Sarah Fawn: Hi everyone, Sarah Fawn Montgomery here. Thank you all for (virtually) sitting down to talk about our editing experiences and processes, and to talk a bit about solicitation as a way to represent a variety of voices, stories, and forms on the page and screen. VIDA’s mission guides much of my editing work, and I’m interested to learn about the ways in which it guides editorial work at other publications. By way of introduction, I’ve worked for Prairie Schooner since 2010, first as a graduate editorial assistant, and then as the Nonfiction Assistant Editor for the last five years. My editing experience began as an MFA student with The Normal School and I also helped edit Brevity’s themed issue, Ceiling or Sky? Female Nonfictions After the VIDA Count, which led me to my work with VIDA, first as a member of the counting team and now in my role as a member of the web team.
To kick off our discussion can you each tell us a bit about your editing experience and answer the following question. We each read at various stages in the editorial process—as genre editor, as managing editor, as editor-in-chief or founding editor. How do each of you address VIDA’s mission (or other important missions, interests, goals) as you edit in these roles? Can you share more about your practices?
Joey: Hi everyone, I’m Joey. I am one of the poetry editors at Apogee Journal and copy edit Façadomy. I’ve been at Apogee since 2014. Prior to Apogee, I hadn’t much experience editing a literary journal, nor had I much interest in becoming an editor—to be honest. Would my work as a poet be valued for the social capital I amassed as an editor? I avoided roles that positioned me in some way because I worried occupying such a role might be weighed as a measure against my writing. Apogee’s mission changed that for me, though I still feel anxious about these matters on the low.
My core impulses are to combat elitism, reject careerism, rout the legions of white cis-male legacies who attempt to tokenize or erase my voice, and to shift the loci of visibility beyond the current margins of the literary establishment. I want to spotlight artistic and linguistic innovators within my extended community and to dismantle the institutions and narratives that relegate us to the peripheries of visibility. We at the fringe don’t seek inclusion in a rigged system; we produce the language, aesthetics and culture that those at privileged intersections of identity plagiarize, mimic, synthesize as their own, and disseminate in super-sized quantities via mainstream media and pop iconography. If literary journals, magazines, and institutions refuse to acknowledge our genius, well…(BLOOP) let them fall into the chasm of their own irrelevance. We at the margin produce critical literary culture. If the erected infrastructures that encircle poetry cannot accommodate us because we are “overwrought” or “political,” or because we haven’t garnered enough “literary merit,” then time will inundate those institutions until all that are left of them are a few remaining fossils of the Second Stone Age (like Antioch Review). Fortunately, Apogee’s mission and values align with mine in most ways, so I can just be there and do me.
Steven: Hey All, Steven Church here. I’m a founding editor, nonfiction editor, and editor-in-chief for The Normal School, out of Fresno State. I teach the class that staffs the magazine and I’m primarily responsible for managing all of the content—which is not to say that I am a control freak or a dictator about content. I’ve never wanted a magazine that is simply reflective of one aesthetic or one editor’s values, and we work hard to keep it that way. The magazine was founded to provide a space for writing that was difficult to categorize or was challenging the status quo in some ways. Its mission has always been for the magazine to be a “conversation” among genres, styles, forms, and subjects; and I think the VIDA mission has influenced our decision making at every level, from slush pile reading, to solicitations, and cover art. But I guess what I’m also finding is that the core values of VIDA and Vona, Canto Mundo, Cave Canem, Kundiman, and other organizations are being internalized by our students. This means that these values are filtering from the bottom up, rather than a kind of top-down enforcement or imposition from me or anyone else. The mission, thus imagined, becomes one that empowers the students to shape the magazine in their own image and according to their own values, as well as giving them a critical awareness of what other magazines are or are not doing. This is REALLY exciting and has meant some changes in what we accept for print and online, changes that strongly encourage writing from diverse, marginalized, or under-represented voices and identities, writing that directly challenges the status quo of culture and the academy.
Sarah Fawn: My reading is absolutely influenced by VIDA—in fact, Prairie Schooner has VIDA pie charts posted in the office. We receive submissions from a range of voices—male, female, and gender nonconforming writers; writers of color; LGBTQIA writers; able-bodied writers and those with illnesses and disabilities; writers I’ve read time and again and writers sending out submissions for the first time—and I look for the best work to represent this rich group of writers. I also look for a range of forms—memoir, personal essay, lyric essay, literary journalism—because form is so often linked to identity.
While I am on the hunt for the most compelling work, I also keep track of the writers we publish, and advocate for voices and stories that have been historically marginalized, those powerhouse writers or pieces that are often made invisible by traditional power structures. For example, as a reader, writer, and scholar interested in illness and disability, I’m likely to take a closer look at essays that trouble narratives of illness or disability, essays that resist able-bodied convention, interrogate subject matter and wield personal experience boldly. The work must do this well, of course, but as an editor I welcome pieces that surprise me, that confuse me, that challenge me to think about the subject, the world, and the genre in unexpected ways.
In addition, Prairie Schooner’s editor-in-chief, Kwame Dawes, also invites guest editors on board, everyone from Alicia Ostriker to Sherman Alexie and most recently Natalie Diaz. These editors bring a fresh eye to our publication, and the result is a more nuanced representation of contemporary publishing between editors and writers in and out of our standing masthead and institution.
Jen: Hi, Jen Palmares Meadows here. I’m the new Memoir Editor at Split Lip Magazine and a big fan of VIDA. Besides publishing excellent writing, publishing women of color is one of my key goals at Split Lip. I’d also like to increase the diversity in our submissions, which means sending calls for submissions directed at underrepresented writers (POC, WOC, disabled, LGBQTIA, to name a few) via social networks, as well as emailing writing organizations and English departments in both urban and rural campuses. Essentially, I’d liken it to casting a wider net in spaces that have been underfished. I took on this Memoir Editor position at Split Lip because I was exhausted from reading similar stories with little or no relevance to myself. How many times have I read about a middle-aged white man having an affair, doing some drugs, all the while his wife is growing older, his coffee’s getting cold and his beer is getting warm? That’s what I call ‘vanilla literature.’ But I’m looking for rock you to your soul, split you in your lip writing. And I think a lot of that writing can be found ‘in the margins.’ I take the responsibility of inclusivity very seriously, and most of that responsibility means opening myself to varied voices, experiences and forms, preparing my reading lens for the awesomeness of your unique and incredible perspective.
Joey: Does reaching out to English departments diversify the work that comes in—or does it recruit writers of homogenous experience? I ask myself, what networks of historically marginalized people are mobilized already and looking for platforms or partners? English departments and writing organizations are not underfished spaces in regards to providing writers access to a publishing market. Those are precisely the places from which people on the margins—particularly those without money—have historically felt excluded. I wonder if the key is to turn to our social workers, and organizations who service the chronically ill, qtpoc youth homelessness programs, etc… These are the places where talent goes unnoticed by gatekeepers within the literary world, not students within English departments.
Jen: Joey makes a good point about English departments. I do, very much, like the idea of searching in places that have been excluded—prison writing programs, youth homelessness programs, etc. I think it’s excellent that we’re having this conversation, because the challenge of publishing diverse and underrepresented work is too large to come at from one direction, or to be conceived by one person. I suppose I thought English departments because I was hoping to find memoir that was ready or near ready for publication, and for me that means exhibiting not only interesting narrative, but excellent craft and language. If, say, a promising submission came into the queue, but needed a little more editing, revision, attention than the average acceptance, (potentially writers of limited education, ESL writers) I might be more willing to take on the additional work if it was from a voice that had been previously silenced or marginalized. However, not every editor can take on extra work—most being volunteers, writers themselves, and having other jobs. So submissions from places like that have their realistic challenges, but that doesn’t mean the voices don’t deserve to be heard.
Sarah Fawn: I agree that the impetus seems to be to reach out to English programs and established institutions as opposed to prisons, group homes, mental health facilities, foster care programs, etc., many of which have writing groups, incredible voices and talent, yet are largely ignored. But Jen brings up a good point about labor here—the labor of editors and of writers, the majority of which is unpaid. A discussion of parity requires a discussion of compensation, and that feeds back to what Joey mentioned about writers from the margins and Jen’s discussion of editorial work. The conversation surrounding the MFA as calling card also applies here, and it seems more and more magazines are reading anonymous submissions without the influence of a cover letter and author’s credentials. What your thoughts are on anonymous submissions, multiple readers, etc. and how this plays into editorial responsibility?
Jen: At Split Lip, I typically read the cover letter first. I’m just curious that way. My favorite cover letters are ones that reference a particular piece in Split Lip a writer enjoyed. This can give me insight into the writer’s style or interests, plus it makes me happy, so if you want to pique my interest, do that. And if you really want to get my attention, say you’re sending something because you saw a Split Lip call for diverse writing.
The argument for anonymous submissions, “without the influence of a cover letter and author’s credentials,” is that great writing will out, whether or not someone has an impressive cover letter (MFA, PhD, well-known publications) and no matter the person’s race or gender. An impressive cover letter doesn’t necessarily precede excellent writing, and compelling writing is sometimes paired with no publishing credits at all. So why read the cover letters at all? Well, to respond, I’ll reference a really great article, “The Politics of Anonymous Submissions,” posted by none other than the editors at Apogee:
Anonymous submissions don’t actually protect writers from the existing prejudices of editors, and they alone do not contribute to editors reading inclusively.
Trying to strip a piece of literature from the identity of the person who wrote it is pretending that it exists outside of the culture in which it was created.
Artistic and literary aesthetics are not an algorithm, and ‘literary excellence’ is not an infallible mathematics. In fact, this standard is based on a preponderance of white, cis-male, heteronormative writing that has been and still is central to the literary mainstream.
I’ll just leave that there for you—they say it better than I could have.
Even as a WOC, I must also acknowledge my own privileges (postgraduate education, suburban middle-class upbringing) that have skewed my own perceptions of artistic merit and literary excellence, and how they might predispose me to accept or not accept a submission. No matter the person, reading anonymous isn’t as easy as it seems. Writers from the margins are creating the most experimental, genre breaking, provocative work out there, but even today, there exist arguments about whether rap, hip-hop, or graffiti are real art, when they are actually vivid storytelling, political acts from the most systematically oppressed and disenfranchised. So, when vivid storytelling appears in our submission queues, we need to be able to recognize it in whatever form it appears, and identify it as what it is—art. How can we do that with our eyes closed? Doesn’t the job of identifying art merit the use of all our senses?
Sarah Fawn: Absolutely, well put. Now I’d like to turn our attention to the ways magazines locate the pieces they publish, either from writers sending their work in or editors reaching out to particular writers. If we rely on “the slush pile” for the majority of our submissions, how can we enact larger social and political goals? How does this fit in with the practicality of reading hundreds and sometimes thousands of submissions? What are your thoughts on soliciting certain writers, voices, and perspectives as a way to increase representation in literary magazines? And if you use soliciting in this way, can you say more about your goals and practices, or even the challenges you’ve faced while doing so?
Joey: Low-key yikes to the term “slush pile”; it’s a phrase that Muriel Leung and I have agreed to not use in reference to the work we encounter through Apogee Journal. We just find it so disrespectful. The poets who’ve chosen to share their work with Apogee do so to contribute to our mission. Slush is the sudden splash of nasty icy pigeon crap water stepped in on a miserable day in late January. We don’t use the word “slush” to characterize the efforts of our community members.
These questions raise a conversation about rhetoric that we’ve been having behind the scenes at Apogee over the past few months, certainly one that I’d love to have with you all. I believe the toxic rhetoric with which we talk about the work of writers is the normalized consequence of elitism and the white-male dominance that pervades literary history. The “emerging” writer, “your submission—,” click “Submit,” “Submit now/here”—capitulation. capitalization. capitalism. slush. This rhetoric sucks. I reject acceptance.
“Submission” is spectered by dominance; the writer’s prostration before the literary institution, journal and/or gatekeeper embeds itself in the word. What is a literary journal if not for its contributors, community and readership? The writer shouldn’t have to “submit” to us. Who are we if not an attempt at providing a service for our own community and marginalized communities throughout? We celebrate the intellectual tenacity of those who choose to share work with us and are grateful for their continued commitment to our collective mission, which is bigger than us all.
Regarding solicitation: I don’t solicit writers to ensure our issues reflect a range of identities because we’ve worked to make clear to our readership and the literary community at-large that our commitment is toward spotlighting voices marginalized by mainstream, academic, alt- (etc…) literary scenes—the writers who share work with us reflect a range of identities. When I solicit work from a writer it is because I want to curate and celebrate the writer’s work. The writer’s identity does not cross my mind unless it is the subject of her work. I would say a quarter of the poetry is solicited for Apogee’s issue 7, and less than a quarter of issue 8 will feature solicited poems.
Solicitation can be weaponized and wielded for evil. Tokenization, that murk, when an editor includes an “othered” writer for the sake of staving off criticism… or regards a writer of the margin to be some sort of paragon of their alien people. It’s mad annoying when an editor turns to the same handful of writers as every other journal to satisfy their anxiety about quotas. It’s like, we’re trying to shift the epicenter beneath the institutions that surround poetry the craft, not showcase the same elite, tokenized cohorts. This is a consequence of literary merit… You know, like editors who are wise and woke don’t turn to the same individuals who’ve been vetted by prestigious institutions. The ones who do, however, ask the tokens to do contests, who in turn prime the next cohort for tokenization, thereby perpetuating the falsehood.*sips*
Sarah Fawn: I have to agree with Joey on the importance of interrogating the rhetoric of editing along with our practices. More than once I’ve seen writers wince at the phrase “slush pile” while listening to editors talk about their practices during conference panels, and it seems other established editing terms contribute to this concept of gatekeeping.
Joey: Within my lifetime this rhetoric will have been dismantled, and in the future, will be popularly recognized as a device of the old masters.
Steven: Hi, Steven here again . . . Certainly navigating piles of submissions is a challenge regardless of the social or political mission of a magazine. I guess we’ve tried to see the challenge as one in expanding our consciousness, awareness, and appreciation for a diversity of styles, forms, and subjects. For me the magazine is as much a teaching tool as it is anything else, and I take the educational component of the class seriously. The challenge, then, is for all of us to be better readers and fans of writing, to look at our (admittedly quite large) slush pile as a place of opportunity, a resource that allows the student readers to shape the identity of the magazine. Thus a challenge to solicit a writer also becomes a challenge to read more first, to appreciate the work itself, and to reach out and make a personal connection. In the fall semester, I required all the students working on the magazine to find a writer to solicit, and many of them sought out writers I’ve never heard of before, bringing new and exciting voices to the magazine. But some seemed to fall back on the “famous” or canonical writers of color, many of them the students’ literary heroes. And while I think writing to one of your heroes is good practice, and I would be super happy to get a chance to consider work by many of these writers, I guess I feel like are many many other writers of color and women out there who aren’t established or famous and who deserve a chance. The challenge has been getting students to subscribe to literary magazines, to read online, and to actively seek out these new and diverse voices. We also do, in the class, a regular “study” of other literary magazines in an effort to find some of these voices as well as to see how other magazines like Huizache or Guernica are approaching these issues. We try to learn from our peers and stay adaptable and responsive; and the magazine will, I hope, continue to be reflective of our very diverse student body here at Fresno State as well as of the larger literary community.
Sarah Fawn: I think of the work I do as creating larger conversations between the nonfiction voices in a single issue, over the course of a year, in connection with the conversations started long before I assumed my position and those that will continue long after I leave. This means that I am careful to select not only work that makes me react—cry, laugh, clench my fists in anger, want to find more from the writer or about the topic—but also work that is fresh. I do not want to publish the same voices time and again. I do not want to publish reiterations of other great essays. I do not want to rehash tired conversations. I want to excite and incite our readers. I want the work to give them pause and keep them up at night. This is where it becomes important to consider not just the merit of the work, but where it comes from.
There does seem to be a tendency to turn to the same voices time and again, and this is something journals need to recognize—the importance of, as Steven describes, being “adaptable and responsive.” And Joey mentions the tokenization that occurs when magazines turn to particular voices to fill in gaps or prevent criticism. I see this time and again from magazines publishing work from writers with illnesses and disabilities, writers with unique and urgent stories, yet whose work seems to be included because it follows certain narratives that are comfortable and accessible to able-bodied readers, narratives that do not threaten their positions. This is why the masthead and mission statement are so vital, why reading the submissions queue carefully and reaching out to writers to let them know you value their work and would like to see more of it become essential to the editorial process.
Jen: Jen, again. I like what Steve said. Editors and readers should push themselves to “see the challenge as one in expanding our consciousness, awareness, and appreciation for a diversity of styles, forms, and subjects.” So, when excellent writing from a differing voice appears in the queue (perhaps it’s weird, unexpected, maybe the writer uses language unexpectedly, maybe English is not their primary language, maybe at first, I didn’t get it, maybe it tilted me upside down and shook me out) I am hopefully primed to sift the gold from the pyrite, ready to recognize its merit, its necessity, its excellence.
Soliciting work can be a great way to increase representation. We’re a small press, and we’re always working to get submissions. Because we’re small, we can’t rely on the submission queue alone to find work—it’s just not varied enough. I’m not sure what it’s like for some of the larger publications. When I solicit a writer, it’s because I think they’re talented and want to help showcase their work. Solicitation is particularly important if it gives space to a perspective that has been overlooked or silenced. But solicitation is not the end all solution to inclusion in our publications, particularly if editors often belong to a homogenous group: white, college educated, middle/upper-class. Solicitation by a select group can be incestuous and exclusionary, gathering the same kinds of stories, the same writers, the same schools of thought, etc. Sorry, it is impossible for a single group (or a homogenous masthead) to be the authority (or hold a monopoly) on quality and talent. That’s why it’s important to 1) approach the slush with an open and inclusive intent and 2) diversify your masthead. I encourage marginalized writers to get on a masthead if you can. Time and energy is a lot to ask, I know, particularly when it is likely unpaid, but it puts you in a position (if you can attain such a position, not all doors are open to us) to demand inclusivity and intersectionality from the inside out. Bring your own experiences and your own network of writers to the party. Solicit work. Mentor writers. And if you already work with a journal, take a look at your masthead. Is your staff homogenous? Why? How might that affect the choices you make as a staff and what you publish? Are your editors and readers schooled in critical thinking, feminist studies, queer studies, post colonialism, multiculturalism? Are they open to experimentation, to writing from unexpected perspectives, writing that celebrates differing values and opinions? If your staff does include marginalized voices, are you listening?
As for the term ‘slush pile,’ I’ve always thought it apt. As someone sending her own writing out, I know slush is exactly what it feels like, trying to claw your way up out of obscurity into something. A ‘submission pool’ is too gentle, a ‘submission cache’ is too grand. It can be a messy process, and someone’s always left in the cold. Perhaps, submission queue is best. While I haven’t put much thought into the language of literary gatekeeping, I’m glad people, editors, in particular, are talking about it.
Joey: Hey Jen, I’m curious of that something into which you are clawing. What are you or your writers clawing into or out of? I’m curious how you define obscurity. Personally, I understand that obscurity is my origin, it is my subject-position, my vantage point and my strength. I could never claw my way out of what amounts to my very identity. I also think editors who’ve historically disregarded poetic innovation from the margins are not the appropriate people to be determining “excellence” coming from our communities.
So often editors don’t actually push themselves to “see the challenge as one in expanding consciousness” and yet they retain their gatekeeper status and the benefits that status affords them. I mean, I can model the editorial practices I believe in, but I alone cannot destabilize the value of the social, cultural and financial capital these older gatekeepers have been amassing for decades. Modeling praxis isn’t enough.
Jen: In response to Joey, I suppose what I am trying to claw myself out of when I say obscurity—I mean that I am trying to differentiate myself from the slush/submission queue by creating the best most interesting work I can. Like many other writers, I want to disseminate my work. To be paid for my art. I aspire to be the recipient of prestigious awards, grants, paying positions. I don’t think there is anything wrong with artists wanting these things. At the same time, I think there are many spaces for people to be artists, whether in mainstream, experimental, obscure, outlying, indie, in the margins, outside the lines—one is not better or worse than the other. Many artists choose to, can, and do thrive in many of these spaces. Also, it is true that one person, alone, cannot “destabilize the value of the social, cultural and financial capital these older gatekeepers have been amassing for decades,” but that’s why we’re having this conversation.
Sarah Fawn: Another question here: Some magazines are also trying to address what we’ve been discussing by putting together special “Diversity” issues as a way to increase representation or focus on particular voices. What are your thoughts on this? Is this a short-term fix or a way to increase representation in a journal over time? Does this relegate writers to niche roles as opposed to integrating voices into the larger realm of literary publishing?
Steven: Hi, Steven here again . . . Honestly I think you’ve already sort of answered some of these questions with your final question. Right? I mean, yeah, it does necessarily create a niche publication, asking writers to occupy a particular role or identity. I guess it’s hard for me to criticize such efforts, though, at addressing inequality, diversity, and inclusion in publishing, because I do think such efforts are driven by a sincere desire to made a difference, to really promote writers who have perhaps been ignored, silenced, or otherwise marginalized. Ideally, as I think your final question implies, the goal is to integrate diverse voices into the larger realm of literary publishing; but to push it even further, perhaps the goal is also to tear down some of the pillars of that larger world, and maybe these special issues focused on “diversity” or another category can work to replace other canonical texts and to shatter some calcified beliefs about literature. For example, I know Brevity has done several special issues, and one thing I like about that magazine is the “teachability” of it. Because of their focus on short pieces, Brevity makes a great classroom resource, and having one “special” issue where you can go to find a collection of writing on a “niche” subject makes it easier for teachers to find new texts, new voices, and new heroes for their students. We’ve never really been fans of “theme” issues here at The Normal School, in part because they’ve always felt limiting and exclusive, as if there was a bouncer at the door saying, “Nope. You can’t come in. You’re not a ‘nature writer,’” or for me as a writer, they’ve always felt too reductive and simplistic, as if they’re asking writers to pigeonhole themselves. So I guess, much like you, it seems, I have some conflicted feelings about the whole question. Ideally, my hope is that we would continue to try and internalize the mission or objectives behind a special issue such that diverse voices wouldn’t need a “special” issue or area but would, instead, just be a normal part of The Normal School.
Sarah Fawn: The space for conversation created by themed issues is what speaks to me most as editor, writer, and reader. The general feedback about the all-female issue of Brevity from both submitters in their cover letters and readers of the issue after it was released was that they both appreciated the transparency in the editing process, the transparency in creating a conversation around the female experience, and the space for conversation that the issue created. Similarly, Brevity’s recent Experiences of Gender issue brought a powerhouse group of writers together and the pieces layered, merged and converged in unexpected ways that may not have been possible in any other format. The upcoming issue on Race, Racialization, and Racism issue edited by Joy Castro and Ira Sukrungruang promises to do the same, and the magazine has taken the conversation a step further by problematizing the mechanism of submission fees and allowing writers to submit without paying the submission fee. Another series that comes to mind is the wonderful series on adoption Nicole Chung recently curated for Catapault. Still, it is entirely disappointing—maddening, even—to read fine work from fine writers in themed issues and then struggle to find these same writers in other journals, or struggle to find pieces about similar topics situated in the pages of a non-themed journal.
Joey: Unlike Steven, I don’t feel much reservation in regard to criticizing “diversity-themed” issues—though I hadn’t thought about the teachability of surveys of literature. Otherwise, I cannot, in good conscience, publicly say “diversity issues” are all that great a tactic to employ, because if you give a rat a cookie… you know… later you’ll find it midway across the nation suckling the teats of Guernsey cattle. haha!
Conceptually, I find “special diversity” issues lazy, but I can privately appreciate the sentiment, sometimes. Yes, “diversity” issues “relegate writers to niche roles” (a euphemism for tokenization) and I do not believe they help in radically terraforming the landscape of American literature. I believe the challenge of our generation of writers is to dismantle “literary merit,” because it is “literary merit” which is so often used to discredit and disregard writers of the periphery—so, while, yes, it’s great when we afford these literary merits to individuals of marginalized demography with conditional publication, it’s also not. This leveraging of merit is a practice that leads to our tokenization—which then leads to the formation of castes within our own communities. No, no, no, no, no~
I see these calls go out for diversity issues and think, cool you’ve just announced that your journal is kinda into creating a somehow separate space for writers of X identity. A journal could accomplish reaching out to a broader audience with a letter from the editor announcing a newfound commitment to increased representation in their pages or on their servers—and following through. If you want to put together an issue that features the work of specific cast o’ characters, I say do it with “submissions” open to everyone. That, to me, makes a far more significant statement than holding a flashlight to your readership and saying, “identify yourself.” It’s also a slap in the face, when the only time you see writers of a marginalized demographic appear in the diversity issue of X journal, and then the journal never features another writer of that demographic again. How tokenizing and dusty.
The work of a writer from a marginalized identity may have more in common with writers of other identities, maybe even normalized identities… like, I personally am not interested in my work being clumped together with that of poets with whom I see no relation, even if we are both say queer and latinx. The zeitgeist needs to change. As an editor, if your impulses drive you to feature work exclusively by writers of normalized identities then your tastes must be archaic and closed and you really must not be a good editor. Maybe you were, ten years ago, but the standards have changed thanks to literary activism, and you have not adapted.
All of this is to say that I am also not interested in “integrating” voices into the larger realm of literary publishing because the larger realm of literary publishing banks on elitism, white supremacy, misogyny, heteronormativity and transphobia. I don’t want to integrate into that, it’s not chill and navigating it def results in identity-wear/damage. I believe in a paradigm of inclusion that originates and extends inward from the margins. I believe this requires “oversaturating the market” with new digital, print, even social media, and destabilizing the value of prestige… Prestige is the social capital that finances the abuses we so often encounter in literary spheres.
Jen: Jen, again. I don’t have a problem with “Diversity” issues. I can see how if journals are using a diversity issue to meet some kind of quota, but exclude groups from the majority of their issues, there’s a problem. However, such an issue can be a starting point to train editorial staff to be more inclusive readers. And hopefully when the so-called “Diversity” issue is published, they can carry what they’ve learned to their future projects, and integrate more voices into all their issues. The second reason I support such issues is that I’m in favor of anything really that will increase the number of marginalized voices in our publications. It’s not the same as being relegated to the international/ethnic aisle of the grocery story. When a marginalized writer, say a woman of color, is published in a prestigious literary journal, whether it’s in a diversity issue or not, makes little difference to me. Just like someone’s job application would not read, Ivy League College (via Affirmative Action), a writer’s curriculum vitae would not read Paris Review (Diversity issue). It would say Paris Review—this loose comparison of gate-opening, rather than gatekeeping, is simply to make a point. It’s important to recognize how a single publication can have a long term impact on a writer’s career. One publication begets another publication, and another and another. Publication can lead to solicitations, invitations to read, or to join a panel (being on a panel increases likelihood of institutional/work expense paid attendance to a conference). Publication is a determining factor in getting accepted into a workshop, a writing program, receiving a grant, or a fellowship, grabbing the attention of an editor, or getting a job. Publication for a marginalized writer is a means to permeating traditionally non-inclusive spaces, it is leeway into the literary landscape and gaining a place at the table. When marginalized voices are represented in places of power, and in a position to make decisions, that is when change happens.
Sarah Fawn: Jen just mentioned the importance of training editorial staff to be inclusive readers, which is key, particularly when considering mastheads, publication history, and institutional backing and memory. Each of our publications operates differently—some in print, some online, some affiliated with universities, others independently. Can you say more about how your journal trains editorial staff and how these topics influence that training? What strategies might we apply to train staff and hold ourselves accountable?
Jen: Now and again, you hear about a journal or a blog publishing something totally insensitive, blatantly racist, or trans-phobic, and then ask, How did that get to print? Didn’t multiple people have to read and okay that? When that sort of thing happens, it reveals failings (racism, sexism, etc.) present in the gate-keeping literary establishment. In smaller presses, like Split Lip’s, that don’t have institutional support, there are smaller volunteer staffs—two or three people will work a submission through the process. We’re reading these works over and over and OVER. I try to read as carefully as possible, but I am not infallible. I can, and have, missed red flags that have been caught by my editor, and I am endlessly thankful for her attentive reading. Thus the importance of having a woke staff, and editors who are open to having frank, critical conversations. When reading submissions, some questions we should be asking are: How are marginalized groups being portrayed? Are women of color being portrayed exotically? Is this misogynistic, homophobic? Transphobic? Are there micro-aggressions in the subtext? Are marginalized groups absent entirely? Does the majority of what we’re publishing represent a white, upper/middle-class cis-gender experience? If we’re reading closely for comma splices, adverbs, doing spell checks, etc, it’s not too much to demand attention to this. I wouldn’t be averse to using a sort of sensitivity check-list for readers and editors. This might seem overboard for some people, but this is a step towards accountability and change.
Joey: Jen’s list of questions are an excellent place for editors to begin. “How are marginalized groups being portrayed?” should be a central concern, especially when they appear in work written by those of normalized identities. What she said is salient because what happens so often is that editors don’t know what ableism, transphobia or racism even look like. I was called out recently by Karolyn Gehrig for retweeting an essay she found ableist and exclusionary. I didn’t see it, so I’m thankful for her putting in that labor to let me know, and tell me how it is.
When it comes to training, I was never trained in recognizing and working to provide a platform for talent within the communities in which I find myself, it’s how I preserve my sense of self in this “field of electrified spikes and boulders.” It takes a lifetime of work and the work never ends. I’m not just speaking about myself here. I can’t speak to Muriel’s experience but I can speak to her professionalism and capabilities as an editor. Muriel came to Apogee as a reader for the poetry section so equipped—with her eye toward heaven and her eye of scrutiny open—that within a few months I asked her to split the editor position with me. I say this because there are people who have spent a lifetime honing the skills required to locate literary excellence in the margins, and we’re still all out here competing over the same limited resources. Don’t ask us to teach you (not you personally) the skills needed to adequately estimate our talents. People already possess the editorial skills, put those people in decision-making roles. Again, this divide emerges as a result of shortcomings of these narratives of inclusivity. I can’t speak on behalf of Apogee or Muriel but I’m interested in genius that originates at the margins, and including inward as the center of the literary establishment slowly erodes.
That is not to say Apogee is perfect, we aren’t. We as a group recognize that. And so we celebrate our criticisms regardless of whether they originate from within the group or not because without them we’d stagnate. We are constantly strategizing opportunities to respectfully provide a platform to writers of different backgrounds and experiences. We engage our audience via social media to maintain a sense of what it is our community is looking to express and read. We also estimate ourselves against other organizations, adopting steps they have taken to make their spaces available to further marginalized groups. We would love to work with an ASL poetry translator to have at our events. I’d be very excited to discuss this with any readers who might be interested.
I agree with this point about the lasting effects of publication on one’s career. When I was a younger poet, I used to feel guilty whenever I landed a publication. It’s this narrative of inclusivity… I’m not interested in being included in this pantheon of literary elite, because that is not a space designed to accommodate me. The experience of publication for me was one where I would tell myself, “Congratulations, Joey you’ve come one step closer in your proximity to whiteness.” The thought was that I wanted to land my work alongside cis-white writers two-to-three times my age. That is not me. I spent my life honing the skill of identifying talent from non-normalized bodies… whatever work I curate is going to reflect a vast range of experience and history. If I have advice for editors who need to train each other in synthesizing inclusivity into their editorial gaze, I say spend at least a year reading work exclusively by writers of the margin. People of the margin, who have been excluded from literary markets, have turned to social media to voice themselves. The work is out there to find. I’ve certainly been finding it.
Additionally, I’m not certain Affirmative Action is an appropriate equivalent to people of non-normalized identities publishing in The Paris Review. Maybe it’s because I really have no interest in The Paris Review or the poetry-related content they produce. I’ve found several pieces they’ve published rather racist and/or offensive. I don’t assume writers of non-normalized or marginalized identities got into The Paris Review because of Affirmative Action. In fact, I find most writers who get into The Paris Review all have academic backgrounds, studied poetry in MFA programs, teach poetry at MFA programs, have established relationships with gatekeepers, attend AWP, etc… The Paris Review doesn’t publish forward-thinking content from the margins. The Paris Review selects and distributes work that devalues the prestige of such institutions and lets them exist among the many and that’s what’s already happening. Also, it’s just like Sarah Fawn said, “There does seem to be a tendency to turn to the same voices time and again.” So, I’m not sure about this point about them (or their cohort) increasing representation. The poetry curation just messies those impulses in us at the margin to write in ways that either assuage white guilt or, if I’m being kinder, demand conformity.
Sarah Fawn: To add on to what Joey mentioned, it’s important for editors to put in the work, consistent, messy, interrogative work, and not to rely on someone else—institutions, established voices—to tell or teach. The work has to be cultivated in order for it to enact change. Readers and writers need to seek out publications, voices, and programs that take up these issues. So to conclude let’s do just that. I find voices to love in so many places—The Rumpus or Bitch Magazine, and places like Essay Daily, which provides a platform for editors to share more about their processes. Can you point readers and writers to publications that represent a range of experiences and voices? Where should readers look and writers submit?
Steven: Hey, Steven again . . . well, I already mentioned Huizache and Guernica, and I often like Gulf Coast and Sonora Review, Fourth Genre, Ecotone, Hotel Amerika, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Hobart, and Prairie Schooner. But it feels like there is so much happening so fast in literary publishing, particularly with new, cool, independent magazines, that it’s hard for me to keep up with everything. I try to listen to my students as much as possible.
Jen: I adore The Rumpus. Also, Brevity, AGNI, Guernica, The Nervous Breakdown, The Fem, TAYO, Kartika Review, Hyphen, Black Warrior Review, Prairie Schooner, to name a few.
Joey: Anything I say will be biased by my experience as a poet. I’m thankful to the journals that have chosen to champion my poems, which include some of the journals already mentioned. One of the places where I would still like to see my work is Lana Turner. I also like not looking to journals for my consumption of poetry. I search for poems on Tumblr (there are journals such as SUSAN: the journal, which are exclusively on Tumblr, or people’s individual Tumblr pages); Tumblr also has incredible concrete and mixed media poetry, memes and text-based gifs. I think of the character count on Twitter as a formal constraint, and see a lot of poetry on Twitter. Poets are becoming less dependent on securing prestigious publications because they can rely on their social capital to build their own audiences via social media. I recommend that a reader follow the artist whose work they enjoy and reach out to that writer, and for that reader to be mindful of where the person’s work appears. If a reader wants to find poetry that’s radically different however, they can’t just be looking at the journals.
Sarah Fawn: Thanks to you all for putting in the time to hash out these questions and wrestle with their implications! It’s refreshing to see editors reflecting on their positions and privileges so thoughtfully, and this conversation is just a springboard—there’s much more to say, so we invite others into the conversation.
STEVEN CHURCH is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, Ultrasonic: Essays, and One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters between Man and Animal. His essays have been published and anthologized widely. He’s a founding editor and nonfiction editor for The Normal School, and he teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.
JEN PALMARES MEADOWS is an essayist from northern California. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Brevity, The Nervous Breakdown, Denver Quarterly, Essay Daily, and elsewhere. It is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review and Fourth Genre. She is the memoir editor for Split Lip Magazine, and is currently at work on a collection about mending.
SARAH FAWN MONTGOMERY holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from California State University, Fresno and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she teaches and works as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor. She is the author of Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide and The Astronaut Checks His Watch (both from Finishing Line Press). Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, The Los Angeles Review, Nimrod, North Dakota Quarterly, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, Southeast Review, Terrain, Zone 3, and others. She has worked with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts for several years.