By Wynne Kontos
Yahdon Israel, Brooklyn Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, makes the concept of the literary and what’s swaggy seem like a natural pairing. Widely known for his web series, “LIT,” the monthly Literaryswag Book Club and of course, curator of the movement, #literaryswag, Israel challenges those with preconceived notions of what is “literary” to begin with, insisting there’s no wrong way to show up and command attention.
Appointed Brooklyn’s Editor-In-Chief and the Editorial Director of Northside Media Inc. this fall, Israel is a 2015 graduate of The New School’s MFA Creative Writing Nonfiction program. I met up with him at Brooklyn Magazine’s DUMBO offices and we discussed community, the power of saying thank you, and whether the “write everyday” advice really applies.
Wynne Kontos: Thank you so much for talking with The New School! What was the trajectory of your work in the MFA program? Did you have a project that you started on?
Yahdon Israel: Being from Brooklyn, I always wanted to be somewhere where I was a part of what was going on, apart from the walls of the school. The New School just felt like it was in a neighborhood, and that it was rooted in space. I had a senior thesis I was working on, but I wanted to mature my personal essay work. The essay collection I worked on at The New School is called “Concealed Weapons.”
At the time, in my mind, I was going to be the next James Baldwin…I was going to make all this money and Jay-Z was going to read me. Then I get there and I learned the intangible things about the literary world that I had not considered. The New School MFA program was the first place I had to defend my work.
The New School also gave me an environment of accountability. I use shame as a way to get work done, meaning, if I know if I have to give work in on a certain day it’s easier to get it done, than if I know I can do it whenever. The reason I went to The New School was I wanted to be able to get something book-length out. I don’t think I would’ve gotten the 70-80 pages that you [write] if I had not gone to a program. It forced me to get out of my head, that vanity of being a writer, like, “It’s not ready yet!” It never is, but going to the program made me a lot more pragmatic. Just do the work.
WK: If you knew now what you knew back when you were entering the MFA program, what would you tell yourself?
YI: When I came in to the MFA program, I was completely naive about how business works. There’s this immediate thing, where at first you’re excited for your work to be published, so you give away work for free, but then you start getting resentful because you’re not getting paid for anything, so you overcharge for your work, you don’t have an audience yet but feel you should be getting paid X amount—but ultimately don’t really know the value of your own work. So I think a truncated version of that answer is knowing the value of my work.
I knew nothing about freelancing, I knew nothing about writer’s contracts, I knew nothing about what actually makes writing actually work. I think that, especially from an artist perspective you come in with this idea you’re just going to be the best artist and being the best artist is going to create opportunities for you. James Baldwin was on the cover of Time magazine, but he was broke. I could easily romanticize, oh that’s not going to be me. Which is I think what a lot of writers do, we look at [those examples] and think we’re just going to write a better book, as opposed to, maybe that person’s position had nothing to do with the ability to write. It had something to do with understanding the business.
WK: Do you have a favorite memory or moment of your time at The New School?
YI: There’s a lot, but I definitely think it was giving a speech at the Commencement Ceremony. I remember everyone was saying, “You gave the best speech!” And what I felt was not that I gave the best speech but that the writing program produced the best speech. When you come from a background where you’re constantly being told what you do isn’t real, that writing isn’t a job, to be told that what I represented, that what I came from was the best part of that day made me feel like this is why we do what we do.
WK: You kind of gave visibility, not only to program, but the art form. Can you tell me about getting to Brooklyn Magazine and being Editor-in-Chief? What did that process look like for you?
YI: So I didn’t apply for this job. There’s a naivety, that romanticism that writers have, thinking, I’m going to do this one thing and all these doors are going to open. Almost immediately when I saw that writing alone was not going to get things to happen, I knew I had to learn to community build. What that meant was going to other writer’s readings, buying their books when I couldn’t afford them, every time someone published a piece of mine, whether they paid a lot or paid a little, it was thanking them, even if they said [they didn’t need thank yous.] You do that work—
WK: —building those relationships…
YI: I wouldn’t even say relationships, I would say community, because these are the people that if they need something, you’re lending yourself to them. A book editor here, by the name of Molly McArdle, knew me from doing Literaryswag stuff, and asked me to write for Brooklyn Magazine. So I followed up and we published my first piece with them and then I pitched her other things. Every time something good would happen I would owe it to Molly and say thank you. You don’t get to publish these things without the people who help you do that. I have to say I think in the world of literature that often isn’t done. We don’t thank the editors, we don’t thank the people who send the email that connects us, we don’t thank those people because we see them as incidental instead of instrumental.
That community is the irony of being a writer. As a writer you’re doing this very solitary act of sitting by yourself, creating by yourself. It’s hard to acknowledge what your community looks like when you’re by yourself alone a lot of the time. I had never edited a magazine in my life, had never worked at a magazine, nor had I ever interned at a magazine, but what Molly McArdle saw was that I was always finding ways to build community, to bring people together, and I had a vision.
Even outside of the creative writing program, I was championing books, like I said, buying books I couldn’t afford because I’m invested in a very real way. People pay attention to that. That’s one thing that has helped my ascension so quickly when people see you’re committed.
I was emailed the last week of September by the co-founder, Danny Stedman, who said Molly McArdle suggested me for an editorial position. At the time I thought he probably wanted me for an editor type thing and he said no, we want you to be our editorial director. I don’t have that on my resume anywhere. I hadn’t even given him a resume, and I’m sitting there doing the immediate thing of talking myself out of the opportunity, like “I can’t do this.”
But the more I thought about it, I realized I’ve always done the work. I’ve just never had the title. It was up until the moment, you’re unprepared, and then finding in that moment of unpreparedness that you’ve been preparing all along.
WK: I’m curious if people ask you about being a young artist, a young creator. You’re young to have all this success that you’ve worked hard for, and I think sometimes people ask that in a way that devalues the work. But as a part of an MFA community where the majority are such young artists, I wonder if your age is something that gets thrown at you.
YI: When you’re doing the work people don’t care. At the end of the day the work is the most important, no matter what. You can start to get caught up in how the work gets done, or who’s doing it, but if it’s getting done and you’re the one doing the actual work you have no time to sit around worrying if you’re too young to do it.
In a lot of ways, it’s just a commitment to the actual work. And the work, once again, is not just what’s on the page, it’s what you do when the book is closed. When the book is closed what are you still doing? We’re hearing a lot about artists and creators who are great at what they do, but they’re horrible people.
WK: That’s a constant conversation we have in the MFA program, how do you reconcile good art and what someone is creating with who they are in their life.
YI: Right, and that for me is the more important question. I could be an okay writer, but how am I as a person? I don’t think those things are binary, how can I do both? I get into conversations with writers all the time, and the first question writer’s ask is, “How’s writing?” And I’m like, I’m not writing right now, I’m doing this, and they’re tell me I should be writing every day. I could be writing every day, but I’m doing something else that allows the work you do to have meaning.
We all need each other—so I’m not telling someone not to write every day, but this notion that everyone should be doing the same thing everyday is strange. Who’s the one writing grants to get people opportunities? Who’s the one getting brand partnerships so this event can get paid for? Who’s the one putting the events together?
WK: We’re a village, we have to work together.
YI: Yeah, and in my mind, I would love to write every day.
WK: But there’s satisfaction with what you said, contributing to the community and making sure these people are heard. That feeds our work.
YI: I think that is our work. The writing part of it is just a minuscule part of what we do. This work to me, is writing too, if this is helping the culture move forward.
WK: Can you take me through a day in the life of Editor-in-Chief here?
YI: A lot of emails. It’s a lot of talking to everybody, I ask them about the business of publishing that has nothing to do with their jobs. For instance, a kid in Iowa is never asked whether a kid in Bed-Stuy is going to understand their work, so you’re being taught whose position is more valuable. I can’t think because I’m Editor-in-Chief of a magazine that everyone else’s job does not play a role into what I do. The precedent is set on everyone’s job being important.
There’s something humbling about being asked in an MFA workshop, are you alright with someone other than you not understanding your experience? That’s a fair question. What’s unfair is when that question isn’t asked of everybody. For me, I try to step left with a story and go to sales to see if that’s a selling opportunity, or see if the person from graphic design can bring something to it, or go to social to see how we’re going to do it as opposed to saying, we’re doing this because I want to and everyone else just has to follow. That’s why I introduced you to everybody in the office because this is not my space, this is everyone’s space.
A lot of my day-to-day here is phone calls, taking meetings. Everybody that’s writing for Brooklyn Magazine has at least one phone call with me, [so] when I’m editing them or telling them to do something, they know where it’s coming from because we’ve had the conversation. I’ve been edited by people I’ve never met, and that was always weird to me. As editor I have to consider when you’re changing culture you’re not changing actions—you’re changing mindsets towards actions—getting people on the same page so when you turn, everyone knows you’re turning.
WK: Hearing another writer talk about communication, listening and understanding is so important. In your Brooklyn Magazine piece, “Where We Go When We’re Quiet: On the Sounds and Silence of Beyonce’s, Lemonade,” and your Poets and Writer’s interview with Victor Lavalle you talk about the importance of listening and that the people around you, as well as yourself, really want to be understood. How does that change your writing practice? How does that influence you as Editor-in-Chief?
YI: As a writer, you get the last word. What that means for me, being so used to getting the last word, [meant] I wasn’t listening a lot. Writing became a way for me to shut people out.
Until the MFA program when I was assigned in seminar Hilton Als book, White Girls, I’d never heard of Als, and I loved his books so much. I was grappling with this dude. I don’t like everything he’s saying but I respect it, and he’s challenging the way I think. Until I read that book I was never really writing about women in a real way. In many ways I was writing the parts of them that were real to me but not concerning myself with the parts that were real when I was not there. A lot of things in my writing became more about me listening to people. Stop trying to give answers, and start to let the questions linger a bit more. Trusting the piece will come when it has to come.
WK: You are the host of the LIT webseries, you’re the editor of a magazine, you’ve done a lot of interviews, and you’re the curator of Literaryswag. A lot of our students are trying to get their foot in the door of freelance and create their own social media presence, and are trying to figure out what that looks like. So what’s the key to having a great book club? Hosting a great reading? Doing a good interview?
YI: Commitment to what you’re doing. The writing thing is the most ironic thing, because we could put music on and listen to it or all go to the movies, we could go to a concert or stand up—most art forms we can consume together. But reading a book is one of the most solitary acts. As a writer, what I’m essentially asking you to do is pay no attention to anyone else but me. It’s very interesting that people who do that work are at the same time very self-conscious about being selfish. Writer’s say read my 700 page novel—
WK: —but don’t think about me.
YI: Yeah! So let’s be honest about that. For me, the first level is be honest and be committed to the honesty of your work.
This is how I learned this. I would send my sister essays, and ask, did you read it yet? She’s got four kids, but I’d be like, why isn’t she reading my stuff? I realized, is this essay about to change her situation? In my mind this is the best essay. But is that essay really going to make change, help her do anything different in her own life? When I was honest, this really isn’t that important. It’s the most hurtful and vindicating thing you can tell yourself. Once you can tell yourself that the shit you’re doing isn’t that serious, you find other ways to make it a priority for people.
So for instance, I’m going to make a show like LIT , because maybe more people will watch something about writing then read something about writing. It’s being honest with my craft to the extent that I’m willing to go the lengths to get what I ultimately want done, which is, I want you to [engage with my work]. There’s that hopscotch game with writers, where they want you to read their work but you have to want to read it, but won’t admit that we, as writers, need our readers.
WK: Be honest, like you said.
YI: Yes, and be committed to that honesty. Once you’re committed to the honesty and you know what you actually want, everything else will come. Think about this—you, as a writer spent years writing a book and people show up to an event for the book and you say, “Oh I don’t know why you’re all here.” What are you saying about those years it took to write that book? If I took years [to write a book] I’d thank y’all, and I’m definitely going to deliver because you could be anywhere else but you’re here with me. I tell people this at the end of Literaryswag Book Club meetings: “You all don’t have to be here, but you choose to be here. I appreciate that. I’m not going to betray that by making you feel like you shouldn’t be.
Your body makes you accountable in ways that art doesn’t. I think that’s the real art in art, finding the limitations that are valuable, to expand or push a boundary, as opposed to telling yourself there are no boundaries. One thing that changed my life was hearing Toni Morrison at The New Yorker Festival in 2015, tell Hilton Als that she did not get to name her last book, God Help the Child. She wanted to name that book, The Wrath of Children, and her publishers said that was a bad title. I’m sitting there thinking, “She won a Nobel Prize and they’re telling her no. What are they going to tell me?” That means if I want more, I’m probably going to have to take what would look like less to people sometimes.
WK: That goes back to community. Everything you’ve said today has been cyclical, about understanding the business and not being afraid to promote yourself. I wonder if that fear we have about promoting ourselves isn’t lessened by building yourself this community of people who are excited for you and want to hear about the work you’re creating.
YI: If I’m celebrating people equally, why would I feel bad about promoting myself? I created a web series that promotes other writers work. I [know] writers who turn down or scoff at editorial type work, but everyone can’t be the writer. If we’ve got twelve people on the field, everyone can’t be the quarterback.
I’ve gotten a lot of things because I considered, what is needed in this moment? I have no problem being the thing that’s needed. You can make excuses for yourself if you want to, or you can look at what others in the industry are asking you to do—is that something that helps you in any way? Is that somebody you actually want to help?
WK: Create a step towards the door, as opposed to just creating the door.
YI: Instead of thinking the door is going to be yours. Part of keeping my faith is being honest about it, and knowing my faith has a limit. And I’m not putting my faith in sitting at a desk writing prose that nobody is buying. I’m going to put faith in building something very tangible and practical. Every so often I might write that big great piece that gets a big award, but you can’t hold your breath for that stuff.
WK: I read that you started some of your early interviews by asking writers their three favorite fashion designers and their three favorite writers. So what are yours?
YI: My three favorite writers are James Baldwin, always going to be number one. Hilton Als is number two. Margo Jefferson is number three. Clothing designers are BK Circus, Maison Margiela and Scotch and Soda.
WK: Is there anything else you want to share with TNS community?
YI: Well, Brooklyn Magazine is actually getting ready to build out our internship program. It’s not going to be just editorial, our whole thing is about building leaders, and to empower people not just do their job but work outside their comfort zone. I’ve been talking about how we build an intersectional approach to internships so they come here with one skill and they leave with ten skills. The New School is the best school for creating that kind of interdisciplinary thinking in their students.
Yahdon Israel is the Editorial Director of Northside Media, Inc. and the Editor-in-Chief of Brooklyn Magazine. He’s written for Avidly, The New Inquiry, Brooklyn Magazine, LitHub, and Poets and Writers. He graduated from the MFA Creative Non-Fiction Writing program at the New School in 2015 and is the Awards and Membership VP of the National Book Critics Circle. He runs a popular Instagram page which promotes literature and fashion under the hashtag #Literaryswag, and hosts a web show for writers called LIT.
Wynne Kontos is a licensed masters social worker and editorial assistant at Teachers and Writers' Magazine, currently receiving her MFA in Fiction at The New School. Her work is featured in the anthology, Love Sick: Teens Reflect On Growing Up with a Parent Who Has Cancer, The Inquisitive Eater and Moonlit Wing, with interviews on the New School Blog and the One Story blog. She has performed her work with the writing collective Lost Lit and at the 25 East Gallery in Manhattan. She lives and works in New York City. Find her at on Instagram @WhenKnots or online at wynnekontos.tumblr.com.