by Jane Ciabattari | Feb-20-2009
PEN America: A Journal for Writers and Readers is the publication of PEN American Center, winner of this year’s National Book Critics Circle Sandrof award for lifetime achievement. PEN American Center is being cited for its role in fostering translation and the reading of world literature. M Mark, the journal’s editor, answered some questions about the upcoming issue and the benefit PEN is throwing next Tuesday night, February 24.
Q. What was the genesis of the PEN journal?
In 2000, as a member of PEN’s Board of Trustees, I gave some thought to how I might serve the organization. It seemed odd to me that an association of writers didn’t have a literary journal, and so I wondered aloud at a Trustee’s meeting about starting a publication. My colleagues on the board responded with vociferous enthusiasm, and the next thing I knew, I was staying up all night with my tiny (but stalwart!) staff of volunteers as we rushed to get our first issue to the printers. Nine years later, the staff is still mostly volunteers, but we now have a managing editor, the invaluable David Haglund, to keep systems up and running in the PEN offices.
Q. You have been involved since the beginning. Tell me a bit about your background.
Well, evidently I enjoy starting literary magazines—this isn’t the first time I’ve done it. Years ago, right after I left graduate school, I had the extraordinary opportunity to found a national literary review, the Village Voice Literary Supplement. I worked for fifteen years as the editor and publisher of VLS. I’ve also worked as a developmental editor for Columbia University Press and as a teacher of literature and writing; I’ve taught at Vassar College for the past eight years. Thinking about it now, I suspect that the through line in all of these endeavors has been a commitment to honoring, and mixing, the scholarly and the literary. In the PEN journal, as in my classes, we explore fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose. Every issue of the journal publishes essays, memoir, poems, fiction and nonfiction narratives… and some lively mongrel forms as well.
Q. How does the journal fit into PEN’s mission?
It’s a pleasure to be able to document and extend the reach of the excellent work done by PEN’s other programs: Freedom-to-Write, Prison Writing, Literary Awards, Beyond Margins, Open Book, Readers and Writers, and of course the inspiriting PEN World Voices festival. We can elaborate on ideas and pursue initiatives suggested by the activities of our colleagues at PEN, and we can also have fun going off on our own literary and political excursions in the pages of the journal.
Q. How do you develop themes? I remember a “Fact/Fiction” issue with work by Charles Simic, W.G. Sebald, Jeanette Winterson, and others that was early in the movement toward genre mixing of fact and fiction. How did that develop? How do you stay on top of the zeitgeist?
You know, that’s a hard one to answer. I have no idea, really, how to stay on top of the zeitgeist, or whether staying on top is even a desirable goal. The only way I’ve ever known how to edit a journal is to pursue what interests me—to waft along in the wake of something that captures my imagination—and hope that others will share my enthusiasms. (The Fact/Fiction issue, for instance, grew out of a course I was developing at Vassar; I found myself imagining an anthology that could be used in the classroom.) What I try to do with each issue is perhaps akin to making a collage; my hope is that meaning will accrue not only within the stories and essays and poems but also in the spaces between them.
Q How is the current issue interwoven with the PEN World Voices Festival, founded in 2005?
We’re inspired by the writers who come together each spring from around the globe for conversations, readings, and other modes of literary fellowship. A significant part of the journal’s job involves pushing against the cultural and linguistic barriers that come between us. Publishing works in translation is very important to us, as is giving a voice to those who might otherwise be silenced, both in this country and abroad.
Q Who will be reading at the celebration/benefit on February 24 at Cooper Union? What will they be reading?
Some terrific group of writers have agreed to help us out: André Aciman, Edward Albee, Anthony Appiah, Ron Chernow, Lydia Davis, Deborah Eisenberg, Nathan Englander, Janet Malcolm, Francine Prose, and Sarah Ruhl. They’ll read stories, poems, memoirs, and excerpts from plays that have run in PEN America. It will, I think, be an evening full of pleasure and provocation. We’re honored to have our work recognized by the National Book Critics Circle and hope that our NBCC comrades will join us for the festivities next Tuesday at Cooper Union’s Great Hall.
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