Literary Magazines: A Roundtable, Part 2

February 7, 2007 | 5 2 min read

Next up in our series of interviews with lit-mag editors is Yasmine Alwan, co-founder of the Brooklyn-based Tantalum. Yasmine, an old colleague of mine from NYU, is herself a talented fabulist whose work has appeared in such well-regarded publications as NOON. After earning her M.F.A., Yasmine started Tantalum with her pal Cynthia Nelson. The first issue, with a handsome letter-pressed cover from Red Hook’s Ugly Duckling Presse, features experimental prose with an emphasis on language, in the great tradition of Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett. Contributors include Leslie Scalapino, Sara Marcus, and Martha Ronk.

The Millions: What possessed you to start your own literary magazine? How did the first issue come together?

Yasmine Alwan: The why right now is entirely personal. I had never thought to start a magazine – in fact I thought quite the opposite, “why should I when there are so many out there” – when a professor of mine, Lytle Shaw, talked about what it had meant for him to start a magazine (which was Shark) and how it had opened a new […] space to write into, from, toward (these are my words; he had much better ones). Also, I remember once Robert Fitterman answering a question about the danger of a small or “exclusive” readership, and he said something to the effect of how he wasn’t necessarily worried about his readership, because he felt like it was always being “made” by his work and surrounding people’s work. That struck me as a profound point, relievedly moving against what I hear some writers talking about, worrying about their work complying to market dictates and wanting market attentions. […] The idea of making an audience or rather a community to write to and with was striking, thrilling.

TM: How does Tantalum distinguish itself in a crowded marketplace?

YA: There’s such a multiplicity of prose writing out there and what can occur in the name of prose seems to me to be limitless. “Fiction,” even, is a word that makes me feel restless because it is burdened by familiar codes of representation of reality, time, character etc. It seems to me that I can turn in many directions and get a confirmation on my expectations, but that is exactly what I don’t want in terms of prose – that satisfaction upon “delivery” of the familiar. I would rather read something that asks me to take it apart or for which I have to take myself apart a little bit. You could also say I am engaged by prose that is highly sensitive to language or organized around it, although the fictions in Tantalum are driven by a wider range of engagements (image, sound, concepts, appropriations, character, metafictional thoughts, etc.). When soliciting, we tried to leave the map open.

TM: How do you support the endeavor, economically?

YA: I just paid for it myself. I hope to gain access to grant money for the next round. […] Although my starting Tantalum right now is just idiosyncratic timing, there is a wide upwelling of DIY publishing happening these days. I think it born out of the shifts in megapublishing and the ways in which some people are shrugging off the expectation of publishing via traditional means. It’s really quite exciting.

(Our literary magazine roundtable concludes on Friday, with an interview with one of the editors of [sic]. We encourage our readers to leave comments below on the state of the literary magazine. Do you read lit-mags? Why or why not? What do you look for in a litmag? What are your favorites? And so on…)

Parts 1 & 3

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.