Brendan Lorber: Let’s start at the beginning. Big Other’s name conjures up a play on (and distinction from) Orwell’s watchful dictator. It also gestures toward Lacan’s sense of something or someone wholly separate from the self. Can you talk a little about the name?
Madera: The name was definitely a play against Orwell’s famed character and symbol. I only came to discover Lacan’s concept sometime after the journal was launched. So yes, the name for me suggested an ongoing interrogation and opposition to “surveillance capitalism,” that digital panopticon so many of us have imprisoned ourselves within, which had a much smaller range and scope ten years ago. Nevertheless, back then, I was already sensing what many critics of the internet, social media, and the so-called new technologies have for years been talking about, that is, that all of our personal data were being commodified in order to make a killing, in both senses of the word, to make enormous sums of money, yes, but also to deliberately kill dissent, curiosity, creativity, individuality, our sense of self-worth and well-being, and more besides. So one of the goals for me in launching Big Other was to establish a kind of autonomous zone, a carving up of the digital “landscape,” in order to create an authentic place of invention within the “Land of Make Believe,” well, as best as could be done within the corporate death machine. #OccupytheInternet! Moreover, what the name Big Other intimates for me is both refusal and affirmation, a refusal of boxes—the Capitalocene’s various filing cabinets, etc., ad astra—and an affirmation of the imagination, which is always a reaching toward the impossible. Consider, Sun Ra’s “I Roam the Cosmos,” where members of the Arkestra sing about “impossible things, because only the impossible can save you,” which brings to mind this quote from Sun Ra: “The possible has been tried and failed, now it’s time to try the impossible,” which brings to mind Brian Eno’s exhortation “Into the impossible,” all of which reminds me of this quote from Jacques Derrida: “We must do the impossible, we must do and think the impossible. If only the possible happened, nothing more would happen. If I only did what I can do, I wouldn’t do anything.” In other words, think the impossible, dream the impossible, do the impossible, make the impossible, write the impossible, sing the impossible, dance the impossible, be the impossible, etc.
Lorber: How has the journal evolved over its first decade? And how have you?
Madera: Remember blogs? Me neither. Well, in any case, such things seemed to be popping up everywhere years ago, and some of the more popular ones were nothing more than nasty cesspools, where petulant, juvenile, emotionally-arrested, hyper-privileged ranters, gossips, braggarts, provocateurs, etc., held court. Fortunately, most of those places have since imploded. In any case, nuanced conversation at such places was near impossible. Responding to this, and desiring genuine if virtual community, I launched Big Other as a forum featuring a host of literary iconoclasts, which allowed for diverse, insightful perspectives on literature, art, music, film, and more besides. The idea was to cast our critical lenses on worthy art—literary and otherwise—that was woefully underrepresented. Moreover, it was a place where great minds with big hearts could “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.” Since then, Big Other evolved into a full-fledged literary journal that publishes fiction, poetry, essays, hybrid works, comics, reviews, interviews, a podcast, and more. Happy to share that we’ve published work by Pulitzer Prize winners Rae Armantrout and Forrest Gander, National Book Award winners Daniel Borzutzky and Arthur Sze, Grand Master of Science Fiction and Fantasy Samuel R. Delany, and a host of other stellar writers. Oh, and last year I launched the Big Other Book Awards, “which aim to recognize excellence in literature and to promote and support the work of innovative writers and adventurous presses.”
The past decade has seen a lot of changes in my life. Most importantly, I’ve seen my daughter, Naiomi, grow from a precocious, adventurous child into a smart, creative, funny, courageous, outspoken, compassionate teen dynamo. She and I recently formed our own singing group: The Floating Bear. Transitioning away from directing nonprofit programs, I secured an MFA in Literary Arts, during what was its most recent golden age. I was fortunate to work with Brian Evenson, Thalia Field, and Carole Maso. At the time, Forrest Gander, Renee Gladman, and the late C. D. Wright were teaching there as well; and Robert Coover was still hovering around campus; and I had a chance to interact with all of them. And then there were the revels at poets Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop’s extraordinary house. Speaking of affirmation, getting accepted into the program came at a time of enormous disruption in my life, so you can imagine how overwhelmed I was by the news of getting accepted into the program. These writers gave me an enormous amount of freedom and allowed me to work independently; and I also had a chance to teach fiction for two semesters, something I’d love to do again. Post-graduation, I embarked on a new venture: freelance book publicity. It’s been such a joy to actively help bring attention to vital, innovative work by underrepresented writers, artists, and presses typically ignored by media outlets.
Lorber: When one looks back, the jagged edges of one’s days and nights often get smoothed over retroactively. Similarly, looking at someone through the veil of their work makes the pandemonium that they endure as a human sort of melt away to that which is charmingly necessary for their writing to be what it is. Life is intrinsically hard. How has your own personal mayhem, invisible to those who know you only as a writer or editor, shaped Big Other?
Madera: Life is hard, indeed, necessarily so, I think, for us artists. And we must, as Walter Pater said, “burn with a hard, gemlike flame,” both to reflect back life’s hardness, while also being this paradoxical thing: a flame is not a jewel, etc., but we can make it so, in our imaginations. Sustaining “this ecstasy,” Pater continues, “is success in life.” Fortunately, as metaphor, this ecstatic burning can never burn out. Not sure if my life can be characterized as “mayhem,” since my life, the many uncertainties I daily face—health-, well-being-, and finances-wise—is mirrored in the lives of so many. That is, mayhem is the always-normal, which is sad and infuriating, but also what it is, and so I accept it, while simultaneously rebelling against it. I really believe that life can be contiguous, sumptuous, delightful, enlightened, and long instead of the Hobbesian nightmare it is for most of us. As for how all of this might have shaped Big Other, I can’t say with any degree of certainty, but what I hope it evinces is resilience in the face of constant adversity, and foregrounds the joy and wonder that’s come from doing vital work.
Lorber: Sixty percent of all literary journals fold before their first issue. Of those that make it to issue one, almost one hundred percent immediately shutter. These are real figures that I just made up, but they’re pretty much accurate. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in keeping Big Other going?
Madera: Ha! It’s true, the obstacles a literary journal faces are many, to say the least. The primary challenge to keep Big Other going is sustainability. A profitable literary journal is likely a contradiction in terms. Most literary journals are supported by universities and/or by individuals who love poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, criticism, etc. Big Other is a one-person operation operating less on a shoestring than a filament, maybe even a figment. That is, I finance everything, read all submissions, edit them as necessary, correspond with all the writers, format and publish the work, promote all of the work on social media, manage all the social media portals, host and produce the podcast, etc. This is an enormous undertaking, to say the least. And the nominal return I receive from submissions fees doesn’t come close to covering overhead, labor, etc. In any case, I hope to someday make the journal a non-profit. In the meantime, I’m currently exploring some fundraising possibilities.
Lorber: Are there other journals, past and present, that inspire your work on Big Other?
Madera: Oh, absolutely. Five journals come immediately to mind: First, there’s The Quarterly, now defunct, but which was founded and edited by Gordon Lish. It featured many great writers, among them writers I’ve published in Big Other: Elaine Equi, Forrest Gander, Norman Lock, Peter Markus, Dawn Raffel, Victoria Redel, Pamela Ryder, Cole Swensen, Ken Sparling, and Terese Svoboda. I’m proud and very happy about this, of course, and I’m happy to own the entire run of the journal. Few journals out there can boast such consistently extraordinary writing.
There’s also Conjunctions, the literary journal par excellence Bradford Morrow’s edited for forty years! So many of my favorite writers have been published in the journal. Fortunate to have published some of them in Big Other, too, like Will Alexander, Roberta Allen, Osama Alomar, Rae Armantrout, Charles Bernstein, Sarah Blackman, Gabriel Blackwell, Daniel Borzutzky, Laynie Browne, Kim Chinquee, Samuel R. Delany, John Domini, Rikki Ducornet, Forrest Gander, Karen Heuler, Norman Lock, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Lance Olsen, Danielle Pafunda, Aimee Parkison, Dawn Raffel, Elizabeth Robinson, Martha Ronk, Pamela Ryder, Laurie Stone, Terese Svoboda, Cole Swensen, Arthur Sze, Marjorie Welish, and John Yau.
Oh, and I also have a complete run of this journal. Well, that is, after I get a couple of the most recent ones.
Noon is another wonderful journal, which has a strong identity, its aesthetic mirroring, echoing, extending the aesthetic of Lish’s famed abovementioned journal. Can’t go wrong with a journal that regularly publishes singular stylists, like Kim Chinquee, Lydia Davis, and Christine Schutt.
As for online journals, Diagram is definitely one of my favorites, its cleverly, evocatively constrained aesthetic very different than Big Other’s though.
Finally, is there any other journal as beautifully and imaginatively designed and constructed than McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern?
Lorber: Some editors take a community-building open-mic approach to their journals. Others are more curatorial, abiding by a sense of what writing ought to be encouraged and propagated. Where does Big Other fall within this?
Madera: I’ve always disliked actual open mics. They’re necessary, of course, as they provide an arguably democratic and often freewheeling context within which people can express themselves. That said, I can hardly sit through them for very long. I’m not aware of journals that function in this way, but kudos to them for providing such a place! I definitely think of myself as a curator, but I don’t think that a curatorial approach stands in opposition to a community-building approach. That is, while Big Other very much reflects my tastes, biases, blindspots, etc., it also offers an unusually diverse collection of compelling voices and innovative forms and approaches, with a number of those voices, forms, etc., communicating with each other in fascinating ways.
Lorber: Follow up to that—what is good writing?
Madera: To echo Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.” Seriously, though, before I answer that, let’s discuss bad writing. I recently edited a promising piece for Big Other, which had some typos, two misattributions, and several other imprecisions. There was also one example of gender-exclusive language. All of these were easily fixed. The piece, though, was weighed down by more than a few clichés: “brought down the house”; “tickled pink”; “double-edged sword”; “pick myself up by the bootstraps”; “hit the nail on the head”; “rags-to-riches”; “pound of flesh.” In response to my edits, the writer withdrew the submission, saying they were satisfied with the piece as it stood before my edits. Now this is their prerogative, of course: no writer is obligated to submit to edits, etc.; and I tend to respect considered refusals. In this case, though, I was horrified. Didn’t William H. Gass say “a badly made sentence is a judgment pronounced upon its perpetrator, and even one poor paragraph indelibly stains the soul”? Speaking of good writing, Gass’s writing is one of many examples. His exemplary essays on the sentence, which are full of his characteristically beautiful sentences, ought to be collected in a standalone volume. You might even have to put the entirety of his On Being Blue in it. Some other volumes that deeply explore this question is Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing, and Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life and Living by Fiction. Two other essential texts: Garner’s Modern American Usage and The Chicago Manual of Style.
Okay, here’s another approach to that answer: Back to knowing it when I see it, here are ten dead writers and ten living writers whose writing exemplifies what good, no, great writing looks like, their writing informing, to varying degrees, my own writing. First the quick: Paul Beatty, Robert Coover, Samuel R. Delany, Helen DeWitt, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, Lisa Russ Spaar, Christine Schutt, Zadie Smith, and Colson Whitehead. And now the “dead”: Roland Barthes, Octavia E. Butler, Alejo Carpentier, Emily Dickinson, Leon Forrest, Stanley Elkin, John Hawkes, Edgardo Vega Yunqué, Virginia Woolf, and C. D. Wright.
Okay, okay, those were necessary feints, so here’s another stab at the question. As I did above, I’m going to assume we’re not talking about “professional” writing, the elements of which you would learn in a standard composition class, etc., if such a thing were still a requirement. This is something more or less easily achieved, that is, with careful practice drawn from smart instruction. What we talk about when we’re talking about literary writing, though, is love, that is, the art of writing is an eros of writing. And by “eros,” I mean, not only life-affirming and revivifying but life itself. Also, how long would you endure a lover who always said not only the expected, but the hackneyed, whose utterances were full of overused words, phrases, and sentences, a lover whose gestures were rehearsed and mechanically performed? And yet, and yet, this is what we so often accept from artists, literary and otherwise. In other words, always refuse the thanatos of writing, of art, generally; and always pursue, affirm, and propagate the eros of art, literary and otherwise.
Lorber: How has being an editor informed your own writing? And vice versa?
Madera: Writing can’t be reduced to a single thing, but one of the things it is is a dynamic exercise in attention; and among the things that distinguishes great writing from serviceable writing (and serviceable writing from drivel) is the quality of its attentiveness. Editing, for me, is so much easier, that is, substantially more of a fluid experience, than initial drafting, which sometimes feels atavistic, like a desperate clawing against a surface, with hopes something will somehow happen. It’s usually after I’ve made many marks on the page that I can actually make something happen. The material is there, and can now be sculpted, etc. Editing is also a highly empathic act, where I find myself deeply exploring what the writing wants to be. I start from there and then I look for opportunities to make music. At the same time, editing necessitates a kind of compassionate detachment. And it’s this, I think, that I bring back to my own work. That is, I remove myself as the maker of the made thing and proceed to probe, question, enhance, subtract as necessary.
Lorber: Is it moral to spend time running a journal, given the stark crises facing the planet?
Madera: I may be making this up, or misremembering here, but your question brings to mind something an artist once said, “Art is a moral act, because if someone is making art, they’re not killing someone.” Might have been about reading and not art. In any case, it’s a joke, but a clever one, a provocative one even, in any case. Reading this quote, humorlessly, that is, you might think that the claim is far too broad, that such reasoning would mean quotidian acts like washing the dishes, doing the laundry, etc., are also moral acts. Surely art is more important than such acts! But why should art be privileged over washing the dishes and the like? Why can’t washing the dishes be an art? You might again humorlessly respond to this and say that if not killing someone is your measure of morality, then surely you’re suspect. But such a response is in itself suspect. What I think this statement, wholly imagined or not, suggests is that art isn’t necessarily intrinsically a moral act. That it’s moral only in the sense that when you’re making art you’re not doing something immoral. But just like those quotidian acts above, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t necessary.
In other words, art isn’t extraneous to life. Art isn’t above life. Art is life. It’s a necessary thing, a daily duty, a responsibility. Do you stop preparing meals for loved ones when facing what Noam Chomsky calls “the twin threats of climate change and nuclear annihilation”? Do you stop washing the dishes? Do you stop helping your child with their homework? Do you stop brushing your teeth? No, you don’t, or at least you ought not to because these things are among your responsibilities. Which is again to say, art is a responsibility.
Here are some of the ways art comes about, well, at least for me. As I perform my daily tasks, especially tasks like washing the dishes, an activity that’s never been drudgery for me—in fact, I enjoy it—my mind wanders, daydreams, asks questions, solves problems, creates other problems. But wait, before doing such a task, I’ve been immersing myself in the art of others, maybe some music is playing while I’m performing the task (I tend to listen to entire discographies of great artists on their birthdays). I’m also alternating reading among several books, all of which are in some way pushing against the boundaries of style, content, and/or form. I’m also daily engaged in the political and cultural news of the day, the slant of this news very much intensely and critically addressing those selfsame crises. All of these things are the materials from which those daydreams and questions and problems arise. And that’s when the ideas come, for stories, poems, novels, songs, etc., and those ideas must be addressed; and this is where responsibility comes in. Since I’ve immersed myself in all the abovementioned things, since I’m deeply engaged in the arts and culture and politics of the moment, not to mention within the historical continuum, and the ideas have come, I have a duty to further engage those ideas, to further probe and perhaps even bring form to those ideas.
Another way of saying this is this: Imagine you’re on a sinking ship. If you have the presence of mind necessary to survive, you’re going to do several things, among them search for a floatation device of some kind, an inflatable raft or vest or whatever. Art is that floatation device. Big Other is a life boat. I mean, look at the looney tunes moment we’re living through right now! Among the things that’s keeping us alive is art. Books, films, music, poems, stories, etc., are keeping us from drowning in sorrow, dread, despair.
What this question also makes me think of is something Theodore Roethke wrote: “In the dark time the eye begins to see.” And something Emily Dickinson wrote: “We Uncertain step / For newness of the night — / Then — fit our Vision to the Dark.” And something Henry James wrote: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” That is, we’re in dark times, yes, but it’s always dark times, but for those of us prepared, equipped, willing to face it, wide-eyed, we can see into and through the darkness, imagine ourselves through it, even as we sometimes stumble and periodically fall or stall. We’ve adjusted ourselves to the dark, because it is dark—no sense in pretending it isn’t, despairing over it. We accept it and move forward, doing what we can do, generously, passionately, doubting all the way, yes, but doubting without clouding the necessity of completing our tasks, our duties.
In other words, making art is one of the most important, that is, necessary things you can do, whatever the circumstances.
Lorber: How has Big Other changed literature?
Madera: I’m not sure it has. As I briefly touched on above, I think it’s changed me. That said, what Big Other may have done outside of myself is challenged in some small but maybe not insignificant way conventional ideas about creativity, community, reciprocity.
Lorber: How do you handle rejecting people you know? This is the Kobayashi Maru of the editorial process.
Madera: Ha! Actually, I think of this as a win-win situation. What’s the Star Trek equivalent for that? Here’s how I think about it: A friend enters a conversation with me, which may or may not have been initiated by me; and what they say is something I want to hear, that is, I want to experience this carefully fashioned thing, which, for whatever reason(s), I don’t, in the end, comprehend, don’t enjoy, or am otherwise ill-suited to properly respond to, and provide a more expansive forum for. I hope, though, that what my friend ultimately takes from our conversation is that I valued what they had to say, had taken the time to carefully consider what they’d said, and thus they leave the conversation feeling affirmed in those ways. And that the conversation remains open. I rarely send my own writing out for publication consideration; and I think of the rejections I’ve received, whether from friends or not, in the same way, that is, I’m genuinely grateful the readers/editors took the time to read it, consider it, and more often than not offer some engaging reflections on it.
Lorber: How do you make time to write, manage Rhizomatic, edit Big Other, be a present papa, a decent human being, a reader and supporter of other writers, and still have time to daydream? (Asking for a friend.)
Madera: At great risk to my life! I say that jokingly, of course, while at the same time acknowledging the very real forces that seek to destroy artists, especially those artists who actively rebel against the structures of death capitalism—a redundancy there!—and its concomitant strictures, but which also destroys everyone else, those countless people who have been reduced to mere consumers, slavish spectators. Not to get all abstract, but I think quantum physicists would agree that time is a construct, so the phrase “make time” communicates something fundamental about time, that is, it’s a made thing; it’s something we make. Which reminds me of Funkadelic’s “Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts,” where George Clinton says, “Change your mind, and you change your relation to time.” Flipping the clauses around, change your relation to time, and you change your mind, and thus change your life. So let’s do everything we can to make time correspond with everything that’s life-affirming and -sustaining. This isn’t easy; in fact, it’s one of our deepest challenges.
If life in lockdown has taught me anything, it’s reinforced my idea that we need to daily do what deeply matters, what is essential to life. Many of us have had what we do—what we do to make a living, etc., especially—put into question, and have come face to face with the reality that what we do isn’t the most important thing we could be doing, that we weren’t actually living as we were making our living. Moreover, we’ve all faced the possibility of illness and death in such a profoundly immediate way, while society’s most trusted institutions crumble around us. So now the question is, how should we then live?
Lorber: Before Big Other was born ten years ago, bigother.com was a website to look up polling places for the 2004 election. Before that, it was a swingers webcam site in a “luxurious villa” in Costa del Sol, Spain. (Thanks, Wayback Machine!) For the twentieth anniversary, any plans to celebrate bigother.com’s complete, steamy, non-partisan history?
Madera: Yes! Our twentieth anniversary celebration will find many of our contributors and readers and supporters repairing to one of Big Other’s luxurious villas that have been abandoned by the vulture capitalists who lost everything after the uprising to end all uprisings. Seriously, though, since our anniversary falls within a couple weeks of Halloween, I think it would be fun to have a bal masqué, where there would be live and deejayed music, and dancing, with an endless supply of food and spirits. Poets would be in charge of the festivities, of course, since, as we all know, poets throw the best parties.
Lorber: Would you tell me ten pieces you’ve published in Big Other that represent what Big Other is up to?
Madera: I’d love to. Thanks for asking. Here are ten pieces of literary art that will take over and/or rearrange your thinking:
Tina May Hall’s “Three Fictions”: Great to see these marvelous disruptions of form and space, however imaginary, selected as included in Wigleaf’s top fifty pieces of very short fiction on the web for 2020. And thanks to Series Editor, Shome Dasgupta, and Selecting Editor, Matt Bell!
Jessie Janeshek’s “Five Poems”: Edgy, visceral, menacing, these poems are full of color and feeling and horror, the details so dense they seem gloriously impastoed.
Robert Lopez’s “However Many Sayings to Live and Die By”: Here is Lopez at his bleakly sardonic best. Negation after negation until they read as affirmations, of life, love, and humor.
Danielle Pafunda’s Three Poems: Taking a phrase from one of the poems here, these poems are “sonic paintings,” Pafunda ever-attentive to the sonorities of language as she mines and overturns mythologies.
Aimee Parkison’s “What Goes on Near the Water”: I love this fiction’s wistful evocations, its dreamy atmosphere, how it fuses coming-of-age story with fable, with myth, and more besides.
Dawn Raffel’s “Three Cities”: Always expect the unexpected with Raffel! These luminous fictions find the master stylist expertly and evocatively exploring the fantastic.
Rone Shavers’s “Four Crônicas”: Based on the Lusophone transgressive convergence of popular culture and literature, these short writings trespass borders, frames, categories, and invite multiple readings of identity, meaning, and representation.
Edwin Torres’s “Five Poems”: These devastatingly evocative poems probe voids, voices, fracture, darkness, loss, life, and art ex nihilo; in other words, they other words and worlds.
Tony Trigilio’s “Eight Poems”: Wherein Trigilio compassionately explores the alleged alien abduction of Betty and Barney Hill. This superb suite of poems appears in Proof Something Happened, which has since been chosen by Susan Howe as the winner of the 2020 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize.
Tyrone Williams’s “Only a Cry Absent Its Mouth”: Here is Williams engagingly writing about two “key techniques of composition across the traditional genres of fiction, drama, and poetry”: juxtaposition and parataxis.