Lisa Mangini is a multi-faceted multi-talented multi-hyphenate: a writer and editor, as well as the founder of the acclaimed literary journal Paper Nautilus. She’s also a music lover, as her non-fiction piece, “Admission & Performance” (published on Drunk Monkeys in March of this year), proves.
Recently, Mangini spoke with Matthew Guerruckey about the bands that have defined her life, as well as her writing career, her journal, MFAs, Shel Silverstein, confidence, aging, and a whole lot more.
DM: Who were your greatest influences growing up, and who are your greatest influences now?
LM: My grandmother worked in the children’s section at the local library when I was growing up, and so I spent a lot of time there, going to storytime and doing activities. Whenever books got too damaged - huge tears in the pages, giant crayon scribbles over the illustrations, disintegrating binding - they were marked with a big stamp that read “DISCARD” and taken out of circulation. They were supposed to go into the trash, but most of the time I ended up with them, and they largely consisted of Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. Looking back, the only books I can even recall reading for many years of my childhood were all in verse. As a young adult, I found my way back to literature (after a rather apathetic and illiterate adolescence) through Emily Dickinson, Clarice Lispector, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Vonnegut, and e. e. cummings.
As far as influences now, it’s harder to say. There are many, (many, many) writers whose work I deeply admire, but it feels funny to call them influences, if that makes sense? Some writers I love are David Foster Wallace, Mary Karr, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Lucille Clifton, Amy Hempel, and Lydia Davis. I think I maybe - consciously - channel those last two the most.
DM: What inspired you to write “Admission & Performance”, and where did you get the idea to structure it in the way you did?
LM: I was preparing to move, and found a decorative box with all my concert ticket stubs inside. I started looking through them, and each one immediately drew me right back to the evening of the concert itself. I started to recall not the music or the quality of the show itself, but rather the people I watched the show with, what I was wearing, the drive to the venue, the weather, what was going on in my life. I realized that so little about going to a concert is actually about the performance, and wanted to more deeply explore the whole ritual of seeing live music. I had never written memoir before, and because as a writer I tend to do better with shorter, more language-driven narratives rather than a long work, I thought the interconnecting vignettes might suit me better.
DM: Where do you see that project going?
LM: The goal is for something book-length! I’ve gone to 50 concerts between the ages of 15 and 30, and I love the idea of being able to look backward through the lens of music - which is so specific, I think, to where we are in our lives, what our priorities are, how we see ourselves - and have it capture my adolescence and early adulthood. I think it could also serve as an interesting way to look at a lot things that seem to be hallmarks of youth: early navigation of romantic love and sex, the loneliness, the necessity of posturing to really feel included, the rampant elitism, all the ways in which we perform right alongside the musicians at these events. Well, at least I know I did.
DM: How so?
LM: I guess what I mean is that music is such a huge part of identity, at least for American youth (or maybe I’m projecting, and it’s just me?) As a teenager, I used the music I liked a means to sort of figure who I was and how I saw the world. I was definitely one of the “weird” kids with strange fashion sense, and tried to paint myself as a rebel, to echo some of the musicians I enjoyed, despite being an almost painfully “good kid” for a good chunk of my teenage years. I thought by the time I got to college, I was authentic, but I also realized that, being a person who liked to read, who carried around a notebook and spent afternoons in cafes, there was a certain type of music that correlated with those interests as well; people had an expectation that I listened to Bright Eyes or The Decemberists long before I became a fan. The other aspect of “performing” also comes from the dating aspect during those years: how much we try, sometimes desperately so, to shape ourselves into someone attractive, lovable, the type of person our crush will want, and how vitally important that all is during those years. Personally, I often went to concerts with boys, and after a certain point I realized how much I was also putting on a performance, in the hopes of being liked, much like whoever was on stage.That overlap is what got me really interested in writing about these shows.
DM: In what ways are you different from the girl who went to those early shows? And in what ways are you the same?
LM: I think the ways in which we’re the same are ways that I’m glad I got to preserve in myself: observant, kind of introverted, still a little offbeat, still fiercely loves the friends that matter, and definitely develops attachments a lot easier than both former and current me often likes to admit. Current me has a level of confidence and delight in life that even 25-year-old me could’ve only dreamed about, nevermind when I was 15. Current me also does not have the opportunity to go to as many concerts now, either - nor the stamina: I went to see live music last month, and found it...a little too crowded, and loud, and that I was tired of standing by the end of evening? I did not truly feel like I was early middle-aged until that last sentence. Yikes.
DM: What was the best concert you ever attended?
LM: Really, really tough question. Probably when I had third row seats to Arcade Fire during their Neon Bible tour. Win Butler actually sat right behind me for about twenty minutes, to watch part of the opening band. I could see everyone’s expressions as they were playing: the sweat beading off of them, the looks they were giving each other, everything. I’m really looking forward to writing about that particular night.
DM: When did you get the idea for Paper Nautilus?
LM: I started Paper Nautilus in 2011, after having served on literary journals at my two undergrad institutions, as well as during my MFA program at Southern Connecticut State University. I was nearing the end of my program, and had the realization that, if I wanted to keep being an editor and reading for a literary journal for much longer, I would just have start one myself. It also didn’t hurt that I had recently returned from my first AWP conference, and the bookfair just blew my mind. I must have spent hours in there, just pawing through hundreds of journals. I wanted to be a part of that, to contribute to the sea of small presses that publish amazing writing in order to make it more widely accessible.
DM: What are the advantages of doing only one issue a year, and are there any disadvantages?
LM: It’s tricky, because the advantages and disadvantages are kind of consequences of each other? Having an annual issue is great because it’s only one issue to complete layout and format and proof, only one round of contributors’ copies to be packaged and mailed, one set of cover art, one deadline. All of that is great! However, it also means that the stakes are instantly higher, and if one aspect falls behind schedule, it compounds quickly and affects the timeliness or quality of the only issue we release all year. I think it’s probably easier for us to get backlogged with submission responses as well, but that could very well be a universal issue for every publishing schedule.
DM: How many people do you work with on Paper Nautilus, and how do you divide the labor?
LM: I have six genre editors: three in fiction, and three in poetry. After working with them closely for the 2013 issue, I decided it was important for me to actually take a step back, so that it wasn’t just my taste preferences dominating each issue, and as of the 2014 issue, they read and select all submissions for each issue. I give them a rough page count to shoot for, and a cutoff for what date we want to switch from reading for one issue to the next one, and that’s about it! They are really, really incredible. I follow up about once a month or so, just to check in, make sure there are no problems in terms of coming to agreements or submission backlogs, and they virtually never need me for anything. I am amazingly lucky to have such a self-sufficient staff, because they free me up to do the less-fun work of running the website, handling advertizing, doing the layout, balancing the budget, running the chapbook contests, promotion, distribution, etc. I also have another guest staff member I’m collaborating with, Talisha Shelley, who is co-editing a digital anthology with me that will focus on (and be written by) underrepresented voices.
DM: What do you think getting an MFA taught you about writing, that you might not have learned otherwise?
LM: Is it fair to answer everything? I have a bit of a unique experience, since I wrote almost exclusively poetry my entire young adulthood - and then suddenly, I had this very dramatic change of heart and decided I wanted to study fiction in grad school. In hindsight, it seems likely that this was an act of self-preservation: I think I was too worried about how I would feel if, after developing my poetic craft for several years in college, that I would maybe still not be good enough for grad school - that way, when I got rejected in a genre I knew nothing about, it wouldn’t hurt, but rather be expected.
But then, of course, I was accepted in fiction. Which meant I spent the first year or so of my program trying to nail down things like narrative arc, character development, sustained tension and conflict, etc - and also feeling like a huge imposter. I’m really lucky that I had a program full of kind and devoted peers and faculty, who helped me learn to believe in my work. But really, I think the most important thing I learned in my MFA was to trust my own vision while also learning to be comfortable taking risks in my writing. It’s really allowed me to work across genres and given me the courage to write the way I want to write.
DM: Does teaching writing change the way that you approach your own writing?
LM: I don’t know if it changes my approach, but I truly think it does strengthen my writing. I often find myself giving feedback to my students about the central conflict being too subdued, or a character not feeling fully developed, or incorporating sensory detail, for example, and it helps me to be more observant when I’m drafting my own work. The more I teach, I feel like the more quickly I can diagnose the snags in my own drafts. I tell my students all the time how much working with them makes me a better, more aware writer.