Interview with
Ander Monson

by Colleen Marie Ryor
Ander Monson
ANDER MONSON is originally from Upper Michigan but lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he's working on a number of different writing projects while teaching at Grand Valley State University. As an editor, he works on several projects, including Del Sol Press, Climate Controlled, DIAGRAM, and the New Michigan Press. Two books were published in Spring 2005: a short fiction collection, Other Electricities, by Sarabande Books, and a poetry collection, Vacationland, from Tupelo Press.
Other Electricities contains several motifs that run through most of the stories: snow, absent limbs, death, radios, etc. How do these motifs tie all of the stories together, and how did you manage to keep each story its own entity?

One of the strategies I used in pulling the book together to be something more than just a bunch of unrelated stories (in fact I think of it as a novel, though the press says it's stories) is to have these repeating motifs echoing through the book. There's a number of constellations formed by these things through the text. I was thinking of it in terms of layering, in terms of adding density and pattern and pleasure. That's what I like as a reader -- not simply the pleasure of straightforward narrative but something more.

Still, each of the stories has its own movement, arc, even the short-short ones that occur all throughout: they're dramatic monologues, and my goal was to have each story go long enough so it achieves something. Lars Gustafsson, in the newest Poetry International, defines a poem as "a successful speech act which has done or does something to our experience." I like that idea a lot, and that's how I think of the stories that occur in OE.

Your new book of poetry, Vacationland, was published almost simultaneously by Tupelo Press with your short story collection, which was published by Sarabande Books. How rare is this to have a book of poems and a book of short stories published at the same time by two different, well regarded presses, and what kinds of reactions have you received for it?

It is an odd thing -- I can't think of another example offhand, though I'm sure it's happened before. Weirdly, the vast majority of readers whom I've heard from, and the majority of the critical attention brought to the books has focused exclusively on one or the other (with one or two exceptions). I think of both books as intimately and intricately related -- they share characters, sets, some plot, and music -- but really most people seem to connect to only one of them. Maybe that has to do with having differing expectations of, and experiences with, each form -- I don't know. It also has to do with the different marketing strategies by Sarabande and Tupelo which reach different audiences, so a lot of people are mostly only aware of one or the other. I hope eventually they'll find their way to the pleasures in both, and in the connections between them.

What does writing poetry give you that writing fiction does not? And vice versa?

I'm in different spaces when I write poetry or fiction. Though: both for me have everything to do with voice (at least the poems I've been writing lately, which tend more towards persona). I like the shorter forms (the short-short and the shorter lyrics) because they're easily digested, both as a writer and reader, and they offer more possibility for variation and texture I think. For me, fiction offers a larger canvas, and it's more considered in some ways and less instinctive, at least from how I come at my stories. My next project is going to be longer, a(nother) novel, so I'm looking forward to the challenges that will come with it. And of course I'm still writing poems. It's hard to stop, and I would never want to.

What led you to start the on-line lterary magazine DIAGRAM? Since you edit both an on-line lterary journal and a traditional small press, talk about the differences in editing for each.

DIAGRAM is the more successful project by far in terms of its reach -- since
its inception in 1999 (partly due to my desire to see more venues for more
experimental and genre-bending work, and partly due to my past frustration
with working on a more traditional print magazine where all decisions were
made by often-large committees, and the problems with that being a
conservatizing force) has become quite large. We get more than 150,000 hits
a month now. Of course it brings in no money for the most part, so there's a
downside, and we don't have much of a budget. But in terms of finding
readers we have been very lucky. New Michigan Press has bonds with DIAGRAM
(NMP is officially the publisher of DIAGRAM, and we co-sponsor a chapbook
contest every year), but is devoted to the print artifact, the technology of
the book. I have a background in letterpress printing and book design, and I
love the well-made book as object, with all its smells and pleasures, so NMP
is more of an outlet for that. My only regret is that I don't have more time
to devote to both of them what with the rest of my life requiring attention
too. The chapbook form isn't particularly marketable, but it's important,
and generally neglected. That's why we do it.

Have you seen attitudes changing in the last five years about publishing in on-line literary magazines? What would you say to someone who felt hesitant to submit work to an exclusively on-line journal?

Absolutely -- there are better online venues now than there were five years ago in terms of both design and content, which certainly helps to legitimize the medium. It's exciting that many all-online magazines are doing things that simply can't be done on the page, and you see more of the familiar names in the online magazines, too. When online journals are okay for NEA applications and when they're represented in The Best American Poetry anthologies (which is to say: now), then they've achieved a certain level of quality and are being thusly taken seriously. Still, there are plenty of fly-by-night magazines, and editors who publish their friends, and who generally are asses. But that's certainly the case in print journals, too, and has been for years. I think writers should submit to the magazines that they read and vice versa (which may mean that they should read more online magazines). But there is still a hesitation, and I understand that -- it will take a while to catch on. For me the hesitation has nothing to do with the medium, though -- I see easily that a good online magazine will have a greater readership than most print magazines -- it has more to do with reputation and quality. A confession, though: in spite of the fact that I edit a mostly online magazine, I don't send much prose to online magazines at this point. Reason being that I can usually place my stories in paying print markets that people I know respect. And I only have so many stories. Poetry's a different story, since I have far more unpublished poems, and (generally--this is tricky, because it's not always true) each poem represents a smaller time commitment for me. And there aren't the big-paying markets for poetry that there are for prose (mostly because of Hollywood and the prose-centric mainstream publishing world), so it's no surprise that right now (generalizing again--I can think of a couple exceptions, including some great things we've published at DIAGRAM) the poetry found in the best online magazines blows away the prose. I'm not sure when that trend is going to change. I doubt it will happen anytime soon.

What vision do you have for the New Michigan Press?

I'd like to get the press to a point where I can devote more time and resources to it. That will require me to either
1. find an institution that will throw its weight behind it financially, or 2. find an institution that will throw its financial weight behind me, allowing me more time to devote myself to it. I'd love to see us eventually as something like Graywolf or Sarabande, able to really do a great job pushing our titles. I'd love to find our way to do book-lengths, too, as there's a lot of exciting work out there, and a lot of it doesn't come in chapbook length.

Has publishing two books this year made a difference in the way that you teach your students?

We'll see... I expect it will allow me to be a bit more obnoxious, to get away with more.

What are your thoughts on MFA programs?

I think they're fine as long as they're not exploitative. The degree no longer means as much as it did professionally, which is unfortunate, and the proliferation of graduates has turned the job market into a Hieronymus Bosch painting, but clearly the time that the degree can afford to writers (especially when backed up by financial support) can be hugely important for many. I don't join in the chorus condemning MFAs -- I think they're a good thing as long as students and faculty are realistic about what it will mean. As an editor, I get a bit annoyed with everyone dropping the name of the institution that they attend or have graduated from, though. At DIAGRAM we explicitly won't list contributors' former degrees -- too blah, too eh for me. We'll list the current institution, though, because often that information is helpful for readers who want to contact the writers.

Who are some of your favorite writers? Literary journals?

Literary journals are easier -- I always love what Born Magazine is doing online. I dig Octopus, too. Print mags (aside from the glossies): Indiana Review is always good, as is Alaska Quarterly Review. I've been in a couple new ones that are doing exciting work lately, too, Bat City Review (out of UT-Austin) and Backwards City (Greensboro, NC). And I always love to see what 3rd Bed is up to. Too, Seneca Review's always publishing exciting stuff, though they could use a design makeover -- weird to see such progressive content in such a traditional (and maybe even outmoded) design.

Writers -- easier to say what I've been excited about reading this last summer: Peter Orner's Esther Stories, George Saunders's Pastoralia, Cervantes's Don Quixote (trans. Edith Grossman). I've also been enjoying catching up on David Shields's work; I just bought Remote, and enjoyed Enough About You a lot. John D'Agata's doing great stuff in the world of nonfiction, and has to be about due with another book soon, I hope. I love Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto and Joyce, Charles Baxter and Mary Gaitskill. I'm sure I'm forgetting a whole lot of good stuff here, so I hate to list because it's necessarily incomplete, and I'll rethink it later and have to revise it in my head.

Three cats?

Yep. You've got to have three -- that way they have several entertainment
options. If you go by weight, we have five.

How did your parents come up with the name Ander?

It was my mother's call -- my dad wanted Gustav but was overruled. My mother liked Anders (a family name) but shortened it down. So far it has served me well. Means "other" in German, somebody told me a few years ago. Nice.

TAR: How has growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan influenced your writing, assuming it has?

AM: I can only think that the place in which you grow up has a significant effect on you. How can it not? Growing up in Michigan's UP -- with its history of boom and bust, of the rise and the fall of the mines, with its 6-month winters, and with the constant presence of tourism (the UP as a place in its way devoted to visitors, not to its residents) -- has turned my work somehow. I'm interested in loneliness and in isolation, in the effects of living under extreme weather, and how those who choose to live there bear it. Of course they love it, or they wouldn't live there (though many of them have no choice, have never gotten out). I'm gone from the place now, living ten hours away downstate, but even when I lived in Alabama, I thought of snow.
Many of the stories in Other Electricities could be called dark or, at a minimum, somber. Would you say that the region you grew up in fostered this kind of atmosphere?

Sort of -- think of Fargo -- isolation brings underlying tension into the open; eventually everything converges. The violence that's in OE stands out even more because it takes place in this isolate, remote, and very small-town and touristy place. I think there is a pressure created by a six-month winter, by the necessity of staying indoors, or going out to bars. Still, I'm not much of a winter-sports-y guy (aside from hockey, which is of course mostly played indoors). My version of the place, described in OE and in Vacationland, is certainly fictionalized. I think of OE as a sort of personal mythology of the place where I am from, not entirely true, but some of the places and place names are: Misery Bay, the Paulding Light, the Dredge. You could do a fun OE tour of the Upper Peninsula if you wanted. It might be a little dreary, but it would be strange. And go in winter, obviously, for the full effect.