Tuesday 25 January 2011


Sometimes all a writer needs is a title.

That's what the good guys over at Title Fights do, give you a title to work with.

They also offer a platform for some outstanding work. If you haven't been there, go check them out when you've done. No excuses, now.

Here they are.

Q: What inspired you to start Title Fights?

Mitchell Dahlhoff: Title Fight's moment of conception, like most, started in a bar in Chicago (90% of people are conceived in Chicago, look it up). We were in town for AWP and attended an off-site reading that's local to Chicago called the Dollar Store Show. I won't go into the specifics of that reading series but it was a similar concept to how Title Fights initially worked, which is giving authors a frame of reference for a reading while still allowing for as much personal freedom as possible, but I suppose I'm getting ahead of myself.

Anyways, TJ and I were at the show and were really blown away by it. For me, it accomplished something that I think contemporary literature really needs to be more focused on: it made writing hip. It was cool - these people were cool for being up there, doing what they were doing. It was like seeing a band play, the energy of it. And it was doing something else literature needs to work harder on: it was making a space for itself. That's a big question, now, is how do you put what you write in front of people, and this was a way to do it, a way that was forceful and engaging.

So, obviously, we were determined as hell to rip them off as much as we possibly could.

Train rides from Chicago to Minneapolis take a long time. Enough time to conceptualize a reading series, it turns out. Working from titles is a bit of an old writing exercise, one that I had used in the past, and we figured by taking titles from specific source materials (children's stories, race horse names, etc.,) there would be a definite cohesiveness. And then when Title Fights came up as a name and it was a pun (Puns! So literary!), it was like a sign from the writing gods, you know, Hemingway and Fitzgerald were toasting us up in heaven or something.

So, that was the conception. The birth was a few months later, after hustling some money from the English Department of our school and roping a few writers we knew into playing a part in our delusions. It was a success, I suppose - I hesitate to say we were bigger than Jesus at this point - successful enough to encourage us, suffice it to say. I think, for me, the biggest success of the reading series we did, short lived as it was, was in creating a sense of community for the writers around us, of giving us something that was our own, and maybe, hopefully, bringing a little culture to the Minnesota prairie.

Anyways, we kept it going, trying out different things, Dan came on board (and we love him for it) and then we all graduated and had to break up the band. The question on the lips of the nation was: Is this the end of Title Fights? We immediately ruled out leaving it to people coming up behind us in the program at school, because, honestly, this might be the one good idea the three of us have and we need to keep it locked up. So, since we were being scattered to the winds, the easiest answer was to move online and to open it up to the loving, gentle arms of the internet. So now we're an online journal, and our baby is growing up, and I couldn't be prouder.

Dan Vierck: You really laid down the autobiography.

I don't have anything to say in response to question except I thought it was a great idea and decided I would do anything it took to be a part of it and keep it alive.

T.J. Staneart: Well said.

Q: How does it work?

TJ: Each month one of the three of us picks a theme that we think we can get a good number of titles from then we try to invite new people to submit. They have one month, and they have to use the title we give them. These are the only hard rules, and they are not really all that hard. I feel like the heart of what we are doing here is the challenge of it. We want it to be what you can write, rather than what you have written. Our numbers are going up, but we still get a lot of return business. Most of our stories are from past fighters.

When writers send the stories in, I think we all look for different things. I want to be moved by something in the story. If it’s not the writing, then an interesting angel on the title would do it for me. I have no problem rejecting one I don’t like.

DV: I want to get a sense that the author enjoyed themselves - that they didn't abide by too many academic restrictions. I like the idea of the author not feeling too much outside pressure for the story, and instead relying on themselves to make the story whatever it's going to be. Above all, I want the author to enjoy the story, and for that to come through in the writing.

MD: Yeah, I think the thing with Title Fights is that there's a sense of play and energy to the work, which is sort of the whole point. Obviously, as editors, we're looking for competency but beyond that we're pretty open minded. I just want stories that are good to read and have a title we gave it, it's really that simple.

Q: What changes are in the foreseeable future for Title Fights, if any?

DV: Well, next month, if you can believe it - we're going to have a different theme for the titles. I don't know what else, or, I'm not the best person to talk to about it anyway.

TJ: I have nothing to say on this, either, but Mitch, you could talk about maybe going from a blog format to a real site.

MD: Sure. Soon, hopefully - within a year, I would say - I hope to transition Title Fights from a blog format to a more traditional web journal format. The biggest obstacles in this are financial, paying for a domain, buying software that allows us to design the website since my HTML skills are pretty crude, and so on, not that any of that matters whatsoever for Title Fights' literary concerns.

I guess, really, the biggest changes I hope for Title Fights is that it'll become more popular, reach a bigger audience and allow us to draw submissions from a wider audience. For myself, my biggest concern with Title Fights right now is making this happen, and moving to a more traditional site will give us - justly or not - a greater shot at being taken seriously by people. If we do become more popular I think the biggest change will be to our publishing pace, since publishing one theme/issue a month will be more difficult the higher numbers of submissions we get.

Q: When you assign someone a title, what do you hope to get back from them? What are you looking for in the stories they submit?

MD: Well, we pretty much covered this, so I won't reiterate what I said, but I guess the one thing I'll add is that my view on editing has always been not to only pick stories that I like personally, but to try to look for stories that I see other people liking. I think a lot of editors only pick their own pet favorites, rather than thinking about their audience, and I think that's a big mistake.

DV: We did cover this pretty much, didn't we?

For editing Title Fights I've been approaching it with a very open mind. I'll admit I haven't rejected a story yet - I'm stoked we're getting anything. And it hasn't been a problem because everything I've read has been enthusiastically written and fun to read.

As we grow and get more submissions I figure I'll weed them out by how consistent they are within themselves - how successfully confident, brave and conscientiously idiosyncratic they are.

TJ: I want to be moved in a way that I would not have thought of when I gave the title away. That said, I also want a good voice. I feel like that can put a story over the top. I am a bit more hard nosed than Dan, but I try to be fair.

Q: Why three editors?

MD: Well, besides the mythological history of the properties of the number three, it's to allow us to share the work load evenly. Each month one of us is the editor, then with the next month we shift. So, for each month of editing, you then get the next two off. This stops us from being burnt out by the work, or having trouble communicating, and a lot of other problems that come up when you have multiple people sitting in the driver's seat.

TJ: I think it also give the site a more diverse feel. You can look month to month and find different aesthetics. I think, too, the rotation gives us time to come up with good titles. If it were just one of us, I think we would run out of title themes that can go the distance. Bad titles doesn't always mean bad stories, but it certainly can't help.

DV: And we're busy guys. We're all in grad school, we each have at least one relationship going, plus your everyday existential twentysomthing bullshit. Editing Title Fights once every three months is fun. It's something to brag about. In our literary circles, it's a pick up line.

Q: Are you happier with your creation now as a lit. journal, or do you miss the reading series?

DV: If we were all in the same city, it'd probably be a reading series too. That was a lot of fun. Editing is a very different thing than being a writer/reader. It's fun, too, something new and exciting for us.

TJ: Personally, I loved putting together the readings. Getting writers, a stage, getting the word out. It's all so much more active in a reading series, it's much easier to track progress.

Title Fights online is great, and requires a lot of the same organizational skills, but it lacks the thrill of a live reading, and I miss that.

MD: I would be ecstatic to someday bring back a Title Fights live reading, and hopefully someday we'll have the cachet to pull that off in a really meaningful way. For right now, though, I think the journal is really the phase we need to be focused on.

Q: How do you reach out to authors, given that you are asking for original work as opposed to taking open submissions?

TJ: We have been really lucky. We have a number of repeat offenders, almost like a fan base. Certain writers will come back again and again, and this speaks to one of the things at the heart of the project: a reason to write. I think the challenge is good for everyone who tries.

Also, as we have said, we in grad schools around the country and that is a good way to hook new, young writers.

DV: We're good people. People like to do the things we ask them to do.

I'd like to note that when we started out we were hitting up every writer we knew of. I even sent an e-mail to Michael Martone. But the first handful who wrote for us were people that a common professor of ours, Anthony Neil Smith, contacted. They've turned out to be the most consistent and enthusiastic participants.

Q: Given that the form is often criticized, what do you feel are the pros and cons of doing an online journal?

MD: I've thought about this pretty extensively but I'll try to keep it short. First, it's cheap. Second, it's organic. We're allowed to expand and adapt as we take submissions. In a print format, once you decide the form something is going to take, you are committed to that until it's time to put the next issue together. We can make changes to the way we do things every month, daily if we wanted to. Third, our rapid publishing rate is the best way to get noticed. If we were a standard print-only annual, we'd send a letter out, get submissions, go through the whole process, and then a year later we have a product. But these days you can't have a year between products or everybody moves on. We have new stories every month, meaning that every month we have a new chance to get someone's attention, and since we'll be publishing again soon, keep that attention.

The only major drawback is that as of yet the literary establishment is still a bit blind to a small journal like ours. And maybe that's how it should be, honestly. I think we do good work and will continue to do so, and I think the literary community on the internet is something I want to be a part of and help shape, and hopefully we're accomplishing that in our own small way, even if that means never being taken as seriously as something like the Paris Review or whoever.

DV: I don't think we're trying to compare to anyone else, so much. I think there are similar prompt-centric journals out there (Significant Objects). And yeah, they do things we want to do (print anthologies, have "big names"), but we also just want to do this thing. Established benchmarks of success aren't our primary goals.

TJ: I agree with both Dan and Mitchell. Upward motion is our only real goal. We aim to meet or beat our last issue, I think, not the other publications out there.

That said, we could go a lot of ways with that. I feel like right now we are a young publication with a lot of room to grow, and it's the online platform that is giving us that room. In print, with the costs and manpower, a failure would kill Title Fights, if not, us. Print would be a great place to end up, and if it happens down the line, we'll be more polished and practiced. I would say an online journal is where we belong right now.

Q: What do you feel is your role as editors in the direction of the journal?

DV: I like how TJ said "upward." I think that terminology should... if we had an office, we would put 'Upward' on a banner and hang it from the ceiling. It's our responsibility to get the kinds of writers we want, and I think we want (almost) everyone.

When we have enough writers that we all feel comfortable rejecting some to make room for others, then it will be a more nuanced direction and a way to tell the editors apart, i.e., 'This editor likes shorter pieces,' 'This editor likes subtler pieces,' 'This editor quotes commercials and squeals all the way home.' But for now it's just our responsibility to, like TJ said, take Title Fights upward.

MD: I think that Dan is right that, at the moment, we're not getting the volume of submissions for us to really differentiate ourselves in concrete terms, but I think we do have differing styles. Personally, I'd say over half the stories I've published I did a fairly good amount of editing on, taking out a lot of stuff, and that's something that the more I do the more I enjoy it, I love to try to refine the work we get. I think that maybe sets me apart a little bit, in my focus on the actual writing, whereas I know that TJ has asked people to change things from more of a concept/plot angle, and I don't know that Dan really focuses on editing as much. I think all three approaches are completely valid, and I think that people are definitely getting three different experiences depending on who’s editing.

Q: Can the world look forward to a Title Fights of poetry, maybe even non-fiction?

TJ: I really see genres like non-fiction and poetry under the "upward" umbrella, but I don't think we have the mindset to form a whole issue around either one. All three of us could edit a poetry or non-fiction round, but could we do it better than a poet? I don't think so, myself. Title Fights was born in fiction, and shifting out of it might take some new blood.

MD: Yeah, hopefully someday we'll have the onus to start a Title Fights franchise that we can license out to other people, but I think for our concerns we're just going to keep to what we know.

DV: Geez. My biggest dream for Title Fights was getting Michael Martone. I could see a Poetry or NF special round, for sure.


1 comment:

  1. Title Fights = Class Act. Anyone who's had the privilege of working with them knows that. They challenge you in interesting ways. They also make a guy feel right to home around their place.
    And they -- as you now know from the dance -- got their shit together. Thanks for putting them out there, Nigel