How did you get to know your first literary magazine? Was it in person? Online?
This round of our “Dumbing Up” conversation series brings together a group of dedicated lit mag lovers–accomplished writers and editors, some who caught our eye with their devotion to language, and others who contributed to Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine, a comprehensive text that records the history of the American Lit Mag from the onset of print to the digital age.
In this third roundtable exchange, join Richard Peabody, Travis Kurowski, Steve Himmer, Roxane Gay, Dave Housley, Kelly Forsythe, Jen Michalski, and Jessica Poli as they discuss all things lit mag-ish and their relationship to writers and readers. (Or read the first and second parts of this conversation to start from the beginning.)
Atticus Books: Literary magazines aren’t usually the kind of thing parents will read to their kids at night. What introduced you to lit mags and how do you think most readers begin a relationship with them?
Jen Michalski: I’m assuming it’s at one’s college and maybe now, in high school. Ironically, I didn’t really start to read literary journals until I was in graduate school. There was a stack of Glimmer Trains in the lounge where I waited alone in the dim light for my evening classes to start, and I read them and sometimes took home the ones I liked. They were different to me from the usual Norton anthologies in that the writing was current and vital and begged to be responded to–more than once I wanted to write one of the authors a letter (and I did, eventually, to Madison Smartt Bell. In some kind of dream ending, years and years later he blurbed my debut novel). I think I took that dialogue with me, because not long after I graduated with my masters, I missed the workshopping and new writing and belonging, and started jmww with Catherine Harrison.
Richard Peabody: I dunno. My wife and I read to our kids from Stone Soup (written by kids for kids), Spider, Cricket, and others. I stumbled across Evergreen Review, Paris Review, New Directions, City Lights, New American Writing, and Transition, back in the 60s. Rolling Stone used to print Lyn Lifshin poems. DC’s alternative news paper Woodwind did as well. All of that counter culture stuff fed into wanting to be a writer for me. Anything seemed possible. I remain as much a fanboy of poets and writers as I was when I began.
The world abounds with writers which means, ideally, that the world abounds with readers.
Steve Himmer: I never read anything even remotely contemporary—or, frankly, all that interesting—in classes for high school, but my town had a small but wonderful independent bookstore. It didn’t carry any journals, but I remember discovering the Pushcart Prize anthology on their shelves and being fascinated as much by the lists of publications at the back as by the stories and poems in the book. And I was able to start buying some of those journals at bigger, urban bookstores as I got a bit older and made bookish excursions into Boston.
I imagine most young writers discover journals and magazines online first these days, or in college perhaps—I’d be curious, actually, to find out more about that, where young writers are finding new voices beyond what they’re assigned in school and how the web has hopefully helped that occur earlier for them than for someone my age. It sounds ridiculous, but it was a revelation to discover that yes, there were still writers trying to do new things with stories and poems and all the writers who matter aren’t dead.
Roxane Gay: I don’t remember when I first began reading literary magazines–probably in my late teens when I began reading the Writer’s Market, and learning about magazines and this magical world where I could send stories and maybe they would get published. I tend to think most people develop relationships to these magazines as writers, and I do not think that is a problem in the least. The world abounds with writers which means, ideally, that the world abounds with readers.
Dave Housley: I started writing later in life, maybe my late twenties or early thirties. In the time, I was living in DC, so when you start looking around in DC for literary anything, you’re introduced pretty quickly to the Richard Peabody canon. Gargoyle was definitely one of the first literary magazines I had ever seen, and probably the first one I bought. Then I found something from his Mondo series in a used book store: Mondo Barbie, which I still pick up from time to time. That was my introduction, and it was a particularly weird one to have (thanks, Richard!).
I think most people nowadays probably come to lit mags through their colleges or MFA programs. That seems like the standard path, at least, and it makes me happy, as well, that I came in through the weird side door that I did, because I might have felt differently about them had I picked up Glimmer Train instead of Gargoyle.
Jessica Poli: Steve mentioned above how young writers might be first discovering lit mags and contemporary writing online now, which is exactly where I started. I think the first magazines that I got really hooked on were Jellyfish and Sixth Finch. When I jumped into publishing, it felt natural for me to do an online magazine because that’s where I started. I’m a print lover, but I also strongly support online publishing; there is something really exciting about the accessibility of it and the potentially large audience you can reach.
Kelly Forsythe: I started with Writers Market in high school, and then started looking online, like Jessica mentioned, specifically on the Poets & Writers literary magazine database. I got really, really into DIAGRAM, and then discovered university-funded journals like Columbia Poetry Review and Ninth Letter, who sort of had the same look / feel / aesthetic as DIAGRAM. Online publishing was sort of the most accessible version of poetry publishing and my first love, really.
Travis Kurowski: I became a “fanboy” for these things and the writers and artists in them (the editors behind them, etc), when I first picked up an issue of The Paris Review in college at the library and I read a short story by Jim Shepard. Then I think a poem by Bruce Bond. Then I looked up the magazine, started reading about George Plimpton, and I was hooked from there. I loved how it felt in my hand. I imagined who these people were, out there, making these things. I felt less alone somehow, there in the bottom of Oregon.
Atticus Books: Do literary magazines run the danger of being read mostly by other writers scouting out possible outlets for their own publication? If this is true, would it limit the value of lit mags?
Jen Michalski: I don’t think we can dictate how readers are using magazines or even know; I feel that, even if writers are merely scouting, they’re still reading a lot work and processing it somehow. And I don’t think scouting is a bad thing, since often we receive work that is so not our aesthetic. I don’t even read journals regularly, anymore–I might go for months and then read in great bursts, getting through a stack from AWP or the local book exchange. I have always assumed, perhaps wrongly, that they will always be around for me to come back to. But I regret not doing more work to see what other services journals are offering their readers and how we at jmww can compete.
Steve Himmer: It’s a definite risk, and a tiring one, if I’m honest. There’s not much I find more frustrating than seeing writers tick off where they’ve published and how many times, like birders in a rush to finish their life lists or climbers bagging peaks without appreciating the mountain. And I worry, sometimes, if online journals have exacerbated this a bit, particularly with forms (flash fiction, say) that at their most cynical allow writers to bang out and submit something quickly—that’s not a flaw of the form, which I love, but of how it sometimes gets used. And we’ve tried, consciously, at Necessary Fiction to develop some series or projects aimed at pushing away from this, to supporting literature in translation and international writers and publishers as a means of expanding what can become a very small conversation.
if we’re talking to each other then we’re talking to each other.
Roxane Gay: This doesn’t concern me at all. It’s like saying only eaters buy food. This worry that we’re publishing for writers as if writers are some kind of endangered species is short sighted and strange. If only writers are reading magazines, fine. That said, I would very much like to broaden readership beyond writers and I do think this readership exists.
Richard Peabody: Why would it limit the value? I think it would probably give me a seizure to get submissions from poets and writers who’d actually read our mag. I like it when MFA programs require students to subscribe to 5-10 lit mags. That old saw still resonates–if writers don’t subscribe to their fave lit mags, then who will?
Dave Housley: I’m with Roxane and Richard. I think it’s most likely true, especially of the lit mags that aren’t on that top 50 list. This used to bother me a little, just in theory, but now it doesn’t at all. That said, I do get a special joy when one of my non-writer friends actually happens to read a Barrelhouse that I’ve left in their house, and they comment on something they really liked. Still, if we’re talking to each other then we’re talking to each other. I think it’s one thing if we’re all aiming for that (we’re not), and another if that’s just how the market forces work out.
Travis Kurowski: I was going to say what Dave said—-I’m with Roxane and Richard. (But I think so are Jen and Steve, it seems.) Writing is a human endeavor, not just something people with degrees in it do. That writers—and writers who want to be published—make up a lot of the readership, that’s great, makes sense even. But it’s nowhere near entirely true. In the farmer’s market the other day, the woman we were buying vegetables from recognized my wife’s Paris Review shirt and we got into a conversation. And most of my issues of McSweeney’s were given to me by the religious studies professor at my college. And online, I don’t even think the average reader would know if they linked/stumbled onto a literary site, as things, thank god, aren’t segregated in the digital realm like they are on the magazine rack.
But I think what the question is reacting to is the fact many literary magazines are offering up publications that signify creative writing. Signify the academy. Signify literature class (as opposed to literature). And readers that haven’t taken a creative writing class or been somehow exposed aren’t likely to pick these things up.
Atticus Books: Many people consider literary magazines to be a nurturing ground for new writers. How well do lit mags do at giving new authors exposure? And how hands-on can editors be? Do you think they generally cultivate a writer’s skill through revision?
Roxane Gay: Lit mags do great work in giving new writers exposure, or I should say, they’ve certainly given me and many writers I know great exposure. You would be surprise how mighty the reach is of small literary magazines. At PANK, we get a lot of attention from agents and our writers are regularly solicited. Now, that is not the be all to end all of publication, but for writers who want to jump into writing books and bigger platforms, literary magazines can and do make that possible. Editors can be very hands on. We do that when we see work we really want but that needs work. Writers cultivate their own skill through revision, but editors hopefully nudge them in the right direction through their editorial comments.
Richard Peabody: That lit mags are the minor leagues vs. the NY big leagues is a tired old cliche. Both Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller published in small mags until their deaths. Sherman Alexie still sends work to small mags. Copy editors have all but disappeared in book publishing and newspapers. In the early days we used to say things like–if you change the title and chop the last 5pp we’ll run it, or cut the first 3pp and the last page. They were suggestions and we’d never make changes without permission. I don’t have time to handle that any more. We do have a remarkable copy editor on staff who handles the desktopping and galleys.
Steve Himmer: It’s blurry line between helping a writer improve and bringing a story closer to the editor’s/journal’s aesthetic. I worry about that, and try not to think of editing as a “teaching” role, though I do make an effort when I know a story is coming from a student writer or brand new writer, to offer comments and suggestions in a way I don’t if rejecting a story by a writer who clearly knows what they’re doing even if a story doesn’t quite work for me. And like Richard said, that takes time—the only drawback to the journal growing to where we get more submissions (and readers) is that I don’t have as much time to respond to submissions in a meaningful way or to always undertake the level of editing an “almost there” story might need to arrive. I try, but it’s only me reading submissions, though I suspect that’s going to have to change and probably should have already. Something else I’ll mention, though, is that seeing a writer we published early go on to big things is such a great feeling—not because it means we’re the reason or anything so narcissistic, but in a sphere with so little chance of riches and fame seeing good things come to good people who work hard to earn them is about as good as it gets.
Richard Peabody: As Steve says, that’s one of the best highs of all. That makes it all worthwhile on those days when you have 100 new submissions and wonder why you bother doing a mag in the first place. One thing I have learned is that the more recognition you receive, the more manuscripts come your way. That’s a given. So, if you’re a writer/editor you’re happy for the recognition but have less time to write as you spend more time dealing with the magazine. Classic double edged sword.
I remain as much a fanboy of poets and writers as I was when I began.
Kelly Forsythe: I really think lit mags are pretty crucial in giving new writers exposure. I have literally made new friends who I would have never known otherwise because we published their work in Phantom Limb. Writers who may have never been published elsewhere, or one or two poems in other journals. Also, I think that because we publish only poetry, the level of hands-on editing is almost non-existent. I’ve heard other editors say, “if the poem isn’t good enough to publish as-is, then we shouldn’t publish it,” and I think that is sort of a decent way to go about things (although I think it is also complicated by the vague understanding we all have of what “good poetry is” and how we decide what is “good”).
Travis Kurowski: They do great work. Some, of course, better than others. (Hint to writers: Submit to the magazines that work hardest for their writers, care the most about the sort of things you are making. Don’t just go for those “tier” list of mags you find on the internet. “Be a person,” as Blake Butler says.)
Note: This interview, conducted by Abby Hess, first appeared on the Atticus Books blog on Sept. 17, 2013.
Featured image source: Every Writer’s Resource.com
Richard Peabody is the founder and editor of Gargoyle Magazine and publisher of Paycock Press. He has written over ten books of poetry and fiction and his 2012 book of poems, Speed Enforced by Aircraft was nominated for a National Book Award. As well as editing (or co-editing) ten anthologies, Richard also teaches fiction at John Hopkins University. In 2013, he received the Above and Beyond Award from Beyond the Margins for his ongoing generosity to other writers and his important contributions to the world of literature.
Travis Kurowski is the editor of Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine. He teaches creative writing and publishing at York College of Pennsylvania. He is founding editor of Luna Park, soliciting editor for Opium Magazine, and Literary MagNet columnist for Poets & Writers. His writing has recently appeared in Little Star, Armchair/Shotgun, The Lumberyard, Mississippi Review, Hobart and > Kill Author.
Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest.
Dave Housley is the author of Ryan Seacrest is Famous, a collection of short fiction. His work has been published in Columbia, Nerve, Sycamore Review, and some other places. He’s one of the founding editors of Barrelhouse, a literary magazine that bridges the gap between serious art and pop culture.
Kelly Forsythe has poems published or forthcoming in Columbia Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, DIAGRAM, The Minnesota Review, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and American Poet. Her reviews can be found in the Los Angeles Review, NewCity and The Rumpus.
In Fall 2011, she was introduced by Noelle Kocot as an Academy of American Poets “Emerging Poet.” She is the editor of the online literary magazine Phantom Limb, the poetry book reviews editor for Los Angeles Review, and works for Copper Canyon Press.
Jen Michalski lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She was voted one of the best authors in Maryland by CBS News, one of “50 Women to Watch” by The Baltimore Sun, and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine (Best of Baltimore issue, 2013). Her novel The Tide King was published by Black Lawrence Press (2013; winner of the Big Moose Prize).
Jen is the author of two collections of fiction, Close Encounters (So New, 2007) and From Here (Aqueous Books, 2013) and a collection of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books, 2013). She also edited the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of the monthly reading series The 510 Readings in Baltimore, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown.