Talking with J. Robert Lennon about Okey-Panky

Talking with J. Robert Lennon about Okey-Panky
Okey-Panky is a new online literary magazine. (Okey-Pankey)

It's a terrific idea: An online literary magazine, posting a short piece every Monday, like a bracer before you start your week. That's the intent of Okey-Panky, which launched this week under the auspices of Electric Literature. Okey-Panky promises to feature "darkly comic, ironic, and experimental fiction, essay, poetry, and graphic narrative." It is edited by novelist J. Robert Lennon, along with his wife, the writer Rhian Ellis; poetry editor Ed Skoog; and editor-at-large Alice Bolin.

Lennon's nine books of fiction include the novel "Mailman" and the story collection "Pieces for the Left Hand." He lives in Ithaca, N.Y., where he teaches writing at Cornell. Recently, we corresponded, via email, about the magazine.


What made you want to start a magazine?

There's no shortage of good work online, but Rhian and I, who hatched this idea together, thought that our particular literary and comic aesthetic had something unique to offer. We could think of a lot of writers we would love to see sharing space on the Web, and hoped that by bringing them together, we'd attract more of the same.

Where does the name Okey-Panky come from?

I was intentionally mistranslating foreign texts as an exercise, and that phrase popped out of a paragraph of Russian. I don't speak the language, I was just looking at it and pretending I understood. The short story that resulted was just published in the Diagram, another good online magazine of short things. Rhian read it and thought our magazine should claim it.

In your statement of purpose, you describe an earlier magazine project, Teacup.

Teacup was my wife's magazine in the 1990s. It was dedicated to short, dark, funny things, serendipitous asides, strange fragments. You were supposed to be able to read an issue in a sitting. We'd long talked about reviving the idea, but only if we could pay -- which is a luxury not a lot of online magazines of literary oddments can indulge. We're delighted the Electric Literature crew wanted to bring us on board. We figured, if we could pay a hundred bucks a throw, we could put together something good. A hundred bucks is solid. It's more than just a boozy lunch or two. It's as many as three boozy lunches, if you're judicious about it.

It's interesting that you and Rhian were already thinking in terms of brevity in the 1990s, before the advent of our shorthand age. It's a tactic you also employ in our own writing, notably "Pieces for the Left Hand."

We both came of age as fiction writers reading Donald Barthleme, Mary Robison, Padgett Powell, Lydia Davis -- people who do a great deal with very little. We both love Grimm's fairy tales, and are connoisseurs of the spoken anecdote. Short prose reminds you that not much has to happen in a story; it just has to evoke a mood, a notion. It has to sound like something that nothing else sounds like. Writing small things is hard until suddenly it's easy -- the work pays off in a surprising burst of energy. Work that's born like this has a particular quality. It's riff-like. It can be incantatory, colloquial, technical. There are so many short things that aren't art that can be repurposed as art, too -- lists, prayers, memos, directives. Poets are naturals at this, of course.

What is the relationship for you between editing and writing? Putting out a magazine is a collaborative act.

We're just getting started, but Rhian and I have been reading and critiquing each other for decades, and both of us have taught creative writing. We work well together as writers and editors both. We've known Ed [Skoog] for almost as long as we've known each other, and though Alice [Bolin] is a new friend, she was a kindred soul from Day One. These are people who know what they like and why. They're professionally rigorous and good-humored. So far, what one person has liked, the others have enthusiastically accepted.

How do you think Okey-Panky will develop? You're planning to publish a new piece every Monday.

It all came together rather quickly, so who knows? I'm eager to see what comes through the mail slot this year; maybe it will send us in a new direction. For now, we just want to be a reliable way not to be miserable on a Monday morning. Or, at least to be interestingly miserable. If somebody sends us something great that we didn't imagine could exist, we'll be thrilled.

The first issue features four pieces, to get things going. One is Simeon Mills' "The Bully," which is a strange and wonderful story in comics.

I've known Simeon Mills as a fiction writer for years, but only recently became aware of his work as a cartoonist. I think this comic is marvelously dark and funny. It's part of a longer manuscript, and 'The Bully' was our favorite bit -- it uses a straightforward visual vernacular to show you weird and impossible things that are nonetheless emotionally familiar. The little details are wonderful -- the narrator's face, which, when you see it at all, is just a couple of teeth … the shark-suited bully who, of course, also has a car shaped like a shark … all the character detail that comes through posture. Sam evokes adolescent awkwardness so well.


You're also publishing Chris Offutt, whose "Bisbee," unfolds in an almost offhand way.

We've loved Chris' work for years -- like much of our favorite writing, it disarms you with its evident simplicity, so that it can sneak around and wallop you from behind. Chris does so much with a line of casual summary: "Occasionally she tested safe opinions" can take the place of a couple of pages of dialogue. There's only one real scene.

I was especially taken by Anne Gisleson's essay "The Rib Room," which encapsulates an entire life in 1,000 words.

Anne does so much with her conversational style. It's so easy and confident sounding that you're not quite prepared for what it's going to do to you. The same goes for Heather Altfeld's poems, which take an almost joyful pleasure in giving you the bad news. You can't not laugh at "mute sandwiches / blinking at the ugly sturgeons" -- despite its grim context.

How did you connect with Electric Literature?

I tweeted, "Somebody give me $50,000 to start a magazine," and EL's Andy Hunter tweeted back within 10 minutes. They were looking for interesting ways to expand their range, I think, and we happened along at the right time. They didn't really hand us a briefcase full of twenties, of course, but they are paying our writers. We intend to make it worth their while.


Twitter: @davidulin