Ann Ward: First of all, hey! I’m so happy to be doing this with you guys–you are two women I have so much love and respect for; two truly badass, hardworking and inspiring wonders. So thanks for being in my life!
The three of us met in Vilnius, Lithuania in the summer of 2014. Kira, you launched your first issue earlier that year, and we launched CA that November. I wanted to start by asking you how No Tokens made the journey from your brain to beautiful physical object, and about the process behind your mission statement and incredible masthead.
T Kira Madden: Hey Wonder-ladies! So happy to be chatting with you. In graduate school I served as the Fiction Editor of Lumina, Sarah Lawrence College’s literary magazine. I worked closely with Leah Schnelbach—we edited the fiction together and traveled to AWP—and we decided that *one day* we would create our own literary magazine and do things differently. We didn’t like the disconnect between genres on staff (which was no fault of the staff, and everything to do with student schedules, our timeline, the hours required to finish the issue) and we certainly didn’t like our first taste of AWP. Too many men standing behind the tables, only publishing their friends; too many telling us what to do, how to be better editors, how to read “better.” Too many sexually harassing our staff and friends (which isn’t to say we didn’t also meet a handful of terrific, careful, responsible male editors. We see you, and we appreciate you!)
So the following winter, after graduation, I contacted Leah about the magazine. Then we recruited Molly Tolsky, our current Senior Editor, who had also served at Lumina as the EIC, and a handful of other women from graduate school. Every single staff member is a writer I deeply admire, and every staff member has an entirely different way of reading and processing the world. At our magazine each editor reads every genre because, on a bookshelf, we want the poetry to grab a memoir reader, not just a poet. We want our fiction to seduce a visual artist. And so on. We only keep the titles for better organization. And so we grew. We picked up some of the best minds from our graduate program, a few dazzling readers and writers I met at the MacDowell Colony, and even some former contributors (now we have editors in Texas, California, London, and beyond). We wanted to tilt the scale (VIDA had just come out with their pie charts the year we got moving with No Tokens). We promised no all-white issues. We promised no issues with exclusively American writers. We promised no issues with more men than women and nonbinary individuals. We promised not to favor friends of the staff. We faced some bullying that first issue, we still do, but we support each other against the bullshit. We know the power we hold as gatekeepers and we know how to say No, enough.
Bükem Reitmayer: The No Tokens mission statement says that you’re committed to “celebrating work that is felt in the spine.” I’ve become obsessed with this image. It’s so complicated to try and explain to writers what we’re looking for as editors. I worked for one journal where the EIC told us to look for writing that “was good” which is a) subjective and b) not helpful.
TKM: Sure! Yeah, Nabokov really had something with that “tell tale tingle” of the spine. We can dissect craft all we want—what pyrotechnics are happening on the sentence level? Is it the verb bringing the jolt? Is it that hard hitting syllable?—but the best writing, I think, manages to provide that chill without an obvious tool. The best sentences, and stories, are magic tricks. You can’t figure out the how, you can only take in the majesty of that particular architecture of words until you’re electrified into a different, more textured human. That’s what we look for.
The author, and my former teacher, David Hollander once said this: If you have a great story with lazy sentences it’s as if you’ve painted something beautiful and hung it crooked in a gallery—no one will take it seriously. No one should. We are a sentence-first journal. None of us have time to edit or read clumsy sentences that dissolve or crumble if you touch them. So no, we won’t continue reading an entire story if that care is not there.
BR: Something that has been forever evolving at CA is our selection process. Can you talk about what that looks like at NT and how you balance soliciting from writers that make your spine tingle and finding gems in Submittable?
TKM: Regarding the selection process, we all read as many lit journals and books as possible, and we all solicit some of our favorite writers and send love letters and sometimes beg. Being genuine and earnest goes a long way. We wrote Joy Williams an incredibly earnest letter before our first issue and she sent us a typewritten manuscript back. I think she could tell we didn’t want her for the name Joy Williams. We wanted Joy Williams because her stories have shaped our guts as human beings.
The balance of solicited work and work submitted is different in every issue, because I believe in curating the best and most diverse issues possible. I don’t understand when editors say “We had to publish an all white issue because that’s what we got in the pile!” 1. I don’t believe you. 2. Move people around! Push some to the next issue and solicit others, have more conversations, ask for work in the right places, do better. Everyone is read in our “slush,” and everyone gets a fair shot. We’re not perfect but we’re always trying to do better.
AW: I love that! I really admire your issues for their depth and range and the level of care and love that clearly goes into making each one so diverse in style and writer. Part of what we are trying to do at CA is actively attracting underrepresented communities of writers, and making a home and a space for new voices without tokenizing. I love so much that the name of your journal does a lot of that work for you, as does having a magazine run by women. Can you tell us about the moment you came up with your name?
TKM: Sure! It’s funny—people often think it was a big political statement, the name, but that wasn’t the case. New Yorkers used to insert tokens to access the subway system here, before metro cards. One day my great friend (and mighty writer) Anne-E. Wood noticed that when your metro card is spent, some machines still read “No Tokens.” We laughed about that; we liked it. This subtle hello from the past. I knew I wanted to create a print magazine in a digital landscape with a nod to what came before, which is why we have elements like postcards in our issues, handwritten letters, old stamp and rotary dial imagery. We want progressive work that acknowledges the steps it took to get here. Memory stutters—conversations between the years. A tradition I quite like: at all of our launch parties we’ll have a past contributor read first to kick off the night. We like saying thank you in that way.
BR: Oh gosh. Your launch parties are fabulous. I remember at BookCourt last fall you were giving each of your editors a subway token necklace out of appreciation for their hard work. And it only added to the community environment that No Tokens (from what I can see) has created. I know that the word “community” gets overused in literary circles, but at NT events there’s cake [really beautiful type-writer cake], an appreciation and acknowledgement of staff [they each go up and introduce readers], and readers genuinely happy to be involved. There’s a feeling of excitement from everyone, including the public. There’s an intimacy to NT that, to me, feels born of print. Now that NT is adding an online presence, are you worried about losing that intimacy or do you feel that you can find it in the larger audience that an online journal has access to?
TKM: It’s a great question. The truth is, I don’t really know how the online version will feel, and how it will be different. I’d like to think of it as a way to expand our current mission. For example: We’re launching a feature called “Contributalks,” in which two or more contributors from different issues interview one another. We’ll then republish the original work. That’s something we can’t pull off with a print magazine and budget. Our contributors are No Tokens family for life, and we want their work circulating the world in as many ways as possible. It’s so hard out there for a writer and artist—being heard—it’s the least we can do. The online platform will also offer reviews and interviews, editor spotlights, and new work.
AW: Intimacy-wise I have to say I’m constantly surprised by the friendships we’ve formed online with contributors after publishing them and learning more about their worlds and work. It’s so great to follow what they’re working on, how they’re doing, whose work they are in love with. And of course it’s really satisfying to see our contributors share new work from other journals on social media and to be able to share and support that when we can. I’m so impressed by your idea of bringing back past contributors! We’ve been able to interview or review books by some authors after publishing their work (Derrick Austin, Lisa Hiton, Kira Madden…), but until now I hadn’t thought of it as a sort of community building, which I think it is, and now I want to do more of it! I can get pretty gushy about our contributors and it makes me so happy when they come back to us in different genres and forms. Maybe basically I’m saying online is great because it allows for easy stalking and friendship?
BR: I’m forever being asked where (besides CA) people should submit. We reply NT because we feel a kinship with your mandate and aesthetic and have a genuine love for what you’re doing and publishing. But the question makes us think about how journals are identified by certain elements and ideologies, which makes us self-aware of how welcoming our journal is or isn’t. I’m sure you get the same question—are there journals you’re in love with and are you sensitive to those markers of identification?
TKM: I love Tin House. I know it’s a monster magazine but it’s a monster because those editors are doing things right. They work and curate carefully, and each issue feels like some sort of bizarre collection of weapons. How would you like to be destroyed today? I’ll say the same for Guernica. I love their balance of representation and the work they publish is thoughtful, poignant. No Tokens contributor Robin Richardson is hitting interesting notes with Minola Review, and I also love the curation and design behind Fairy Tale Review, Black Warrior Review, Little Star, and A Bad Penny Review. Oh, and Cosmonauts!
The editorial voice and personality of your publication is so clear. Publishing “the best work” isn’t really enough—the journal, the “home,” needs its own voice as well. I know which writers to send your way, and I know which readers will be interested. I trust your curation, your song. Also, it’s beautiful. And I know firsthand how your staff treats contributors, which is another side of this business we don’t really discuss.
BR: You, like many of us, are a writer and editor. How do you balance those roles? How do they conflict or complement one another, and how do they inform one another?
TKM: Being an editor, of course, teaches you certain things about writing and makes you reconsider your own submissions. The obvious example: we read so many first pages. We pass on so many first pages. So mine had better be cut with diamonds—no wasted words. I’d like to hold myself to the same standards I’d use to measure a submission to our journal.
BR: Something that I’ve struggled with as a workshop participant and an editor is how the editorial process is often threatened by an inability to separate opinion from guidance. For example, someone will read a piece and then try and edit it into something they would write. How do we—as editors, as readers—help cultivate a writer’s intentions while also insinuating our own opinions or style or preferences?
TKM: I pride myself most on being a generous reader. It’s about empathy, sure, we’ve all heard that before, but it’s also about listening carefully. I am a really, really good reader—I don’t feel bashful about saying that. I’ve lots of practice; I live for that one activity. And I think what makes me a good reader is that I’m able to, at this point, I hope, separate what my expectations are for a piece and what the artist/writer is actually trying to achieve. It’s not my voice or argument or question for the world, it’s the writers’, and I work hard as an editor to help identify how to best express whatever that is. I don’t open a document with a critical eye—I am prepared to love. Similarly, in my own writing, I’m not thinking about the story I should be writing, or what the shape should be, I’m thinking about what my story is, what that means. My typewriters have their own thumbprints—the “Q” is lighter than the “R,” the “O” hangs lower, the commas are always jammed, etc.—and that’s my obsession and challenge for myself, and for writers: in our own narratives, what buttons are broken? Where do we rise? What ruts are unique to our own experience?
BR: In putting together an issue of CA one task I love is working with Max Winter’s illustrations, making them work on the website, seeing how they bring character to each issue. It’s something I never considered when we started and now I adore doing it. What goes on behind the scenes bringing No Tokens issues to life and is there something that surprised you that you’ve come to love or hate or admire?
TKM: My favorite part of putting an issue together is sending the acceptances—we put a lot of effort into making them as personal and warm and detailed as possible.
Also for me, as control freak, order. I love ordering an issue. I have secret favorite “slots” for order, but I won’t reveal what those are. It’s so thrilling because you’re taking all these narratives and then building a larger story within the binding. It’s like constructing a perfect paragraph. Which sentence goes first? How many syllables end that sentence, end that paragraph? On what tone? What’s the sonic movement? It’s the most satisfying orchestration—arranging pieces until they’re in conversation with one another. I feel the same way about ordering the books on my shelves. It’s never about alphabetizing or color coordinating—it’s a question of which book sparks the most electricity or friction next to another. If that sounds tedious, it is, but welcome to being me.
BR: As noted above, you’re a writer as well. What personal projects are you working on?
TKM: I’m not floating much around right now, just trying to finish my book. I’ve an essay coming out in Guernica about sexual assault and that was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever written and will be the most terrifying thing to publish, maybe ever. And Black Warrior Review just picked up an essay of mine as well—a twisted piece about cousins and sex and webcams.
BR: Things can be terrifying to publish. And, as an editor, things can be terrifying to edit. Balancing the responsibilities of truth and literature and respect for audience and artist can be an overwhelming challenge. How do you manage your editorial sensitivities?
TKM: The writer and the writers’ needs come first. I think we should have very specific bottom lines and standards for our work when and if we choose to shop a piece. You’re dropping your children off in new homes—letting them go! Do your research and make sure they’re safe. Make sure they will be respected.
AW: What’s the book about? Can we know??
TKM: The book is a fragmented memoir about growing up in Boca Raton, Florida. Boca is one of the ritziest cities in the world but the name literally translates to “The Rat’s Mouth,” which is, I think, the best way to describe the project. It’s got evening gloves but it’s got some sharp teeth, too.
T Kira Madden is a writer, photographer, and amateur magician living in New York City. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, Black Warrior Review, The Kenyon Review, Tin House Online, and HYPHEN. She is the Founding Editor-in-chief of No Tokens.