Bookslut Interviews Managing Editor Evan Simko-Bednarski About Founding a Literary Magazine, Violence in Art, and What Exactly is in a Name

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Bookslut recently featured a three-part interview with Armchair/Shotgun, and they were kind enough to let us reprint it in full here. We hope you enjoy it! (Photo courtesy of Bookslut)

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Happy new year, Bookslut readers! To launch a literate 2013, we’re pleased to share an exclusive FB page interview with you. Bookslut regular contributor Jill Talbot, editor of “Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction,” recently spent some time with Evan Simko-Bednarski, one of the dynamic editors at the very exciting literary magazine Armchair/Shotgun. In today’s installment, Jill and Evan discuss curating and theorizing a new publication, the art of interviews, roads, maps, and Jonathan Lethem.

Jill Talbot, Bookslut: Your inaugural issue from fall 2009 features an interview with Jonathan Lethem by one of your managing editors, John M. Cusick. The interview or author profile appears to be one of the highlights of each Armchair/Shotgun issue, so I’m curious to know what the journal intended to convey about its mission and style by featuring Jonathan Lethem in its first issue.

Evan Simko-Bednarski, Armchair/Shotgun: The interview and profile are very important to us. We see it as part of the philosophical core of the magazine. When we started work on issue one, we were very taken with the old Paris Review philosophy that a well-done interview contributes to a community of writers in a way a work of criticism cannot. If literary magazines are the last bastion of over-the-transom publication, where truly anyone stands an even chance of being picked up on the merits of the work alone, then it makes sense for such magazines to also engage recognized authors in a conversation about craft.

In that vein, there was no over-arching ideological consideration behind interviewing Mr. Lethem, beyond the fact that we had a great deal of respect for his work, and, frankly, really liked Chronic City. We did sort of see him as one of the elders of the Brooklyn literary scene in which we were ourselves participants, and to that extent it was a bit of a hat-tip. Above all else, we want to sit down with writers who we, as writers, respect and want to learn from.

JT: I completely agree with you about interviews—a form that allows for immediacy and engagement in a way that criticism cannot. I’d like to ask about another feature of your journal, and that is the pages that punctuate the journal and announce, so to speak, the genre. In issue one, it’s black and white photographs. Issue two: maps (my favorite). And issue three: figures (bird skeleton, ear canal). And most of them have been supplemented with a phrase or a line that creates a meditation (“The distant barreling trains.”). What are these fascinating inserts about?

ESB: The inserts are a lot of fun. One of our founding editors, Gavin Robb (who has since stepped down from his editorial role to attend graduate school), is a really gifted graphic designer. He’s responsible for quite a few of the aesthetic details that populate the issues. At some point in the mock-up process for issue one, he started inserting these little section dividers, the black-and-white photo mash-ups announcing “fiction” or “poetry.” For the fiction dividers, he worked in a phrase from the story that followed. These inserts broke up what would have otherwise been many pages of uninterrupted text-block, and we hadn’t really encountered anything like it in another journal before.

We don’t judge submissions with an eye to any overarching theme, but as we fall for some submissions over others, a theme can develop regardless. This was less true for issue one, but since then the inserts have come to represent a sort of a through-line. Many of the works in issue two dealt explicitly, if not centrally, with roads, topography or notions of place, and so maps (also my personal favorite) were a natural fit. In issue three, many of the concerns were bodily.

The inserts are typically one of the last pieces to go into an issue. This isn’t necessarily by design, but the concept for each set of inserts really comes to fruition once the order of the pieces has been established, and we’ve been working with the authors and their texts long enough to really feel like we know each work inside and out. Once the inserts are in, it feels like an Armchair issue. The inserts are the champagne bottle breaking against the hull.

JT: I wrote my dissertation on the road narrative, so perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to issue two. I particularly like Zachary White’s “The Story About My Coat,” which is a haunting story (essay?) about a bullet hole in a coat.

While I was studying creative writing at CU Boulder, one of the program’s literary journals, Sniper Logic, changed its name to Square One following the events at Columbine. In the aftermath of the shootings in Newtown, CT, do you think your editors will reconsider your title, your shotgun logo, the shadow image of a shotgun that appears on the pages of your issues? Or does “Armchair/Shotgun” capture that “philosophical core” you mention and reflect the ways in which we perform violence in art?

ESB: The logo is actually a shotgun with a fountain pen-nib where the muzzle would be. It’s always been a bit of a “pen is mightier” symbol for us. People often miss that, which is most likely more a commentary on the scarcity of that particular writing implement than anything else.

The Newton shootings were horrific. The commentary they offer on the state of affairs in America is (present tense) horrific. I honestly don’t have the words to describe the utter heartbreak I’ve felt since hearing the news.

Titles are an odd thing. There’s rarely anything around them to offer context, to imply irony or sincerity, to hint at tone. Our title, Armchair/Shotgun, has always been intentionally ambiguous. Good art comes from irreverence and vulgarity and attitude as much as from respect, tradition and sincerity. Creativity and iconoclasty are often two perspectives on the same force. Among other things, we wanted a name that captured that juxtaposition.

There’s a fine line in these conversations, between the solipsism of thinking that the name of a small literary journal is in conversation with a larger, systemic culture of violence, and the knowledge that art at any level is constantly in communication with our norms and mores and therefore has great responsibility.

But pretending there’s no place for violence in art does nothing to attenuate the violence that occurs in the real world. If we hold to the belief that art has that role in human affairs (and lets be honest, none of us do this for the 401k), then it needs to deal frankly and openly with violence, and so too do we.

The “Shotgun” in Armchair/Shotgun carries with it some uneasy associations. It did before the shootings and it does today. For that matter, the name “Bookslut” is rife with baggage, as is “BOMB Magazine.” Art is the place for uneasy associations.

JT: I want to turn to the visual art in your issues, which offers compelling companion pieces to the prose. There’s something terribly isolating and yet comforting (sincere) in all of the images, paintings, and photographs. My favorite, the photographs of Andrew Wertz in issue three, feature abandoned street corners, silent interior spaces, and road signs (again, the road). Am I right in picking up on this isolation? Or is there another eye with which your editors choose what art is featured?

ESB: Much like with the interviews, there’s no overarching ideology in our art selections. But there are most certainly trends.

In general, I think we’re a little keen on the frame of view that shows underbelly. When we were starting to put what would become the pieces of A/S together late in 2008, concurrent with the start of the financial collapse, we used to half-joke that we didn’t need to be publishing any stories about the trials and tribulations of renovating a Brooklyn brownstone. A number of the editors, me included, grew up in the formerly-industrial suburbs of the big Northeast cities. I think there’s something attractive about the dystopic, be it the utter silence of Andrew’s photos, or the way Cory Schubert’s photos in issue two render Los Angeles into its constituent parts.

Part of that is definitely a sense of isolation, but I think you hit it when you mentioned sincerity. In both photo sets, the viewer is forced to consider the object decontextualized, be it a street corner without the knowledge of which road leads where, or a blank wall without knowing what it connects or contains, to name two examples. They force the viewer to look anew at something and take it on the object’s own terms. Rather than opposing sincerity, the isolation demands it. There’s an honesty to it, and it’s ultimately that honesty that draws us to the works.

And that honesty comes in all forms. Steel Stillman’s photography in issue one is largely made up of obfuscation, which, to me, has always felt like an honest comment on the limitations of the medium.

But again, there are no over-arching guidelines. Sono Osato’s work, which was featured in issue two, is far from dystopic. She makes very sculptural, very three dimensional works of paint, machine parts, bones, wax, and all manner of found objects. She deals with language and topography, with how meaning and space interact. She’s local, her studio is in Brooklyn, and we had been fans of her work since before A/S. So when the poetry and fiction for issue two were selected, we approached her, knowing her work would converse well with our authors’.

JT: Since you brought up Brooklyn (and how could you not?), I notice that a good deal of your contributors are either from Brooklyn or living there. Is there a sensibility that you feel Brooklyn gives its writers? (We’re back to Jonathan Lethem.) And if so, what advice do you have for potential contributors who hope to be featured among them on the pages of A/S?

ESB: Brooklyn is our home. It’s where we have readings, host panels, stage radio dramas; it’s where we hand-deliver our magazines to stores and get to know the folks who own the indie bookshops. I can’t be certain, due to our anonymous submissions, but I’d wager a guess that we publish a lot of Brooklyn authors because we get a lot of Brooklyn submissions. And if that’s true, then we get a lot of Brooklyn submissions because this is where we are most able to get out in the community of writers.

We’ve had an author who was difficult to reach during edits because he was on his tractor every day for harvest season. We’ve had to compute air-mail prices for contributors’ copies being sent to Europe. We love Brooklyn. But we’re not necessarily looking for “Brooklyn stories.”

Ultimately, I don’t think that what Brooklyn gives is a sensibility, really. I think it gives a community. And sure, that can be a pretty fuzzy distinction to make, but I think it’s an important one. Schools of thought are born out of communities of writers, but the sheer number of authors populating the borough means there will never be just one Brooklyn sensibility. Nor should there be.

What makes Brooklyn such fertile ground for art-making is the diverse set of scenes, influences and traditions that one can draw on. (It also used to be the semi-reasonable rents, but that’s a different story.) The lack of a clear-cut sensibility, and the corresponding ability to find pretty much any kind of art here is precisely what gives us such Brooklyn pride.

Our mission statement has a bit about good writing not knowing your interstate exit or your subway stop, that good writing knows only story. And I believe that to its core. We’re not looking for anything more than stories, poems, and visual work that grab us with a certain kind of core honesty.

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Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded, a memoir. She is the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Rumpus, South Loop Review, Under the Sun, and others.

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