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Stoking the literary fires: Don Faulkner amid years of flyers from the Visiting Writers Series.

Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

The “jointure” between Fence magazine and the New York State Writers Institute aims to build literary community and kindle the sparks of creativity

By Kathryn Lange


Peering from the window of a cross-country flight, the Earth can appear to be carved into a kind of irregular jigsaw puzzle by fences. Fences: a means of separation. They define territories, ownership, belonging. They divide backyards, cow herds, and countries. Fences: a means of protection, of keeping in or keeping out. We fortify them against invaders. We keep our prisoners behind them, our snarling dogs. To fence is to fight, be it a playful exercise or a duel to the death. “On the fence” is a position of indecision or neutrality. For each practical definition of fence, there is at least one metaphoric counterpart in that poetic realm of image and idea. We fortify our fences. We wall out the frightening, the challenging, the new. We tremble when we see, in the distance, a girl perilously balancing along the log-lengths of a fence, making a playground of that curious boundary between “known” and “other,” her white dress billowing behind her like a cloud. It is that plurality of meaning that led Rebecca Wolff to title her eclectic, norm-challenging literary journal Fence. And it was the image of Rebecca, teetering bravely on that divide, that made New York State Writers Institute director Don Faulkner want to support her.

Over the last 10 years, Fence has developed a national reputation for literary excellence and content that simultaneously respects and defies tradition. The independent press, which now includes Fence magazine and Fence Books, has been run for a decade by founder and publisher Wolff as an unpaid labor of love—often out of her own living room.

The New York State Writers Institute, housed at the University at Albany, has been designated by the Library of Congress as a “national treasure.” Their ever-blooming Visiting Writers Series brings some of the top writers in the country to Albany and Saratoga for readings, lectures and workshops. The Institute has one of the most extensive video archives of contemporary writers and writing in the country.

And now, the two organizations have joined forces in a partnership they have dubbed “the jointure,” maintaining their independence, but pooling their creative resources.

Fence Magazine Inc. finally has a home, and Wolff, an office and a salary for her work. According to Faulkner, “She gets stability, predictability, an actual job. You can only go so far living on your imagination and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.” In turn, Faulkner says, the Institute and the University have a strong literary ambassador in Fence, a new learning opportunity for students, a stronger foothold in the New York City publishing world and, perhaps most important to Faulkner, an influx of creative energy. “Sometimes,” he says, “when there’s a good creative force and energy and spirit, things happen. I’ve come to know that over the years. You just put talented and creative people together, and these little sparks start happening that you really can’t expect. I guess you could call it planning for spontaneity.”

The institute was created as a literary center for the state, with a mandate to be “a milieu for established and aspiring writers to work together to increase the freedom of the artistic imagination,” and “to encourage the development of writing skills at all levels of education throughout the state.” Faulkner recites their mission and smiles impishly. “We’re just doing what they told us to.”

Sitting in her new office at the Writers Institute, already surrounded by mailing bins full of unread manuscripts, Wolff shakes her head lightly, as if to clear her mind. “I still pinch myself, almost literally. I have to stop sometimes. I just can’t believe this has really happened.”

The daughter of a freelance editor in New York City, Wolff had the curious childhood dream of growing up to be an editor. “I was probably eight,” she recalls. “I remember telling my father that I was going to edit Seventeen magazine.” That passion followed Wolff throughout her career. As an undergraduate student at Bennington College, she and a colleague resurrected the school’s literary magazine, Silo. She finished her undergraduate work at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and worked on the Iowa Revue while she attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. After taking a couple of years to relax on Cape Cod, writing and working at the local health food store, Wolff went back to graduate school at the University of Houston, where she landed a job as the associate editor of the literary journal Gulf Coast.

It was largely Wolff’s experience in Houston that inspired her to create Fence and gave her the wherewithal to make it a reality. “The experience in Houston was singularly frustrating because I felt that they were passing over all the really good work and publishing all the really boring work. At the same time, I was learning the mechanics of publishing a journal as well, how to run one, how to run a non-profit. That was a big part of my job.”

Unhappy in Texas, Wolff decided to move back to New York City. And she decided to start a literary journal called Fence. “I had an idea about what that meant to me,” she says. “It had to do with ambivalence and ambiguity. That was what I felt there wasn’t room for in the work that was being published. I felt like editors were only responding to work that was very clearly defined and couldn’t really handle any sort of ambivalence expressed in the writing.

So, in 1998, Wolff founded Fence magazine, a biannual journal of poetry, fiction, art and criticism, with the stated mission of “redefining the terms of accessibility by publishing challenging writing distinguished by idiosyncrasy and intelligence, rather than by allegiance with camps, schools or cliques.” She charged $2,000 of the magazine’s start-up costs on her personal credit card, funding the rest with benefit readings, parties, and a portion of her salary from her secretarial job at an architecture firm.

The investment was a huge one for the young writer, but Wolff had a strong poetry background, experience publishing literary journals, and a fiercely passionate determination to make it happen. “I talked to everyone I met about it,” she remembers with a gentle smirk. “I mean, I really obsessed about it, beyond your average project. I had a completely one-track mind.”

Fence grew beyond Wolff’s expectations. The first issue was a collection of solicited writing from grad-school colleagues and established writers who represented the magazine’s intended aesthetic. Today, Fence receives thousands of electronic submissions each year from all across the country. In 2000, Wolff launched Fence Books, which began holding two annual book contests: the Motherwell Prize, open to women writers for their first or second book, and the Fence Modern Poets Series, which is open to anyone. Fence Books also has published two novels and subsequent poetry collections written by previous prizewinners. No longer just a magazine, Fence has become an independent press.

As thrilled as she was about the explosion of her literary dream, Wolff was struggling to earn a living as a freelance editor, raise a family and keep Fence financially afloat. She had to step back from the editorial responsibilities, and focus on the funding and logistics of the magazine. “It was right around the time that my son was born that it started to get extremely difficult to make money, raise a family, and do this ‘labor of love’ thing that I wasn’t getting paid for. It was a total mess basically.” So she started looking for an organization to join forces with. “I talked to a lot of MFA directors,” she says. “I was on the job market too, so I put myself up as a package with Fence. The problem was, in hindsight, that English departments don’t have a lot of money, and they’re usually fairly embattled, politically speaking. . . . Perhaps Fence was a bit too controversial to fit into something like that.”

Creative reflections: Rebecca Wolff holds a copy of the latest issue of Fence, the cover art hangs behind her.

Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

But the Writer’s Institute, which remains an independent entity within its University affiliations, seems a perfect fit. Just over a year after Faulkner and Wolff first met for lunch in the UAlbany Patroon Room, the “jointure” is complete: The first copy of Fence published in conjunction with the Writers Institute is in hand. The cover of the double issue features Heartland, by artist Lane Twitchell. Twitchell’s huge cut-paper and acrylic polymer-on-Plexiglas pieces are currently exhibited in the University Art Museum, which served as a fitting backdrop for the recent party to celebrate the magazine’s debut. Woven throughout the new issue are images of ancient Chinese shadow figures. The original shadow figures, intricately cut from calfskin, also are part of the Museum’s current exhibition.

Wolff plans to continue featuring art from the University Museum in Fence. She describes the previous art selection process as “somewhat random,” and is thrilled to draw on the knowledge, resources and “curatorial genius” now available to her.

The partnership already is sparking in other ways. The Writers Institute and Fence collaborated on programming for the Associated Writing Programs annual conference. Wolff hopes to develop a course on publishing literary journals, which is a rare offering. University undergrads are currently interning at the magazine, an opportunity that both Wolff and Faulkner plan to extend to graduate students. Fence has launched a newly expanded Web site, and Wolff has had the time to invest herself again in the editorial content of her magazine. “This issue really has my stamp,” she says, bouncing her fist on her desk to punctuate her mark. Wolff also is preparing to publish an anthology this summer. Best of Fence: The First Nine Years will feature selections by the genre editors from the magazine’s last decade, and an essay by each editor. “Almost an oral history,” she says, of the magazine’s evolution—a transformation that continues to unfurl.

Wolf favors “the idiosyncratic, the savantish, the other.” If she represents the revolutionary, the unexplored, then Faulkner represents the wonderfully familiar. Bearded and bearlike in tweed, settled in his office chair—books have overflowed the shelves and pile in stacks around the room—Faulkner speaks of writing with a warm and gentle passion. “The bell rings,” he says, quoting Gertrude Stein’s measure of good writing. “That’s how you know. The bell rings. Something just kind of goes off. Something hits you. You live your life, you cultivate your sensibilities, your respect your own sense of judgment and taste, and then you can trust yourself to be a judge of good writing.”

He speaks of the area’s literary life with quiet joy. “We do our summer program at Skidmore. There’s Yaddo. So much is happening down Hudson way. The Millay Colony is nearby, into the Berkshires, MASS MoCA. You get this feeling, there’s a clustering that’s starting to go on, and this is part of it.”

Faulkner, who taught at Yale for many years before taking his current position with the Institute, repeatedly echoes his belief that creativity and learning are contagious. As a teacher, he says, “It was not so much that I was able to impart great wisdom to these people, but what I could do was create an environment where they could catch fire. When you see good writing, especially if you’re working with the person, you have that sense of something, just, combustible. It bursts into light, and it’s a marvelous thing. Sometimes that alone makes life worth living.”

Asked about his hopes for the future of the collaboration, Faulkner chuckles, “a Literary Empire!” quickly adding, “good energy, good times, a deepening of the sense of pleasure and accomplishment in literature. The future is wide open. That’s what’s so great about it. We’ll figure it out as we go along. It’s a little bit of building the boat while you’re sailing it, and that’s OK.”

“What’s really happening,” he concludes, “is that it’s getting people to look at writing, to look at literature. To feel themselves a part of a cause, or a movement, or at least a sensibility that’s greater than themselves. That, to me, is one of the definitions of community, and to be able to build community with all this effort, to me, that’s really what it’s all about. That’s why we’re here.”

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