WHY START PUBLISHING A LITERARY JOURNAL

Picture of Curtis PerdueAuthor: Curtis Perdue

During my MFA at Emerson I would often wander over to the Harvard Coop bookstore and skim through the poetry in the literary journals. As a reader, and then eventually poetry editor, for redivider, I was on the lookout for new voices I might want to solicit. After a while, I started getting tired of reading poems by the same “emerging and established” poets. A lot of the poems I read, not all, were flat and predictable and were worked on so hard that the poem seemed to have a soul or heart at some point in the writing process, but the poet killed the beat of surprise (innovation) with excessive labor. The poem was tortured out of itself. Now, I am not advocating here for a poetry that shouldn’t be revised. It’s a personal taste of mine: I find poems that flip and fly and crash and bang and sweat and drool and have the impression of the poet giving into the poem, allowing the poem to write itself, are far more intoxicating.

I like to travel, and poetry, for me, is another form of travel. I am invited into the mind of a person I don’t know, and led somewhere real and believable, whether that place is real or not. I admire poets that make me believe, whose imaginations infect my unconscious manifestations of anxieties and love, and I feel, if only for one line, one image, that I am connected to that thinker, that thought, and I am capable of going places I have always wanted to go but am unable, or too afraid, to go there on my own. That’s why I started a magazine: To find poems and poets like that, and to let the world know there are some remarkable ideas and dreams squirming around inside the hearts of some really talented thinkers and artists. I also did it because I wanted to help my friends. There were poets I’d met along the way—at conferences and workshops— that weren’t published at all, or published very little, but I knew their writing kicked fucking ass, and I needed everyone else to know. I needed everyone to know what it felt like to be kicked.

I remember when I started my MFA, writers seemed skeptical in regards to publishing their work online (I was guilty of it, and I hadn’t even been published yet), but that doesn’t seem to be the case any more. There are so many beautifully designed poetry websites that publish staggering poems, like Sixth Finch and Diagram and diode and Sink Review and Jellyfish and Vinyl and ILK and Phantom Limb and iO and H_NGM_N and La Petite Zine (I’m sure I’m leaving a bunch out), but there are also, unfortunately, a bunch of poorly maintained sites too. Knowing that anyone could get on a computer and start a website was a bit intimidating, but it also motivated me to think about how inter|rupture could stand out and hopefully become a legitimate home for poems. Many online magazines inspired me, so it was important to do the research and consider why these other sites had become so successful in such a short period of time. I attributed it to their design and a clear sense of purpose or aesthetic. I had written a manifesto (which no one will ever see) and I discovered a quote that embodied what I thought great writing should look, sound, and feel like. I wanted simplicity, elegance, astonishment, and—as a friend of mine was able to capture my outlook with his own words—understated torture. My goal was to include poems that interrupted the expectations of readers. Something that would startle and assault the current.

I learned more than I ever could have planned for, though, of course, there were things I wish I had known or done. For those interested in starting a magazine, I think it’s important to consider why it is you want to start something. Personally, I was afraid that leaving my MFA community would have adverse affects on my career as a writer. Staying involved, someway, somehow, was a necessity. To help establish expectations, for submitters to know what I was looking for, I solicited the entire first issue of inter|rupture. This kept me engaged with the community and helped me establish a new community. Some new journals make this mistake. Mistake may be too strong of a word, but I have encountered new online journals that have an open submission period for their first issue. As a writer, I would be hesitant to submit simply because I wouldn’t feel confident in knowing what they want, even if they have an about page summarizing their aesthetic. I continued to solicit for issues two and three (about half). But by issue four we were getting some really solid submissions and I have only solicited about two or three poets per issue since, mainly because I love and admire someone’s work and I want to showcase it.

I also think it’s important, just like with everything else in life, to set goals. I knew the exact day I wanted to launch the first issue. I knew when I wanted to have all the content in. I knew when I wanted to finalize a logo. Goals naturally generate pressure, which in turn causes us to be motivated. That being said, I wouldn’t rush the birth of your magazine or journal. Sometimes I wonder what inter|rupture would have been like if we took a few more months to prepare. I ask questions like Did I consider all our possibilities and capabilities as a web journal? Could I have done more to stand out? Did I pick the right name? How do I reach more readers? How many years can I afford to do this?

Doubts will continue to pile up, but I don’t let it exhaust me. I am always reminding myself that this will take time. There is no rush, really: Poetry is not going anywhere. So, even though I may feel pressure to keep up and compete with the inundation of fledglings, it’s more important to be patient and persistent. Since I am only one voice, and I don’t know everything, and since everyone’s experiences vary, I asked three other editors to respond to this essay by providing some personal insight related to the topic of starting a journal. What they had to say I found very informative and applicable.

Wendy Xu, from iO: A Journal of New American Poetry

Before iO existed, in 2010, when it was just a little idea that Kyle McCord and I would talk and think about, I wish I had asked myself  ”why an online journal?” and subsequently pushed myself to think past answers of convenience, accessibility, and cost. These are of course, super legitimate reasons–what I mean is, in the beginning I don’t think we took full advantage of the online format. And I certainly don’t mean that we’ve got it all figured out now! But early on, I wish I had asked myself more questions of “what CAN you do online that you CAN’T in print?” and then made a larger effort to do those things. In early issues of iO, some things are hilariously not hyperlinked, not accompanied by necessary images, seemingly not aware in general that it is online. Why would an interview with an author with a website not link to it? It didn’t even occur to us in early issues that “Hey, it is easy /affordable to work with images online, which opens us up to broadening the poetry we publish.” This led us to some of the most exciting stuff we’ve ever had the honor of publishing! An example: Sean Bishop’s super amazing full color erasure project, RES–ECTIONS.

Consider the reading experience of your audience, and how the choices your online journal makes will change that. How is it different to click on somebody’s face to go to their poem, versus their name, versus a separate image? Who will choose that image? How big or small will things be? An online format lets you try on 10000 different looks / options for your journal before you commit (and you’ll never have that “OH SHIT I just printed 500 mis-formatted copies of this issue!” moment) so think about those decisions, and know, consciously, the reasoning behind your final choices.

Rob McDonald, from Sixth Finch

I definitely didn’t start Sixth Finch for the sake of my own writing, but I’ve learned a ton from reading through four years worth of submissions.  I’ve gotten a much clearer sense of how I want my own poems to work, and I know which traps to avoid.  I have no regrets about getting my MFA, but I’ve learned at least as much by editing Sixth Finch.  Of course, it’s been more work than the MFA, too.

Gale Marie Thompson, from Jellyfish Magazine

I wish I knew that what I was doing was legitimate. That I can trust my own intuition. That if I want to do it, then I can make it happen. That ONLY I can make it happen, but that the option is open and validated for me to do what I see best. For example, what happened last week. I had the thought: “Hey…Jellyfish is a magazine…you know what? Maybe JF should do a reading in Boston! We can do that!” and it was a valid wish. It doesn’t take a magical person who is much better than you to start your own magazine. It just takes you. I remember my first year wanting to start a magazine, and David Bartone (the magical person who had started his own weird little magazine, microfilme) just said “well, start it. we all just started things.”

Does that make sense? Moral of the story: live your life, be yourself. 

and dance.