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OFF THE PAGE I - Poetry and Memory Annihilate the Ego

"Well, although it can be an uncomfortable thought, our very identities are fluid. That is if we're healthy. Of course, the certainty of a rock solid foundation is appealing and reassuring. Certainty is a seductive safety net. But once you're set like cement, you're finished. Stability is nice-rigidity is not. We've got to remain open to learning, to making mistakes, and therefore, we must resist the ego's proclivity for permanence."

Kimberly Nichols interviews Conduit's William Waltz


A recent issue of the literary magazine Conduit is about Memory. Writers are blessed with the opportunity to produce fiction and poetry through a half-cracked glass of refracted bits of memory, a reconstruction of image, and the addition of make-believe. Through the use of language and imagination, a mind's photograph comes back warped and enhanced. An old playground swing-set turns from rusty red to tainted turquoise, a house turns into a giant, a statue comes alive and takes to dance. Writers have this poetic license, to use the memory with its foibles intact; screwy and off a tad, bent and twisted from years of influence and consequence. When applied to humanity in general and taken out of the realm of the arts; the fluid nature of memory becomes a limp wire, an anxiety, and an annihilation of the ego. According to William Waltz, this is a good thing.

3AM: Why Memory?

WW: I'm very interested in the imagination-its nature, its machinations, and the integral role it plays in human nature. And, memory dovetails nicely with imagination. I think most of us routinely operate under the assumption that memories are stable, firm, and even objective. Of course, this isn't true. Remembering is a lot like imagining. This has tons of implications for individuals and societies alike. Our collective memory is one step away from being our collective imagination. I believe in the endlessly invigorating power of the imagination, its ability to re-create, to bend steel, but this can be dangerous when it comes to history because sometimes murder is simply murder.

What we learn about memory can be applied to what we know about the imagination and about ourselves. With the Memory, like all of our '"themes," we tried to find the connection between it and poetry. Partly because of intellectual specialization, partly because of poetry's perceived irrelevance, there's very little overlap between the various areas of human inquiry, artistic or scientific. I think it's important, interesting, and fun to draw together these disparate fields of study in a literary journal. Memory turned out to be a fertile field.

3AM: Peter Blegvad's piece on memory in which he painstakingly illustrated the way we recall by his own personal drawing experiences was incredible. He pointed out the way that memory takes a piece and twists it according to the circumstance in which the memory is brought out, consistently dampened by that foggy ingredient called time. Nothing is ever exactly as it seemed. Nothing is ever reconstructed in exactly the same way.

And then there is the poetry and poetic expression.

Each piece in Conduit is like candy for me. A distinct slice of someone's mind. It is clearly understood that this fluid thing called Memory can create a million and one variations; a constant churning poem machine; a never-ending perpetual snapshot granter.

Memory is a selective thing and when mixed with the creative license of literature, we find that we recall things most when they first came to us in precisely a moment to coincide with something important to us at precisely that moment as well. The circumstance through which we find is the thing that helps create the indelible mark.

"I am a small bird-headed demon, skating."
-from Rudi Dornemann's Detail from a Painting by Hieronymous Bosch

"I am the sound of a man leaving town. I am the sound of ash choking a dream."
-from Ethan Paquin's Final Days of the Affair

"After all, in the editing room, the editor often wields greater power than the director."
-from Jenny Boully's The Body

"That was the year of delicate nasturtiums, the year of transcendental alcohol."
-from Jennifer Willoughby's Now That I Am Married, I Am Afraid

The writers in Conduit vary from the very well known like Ethan Paquin to lesser-known emerging voices. I particularly enjoyed Conduit's letters to the editors. A romantic Arizonian woman wrote about her love affair with the mag's prose and a prisoner writes from his intellectual cell. It is like your magazine. Even though you have a themed issue, it seems like every writer is individual. In most literary mags I read, I find a common atmosphere that creates one collective voice but Conduit felt like talking to a bunch of strangers in a close knit room. Whose idea was Conduit?

WW: I came up with the idea in my final days of grad school at University of Massachusetts, 1992. I remember telling my thesis committee that I was planning to start a magazine and they looked at me like I was surreal or something. At the time, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a bunch of talented writers…few of them were having any luck with the lit mags of the day. That got me thinking and once I realized I didn't really like those mags anyway, the gears started turning. So, I decided to publish a magazine that was a joy to read. Part of that joy, for me, is reading innovative writers and young writers who might not have found their audience.

By the way, I like your "bunch of strangers in a close knit room" analogy. A few people have tried to define the Conduit poem, but I don't think anyone has gotten it quite right. I can't say I could either, but I think that's a good thing. I'd like to think we're open to a number of different styles and what knits them together is a kindred spirit.

3AM: Speaking of different styles, the page numbers in Conduit are not numbers, but words. Pages are arranged in alphabetical order, but the word order is meaningless. Pages are named gimlet, or threshold, or trigger, or hook. While flipping through the pages or reading the magazine through from page one to the last, the reader can not help but anticipate the words to follow. It is treat for the reader. It takes away a bit of the familiar. It reminds the reader of why they read in the first place. Where do the page number words come from?

WW: From that initial impulse. The idea for page-words sort of instantaneously un-combusted the moment Conduit was conceived. I suppose that's a bit dramatic. What I mean to say is that page-words share the same inspiration as the magazine itself. We wanted to build a new kind of literary journal, one that stood out from the masses and did it without breaking a sweat. So, we took some of the basic conventions of magazine-dom, like page numbers, and thoroughly disoriented them. I suppose that's only part of the story. Our interest in tools and the impractical also underpin the notion. People have said Conduit has a tool fetish. We prefer to call it a motif. For the first eight issues, page-words were either simple machines and tools, pulleys and hammers, or bits of hardware, screws, cogs, etc. Since then we've included objects that connect to any given theme. We chose tools because they speak to our belief that poetry is the product of a poet's labor and the poet is a worker like the musician, the sculptor, the plumber, and the carpenter. And, yes, good work is a fine thing, and working together for a common purpose is even better, so we also take to heart the maxim, "One or more simple machines are essential to any more complex machine." It's the poets, writers, and artists--our collaborators that make Conduit what it is.

Paradoxically, poetry is entirely impractical. This is a blessing. So, we decided to embrace the impractical. What better way than to banish numbered pages? I suppose that if you put the ethics of work and impracticality together you might end up with a pyramid in Central Park. The bottom line is that Conduit is a poetry magazine and poetry is a celebration of language. Page-words allow us to squeeze in more words, more language into every issue.

3AM: What is going on in the lit mag arena today?

WW: I'm don't know what it is, but it's something. Energy's building. The last few years have seen a major influx of dynamic magazines and editors. Spinning Jenny, Insurance, LIT, jubilat, and Verse. I like a lot of them. They're intelligent, distinctive, lively, well designed. If I was a young poet, and I am, I'd be thrilled with the number of excellent venues. I suppose there's some kind of symbiotic relationship at work here. Good new writing is fueling good new magazines, which, are, in turn, nurturing those writers. Without good work, there's a void between the covers.

3AM: Is the web making any impact on voice in literature?

WW: I think it is. I'm no expert on the web…but I sort of see it from both ends, the voice and the ear…Can I say that? Conduit's website has carried our voice, our message, and our very existence to a new audience. It's funny we have national distribution, but Conduit is only in a hundred or so stores. We have three distributors-none of which can get any lit mags into Barnes and Noble. That's another story. So, the web is certainly helping us and a whole host of magazines, presses, organizations, and individuals get greater play. Beyond the toehold websites that give paper and ink operations a presence on the web, there are the web only magazines. Some of which are very good and are breaking ground all the time. I'm intrigued by the sites that are taking advantage of the medium, its malleability, its agility, by using sound, images, design, movement in eye-popping ways. And, there's hypermedia, an immature but exciting format.

Half the visitors to our website are writers checking us out. A lot of them aren't a good match, some are--anything that increases the flow invariably increases participation. Again, I'm no expert, but I also get the feeling that there are a lot of websites brimming with bad poetry. If I'm right, it underscores a basic dilemma facing the web: if everyone has a voice, how does one sort them out-none of us have the time to hear/read them all. The web has mobilized writers who seemingly generate stuff at will and disperse it to dozens of randomly selected magazines with a click. This isn't a positive development. We get tons of submission via email…and we don't even accept online submissions. Oh well--the real impact of the web on literature, even its direction, is yet to be determined.

3AM: You write that "memory, like glass, is a slow moving liquid." You speak of memory being a slippery thing. What can we get out of that in terms of the ego's place in ourselves?

WW: Well, although it can be an uncomfortable thought, our very identities are fluid. That is if we're healthy. Of course, the certainty of a rock solid foundation is appealing and reassuring. Certainty is a seductive safety net. But once you're set like cement, you're finished. Stability is nice-rigidity is not. We've got to remain open to learning, to making mistakes, and therefore, we must resist the ego's proclivity for permanence. Like great poets, everyone of us ought to risk annihilation, annihilation of the ego, so that we might get past the ego and into what is true and essential, the real music of our lives.

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