Out & About

Ian Doherty, a creative writing student at Susquehanna University, recently conducted this Q&A with me for one of his classes. We briefly discuss the origins of [PANK], the state of the magazine, and a few things in between.

Doherty: How did [PANK] start?

Seigel: In 2005, I got a job teaching creative writing at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, MI. In 2006, there was $300 in a fund dedicated to a then defunct in-house student litmag. The chair handed it to me and said, essentially, use it or lose it, no strings attached. I scraped together an additional $3500 from the chair and my dean, found an undergrad assistant, and started the magazine. The student named it. I invited friends and colleagues from my MFA days to submit. And I handed out copies of the first issue for free at the 2007AWP in Atlanta. We put up a website that year that just had submission guidelines on it. We managed a second print issue in 2008, the same year Roxane Gay came on board. We launched the online magazine that same year. 2008 was, in many ways, the year things really got started. That’s the nutshell, anyway.

Doherty: Why an online magazine?

Seigel: Two answers. Cost and dissemination. Online costs us maybe $2k annually plus labor. Print costs us closer to $8k plus labor. Print reached maybe 2k people in 2011. Online reached a little under 200K. You do the math.

Doherty: Why experimental writing?

Seigel: I’ve never been completely comfortable with the terms experimental or avante-garde, but here we are. The litmag, in my opinion, should be the place where writers are trying out new work and new work tends toward an attempt at trying out new ideas, exploring different themes, playing with forms. Expimentation needn’t be radical or far-out, it just means we’re playing around at moving things forward into new territory to the extent we’re able, seeing what works, what doesn’t, what an audience will read, what they won’t. It needn’t all be David Markson, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and ridiculous contortion, though that’s fun, too.

Doherty: How well is the magazine doing at the moment, in terms of the numbers? How expensive is it to maintain the website and publish the yearly physical copies?

Seigel: We’re doing really well. We were just written up in the New York Times Style Magazine. We’ll see between 10k and 15k submissions in 2012. We have international distribution now and are in bookstores and libraries all over the world. In 2011, the website saw 280k visits from almost 200k unique vistors who made almost 1.5million pageviews. Our print issues tend to sell out and we’ve lots of subscriptions coming in. And the whole show (minus that portion of Roxane’s and my professor salaries that get counted toward doing the work) will run on a budget of about $13K for FY2012. About $8k of that goes to the direct costs of printing and distributing the print issues. The remainder of the cost is spread over development and administration costs (everything from paying out awards to giving staff little travel stipends to attend our readings or a conference to buying envelopes and the occasional cup of coffee).

Doherty: Why a yearly physical copy?

Seigel: Because reading online, at the end of the day, kind of sucks. Because online publishing is best suited to certain forms and print is better suited to others and limiting ourselves to one or the other limits our ability to explore boundaries. Because the artifactuality of the book is meaningful. Because it smells good, feels good in the hands, because it can be used to block a bullet or bludgeon a drifter. Because in our culture it still carries weight in a way e-publishing doesn’t (changing, but still…). Because I can read a physical copy without batteries and/or even after I’ve spilled beer on it. Because it’s sexy. I can go on and on…

Doherty: How has the magazine changed over the years?

Seigel: The first two years, it was really just about my own personal vision. In 2008 Roxane came on board and really brought a lot of energy and ability to the project. By 2010, we had a really diverse staff from all over the world and that really kicked up our scope, the width and breadth and depth of what we can accomplish. We started out with one annual print addtion, we added the website, we added the blog and web content, we added the book imprint, we added the national reading series. We started out as no one, no where and have slowly garnered attention, reviews, worked our way into the hearts of writers, readers, and the NYTimes! We continue to grow and change in similar ways.

Doherty: How many submissions do you get on average each month?

Seigel: In 2011, we averaged about 20 submissions a day. Since January 1, we’ve averaged 27 submissions a day.

Doherty: When it comes to the experimentation, where do you draw the line? Is there any particular way you discern which pieces have genuine substance and which are just overly convoluted, or is it mostly based on intuition? Alternatively, are there any times where you read a piece that you genuinely enjoy but can’t accept because it isn’t experimental enough? Does this happen often?

Seigel: As I explained before, “experimentation” needn’t be rigidly defined and we don’t draw any kind of line regarding experimentation. If a piece of writing works, it works. If it doesn’t it doesn’t. We like work that trancends dominant narratives, cliche, that exposes the world in new ways. We like to be surprised. We like to be thrilled by the unexpected. We don’t like inscrutability, though. We don’t like writers doing something just to do it, just because they can. We like there to be method to the madness, studied abandon, crafted genius, not just different to be different. There is a lot of intuition to it, yes, but when you read as much as we do, you develope a pretty good eye for where a piece of writing is coming from and where it’s headed. And if we like a piece of writing, we publish it. We don’t care where you come from, what you look like, what kind of jeans you wear, or what kind of music you listen to. We don’t care about your opinion on the Harvard comma, where you got your MFA, or how many Pushcart Prizes you’ve been nominated for. We care about the writing. If that makes us experimental, so be it.

Doherty: Have you discovered any writers that have gone on to find major success elsewhere (getting a book deal with a major publishing company, winning awards for their writing, etc.)?

Seigel: We’re not Columbus; we possess neither his hubris nor his cultural myopia. Many of our writers are very famous. Many have books with major houses. Many have neither fame nor books. Many will. Many won’t.

Doherty: Where did the idea for the special theme issues (“London Calling,” “The Queer Issue,” etc.) come from?

Seigel: Almost always from one of our contributors or staffers who have a pet idea they want to pursue.

Doherty: How do you feel about where the magazine is right now? Is it in a good place? What hopes do you have for the future of the magazine?

Seigel: I’m very positive. Things are in flux, they are changing, but not for the worse. The angst, the “OMG-the-book-world’s-sky-is-falling” is mostly predicated on (a) the fact that a very few people aren’t going to make as much money as they once might have and (b) the fact that almost everyone hates change of any kind. What is a magazine? It’s a bag you collect things in. What the bag is made of seems irrelevent compared to its contents. Do you want this silk bag filled with dog poop? Or do you want this burlap bag filled with gold? Put it on a papyrus scroll, a parchment folio, in the margins of a Gutenberg Bible, in a trade paperback, or on a Nook, who cares. I don’t care much for what happens to the magazine so long as people are creating, collecting, curating, elevating, disseminating, etc. Stories and poetry aren’t going away any time soon as long as we keep our eyes on the prize and don’t get caught in the trap of confusing the forest for the trees.

Doherty: What’s your favorite part about working on [PANK]?

Seigel: The writers and readers I get to work with. Seeing a new story or poem for the first time and sharing it with a like minded reader. Engaging in the literary conversation in a meaningful way. Putting stickers on stop signs. Seeing the  address labels on copies of the print issues headed to Greece or India or Saskatchewan or Oklahoma.