A Tradition of Risk-Taking: Talking with ZYZZYVA’s Laura Cogan About Thirty Years in Print on the…

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Long a paragon of the West Coast lit scene, this year ZYZZYVA celebrates its thirtieth year in print, and does so with a star-studded anniversary issue. We spoke to the journal’s editor Laura Cogan about where it’s going, where it’s been, and how to navigate the tongue-tied.

Jake Zucker: Congratulations on your thirtieth birthday. I know you have the dynamite anniversary issue out now, but what else do you guys have planned as celebration? What’s going on on your end of the continent?

Laura Cogan: Thank you, Jake! As you can imagine, we’re honored and thrilled to shepherd this prestigious organization through its 30th anniversary year. It’s rare for an independent journal to survive this long; perhaps rare for any arts organization to do so. And it’s poignant to celebrate this anniversary in San Francisco in 2015, at the nexus of so much transition, so much change, and in the midst of such tremendous pressure on the cultural life of this city. San Francisco is at the center of technological innovation and investment; it has also been, historically, a place of innovation and daring in its arts scene. So while the environment is in some ways very challenging, we do also feel that the need for organizations and publishers like ZYZZYVA in San Francisco is as essential as ever. And for readers across the country, and across the world, our vantage point is an interesting one.

We’re planning to celebrate the anniversary throughout the year, with special elements in each issue. Our upcoming Fall issue (due out in September) features cover art and an interior portfolio of work by a tremendous Bay Area artist, the late Jay DeFeo. The pieces featured are exquisite and rarely seen works by a major contemporary artist, and we’re also publishing a meditative essay on her artwork by emerging writer, Andrew David King. That dynamic mix of acclaimed and emerging talent is fairly representative of what the journal strives for in general, I’d say. The issue also features fiction by Anthony Marra, David L. Ulin, April Ayers Lawson, and Glen David Gold — among others. And in Winter we’ll have artwork by Paul Madonna (who is designing cover art especially for the issue) and fiction from Dagoberto Gilb, as well as some wonderful new works in translation. As always, we’re keeping up a busy schedule of events throughout the year, too.

JZ: You spoke of the relationship between ZYZZYVA and the city of San Francisco, and, indeed, your journal’s stated mission explicitly evokes the region in which you publish. For example, the journal’s slogan is “A San Francisco Journal of Arts & Letters,” and the ZYZZYVA website says the journal publishes work of “a distinctly San Francisco perspective.” What is that perspective? And has it changed over the journal’s long history?

LC: It’s an evolving relationship. When the journal was founded in 1985, the mission was to publish West Coast authors exclusively. The idea was to serve as a kind of counterweight against any East Coast bias in publishing, because while the West has always been rich with writing talent, the majority of publishing activity has been, of course, based on the East Coast. As a result, there was (and perhaps, to a lesser degree, there still is) a sense that if you’re doing work at a large geographic remove from the heart of the industry, you may be at some disadvantage in getting the attention of publishers, editors, reviewers. That has all changed somewhat. For one thing, there is more publishing activity here than there used to be; for another, some of that geographic distance may be collapsed by the ease of communications. And people move — many don’t stay anchored in one place for their entire lives. So for all of those reasons, Oscar [Villalon] and I opened up the journal to writers living and working anywhere in the world.

Yet the journal’s roots and presence in San Francisco inevitably inform the editorial viewpoint in many ways, because the choices we make are of course influenced by the immediate concerns of the community around us. So for example, we’ve published a considerable amount of poetry and art that evidence simmering concerns about the environment and California’s drought; fiction and non-fiction about the drug war in Mexico; and, organically, a great deal of literature that addresses national concerns from a Western setting — everything from fiction about the mortgage meltdown in a Southern California development, to nonfiction about serving as a juror in San Francisco, or the shifting idea of the border and its implications for immigration reform. And just as San Francisco is a cosmopolitan city that embraces so many cultures from around the world, the journal is also inclusive. We’re publishing writers from New York, Italy, Mexico, and always looking for those voices from beyond our backyard.

JZ: Anniversaries are an occasion (or excuse!) to look back. What would you say have been the highlights of ZYZZYVA history — both within and beyond your tenure at the journal?

LC: It really is a perfect occasion for reflection. To my mind, ZYZZYVA’s tradition of risk-taking is one of its defining characteristics. It’s a publication that, for years, has risked publishing challenging material, has invested in emerging writers, and has shrugged off the pressures of fads. The journal has always welcomed previously unpublished authors, and showcases their work alongside contemporary masters. This model asks a lot of the reader, but, we hope, also affords her great rewards for her time. So our long-time readers have had the opportunity of discovering Haruki Murakami, Jim Gavin, Po Bronson, and F.X. Toole in these pages. They’ve found early works by Sherman Alexie and Jane Hirshfield, artwork from Richard Misrach. Those are hi-lights from earlier years, and part of the defining legacy of the journal.

And that spirit of risk-taking is something Oscar and I have sought to sustain in our tenure, too — and expand upon. We introduce new writers to our audience as often as possible — writers such as Daniel Tovrov and Monique Wentzel, both of whom were published for the first time in Issue No.99, and whose talent we believe in strongly. We also offer a place for established authors to stretch out and try something new. We’ve published fiction by playwright Octavio Solis, nonfiction by Edie Meidav and Glen David Gold, poetry by John Freeman. In recent issues, we’ve had the pleasure of bringing our readers short stories by many acclaimed authors new to the journal, people like Eric Puchner, Hector Tobar [ed. — Tobar’s “Secret Stream” was featured on Recommended Reading, Issue 163, recommended by ZYZZYVA] and Elizabeth Spencer. And while fiction and poetry remain the bulk of each issue, Oscar and I have also really delighted in expanding the journal’s nonfiction offerings, recently publishing a vibrant diversity of essays by Rebecca Solnit, Katie Crouch, John Gibler, and Julie Chinitz, among others.

Lastly, I’d note one more hi-light of recent years: the events program we’ve built. We’re now producing, hosting, or co-hosting nearly two dozen events every year. They range from readings in bookstores and galleries, to panels and informal mixers. These events have created such a terrific sense of community around the journal. Writing and reading are fundamentally solitary activities, but there’s a hunger for opportunities to meet in the same room with others who are similarly invested in these endeavors, to share ideas, to hear an author reading their words, to ask questions. It’s been rewarding to see the events flourish.

JZ: As an editor, are there schools of writing that you’re particularly interested in representing in ZYZZYVA? What gets you excited? And are there trends that turn you off?

LC: I’m excited when I find a story that captures something essential about contemporary life, fiction that somehow breaks through the buzzing surface of this incredibly noisy mode of modern life, and finds (or creates) something meaningful amid all that chaos. Fiction which, even if it may not suggest any answers, offers that wonderful satisfaction of articulating one of the fundamental questions, or stresses, or tragedies, or absurdities, of contemporary life; or brings vividly to the page something about our shared cultural past — work which, hopefully, also casts some illuminating light on the present. This is what I’m looking for, much more so than representing any school of thought or school of writing. I’m not inclined toward the purely personal, confessional mode; for our purposes, even personal essays need to look beyond themselves, to offer layers of meaning and resonance beyond a straight-ahead reporting of a personal experience, no matter how meaningful that experience was for the writer. Happily, there’s a wealth of great, serious work being done, and in a variety of styles and voices.

JZ: Lastly, I have to ask: what’s the worst you’ve ever heard someone butcher the journal’s name?

LC: Oh, we’ve heard every imaginable variation (or so I think). I take the approach of someone greeting a traveler from a distant land, a tourist attempting to speak in a language foreign to them: I’m respectful of any good-faith attempt at pronunciation, and understand it’s not an obvious or easy word to pronounce. We’ve certainly heard plenty of people venture the beginning of a guess aloud and then trail off in a rising inflection, which comes out something like, “Zyzzzz…?” But really, once you’ve hear it spoken aloud once it’s quite simple, and sort of rolls off the tongue.

Laura Cogan photographed by Alix Klingenberg

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