Muzzle Magazine's Stevie Edwards and Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib "Conversations about History and Aesthetic"

Muzzle Magazine: Conversations About History and Aesthetic with Stevie Edwards and Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

interviews and commentary by Dan "Sully" Sullivan

In its five years in existence, Muzzle Magazine has earned a deserved list of accomplishments and a reputation for publishing work that challenges and moves its readers. However, it was not these merits alone that pulled me to learn more about the magazine’s history and approach. From the outset, Muzzle has always appeared to me to be dedicated to blurring the lines between the performance poetry universe and one of the page. I’ll spare everyone the history of divide between these two houses of poetry, but it does exist and I often feel like a vagabond on either side of the fence.

Though the following interviews with Editor-in-Chief Stevie Edwards and Poetry Editor Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib are not exclusively geared toward exploring the bridged aesthetic, I thought it important to note as one of the driving forces in my inspiration to reach out to a publication that I hold close to my chest for that very reason. As Editor-in-Chief Stevie Edwards points out in our interview to follow, the lines between the page and stage are gradually and continually blurring. Though it would be unfair to pigeonhole the diverse work that appears in the magazine, I am compelled to name my motivations. As a performance poet in academia, it is with pride that I assert that publications like Muzzle Magazine that actively seek out poems that challenge our perceptions of how poetry speaks are a large component of why the walls between worlds are coming down.

Stevie Edwards, Founder/Editor-in-Chief

Can you tell me a bit about the origin of the magazine (i.e. why/how you decided to establish Muzzle)?

I started Muzzle in 2010 when I was a Writer-in-Residence for Vox Ferus in Chicago. (Note: Vox Ferus still exists, but without the residency portion. Primarily it consists of a workshop series run by Marty McConnell.) One of the requirements of being a Writer-in-Residence for Vox Ferus was to start a community-based project. One of the other community projects spurred out of this was Real Talk Live, a variety show that ran for about four years. I was probably the shyest Writer-in-Residence, and I had worked on a lit mag in undergrad, so I thought I would start one as my community project rather than something that involved a lot of public speaking and performing.

My original mission was to create a place where poets from the slam community were featured next to poets from academia (although, I’m glad to see some of those distinctions slipping more and more). When I moved to Chicago, I didn’t really know what a poetry slam was, though I’d been writing and studying poetry since I was a teenager and was starting to get published in lit journals. I was lucky enough to stumble across a reading at Woman Made Gallery where a poet affiliated with Vox Ferus who had strong involvement in the slam community read—and read with such energy, such embodiment and expression, I was immediately captivated and wanted to learn more about it.

What was/is your/Muzzle's relationship to Chicago?

Well, when I founded Muzzle in 2010, it started as just me—but I quickly added a number of editors from Chicago. As time has passed, there’s been a bit of turnover on the staff—mostly people wearing a lot of hats and wanting/needing to focus on the ones that involve paychecks. There have also been a lot of people on staff who’ve moved away from Chicago. As of right now, the only editors we have in Chicago are Ben Clark and Jacob Victorine. But it did start there, and I think the poetry community in Chicago has strongly influenced my writing aesthetic.

How, if at all, has Muzzle Magazine’s mission statement changed since you started it five years ago?

I actually just redid the mission statement. The original (which might have had some slight tweaking over the first 4.5 years but nothing substantial) was:

Muzzle aims to bring together the voices of poets from a diverse array of backgrounds, paying special homage to those from communities that are historically underrepresented in literary magazines. Muzzle has the distinct honor of being the only online literary magazine named as one of the best new magazines of 2010 by Library Journal in “LJ Best New Magazines of 2010: Ten new periodicals rise to the top.” Muzzle takes submissions year round for poetry, art, interviews, poetry book reviews and poetry performance reviews.


It now reads:

Muzzle seeks to promote writing of revolution and revelation. While all of our editors have their own likes and dislikes, our collective goal is not to showcase one particular aesthetic, but rather to press our ears against the rustling beyond. With healthy doses of both reverence and mischievousness toward literary minds that have come before us, we are obsessed with asking what beauty can and will be. Looking beyond Ezra Pound’s slogan of “Make it new,” we are looking for people who are making the new. We are looking beyond because we need something new. Institutionalized hate, discrimination, exploitation, rape, violence, tangible and intangible theft, and other abuses of power are older than this country. We are seeking new answers to old questions and old answers to new questions. We are seeking something we don’t know how to name yet. As with a good love, we hope we will sense it at first handshake.

I think my main goal with the rewrite was to talk about diversity in more qualitative ways than what I see happening in a lot of lit mags recently—such as diversity of lived experience, aesthetic, interlocutors, and voice. I also wanted to think about why diversity is important for poetry in ways that go beyond fairness (which I agree is a good aim for publishing but doesn’t necessarily make me excited about reading poems). I’ve been thinking a lot about a passage of In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition by Fred Moten, where he poses a string of questions upon encountering Aunt Hester’s scream in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: “What is the edge of this event? What am I, the object? What is the music? What is manhood? What is the feminine? What is the beautiful? What will blackness be?” I think my continued goal as an editor is to answer a related question—“What will be the beautiful (given: the cumulative acts of violence that have built and build America and the postcolonial world, how much we have loved despite it all, etc.)?”—with as many strong visions as possible. I also think there’s a troubling current in lit mags that involves pigeonholing people based on demographic identity into certain aesthetics and subject matter which isn’t unlike Hollywood’s typecasting.

Off the top of your head, can you point me to any specific poems you feel are indicative of Muzzle's voice and mission?

Oh, that’s hard because there’s so many.

Here are a few from our Five-Year Anniversary issue:


Has there been a shift in the voice of the magazine since its conception?

I would say yes—in that, I think there’s more variance in approach to form and narrative than there was at the beginning, where the majority of the writing was well-crafted narrative poems. This hasn’t necessarily been a conscious effort, but I think as I’ve read and written more, I’ve learned to appreciate things that I might not have understood the beauty and craft of five years ago. Which isn’t to say that I don’t still get the wind knocked out of me by strong narrative poems. I love them. I think I always will and that they’ll always have a home in Muzzle. I just think we’re open to more kinds of things now. Also, I think it might reflect a shift in our submissions. I think five years ago there was a strong divide between highly emotive and resonant narrative work vs. dry and pretty poems with more formal experimentation. We’re starting to get a lot of poems with formal experimentation and guts. And I think I value guts over everything else in writing.



Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Poetry Editor

As a reader, I feel Muzzle Magazine cares deeply about the intersection of diversity both in craft and lived experience, as well as bridging gaps between performance and academic settings.  Do you feel these are core values of the magazine? 

Yeah, I think it may be rooted in that. I mean, I first sent work to Muzzle because a lot of slam poets that I knew had been published in there. I had no idea what I was doing, submission-wise. I just wanted to send work to where other people I knew were sending work. Stevie Edwards is a great bridge. She has a foot in both worlds, kind of. I think as Muzzle has grown in status, we've still really stayed true to our roots of diversity and covering all ends of the poetry spectrum. It helps with the editing staff. So many of us had roots in slam. Me, Fati, Hieu, Cam. It makes the process more inviting. Poets who are big in slam but new to submitting take that first risk with Muzzle, and I think it aids in the work we get. 


You're the Poetry Editor for Muzzle Magazine.  What does that role mean to you/how would you define it?

I read a lot of poems. Like, a whole lot. That's the easiest way to define it. I mostly read the things that make it to the second round of readings and beyond. Muzzle gets an overwhelming amount of submissions per submission period, so it's often a long process. But it means a lot to me. The work of being an editor has taught me how to write better, how to submit better. How to be more careful with what I'm doing. I once told Stevie that being a part of Muzzle has changed me as a poet more than anything, and I really kind of believe that.


Can you tell me a bit about how you found yourself as part of the Muzzle team?

So, I had a poem in an issue of Muzzle. I forget which issue, but it was a poem that a lot of people liked, and I think it was one of the first poems that really helped push my work to a wider audience. I saw that they were looking for poetry readers shortly after, and I sent Stevie a handful of poems and pretty much said, "Look. I haven't been writing poems as long as everyone else. But I think I'd be good at this." 

After that, and a short phone call, the rest is history. I started out as a poetry reader. I was actually just moved up to editor about two months ago. It looks cooler on a résumé, I guess. 

Off the top of your head, can you point me to any specific poems that Muzzle has published that you feel speak to your sensibilities?



Stevie and I discussed Muzzle Magazine’s mission statement. Would you say that you have a personal mission statement as an editor (read: What do you look for, care about, seek out in the poems you love to read and publish)?

I most care about the work that pushes to redefine the canon. Not just my own, but the entire thing. Work that signals a changing of the guard, if you will. I think we do that well.