Activism, Literature, and Reclaiming the Margins: Alexandra Watson on Apogee
Alexandra Watson is managing editor of Apogee, an annual, soon to be biannual, literary journal that engages with identity politics. The journal was founded in 2011 and seeks “to publish exciting work that interrogates the status quo, providing a platform for unheard voices, including emerging writers of color.” Only in its third issue, the journal already reads like a force to be reckoned with, publishing bold and varied poetry, fiction, nonfiction, interviews, and artwork in print and on their blog, Perigee.
Alexandra Watson received her BA from Brown University in English Literature and Cultures and Literary Arts in 2011. She received honors in English for her thesis on domestic and racial violence in Toni Morrison’s novels. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction and Literary Translation from Columbia. She teaches academic writing in Columbia’s Undergraduate Writing Program and is managing editor of Apogee Journal.
Interview by Camellia Freeman
I’m most interested in (and excited about) Apogee’s commitment to combining “literary aesthetic with political activism.” Your mission states, “We believe that by elevating underrepresented literary voices we can effect real change: change in readers’ attitudes, change in writers’ positions in literature, and broader change in society.” Could you talk more about how a literary journal can uniquely effect social and political change in the world (as opposed to, say, organizing a rally)? Or, more broadly, how you envision the role of literature in politics and vice versa?
We do believe in the political and social power of literature, especially when it arises from voices seldom heard. While a lot of the work we publish in the journal and feature on our blog has explicitly political content, we believe that the written testimony of people of color, of women writers, of LGBT writers, and other marginalized groups is a political act in itself. Quoting Toni Morrison, "All good art is political." In order for art to truly flourish, the perspectives and experiences of silenced voices must be heard; the status quo must be challenged.
The political urgency of our mission can especially be felt at our events and readings. Recently, we co-hosted an open mic night with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. In the wake of the events in Ferguson, the readings spontaneously came together around themes of police brutality, violence towards black and brown bodies, and the right to protest. And the mantra of the night, voiced first by queer Latin@ punk poet Christopher Soto (aka Loma), and then repeated by a diverse collection of readers/performers after him, was an encouragement to "take up space"—to make your presence known rather than shrinking from the fears and misconceptions of the mainstream literary world. This applies to one's political standing as well.
“Take up space” seems to fit right in with Apogee’s mission in terms of the work published in the journal and on the blog, but Apogee also seems to do this quite literally through staff members attending events like AAWW’s open mic night or the Total Equity Now literacy march. How has being based in NYC shaped the identity of the journal and the work you seek to publish?
The TEN Harlem literacy march was fantastic! They're doing great work for education and literacy in the community. I marched with our Editor-at-Large, Melody Nixon, and she said to me at one point: "I've been to a lot of rallies and protests, and none of them has ever been about reading." We loved the idea that a march could be about the advocacy, promotion, and encouragement of reading and literature, as opposed to protest.
But yes, it's important for us to support NYC-based organizations who do activist work, including literary organizations like AAWW, Kundiman, VIDA, and Cave Canem. We look up to and are inspired by the work they've done to create spaces for marginalized underrepresented voices. We're lucky to be based in a place where diverse literary communities have a presence (underrepresented though they may be). Not everywhere in the U.S. has them at all. In coming years, we seek to expand to other cities—among them Chicago, Austin, Philly—by stocking copies of issues at bookstores and holding events there.
It must be exciting for the Apogee team to have gotten in on the ground floor of building this relatively new journal. Was Melody one of the founding editors? How would you describe the journal’s trajectory?
Melody is one of the four founders, along with Zinzi Clemmons, Aaron Shin, and Jenny Ohrstrom. Apogee was first conceived of as a student publication, sprouting out from a student group at Columbia’s graduate MFA program called Our Word. The founders started to plan in spring of 2011. In fall, Chris Prioleau and I joined (among others) and we came together to produce the first issue, mainly featuring writers from the Columbia community, which we hosted through Issuu.com. As we went forward with our next issue and the support for our mission grew, we became more and more aware that the gap we were seeing in representation was a much wider problem than in the Columbia community—it extended to the New York literary scene, and to local and national publications. We saw an opportunity (and, in a way, a responsibility) to extend our work.
So in 2013, after we did our first print run for Issue Two, we became fully independent. In the past year, we've been able to develop our website (with the help of our talented designer and webmaster Ingrid Pangandoyon); develop a blog component to encourage thoughtful conversations about social justice and identity politics; produce a third issue with a 500-copy print-run; and hold a series of great events. It's really exciting to see something like this grow—especially when we recognize that it's a forum people relate to. The more we grow, the better able we are to uphold our mission of getting diverse new voices out into the world.
Let’s talk about these diverse new voices. I know it’s difficult to provide much detail when describing the kinds of submissions you’re looking for, so could you instead share about a submission or two that made you think, Now this is why we started the journal?
The entire "Stand with Ferguson" series on our blog has refreshed us and reminded us of our mission—work with a discernible (in this case, direct) political element that also shows artistic excellence. The pieces at the top of my head are Metta Sáma's "How Not to Get Killed by the NYPD" ("Don’t ask them to clarify the infraction. / You are the infraction.") and Morgan Parker's "I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against A Sharp White Background: An Elegy" ("I am protected and served. / I pay taxes and I am a child and / I grow into a bright fleshy fruit.").
We do believe in the political and social power of literature, especially when it arises from voices seldom heard.
From Apogee Issue Three, Amber Atiya’s "my sister breaks bread in the streets" (“my sister says don’ttravel abroad / they’ll never let you / back / into the country.”) and Christopher Soto’s “i wonder if heaven got a gay ghetto” come to mind as examples where both form and content pressed beyond the system of dominant (male, hetero) values that have defined the literary landscape for so long. The pieces in Issue Three share a sense of urgency and an interest in challenging the status quo. We've skipped on some well-crafted and polished pieces when they haven't had this same kind of urgency.Issue Three has some serious breadth to it—from the poems you mention to the interview with Rich Benjamin discussing Whitopia to stories, essays, the José Esteban Muñoz tributes, and, of course, the incredibly vivid artwork. At the same time, you have the Perigee blog posts which remain current, like the “Stand with Ferguson” series (and that alone, let’s be honest, is rare for a lit mag in a climate where it's understood that January submissions may not be read until July). All that to say, what’s your process like for reviewing and selecting submissions? Does it differ between the print journal and the blog?
Our editors are hard at work year-round! For the journal itself, we start by advertising our call for submissions to the public—reaching out to MFA programs, undergraduate writing programs, literary and activist organizations, and our friends on social media. We get a lot of submissions this way (through Submittable, our submissions manager). Because many of them are coming in through channels that are already interested and engaged in social justice and identity politics, many are strong and suited for Apogee.
Part of our editors' work is to keep an eye out for writers with strong voices whose work is political—engaging with diverse communities both on- and offline.
We also solicit work from higher-profile writers whose work, while not always underrepresented personally, forms part of an underrepresented community. Part of our editors' work is to keep an eye out for writers with strong voices whose work is political—engaging with diverse communities both on- and offline. The interview with Rich Benjamin and the excerpt from José Esteban Muñoz's Cruising Utopia are both examples of pieces we sought after. Our nonfiction editor, Cecca Ochoa, had originally planned to solicit an essay from Muñoz himself for Issue Three. Muñoz passed away in December of 2013, just as submissions were getting underway—a devastating loss. We approached NYU press about reprinting a section, and they generously agreed. That excerpt represents Muñoz’s ability to transcend disciplines in his writing—queerness, gender, performance, culture, art. The original introduction by Muñoz’s friend, performance artist Rebecca Sumner Burgos, is beautiful and mournful—I cried the first time I read it.
Cecca Ochoa also reads and edits most of the work for the blog. The submissions process is similar—we have a section set up on our Submittable page for blog submissions. The major difference is that we encourage our staff to contribute to the blog as well—with essays, interviews, and reviews. So you get to see the voices behind the organization a little more on the blog. The #StandWithFerguson series came about more organically—we put a call out on Facebook and were overwhelmed by the number of e-mails we got with powerful responses and support for the idea of using creative writing in this way.
How has being a part of Apogee affected you, personally, and your writing?
That's a good question, and one I think about often. As a reader, I'm more drawn to political work, and attuned to subtle political commentary in work that I read, because of the work I've read for Apogee. I'm more aware of and engaged in the literary/activist community and have been introduced to a lot of fantastic organizations and people working for social justice and equality in the arts, mostly thanks to my fellow staff members' knowledge and work to extend Apogee's network. As a writer, I have a clearer sense of the specific themes that interest me personally: race and its ambiguities, intercultural relationships, the prison industry. Most importantly, Apogee's staff is a diverse and talented group of creative people who are passionate about a lot of the issues I'm passionate about. I'm proud to call them my friends.
What are you reading and/or working on right now?
I'm teaching an academic writing class, so I've been reading mostly essays lately: Herbert Gans' "Race as Class," Jamaica Kincaid, "In History," Richard Rodriguez, "The Third Man," James Baldwin, "Notes of a Native Son." Not surprisingly, my syllabus reflects my own intellectual interests. I’ve been juggling reading Hilton Als’ White Girls and James McBride’s Song Yet Sung. As for my own writing, I'm working on polishing a short story about two women who run into a rut in their friendship over their opposing views on the political significance of their own interracial relationships.
Well, I’ve had Apogee’s back issues in my own reading rotation lately. I hadn't realized that Issues One and Two are available in their entirety on the website until a few weeks ago. (I was delightfully caught off guard by the hilarity of Jae Won Chung’s story “How Harold Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Han” from Issue One.) Will all back issues eventually end up as part of your digital archive? Could you talk about the journal's decision to have both a print and digital presence?
“How Harold Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Han” was the first piece I edited for Apogee! (I was a fiction editor for Issue One). Yes, we used issuu.com, a great platform for publications, for the first two issues. That was before we had resources to print, so we hadn't yet started thinking of ourselves as a print journal. Right now the model we envision (and this will be the first year we're doing this) is a print journal in spring and an online journal in fall. All our staff are book-lovers, and we're committed to the object of the journal, its physical presence. We're also committed to the accessibility of online—we want to make sure that when we say we're bringing marginal voices to a wider readership, we're utilizing the strategies we have to do that, which is our online network.
For Issue Four, which will come out this fall, we're building a new microsite within apogeejournal.org so that the content will be directly built into the site and more interactive for our readers. We're working towards a future of two issues online and in print—it's important for us to take things one step at a time, so we can meet the standards we've set for quality.
Your move to publish more content, both online and in print, is great news for readers and submitters alike. Do you have any advice for writers submitting to Apogee?
A simple piece of advice is to submit polished prose—especially fiction! We tend to get a lot really strong poetry submissions, which we love. Because we publish very few stories in each issue, we're looking for really stand-out work that offers a unique perspective, one we're not used to reading in, say, The New Yorker. Chinelo Okparanta's “Ife Adigo Market—1978” from Issue Three is a great example. The best way to get a feel for Apogee is to read our latest issue, which is available for $10 on our website
Could you give us a teaser for Issue Four?
I asked Apogee’s genre editors for their thoughts on the content in Issue Four, and our poetry editor, Joey De Jesus, gave what I find to be a beautiful and enticing round-up:
Some poems in this issue navigate incredible spaces: a shore of broken shells, a sea where low clouds swagger in, a tarred roof shingle on which might land a thuggish blue jay. Others tear up the spaces they traverse, rough road of the trip, strip malls in a twister’s damage path. I hope you feel both alienation and solidarity in these poems. Some speak to resistance. They interrogate whiteness as it finds its way into in/visibility, they interrogate the body of the hybrid to the point of dissection—scary, huh?—it is a lived metaphor—mongoloid, Caucasoid, sweet tilt of the sockets, hybrid outcast called lips—these poems are little bodies asphyxiating. Love too, love and exploitation; these themes appear in tandem in a handful of poems; one tricky kiss in the bathroom of peacock bar, you facebook me, I bottompoke you and suddenly I’m handwashing your socks. I know this preview is a little unhinged but I can’t imagine a better way to tease these poems. The poems tease, are teased, they have subjects, they have no subject—all I can promise is this: in the end, what each poem fevers, you will fever after. That is how they found each other.
What’s next for Apogee?
Look out for Issue Four, our online-only issue, in November. We'll be holding a launch party/reading for Issue Four on November 13th at Babycastles on W. 14th St. in Manhattan, and we’re launching our “Alternate Canon Reading Series” on December 4th (location TBD). Our events are always full of hard-hitting readings and interesting discussions (and fun!). Submissions for Issue Five, our spring 2015 issue, will open this winter (You can learn more about our submission guidelines here: http://www.apogeejournal.org/submit/). To stay posted on our events and Apogee-related news, find us on Facebook or Twitter @ApogeeJournal.
Camellia Freeman is an Oregonian living in Columbus, Ohio. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, Cream City Review, and elsewhere. She is at work on a short story collection and also writes personal essays.