Posted on May 9, 2018
As part of Publishing Against the Grain’s ambition to highlight a number of intergenerational and feminist projects, Mirene Arsanios, editor of Makhzin and Anne Turyn, editor of Top Stories met to discuss their respective publishing projects included in the exhibition.
Arsanios selected Top Stories to be included in the exhibition alongside Makhzin, as it has influenced her own writing and editing practice since 2010 when she stumbled upon a copy of the zine while browsing through the Printed Matter bookstore in New York City. In this conversation, Arsanios and Turyn discuss the history of Top Stories, how small projects can create intimate relationships within artistic communities, and how the state of independent publishing has changed in New York since the ‘70s.
Initiated and edited by Becky Nahom
November 14, 2017
Various issues of Top Stories. Image courtesy of Top Stories.
Mirene Arsanios: I’d like to begin this interview with a brief overview of Top Stories’ history. I was looking at the start and end dates of the publication: 1978 and 1991. Somehow, these are symbolic dates; they really mark an era. I was interested in the historical period Top Stories occupied and how it lived in these 10 years, more or less, in New York. Maybe you could talk about how the publication started? Was it was prompted by some kind of artistic discourse or idea, something you wanted to promote?
Anne Turyn: Those are good questions. I graduated college in 1976 and recieved a BFA in art, but I was really interested in writing and literature. I had always been a really big reader. I moved to Buffalo, New York because I was moving in with my boyfriend, the artist Tony Conrad. He had been at Antioch College where I also went to school. I remember looking at him and thinking, “I want to be a writer.” I said to him, “I should find out what’s going on in writing” and he answers, “Oh, it’s better not to know.” That was part of his practice, to come in from left field.
When I first moved to Buffalo, the city was economically depressed. Rent was $60 a month and the pipes froze; the apartment was so small it was like living in a closet. There weren’t any jobs available, so I spent a lot of time in the rare book room at the University of Buffalo library. A lot of these books couldn’t leave the library so I would go up there and track down writing that I was interested in and read. But of course, I was also interested in art. We were involved with Hallwalls where I would pass around books that I would find to other artists. I would also go to The Strand Bookstore in New York City to buy books—friends seemed to like what I was reading.
There was this chapbook series by Black Sparrow, a poetry press in Boston. They published Charles Bukowski, Robert Creeley, and they had these little pamphlets that were 50 cents in the ‘70s. They had a self-cover and were stapled, on “poetry” paper. I loved it because it was so cheap and the price was not going to stop you from getting a poem. I liked that the language they used was plastic. I was interested in the more formal concerns, like how many different ways you could tell a story. I wasn’t really that interested in the story itself, but how you could recount it.
Tony helped me name Top Stories. I needed to have the word “stories” in the title. We were driving to New York City and it was going to be an eight or nine-hour trip. We were maybe an hour into the trip when he offered, “how about Top Stories.” I said “That’s perfect, that would be a great title.” So once that was settled we could talk about other things during the rest of the drive.
The first Top Stories that I did was, in retrospect, a trial run. Donna Wyszomierski was someone who was associated with Hallwalls and I liked her writing. I had actually taken a course to learn how to print, but it turned out I didn’t need to do that part. It was too much work and they never let the girls use the machines anyway. Someone I knew was more tenacious in the class and she actually bought her own printing press. So, she printed the first couple of issues of Top Stories. They were stapled and were priced at one dollar. I guess I had this naïve idea that I could make a little series that was interesting.
Then I asked Laurie Anderson to contribute to the next issue because I had seen her submit text from a performance in the book Individuals: Post-Movement Art in America edited by Alan Sondheim. This was in 1978 when we had organized a big benefit at Hallwalls for the first time and we invited both Constance DeJong and Laurie to perform. Laurie laid the cover page out very carefully. It always had the Top Stories logo on the front and the back cover would list the past issues. Anything in-between the covers was fair-game. The artists and writers could do whatever they wanted.
Pati Hill was someone who had actually published novels in the ‘60s with “regular” publishers and had been associated with the Paris Review. I had bought one of her books in Cambridge, Massachusetts in which she Xeroxed photos by other people and folded it into her novella. I was interested in Pati because her book was a novel with photos that were parallel to and somehow informed the text. You certainly wouldn’t see a direct picture or illustration of what she was writing about. I liked that and invited her to come to Hallwalls in January 1979. I then invited Pati to submit something for the third issue. Much to my surprise she just gave me text without illustration, but she put a Xeroxed image on the cover. Maybe the image and text combination was just a temporary experiment for her, but that was fine because I thought of Top Stories as literature series. How many things can you do between the front and back cover?
MA: That’s super interesting because there seems to be a correspondence between formal experimentation and material production. You were talking about how producing a magazine wasn’t complicated because of the low production costs. So how difficult was it to produce Top Stories, materially speaking?
AT: In a way, it was probably harder then than it is now. For instance, I recently updated the Top Stories Catalog for an exhibition in Switzerland. Today, I can just go across the street to Kinkos and borrow their big stapler and the issue looks “real.” And, I only made two of them. Back then, setting up a printer was a lot of work and it felt like you had to have a print count of 500. Now people can make one book and make it color. And if people like it, they can easily order more.
MA: Technically, it is probably easier today. But there’s a sort of spontaneity—maybe that’s just me romanticizing—in deciding to launch a small press and having access to a community. So many projects were born that way. I feel that communities and audiences operate differently today. They aren’t as driven by advancing new forms and ideas. I wonder why certain things emerge and work. I’m interested in how you created an artistic and literary scene around Top Stories, and how you involved people you were interested in. The relationships around the magazine seem very egalitarian. Once it started, did it develop organically and how did you select who would do the next Top Stories? Was it word of mouth?
AT: I would invite people for the first nine issues. After the first three, I think I received some money from an organization in Buffalo. So then the next two issues were by people I knew in Buffalo. Foot Facts (issue five) was collage-like and Agent Pink (issue four) was straight writing. I collaborated with people I met whom I was interested in, up until about issue ten.
MA: Were these people connected amongst themselves?
AT: Not necessarily. Have you read the Chris Kraus book, After Kathy Acker?
AT: Kathy Acker had this period where she lived Toronto where there was this newspaper called Only Paper Today that Victor Coleman published. There was an interview with Kathy in Only Paper Today, probably in 1976 when I first moved to Buffalo, and that was the first time I heard of her. In the Only Paper Today interview, Kathy was talking about multiple points of view or changing the narrator in a story. I thought what she was saying was so interesting because probably one of the biggest influences on me in terms of literature was this book Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. It came out when I was in fifth or sixth grade and I loved it. You knew what the character was thinking straight from the prose: “And then she said,” “And then Sport said.” But you also read the book through what’s assumed to be her journal. So you know from these multiple viewpoints: the description, the characters’ conversation, and from the main character’s journal what’s going on. This was mind blowing to a 10 year old. I never got over it.
At one point I went to a reading of Kathy and Constance in New York City. I forget if Constance had already been to Hallwalls or not at that point. Our community was small, there was no Internet. That made it an exclusive club but one could still find what was happening and what was interesting in the art scene. We would go to an event every night of the week in Buffalo and while we were in New York City we would go to a million more events. And because at Hallwalls we were inviting so many people from New York City, we knew a lot of what was going on there too. I published Kathy’s work in 1981 but she had come up to Buffalo a couple of times in 1978 and late 1979.
MA: It’s interesting to hear you talk as someone who has experienced that era. Many of the female names you mention are being rediscovered and remarketed today. For example, Constance DeJong’s book, Modern Love, was re-issued recently with Primary Information and Ugly Duckling Press. Chris Kraus wrote Kathy Acker’s biography to introduce her to a larger audience. History is to tell a story, and you are now telling me a story from your memories and experiences. I was just thinking about the discrepancy between how the reader encounters these writers and artists today, and how they existed back then. I’m sure that there are some differences.
AT: To go back to something you said earlier, at the time, people were driven by making the work. I have taught graduate school and sometimes I feel like people now are driven by what their career is going to be, not by the work. These people made real contributions that have shaped literature, like the way Gertrude Stein did.
Makhzin, issue 2, 2016. Image courtesy of Makhzin.
MA: This is what I meant by communities driven by an artistic vision. I feel (or imagine) that same energy or desire to find new artistic forms or discourses has been lost. This is also something connected to my previous question about the disconnect between different scenes. Today contemporary art and the literature feel segregated and professionalized with very few intersections. Market demands hinder experimentation: a story needs to be chronological otherwise you run the risk of alienating your reader and that’s not lucrative. I’m interested in the way artists and writers involved with Top Stories seem to transgress their disciplines and resist professionalization. Did these distinctions exist before?
AT: There wasn’t any market, it seemed. In a way, you could just make the art you wanted because art didn’t sell for a lot of money. The market didn’t exist for us, so people could focus on what they were interested in. This was in the late ‘70s. We still had a little bit of ‘60s idealism going on there. Artists Space wasn’t even 10 years old. Hallwalls was just a couple years old, now it’s almost 45 years old. Who knew that these little pockets of energy were going to turn into Institutions? Back then, people could do a little of everything and there were many intersections.
MA: Some Top Stories authors write about living in New York and their various struggles, what it meant to be a female artist in the city, etc. Maybe you could talk about how most of the writers you published were female writers. Have you ever thought of yourself as a feminist press?
AT: Yes and after a while it would be called that. I think it was such an obvious reflection of my personal experience that I wouldn’t have necessarily labeled it as feminst back then but yes, certainly it is a feminist project. Once I realized by issue seven that the contributors were all women, I figured I’d go with it for a while. At one point I had had a short correspondence with Paul Auster. I had been very interested in him as well as Lydia Davis in that time period I was starting.
MA: You never invited her to do a Top Stories?
AT: No, but I had thought of it. Did you see the recent article in The New York Times about Richard Hell collecting books? Richard Hell had this punk band in the ‘70s called Richard Hell and the Voidoids. He’s a poet and the article was about how he loved his books. In one of the photos included in the article, you can see a copy of Top Stories.
MA: I’m interested in your own impulse to collect and archive. Did you do it with the future in mind or out of an impulse? I imagine that there are a lot of private libraries that contain very valuable books. Collections express the personality of the collector. You were very careful in archiving Top Stories and the ephemera around the magazine. Today you have a complete archive, more or less. How does this archive exist for you? Is it available to the public? Digitally? Is it something you circulate in exhibitions?
AT: It’s just in boxes but I’d love for it to be a traveling show. There was an exhibition of the Top Stories archive at Southfirst Gallery in Brooklyn last year, curated by Maika Pollack. After the project gained traction, in the 80s, university libraries starting subscribing to the magazine, so there are places that have collected this stuff. When I was in Bern, Switzerland this past summer, I visited Robert Walser’s library where his collection of books were mostly behind glass.
MA: One of the paradoxes is that these books acquire value over time and become rarified goods that are no longer accessible the way they used to be (especially if they were zines distributed in a DIY fashion). Have you thought about making the collection available online? Having an online collection doesn’t diminish the value of the physical collection, quite the opposite. For example, the Moroccan magazine Souffles, which I also nominated for Publishing Against the Grain, digitized most of their issues online thanks to one person who decided to do take on that project. The archive can exist in multiple ways.
AT: Are you thinking about the issues themselves or also all of the ephemera that goes with it? I’m interested in a letter from Kathy that I had forgotten about until the exhibition at Southfirst. In the letter, Kathy writes “I want the photos to undermine my text.” I had forgotten that she had said that.
MA: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that artistic and literary scenes in NY operate along race and class divides. Why didn’t a press like Top Stories, which published women who were trying to experiment with form and new ways of making art, engage communities of color? One of the widely circulated assumptions of the white avant-garde is that black and brown artists don’t engage in formal innovation. Though many poets of color are doing and have done very important work formally, their contribution is written out of western art history. In terms of Top Stories, was there any connection to scenes or writing that came from different communities?
AT: I would say that was a problem. In 1980, I felt like I was giving voice to minority in terms of women and also the form. I remember the New York State Council criticizing me and maybe cutting funding for not publishing enough people of color or minorities. I wasn’t catching up so well with the times. It was a small project and I didn’t want to include poetry. Some issues were created, edited and written by people I had never met. Certainly things are different now.
MA: As someone from the Middle East who started coming to New York in 2010, I was interested in self-publishing and inspired by some of the self-organized spaces that had emerged in New York in the ‘80s. I spent a lot of time at Printed Matter, which is where I stumbled on Top Stories. For me, Top Stories was an interesting model and I wondered how I could translate it back to the context where I came from, engaging with a history of literary experimentation, but also open it up to other communities and histories. These are questions I keep thinking about in terms of the magazine I’m editing today, which is Makhzin.
To go back to my initial question, the decade Top Stories existed in comes at the tail end of the social movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and before the globalization of the ‘90s, which marks the end of a certain New York. It was also the peak of the AIDS crisis–the illness had decimated artists and writers living in the city. Does Top Stories end with a certain kind of New York?
AT: Maybe. That’s an interesting thought. It seemed at the time like the production was too much work for me and didn’t fit the time anymore. It was certainly a labor of love. If I had tried to make it a full time project, maybe it would have kept going. When I was deciding if I would publish work by man, I had someone specific in mind. It was Rene Santos, who was both gay and Puerto Rican, and died very abruptly of AIDS. He was doing some very interesting things with painting that had a narrative quality. Maybe we would be having a different conversation if I had decided to publish him sooner. The world changed when people started getting computers. For me, I was busy teaching and it became less necessary because it wasn’t so much fun anymore.
Mirene: I like the word you use: necessary. I feel that’s an important word in terms of thinking of why we do things.
Anne: When I started Top Stories, I thought to myself, “Well one day, people will look at the whole series and maybe they will read Donna Wyszomierski because they like Laurie Anderson.” That’s what I had hoped. That it would have the strength to elevate people that were lesser known. Laurie Anderson was doing well, but it was 1979, you know what I mean? It was still a small community, not like today.
Mirene Arsanios is the author of the short story collection, The City Outside the Sentence (Ashkal Alwan, 2015). She has contributed essays and short stories to Vida, The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, The Animated Reader, and The Outpost, among others. Her writing was featured collaboratively at the Sharjah Biennial (2017) and Venice Biennial (2017), as well as in various artist books and projects. Arsanios co-founded the collective 98weeks Research Project in Beirut and is the founding editor of Makhzin, a bilingual English/Arabic magazine for innovative writing. She teaches at Pratt Institute and holds an MFA in Writing from the Milton Avery Graduate School for the Arts at Bard College. Arsanios currently lives in New York where she was a 2016 LMCC Workspace fellow, and an ART OMI resident in fall 2017.On Friday nights you can find her at the Poetry Project where she coordinates the Friday Night reading series with Rachel Valinsky.
Anne Turyn is a photographer based in New York City. Turyn founded and edited the artists’ chapbook series, Top Stories, a prose periodical, which featured one artist per issue. Top Stories #9: New York City in 1979 by Kathy Acker, with photographs by Anne Turyn, was re-published by Penguin UK in 2018. Top Top Stories, a volume compiled by Turyn, was published by City Lights Books. Missives, a book of Turyn’s photographs incorporating text, was published by Alfred van der Marck Editions.
Turyn’s work has been widely exhibited, including at the Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Denver Art Museum, Kunsthalle Bern, Center for Creative Photography, Walker Art Center, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the George Eastman Museum. Her work is included in The Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort, Vanishing Presence, Aperture #130, The Nature of Photographs, The Photographer’s Playbook, among others.