Squawk Back is an online literary journal of transgression and alienation with a rather appealing and eye-catching website. Started back in May of 2011, the Squawk Back has published a hundred and four issues semi-weekly that vary anywhere from four to six pieces.
Squawk Back contains a rather eclectic collection of transgressive literature, or in simpler terms, pieces written by or written about outsiders, which often results in bizarre and odd and strange but rather exceptional literature.
I had the opportunity to do an email interview with Zak Block, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Squawk Back.
Sophean Soeun: What made you decide to start an online literary journal of transgression and alienation? What was the original idea behind the journal?
Zak Block: The germination of Squawk Back was, that I wanted to do a zine or mag or pub or whatever the lit blog kids are calling it these days, but in a conventional blog format, that is, an uninterrupted, unnavigable stream of posts with no sort of organizational logic, and publishing whatever insane garbage lunatics on the internet sent me, and doing so indiscriminately. I did 'calls for submissions' on Craigslist. This angered a lot of people, who said things like, “Why, why are you doing this?!” and then sent hate mail, and wrote angry blog posts, but others sent pieces of writing, and those pieces of writing were published. Since I don't read other lit blogs or care about them, nor do I read any contemporary literature, it wasn't until a few months into this chaotic experiment that I realized that there were other blogs that did the 'big trash roll' sort of format much better than we, so I had this brilliant idea to start taking the useless now rotting collapsed wooden structures and whittle them down to their scattered lineaments of architectural beauty. But that was only a metaphor, it's the written word we publish: fiction, poems, stuff like that. Anyway, one day, someone sent me a submission and referred to Squawk Back as “the” Squawk Back, and I thought that's perfect because it's an even worse name than we had, and makes even less sense—but most importantly, and as several of our detractors have pointed out, it is really and truly not the correct sounding sort of name for a literary publication or magazine, which usually involve the color green or the word road or mountain or something. So I bought the domain name we currently use, thesquawkback.com, and took on some editors and people to consult with about my design choices. In the ensuing two and a half years, a lot of really talented writers have contributed, also a lot of MFA candidates and recipients, representing prestigious institutions—some of whom were even talented—as well as legitimately published authors—but really a lot of the time we still render incoherent garbage into our 'little miracles'. But don't tell anyone.
SS: You mentioned that your pieces might be confused with literary writing. What is it that makes them different from literary writing?
ZB: Yes, that was a joke, implying that what we publish being one day confused for literature would be a good thing, or the most we could hope for. It's a play on the idea that the work featured in a weird obscure writing blog lacking the imprimatur of any sort of important literary figures or institutions—is less literature than it is 'attempted' literature, or 'potential' literature: hence, something that might be one day be confused with literature—the word literature implying writing that is 'canonic,' as some might say, 'canons' being wild and crazy party-going things of which the parameters shift in the twinkling of epochal eyes. What we publish we choose label to 'transgressive literature,' or 'outsider literature,' but these are simply labels to help smart consumers figure out if a given commodity complements their corporate branded lifestyle. Undoubtedly we would like people to believe that Squawk Back is transgressive literature, this being a genre of literature, and literature being some kind of sublime art essential to life in an egalitarian utopia... but in secret, we know that what we publish is essentially, as I say, 'bits of writerly things' that might one day be deemed Lena Dunham-quality literature (if we're lucky)—and maybe even by her, which would be even better.
SS: Your magazine publishes work every other week, which means there are constant submissions and publications. How many submissions do you get weekly? How do your editors go about with this process in terms of time constraints?
ZB: We get a lot of submissions, but the number varies from week to week. They're all sent to me, I share them with the editors, who read them and give me feedback on them, which I then ignore for a while, and go off and do something else. Then about two days before we publish a new issue, I suddenly remember that I publish a lit blog, read every submission, plus the editors' feedback, decide what we're going to publish, edit every accepted piece by myself with feedback from the editors and the authors, and I'm usually done a few seconds before it goes live. I would improve this system were it not for the fact that under it, everything we've ever produced is good.
SS: What do you look for in your submissions? What types of writing pieces can be submitted? What advice would you give to writers trying to publish with you?
ZB: I think looking for something good in a submission is sort of like going out and looking for a meaningful relationship. You can't contrive it, nor immediately recognize clues of the characteristics that will eventually allow it to spring about organically: it can only, quite literally, spring about organically and all you can do is look around and avoid what doesn't attract you and reject what repulses you. One can steer clear of all cliché, but I just failed to do so, sometimes they're necessary, they work, you know, any number of cliché you can think of to describe that concept. Besides, everything's a cliché, even this statement. Beautiful things are less about sums of parts than relationships among parts, exciting tensions, contrasts. Doesn't ScarJo have a mole or something? So it's sexy on her but imagine one right on my upper lip, kind of oddly perfectly centered. See what I mean?
SS: I read “The Red Cat” by M.J. Valentine, from a recent issue, and was surprised and quite interested by the use of animal characters, but as I was reading, it felt so natural. Do you get a lot of bizarre stories with abnormal characters?
ZB: Well, my attitude is, if animals want to talk we should let them. If they could speak English, it would be unusual, and perhaps somewhat annoying, but you know it's the risk you run when you bestow upon them such powers. Also, I'm of the belief that animals are people too, so for these reasons I can accept animal characters and encourage their proliferation in the to-one-day-be-confused-as-literary form. Yes, we primarily publish bizarre stories with abnormal characters. The piece in question is one. But I like to think we also publish bizarre stories with normal characters, and normal stories with bizarre characters, and that 'our literature' (I feel icky saying that) is about looking at life through the eyes of characters and/or authors with slightly unorthodox worldviews, and maybe not full blown undiagnosed nor treated psychiatric disorders—but those people as well. So yeah, we like surrealism, realism, whatever the opposite of those are...basically anything that's bizarre and weird. I mean, it's just a freak show, really. A really cheap and lurid one, at that, with a kind of nefarious criminal vibe about it: sweatshop literature, runaway poets, coerced satirists. Come on kids, run off with the Squawk Back!
SS: I noticed some of the longer stories published, such as “The Devil’s Mask” by Khanh Ha in the September 6th issue, are accompanied by an art piece. What are these? Are they submissions as well? Do they correlate with the pieces in any way?
ZB: The art pieces are all made by me. They're all fairly creepy, I've been told. Some of them are oil paintings, drawings, others, like the one to which you refer, are made with computers and mixed media. I like to think of them as extremely abstract illustrations. I only began painting and drawing when I started the blog, figuring there probably wasn't another lit blog that had one person who drew disturbing images and used the result as extremely abstract illustrations for bizarre and weird stories, and this might be a thing I could do. But, like I said, I know absolutely nothing about my peers and their work, so I guess I'll say that I very much hope this is a unique characteristic of the Squawk Back and part of what makes it so appealing and good.
SS: The pieces you publish range from eclectic poems, to monologues in plays (as seen in the latest issue by Nick Mwaluko), to short stories, and even to wedding vows (as seen in the September 6th issue by Anthony Arnott). What other types of pieces have you published? Has there been anything completely original that you’ve seen in your submissions or publications that caught your eye?
ZB: It's mainly poems, prose, comic vignettes/essays; every so often creative non-fiction, memoir, essay, travel writing, anything that brushes up against 'attempted literature' in the penal code. We don't publish plays or screenplays, and didn't publish monologues from plays, but I wanted to help Nick, a multiple former contributor, promote the play from which the monologue is excerpted. So...now we do. There's more odd stuff. We once published a cover letter because I thought it was more interesting than the actual submission. I've published screen-captured emails I've received verbatim from contributors because it seemed to me there was nothing I could do to improve them. We're open to a lot. Except screenplays, or plays, I can't imagine why we would ever publish those. The comic vignettes we occasionally publish, credited to 'the editors,' are often dramaturgical in structure but they're short and are really just cheap ways of amusing myself. I guess it's kind of hypocritical.