“You Are What You Read”: An Interview with John Madera about the 10th Anniversary of the Big Other Literary Journal

John Madera’s fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University, Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

Micah Zevin: I was struck by the name of the journal, Big Other, which sounds like a puzzle to be figured out, as well your sort of rallying cry or punk rock ethos for it: “Rebel, Refuse, Repeat.” What inspired the name and its overarching philosophy?

John Madera: I love the idea that Big Other is a kind of puzzle, and makes me briefly toy with the idea of changing it to Rompecabeza, the Spanish word for puzzle, whose literal translation is “breaks my head” or “head-breaker”; and what better way to describe the magazine’s mission? That is, I hope Big Other breaks the reader’s head, that is, I hope it breaks their head as much as I hope it breaks their heart, that is, I hope it’s Meret Oppenheim via Donald Barthelme’s strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart. Writing and reading are forms of rebellion, that is, they can be if they’re neither strictly utilitarian—unless you’re reading a manual on how to construct piping with handholds in order to create chains of people raging against the corporate death machine, etc.—nor merely escapist forms of entertainment, which serve to reinforce the status quo. And just like rebellion, reading and writing can take a variety of different forms. I hope Big Other foregrounds many different forms of writing and reading, ways to write and read, etc.

And if that tagline is a rallying cry, may it be a galvanizing cri de coeur. Oh, and I’ve used other taglines for the journal, including “You Are What You Read”; “Art Doesn’t Care What You Like”; “Celebrity Circle-Jerk? Nope”; “Keeping It Unreal”; and “The New Abnormal.” I can only hope these give some sense of what I’ve published and what I’m looking to, yearning to publish.

MZ: What made you decide to especially publish innovative, experimental, and often under-recognized writers in literature; and who are some writers that inspired you to build this expansive literary community of the mind?

JM: As an artist, as a writer and musician, specifically, I’ve always desired and perhaps even needed a balance between utter solitude—the kind of solitude that shuts off all outside noise and interruption, casts out the noonday devils, yes, but also whatever rattapallax, whatever slurry this post-industrial wasteland vomits out—a balance between solitude and community, and by community, I mean, a vital, nurturing continuum, where ideas are enthusiastically shared, explored, etc., where artists support each other’s work: share resources, contacts, etc.; go to each other’s readings, shows, open houses, etc. What I daily endeavor to achieve, in other words, is a healthy oscillation between Joycean “silence, exile, and cunning” and Freirean or otherwise radical dialogue, community, and honesty.

I recently finished Kathy Acker: The Last Interview, and one thing I found moving in the book is her thoughts about community: “I can’t take the isolation anymore. I can’t fight a class system by myself. I need my community back because, learning my needs, I need support in bad times. I’m too fucking alone.” The particular alienation we face now, especially as artists, as conscientious people generally, is increased, ironically, by our supposed interconnectedness, by technological connections engendering a disconnection that renders us worse than islands in some massive archipelago, worse than clouds quickly evaporating in electronic ether, but as nuts and bolts within the corporate death machine. Lately, people have been wearing out the already worn-out phrase “now more than ever,” like “we need writers now more than ever,” etc. But what “when” didn’t need writers and other artists? Bad times? It’s always been bad. Acker said it years ago, and many others have said it before her throughout history. Making art in times of crisis is always challenging, sometimes seemingly impossible, but what time has been without crisis? And art—the making of it, the absorption of it—is one of the few things that help us understand the times, navigate through them, confront them; and sometimes, like a kind of miracle, it radically alters them, and us, for the better, for the stranger.

What Acker goes on to say about writing also reverberates: “Writing—and I don’t give a damn about literature—but writing should be one arena for exploration, examination, and even criticism. Real criticism.” And here we have one way of describing Big Other: an arena for exploration, examination, and real criticism.

Ten years ago, when, arguably, blogs—an iffy enterprise to begin with—were already beginning to be subsumed by what might be properly called “anti-social” media (which mightily contrasts with the free, open-source, sustainable, radically progressive, nonprofit, and advertising-free social media networks many of us were/are hoping for), I regularly searched for an online portal that could at least partially satisfy my desire/need for the community I describe above. Alas, some of the most popular literary blogs out there at the time were at worst circle jerks, sausage fests, and/or cradles for a host of wannabe enfants terrible, places where juvenile ridicule trumped nuanced dialogue, where “threads” were less the intricate knitting the metaphor suggests than bunged-up sewage systems, where so-called digital natives hid behind avatars enabling them to cowardly say whatever they wanted, do whatever they wanted, or so these phantoms had thought. Thankfully, the necessary comeuppance came and they went.

In any case, dissatisfied with what I’d found, I launched Big Other, once describing it as “an online forum of iconoclasts and upstarts focusing its lens on books, music, comics, film, video and animation, paintings, sculpture, performance art, and miscellaneous nodes and sonic booms.” The idea was to “explore how we are made and unmade by images, language, and sound; examine computer-mediated worlds; and dance along with various tumults, genre- and other border-crossings, trespassings, transgressions, and whatever, nevermind.”

Contributors during the blogging years included many of this infernal country’s finest writers, among them Danielle Adair, Gabriel Blackwell, Paula Bomer, Mel Bosworth, Jeff Bursey, Matty Byloos, Elaine Castillo, Kim Chinquee, Luca Dipierro, John Domini, Nicolle Elizabeth, Molly Gaudry, Paul Griffin, j/j hastain, Christopher Higgs, Lily Hoang, Tim Horvath, Kristen Iskandrian, A D Jameson, Jac Jemc, Tim Jones-Yelvington, Aya Karpińska, Paul Kincaid, Brian Kubarycz, Michael Leong, Sean Lovelace, Edward Mullany, Stacy Muszynski, Nick Francis Potter, Shya Scanlon, Davis Schneiderman, Amber Sparks, Rachel Swirsky, Andrew Taggart, J. A. Tyler, Curtis White, John Dermot Woods, and Leni Zumas.

Awed and grateful looking over that list of writers.

As for inspiration, that’s an enormous list, which would include many exemplary artists, literary and otherwise, philosophers, scientists, etc. Limiting myself to just writers, here are some writers who’ve consistently written the best words in the best order: César Aira, Will Alexander, Gary Amdahl, A. R. Ammons, Donald Antrim, Rae Armantrout, John Ashbery, Nicholson Baker, James Baldwin, Djuna Barnes, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Roland Barthes, Augusto Roa Bastos, Paul Beatty, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Roberto Bolaño, Jorge Luis Borges, Daniel Borzutzky, Lucie Brock-Broido, Mary Caponegro, Italo Calvino, Alejo Carpentier, Anne Carson, E.M. Cioran, J. M. Coetzee, Joseph Conrad, Robert Coover, Julio Cortázar, Hart Crane, Stanley Crawford, Rachel Cusk, Susan Daitch, Guy Davenport, Jeremy M. Davies, Lydia Davis, Samuel R. Delany, Sergio de la Pava, Gilles Deleuze, Don DeLillo, Marguerite Duras, John Haskell, Helen DeWitt, Emily Dickinson, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Timothy Donnelly, Rikki Ducornet, Lawrence Durrell, Umberto Eco, Stanley Elkin, Will Eno, Jenny Erpenbeck, Elaine Equi, Brian Evenson, William Faulkner, Thalia Field, Leon Forrest, Janet Frame, William Gaddis, William H. Gass, Forrest Gander, Renee Gladman, Jaimy Gordon, Peter Handke, Barry Hannah, John Hawkes, Lyn Hejinian, Noy Holland, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Fanny Howe, Susan Howe, Shelley Jackson, Henry James, James Joyce, John Keene, Michael Kimball, György Konrád, László Krasznahorkai, J. M. G. Le Clézio, Ursula K. Le Guin, Eugene Lim, Gordon Lish, Clarice Lispector, Sam Lipsyte, Gordon Lish, Norman Lock, Robert Lopez, Malcolm Lowry, Gary Lutz, Nathaniel Mackey, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Ben Marcus, Peter Markus, David Markson, Michael Martone, Carole Maso, Joyelle McSweeney, Herman Melville, Anne Michaels, Marianne Moore, Bradford Morrow, Thylias Moss, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Vladimir Nabokov, Maggie Nelson, Lance Olsen, Grace Paley, Georges Perec, Fernando Pessoa, Vanessa Place, D. A. Powell, Padgett Powell, Richard Powers, Lia Purpura, Annie Proulx, Manuel Puig, Thomas Pynchon, Ann Quin, Dawn Raffel, Victoria Redel, Ishmael Reed, Mark Richard, Rainer Maria Rilke, Fran Ross, Salman Rushdie, Pamela Ryder, Juan José Saer, George Saunders, Christine Schutt, W. G. Sebald, Will Self, Ali Smith, Zadie Smith, Lisa Russ Spaar, Muriel Spark, Ken Sparling, Gertrude Stein, Robert Steiner, Wallace Stevens, Terese Svoboda, Cole Swensen, Alexander Theroux, Henry David Thoreau, Edwin Torres, Jean-Phillipe Toussaint, Paul Valéry, Enrique Vila-Matas, William Vollmann, Antoine Volodine, Keith Waldrop, Rosmarie Waldrop, Joy Williams, C.D. Wright, Stephen Wright, David Foster Wallace, William Walsh, Marjorie Welish, Paul West, Curtis White, Colson Whitehead, Diane Williams, Virginia Woolf, Can Xue, John Yau, Lidia Yuknavitch, Edgardo Vega Yunqué, Rafi Zabor… 

MZ: What is your philosophy as an editor when reading submissions?

JM: I’m so happy you used the word “philosophy,” which among other things suggests a metaphysics of editing, which I’d like to think about, and perhaps even write through at some point later, but it also suggests another of philosophy’s many branches, namely, aesthetics, which foregrounds how editing is actually an art, or at least how it can be. If you were to ask me which part of the writing process I enjoy most, I’d probably say the editing phase, that time of winnowing, where you identify the chaff, and, yes, get rid of it, well, at least usually, because sometimes the separation offers a chance to regard the supposed chaff differently, realize how it can be, must be altered, transformed, and integrated back into the writing, harvested along with the rest of it, as wheat. Revision can be a kind of re-envisioning, in other words.

It’s a privilege to be one of the first readers of the writing submitted to Big Other, a privilege I don’t at all take lightly. I endeavor to approach every submission with an open mind and heart, with hopes that the writing will break me wide open, that is, startle me, confound me, delight me, and/or transport me.    

Then there’s the question of “beauty,” a highly contentious term, one always fraught, contingent, necessarily impossible to define or even properly describe. “Beauty” contains the “ugly,” that is, I’m interested in art that startles, confounds, frightens, disturbs, art that some may deem ugly but which is actually beautiful, sublimely so. The most compelling writing challenges received ideas about language and “storytelling”; counters various habituations of reading; values ambiguity, nuance, and complexity; awakens consciousness through Shklovskyan modes of defamiliarization; slows down perception while also increasing it; uses “roughened” language as a way of disturbing expectation.   

Here’s another way of answering your question: “Tell it slant,” yes, but tell it arabesque, too. Give me Emerson’s foam and rock, Yeats’s rag and bone, William H. Gass’s art object “especially worthy of love,” Dickinson’s “thing with feathers,” Kafka’s “axe for the frozen sea inside us”!

MZ: How do you define “experimentation” in literature? Are you referring to narrative, style or character, or a combination of all three?

JM: Like “innovation,” the term “experimentation” is as much an obfuscation, a delimitation, as it is merely descriptive, which strikes me as antithetical to what the terms suggest, but how to talk about things without labelling them in some way? We need some starting point after all. For some reason, this is making me think of a series of Sesame Street sketches Generation X dinosaurs out there like me might recall: “One of These Things Is Not Like the Other,” which often erroneously and hilariously foregrounded so-called differences. The lesson is that one person’s different is another’s same, one person’s other is another’s familiar, etc. So, one person’s experimentation is another’s formula, etc. That said, literary experimentation for me is deeply informed writing, writing, that is, that deeply engages the literary historical continuum, writing that acts against normative ways of seeing, of being, of becoming, writes against mere closure, mere catharsis. It’s writing that privileges questions over answers.

MZ: The theme of rebellion against society and the status quo runs through many of the pieces you’ve published. What does this mean to you as a writer, an editor and a fan of literature that might not be deemed “accessible” to culture and the mainstream?

JM: I hadn’t noticed that such a theme runs through the things I’ve published in Big Other. Happy to hear it, in any case. “Accessibility” is another term that’s incredibly fraught, relative, contingent, isn’t it? What is often deemed inaccessible is often merely temporarily incomprehensible due to limitations of vocabulary, etc., which through openness, concentration, and sustained effort can be overcome. These limitations are deliberate societal impositions, of course: white supremacist capitalist patriarchy we fight against needs an ill-informed, passive, servile populace, and therefore deemphasizes critical thinking, discourages difference, diversity, etc., privileges simplicity over complexity, entertainment over art, etc. Many things deemed inaccessible are for me actually not only accessible but pleasurable, engagingly challenging, disturbing, etc.

Speaking of rebellion, as we fight against hate and individual and state-sponsored violence, that is, against sexism, racism, ableism, classism, capitalism, war, imperialism, militarism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, xenophobia, ageism, ableism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, etc., we must also keep loving, laughing, creating, celebrating, singing, dancing, writing, painting, sculpting, essaying, performing, joking, dreaming, etc., living life in all its fullness, in other words.

Which reminds me of the famous last lines of Puerto Rican poet William Carlos Williams’s Paterson:

We know nothing and can know nothing
the dance, to dance to a measure
Satyrically, the tragic foot.

Abandon mope all ye who enter here, in other words.

MZ: What are your current and future dreams and/or aspirations for Big Other?

JM: I’d love to have a cohort of fearless, insightful reviewers and interviewers who focus on off-the-radar topics, on unjustly ignored books, films, art, artists, topics, etc. No one likes a sermon but it smacks of outright irresponsibility to talk, write, etc., about terribly written books, terribly produced films and television shows, not to mention wildly popular ones, when there are so many great books, films, and other art not being talked about, or not being talked about enough, great books by marginalized people, among them women, people of color, immigrants, queer people, poor people, innovative writers and other artists, small press writers, writers and other artists with radical left politics, etc.

Finally, I’d love to see Big Other become completely sustainable, that is, funded through a combination of grants, institutional funding, and donations. Ideally, such funds would be enough to pay for expenses, labor, etc., while also enabling us to pay our contributors. How to do this? There’s no consensus on the actual economic value of a digital product so it’s hard to acquire resources for it. In any case, I’d love to hear from other editors, publishers, etc., about these matters.

MZ: How does work you carefully curate and publish in Big Other reflect on you as a writer, editor, and more?

JM: It’s a good question but I’m not sure how to answer it. I hope it reflects like a hall of mirrors reflects: brightly disrupts patterns through seemingly infinite repetitions, symmetries, and tessellations, disorients through its whimsical curvatures, its concavities and convexities.

MZ: Why are reviews, of books by independent writers, especially, and literary analysis—both arguably dying forms—vital to the experience of reading and writing? 

JM: I’m not sure reviews or literary analysis are dying forms. They’ve always been marginalized forms of writing. Hard to say if there’s more or less of it happening. Sure, mainstream newspapers and other periodicals are providing less room for book reviews in their pages, on their sites, but should that be the marker for determining whether the forms are dying? That said, generally speaking, there is a uniformity to what the publishing industrial complex chooses to focus its attention on. Take a look at anticipated books lists from mainstream magazines and newspapers, etc., for instance. Look at the so-called best of the year lists from the same venues. Not only are they largely focused on books from the five corporate publishing houses that dominate the publishing landscape, but they’re focused more or less on the same twenty or thirty books. Flavors of the month, flashes in the pan, known commodities, etc.

In any case, let me say this: You never know what a simple gesture—like posting a photo of a new or forthcoming book—will do for a writer. In other words, celebrate someone else today. Read a great book lately? Post a photo of it. Review it (on Amazon, Goodreads, etc.). Post a link to its website page on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Write a full-length review of the book and submit it for publication. Interview the author. Make this a regular practice of your literary activism. And do this especially for worthy small press books, which need all the help you can give.

MZ: Talk about a segment you have on Big Other called “A Sentence About a Sentence.” What do you hope to achieve with these mini-reviews of books?

JM: I suppose it’s easy to simply fetishize the sentence, privilege it over every other unit, element, etc., of written language, even easier to accuse someone of simply doing that. I mean, sometimes you find yourself in possession of the le mot juste, and agonizing over finding its perfect sentence. But then sometimes you’re agonizing over the finding the sentence’s perfect paragraph. Circling back to the Acker book, in one of the interviews she said: “Well, a comma’s a breath, and a sentence is a thought, and a paragraph is an emotion…You’re always working the paragraph against the sentence.” Back to the series, though, I love sentences, especially seemingly standalone sentences, which encompass everything a sentence can do. I say “seemingly standalone” because these sentences when read in context are revealed to be consciously integrated into the book, which is instructive in its own way. And so years ago, I thought it would be fun to query some of my favorite writers of sentences to write a single sentence about a sentence they found startling, pleasurable, etc. And it’s resulted in one online anthology, the series subsequently extending from there, and continuing to today.

MZ: Please list ten representative pieces you’ve published in Big Other.

JM: Very happy to do that. First, I like to think of Big Other in terms of fractals, as a place where every part has the same “character” as the whole, that is, where every published poem, fiction, essay, review, etc., is representative of what Big Other is.

I recently sent the following pieces as Big Other’s submission to the Best of the Net anthology, here including a brief description of each:

Will Alexander’s “From On Solar Physiology: a remarkably startling, lexically-dense, elusively allusive, intertextual text.

Rae Armantrout’s “Incognito Mode”: an elegant poem at turns reflective, wry, and analytic, moreover evocatively open-ended.

Daniel Borzutzky’s “Poem #1022”: Sadness and righteous indignation suffuse this elegiac poem about the dead and dying: refugees, soldiers, cities, poems, and more.

Debra Di Blasi’s “Otherwise (Eulogy for Diane)”: Here, language is alchemy, language is salve. Di Blasi writes: “Why does grief?”—a powerful final line among so many other powerful lines.

Karen An-hwei Lee’s “A Ballad of the Lost Octopodes”: an at turns fabulist, lyrical, and rhapsodic fiction, which whimsically engages Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” and brims with fabulist reveries, Melvillean taxonomies, and more.

William Lessard’s “Facebook: 6/13/17”: a bright constellation of humorous, melancholic, critical, and hyper-aware elements wedded to an overall knowing and sardonic critique of so-called new media.

Sean Lovelace’s “How to Begin: Purple Bra, Prompt as Metaphor, Hiss/Kiss/Howl of Dogs, of the Falling Clouds, (roiling, roiling…)”: a thoroughly engaging refractive and comedic dismantling of writing prompts, while also telling a compelling story.

Joe Milazzo’s “Bink Noll”: a marvelously lyrical exploration of celebrity, naming, and identity, and more besides.

Doug Rice’s “A Refusal to Disappear”: an utterly wrenching fiction about family and other problems, brimming with visceral descriptions and evocative repetitions.

Lisa Russ Spaar’s “After Madrigal”: a superb exploration and redefinition of a form, every evocative, reverberant image compelling an immediate rereading, the whole suite compelling the same.

Micah Zevin is a librarian poet living in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York, with his wife, a playwright. He has recently published articles and poems at The OtterNewtown Literary Journal and BlogPoetry and PoliticsReality BeachJokes ReviewPost (Blank)American Journal of Poetry, and The Tower Journal. He created/curates an open mic/poetry prompt workshop called The Risk of Discovery Reading Series now at Blue Cups.

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