Conversation: Agriculture Reader No. 3

A warm and welcoming term, “agriculture” at its simplest cultivates and gives way to growth, in turn providing food and other fundamental necessities. And the writing in this annual arts journal, as well as Joey Parlett’s artwork, is in this sense fantastically cohesive and naturally grown, cultivated with care from the minds of thirty talented contributors. Nearly every piece embraces an introspective, philosophical undertone, while at the same time maintaining a naturalness characteristic to writing that has sprung organically from its creator’s consciousness.

This week marks the launch of Agriculture Reader No. 3, the third issue of the annually published Brooklyn-based arts journal.

Take special note of Joey Parlett’s crowded, peculiar etchings which both complement the writing they surround and also stand effectively on their own. His towering, teetering house on page eight reminisces Babel’s conflagration of discourses and over-stimulation, as well as its ultimate, forthcoming demise. Just two pages previous, Parlett depicts man’s first steps on the moon in a series of comic book-like images, and the words “President Kennedy tellin Scott Carpenter he’s awesome” below the sketch with an astronaut holding a receiver to his ear.

Mike McDonough’s essay on poet Tony Towle, “A Peaceful Bite of Cheeseburger Theory,” enlightens in only the way a poet writing on another poet really could. McDonough studies Towle’s work with calculation, literally, as he strives to comprehend and expound the gloriousness of a fellow writer and artistic mentor. And it doesn’t hurt when the poet — the one writing the essay — applies with great elegance the act of creating effective work to the realness of a hamburger with a slice of cheese on it.

Other highlights include Rebecca Wolf’s softhearted, incredulous poem “My Daughter” and Robert Hershon’s “Rich, Stupid and Crazy.” Anthony McCann’s “Occidental Hotel” is astounding in its beauteous simplicity. Heather Christie’s short-shorts, free of punctuation, are brimmed with sagacity. Every piece selected by editors Jeremy Schmall and Justin Taylor adds to Agriculture Reader’s persistent emphasis on careful, effective production of art, poetry, and prose. And each in its own way works to cultivate and encourage the next. And as we all know, effective, careful cultivation only leads to a healthy, hearty lit journal.

Founded in 2006 by Jeremy Schmall and co-edited by Justin Taylor, Agriculture Reader publishes anything from fiction, poetry, criticism, or “anything [they] haven’t seen before or even thought of yet”. Art design is done by Amy Mees from X-ing Books.

First of all, what is Agriculture Reader?

Justin: The Agriculture Reader is a limited-edition arts annual. The first two issues were assembled entirely by hand, and published in editions of approximately 125 and 250 (respectively). This is probably a good time to mention that Jeremy is the magazine’s founder. We met while both students at the New School’s MFA program. I was a contributor to the first two issues, and sort of a general helper-where-I-could. Sometime after #2 came out, when we were doing some readings and he was sort of getting his head together about how he wanted to approach #3, Jeremy invited me to become his co-editor, and I eagerly accepted. #3 is the first issue I worked on as an editor. It’s also the first issue to be perfect-bound (though all the detail work on the cover is by-hand) and as you probably know, the more copies you print of something the lower your per-copy cost, so this is far and away the largest print-run we’ve done, but it’s still only about 500 copies, which I guess sort of answers your readership question.

I like the way you have chosen to let the featured work define the journal, but I’d also like to know how you would distinguish your journal from others. What is unique about Agriculture Reader?

Justin: Well, every journal is a little snowflake, at least as far as its editors are concerned. There are things we pride ourselves on–the quality and originality of the work in each issue, and the value and allure of the physical object itself, being the two that come right to mind. But I’m not sure what you mean when you ask “what else” we focus on. We focus on the thing itself, which means: the literature and art that goes in it, how all the parts interact with one another and contribute to the whole, and some governing design-notion that a book is not just an object which contains art, but is itself an object of art, or perhaps better still: an art-object. What else is there? We want to make something unlike anything else that’s out there, and so we spend some time looking at what IS out there– we’re interested in what’s being done poorly, so we can avoid those mistakes. But we’re also interested in what’s highly successful, because we don’t want to repeat anyone else’s victories anymore than we do anyone else’s mistakes. If there’s a journal we really love (and there are many- The New York Tyrant, for one; Forklift, Ohio for another) our enthusiasm as fans/friends/fellow-travelers doesn’t stop us from realizing–as editors–that we need to turn tail and run the other way. If anything it adds to the sense of urgency. Somewhere in the course of seeing what works and doesn’t work, you start to get a sense of what hasn’t even been tried yet. That’s where we want to be.

What do you look for when deciding what to include?

Justin: We look for work that surprises, delights, thrills, exalts, or in some other way or combination of ways “impresses” us. Those are a lot of large, vague words, but I’m not sure I can put a finer point on it than that, at least for myself at this particular moment in time. We solicit the sweeping majority of work we publish, which is NOT to say that we publish everything we solicit. We’re always on the lookout for new writers–our website even has a submissions policy now–but we also have certain writers we already know we love, and we’re not going to deprive ourselves of them just because they were in the last issue. Anthony McCann, for example, can be in as many issues as he wants to be in. Maybe the better way to answer this question is in terms of forms of writing- the first AGR published almost exclusively poetry. In fact, I think the only two pieces of fiction in it were my story and Danielle Ben-Veniste’s. #2 had short-shorts by Jared Hohl, Andrew Richmond, and maybe some other stuff I’m not thinking of. #3 has more prose fiction than ever before, though all of it is short-shorts. #3 also has the first essay we’ve ever published: Mike McDonough’s appreciation of Tony Towle. I think our range will continue to widen. We’d love to publish more nonfiction–especially critical essays–or a longer piece of fiction. We’ve talked quite a bit about wanting to publish a play, or more work in translation. But in all these cases, for us to actually commit, the piece would have to be the exact right thing– not just an excellent piece of writing, but also right for us.

How did you decide on Tony Towle for your featured poet?

Jeremy: Towle is an amazing poet who’s produced an astounding volume of incredible poems over his lifetime. He was an early “member” of The New York School, and every bit as brilliant as O’Hara and Ashbery. It’s time to introduce him to a new generation of young writers.

The artwork by Joey Parlett is fabulous. Do you use a different artist for each issue? Why only one artist per issue?

Jeremy: I was actually in a band with Joey in Cleveland one summer close to 10 years ago. He was the drummer, and an amazing drummer at that. At the time I didn’t know he was also an incredible artist, and it wouldn’t have probably meant much to me back then. At some point we both ended up in New York and reconnected. For both issues 1 and 2 we used multiple artists, and the affect was a little chaotic. I have to give full credit for the decision to use 1 artist (and to use Joey in particular) to Amy Mees, who made all the decisions related to art and design for issue 3. The thinking is that having one artist who’s willing to spend quality time with the issue makes the magazine more cohesive, interesting, and enjoyable.

Do you believe art and literature fundamental necessities?

Justin: Literature will not keep you warm at night. Art either. Now Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs does list “creativity” as a part of “self-actualization,” which is the highest tier of his pyramid, but I guess that will mean something different to each person. I can’t imagine my life without literature, or any of the arts, so yes, to me those things are absolutely fundamental. But I can imagine someone to whom they are not fundamental, and I’m not prepared to say that person is any worse than I am, though probably they would make for a much worse editor for an arts annual.

How has Agriculture Reader progressed since its first issue? What are you plans for the future?

Jeremy: The first issue is funny to think about now, in terms of the process of it (somehow) coming all together. I just didn’t know what I was doing in terms of making a book, but I figured the only way to learn would be to do it. I got a LOT of help from a LOT of people. And it’s gratifying to look through the first issue and see all the great work I got from these really amazing writers, when I had nothing to show for myself but a promise and a deadline. In terms of progression, the best thing to happen to the magazine is the addition of Amy Mees, Mark Wagner, and Justin Taylor to the Agriculture Reader team. We’ve gotten way (WAY) better in terms of designing and building the book, thanks to the tireless enthusiasm and genius of Amy Mees and Mark Wagner. And I couldn’t be more pleased to now be working with Justin as a co-editor. He’s really expanded the kind of work I’m interested in, and through our many debates about literature and writers, I’ve been able to work through a lot of ideas and to really sharpen my reasoning for the kind of writing I like.

And finally, tell me about your publishers, X-ing Books. I see that both of your have published your own work with them separately. How did you come into contact with them?

Justin: X-ing Books is the artist Mark Wagner and the graphic designer Amy Mees. They used to work with The Booklyn Artists Alliance, and Jeremy started working with them when he was putting AGR number 1 together. Around the time number 2 was being built, Mark and Amy split from Booklyn and organized their own outfit, X-ing Books, based out of their studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yards. AGR would look very, very different–or else wouldn’t exist at all–without Mark’s and Amy’s insane generosity with their time, physical resources, emotional support, and beer. As far as our own books with X-ing go, we hadn’t been shopping those manuscripts around or anything. Mark invited Jeremy to publish one book, and to edit another. Jeremy chose to develop some stuff he’d been working on into the book Open Correspondence from the Senator, and at the same time he asked me if I would like to show him some poems, with the idea that we would put a manuscript together. So that’s what we did. As a beginning publishing outfit, it made sense that X-ing would start by publishing work by people who were “known quantities,” in the sense that we all knew we admired and respected one another, and could work well together. Mark and Amy love making books, and they’re great at it, and I think both those facts are evident in every single book they produce.