Interviews : Issue One

Interview with editors of the handmade literary wonderland, Hootenanny

by Posted on February 1st, 2008 at 7:07 pm

Pronunciation[hoot-n-an-ee, hoot-nan-]
–noun, plural -nies.
1. a social gathering or informal concert featuring folk singing and, sometimes, dancing.
2. an informal session at which folk singers and instrumentalists perform for their own enjoyment.
3. Older Use. a thingumbob.

Random House Unabridged Dictionary

Luna Park interview with David Keith and Ken Weathersby, former editors of Hootenanny, a hand-made New York literary journal. Editors/founders: David Keith and Ken Weathersby. Format: ribald. Content: somewhere between Bermuda Triangle and Mt. Everest. Born 1994. Deceased (?) 1997. Current virtual existence:

Luna Park: First off, why did you two decide in 1994 to begin a literary magazine? And why hand produce each copy? Was this, you think, some sort of reaction to what you saw going on in New York in the mid-nineties? Why, as the question goes, did you want to add yet another literary magazine into the world?

Ken Weathersby: David and I started to do the project that became Hootenanny because David moved back to the US after living abroad for a few years. I had already been living in Brooklyn since 1990, making paintings in my studio in Williamsburg. In 1994 David moved to Syracuse, to work on a writing MFA. Brooklyn and Syracuse aren’t geographically close, of course, but it seemed close enough to me that I was excited to be around someone I had been friends with and done creative projects with in high school and college in Mississippi. We had a personal history of collaboration and coffee-fueled conversation. In New York I knew some visual artists and writers and music people. Many of them I met working as a gallery guard at art museums, which I did for years. David knew other interesting people, from his travels. The idea was simply to ask for work—art and texts, put it all together and make a book out of it to see what that would be like. That was going to be the end of it. After we got this stuff all together, we thought it looked pretty good. It was also encouraging that wherever we took it, people were interested. The art museum stores and bookstores we liked went for it. The only thing that was going on in New York in the mid-nineties that I was reacting to was my life (as opposed to the publishing world or anything on that level), and it just made sense to do this unauthorized, under-the-radar thing. It gave us license to ask people to create and contribute work and encouraged us to do our own art and writing. There was the “zine” phenomenon that people talked about, but I hadn’t heard of it until people told me that’s what we were doing. As far as the DIY attitude, there was the indie rock thing going on. I was friendly with members of the band Pavement. They and I were gallery guards together at the Whitney museum. As far as it being a literary magazine, our conception was that Hootenanny was something across disciplines—visual, literary, whatever. We put in cartoons, excerpts from novels. I knew more about visual art so that’s what I focused on more.

David Keith: We did not necessarily think of it as a literary magazine per se. It was more kin to the xerox art that was popular in the eighties on college campuses — just get some folks together and slap some poems and whatever cartoony xerox art you felt like and call it something. So in 1994 we’d been out of college a while and thought it would be fun to get our circle of friends together for another little project. It was almost more of a “where are they now” sort of thing at first. Of course, since then we’d made new friends and got them involved. From the start we were interested in getting “artists” and “writers” together in a conversation. We celebrated the chaotic and exuberant, the ambitious and self-effacing. I think that’s kind of in the spirit of the folk music gatherings known as “Hootenannies”.

Why hand-made? I think the main appeal was the inherent limitation of it. You can’t go too far that way. You won’t be seen as overly serious or ambitious. It’s a project of comprehensible scope. We even said right up front we’d do 10 editions and no more. Plus of course it’s completely unique, and lends itself better to the representation of the visual/ graphical components.

And I don’t think we really considered it from the point of view of the world. It was mainly just an effort at creating a community of creative people, themselves providing the audience.

LP: Were there any particular literary magazines or publishers you thought you were being influenced by? And particular writers?

Weathersby: I guess I was aware of some literary magazines, but wasn’t thinking about those as a model. I thought of it, if similar to anything, more in the tradition of the artist’s book. There was the handmade aspect. We tried to do a physically different original binding idea for each book and liked the notion of binding physical objects into it. But then there was a lot of simple photocopy reproduction. We included almost everything people would give us, especially at first. I did go through a phase when I did a little research looking up things that might have been precedents, for example, early modernist art publications, like Minotaur. I remember going to the library at Museum of Modern Art and getting permission to view some things like that.

LP: What does the name Hootenanny refer to exactly? It sounds like the name of some southern party. Or the name of some senseless act, like tomfoolery.

Keith: All of the above! We borrowed the term from the Folk music world — somewhat ironically since we did not include music in any form. But Ken and I being Mississippians in New York — we sometimes enjoyed our expatriate, Southern status, and this hillbilly word felt right in that environment. It’s just silly, memorable, unserious.

Weathersby: Oh, it was some senseless tomfoolery, all right. As to why we called it that, to us it meant something like a party or jam session, where everybody could do something, and the stakes were low. I guess the fact that the word sounded country or maybe corny and uncool made it seem apt as a name. That suited our potential self esteem issues as two guys from Mississippi being artists in New York. Of course I found out that everyone doing anything interesting in New York is from somewhere else. And has self-esteem issues.

LP: Hand printing and binding hundreds of issues of a magazine sounds like–well, quite a feat. Could you give a brief description of an average night of production for you? Were there any serious–and perhaps unexpected–setbacks you ran into?

Keith: Basically, long nights at Kinko’s copying, stacking things carefully. A big part of each edition was considering what sort of binding we’d use. Each edition has a different binding solution. Once we conceived of that we had to design a kind of assembly line. We got some help from others but 90% of the labor on 90% of the finished books were done by Ken & me. We’d just put on the music, brew the coffee and get into the rhythm. Often we’d be surprised the next day how much work we could get done in a long dedicated session like that. It probably took about a week to produce them all once we had all the materials ready to go.

Weathersby: It was ridiculous. I actually was involved with patterns and repetitive processes in my paintings, so I could kind of enjoy cutting a little shape out of all the pages of hundreds of books. David had less patience with that kind of thing, but we did it anyway. After a while, we slowly started to figure out that we could get some help and people would join in and it got easier. Alison Moritsugu (the painter) once volunteered and came over and brought a friend and I remember that she kind of had to insist on helping. I had this attitude that we had to just do it all, and always get it done in as close to one continuous session as possible.

LP: Of course, why did you stop? Was it simply the hard work of publishing a magazine by hand? In a way, the two of you put more work into your magazine than nearly any other literary magazine around–at least in terms of physical, hands-on work. Wasn’t it tough to hang it up?

Weathersby: It was always a lot of work. Part of the time I was on the night shift at my museum job, and that allowed leeway to put in the hours on it. We also pretty much funded it ourselves at first, then were starting to get it paid for in other ways—subscribers, events, grants—but it didn’t look like it would ever make our day jobs obsolete. It was kind of a surprise to us to begin with that it came alive that way it did for the time that it did, then at a certain point, because of circumstances or just because it was time, it went on a hiatus, which just kept stretching out in length…

Keith: Even with all our foresight to limit our scope up front, we underestimated the work involved. A lot of it certainly was the physical book-making effort. But just the regular dealing with manuscripts, solicited and not, plus we organized the readings and other events. It took a lot of time, money from our own pockets mostly. Ken had a job and I was wrapping up an MFA getting ready to go back out on to the job market. Reality was heavier than all our exuberance, turns out. I threw up a web site just to have a kind of presence alive, which I thought would be less effort, but even that was hard to sustain after while.

LP: This is for both of you: who were you most excited about publishing in the magazine? What piece?

Weathersby: High on the list for me were the interviews we did with Rupert Sheldrake and Terrence McKenna. They were talking about things I was interested in at the time, as ideas, and I was just blown away that we could make a couple of phone calls and get to go and sit with these people and have a conversation for an hour or two and ask them whatever we wanted. Getting to publish it afterward was exciting, too, but for me was more like a documentation of the real thing, which was the chance to have the talk. I remember that with Sheldrake there was one slight disappointment for me. We had a great interview, and then I tentatively brought up this strange idea I had that I was calling the “shrinking universe theory”. I won’t get into what that was, but at the time I had the notion that because Sheldrake was very iconoclastic and working with novel ideas, maybe he’d like this weird astrophysics idea I’d come up with. I spilled it, and he looked at me strangely and dismissed my theory by saying something about the Doppler shift, and that was the end of that line of conversation. We didn’t publish that part, needless to say. One contributor that I now wish I had followed through with was Tim Griffin, who is currently the editor of Art Forum magazine. At that time, he was also a gallery guard at the Guggenheim Museum, like me, and he was interested in contributing something he was working on related to Allain Robbe-Grillet. For whatever reason, it never happened. It seemed like a coup when we were able to get an interview with Yves Bonnefoy, who was, in addition to being a great and respected poet and a writer about art, a bona fide surrealist. He was someone who walked away from his association with the surrealists at a certain point, actually. Eric Gamalinda, who also was our poetry editor, did that interview. We published quite a few things by people who were somewhat known already or became so later: David Berman, Lawson Fusao Inada, Jim Knipfel, Paul Watkins.

Keith: There are lots of gems that I love to look back at. But without a doubt, having the Hootenanny credentials to get us in to speak with Terence McKenna during a visit to New York was a real highlight for me. Ken had also previously interviewed Ruper Sheldrake and I know that was exciting for him. But we both got to interview McKenna. He was such an amazing conversationalist, and so unbelievably generous to speak with us.

LP: How did you get Hootenanny into CBGB’s, one of the most famous rock venues in New York history? Is there a story there?

Keith: Yes and No. We wanted to stage a reading and needed a space congenial to a little performance art as well. CB’s 313 gallery filled the bill purely as a venue. Of course, CB’s lore was huge for Ken and me — being early fans of all those CBGB regulars when we were in high school in Mississippi. There’s definitely a bit of the feeling that if you’re doing anything in CBGB’s, even reading some little poem, part of you is communing with Patti Smith. But you know, it was totally easy to get in. We just pretty much asked Hilly Krystal (the owner) if we could do it. He neither cared nor didn’t care. It was business as usual, the space was free that night, so why not.

Weathersby: I think at the time, getting into CBGB’s was a matter of going and talking to Hilly. Tim Trelease, a good friend who is a painter and performance artist had organized a goup art show there in 1991, where I showed some paintings I had made in the previous year before moving to New York. I remember seeing one of the Ramones in there at that exhibition, looking at one of my paintings, this image of a plowed field in Mississippi, and my mind just flashed back to being a teenager in Mississippi and looking at the cover of the first Ramones album and hearing about CBGB. Anyway, when Hootenanny got ready to do our first event there, Tim already knew Hilly. The things we did there, like have performance art, musicians, authors reading and visual art together was an extension of the book.

LP: You mention future plans for Hootenanny on your website–what’s that all about?

Weathersby: We are thinking about putting together a site to include input by some of the original contributors as well as some people we have gotten to know since then. The guiding creative idea of this version is that it will be less labor intensive!

Keith: Not sure. Watch this space…