IN OTHER WORDS #7 – Sven Birkerts
This is the seventh installment of IN OTHER WORDS, a feature we’re running in 2014 in which we interview various editors on the art of editing.
This time, we’re talking to Sven Birkerts, Editor of AGNI.
1/You’ve been the editor of AGNI for more than ten years now. You’d been a contributor before, but what was it like to transition to the helm? How did you go about balancing the traditions already in existence at AGNI with your editorial vision for the publication?
Coming in, I had to discover whether I had an editorial vision—something that exceeded my basic likes and dislikes. Having worked for years as a critic and reviewer, I had some sense of grounding. Also, I had long shared with founding editor Askold Melnyczuk an affinity for a more international perspective, one that included a good deal of literature in translation. This was, don’t forget, a fairly international period in contemporary American writing, much influenced by (to name a few): Milosz, Brodsky, Garcia-Marquez, Kundera, Cortazar, Fuentes, Lispector, Achebe, etc., etc. I feel like I (and my Senior Editor, Bill Pierce) are like-minded or like-hearted, in our pull toward reflective, formally sui generis, linguistically rich work, no matter whether by local, American or (in translation) international writers.
2/What is your curatorial process like? For readers who may not know, how does one go about shaping an issue?
‘One’ (this one, anyway) starts the process by accepting the things (poetry, fiction, essays) that really do wake him up. One looks past the claims imposed by friends, former students, ‘name’ writers, etc. to locate whatever it is that pulls the back up straight in the chair. That’s the start. After a time, after a number of different pieces have been accepted, I feel like the basics of the stew are in the pot, and at this point it’s almost inevitable that I will look at new pieces within a certain context. What’s remarkable is how at different periods (chance? The culture?) certain resonances start up. This poem plays so interestingly against that—this essay, this story…I don’t go too far in this direction, but I become aware of it. And certainly it is active when the process of “making” the issue begins. Every issue is—or becomes—in its way a kind of read of that six-month period. I haven’t done it, but I believe that at some point in the mythical, Borgesian future I will sit down and read my way forward and feel what changes the culture went through from year to year…
3/You’ve written extensively on what it means to be a reader. Specifically the “privacies of reading,” and the out-of-self experience a reader has while still performing the internal tasks reading demands. But editing requires a more external type of literacy, so I was hoping you might talk a bit about how you see the editor functioning as a reader.
The editor occupies a strange spot—reading both for him(her)self, through his sensibility, but aware at every turn that he is also doing a kind of representative reading, trying to assemble something that speaks to a somewhat broader swath of sensibility. He merges his taste with what he projects as the taste of the journal’s desired reader. Also, the included works, in their sum, cannot but embody some kind of aesthetic. Many screens are in place as any serious contender gets evaluated. Certainly personal response is weighed against input from others on the magazine…Finally, though, it comes down to one key question. I have this work before me, I am paying closest attention…Honestly: do I care? Or do I just feel I should care?
4/When writing, you focus on “the good life of sentence-making.” Certainly, that aesthetic affects your curatorial interests, but as an editor, how does sentential attention come into play for you?
It comes into play at every moment—I cannot go forward with a poem if I am not struck by the language of the lines, and cannot read essay or story if my ear is not engaged. This does not mean that that sentences have to be tour-de-forces, only that they have to be just right for what they are doing.
5/Since you’ve also worked as a bookseller, I was hoping you’d talk a bit about how your experiences on the other side of the market inform your view of the entire editorial business. Are there risks that you see writers taking and editors gambling on, that deserve a wide readership, but have yet to find their niche?
The business of readers… It is settled by no statistics. Which is good, I think. The world is full of passionate and renegade readers, and they keep literature alive, as one might argue literature keeps them alive. The whole blackboard is erased, the clock re-set, when something brilliant shows up. In a sense, that’s what keeps us magazine people in the game, the perpetual possibility of that. We don’t traffic in wide-readership kinds of work, more in the unexpected events that excite the imaginations of those who live somewhere near the heart of things literary.
6/Name one or two exemplary pieces you’ve published that epitomize AGNI.
Where to start? Stories by David Foster Wallace, Mark Slouka, Eleanor Henderson, Bret Anthony Johnston, Gary Amdahl, Girija Tropp, Edith Pearlman, Vince Passaro…essays by Elvis Bego, Dinah Lenney, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Lia Purpura, William Warner…poems by Charles Bardes, David Ferry, Peter Balakian, Erica Funkhauser, Gail Mazur, Douglas Ramspeck (oh, this is impossible!)
7/Is there an editor or publication that you know to regularly publish solid work, i.e., who do you return to again and again, as a reader?
Brick, Threepenny Review, Asymptote, Tin House, Paris Review…and constant browsing of the myriad mags that come into the magazine…
8/Describe what it’s like to work with you in an editorial capacity, in three words.
Frustrating, depressing, enlightening.
Sven Birkerts has been editor of AGNI since July 2002. He is the author of eight books, most recently The Other Walk. Birkerts has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, and Mt. Holyoke College, and is director of the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, with his wife and two children.