David Prater Interviews Talan Memmott

By and | 1 December 2011

DP: That’s a fascinating juxtaposition there, you’ve got a company backing the website but you’re making stuff available freely online …

TM: Well, to a certain extent you could say Mattell and Stanford Medical School and these other companies actually sponsored Beehive.

DP: Because of the work your company did with them.

TM: Right.

DP: So, in terms of that kind of funding model for Internet-based journals – and I ask this from the perspective of a journal whose funding is provided by a government arts funding body, where the focus is on paying the contributors) – did your contributors get paid at all?

TM: No. We didn’t pay anyone. And actually nobody asked, which is a cultural statement, and even a political statement in itself. At that point there was a hunger for getting work online, and really when I think about it right now in terms of publications that primarily publish electronic literature, there are few that are paying contributors, but there’s also very little money, and they struggle to support themselves.

So although I can say that these companies that Percepticon did work for sponsored it, when it comes right down to the fact, this was a more passionate endeavour than a corporate endeavour. And it’s based on the two main partners in the company, myself and Patrick Forden. And a lot of extra, unpaid hours go into that.

DP: In terms of your range of contributors, you spoke earlier about soliciting pieces, also collaborating with a number of other writers, such as the NY/SF poetry feature, edited by …

TM: Alan Kaufman …

DP: … but also publishing pieces (for example, Carolyn Guertin’s Queen Bees and the Hum of the Hive) that would perhaps lend some academic credibility to the field. That’s all one side of things, but in general, how many submissions did you receive through the journal.

TM: The first year, not many but by the end of it, too many for me to filter individually.

DP: When you say too many, how many was that?

TM: Well, let me look at the journal for a second [gets out iPhone and calls up Beehive site] and see how many we published in the final years … one second … In the last issue, there’s ten works published. I probably had between ninety and a hundred and twenty submissions, and that’s a good average for Volume Four, through to Volume Five.

DP: Were you surprised that you got that many submissions, or did you expect more, or …

TM: I think that’s a good average for this type of journal. You know, it’s sufficient when there’s me as the lead editor and one other associate editor (Alan Sondheim). I mean, we published quarterly, that’s a lot of work to go through, that’s four hundred or more works to go through each year, and some of it’s complicated work that you need to deal with. The more electronic the work is, the more difficult it is. There’s a testing aspect to editorial and curatorial there.

Because of the four and a half years of publication, it was just a steady incline in terms of submissions. Now I can look back and think about it but at the time I wanted even more but if we got fewer we got fewer. I mean, we dealt with the work and if we needed to solicit work, or if Alan Sondheim or Ted Warnell had suggestions, yeah, [we said] ‘let’s look at it’. So it was always an entertaining process selecting work. I mean, you do editorial, so you go through and you eliminate probably seventy percent of it, and then out of that thirty percent, you remove seventy percent of it, then you make a shortlist and then you make selections. So it’s typical editorial, curatorial work, really.

DP: In terms of that sort of editorial work, I guess as the years progressed and your knowledge of that community grew, you would have known a lot of the people who were submitting work to you. Do you think you were ever influenced by that in terms of ‘I know this person’s work and I think they’re significant’? There’s no wrong or right answer, but did that play a part?

TM: Well, if there’s no right or wrong answer, I’m going to say yes and no. Believe me, as an editor, you have to have enough strength to say ‘no, it’s not good’, even if you know the person very well. At the same time, it may be one of the first things you consider because you recognise the name or you know the person, and they’re hyping the works. It may be one of the first things considered but because it’s one of the first things considered, it may be one of the first things eliminated. But there is a degree of equalising everything at some point. I mean, if it makes it down to the shortlist before you do final eliminations, that’s when you do an actual fairly hard-core qualitative analysis. So if stuff is immediately recognised as just junk, it’s not making it that far.

DP: No, no, exactly. I guess the reason I ask is that often, something that I’ve come across with other journals, and in my own editorial experience, is that sometimes the temptation is there to choose a body of work that represents a certain community of writers, as opposed to a body of work that is generally representative, and I think that they’re equally valid kinds of motivations, but did you ever feel at any stage that ‘okay, this is a kind of new and emerging kind of group of people, I’m kind of involved in capturing a snapshot of that group’?

TM: Yeah but here’s the thing, and also because it ended in 2002, you’re still talking about an emerging field, so the inclusion of unknowns is significant.

DP: Okay.

TM: I think it would be much more difficult to do something like Beehive right now, because within the electronic literature community, things seem to have solidified. The thing is I don’t think I would change the editorial process in terms of ‘yeah, okay I recognise the name, I’ll look at it first’, and then probably put it aside and then put it back into the main shuffle again, but still even now, even though I’m not an editor of anything right now …

DP: Well, you are actually …

TM: Yeah, there’s ELC2, and the ELMCIP European anthology – so I guess I still am an editor, but I’m really much much more interested in seeing new people I’ve never heard of that are doing quality work, than just continuing a closed community. I don’t think a closed community does culture any good, or the field any good. So it needs to remain as open as possible.

DP: But do you think that is possible? I mean, to be a devil’s advocate in this kind of context, perhaps one criticism that could be levelled at the ELC is that it is kind of anthologising what’s already there. Where are the spaces for new artists?

TM: What I would say about ELC2, if we’re going to move into that, is that myself and the other editors, we made selections of people who were doing quality work who were not necessarily part of the community.

DP: Okay.

TM: And not intentionally, it’s just that their work rose to be included, and I think that’s important. Of course there are going to be factions saying ‘well, what about this person, what about that person’, but well, you know – if they’re already anthologised, then is there an obligation to include them again? And philosophically, I would say, well, yes and no [laughs]. But at the same time, I think it’s just not conscientious editing just to make a selection on the name, and not the work.

DP: Do you think it’s possible to have a process of anonymous submissions in a community that’s as small as the e-lit community?

TM: Well, the problem, especially with electronic literature, is that if you’re talking about self-contained applications, they’re going to include the author’s name somewhere.

DP: You mean within the code itself?

TM: Yeah, they’re going to have to re-develop their application to make it anonymous, and then re-submit it. I don’t think that’s even fair to practice. I think it’s an editorial thing. The editor needs to be conscientious and think somewhat abstractly about who that person is, or who any person is. You’re looking at the work first.

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