EDITORS ROUND TABLE:
Caryl Pagel is the author of Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death. She is the co-founder and editor of Rescue Press and, along with Kevin González, a poetry editor at jubilat. She lives in Chicago.
Laura Kochman, originally from New Jersey, is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama. She’s the poetry editor for Black Warrior Review. Her work is found or forthcoming from Artifice, The Journal, Copper Nickel, ILK Journal, and others.
Jeff T. Johnson’s poetry is forthcoming or has recently appeared in smoking glue gun, dandelion magazine, and The Organism for Poetic Research’s PELT. Other writing has appeared in The Aviary, Poetry Project Newsletter, Sink Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn, is Editor in Chief at LIT, and edits Dewclaw. For more information, visit jefftjohnson.wordpress.com.
Jaclyn Lovell teaches writing in the English Language Studies department at The New School. From Wisconsin, she currently lives in Brooklyn and is Editor in Chief at LIT.
[When one thinks of university journals, I think there is a temptation to think of these magazines as publishers of traditional narrative forms. But in generalizing this way, one ignores a huge range of university-funded journals that publish poetry that falls outside this paradigm, poetry that is surreal, unconventional, subversive, and often explosive on the page. I asked some tough (and not so tough) questions to editors at jubilat, LIT, and Black Warrior Review about everything from the avant garde audience to the expansion of voices in the poetry world. –Kyle McCord, Editor]
I’d like to start somewhere slightly less usual: aesthetics. As universities try to balance budgets, many university-affiliated magazines which previously had published physical issues are under pressure to shift to an online-only format. As an editor working for a print magazine that produces striking visual artifacts, what value do you put on generating a physical text? Why?
Caryl Pagel, Poetry Editor at jubilat: jubilat has always been a print journal and, I hope, always will be. We are extremely interested in the visual, which one might notice, for example, in our latest issue: #21 (sophisticated, cocktail-sipping, adult #21…), which includes a striking red-stripped, typewriter laden, tin-foil bearing collage by Jono Tosch as cover and coat. Bianca Stone’s drawings in the same issue are not only discrete cells of eerie genius but poem-partners and tonal peaks punctuating the journal as a whole. They allow the reading mind another type of engagement and illustrate (pun intended!) the joyously bleak, hilarious, sinister, silly, sorrowful, and bewildering patterns of the poems around them. Look, too, at Emily Hunt and Francesca Chabrier’s “Sorry David, David I Am So Sorry,” as an example of what text and sketch can do together. Sure, these pieces would remain powerful regardless of their physicality (in fact, we feature a digital version on our website), but there is something about the slower pace of flipping a printed page that increases the pleasure of this collaboration for me. Perhaps it’s the romantic moment of the turn that harnesses such surprise: each page a door creaking open to reveal new awe or horror.
Also important to mention is our online presence. Heather Christle, jubilat’s web editor, has done amazing work adding features to our website that don’t appear in the print issues. One might witness Kiki Petrosino reading “Alverta” (“Say she was noble: a bright & foreign kind”), Paul Legault singing—singing!!—“Farm 2,” or Jordan Stempleman’s “Hi, Again” indexed with Dean Young’s “Peach Farm” under the heading “fruit-bearing trees” for all of eternity.
Laura Kochman, Poetry Editor at Black Warrior Review: I don’t think that physical print journals are the only way to go, and in fact I love online journals for the things they can do that print can’t, but there’s something special about holding the journal in your hands. We put a lot of care and thought into the art for BWR, and it’s a very different experience seeing it on the cover versus on a computer screen. Right now I’m excited about the art for our upcoming issue–I’ve only ever seen it on a screen, and it changes when it becomes an object with weight, with a soft matte cover and paper edges. There’s also a limit to the physical object, only so many pages we can print, and so the physical object has to have everything in its right place. It’s satisfying.
We’re also in the process of developing our online content right now, putting up writing that uses graphics and movement (all those great things that print journals can’t do), extra interviews with our contest judges, book reviews, and developing our online presence and personality. We’re okay with a split personality, print and screen, because that kind of hinging and unhinging is something we’ve done for a long time. We’re a little weird.
Jeff T Johnson, Editor in Chief at LIT: LIT is developing a digital residency that features web-based writing to complement works on paper as published in the print edition. LIT was established as a print publication, but we hope the aesthetics it reflects are both mutable and unbound by particular formats. We love print journals, and we recognize their limitations, and we’re intrigued by the ways networked space is helping us rethink page-bound publishing formats. I’d hate to choose between paper and screen; fortunately, I don’t have to. Every issue of LIT, as with most print publications, is mediated by digital technology and in large part curated onscreen, which is another place physical text circulates and resides.
There’s often criticism leveled at university journals staffed by graduate students. Some poets claim that the rapid rotation of editors can squelch the sort of long-term publication relationship one might have with editors who run a publication for a decade or more. How would you respond to that critique?
LK: This is a question we get asked at BWR a lot, because we are run entirely by graduate students. No long-term editors here. We have assistant editors who read for the journal without a time limit, though they usually read for two or three years at the most, but all the editor positions are one year long. Assistant editors are required to read for at least a full year before running for an editorial position, so that helps with overlap, making sure that people truly get to know the journal before running it. We’re also mostly in the same program, students who talk to each other about reading and writing, who read each other’s writing, and so there’s a certain amount of consistency within the group of people who run BWR.
On the other hand, to those who complain about the lack of long-term publication relationships with journals, I’d say, so what? BWR has never intended to publish the same authors over and over again. We’re interested in the new, the edge, the ever-changing, the unknown. Every year we have an influx of new leadership, and every year we evolve, but that is the special thing about BWR. We are consistent in our inconsistency, in our willingness to be open-minded and self-aware.
Jaclyn Lovell, Editor in Chief at LIT: Laura’s description of the publishing dynamic at BWR applies to LIT as well. We love publishing emerging writers alongside established writers on the margins of the mainstream. To keep things fresh, we have a policy that we do not publish work by a writer within two years of a previous appearance in LIT. Even as the editorial staff shifts, what’s remained consistent in the aesthetic is an element of surprise, playfulness and humor. We’re looking for writers who demonstrate an attention to language that challenges us as readers. This comes in large part from innovation, so naturally the journal will take on a new shape, not just with new editors, but from issue to issue. For me, as a poet and editor, what’s really important is to be reading the most recent issue of any journal.
Generally an editor works on LIT for around 4 issues (2 years) and during that time not only helps develop the aesthetic, but builds a staff that understands that aesthetic. That way, editorial turnover goes as smoothly as possible. And as Jeff and I select our editorial replacements, we’re going to pick editors who are excited by what we did with the journal, but who are also eager to take it new places.
CP: jubilat has a variety of positions, some of which are manned by brilliant grad students, some of which are long-term. In the decade before Emily Pettit became jubilat’s publisher, Rob Casper and his band of rotating editors held a specific aesthetic in mind, making jubilat an incredibly wild, idiosyncratic, human, and humane publication. Currently that job falls to Emily, Kevin González, and myself and we are informed by our respect for Rob’s initial vision and our staff’s daily toil and input. Our grad students are good at math, parties, reading, awakeness, juggling, accents, banjos, and instinct.
As publishers of more avant garde work (or perhaps just less traditional work), who do you see as your target audience? What do you hope a new reader who picks up your magazine will fall in love with? What’s the first poem you published that really shook your understanding of poetry?
JL: Honestly, we want as many people to read LIT as possible, but our target audience is readers who want to be challenged by what they read—not necessarily in the scholarly way, but challenged in a sensory way. Sounds, disruptions, forms, visuals. Appreciating when a line is clean and crisp or intentionally cluttered. As a journal that publishes innovative writers, we’re looking for innovative readers. Readers who recognize how language is in many ways autonomous from us, and that to read requires engagement—critical and pleasurable—with the text. Ultimately, we seek readers who see reading as an act of writing.
I can’t pick one piece that shook my understanding of poetry because it’s actually when they all come together in the journal that I get the most shaken up—moving from one landscape or perspective of writing into another. In the last two issues we’ve concentrated on breaking down the boundaries between fiction, poetry and visual art to create a cohesion of language that reads more like a book, something I hope new and old readers will fall in love with. Each piece is vivid, pushing against genre, but very much in conversation with the next. It’s these conversations that seem to turn my head the most.
As for particular moments from my time with LIT, I think of Jhave’s piece, “O we are so…” from LIT 21. We published excerpts in black and white in the journal and linked to a scrolling, color version online that he can edit freely over time. It makes my mind delightfully spin every time I think about it.
CP: Target audiences: orphans and apocalyptic visionaries will find instruction in Joshua Edwards’ Agonistes poems; Tank Johnson, Sweet Sue, and Angry Al are all implicated in Lauren Shapiro’s “Hotel”; animals will celebrate Sean Bishop’s “Sonsmanship,” S.E. Smith’s “I’m Aware of the Animals Within Me,” Lisa Olstein’s “Teaching Farm,” and Natalie Lyalin’s “Agrarian”; emotions and/or souls will revel in Marc Rahe’s “On Silence,” Lidija Dimkovska’s “Cube,” and Tomaz Salamun’s “For David”; pushers of stones and owners of clocks should check out James Haug’s “Geologic Time” and Shara Lessly’s “The Clocks, Lobotomous”; humans with brains will find them exploding upon encountering Zach Savich’s “Brutal,” Elizabeth Robinson’s “On Nocturnal Light,” Keetje Kuipers’ “The Extinct,” and Lee Ann Roripaugh’s essay on poetry and mirror neurons.
New readers will fall in love with: Dorothea Lasky’s grace and speculation (“And to have a voice is to not have it one day, too/ Which is awful/ Which is much worse than to never have a body again”); Macgregor Card, Nick Lantz, Eryn Green, and Lewis Freedman’s formal experiments; Mary Hickman’s stunning ekphrasis (“There are bones in the Great Wall. My finger finds a finger-bone. There are wrists in this wall. And a pelvis, a pelvis is a fossil.”); the rowdy percussion of Elaine Khan, Drew Milne, and Daniela Olszewska; and John Ashbery, Joe Fletcher, Alex Phillips, and Hannah Gamble’s captivating insistence and insight.
Shakers of understanding: Jericho Brown’s “Obituary” (“If the body is a corporation,/ I was the guy in charge of blood, my man”); Lisa Fishman’s “In Stead A Form” (“The body be golden okay”); Shane McCrae’s “Was Pretty Was Kids” (“Pretty it made him angry talked as if/ It made him angry talked”); Ben Kopel’s “Muscle Mystery Sutra” (“all of my ideas/ they come from/ a humming/ in the air ducts”).
LK: The first poem that I took part in publishing, that shook my understanding of poetry, was Esvie Coemish’s “Love Letter 32: Snapshots from the Honeymoon of Our Long Germination,” published in Issue 38.1. I was an assistant editor at the time, so I wasn’t in charge of choosing poems to bring to meetings, but I read it in the packet and knew that it needed to be in the journal. It took concrete poetry and made it new again, and besides that it was funny and sweet and clever.
I hope that I couldn’t pigeonhole the readers of BWR, but I do think that a lot of people who read us are also writers, whether they publish or not. I hope, writers or not, published or not, that they fall in love with BWR for the same reason that I am always falling in love with BWR. We are willing to go with a writer on a small, strange journey, to let a lack of familiarity turn into complicity, to love the way a poem looks just as much as the way that it sounds out loud or in your head, to see a strange poem across a crowded room and just know that it’s the one. If BWR was a person, you and she’d be thick as thieves, but she would surprise you every time you met.
Recently a poet friend of mine described the current situation in poetry as an “Era of Noise,” where the sheer quantity of authors publishing makes it nearly impossible to know which voices merit universal attention. It would be tough to name even five books from the last ten years the majority of poets have read. As an editor, how do you feel about this dramatic expansion of voices?
LK: To a certain extent, there’s something really enticing about that hive-mind situation. How cool would it be to know that X number of people have also read that book that you just adore? You could talk to them about it. You could have giddy conversations.
But really, even in that situation, you haven’t read the same book. You’ve each, every X of you, read the version that you created for yourself as you read, as you reacted to the words and the shape of them in the way that only you could. Okay–I know this is in the realm of philosophy. But my point is that the only reason why you could have giddy conversations about the same book is that it wasn’t the same book. If everybody’s reading the same thing, exactly the same thing, where’s the conversation? So, X number of people can read X books and still have a conversation, because that’s just the way individuated humanity works, but what if we didn’t have to conform to the reading list? What if we all read what we liked, and allowed writers to publish who are publishing outside of the reading list, and what if we talked about those writers with our friends, who were reading other writers, and we shared our individual reading lists, and we talked about that? That’s exciting. I think that’s happening now, and we should all be excited about it.
CP: My own poet friend said he’s been marveling at the Will Smiley poems in jubilat’s last issue. When he told me this I reread them for the hundredth time. When I told him this he reread them then, again, too. We each—alone but with knowledge of the other—inhabited the spooky distance and peculiar tone of a Smiley poem. This created a two-person psychic connection via language that matters to me more than “universal attention.” Would that we could all stop everything and read only Smiley’s “The Snow” for the next ten years; yes, yes, let’s do that!!, it would be well worth the heartbrain space. Is it preferable that we each read the same five books, or that we commit our lives to one poem? Should 1,000 people read “The Snow” one time or two people read it 500 times? How fast can you read this poem while I watch you? What is the maximum amount of times a poem can be read before it disintegrates into the ether? How many voices can fit into your mind at once and how many already exist there? Can we each read one word of a single poem and then speak it out loud wherever we go, hoping that eventually all of the word-holders will end up in the same spot at the same time—in the right order—at which point the group will speak the poem’s pieces in its original authored arrangement and recreate the work causing a giant hole to explode open in the cosmos that we will all spill into and out of? All I know is that attention is the thing we have the most of; it is the greatest gift, and immeasurable.
JTJ: What Caryl and Laura said. Also: More noise! More noise!
What’s the next exciting development for your magazine? What can readers look forward to?
CP: Readers can look forward to jubilat #22, which will feature more heartbreak, further scientific investigation, witchcraft, green ghosts, American ruins, candelabras, and sazeracs.
LK: If I could tell you about the next exciting development–if I already knew what the development was–it wouldn’t be BWR. We are, however, in the hive-mind sense, all very excited about Issue 39.1. While I was writing this interview, the 39.1 arrived in the mail and let me say it is lovely, soft and glowing, a little intertwined ghost of itself.
JTJ: We’re working to incorporate digital and network-based writing into LIT, via the digital residency on our web site (Judd Morrissey, whose work graces issue 22 in a black enamel insert, is our first resident). This started informally with Jhave’s piece in issue 21, as Jaclyn mentioned. We’re now publishing print-based adaptations of digital works that link to online material. Just as we’re challenging generic boundaries, we’re exploring the material edges of publishing. Who knows what we’ll find?