Arts & Culture

Thank God I'm A Country Boy: Tod Lippy Q&A

Our interview with the publisher of Esopus.

How does a kid from Carroll County end up publishing such an acclaimed arts journal? And did you ever run across Jad Fair, who also lived in Carroll County around that time?

In the 1970s, Carroll County was still very undeveloped and, in many ways, pretty idyllic. My father was (and still is) a farmer and we lived in a very rural, and quite beautiful, area outside of Hampstead, which at that point had no strip malls or fast-food chains. I was lucky in that my parents traveled quite a bit with my sister and me as we were growing up, and they always encouraged us to be curious and engage with the broader world, but I think having that rural context as a background while I was a kid has had a profound impact on me, both personally and creatively. Never ran across Jad Fair, although was thrilled when he did a track fro the Esopus 3 CD!

What were you doing pre-Esopus? Any magazine experience?

After a couple of rounds of graduate school I basically backed into an editorial assistant job at Print magazine in 1990. It was a fantastic training ground for the magazine world—Print was one of those rare publications that was still being published independently, and the publisher (who was based in Rockville, as it turns out) pretty much left the editors in New York to their own devices. The editor-in-chief, Martin Fox, had helmed Print for nearly 30 years, and was really a mentor to me. He had me writing articles just a few months after I arrived, and I ended up being a senior editor there for 5 years. Not long after I arrived, I decided to start on the side a little arts zine, publicsfear, with my friend Pamela Ivinski. We could swing only 3 issues over the course of a couple of years, but we were pleased with how they turned out. It was kind of an adolescent, angrier version of Esopus, featuring critical writing, interviews, and artists’ projects by everyone from Rirkrit Tiravanija to Meg Cranston.

That led to my starting a quarterly journal, Scenario, with Martin Fox, which was also handled by Print‘s publisher. In every issue, it featured 4 screenplays, each followed by a long-form interview I did with the screenwriter. We published a ton of great scripts, for everything from Groundhog Day to Nashville to The Usual Suspects. The idea was to treat these as works of literature in their own right by publishing the writers’ favorite drafts (as opposed to the shooting scripts) and commissioning artists to illustrate them rather than reproducing film stills. After 3 years as its editor, I left Scenario in 1997 to make a couple of short films, and in that period I also did a book of interviews with New York filmmakers for Faber and Faber.

How did you come up with the title?

Esopus is named after a beautiful, very pristine creek that runs through the Catskill Mountains, but which ends up emptying into the Hudson River. The idea, which I talk about a bit in the editor’s note for the first issue, was to create something that was pure in intention—no advertising, no commercially driven editorial material, and as little “filtering” as possible—with the knowledge that it would eventually end up on a newsstand next to InStyle or whatever.

What niche, or void, did Esopus fill?

Well, the goal was to create a general-interest arts magazine—one that was purposefully eclectic, covering all sorts of different creative disciplines—that would reach an audience wider than that of specialized art, film, literary, or music journals. I think that we’ve accomplished that to a certain degree, as we have a pretty diverse group of subscribers from all over the world. 

Do you consider yourself more of an editor or curator?

That’s an interesting question. I think “both” would be the best answer. I’d like to think of every issue of Esopus as both a book and an exhibition, so I guess both skills necessarily come into play.

What has been the most challenging piece you’ve produced?

There have been quite a few. Off the top of my head: the William Christenberry pop-up sculpture in Esopus 2, the Jenny Holzer project with photochromatic ink in Esopus 3; the John Conway stellated dodecahedron that reader’s could remove and assemble from Esopus 6; Mary Lum’s project, which required more than 100 die-cuts, from Esopus 18, etc. etc. Frankly, if there isn’t at least one nail-biter in every issue, I start to worry, as the whole point is to try out new, essentially untried things each time.

How do you keep the magazine going? It must be an ongoing struggle.

Because we price Esopus well below its actual cost of production and can’t count on any advertising revenue, we only make about a third of our income from sales and subscriptions. For that reason, we are totally dependent on the grants we receive from institutions like the Warhol Foundation and the NEA and on donations from several hundred incredibly generous individuals.

Were you familiar with Nest, a magazine run by Baltimore native Joe Holtzman? I’m curious because Nest and Esopus, to my mind, have been the most exciting publications of the 2000s.

Thanks for the comparison. I always loved Nest, and wish I’d bothered to buy more copies when it was being published, as they’re very hard to find now. It’s interesting that Joe is also from Maryland. Maybe it’s something in the water.