By: Sean Wesen '22
A poet, editor, and Part Time Lecturer at Rutgers, Emily Wallis Hughes grew up in Agua Caliente, California. Her first book, Sugar Factory, was published in 2019. She was also my first creative writing professor during my fall semester at Rutgers, a class I chose on a whim during add/drop week. Four years later, after graduating as an English major and creative writing minor, I sat down with Emily to discuss her new position as Editorial Co-Director of Fence, a nonprofit independent publisher of the award-winning and influential biannual literary magazine, Fence, full-length books of poetry and prose, The Constant Critic, and Fence Digital.
Q: When was the first time that you considered yourself to be a writer?
A: It's funny to think about when one starts to self identify as a writer versus when other people might see you as a writer. For me, there were people in my life who viewed me as a writer before I was genuinely self identifying and felt confident enough to say "I am a writer" or "I am a poet." After I took a couple of creative writing classes as an undergrad at UC Davis, I started to go to open mic readings. Being part of that literary community made me feel like I could say I was a writer without feeling like a "poser." When I got my first poem published, I really felt like I could say "Yeah, I'm a poet." My first poem appeared in 2007 or 2008 in this independent arts and culture alternative news and bohemian publication called The Sacramento News & Review. It was this big newsprint copy, and it was a free paper, and they would have reviews of the local music scene and opinion pieces, and poetry. My mom cut out the poem and put it on the fridge, which felt funny because it made it feel like a kid’s school art project.
Q: Would you say that those first few publications made you the most proud or would it be something more new? What are the pieces that are closest to you?
A: Oh, I'm not proud of those first published poems anymore. Those feel so distant from me now. That was cool at the time, but I knew I could do better. I'm actually embarrassed by those early published pieces, and I'm glad that I didn't try to publish a lot earlier on. I had teachers and professors who said not to worry too much about publishing when you're starting out. The piece that I'm most proud of now is the manuscript of my second book. It's in loose leaf right now, and I've been sending it out to publishers. My first book, Sugar Factory, came out in 2019, and I recently heard from a reader who said some cool things about it. The idea of feeling proud of one's work is a funny thing. I think it's good to have humility too.
Q: How do beginning poets get published?
A: Well, you just keep sending out your work and persist, and find the literary magazines that you love reading and keep reading those and send your work to the publications you like best. That technique has worked for me in finding places to accept my work. And persistence is important too. I just got a poem accepted by a literary magazine called Conduit, and I had been submitting poems to them for over six years. I almost gave up, and then last year I thought "alright I'll try again, I'll take the advice of my mentors," and they ended up accepting my poem. In terms of book publication, my first book was published by a small press called Spuyten Duyvil, so for new writers it's helpful to look for independent publishers and small presses, which is true for poetry and some fiction like literary fiction or nonfiction. There are also university presses too; some university presses publish poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in addition to scholarly work.
Q: What made you want to teach writing at the university level?
A: It's nice to think back to those origins. Some people might be surprised to learn that I used to teach people how to swim and I was a coach. When I was younger, I really wanted to be a swim coach; I did that for a while later in my undergrad years during the summers and also a little bit in grad school to help get some extra money and because I enjoyed it.
I started to realize "oh, maybe I could be a good teacher," and a lot of it does cross over. Like being a poet, I gradually took steps into it and saw that it was one of the paths to take as a writer to earn a living and keep writing. And I love sharing my love of writing and reading and seeing young writers find work that's new to them––that sense of “discovery” when there's work that blows your mind and provokes you into doing the kinds of writing you perhaps didn’t know was possible, or were perhaps afraid to try our for some reason. Breaking the formula can be scary, on and off the page. And I also had some really incredible teachers who were there for me during some difficult times in my life, so I appreciate being able to continue that and, I know it's a cliché, but it is about being able to pay it forward. I'm a bit of an idealist, (a lot of teachers are), so being in a class with a bunch of young writers full of energy gives me hope for the world.
We're living in such a difficult and terrible time now and it feels impossible to do everyday things, and yet yesterday in my last classes there was just joy and celebration with everyone reading their work. I taught my students how to bind chapbooks and I was able to share in what was for some of them their first-time experience of learning how to thread a needle, in true DIY fashion, and that was so fun.
Q: Being a professor isn't your only job. Could you tell me about your editorial work for Fence?
A: Fence is a non-profit independent publisher of a literary magazine and books, which was founded by Rebecca Wolff and a few other editors in 1998. It's been a very influential literary magazine, especially in poetry and prose.
Fence also started publishing books in the early 2000s; a couple recent books include Harmony Holiday's Maafa and Edgar Garcia's Skins of Columbus, who is actually with us as a Visiting Editor of Fence issues #40 and #41 this year. Both of these books push the boundaries of form and genre. When Fence first came onto the scene, there was this big divide between mainstream confessional narrative poetry and language poetry, and you were expected to be in one camp or the other. Were you with The New Yorker, an establishment publication, or with the insular, avant-garde, "in the know" groups? Fence filled a gap and made a space for writers who were in-between and who were blending the two modes in various ways, or doing their own weird thing outside of that, and didn't want to subscribe to a clique. Thanks in a large part to the work and impact of Fence, The New Yorker is now somewhat more open to various kinds of unconventional writing. And readers who are hungering for something different, who might feel a bit like outsiders themselves, find friends in Fence.
Q: What has it been like to take on the Editorial Co-Director position?
A: My experience really started when I first found Fence as a reader in 2006. I had that experience of having my mind blown and realizing "wow, you can do this? You can break out of all these molds?" For me, as someone who feels like a bit of an outsider in my core, it's a really affirming feeling when you don't have to change yourself; you can be true to yourself as a writer and still find readers.
In my role, I can help new readers and writers find that feeling and realize they don't have to change themselves to fit in––you can be your weird beautiful self and know there are readers out there looking for that too. Fence has consistently made space for writers in LGBTQIA+ communities and writers of color, and encourages writing about anything you want to write about; there's no pressure to write a standard narrative about your identity.
I'm also a writer who has a disability, and I don't want to be limited by that. I want to write about and through anything and everything, and sure, my experience with disability comes in sometimes (primarily through form––how I move strangely from line to line, and in my particular voice in my poems, underneath the surface, underneath the content, or the language, you might say), but I don't want to be put in a box and have people say "you're a disabled writer" or "you're a disabled woman writer and that's what you write about exclusively."
The publishing industry can sometimes put writers in limiting boxes like that, but Fence is a place for intervention and it doesn't force those labels on anyone. And as Rebecca Wolff hands over the reins to myself and my co-director Jason Zuzga, we are continuing this–– we are reimagining what that effort means and what it looks like in practice.
Jason has been a literary editor for over ten years, and I had been doing editorial work for several years before coming into this role. Rebecca has been the Editor and Publisher of Fence since she founded it in 1998, so she's at a stage where she's ready to pass that role onto us, and we are ready to accept it. She'll be staying on as Book Editor for this year, and then she's passing that onto us as well. I feel a sense of obligation (in a good way) and responsibility, but I'm also a little scared to take on the books because so many people love Fence books and they're integral to how contemporary literature moves along, so Jason and I want to do that justice and see Fence thrive––we want to breathe new energy into it and be a part of what's coming next in literature, both inside and outside of the United States.
Q: I know we've already talked about some surprising things about yourself such as how you used to be a swim instructor, but is there anything else people may be surprised to learn about you?
A: A lot of writers are often surprised to hear that I love backpacking. It really throws a wrench in the image of a stereotypical poet, but there are plenty of writers who spend their time outdoors. I also went on a weeklong backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains when I used to live in California. So that's often something people are surprised by and are curious about.