On Atmospheres, Filling in the Blanks, and Nuance

A Conversation with Co-Founder of Guernica Michael Archer

By Editor Brett Rawson

It took us a year to launch The Seventh Wave. For many moons, we sat around wooden tables, arguing over ideas and empty beer cans. Armed with nothing but a domain name, we applied for a grant, which consumed half of our thesis semesters. We graduated with degrees in hand, but uncertainty in direction — one of our co-founders was on the brink of moving home because her visa would say so, and another did part ways to pursue a separate passion. But at some point, it was winter and words like what if, target audience, and yeah but had finally begun to disperse. We like to think we’ve since made it out of that cosmic fog, but we know we’re still within arm’s reach of our beginnings. And so for this issue, we got to thinking about how longstanding magazines have not only formed, but also transformed.

For this side conversation, I sat down with Michael Archer, co-founder of Guernica Magazine, to talk about the eleven years of the magazine’s life, which didn’t begin online but as a reading series in the basement of a bi-level bar in the East Village: Guernica Bar. Michael and his co-founder, Joel Whitney, both MFA students at the time, were in search of a different kind of atmosphere than the ones they were experiencing — something closer to a living room than a lecture hall, with fewer pretenses and more acoustics. They had a great run — four or five readings in, the basement was full and alive, with the likes of Walter Mosley in the crowd and Richard Howard on stage — but suddenly, Guernica closed its door. Late some night, the bouncer was killed by a single stab wound to the groin. (While carrying a patron who refused to quit smoking toward the exit, the 6-foot-5 bartender was tackled by the patron’s friends, one of whom had studied the Filipino martial art of Eskrima, which is a technique using precision knife blows).

Michael and Joel were without a physical space, so they took the 100-person mailing list they had built, the name they had become known by, and went digital. For Michael, it was also a timely decision:

“It was just before Bush got elected the second time. For me, it was, ‘Well, at least we can try to say fuck you once, publicly, before he gets elected.’ Not directly. But in terms of a view of the world that was the opposite of the politics he and his administration were selling and a lot of Americans were buying.”

Eleven years later, Guernica Magazine has a masthead of 55 volunteers, recently released its second print anthology, and earlier this month, won the AWP Small Press Award for Independent Publishing. For a couple cups of coffee, we talked with Michael about Guernica’s transition from a physical to a digital space, the blanks they are trying to fill in with their Special Issues, and what Michael feels is lacking most in conversations today.

***

THE SEVENTH WAVE: When you went from Guernica Bar to Guernica Magazine, did anything get lost in transition?

MICHAEL ARCHER: You wouldn’t have any sense of the reading series’ atmosphere by reading the magazine. I remember some serious, even dark, stuff being presented at those readings, but the nights were essentially parties. But the ethos is carried over to the magazine’s staff. It is a community of people that really like each other, and see each other socially, beyond Guernica. Not so long ago, we had a nonfiction meeting at The Black Forest in Brooklyn. While we were talking about some heavy subject matter, in terms of upcoming work we were going to publish, and ostensibly boring things like improving our editorial process, there was the usual collegiality, a familial vibe, that reminds me of those evenings at the reading series. That’s common when we, as an editorial staff, get together. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that just as nobody was forced to go to the reading series, nobody is forced to go to editorial meetings or magazine events. We’re all volunteers.

I remember in our early years we did quite a few pieces on Darfur. And I’d occasionally meet people who would know Guernica and say some variation of, “Oh, yeah, you’re the genocide magazine.” And mention having believed those involved with the magazine were completely morose. 

TSW: Outside of being called the “genocide” magazine, were there other labels you encountered — ones that you either brushed up against or intentionally wanted to cross?

MA: I’ve never thought of Guernica in terms of labels. Probably there are staff members who could better answer the question, actually. For me, it’s always been stuff we thought was smart, well-written, and important to share, and start discussions. All the answers or labels sound pretentious and/or boring. I suppose I could just say it’s right there, after the colon, art and politics. But that’s as broad as you can be. Internally, between the staff, we started to say a piece “felt Guernica-y.” And we all knew what that meant.

Now that our reach has grown, it’s less of a problem. I think if one were to spend an hour hopping around the magazine and reading pieces in all the sections, they’d have a good idea of what “Guernica-y” means.

TSW: There is definitely a familiar feel within each piece. There’s also a different experience to reading through an entire issue. It reminds me of listening to a full album: hearing a single song, something might speak to me as the listener, but listening to the entire thing, I see how the pieces start to speak to each other, and beyond.

MA: I think that’s a good analogy — and the magazine as a whole as an artist’s ten-year collection. I get particularly excited when we publish things that surprise our most ardent readers. Like, an ode to the chicken tender, which you should read — it’s brilliant. That was in our Boundaries of Taste issue. It’s super smart, and super fun. Over the years, most of our submissions tackle some pretty weighty issues. So it’s nice when we’re able to offer a little levity, and still be true to what we do.

Our specials, obviously, have a theme. But with the regular issues, we rarely have the bandwidth to choose pieces that obviously “go together.” The features might be on, I don’t know, domestic abuse in Kansas, finding your father in Ethiopia, and carpet-making in Afghanistan. And then the fiction, poetry, and art cover completely different subject matter in completely different parts of the world. And there’s an interview with, say, a graphic novelist, map-maker, and environmentalist. But, as I think you’re pointing out, they somehow make sense together. Speak to one another. Like we painstakingly chose for them to appear at the same time.

TSW: People who experience Guernica Magazine for the first time these days wouldn’t know that you guys really changed the way people view digital writing. This was brought up at a recent panel session we attended — Periodically Speaking put on by CLMP at The New York Public Library — where Guernica Nonfiction Editor Meara Sharma spoke. I’m curious, how conscious were you of the print vs. digital tension back when you began, and if it was ever apparent, did it appear as an obstacle or encouragement?

MA: I was aware of it because I’m a writer. But I wouldn’t have termed it “tension.” Simply, writers felt like having their work appear only online meant less. I felt that way, too, at one time. But I came to realize, both as a writer and editor, that most of the time, more people read my work online than in print. That’s not the end-all-be-all, of course. More important than eyeballs, at least to me, is the company your work keeps. And from very early on we had writers telling us they were proud to appear in our virtual pages because of the neighborhood where their work was living. It elates me to hear you and other say we changed the way people view digital media. But I don’t remember ever having that as a goal. Now, whether we had anything to do with it or not, it’s undeniable that some of the best works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry each year first appeared online.

TSW: How many are propping up Guernica these days? And, has it been a slow-build of volunteer support, or was there a specific year when people rushed the tent?

MA: Tons. Check our massive masthead. But that would only give you a general idea. Because it doesn’t include all the regular contributors and promoters and other organizations that regularly support the magazine. If you’re asking about editorial volunteers, yeah, a fairly slow growth. Very early on, they were folks we knew or had met or friends or friends-of-friends, several of whom — Meakin Armstrong, Katie Dykstra, and Erica Wright come to mind — are still with us and continuing to do great work. But we have lots of staff who’ve been volunteering for several years. Rachel Riederer, a great writer and editor, is an example and made my day recently by ending an email to staff with “G Team 4 Life.” I could go on and on about our staff, they’re all so dedicated and talented.

But, to answer your question more directly, I think, it’s much easier to staff now. We generally have lots of great applications when a position opens up. It’s the hardest thing to tell really talented people, who are willing to volunteer, that they didn’t get the “job.”

TSW: This past year, Guernica entered the print world with The Guernica Annual. How was it for you going back through everything you guys published for select those pieces?

MA: We’ve published two print annuals, both with Haymarket. This year’s just came out. We, as a staff, go through all the pieces from the previous and vote on what we want in the annual. Our favorites, for the most part, but I also do a little tweaking to try and show the breadth of our coverage. I can’t speak for the staff, but I really enjoy going through the previous year’s work. Our publishing cycle is so hectic. It’s an opportunity to stop and look back at all we’ve accomplished.

TSW: I’m curious about the Race in America Special Issue from 2013, as it feels like a distant cousin to our current issue. Why did you guys select that issue at that particular time?

MA: We wanted to have an umbrella theme for all four issues. We chose, “America.” So, Race in America, American Empires, Class in America, and The American South. I think if you’re gonna put together a collection of issues on America, you have to talk about race. The only reason not to would be fear.

TSW: In the introduction, you wrote you saw that collection as a work in progress and a beginning. How has the conversation progressed, whether at Guernica, or more broadly, as a result of the pieces you published?

MA: It’s a tough question to answer. I have a feeling we’ve published a lot more pieces on race in America since that issue. I also think we’ve received a lot more submissions on the subject, which is great and what we’d hoped for. When the magazine says we’d like to start conversations, it’s sincere. But we’re all volunteer on the editorial side, and we don’t have a lot of money, so we don’t have the resources to have, say, Margo Jefferson or Kiese Laymon, or any of the scads of other great voices out there, write three or four pieces for us every year. I hope the issue did start a conversation, and wave a flag saying Guernica can be a home for this topic in the future.

TSW: Do you think there is something missing in the conversation that is going on these days, politically or otherwise? Or vice versa — not missing, but certain things we didn’t see before that is good now?

MA: Maybe because I’m a cynic, but the first question is easier for me. I think what’s missing is nuance. Either people don’t have the time for it, or they’re not interested in being challenged to think more about it.

Often over the years, for example, I’ve heard people I know well talk about a first-person narrative nonfiction piece they read and loved in Guernica. And I’ve realized that the piece, at its heart, goes against their politics. But because they got to know the author, in the context of the narrative, they’re not aware. It’s like with my childhood dog, we’d have to put the pill in the piece of cheese to get him to take his medicine. It’s a humanizing connection.

TSW: Right, like finding the side or back door into something.

MA: Whether it’s hardships or triumphs, good storytelling can change the way you see the world.

TSW: That to me is what I think is a Guernica-y thing.

MA: In some ways, that’s where the magazine lives, I think. When we’re coming up with ideas for special issues, for example, we sit around as editors, and we say, “Ok, we need our blank — the Future of __________, the Boundaries of __________, and ________ in America.”

All of us gravitate toward filling those blanks with words or phrases that will give us space to explore gray areas. That’s what’s interesting. MSNBC often speaks to my politics but bores the shit out of me: I know what Chris Matthews is going to say; I know what Rachel is going to say; and I certainly know what Lawrence O’Donnell is going to say. Same thing, obviously, goes with Fox News. Nuance is missing. Part of what the magazine does, I think, is try to fill the void a bit.

TSW: Right. Nuance seems to have a very physical shape, which is palpable in many of your pieces — the people and their lived experience. When you enter one of those worlds, for example, in the Race is America Special Issues, “You Are Second Person” — you’re not going to get out of there until the end. There is the natural push and pull, or contradiction, within life itself.

MA: That sounds right to me. People and situations aren’t buffets. What you like or what you don’t like isn’t what things are in their entirety.

TSW: But that’s reassuring — to hear you saying this, or being aware of that. I think that mindset is missing in a lot of online messages.

MA: J. Malcom Garcia’s piece, “Unwanted Alive,” focuses on non-citizen veterans who’ve been deported for committing crimes, even though they’d served years in the U.S. military. Some of the crimes were more than minor offenses, maybe jail-worthy, but shouldn’t this country take into account that these folks fought in its wars, and have family and roots here? The piece’s hede comes from Garcia reporting that the only way some of these vets can reenter legally is when they die and are eligible for a full military funeral in the U.S.

I bring this piece up as an example of what I think you’re saying. Hearing the vets’ stories, and about what led to their crimes, humanizes an issue that on the surface, for some readers, might have seemed black-and-white. 

TSW: I’m curious to hear a little bit about you. I understand you’ve lived in Costa Rica, China, and Czech Republic. What compelled you to go live in these places and what pulled you back?

MA: The short answer is I’ve been able to use teaching as a reason to travel. I’ve traveled quite a bit, but the places you’ve mentioned, were because I got teaching gigs. Costa Rica was through a program called World Teach, and that was 1st – 3rd graders, and two years. Before that, I was in Prague and had made friends with students at Charles University, and their English teacher had quit, and so, on a lark, I applied. Did the interview in a flannel shirt and boots and jeans. Somehow, I got the job. In China, I was asked to teach at the University of Nanjing for a few months.

TSW: Were any of those settings particular surprising to you at that time in your place?

MA: Prague was great because of the timing. It wasn’t so many years after the Velvet Revolution, and so many of my students had lived the majority of their lives under communism. Not all of them, but many of them, missed communism, which I was told was evil or for lazy people as a child. So, naively, that was eye-opening. But it also made sense. Those students didn’t want to be part of a society so focused on money. They wanted to have time to spend with their families and go to the opera. I mean, they elected a poet to be their president.

I was in my twenties and that was the first time I got my mail delivered to me in another country. Realizing so much of the stuff I was fed growing up in the U.S. was bullshit. Or, not nuanced, was invaluable. What? Not everybody was thrilled to death about the Wall coming down? I guess it comes back to what we were talking about earlier. Humanizing. Nuance. Empathy. Etcetera.

TSW: Right, it brings your isolation out into the open. I experienced something similar while living in rural Japan. Unlearning the cultural constructions of my place in the world and diving into a different language for the first real time, I watched all the mechanisms of seeing myself inarticulate, and only gradually, being able to express myself in a new language.

MA: Just language alone tells you a lot about a place. One of my first days living with a Tico family in Costa Rica, I excused myself to use the restroom. Said I’d be back in a few minutes. The mother responded by saying, Si Dios quiere. That my returning from a trip to bathroom was, in her eyes, up to God, was valuable information.


MAAnnualLaunch

To read the latest, visit Guernica at www.guernicamag.com.