In Conversation With Walter Gordon ’14

by The Editors | Institutional Memory | Web Exclusive

187 North Professor Street, where Wilder Voice’s offices were located during Walter Gordon’s tenure as Editor-in-Chief.

A former Editor-in-Chief chats about favorite mistakes, the editing process, and Lena Dunham’s Girls.

What years did you attend Oberlin and what was your major?

I graduated in 2014 and I majored in English. I almost had a minor but didn’t have a minor. 

What in?

Art history. I think I had enough credits for an art history minor but I didn’t get the paperwork in or something. 

What are you doing now?

I’m finishing up a PhD at Columbia University. I work on African-American literature and energy […] literal energy, like coal, the environment, electricity, things like that, and how they show up in Black writing from the 20th century. 

What years were you a part of Wilder Voice and what positions did you hold there? 

I was just there my last two years. First I was Assistant Editor, then I went straight to EIC. I don’t know how typical that is; it felt fairly typical in a certain way because there weren’t that many options. I was kind of the most senior person on staff even though I had only been there for a year.

How did you get started with WV?

I cannot recall. At that point in my undergraduate life I had done at least one publishing internship at a literary magazine in San Francisco during one of the summers.

Which magazine?

It’s called Zyzzyva. They had me reading the slush pile and writing book reviews. And so by the time I got to my junior year I knew I wanted to do something literary, not directly publishing-related, [and at Oberlin] there were kind of two options, if I recall: there was Wilder Voice and Plum Creek Review, I don’t know if that’s still around.

Yeah, it is. 

Yeah, and they were very different from each other, they have very different processes. And I believe I worked for Plum Creek briefly because it was kind of open, you could just go to a meeting and they would be like, “Alright, you can vote on what gets put in the magazine,” and I did that for maybe a semester before Wilder Voice. And then I jumped ship and went to WV for some reason that I can’t remember, unfortunately.

Did you ever do anything with the Grape or the Review?

I never did anything with the Grape or the Review, I never have been interested in traditional journalism. Which was one thing that was interesting working at Wilder Voice, and maybe this is still the case: when I got there, I was like, “I don’t care about all of the investigative journalism, nor can we do really good investigative journalism with the time and resources we had as undergraduates in this small town—what we can do is more creative work.” So maybe there was a slight shift towards creative stuff when I was there, which I’m curious to see if that’s had an afterlife or if it’s kind of returned to being more nonfiction-oriented. 

“I tried to steer it towards something a little more, I don’t know, a little more Paris Review than Harper’s.”

Right now it’s a lot of personal essays. Some reporting, but not a ton.

Yeah, I think that’s a shift that’s happened over the last 15 years.

When you say “creative pieces,” do you mean fiction and poetry?

Yeah, that was definitely in it, but more leaning towards the kinds of essays you guys are talking about. Less things that are tightly structured investigate pieces and more things that lean para-academic, not quite academic discourse but certainly kind of intellectually engaged, more in that kind of way. 

Do you feel like you played a part in that shift via the decisions you made as EIC?

I think so. I mean, I felt generally like there were only certain things I could make decisions about, and one of the things I couldn’t make decisions about, on a certain level, was content. Because the amount of submissions we got was usually such that we printed, like, two-thirds  of what got submitted, or half, maybe. So there wasn’t really that much that I could do in terms of “I want this type of writing,” you know? ’Cause it was sort of like we were dealing with the body of writers we had available to us, which was one of the problems that Wilder Voice faced while I was there, just expanding that pool of writers to include more people, specifically people of color. But yeah, I tried to steer it towards something a little more, I don’t know, a little more Paris Review than Harper’s

In hindsight, what role do you think Wilder Voice played in your career at Oberlin? 

It was a big deal. It took a lot of my time. I don’t know if this is still the case for you guys, but it was immensely time-consuming. It took—I was just talking to my partner about this—it took just a little less time commitment than all of my other classes put together. And a lot of that was doing the kind of shit that I never do anymore and that at a normal magazine I don’t think an Editor-in-Chief would do, like arranging things on a page, making sure that the magazine looks right and has good margins and all that crap. That took an insane amount of time. And then there was something, I can’t remember the specific structure of it, but we had some kind of thing where there was a two-week period where it was a crazy crunch and everybody had to finish their articles and we had a name for it, and it was like, “You gotta finish your articles and get them from this early stage to basically being done within these weird two weeks in, like, November or something.” That period was insanely stressful. 

In terms of less quotidian ways in which it affected my life, it did push me towards continuing to work in literary magazines, something to do with literary journalism publishing, which I did do for a year after I finished college. I moved to New York, like a good literary Oberlin grad, and I worked at New Directions and New York Review of Books. And I got into grad school at that time, so very quickly kind of abandoned ship, but I was on a clear trajectory towards doing publishing stuff. And that was directly because of working at Wilder Voice and enjoying that work.

Do you have a favorite Wilder Voice memory?

I have quite a few. I have one that I really wanted to ask you about, because I have an indelible memory of this and I wonder if it had any kind of long-lasting effect, which is that—I wouldn’t say this is a favorite memory because it was the source of much stress and shame—but [to print Wilder Voice] we had to go through this crazy process through the school. Like, it was a school contractor who had a contract through Wilder Voice, I don’t know how the people who set up Wilder Voice originally did it but they’re wizards. But anyway, I wrote them a check to print however many magazines and it was some outrageous amount of money, like $9,000 to print the magazine, and I gave them the check and we got charged and the magazines came, and there were half as many magazines as there was supposed to be. And I looked at the charge and they had charged me $4,000-and-something dollars because I have really bad handwriting, and they thought my nine was a four. So we printed half as many magazines as usual, and that ended up being a really good thing because—I don’t know if this is still the case for you guys—but generally there’d be literally a thousand extra magazines that’d be sitting around, and there’d be these boxes and boxes of magazines just sitting around, so that’s a really good memory in a weird way because it was a complete accident that should have been a disaster that was completely fine. 

Do you have a terrible WV memory?

Yeah, I do have a terrible memory. I at one point—maybe it was my first or second semester at the magazine—I  publicly talked shit about a writer. Like, about their piece, among my friends on a porch or something. And I got caught, basically; it got to the writer somehow that I’d been talking shit about them and then they went to Elizabeth [Kuhr], and was like, “Walter is a shithead.” And I had to apologize to the whole staff and apologize to that person profusely and it was really shitty,  but it also… it was an interesting position to be in, to be the head of the magazine and to make the mistake that one is not supposed to make; that was an interesting experience for me. 

What’s your favorite article that you published at WV?

That’s a tough question. There was a really good one on a porn star, like on a relationship that a student had to a porn star in the virtual world, and the kind of place that this porn star held in their sexual idenitity. There was a really good one about selfies that I feel like came out at a good time when the world wasn’t yet inundated by writing about selfies. I don’t think selfies are undertheorized at this point; when this kid wrote about selfies it was still fairly fresh. That one was cool. I also had a couple of friends who interviewed a bounty hunter. Apparently it’s not a very good piece in retrospect, but I recall having a lot of fun putting it together and getting them to interview this bounty hunter and stuff, that was cool. Those are the ones that I recall the clearest. I really like—when I took over we switched the format of the visual art section. Previously there was some art and then maybe some writing from the artists about their art, and then when I did it, I had our Art Editor interview artists instead, and that felt pretty good, I remember quite liking what came out of those. Those are all highlights. 

It was an interesting position to be in, to be the head of the magazine and to make the mistake that one is not supposed to make.

Did WV have any type of “reputation” on campus? 

Honestly, not really. I feel like it was very under-the-radar, like people knew Plum Creek way better than WV and what WV was, because I think it was very ambiguous to people, partially because of the way in which it was about news but also literary. [That] was very confusing to people, and the whole super-long editorial process that we did kind of created a bubble around WV. The people who were involved with it knew what it was but I think very few others did. I would guess it had a reputation of being kind of pretentious or something, which is not a word I use very often or one that I think is very helpful, but I would imagine that’s how some people understood it, to an extent. Maybe a little less artsy than PC but still somehow intellectually prepossessing and intimidating is how I would put it. Certainly took itself more seriously than the Grape.  

What do you think is the most essential part of Wilder Voice that makes it Wilder Voice?

I mean, definitely partially it was the editorial process. As much as I hated it and bucked against it, and found it counterintuitive and frustrating, it definitely was unique and did produce a certain environment for writers that I think is kind of rare. Like now what I teach is basically a freshman seminar but without a theme, it’s just how to write for college. And the basic point of that class is it’s the only time they’ll ever get to run, like, six drafts by a professional writer and get responses constantly, and Wilder Voice did something kind of similar, even though it wasn’t professional or whatever: somebody who’s supposedly pretty good at editing, and had people above them who were even better supposedly, and so it was a unique situation, the kind of setup for helping to cultivate writing skills. So that definitely was vital. 

And then another thing was the variety of forms—which again, as much as I griped about the ambiguity of the investigative journalism shtick, it was cool that we had reporting and creative nonfiction and poetry and art and  totally weird kinds of creative writing that were something else entirely. I really felt like we could put anything in it which was cool, which I really took advantage of my second semester. 

I published a really weird thing that I wrote half of, because I was just like, “I’m in charge, I can do whatever the fuck I want,” so we did this thing that was called—I don’t have acces to any of these old magazines so I can’t look back at this so I can’t remember what it was called exactly—but it was something in Latin and it folded out and it was a bunch of word definitions or etymologies of words, some of which were completely fictional and some of which were real. And I thought that was very cool, that I could put this in that [issue] was like, what is that even? So that to me is a basic tenet of Wilder Voice: it’s kind of formless and can kind of take on whatever kind of thing can be literally put in the pages. Or even now that you’re digital, you don’t even have to deal with fitting in pages. Which is probably something to think about. How can you take advantage of the situation that you’re in, you know? 

We’d love to hear about your view on the editorial process at Wilder Voice, specifically what frustrated you about it and how you went about trying to change it or refine it.

I don’t think I did change it very much. It was one of the things that I was like, “This is too much of a fucking, like, iceberg.” I only had a year to make changes, but if I remember it was just difficult that there was often tension between writers and editors, because the writer would have an idea for what they wanted to do and then the editor [would have] conversations with everyone else on staff who were very opinionated… and the writer was not privy to those conversations, right, and so we’d come back with all this stuff and the writer would be like “Where is all this coming from? Why are you not responding to me?” So that was a major problem, there was a major emphasis on collaboration between editors which was perhaps detrimental in the way that it was kind of done without transparency. That was frustrating to me. A lot of writers just found it incomprehensible why they were being asked to produce something new. A lot of people wanted to come to Wilder Voice and be like, “Yeah I wrote this cool essay, can I publish it?” And we’d be like, “No, actually you have to start a new thing.” Why go through the editorial process itself when you have this finished thing that will just go through months of editing? So those were the kind of issues I had with it. Like I said, I think there were a lot of good things about it, that it did in certain circumstances really foster a relationship between an editor and a writer that really helped the writer to develop, but that was not the most common experience.

Do you think you would have done anything differently as EIC in hindsight?

I probably would have placed more of my energy into widening the audience and the pool of writers that WV reached. There was a really kind of depressing thing that happened where about halfway through the year a poster went up for another literary magazine that was Black-run, like everyone on staff was Black, and they were trying to get mostly Black writers or something like that, and on the poster it said they were the only magazine in Oberlin run by a POC, and I’m a POC, and so it was this real moment for me where I was like, “Damn, you know, it’s a surprise to me that I’m not always visible as such to people.” That is something I’ve come to terms with over the course of my life, obviously, but the fact was that that should have been acknowledged, that should have been passed out to people outside of the small realm in which I lived. So that was super disappointing for me. And my response to that was partially—I mean, we did a little more outreach but not much, like we didn’t really know how to do more outreach, but what we did do is I think the poetry section was all Black writers or all writers of color, maybe, for a semester or maybe two semesters. But that to me is a kind of band-aid. It’s just kind of amplifying voices, but what you really need to be doing is kind of cultivating more and creating more connections where they’re totally missing. So that probably would have been more of an emphasis—but it’s hard to do that. Again, this is why institutional memory’s important. Like, there was no evidence that that had been a project that anyone before me had taken in any kind of similar way. There was no kind of precedent for how I might go about doing that, so it’s good to talk to people and see what has been tried in the past and fix problems that are still problems. 

Is there anything we should’ve asked but didn’t? 

Not really. But I have one question, actually. One very small change I made was that the magazine looked almost exactly the same. Specifically the cover was always this evocative image and then like a bar and then Wilder Voice in full volume, and I think my first semester we were really struggling to come up with a cover and I was like, “What if we just put a circle and then a ‘WV’ inside of the circle?” and that’s what we ended up doing, and it looked really cool, so I was just wondering if the cover’s reverted to being the same every time, or if it’s looser now. I know that it changed shape, which is very exciting. Like in the two years after I left it shrunk significantly which I think is smart.

The little “WV” circle is still around.

Current (left) and former (right) “WV” circles.

I feel like that’s another thing about WV: our designers were fucking sick… I was always happy with how the magazine read. To be frank with you I was not thrilled with all of the pieces but I always liked how it looked. It looked very professional. Have you spoken to a lot of editors?

We did a big group interview with the ones who, like, took it over from Lena Dunham.

Right, right. Have you gotten Lena Dunham?

Her publicist didn’t get back to us. And it would ultimately be harmful to us.

Is she widely reviled on campus at this point? 

Yeah, we think.

That’s super interesting because when I was there it was, like, the birth of Lena Dunham. I was there from 2010–2014, and Girls must have come out in 2013, so it was like, “Woah, Lena Dunham got famous.” So there was very much a more complicated—like, everyone hated her but ultimately was just mega jealous. Half the people in the Creative Writing Department were like, “She took my shit!”

Walter Gordon graduated from Oberlin in 2014 with a degree in English. He is currently a graduate student at Columbia University.

Photo by Sam Schuman.

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