Schenectady County

Fence, Writers Institute partner up

Fence magazine always has an eye-catching cover, the kind that makes a reader want to open it up and
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Fence magazine always has an eye-catching cover, the kind that makes a reader want to open it up and see what’s inside. One cover looks like an explosion of stained glass, another like something cartoonist/illustrator William Steig might have dreamed up.

The magazine contains fiction and poetry that less adventurous readers might consider too difficult and challenging; in some ways, the magazine’s aesthetically pleasing covers are a device for drawing them into the magazine, said poet Rebecca Wolff, the founder of Fence, a well-regarded literary journal with a reputation for publishing challenging and unusual works.

In 2007, Fence became affiliated with the University at Albany and the New York State Writers Institute. On Thursday, Fence will publish its second issue (its 19th overall) since establishing this partnership; a launch reading will be held at 8 p.m. in the Standish Room of the Science Library at the University at Albany.

When Fence began, the mission was to “redefine the terms of accessibility,” Wolff said. This, she said, meant providing a vehicle for poetry and fiction often deemed too offbeat and different by other journals to publish, and hopefully building an audience for such works. “My idea was, let’s find people writing in all different kinds of veins, but who are writing in ways that are very authentic and original — idiosyncratic,” Wolff said. “I’ve never said we’re experimental or cutting edge or edgy or innovative or any of those things.” The general public has an almost built-in resistance to anything too unusual, especially when it comes to poetry; readers are more accept of poetry that provides emotional satisfaction and “delivers a more direct epiphany,” Wolff said.

One of Fence’s goals is to broaden the audience for works that are a little different, a little less accessible. Much of the fiction published in the magazine, she said, could be described as “genre-bending.”

“We publish fiction all across the range of what people are doing,” Wolff said. “We’ll publish narrative fiction, and then something really inventive and fragmented.

“People have always been writing in ways that are potentially difficult for people to understand, but basically it’s time that more readers became accepting,” Wolff said. “It’s time for difficult writing to step up.”

One of the things that makes Wolff unique is her ability to work with both well-established and emerging writers, said Donald Faulkner, the director of the New York State Writers Institute. “Lots of magazines and literary programs paint themselves into corners by having such a particular focus,” he said. “They’re not able to take advantage of other talents they might encounter.”

Like Fence, the New York State Writers Institute wants to promote an eclectic mix of writers, which is why the partnership makes sense, Faulkner said. “We consider ourselves pretty pluralistic,” he said. “There’s a commitment to what gets called the big tent idea. Writing involves a lot of different styles. We want to have a place where they can all be welcomed. There’s a sense of building community, of reaching out.

“When Rebecca and I first started talking about this, in a vague way we realized we have a lot of similar ideas and goals,” Faulkner said.

no meddling

The Writers Institute had never been affiliated with a literary magazine before. One of his stipulations, Faulkner said, was that Fence would have complete editorial independence. In other words, no meddling from the Writers Institute or anyone else. “It’s like we’ve taken on a roommate,” Faulkner said.

“Fence is one of the best literary journals in the country, and it would be a feather in anybody’s cap to have that kind of affiliation,” Faulkner said.

Wolff founded Fence 11 years ago, while living in New York City. The partnership with the New York State Writer’s Institute has provided stability for the magazine, but also for her.

“They pay me a salary,” Wolff said. “I have health insurance. … It’s huge. It’s mind-boggling. When the deal went through, I was like, ‘Is this really happening?’ ” Before, she worked as a freelance copy editor and proofreader; none of her income came from Fence, though the magazine received financial support from a variety of sources: fundraising, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Now that Fence is Wolff’s only job, she has also started editing the magazine again, after briefly passing that task off to a co-editor to focus on Fence Books, which publishes between six and books of poetry and fiction each year. During that period, “The magazine was on autopilot a little bit,” Wolff said.

The partnership with the University at Albany and the New York State Writers Institute has also changed how people perceive Fence. Now, the magazine appears much more stable. “Independent journals often die after a short period of time,” Wolff said. “People were interested in the fact that Fence could go on and on and on.”

Wolff had always intended for Fence to be a long-running publication, but adds that she was younger when she created the magazine, and had a different sense of what that might mean. “I was 29, so maybe I thought it would go on for nine years,” said Wolff, now 40. Still, from the beginning she planned for longevity, establishing Fence as a nonprofit before the first issue was even published.

a home for fence

Most literary journals are affiliated with colleges and universities, and Wolff began looking for a home for Fence after moving to Hudson from New York City several years ago. “I started thinking about what would make sense,” she said.

Fence fiction editor Lynne Tillman, an associate professor and writer-in-residence in the University at Albany’s Department of English, encouraged her to think about bringing the magazine to the Capital Region, as did Edward Schwarzschild, also an associate professor in the English department. She talked to Faulkner, who supported the move; at that time, the Writers Institute was unaffiliated with a literary journal. “It all seemed very providential,” said Wolff, who now lives in Athens. “Here they are. Here I am.”

Faulkner described the partnership as synergistic. “When you bring together smart people and smart ideas, things start to happen,” he said. “There’s a broadening of horizons and imagination.” He predicted there would be more joint projects and programming in the future. “Something really good can come out of this.”

The launch reading on Thursday will feature four writers with pieces in the upcoming issue of Fence: poet Michael Comstock, poet Karen Garthe, short story writer Vivian Heller and novelist Douglas A. Martin.

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