I wanted it to be zen – Remembering Metazen
Metazen was an online journal run by Frank Hinton from 2009 til 2014. It published a new piece of writing everyday for that entire run, a pretty incredible feat if you ask me. One great thing about Metazen publishing so much work was that it introduced its readers to a lot of new writers, and a lot of those writers were indeed new. Metazen gave heaps of young writers their first shot, publishing their often striking and unexpected work on the minimalist, black and white, website alongside work from more established names.
A couple of people shared why Metazen was important to them:
I was utterly delighted when Frank Hinton accepted my first ever story for online publication in Metazen. Perhaps that’s why I called it “Tickled Pink”. It was published on June 16, 2009. I had never met Frank or seen him, virtual or otherwise (and I still haven’t). We spoke on the phone a couple of times when I (briefly) served as editor of Metazen later. I can’t blame him for being private: I was private myself at first, having adopted “Flawnt” as a pen name, or more than that, as a persona to hide behind. A magazine like Metazen makes us face not just the oddities of its founder (to begin with the name: what is that even about?) but also the odds of survival: of thought, of writing, of writers.
In 2014, when I had to step away from Metazen due to some life changes that prevented me from giving everything I had to the journal, it was like a death. As you know, we published something memorable and provocative every day, and we never closed for submissions. I should send a special thanks out to Len Kuntz, who read a lot of subs near the end. By the time my life settled, Metazen had disappeared–something that kills me a little bit every time I think about it, and I often think about it. I’m proud of the work we published and very sorry to the writers whose work was lost. I could tell you about hundreds of stories and hundreds of poems that I’m glad we published. One of the last stories we published, “Lithopedion” by Randall Brown, was included in The Best Small Fictions 2015.
Frank Hinton answered my questions about Metazen:
Why did you first decide to start Metazen? Was there something specific you wanted to achieve with it?
I started Metazen as a blog really, and I was basically using it to self-publish or post rough pieces of flash fiction. I thought it was kind of therapeutic and it had a clean and simple feel to it. I was writing a lot of metafictional bits at the time, so the title Metazen sounding like medicine, being somewhat contemplative and zen like and metafictional all seemed to fit together. I liked the sound of the word.
Then back in 2008, 2009 a lot of people started to coalesce online, around Tao Lin, around tumblr, around HTMLGiant, around Fictionaut and around Facebook. I had decided I wanted to be anonymous but at the same time I wanted to learn about writing, so it was really important to develop friendships. Marcus Speh, who was anonymous at this time as Finnegan Flaunt was one of the first people I reached out to. He’s this brilliant German writer (and physicist). I asked if I could put some of his writing on my blog and he agreed and I really enjoyed that feeling, of soliciting and posting, and arranging the text. There is a rush from publishing someone’s work, and you sit back and say “Wow, this is in my window, this guy is so smart and talented and he’s letting me display this.” So I moved on from there, and started talking to everyone I could, and reading everyone’s blogs and stories and connecting to people like Blake Butler and xTx and Roxane Gay and Noah Cicero and so on. But the most important person ended up being Christopher Allen. After transforming Metazen into a litzine, I needed help and I hired new editors, but Christopher became the heart of the site. He read everything, polished it up, he guided myself and the other editors and was just a fantastic person.
In the end what I wanted to achieve was to have a place people wanted to be published. I wanted it to look beautiful and I wanted it to have something every day, and I wanted it to feature known and unknown writers.
Why did you decide to publish new work everyday? Was that schedule ever hard to maintain?
As I got older, and my life became more complex, it did. My personal life was consumed with Metazen, but my professional life began to expand. I am a motivated person with a lot of ambition. A lot of times I wish I wasn’t, but it was really important for me to be the best in my job. So I ended up doing about 90 hours a week on my job and Metazen combined. Going daily, I needed more editors, and at one point we had like 8 people. I’d assign them a batch of submissions each week. By 2010-11 we were getting like 300 subs a week, it was insane. I’d take a batch myself, then on Sunday’s I’d lay the art and final design for each post. Christopher handled most of the back end. At some points I dreaded that day of the week where I’d need to sit down and finalize the pieces. It combined with other intensities in my life, and I felt like I wasn’t dedicating myself to my own writing as much as I could. But the community around the site and the editors made it still very fulfilling. I regret not being a better, more attentive leader though.
How did you source the work you published? Was it all from open submissions or did you solicit as well?
At its height, 90% came through submissions. I still would reach out to people though, there were some writers I’d always wanted. Getting Dennis Cooper was a really big thing for me, I’d been watching him from the shadows from before Metazen existed. But also, sometimes I wanted to find writers. I used to go on Omegle, the place that matches you up with random chat partners. You could put in a person’s interest, so I had it match me up with people interested in writing. So sometimes I’d sit and talk to writers about what they were writing, and in the chat I’d ask if they could send me a sample. Then I’d ask them if they’d like to publish it, and sometimes I’d just run it through that. It was a really interesting way to find people. Most writers don’t know they are good and many don’t know where to start. I don’t think writing inspires a lot of confidence. When you write it’s the same as doing drugs. You are a little secretive, you’re a little ashamed and it’s not culturally acceptable to go out and brag about it because people don’t really want to hear you explain your hobby.
How did the site change over the years?
I wanted it to be beautiful and zen like. I wanted a clean looking, black and white site with really good art and layout. We added features like Sunday reading, interviews and probably the best thing was the Christmas Ebook. I did three of those. I remember we raised some money, I solicited to dozens of writers and put it all together. I thought it was really neat when Bebe Zeva did a beautiful photoshoot for the Ebook art.
What was your favourite thing about running Metazen?
I liked meeting people who I admired. I was communicating with everyone online. It was really stressful to not go to live readings and all that. And to be honest, I flew out to AWP and I met a ton of people I idolized or watched them read and even went to a party without revealing myself. I thought, maybe I’ll pull out my phone and show them it’s me, and maybe some people guessed when they met me but didn’t say it, but I couldn’t do it, I didn’t want to pop the bubble. So my favorite thing was getting to talk to people and really have honest relationships with them through the filter of Metazen. I have a lot of friends in real life I care about, but I love some of the people I’ve published, like, I think about them constantly.
Why did Metazen close in the end?
I basically came to a point where I had to choose between my real life and my online life, and I could’t put it into both. I’m 33. I am a bitch for saying this, but I’m career driven and I’m climbing some ladder to God knows what. I had to sacrifice Metazen and Frank Hinton to do that. I have a family and I can’t be present in an online world to the extent I want to be with a family. I wanted to be an artist and I wanted to do more. I’m not done though, I keep saying I’ll come back, but it’s hard right now.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
Having your feet in two worlds in an online continuum (writing and running a publishing website) is a double-edged sword. If you want to be a writer you should write and if you want to be a publisher you should read. I balanced it, then I imbalanced it. Fragment all of that into my real life and it became messy. There was a point when I was in therapy about it, trying to figure out what was the best path to take and I struggled. It really killed me to end Metazen and then once that engine was shot, I dropped Frank Hinton too. I was also running Alt Lit Gossip, and the facebook page was massive. That was a really active group. I was still interacting and writing and then all the shit went down, the stuff I’m not going to talk about, but I didn’t handle it well and then when I did something I realized I was getting into a highly political discussion and that everything I wanted writing to be about was not what was happening and suddenly there was anger and hate and harassment and factions and I couldn’t see what went wrong. I think I’d really tried to make and stimulate a community, and a lot of us were doing that. But then people did shit, and people got angry and I wasn’t present enough to be prescient about it. I’d felt betrayed by some people and then offended by others and I didn’t know what to do. It pushed me away. To be honest, I have no beat on the pulse of things. When HTMLGiant closed, I disengaged. I don’t know what the scene is like anymore, I don’t follow as many people, I get a little sad. Maybe someone can fill me in and make me feel better, I don’t know.
The site is no long online. Do you still have access to the archives and would you ever make them available to the public again?
Somewhere. I own Metazen still. But I’d need to look.
What have you been up to since Metazen? Any other projects we should keep an eye out for?
I just live a life of work and family. I am very boring. I read on my deck and I drink and I make expensive coffee. I have a manuscript for a novel which I’ve been working on for 4 years. It has been through over 500 full revisions, and I still detest large parts of it. I don’t know if I have confidence in myself as a writer anymore. I want to publish another novel, it’s my biggest hope. But I don’t know, I don’t think I’m a good writer.
Thank you for taking the time to interview me.