Complicating Literature: An Interview With M. Bartley Seigel, Outgoing Editor of PANK

In the decade since its founding, PANK Magazine has become a mainstay of the literary magazine world, offering readers a regularly dizzying array of new literature from writers both emerging and established. Sometimes serious, sometimes risqué, but reliably disestablishment and carrying with it a cultish following, the magazine has enjoyed unusual success for a publication within its niche. The New York Times Magazine called PANK “a raft of experimental fiction and poetry.” Travis Kurowski, editor of Story Magazine and columnist for Poets & Writers, had this to say of PANK: “Like McSweeney’s was nearly 20 years ago (and The Paris Review 40 years before that), PANK has been one of those lit mags that seemed to represent the zeitgeist of a generation — -a literary turn towards diversity, queerness, raw authenticity. Just flip open an issue from years ago and you’ll see many who have since emerged as important voices: Lincoln Michel, Ashley Ford, Ocean Vuong. It’s hard to tell which publishers are driving movements and which are riding the wave, but PANK seemed to be driving.”

Last August, PANK’s editors M. Bartley Seigel and Roxane Gay announced over social media they were calling it quits by the end of the year. Despite the publication’s continued success, relative financial solvency, and virtual lack of scandal, they had had enough of literary magazine editing and had decided to move on with other aspects of their careers. Then, in November, they did something most unusual for a literary magazine; they sold PANK’s intellectual property. Much to the delight of the magazine’s fans, the brand will be living on under new management after Seigel and Gay depart.

I recently corresponded with M. Bartley Seigel, PANK’s founding editor, to discuss the magazine, where it came from, what it did, where it’s going next, and what he learned from a decade of working in the nation’s muddy literary trenches.

Lockwood: Can you tell me a little about the origins of PANK Magazine?

Seigel: In 2005, shortly after graduate school (I have an MFA in creative writing) I took a position at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan. The department chair at that time came to my office one day and asked if I wanted to take over a small budget line (like $500 a year) from a defunct in-house student literary magazine. I agreed to take it on only if there weren’t any strings attached, and as Michigan Tech is a STEM school that graduates mostly engineers, they couldn’t have cared less. I didn’t know squat about literary magazines at the time so in the beginning there was only ignorance, hubris, and luck. I pulled in a few favor submissions from writers I knew and put a call out in the classifieds section of Poets and Writers. I took 200 copies of that first print issue of PANK Magazine to the 2007 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. It was in Atlanta, Georgia that year. I handed the issues out for free at the book fair and got a lot of stink eye from the swells. They all came running soon after.

Lockwood: What made you decide to finally sell it off?

Lit mags don’t sell, right? That’s not a thing? So when interested parties started coming forward with a willingness to buy, we were surprised to say the least.

Seigel: Roxane and I have been editing and publishing PANK for almost a decade. That’s a long time in the contemporary lit mag world. Little magazines are, for the most part, like mayflies. They come and go. We’re both in our 40s now, well into our careers with lots of irons in the fire, and lit mags are for a different kind of hustler. Neither of us feel that energy in the same way we did 10 years ago. So it came time to either hand it over to newer blood or consider closing it down. We assumed it would be the latter. We didn’t like the idea of just giving it to someone, this thing we had built up from scratch. Neither did we have any expectation that there was a market for the brand. Lit mags don’t sell, right? That’s not a thing? So when interested parties started coming forward with a willingness to buy, we were surprised to say the least. We’re not talking about a lot of money here, just to be clear, but enough for us to feel assured that whoever inherited the throne would conduct themselves in serious and professional manner. We needed someone to put their money where their mouth is, just for that assurance, or we would have simply walked away. There could have been other ways to get that job done, I’m sure, but it didn’t materialize.

Lockwood: So who is the new editor of PANK Magazine and what did they pay?

Seigel: John Gosslee of Fjords Review bought the house and the farm, but I’m not giving up a figure. We asked for just enough money so we could be relatively sure the buyer was serious about the brand–which John is, very­–but we didn’t ask so much that a young editor couldn’t afford to make a bid. Discounting most of what actually goes into running a successful literary magazine, PANK as it exists today represents a ten year, $100K investment. That’s simply what it takes to build a brand like PANK. An editor can either do that themselves, take their own gamble, see how it turns out, or they can buy in at a significant savings of both time and money and hit the ground running with a tried and tested product. In no other industry would we even have to discuss such things. Regardless, John chose the buy in method (he’s doing the ground up work elsewhere, too) and he’s going to crush it, in the best sense. Both Roxane and I are very excited for the future of the magazine and for literary magazines in general.

Lockwood: After ten years of running PANK Magazine, what impression of American literature are you walking away with?

But we’re a big country, right? Of course, if we shake the bush hard enough, all kinds of snakes are going to crawl out. Some bad, for sure, but mostly the really good kind.

Seigel: Well, it’s hard to think any one particular thing about 300+ million people and their literature. Overall, I ended my tenure at PANK in a very, positive place. American literature is robust, vibrant, and very much kicking and screaming. Reading and editing and publishing PANK only drove home for me that the foundational world of American letters, underpinning the big publishing houses, the major awards, the world of literary magazine and small and independent presses, is wide and deep and teeming with the most amazing publishers, editors, writers, writing, and readers. If I have a critique of American letters, it’s that the average American doesn’t read broadly enough, not enough work in translation, that we’re too isolated, too narrow in our reading habits, still too locked into boxes like the one built out of white male heteronormativity. I think that narrowness ultimately holds back both our culture and its literature. But we’re a big country, right? Of course, if we shake the bush hard enough, all kinds of snakes are going to crawl out. Some bad, for sure, but mostly the really good kind.

Lockwood: What are your thoughts about digital vs. print publishing?

Seigel: I had some opinions on digital vs. print publishing back in 2005, but not so much anymore. I just don’t care anymore. Except to say this, that publishing is publishing and literature is literature. We can scrawl literature on a cave wall, or scratch it onto goat skin parchment, or press it onto paper with a press, or code and electrify it, and I don’t think it ultimately matters one jot. The hand wringing over this issue increasingly strikes me as small minded and short sighted, yet another elevation of the infantile (another critique of American culture, if not letters). Stories (and I use this term very broadly) are alive, and like all living things, they evolve. Just as birds build nests and beavers build dams, humans build stories, and I see no end to that regardless of evolution, particularly as it pertains to conveyance. The medium being the message? Maybe in some limited academic sense, but that fixation has begun to smell awfully pedantic to my nose; like very warmed over cultural theory, good for a stoned dorm room rant, good for filling copy, but otherwise limited in its applications. The book is dead, long live the book, etc.

Lockwood: I agree with you about the hand wringing, but as a writer today, don’t you think your decisions concerning how you disseminate your work affect the audience that sees it?

Seigel: Of course, different mediums reach different audiences, different demographics, but at the end of the day that isn’t what’s important to me as a writer or editor. Delivery has always struck me as a slightly ancillary issue; necessary but secondary (except insofar as I’m concerned about issues of access). For me, the highest order concern has always been the story, which at the end of the process is either good or isn’t, either works or doesn’t. If the story (or poem, film, photograph, sculpture, dance, what have you) succeeds, then a medium and an audience will almost always materialize. Maybe a story works better in a photograph, another in a film, another on the stage, another on the page, another in verse, another in prose, another in song, another online, another in print. Getting too hung up on stage vs. page, online vs. print, etc., these concerns don’t answer the first and most important questions, the why and how of our creative impulse.

Lockwood: How important is having an audience? Many comedians will say that they couldn’t write jokes without the prospect of presenting them to an audience. Do you relate to this sentiment, this compulsion to bring something before other people, to connect, or teach, or inspire?

For a writer, publication and the audience it garners (or doesn’t) can be seen as a kind of user test and as such is part of the writing process.

Seigel: The whole purpose of a literary magazine is to bring new writing to new readers. From the writer’s end, this is critical. I was told two things as a beginning writer that always stuck with me. First, that you’re only a writer if you’re writing, if you’re currently in process. There are limitations to this logic, but I’ve always liked the way the sentiment privileges the process over the product, the journey over the destination. Second, that to write publicly, which is to say to publish, which is to say to have an audience, is the mark of the professional. Also limiting in its logic, no doubt, but it gets at the fundamental question regarding the sound of one hand clapping. There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur, but to call oneself a serious artist demands a consensus from others who consider you thus. Maybe all arts wouldn’t adhere to this in the same way, but creative writing certainly does. I’m not making an argument for the popular or crowd sourced, either, nor is my conception of audience strictly product-oriented (though units moved is important, too, who are we kidding?). For a writer, publication and the audience it garners (or doesn’t) can be seen as a kind of user test and as such is part of the writing process. Certainly this is true in comedy. The comic writes, then she goes to a club, performs, and the crowd either laughs or doesn’t, and revision and editing follow accordingly. This is no less so (or shouldn’t be) for the poet or the short story writer. What works? What makes sense? What sticks to the wall? What doesn’t? What will the reader tolerate? What won’t they? How do I better prod those edges? Workshops can accomplish this, too. The whole submission-rejection-acceptance-publication process certainly accomplishes this. Other things can accomplish this probably. In the end, I think about audience in terms of art that reaches outward into the world as much or more than inward into the artist, and the success of that reach is, to my mind, the success of the art.

Lockwood: What are some of the nuances of the writer/editor relationship as you have experienced it? What obligations exist on either side of that relationship?

Seigel: There are a lot of mutual responsibilities between writer and editor and publisher. Roxane and I came to understand early on that all parties in the publishing process are obligated to have done their homework, to bring their A games to the shared workbench, to approach each other and each other’s work with respect, patience, kindness, and a sense of shared purpose. Ego, delusions of grandeur, acrimony over who’s more important party, who’s more misunderstood, who’s more taken advantage of (the daily tempest in the teapot in lit mag circles) will kill a good poem or story (and a good working editorial relationship) from either end of the publishing spectrum. There’s a quote from writer Brian Oliu that I really think says it best. It goes something like, “write, and be a good literary citizen, submit your work, and be nice to people.” That’s the ethic that Roxane and I worked really hard to cultivate at PANK. I think we mostly achieved that goal, too, if I do say so myself.

Lockwood: Do you plan to work on the publishing side of literature in the future?

Seigel: Not for a while, I don’t think. Publishing and editing PANK Magazine was great and gratifying and rewarding, but it was also obsessive and consuming and exhausting. Through PANK Magazine I got to know so many wonderful people, work with so many amazing editors and writers and readers. Each and every staff member and intern that worked with me is like family to me, even the ones I never laid eyes on. Even though we barely see one another, Roxane has become like a blood sister to me; I’d kill for that woman. But the daily grind of running a lit mag requires a particular kind of energy and focus I just wasn’t feeling anymore. I can’t speak for Roxane on this count except to say she was feeling similar strains in her own ways. Regardless, she’s off to greatness. I’d like to focus on my own writing for a while. I’m sure we’ll both remain active in literature in various capacities. It’s our wheelhouse. I don’t know as either of us has another at this point.

Lockwood: Looking back at your time with PANK, what were you trying to accomplish with the magazine and did you succeed?

We weren’t seeing the kinds of diversity we wanted to see. Everybody took themselves, their work, and their Pushcart nominations way too seriously.

Seigel: When we started, we were dissatisfied with how one-note everything in the literary magazine world felt to us, notable exceptions excluded (I, personally, was really influenced by McSweeney’s, Tin House, N+1 and others when we started). Every magazine said (still says) the same thing, that they published the best and the newest, but mostly they published the same; the same kinds of poems and stories and essays; the same kinds of people; for the same kinds of audiences. Editors seemed afraid to take real chances, seemed deathly afraid of getting it wrong and looking foolish. We weren’t seeing the kinds of diversity we wanted to see. Everybody took themselves, their work, and their Pushcart nominations way too seriously. I remain bored by the pretensions of New York City, of MFA programs, of reductionist cultural poles in general, of pedigree, of entitlement. I was then bored with the then pervasive print-is-first-class, online-is-second-class binary that still held sway (still holds sway?). Our mission began and ended in the attempt to shake things up a little, to thumb our noses at the status quo. I would like to believe PANK Magazine helped to complicate literature in its own very small way.

Lockwood: What aspects of editing and publishing PANK did you least/most enjoy?

Seigel: The administration of a literary magazine was, for me, the worst thing. I’m a better poet than an accountant, publicist, or distributor, and that only in a limited capacity. Paperwork, forms, grants, contracts, barcodes, even buying stamps, a lit mag is a much bigger administrative undertaking than most people understand. People grouse about submission fees or certain editorial policies, but they seldom seem to have any real understanding of what it actually takes to survive and proliferate in that world. Their arguments are mostly myth and reaction or quasi-ethical grandstanding. Enjoy the view from your high ground, your royal highnesses. For the most part editors just let the noise be white, as it will, and get on with running the business of a literary magazine, understaffed, underfunded, misunderstood, but no less important, no less vital for the struggle. The reading, the acquisitions, the developmental and copy editing, the putting new writing out into the world, the helping new writers get started, the relationships, the thrill and joy of words, that work still fills my heart; I loved those parts; I’ll miss those parts.

Lockwood: How did you manage to stay afloat? Literary magazines are not notorious for financial stability.

And I’ll say this, being poor (in the lit mag sense) comes with certain freedoms and we profited immensely from being in nobody’s pocket.

Seigel: It still surprises me still whenever writers think lit mags are cheating them out of vast riches. The mincing around submission fees, as I mentioned before, or what have you. It’s such a hustle for so many editors. If you don’t have deep institutional pockets, or benefactors, or a writing conference or some other scheme to pull in money, it’s very difficult to make the books work out. Roxane and I did a good job, I think, of hustling. We managed to keep two very disinterested universities helping out, minimally, and in diminishing amounts every year (I had some strong allies at my own university). We worked sales and ad revenue and donations to the extent that our economy of scale allowed. Our staff was kept entirely voluntary (though those of us with academic jobs were compensated insofar as our literary endeavors constituted research or scholarship; and we were all compensated insofar as PANK’s reputation opened doors for us). We cut corners, scrimped, begged, borrowed, and stole. I’m a good working class kid that way. But we kept our editorial standards high. And I’ll say this, being poor (in the lit mag sense) comes with certain freedoms and we profited immensely from being in nobody’s pocket.

Lockwood: Any advice for the next generation of literary magazine editors?

Seigel: No. Literary magazines are in a vibrant and prolific place right now. Whatever it is that these editors and publishers are doing, they just need to keep doing it. I’m really excited for what’s in store at PANK Magazine and in the literary magazine world in the coming years. Good stuff is on the way, I can feel it in my bones. Get reading.

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