jacket did cost a lot in terms of my time, as I found out. Initially — for the first dozen issues, say — I took nearly anything I could find, as long as I liked it. My only principle of selectivity was to decline to publish things I felt weren’t good enough. But then as Jacket became better known it grew and grew. When issue 40 bloated out to over two hundred items I knew I simply couldn’t handle the workload any more, and that for the magazine to grow, it needed a larger staff. And I needed to reclaim some of my spare time, too. I aimed to bring out three or four issues per year, to keep the readers interested, and the size of each issue partly depended on whether I felt the “current” issue was full enough. Readers could also see the next issue being built, and read what had been posted there, before the issue was complete.