In the wake of SFMOMA announcing that it would close Open Space, various people reached out to me about ways to relaunch that community platform independently, or with other institutions. Having just been through the museum’s wringer, I was leery of new entanglements, to say the least. It was different when Syd wrote to me, wondering whether we might in some way collaborate; not knowing what that way would be, my answer nonetheless was a visceral yes. Yes to doing something with a small but storied arts organization. Yes to collaborating with someone I’ve grown to trust and respect. Yes to figuring it out as we go along.
We’re still definitely doing that figuring, but after months of mulling and honing, The Back Room is beginning to take shape: a small, well-tended space for writers and artists, rooted in the Bay Area but participating in national and international conversations. An online publishing program that will unfurl in dialogue with and autonomously from Small Press Traffic’s live events. Like everything SPT does, an experiment. —Claudia La Rocco
Claudia La Rocco: Syd! It’s funny doing this, thinking how best to translate our collaboration for others. Where to start?! How about: Would you talk a little bit about what it means for SPT to be a process-oriented organization, and how you are leading with that in mind? And of course, as my producer used to say in my very short-lived radio career, if you don’t like or don’t know how to answer that question, answer the question you wish you’d been asked…
Syd Staiti: This is a beautiful opening question, Claudia, since working with you on The Back Room has been so rich in its process and collaborative spirit. I would say something here about resisting the impulse to constantly produce in a moment that feels we’re bombarded by content. But truthfully speaking, I can’t deny that SPT has produced quite a lot of programs and online content in the last few years! So to me, saying process-oriented feels like a way to foreground the attention SPT devotes to the slow, generative, often messy, sometimes chaotic, and largely invisible work that brings a project into being. There’s a value we place on the preparation phases, the dance behind the curtain with whoever we’re working with. It also describes how we operate internally as an organization. With the guidance of an outstanding board (of which you were a part for two years!) SPT is in a constant state of reflection, re-examination, and adjustment in relation to our ethos, work culture, and values.
I’ll throw one back at you but let’s maintain a standing option to divert from questions whenever we choose. You’ve had a varied career. Radio, for instance! As an editor, do you find yourself ever wearing any of your other hats? Or can you talk about your editing practices/style/approach in general, and if this aspect of your work has been informed or influenced by your other professional or artistic experiences, how?
CLR: It’s striking how insistent that pressure to produce is, no? Even though I intellectually understand why it’s there, on an emotional level it’s such a siren call. Someone just said to me that it was a relief to know TBR would only be publishing twice a month, and hearing this filled me with relief — as if I am waiting for the world to say, “Twice a month is unacceptable! We need more content!” Ridiculous.
“...the slow, generative, often messy, sometimes chaotic, and largely invisible work…” <3. In the last Open Space magazine I edited, I wrote this in my introductory essay:
“Sometimes fraught, sometimes magical, sometimes both — no matter the shape it takes, process is paramount, a grounding weight within the manic churn of production; behind most of the pieces we commission are weeks and sometimes months of editorial back and forths, conducted by email, over the phone, and in person.”
This kinda slides into your question (though I like the standing option). My approach as an editor is to prioritize that back and forth, whether it’s a piece that needs very little finessing or one that requires numerous rewrites and editorial coaxing. My education is in literature and my first jobs out of school were journalistic; the pace of the latter often didn’t suit me, nor the hierarchical, house-style deferral of writer to editor, but working for daily publications was a great teacher, in terms of seeing how collaborative the relationship can be and that it’s a crucial help to the writer. What am I trying to say?! I guess that my having been a journalist but my heart being in slower/less straightforward forms of writing mean that I both deeply believe in the importance of good editing, and am keenly aware of the pain a bad editorial fit can cause a writer. For sure I can think of a few writers I have worked with in recent years who felt wronged by me, but I really try to avoid “my way or the highway” editing (in favor of asking questions, suggesting, etc.) and hope that by and large I succeed.
What has your approach been with Traffic Report? (Is this the final Traffic Report piece?!) I’d love to hear a bit more about how you envisioned the space, and how it has evolved or shifted in practice.
SS: I love the back and forth, too. It’s the part that’s relational. “…a grounding weight within the manic churn of production…” yes. I love this piece and re-reading it now I feel both a collapsing and unfolding of time in every direction, like it’s coyly gesturing to us here, preceding and echoing our discussions about The Back Room. With its link to Dodie Bellamy’s piece on archives, no less! Dodie (you know, but maybe not everyone who reads this) was a director of Small Press Traffic back in the 90s. She galvanized the organization after a difficult period. Those very archives she and Kevin handed over to Beineke at Yale contain SPT treasures.
Traffic Report was initially conceived before my time, by Eric Sneathen and past director Samantha Giles. They published writings by poets in the Bay Area about books and current happenings. It was a new take on the earlier SPT newsletter Traffic, which I think started during Dodie’s tenure and extended through Elizabeth Treadwell’s. We’ll be digitizing old issues of Traffic for our website by the end of this year or early next.
I re-launched Traffic Report in Fall 2020 to build new avenues for engagement and participation. It was early pandemic times, lots of disconnect and alienation. Over the last two years we’ve collected poems, prose, translations, reviews, interviews, artwork, guest curated features, and video conversations between poets living in different time zones. It was slow — at pretty much the same frequency of what TBR will be. I think we’ll have about thirty-eight pieces total when Traffic Report ends this summer, after a two-year run, to make way for The Back Room.
I don’t know, I just thought it would be great for SPT to have some online activity, give people a chance to share work and engage in conversations, get money out to folks, and offer a view into what’s going on in different corners of the Bay Area poetry and art scenes these days (and some folks outside of the Bay too). I approached it thoughtfully, but not with any intention of making a strong curatorial or aesthetic or formal argument with what was presented. It didn’t feel like the place or time to do that, and frankly, I find those projects more suitable for guest curators rather than for an organization at large, which is why I’m excited we’re beginning to get enough funding to support more guest curated projects next year.
Did I write too much? What is my next question? I feel like at this point I would love to just hear you talk about whatever you want… do you want to talk about your thoughts on Bay Area arts (or art writing) of this moment, or of the last five or ten years, or what you’d like to see in the future?
CLR: Oh my gosh that question. Pre-pandemic I would have had a much more polished answer. After so long hunkering down, it feels much harder to say. Maybe offering an encapsulation on writing in particular is easier: my overarching thought is that there’s a wealth of gorgeous writers, across the board (poetry, fiction, journalism, criticism, artists who incorporate writing, hybridicists of all nature) and a paucity of good editors and outlets. There are some, to be sure, particularly when it comes to independent presses, but not enough.
The arts here. I dunno… some combination of battered and… I can’t think of the right word. I want to say it feels like there are possibilities, but that sounds so hokey and vague. I continue to think, as I did in the, er, before times, that the “Bay Area arts scene” is a lot of scenes, some super micro and others bigger than they’re given credit for. I mean “bigger” both geographically and conceptually. Ugh. I have to let this be a placeholder for now for a much longer answer. It feels a little silly to say, but The Back Room will be one answer to that question. Better to say through doing.
What I would like to see in the future seems to be slipping away, or perhaps has slipped away, and is not just about the Bay. Remember early on in lockdown days there was this talk of the arts having a moment to take stock and reconsider, given that the mad, reactionary dash from crisis to crisis, event to event, was on hold? Didn’t happen. Really needs to. Desperately needs to. (This is the beginning of a rant that I will spare you…)
As I’ve been doing a little editing of Traffic Report pieces, I’ve really gotten that sense of connections and communities, from people I know well to those I’m just discovering (as I was saying about micro/bigger). It’s been a pleasure and a balm to sink into these relationships; that’s one of the loveliest things about editing, particularly a publication or a project that’s place-based; you really get a privileged view into intimate, meaningful relationships. I mean, sometimes the view is a bit too intimate! I would imagine there is a director equivalent here, yes? It’s an intense responsibility to be beholden to a community or communities, rewarding and sustaining, sometimes exhausting and lonely, also.
I love thinking about SPT treasures in the Dodie and Kevin archives. Of course. This tees me up for a question about the archives. Would you talk more about SPT’s current archiving efforts, whether digital or IRL?
SS: I’m impressed with your answer to an impossibly difficult question. What you say resonates.
We’ve got a lot of plates spinning right now for the archive, which includes a) print materials — books, chapbooks, magazines and zines; b) audio recordings from various Bay Area readings over the last forty or so years; c) organizational materials — flyers, programs, newsletters; and d) an oral history project with video interviews of the founders and early directors of SPT. Ideally, we will digitize lots of material and make it accessible online, but I’m hoping we can also find a physical location that allows safe storage as well as visiting hours for folks who would be interested in looking through them. We’re lucky to have some great folks working on each of these pieces, including Noah Ross, Owen Hill, Violet Spurlock, Eric Sneathen, Andrew Kenower, Paul Ebenkamp, and many generous individuals donating materials to help us fill in gaps.
Let’s loop back around to The Back Room, the real reason we are here. What are your hopes and dreams for this new project? What excites you most about its possibilities?
CLR: Ha, right, The Back Room … we’re burying the lede, as the saying goes in my first profession.
The foundational hope is always to publish writing that people want to read, through a process that leaves the authors feeling satisfied and respected. And from there I hope to build a space people like to spend time in — maybe a funny way to put it for an online space, but also maybe not. That could be as simple as people looking forward to what we publish, and as layered as SPT’s live programming and TBR’s commissions talking to each other in unexpected ways, sometimes celebrating and sometimes complicating and sometimes both.
The possibility of true collaboration with the small but mighty SPT team (hi, Madeline! hi Jacob, hi Kevin!) is one of the most exciting aspects of this gig. Among the many awful things about working at SFMOMA, perhaps the worst was working for an institution whose leadership at best tolerated/ignored the job they hired me to do, and at worst saw it as a threat to the brand and actively worked against it. I am so relieved to be working for an organization that doesn’t relegate experimentation and engagement to the margins. I am really delighted when I think of all the organizations SPT is already collaborating with, and imagine how online commissions can be a space for the many vibrant Bay Area histories that run through and around these places. Just thinking about the archives alone, for example…
How about you? When you sent me that lovely email (almost a year ago now!) wondering if a collaboration might be possible, what were you thinking? Or what are you thinking now? You’ve expanded SPT publishing and commissioning in various ways, trying things out and seeing what works; I like thinking of TBR as the latest experiment, always with the possibility of failure, not as disaster but as what it means to work with living artists and writers.
SS: Yeah, I appreciate that you see all these projects as experiments. It’s been freeing and fun to try things out and see what happens. I joined SPT having a clear idea of what I wanted to shift (both within the organization as well as in relation to people and communities) but translating those goals through programs and projects can be challenging. Of course, the pandemic shutdown happened just six months into my tenure, so I’ve had to adopt a pretty healthy relationship to the possibility of failure! But my overall feeling is if I put enough genuine effort into a project, something useful and rewarding will come of the experience, even if it’s not exactly as I hope or expect.
Hm, when I first reached out to you… I didn’t have a crystal clear idea in mind, though I did allow myself some time to sit on it and turn a few thoughts around before contacting you. I felt safe enough to throw the idea out and leave us the space to wade around in the possibilities together. It’s been a total pleasure to swim in the seas of process with you! And wow, we’re soon approaching that little island called The Back Room, with patches of sand and swimming holes for poets, artists, writers, thinkers, and even ourselves, to enjoy.
And on that note, do you have any ideas of what we might see this fall?
CLR: I’m laughing as I type, picturing you and me making it through the rough seas (shark-infested, naturally), glimpsing land on the horizon... at first I was imagining one of those single-palm-tree comic book cliches, but it’s morphing into an atoll (with outdoor bar, naturally).
I do have a few ideas! I’ve started a wish list, in fact… a couple of them are tied into the programming ideas you’ve shared with me, and others are untethered. And yeah, the results rarely match those initial notebooks lists and sketches. That’s one of the nicest parts of editing and curating, I think: even when it causes headaches along the way, it’s exciting and beautiful to be the impetus for other artists making things one couldn’t oneself imagine.
As you say: something will come. It’s so true.