The Armada Sails Onby Lizzie Stark • 06.28.2013
Fringe published its last issue on Monday, June 24. Today, Editor-in-Chief Lizzie Stark issues our final goodbye.
In grad school, someone once told me that my short stories were too feminist for most literary magazine to publish. He might have been telling me, nicely, that I ought to focus less on politics and more on style, but still, it made me mad.
I felt mad because, as a woman, I wasn’t trying to write “feminist” short stories, but work reflective of my reality. I felt mad because uncomplicated appreciation of Moby Dick or The Road, is impossible for me; by dint of my worldview, I can’t divorce it from the centuries old sociopolitical environment that canonizes men’s work about men as “great literature” and women’s work about women as “chick lit.” I got so mad that I did some research on where some of the living lady greats first got published—people like Dorothy Allison and Sandra Cisneros. What I discovered wasn’t too surprising—they’d first been published by journals catering to their demographics, journals that had largely vanished.
But if the places that launched southern lesbians and Mexican-Americans of uncommonly wonderful literary talent to fame had vanished, I wondered, who would publish little old me? As Hannibal put it, in words my all-girls’ high school would later adopt as its motto, “find a way or make one.” I would make one, all right, I would show them. Whoever “they” were. And because I was 23 and in graduate school, I settled on a literary journal.
After class, in the three or four different bars that writing MFAs and publishing students frequent near Emerson College, I screwed my courage to the sticking point and asked some of my classmates to join me—the woman who first invited me to the bar after class, and with whom I’d split beers at the end of the night; a banjo enthusiast who had just returned from a long trip to India; a philosophy major who liked to argue linguistics with me, who had “perception dictates reality” tattooed into her skin and had been long-married, even though she was young, like us. I drank beers with a Texan and we did ballet in the subway together while waiting for the last train home. The sharpness of another’s criticism—pointed but subtle—struck me in our writing workshop. And these ladies led us to others, and to yet more women and men when that supply graduated to newer projects.
Starting a journal is fundamentally an act of hubris, because it implies that you have something to say and the world ought to listen. Our culture does not presuppose that women have something to say, that women ought to speak up for themselves, so creating a publishing platform with an all-women editorial board felt liberating and transgressive.
We pledged to create space for the type of work we wanted to read, and an audience for the sort of work we wanted to write.
I’m not a natural leader. As a child, my parents had to train me out of using the catch phrase, “I have a better idea.” I’ve always hated group work, because I dislike relying on other people who might not perform a task up to my specifications. I was not the sort of person people chose for their kickball team. Or for their special projects.
And yet, here I sat with so many wonderful people, working on a project that meant something to each of us. I’d always figured that authority was something one assumed, something one took from others. What I learned from Fringe is that it is given. We operated largely as a collective, and my responsibility within the group was to tend to its needs, help build consensus, and keep us on track. Everyone worked autonomously within our collective, and I accepted—without understanding—the sacred trust of helping them do their jobs. And they showed me what they needed; they taught me how to lead them. It wasn’t as glamorous as I’d imagined—what responsibility is?—but because of the people and our belief in our mission it was incredibly enjoyable and satisfying.
After the magazine launched—rooted in a rather naïve belief that a new literary journal has some power to alter centuries of entrenched power dynamics—we held the infamous Fringe binges, keggers with $5 beer cups where our editors sold homemade jewelry or dollar shots or held costume contests. We didn’t make much money, but damn if they weren’t some of the most fun I’ve had.
Eventually, we simply made peace with Fringe as a social opportunity. On Fridays we’d meet after hours to discuss the magazine’s mission and quickly realized that literary business goes down easier over pizza and beer. Afterwards, we’d play charades with our partners, taste whiskey, and occasionally frequent dive bars. Once, two of our editors labored over a 7-course Italian meal for the rest of us, complete with wine pairings, and afterwards we sang along while someone played the guitar, later, to classical music, one editor taught us to waltz.
I learned so many things from the other editors—how to shampoo my bangs in the sink, basic HTML, what to do if I felt freaked out by a lump on my mammogram, why the crap beer we always had in our apartment was crap beer, and how to care for the tattoo of the magazine logo I whimsically got with another editor while repping the journal at our first writing conference.
An editor of another literary journal, upon seeing all the Fringe staff in their matching T-shirts at a writing convention, proclaimed that we didn’t have a batch of editors, but a fleet, an Armada of them. I’ve always liked that idea—a Fringe Armada sailing boldly out into the world, scouring it for the edgy new frontier of writing.
As we began graduating, people left the magazine. At first, each transition felt like a disaster; it is impossible to replace the moon or the sun, or a wonderful person you’ve come to love. It turns out that although you can’t replace people, the world is wide and full of people who are awesome in slightly different ways, new editors who brought new energy and strength to Fringe. We added a beer expert with a deft editorial hand and an unabashed love of paper volumes, a woman able to be optimistic under even the tightest of deadlines, who now works for an organization helping low income kids learn to read in Boston, and the sardonic and ambitious head of a nascent Austin writing community. Over the years, many more have passed through our halls.
This is a life lesson: people will live up to the expectations you set for them, and it’s rewarding to watch them grow into their new roles, even if that means they have to leave you behind.
Now, eight years and some 200+ artists and writers published later, I have a more proportional understanding of Fringe’s place on the literary scene. The small press world consists of a series of sieves, winnowing out the chaff and passing the talented and relentless up toward more mainstream acceptance. We ensured that a diverse range of writers got past one of the early filters, at least. We published poets that went on to release books, future Fulbright-grant-winners, Pushcart nominees, incipient professors, and budding novelists, many of them then first-time authors. Whether or not our writers went on to scale greater literary heights—watching the impact of publication on them personally has solidified my belief that making art enriches life, no matter whether you have one reader or thirteen thousand.
In return, Fringe has rewarded me richly—not simply with enduring friendships, but with the embodied belief, tattooed into my very being, that no goal lies beyond my grasp, that even a scrappy little magazine borne along by our collective coffee money and willpower can earn an audience of 13,000, that if I want something badly enough to pour my soul and my labor into it, I can find a way to achieve the dream. And that I don’t have to go it alone.