April 20, 2011
Where Art meets Literature
Even the most ardent fans of contemporary literature will have to agree that the majority of literary magazines are boring to look at. Thankfully, a growing number of writers and artists are banding together to turn out publications that look appealing even to the non-literati out there. Once such group is the people behind the Agriculture Reader, an oddly-named zine/lit mag that was founded by poet Jeremy Schmall, who edits it with poet-novelist Justin Taylor, and designed and laid out by artists Mark Wagner and Amy Mees of Brooklyn-based X-ing Books. I stopped by the production facility the other day to conduct a mass interview with the four of them, and showed up early, before Jeremy arrived. This is how it went:
So how do you guys divide the labor amongst yourselves?
Justin Taylor: As Jeremy will tell you, he and I hand them word documents and then go behind a tree and count to a hundred, and then these books exist.
Mark Wagner: You’ll have to count a lot higher than a hundred, or else you’re really slow at counting.
Justin: I go to the tree once a day and count to ten.
So everything is done by hand.
Mark: Pretty much. The last couple Ag Readers we printed the manuscript and sent it to off the printers. But all the covers are done by hand.
Amy Mees: We didn’t design number one.
Justin: The first one Jeremy only ever made about 100 of them, if that many.
Mark: It was kind of ridiculous.
Amy: It was so much work.
This first issue I’m holding looks like it was printed on a computer printer.
Justin: Yeah, Jeremy used his grad school printing allotment. They hand-cut the covers and they painted them and bound them. It was an extraordinary amount of work.
How did you guys start working with Jeremy?
Mark: Jeremy came by one time and said he wanted to publish a journal. He wasn’t coming from an art background, so he asked a bunch of questions and then he just went off and did it and came back and was like, “Can you help me now?” And it was after our experience helping him with the first one that we said, “Okay, you do the part that you do really well, the words, all we’ll do the rest.”
(Jeremy walks in)
Hey Jeremy, you’re pretty much the founder and driving force behind the Ag Reader, right?
Jeremey Schmall: I guess that would be fair. Sure. I started it in grad school. It was just something that I wanted to do for a long time. I was finally in New York, I was around a bunch of writers, I was meeting bookmakers—it just seemed like there was enough going on here that I could make it happen. I decided to just do an issue. I printed it out at the grad school print lab and a bunch of people helped out.
Amy: I think it was like 12 people.
I know a lot of people who make chapbooks have what they call “book-binding parties.”
Jeremy: Yeah, we had a bunch of those, mainly because I could never get all the supplies I needed at one time. I would bring 15 covers and a bunch of paper, but I wouldn’t have enough buttons or tape so I’d have to come back the next week to try again with more supplies. [laughs] It was a big mess. It was a learning experience.
Mark: It was Jeremy’s clever ploy to get us more involved.
You work with artists as well, right?
Jeremy: The magazine’s always had visuals in it and I think in the first two issues you had multiple artists…
Mark: Yeah, I was working with this really cool artist who lives in Williamsburg, and he did the cover—he hand-cut and hand-painted all of these. They’re all different colors and different paints and it took forever.
Jeremy: So we were working together and finding art, but now it’s entirely been handed off to Amy and Mark and they select an artist to do a whole issue.
Justin: Which I think gives the issue a more unified feel. And it’s nice for the artist too. They create mostly original work for the magazine.
It’s kind of unusual for a literary magazine to have that much focus on the art, isn’t it?
Mark: There was music too.
Jeremy: The original idea was to have an album that came with the issue, which was a whole ‘nother layer of difficulty that kind of got burned off as we were figuring out how we could make more of them. But to answer your question, I don’t know… I just felt that the magazine should be an art object itself. I feel like poetry and fiction and the artwork all can inform each other and the artwork just kind of provides space for the poems to breathe. It works as a unified object and it makes it all more powerful, I think.
When you’re putting an issue together, what comes first, art or words?
Jeremy: Words. We just spend a year or so getting work, getting poems and stories and stuff, and then once we have what we want, we basically just email that Word document [to the designers] and then step away and then come back when they’re ready for us to do manual labor.