Poetry Unrestrained: William Waltz, editor of Conduit Literary Magazine and the Poetics of Annihilation
Conduit, a literary magazine out of Minneapolis, announces its presence on the bookshelf much in the way Jean-Michel Basquiat announced his vision on doors, found wood, and canvasses; like Basquiat when he party-crashed modernism with his revisions, Conduit signifies art and literature that is moving beyond accepted limits. Lucky for us, Conduit has crowd-surfed its way into the mainstream trade as a lit mag that doesn’t skimp on intelligent editing. The result is a startling collection of works—over ten years and 16 issues worth—that not only exhibit inventive craft, but explore the chemistry between art and influence.
The winter 2006 issue, themed “Book of Jobs,” is a good example of Conduit’s innovation. Like its 15 siblings, “Book of Jobs” refrains from pontificating from an academic perch, wailing at the wall of sentimentality, or caging exploration with a rigid adherence to rules. Poet Brenda Hillman’s “White Fir Description” and “Manzanita Description” are the capstone of this effort. Although these works employ the trope of nature, Hillman’s highly punctuated syntax eradicates all traces of thematic sentimentality. Free of this weight, Hillman’s meticulous diction carves a breath in the poetic line for the consideration of human presence, memory, and nature, while her gut instinct for rhythm urges an evaluation of whether we stomp over these or tread lightly. The subversive grace and painstaking craft of Hillman’s work can be viewed as a subtle advertisement for Conduit’s editorial taste.
Conduit’s editorial mission—just a tad less subtle—begins with its unusual 5 x 11 inch format. The covers spill over with cultural emblems modified vividly by the vandalistic spirit and ordered chaos of contemporary graphic art movements. But as founder and editor William Waltz cautions in the following interview, Conduit’s voice offers more than just rebelliousness.
TL: I’d love a short background of the founders and current staff. Punk geeks? Academics? Do tell.
WW: Ummm, geeky punks with too much education? I don’t know. With the exception Sonia Kharkar, and she bathes too regularly to call herself a punk, we’re all too old to do so at this point. That’s not say that punk rock didn’t help shape my aesthetic. It did. And the whole staff is passionate about music, but I’m not so sure that affects the magazine. Well, the forthcoming issue, our seventeenth dispatch, is titled Holy Hootenanny: Human Music, but that’s a coincidence. I think.
The lineup (seniority before beauty):
William Waltz, Founder and Editor: Born and raised in Wapakoneta, Ohio, home of the first man on the moon; Bachelor’s degree in Economics, one of the last to study and admire the Soviet economy; lives in Minneapolis; poet and newly ordained minister; collector of arrowheads and canned meats; graduate school survivor; percussion and sitar.
Brett Astor, Deputy Editor: Queens girl; Liberal Arts college success story; earns living with degree; film and video editor; enjoys shoes and hot, strong coffee; signed on to Conduit after the premier issue; married founding editor after issue seven; electric guitar, banshee howl, melodious angst, lead singer.
Steve Healey, Associate Editor: Product of Virginia sprawl; son of a CIA operative; met Waltz, Astor, and Anderson in Massachusetts; five years later joined the Conduit staff; likes grad school so much he went back for more; newly wed; poet; prefers kale to cabbage; plays drums with a vengeance and a protruding tongue.
Zoe Anderson, Web Mistress: Recently returned to her native Portland after conquering Brooklyn; fascinated with monsters of the deep, pay phones, and mousetraps; artist; pet portraitist; Smith College alum; drunken melodica.
Randall Heath, Art Director: The new guy; brought color fetish to Conduit with issue 16; artist and wise guy; actual Minnesotan; lives in San Francisco; makes boxes with eyeholes; raises carnivorous plants; clothes hound; book designer; freelancer, will work for medicinal marijuana; tapes loops and environmental sounds.
Sonia Kharkar, Super Intern: Friends fanatic; pride and joy of Macalester College, the practical one of the group; violin.
TL: Give me the when and how of Conduit’s beginnings. Did it start as a zine? Was it a lit mag from the starting gate?
WW: Yes, always a lit mag, always a champion of poetry. I never really considered Conduit a zine, but I’m not entirely sure what makes a zine a zine. Is it the production? The writing? The budget? For a few hundred dollars and a ton of paper cuts, the first two issues were cut and pasted, copied, collated and stapled at Kinko’s, yet at least a half of dozen of the twenty poets in those issues went on to publish their first books including the wildly popular David Berman. After issue two we left the production to the professionals, and by the sixth issue Conduit was perfect-bound, and I think a spine automatically excludes you from zine-dom.
TL: Would you stone me or laud me for claiming that while Conduit’s editorial mission privileges training in the conventions of poetry, it seeks discourses that disrupt finite definitions of poetic narrative? Why the stoning? Why the validation? And, tell me briefly what Brenda Hillman’s work, for example, expresses about Conduit’s editorial mission?
WW: Stone and laud! How could I resist? Stone you because of the word “privileges.” It suggests, to me, that we, the editorial board, read resumes before we read poems and that we are interested in the training, credentials, and past accomplishments of poets. We are not. But it is safe to say that good writers write and that is training….and although that is important, it is not the only thing that contributes to compelling writing.
And, I’ll laud you for astutely noticing our soft spot for innovation. One of our slogans is “the only magazine that risks annihilation.” And although we say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek, we believe it. We look for poems that take risks, not for risk’s sake but in order to discover and uncover, to say and to create something essential and true, something beautiful. I think risks, be they emotional, tonal, formal, etc., beget originality. Any poet worth reading is unique and the best are innovators. Brenda Hillman is one such poet. Her poems, as challenging as they may be, are not plates of academic word salad but unique ways of imagining and thinking about our world, rendered with honesty and humility.
TL: If you consider the perspective of a literary magazine, profiles like “Carpooling with Thomas Frank” align Conduit more with magazines like Punk Planet, rather than conventional literary magazines. Is Conduit a response to more traditional literary magazines, or is it merely another choice?
WW: I started Conduit because there were very few literary magazines that I enjoyed reading, so in a sense Conduit is a response to old school journals (I might add that since Conduit arrived on the scene in 1993 there has been an explosion of lit mags, many of which I find compelling). But, ultimately, I find “response” too limiting. Rebellion is boring. Forgive me for saying it, but we’re following our collective muse, trying to make a magazine that provides a rich, multi-faceted experience. And, our interviews with people like Thomas Frank and Barbara Ehrenreich are part of our over-arching mission to put the world in poetry and poetry into the world at large, to lure new readers to the wonderful world poetry.
TL: Tell me how the visual design of Conduit fits with its editorial mission of “thwarting good taste, progress, and consensus.” For example, apparently size and shape do matter; how and why do they matter? What does Conduit want to say visually about its editorial mission when sitting next to its counterparts on the shelf?
WW: Conduit stands out, literally, and we like it that way. The tall, skinny format immediately sets us apart from 99% of the “industry,” and we hope that might entice a curious-minded reader or two to pick up a copy. We’re interested in challenging assumptions and contrivances, be they artistic or design-related. But, more importantly, the size and shape are part of our holistic approach to the project. A magazine ought to be more than a hundred pages glued together. Design is just one of the tools with which we can make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Besides Conduit fits in your back pocket.
TL: How would you describe Conduit's relationship to postmodernism? Themes like “Gray Matters: the Light and Shadow of Doubt,” “Go Japan Go,” and “Love Poem Superstar” call out for postmodern evaluations of subjectivity, rather than sentimentality. Agree or disagree?
WW: I’m not sure what our relationship with postmodernism is these days. I suppose that means I should call and check in. Two of the three titles you cite inhabit the primordial ooze of issues to come. Some will crawl forth, others will, thankfully, reside only in dreams.
If Conduit were in tune with the zeitgeist, then I think it would operate on multiple levels using numerous modulations. And if Conduit were to fulfill its promise, it would do so by conducting the various levels and modulations until they sang, not unlike a triumphant poem.
You can access more information about Conduit at http://www.conduit.org/.
Note: The cover of issue #16—pictured above—was designed by Scott Bruno. Bruno, who joined Conduit as Art Director when he redesigned issue #5, bid farewell with the cover of issue #16 before handing the reigns to Heath.