When I was invited to be on the editorial board of VIA I was happy to say yes. When I found out that it didn’t mean I’d have anything to say about what they published, that all they wanted was lots of names on their masthead, I didn’t know how to feel. On the one hand, I felt left out; on the other hand I felt relieved that I wouldn’t have to do any work. I could just mention in my curriculum that I was on their editorial board and it would make me look good.
Fred Gardaphe and Anthony Tamburri and the third founding editor, whose name I can never remember and who I always thought of as the shadow man because he never did anything for the magazine that I could see, immediately began offending me. I think that half the time they were unaware that they were offending me partly they were oblivious to the ethics of small press publishing and partly because they were just too arrogant towards someone as unimportant as I was.
They sent me a copy of each issue of VIA and so I sent them a copy of each issue of la bella figura. My little magazine, what you might call a zine, consisted of ten sheets of letter size paper stapled in the corner and then folded in half so that some pages were presented in the common size of a little magazine and some pages were presented in the common size of a letter. It certainly didn’t measure up to VIA in regard to visible prestige. VIA was bigger, thicker, printed on glossy paper, lots of full color illustrations and full-page, half-page, and quarter-page ads.
I always had the impression that they were more concerned with power than with literature and it took a while before I realized that VIA wasn’t a small press publication; it was an academic publication. It took even longer before I realized that these three men wanted to be the mafia bosses of Italian-American literature and didn’t want to be contradicted by a little lady nobody. They demanded compliance, sniveling ass kissing, and flattery from everyone around them, which they apparently got from everyone around them, except me, and which they thought was respect, and saw no need to show any respect to me and my crappy little two-bit zine.
I folded la bella figura to go live in Italy, leaving for my second trip here. My first time here I was a tourist. The second time I was here, for almost a year and a half, I was an illegal alien. This time I’ve got citizenship.
They had a special page in which they claimed to want Italian-Americans to write in about whatever was on their mind. But nothing ever appeared on that page except their lament—Why don’t Italian-Americans write?
They said in VIA that lbf had folded for lack of subscriptions. They never bothered to ask me why I had folded. I guess they thought that a crappy little zine couldn’t make it and you had to be a real magazine, bigger, thicker, printed on glossy paper, lots of full color illustrations and full-page, half-page, and quarter-page ads. It was their idea of a sales pitch—subscribe to VIA to keep it from folding.
I wrote and told them that I folded lbf because I wanted to live in Italy, thinking they would publish it in VIA on their special page.
When I started lbf, I bought a copy of The Directory of Poets and Writers, or whatever it’s called, and I sent flyers to everyone listed who had an Italian last name. Not only did I get a lot of submissions but I had 200 subscribers before the first issue came out. This number was maintained throughout its run and I ended with a mailing list of 800. This is very successful for a zine of its kind.
I mentioned this when I wrote to them, also saying that I didn’t think that preventing a magazine from folding would serve as an incentive for people to subscribe.
They never printed what I had sent them for their special page. Instead, they just continued to say on that page, issue after issue—Why don’t Italian-Americans write?
When I mentioned this to Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, who, like me, was on their editorial board, she said that they received lots of things for that page; they just didn’t want to print them. She also mentioned to me that, at that time, VIA had only 100 subscribers, something that they never mentioned when they asked people to buy ads. An ad that reaches only 100 people, at $1,000, is way overpriced.
The policy at VIA was to print only unpublished work. When I noticed in one issue that they had included a poem by Maria Gillan which had previously appeared in lbf, I wrote to Fred Gardaphe. He wrote back in anger, wanting to know why I hadn’t told him. (Excuse me, Fred, but I just told you. That’s how you found out and why you’re writing to me now.)
In the small press community, and I’ll bet in the academic community, it’s the writer’s responsability to inform, in his cover letter, the editors of the magazines to which he’s submitting work, whether or not the work being submitted has already been published. Little magazines especially, not having too much money and wanting to publish as much unrecognized stuff as possible, often don’t like to reprint work. But sometimes this isn’t mentioned in their calls for manuscripts and the writer is expected to mention it just in case.
Did Fred make up this rule just for me? Did he mean to ask why I hadn’t told him, before they had agreed to publish it, that Gillan’s poem had already been published? Did he even wonder how I would have known that? Did he actually think that all editors follow their writers around to see whether they’re sending out work that they had already published in their magazines?
A normal editor would have printed, in the next issue, a little notice saying that Gillan’s poem had been previously published in lbf, with a reminder that VIA prints only previously unpublished work, and a little apology for the oversight. But they printed nothing.
Fred Gardaphe doesn’t seem to know the difference between power (Gillan could do things to help his career along and I couldn’t. Therefore, she was right and I was wrong.) and reality.
This was a slap in my face, one among many. But I didn’t say anything.
Although $1,000 was a lot of money for me to spend on any one thing, including advertising, I had a full-page ad put in VIA for my first book of poetry, Vendetta. It wasn’t as impressive looking as the other ads but it said what it needed to say. That’s been a big part of my goal as a writer—not to impress on a superficial level but to say what needs to be said.
I noticed that they moved the other ads around, each ad getting a chance to be in a more visible space, while my ad was always stuck in the back where people rarely look. I wrote to them and asked whether they could please put my ad in a more visible space once in a while, as they did with all the others.
I received a letter from Anthony Tamburri saying that if I didn’t like where they were placing my ad they’d be glad to drop my ad and refund my money. Apparently, he was offended by my gall in requesting the same treatment that they gave to others who had ads in their magazine. I thought it was a completely unjustified response and even abnormal.
I was unemployed at the time and I could find other uses for that money. So I wrote back and said, okay, drop the ad and refund my money. In any case, I added, that ad had only sold about two or three copies of the book.
They dropped the ad and refunded my money. Tamburri sent me what I thought was a strangely worded letter, saying something about how he was sorry that I had chosen to leave them. He also said that they would be reporting this expense when they did their taxes and so I’d better be sure to report this income on my own tax returns to be sure that I didn’t get into any trouble.
But that $1,000 was the only money I had received that calender year so I wasn’t required to pay income taxes. I just laughed and threw the letter into the trash.
A few months later I received the usual letter they sent out to everyone on their editorial board asking me to vote for what I thought was the best piece in the most recent issue.
I looked at the list of the names of everyone on their editorial board, printed on the left hand side of their letterhead. My name was no longer on the list. Apparently they had sent me this letter using the accidently-on-purpose method of getting even.
Accidently-on-purpose was what we, as children in the neighborhood, called subconscious revenge. For example, if someone you were playing stickball with insulted you, the next time you threw the ball you’d hit him on the head with it. When he complained, you’d say, “I did it accidently,” and he would say, “Yeah, accidently on purpose.”
I guess that that $1,000 I paid was not only for my ad but for the honor of being on their editorial boad, although I’d bet that no one else had to pay $1,000 to be listed on their editorial board.
One of the first times I spoke to Fred, he asked me whether I had a university degree. I said no. He said, “Well, it doesn’t matter.” If it didn’t matter, why did he ask? Because he wanted to know whether I belonged to their little club.
Anthony Tamburri very rarely spoke to me first and very rarely even answered me when I spoke to him. He would usually just grunt or ignore me completely. And he always did it with a look that seemed like a combination of self-satisfaction and disgust.
But once, when he saw me at a conference of the American Italian Historical Association, he ran up to me and with a gleeful look in his eyes, happily told me that an Italian-American newspaper had laughed at the idea of an Italian-American radical poet.
He also advised me not to write so much about prejudice against Italian-Americans. This is very important in both Italian and Italian-American culture: forget the past if it’s negative.
For both these reasons, the lack of fancy initials after my name and my complaining, one of the most serious sins in both Italian and Italian-American culture, I was becoming an embarrassment to them.
They did other things to offend me. I guess they were expecting me to complain, giving them an excuse to take me off their editorial board. But I didn’t complain about those things. Apparently, my request to have my ad rotated as all the other ones were, seemed like a good excuse to them.
So they kicked me off the board, pretending it was my choice to leave, and didn’t even bother to tell me.
Maybe they’re unaware that in the small press community there are a lot of editors who publish their little magazines because they think that certain work, which they thought was worthy of being published, would not be published in the mainstream press. These people have integrity and they’re honest. They make up reasonable rules and expect everyone to follow them.
One rule is that, if you lie in your cover letter in the hope of impressing them, they will not publish your work and they rarely bother to tell writers why their work is being rejected. If I had put in my cover letters that I was on the editorial board of VIA, and these editors found out that I wasn’t, I would have my work automatically rejected. It might have even spread around that I was a liar and my work would always be rejected and I would never know why.
Maybe they didn’t know that. Or maybe they did.
If I had complained about those other times that they had offended me, I probably would have been kicked off their board a lot sooner. It just goes to show you that you should never keep your mouth shut when you’ve been insulted.