Write What Scares You: A Conversation with James Yeh & Lincoln Michel of Gigantic Magazine

Tomorrow night at 8:30, upstart lit journal Gigantic celebrates the release of its fourth issue at Public Assembly in Williamsburg.  This esteemed affair will ring in the revelry with readings from Michael Kimball, Joe Wenderoth, Kimberly King Parsons, and Robert Lopez, and music from Jonas Reinhardt and Lingerie.  Be there or be oblong.  Gigantic’s enormously busy and talented editors James Yeh and Lincoln Michel sat down to answer a few queries about their new issue, the trials of running a print magazine in the new world order, broadcasting your secrets, and the inevitable unleashing of R. Kelly upon Public Assembly’s dance floor.    

What can your devoted readership expect from this latest issue of GIGANTIC? Are there any unifying themes / curatorial ideas behind who and what is in it?
Lincoln Michel: Our unifying theme this time is, I’m afraid, “everything.” Readers can expect a dash of this and a truckload of that, but hopefully they will mostly receive the unexpected. We have a really fantastic mix of established writers, past masters, and hip up-and-comers to tell your friends about. Some of them are named Robert Walser, Iris Moulton, Etgar Keret, and Michael Kimball. We put a lot of effort into our curation and—with our brilliant designer Erin Grey West—our layouts. Visually the issue is a double accordion-fold that extends over 10 feet in length. Each copy of the issue has been lovingly (and time-consumingly) hand-folded and hand-glued by ourselves and our lovely staff and volunteers.

This may be well-worn territory, but what was the genesis of the magazine? Did you two meet at Columbia’s grad program? How did the two other founders enter the fray? What were your initial impressions of one another, and how did you end up starting GIGANTIC?
LM: James and I started the magazine with two other great writers and editors, Rozalia Jovanovic and Ann DeWitt. The four of us all had a love of short and mysterious fiction. The various permutations of first impressions might take a while to get into here, but we were all friends and classmates at Columbia well before we started Gigantic, and, despite our various paths, we all remain friends.

Speaking for myself, I’d grown up in the DIY punk scene and always enjoyed making objects (zines, records, T-shirts, etc.). Being active and involved in the “scene” always felt essential to me, and I wanted to continue that in the literary world. 

How has the process of producing GIGANTIC changed over time? What are the pluses, minuses, and unique challenges/rewards of making an ambitious print review in 2012?
James Yeh: The short answer is that our process has evolved, as all things probably do over the course of four years. As for the pluses and minuses of publishing, I think artist/publisher Paul Chan, at the recent Printed Matter Art Book Fair, posed this question well (I’m paraphrasing slightly): “Why does [running a press] waste so much time and lose so much money?” Lincoln likes to make the joke that we’re actually a tote bag company with a literary magazine loss leader. Another colleague, Todd Zuniga of Opium/Literary Death Match, made the observation that starting a literary magazine was “going to cost us each at least one book.”

As for the benefits, I suppose it’s things like this: answering a few questions interested friends/colleagues might have about our magazine, and, as Lincoln said, being active and involved in the literary world. It’s nice to be able to see someone whose work you admire, get in touch, and share their work (and your great enthusiasm for it) with others. It’s no small thing. Sometimes, in fact, I think it might be the only thing.

In the About section of the journal’s site, you write that one purpose of GIGANTIC is to serve as “A statement that is urgent to the declarer even though it might put the declarer in an awkward or dangerous position.” Might you care to elaborate on that? Without trying to pry into the solely personal or uncouth, in what instances has the journal been home to awkward and/or dangerous positions?
LM: One of my professors, Sam Lipsyte, said to write what scares you, by which he meant not what shocks or offends people, but what you are afraid to let other people know your mind obsesses over. I believe that is what we were getting at there. In fact, I think he was relating advice that Gordon Lish gave him. This is third-generation wisdom I’m dropping here.

As for more concrete examples, we did publish a piece in our first issue by Kenny Aquiles that was titled “People I Don’t Like” and consisted entirely of actual phone numbers of people the author apparently disliked. I’d like to imagine some awkwardness came out of that, although I can’t say for sure.

JY: The story behind how we got that one is interesting, too, I think. “People I Don’t Like” was discovered on something of a “wall of shame” at a prestigious literary publication, where the editors of that publication, or more likely the interns, tack up the most inappropriate, bizarre, and/or wildly unpublishable stories and poems they receive for general amusement and poo-pooing by all. This piece, which had been submitted as poetry, was found on that wall, then “rescued” by our staff.

In the new issue, there’s a beautifully resentful story by Marguerite W. Sullivan called “Words Are Things in Disguise” that reads a little like a semi-autobiographical complaint (or maybe the better way to describe it is “quiet indictment”) against an indifferent sister, some obscure literary journals the narrator has been published in, a jerky ex, the narrator herself, even, obliquely, the readers of the piece. And yet the writing (and sentiments) in the story are, at the same time, incredibly controlled and realized. There is, I think, a kind of thrill you see when something toes a line. I suppose it has something to do with nerve, as in, “Well, you’ve got a lot of nerve to say something like that…”

Another one of your cited principles behind the journal on thegiganticmag.com is the notion of making it comparatively affordable, and to get it into the hands of more readers. I’m wondering how you fulfilled that principle has been, and what exactly you have done to strive toward that admirable goal?
JY: To be honest, this has been something we’ve tried to do, with some success, and some difficulty. For instance, we generally print on newsprint, which allows for bold color at a relatively low cost, and our first issue sold for just $3. I remember a colleague at another magazine expressing disbelief, even anger, at how much cheaper our issues were going for. We’re still trying to keep them cheap, but in hindsight, I think he might have been right, as we hadn’t fully worked out the costs of shipping and packaging, giving bookstores’ their cut, offering discounts or specials, and so on. We learned that 50% (the typical bookstore cut on items sold on consignment) of $3 was not very much, and we’ve since been forced to charge a little more than that.

The two of you will also be DJing at the release together. What might you spinning to get the crowd going? How do your respective tastes in music compare and contrast to one another? Might a scratch battle or comparable style war unfold?
LM: James and I actually have fairly different tastes in music (which people who know us both will probably not be surprised by), but on the dance party DJ front we have a good deal of overlap with old soul, some ’60s rock, ’00s hip hop, and R. Kelly songs. If I get my way, we will probably have more art punk and dirty southern rap. If James gets his, more ’80s pop and lo-fi Cambodian tracks.

JY: And, if all else fails, you can’t go wrong with some early era Prince.

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