Birkensnake is precisely what you want in your lifeboat: good to read, fun to touch. This strange little fiction collection, edited by Brian Conn and Joanna Ruocco, operates somewhere between a literary adventure and art object. Although each issue is offered as a free download on-line, nothing compares to the physical object. Custom designed by artist Sarah McDermott aka Chemlawn, Birkensnake is one of the swankest journals out there.
Last Fall I asked Brian, Joanna, and Sarah to chat with me about Birkensnake. The interview is divided into two parts. Part one features a discussion with editors Brian and Joanna about the journal itself. In part two, Sarah discusses her design process.
THE MASTERMINDS: BRIAN AND JOANNA
BLACK CLOCK: Why did you set out to create Birkensnake? Did you look to other literary magazines for guidance or inspiration?
BRIAN CONN: In fact we started it to get out of coursework. We needed to take a class (we were in the MFA program at Brown) but didn’t want to take a class class, so we thought maybe we’d make up some kind of independent study together, but we couldn’t think of anything we wanted to read, so we thought maybe they will let us do something fun but also totally literary, such as publish a magazine. So we asked them and they let us. We keep doing it because neither of us is willing to be the first to suggest we stop.
We did look at various magazines we happened to have on our shelves. Also consulted with some people at Brown who publish things. Not for inspiration exactly, but just to answer very basic questions about how magazines are supposed to look.
The “look” of Birkensnake is almost as integral to the magazine as the writing. What motivated you to hand-make each issue?
BC: The basic decision was that it is all right to spend a lot of time but not all right to spend a lot of money. Of course we do end up spending a lot of money on acrylic ink, so that isn’t really a reason. But with screen printing you have the thrill of working in a friend’s basement studio day after day after day and late into the night listening to the same three tapes over and over again and wondering whether you will get a repetitive motion injury. Actually nobody knows why we screen print the covers. With laser printing you just put down some money and then all the covers come out of a machine and you, like, glue them or something.
Birkensnake is offered online for free or for $4.00. In a world driven by financial profit, Birkensnake is clearly not interested in “making money.” How important is accessibility and the idea of community to you as an editor and writer?
BC: The most important thing is finding the people who will love the magazine. Maybe that is the same as accessibility or community. Each copy seems like a personal object to us, because we made it by hand, and so we want it to find a good home. It hurts us to send out review copies (we do it anyway) knowing that they’ll end up on some weird shelf in some weird basement, mold for two years, and then get thrown away unread when the reviewer moves to Australia. It hurt just to type that. I sewed that thing! We assume that there are not many people out there who will love it the way it needs to be loved and so we need to make it easy for those people.
Also we both have self esteem problems and do not believe that anything we make could be worth more than four dollars.
Has running a literary magazine impacted your writing? Has your experience as a writer influenced how you operate and edit Birkensnake?
JOANNA RUOCCO: Reading submissions requires more attention than reading the normal stuff we read, like Anabasis and M.F.K. Fisher recipes, because we want to open ourselves up to each piece, to give each piece the chance to dazzle us and change us. In that way, editing Birkensnake requires an energetic commitment, like joining a dating service, and that impacts our writing, because going on lots of dates means you can’t write as much. But then the dates yield the demented baby Birkensnake, which makes us excited about writing again, and so even though we have little time that is not usurped by Birkensnake, we begin to write again, using a kind of shorthand to capture Birkensnake‘s various squawks and cries, and then making a few narrative bridges between them. This is different than the way we wrote before. We operate and edit Birkensnake with a great deal of enthusiasm, because, as writers, we like supporting other writers, and because, as writers, we feel strangely elated when we read a story that blocks the usual channels for interpreting sense-data, and we want to share the story so other people can feel skewed and excited too.
Birkensnake’s submission guidelines say, “We’d like to see narrative taken apart and then reassembled into something almost, but not quite, what it was before. If the story gets sort of broken in the process, that’s okay with us.” Additionally, the magazine seems to publish a fair amount of speculative and slipstream fiction. To what extent, if at all, does the text inform the design?
JR: We’re interested in non-realist fiction, fiction where weird things happen and fiction where the language and structure unsettle expectations about what constitutes a world, or a person, or a story. As a genre, speculative fiction brings people into confrontation, or coexistence, with new worlds and new species, in order to change the way we think about the limits of our own world, species, or subjectivity. Because of speculative fiction’s concerns, many writers who are drawn to that genre are also drawn to writing styles that trouble the rules, or boundaries, of the genre, and we tend to like stylistically troublesome narrative probes. So we publish some writing that could be considered speculative, slipstream, or even straight-up science fiction. We don’t believe in policing the borders between literary and genre fiction, and we’re particularly drawn to texts that skip around in undecidable and potentially dangerous zones between categories.
Where would you like the magazine to head in the future?
JR: Birkensnake is not for everyone, but we want it to remain accessible to everyone (cheap). It’s the mutant, left-behind cousin of the glossy magazine and the mass-market paperback, and we want it to keep mutating. We want Birkensnake to incorporate different kinds of writers and writings and we want to let its form shift depending on both to the content of each issue and the particular resources we have on hand when we enter into production. We scavenge materials to make the physical object, and as editors, we have the mentality of gleaners, always looking for the stories that drop beneath the sights of contemporary literary and genre publishers, or that look slightly too misshapen or rotten to be picked. We hope people find out about Birkensnake and read it, and that people send us their stories, so that in the future Birkensnake can be as weirdly glorious as it is already, with a slightly wider dissemination. We are not ambitious. We want messy, awesome fiction bound together with Frankenstein stitches to be an option if you’re in that kind of mood.
THE VISIONARY: CHEMLAWN
How did you become acquainted with Birkensnake?
CHEMLAWN: Joanna is a friend of mine from college and she asked me to do the cover. We lived together for several years and found increasingly that our creative visions were complimentary. Birkensnake was our first real collaboration with a legit distributed product. I didn’t know Brian but I quickly knew we’d work well together too.
Issue 1 not only features the cover design but also, on the inside flaps, an “Index for Radiological Diagnoses.” Issue 2 is both beautiful to look at and fun to touch. Where did you get the idea for each design? Can you tell us a little about the basic construction for each issue? How many different designs, if any, were created before the final design was completed?
CL: Both Birkensnakes were easy to design because the writing in them is so visually rich. The designs are somewhat literal collages of images present in the text. Birkensnake One has the beefhead from Sam Roberts story and Birkensnake Two is a mash of different things- Blake Butler’s hive, Caren Gusoff’s semiconductors and capacitors, Matthew Pendleton’s cone, etc. Both issues were made under a lot of time pressure, especially the second issue, in which I traveled to Providence from Alabama, with 5 days for both the designing and printing. So we didn’t really have a lot of time for fiddling around- on both issues we used the first design I came up with. The construction is collaborative. I came up with the general structures (I study Book Arts- the first is a simple double pamphlet with wraparound covers, and the second is a long stitch style) but both Joanna and Brian have a good intuition for how materials work and a willingness to get into new things and figure them out, so we all worked on it together.
Providence has this awesome place where you can get left over industrial materials for 10 cents a pound, so we went there and found the radiology folders. They were too good to pass up so we decided to use them not knowing how they would react to the ink or fold or tear or wear over time. For the second issue Brian got very excited about branding or burning elements of the design, and then he found the flocked paper (at the above place). He and Joanna did a couple of test burns and mailed them to me so I could think about it, but we still really had no idea how the burning would interact with the ink until we took the printed covers to the park and blow torched them.
Birkensnake’s submission guidelines say: “We’d like to see narrative taken apart and then reassembled into something almost, but not quite, what it was before. If the story gets sort of broken in the process, that’s okay with us.” Additionally, the magazine seems to publish a fair amount of speculative and slipstream fiction. To what extent, if at all, does the text inform the design?
CL: As mentioned above, the text totally informs the design, at least the cover art. I think the stories really hold together as a unit. I interpret the above submission guideline to mean, in effect if not purpose, and from my non-writer’s standpoint, “almost normal, but kind of f***ed,” so I think the covers follow that- they are pretty obviously representational but hopefully have their own odd logic to them. For the structure, we knew we wanted to keep it simple. We didn’t have a ton of time to devote to binding, and we wanted to be able to sell them for very cheap. We wanted to make a visually and tactilely interesting object that is also accessible.
Brian Conn finished his MFA in the Literary Arts program at Brown University in 2008. His first novel, The Fixed Stars, came out from FC2 in Spring 2010. He teaches writing at the University of Rhode Island and co-edits Birkensnake with Joanna Ruocco.
Joanna Ruocco lives in Providence, RI, where she coedits Birkensnake, a fiction journal. She has published stories in Marginalia, Quick Fiction, Tarpaulin Sky, No Colony, Webconjunctions, Caketrain, and elsewhere. Her short story collection, Man’s Companions, is forthcoming from Tarpaulin Sky Press. The Mothering Coven is her first novel.
Sarah aka Chemlawn McDermott lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where she makes books and prints as The Kidney Press. She is finishing her MFA thesis- a book arts edition of Joanna Ruocco’s Compendium of Domestic Incidents, which is being simultaneously published as a chapbook by Noemi Press. She is interested in collaboration, especially between experimental writing and the book arts.
by Elizabeth Hall
who was born in Louisana and raised in Georgia by two back-to-the-landers who got bored;
her website is fireflyoffice.org/coquetry