Interview With Hypothetical: A Review of Everything Imaginable

Author: Cynthia-Marie Marmo O’Brien

How did you come up with the idea for the magazine? What was the inspiration for Hypothetical Review? Tell us all about how this mission started.

One of the specific inspirations was an experience in 2009-2010 when I was on the faculty of a university in Hungary. We had graduate students from more than one hundred countries, all studying in English. There was an incredibly rich cultural community yet an intriguing disconnect given that most of the students do not speak Hungarian, the language of the country where we lived. I invited the university community to share literature from languages we speak, have creative writing workshops and discuss translation. Those conversations didn’t have a home yet. Creative writing built common ground. We secured funding for a journal. In the university, you’d be in the same room with twenty people and odds are you’d have an equal number of languages represented. That translates to a wealth of knowledge of authors who could have much larger readership. When we assembled the journal of our projects, there was work in English, Spanish, Bulgarian, Hungarian and Slovak, prose, poetry, even a play. We printed the translations side-by-side our shared language. It was a small-scale spark for what type of magazine I would seek to create professionally. It made tangible the idea of literature as diplomacy.

I wanted to replicate the exchange of information that experience yielded. I also draw a link between literature produced outside the lingua franca and one notion of what’s considered marginal. Translation studies are expanding, translators are becoming more visible, and academia is discussing translingual models of learning.  Most work is more likely to be translated to other languages if it is first translated to English as the bridge language. Asymptote is one model of a journal that I’m looking at in regards to multilingual journals, one that I was not aware of when I began Hypothetical. It is three years old with embedded editors-at-large on the ground around the world. One difference from Hypothetical, which is just beginning to implement what I hope will be a sustainable model, is they do have funding, donors and the village it takes for such an endeavor. Updating our media kit, preparing our funding applications – that’s part of the administration staff we’ll be hiring and I’ll be turning over my work on that to them. Editorial work has to be approached as a profession, but it can’t drown the space for writing and reading. I’m a writer first, a reader second, and that propels being an editor, third. I love Apogee and Vela magazines for their missions and respective work. I have immense respect for Guernica’s content and their editors.

I intended to someday start a magazine, but the ignition for this magazine was going to Tin House Writers’ Workshop in 2012, because it gave me the confidence to start one from scratch. Without exaggeration, the THWW was a holy experience for me given writing is my vocation. I have an eighty page notebook from lectures by Dorothy Allison, Matthew Zapruder, Leni Zumas, Steve Almond. My study and immersion in writing pedagogy had changed how I responded editorially to manuscripts; I experienced that in my workshop with Stephen Elliott. There’s a translation of skill from what I’ve done with students in sessions in writing centers and in the letters I would pen to university students on drafts that gives me a philosophy for doing magazine editorial work with final stage submissions. The work is distinct, but requires an application of much of the same principles. The editorial process as a way to develop as a writer by providing feedback is extremely valuable, too. I wanted to build somewhere to make that happen,  and to work with a creed to draw narratives often drowned out in culture.

A journal is a literary community that fosters an ethos. It’s a space for ideas. There are so many magazines, but there is a niche to fill by upending conventional portrayals of certain concepts. Inviting writers to submit interpretations of that, including translations, is how we want to expand that space.

I drafted the mission statement along with our other ‘founding documents’ and a team of volunteer staff started settling out what we could reasonably do, aligning that with what we aspire to do. Lucas Gilardone translated the documents into Spanish; we’re eager for someone to translate them into a third, fourth, fifth, nth language. I’m especially eager for an Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew or Portuguese version. There’s a hunger for writing that moves differently than easy, common, and dominant narratives. Of course, which ones those are depends on which culture you’re referencing. I hope as our submissions come from more places we’ll create that dialogue.  And there’s freedom in our mission for contributors to define that. Make the case as to what that is. It should do to us for readers what Cheryl Strayed described an essay can in her introduction to this year’s Best American Essays.

One of my workshop mates from Tin House Writers’ Workshop, Carrie Anne Tocci, brainstormed the name Hypothetical; it was humorous because the publication did not exist. But it stuck. Our work occurs in our minds so in some ways, it’s hypothetical, it’s imagined, it’s conditional on suspending belief or accepting premises, it’s an if-then situation. It’s a gesture to some other tense, to what might be, to marginal, liminal spaces and times, which is what we like to examine. Review is an homage to many outstanding, enduring, substantive publications. It carries the weight of something solid, to contrast with hypothetical things. Alaska Quarterly Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, Seneca Review, off the top of my head, in alphabetical order. Review has other meanings, too, and we’re playing with language by saying “everything imaginable.” It’s a challenge as to, what can we imagine? Here’s a selection of it. A review, if you will. I also have a weakness for subtitles.

Our inspiration for the design is a visual that would complement our philosophy. We wanted the design to represent destabilizing the United States or the West, and even more specifically, New York, as the turning point around which the literary world revolves, its axis, the reference point on a map. By that we don’t mean to diminish the work done here; that’s where I live currently. Rather, we mean expanding the source and substance of our reading possibilities, offering alternatives, challenges. We know that language changes our world views from examining the different vocabularies that exist; some studies also posit that a bilingual or multilingual individual expresses aspects of her personality to different degrees depending on which language she’s operating in. We want to experience those hybrid views, see them on the page, and that’s the world many of us live in now.

If you look closely, at the minimalist backdrop on our homepage and our Submittable page, it’s a representation of the globe in slices, with each line demarcating a continent. Graphic designer Kyle Strope volunteered to create that and also made our typeface logo. For the issues, we want readers be able to scroll through seamlessly from left to right or right to left, as if turning the pages of a paper journal, like a book.  We wanted a clean, elegant design emphasizing how the texts relate to each other. Making it easier for readers to move within pieces and between them is one of my priorities for improving it when we have funding, a designer’s generosity, or use some innovative open source options that I’ve seen publications implementing. We do want the design to incorporate visual art that’s complementary to the reading, and so we have a rotating gallery of photography. We chose filmmaker Mayeta Clark for Issue One, and rotated stills from her film about a Bronx piano factory. The stills we selected are liminal spaces, of craftsmanship that’s seldom revealed that’s passing away, of the inside of a building that is nondescript on the outside. Hypothetical, in art.

What have you gained from working for Hypothetical Review? How has this experience changed your perspective of reading literature and the process of creating a literary magazine?

I’ve read a lot of great writing I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’ve continued to distill the different skills required to be a writer and an editor, and how those can overlap with the role of educator. It’s a common misunderstanding that if you’re a good writer, you can intuitively edit writing and teach it. I respect all three as practices.

It’s enhanced my reading of literature so I’m more conscious of asking myself how to close gaps in the sources of the literature I read. By sources, I mean anything from the publishing imprint, the writer’s milieu, the slice of society the literature emerged from, the language traditions at play in however it reached me.  I know more what I don’t know. I have gained optimism about that ‘what has yet to be achieved’ ideal in our creed. It’s fun to discover what that means to different people, and to have an affirmation that literature is the vanguard of social change.  It’s how we learn to empathize with experiences we don’t have in our lives; that understanding moves slowly through individuals in a culture until it is formalized by law or other institutions.

I’m equal measures exhilarated and exhausted by literature I want to read that is already out in the world, that people I collaborated with on the magazine or encountered through it have brought to my attention. I didn’t think it was possible to heighten either of those two feelings, so I’ve also been proven wrong about some of my assumptions.

I’ve gained appreciation for how the understanding of what it means for something to be published varies in different cultures, and the different meanings of intellectual property. Beyond that, I’ve gained the gift and responsibility to read and respond to other writers’ work. I also feel a sense of responsibility to pass that on in an editorial staff, and an opportunity to learn from the editors of magazines and publishing imprints that I see myself working for in the future. I want to emulate them, with a twist, and its exciting to see where that will take the journal. Journals come and go, but we’ve already put writers into circulation that I am very proud and humbled to share.

I’ve gained a forum to share ideas in a variety of ways. First, to share writing as a magazine’s primary function. Then, to share ongoing reflections on the meaning of being an editor, curating a ‘public’ and how to put that into practice so that it evolves for the better. That’s cool for someone who loves metacognition and realizes the magazine extends some of my identity as educator. I find myself asking what I’ve learned over the years from submitting to publications and working for or with editors in daily publications, bimonthly magazines, literary journals, the academic press environment.

My idea of creating a literary journal has changed in that I’ve come to see the process of creating the journal’s editorial culture, relationship to its contributors and readers, interactions with other journals and editors, to be a precursor to participating in any wider culture’s exchange – even when much of editorial work, like writing, can be solitary, with the page. We’re going to be hiring volunteer editorial staff to build our capacity plus take up the reins from some of our fantastic staff readers and editors from Issues One and Two. We know now the work our journal needs done.  Preparing to put those application calls out has been awesome; it’s about thought work with texts, submissions, a very hands-on, facilitated craft shop talk curatorial jam. Efficiency in logistics, consistency in commitments to writers, those can happen with a good system. How to collaborate that way productively, across time zones, how to share information, what texts/readings/editorial comments come to the meetings: that’s what systems wonks live to design.

We’ve experienced challenges of creating something out of ideas, fluctuating variables and intangible resources. I love the hospitality aspect of what we do as editors: come into our space. Meet this author, speak to her about her book.  Every piece leads to another piece, another author, another world. Aside from meeting the readers at our launch, I have never met most of the contributors so it’s a community based in writing. Now I’m interested in what work they do in the future.

The logistical aspect of a literary magazine must happen in tandem with the editorial work, and that’s similar to my other experiences with administration: it’s invisible but essential. It’s changed my thinking; I devote more of my creativity to devising ways to get nuts and bolts done, since that is what is going to yield the ideas and the submissions to read and publish.

Working on this publication has also given me the ability to speak first-hand to VIDA’s work from an editor’s perspective. From looking at our statistics, male writers do resubmit much more than women, even if we’ve not encouraged them to resubmit in our rejection letter. I’m impressed by that discipline. It compels me to be undaunted in my own submissions. It compels to close the gap between my tall stack of completed writing and my tiny stack of writing I have submitted.

My perspective on creating a literary magazine is that it is what you make of it; it’s a challenging exercise in making opportunities, rather than waiting for them to appear. We’ve benefited  from a tremendously generous community of literary role models and peers. ‘The world’ comes here to New York, but to fulfill the mission, we have to re-engage with the world as elsewhere without othering it, but collaborating again with more staff in literary networks across time zones. There’s a danger in aggregating content only because of where it is from, of simplifying, of limiting and dividing. Ultimately, engaging with people through this collaboration is what pushes against that and makes this invigorating. A magazine is a curation of the writing by authors who trust us with their ideas, their brainchildren.

I’d add that, while this not on my mind at all when I started Hypothetical, I now realize that being a woman editor is also a challenge to conventional power structures in publishing. I’ve always known that as a writer, but now I am on the other side. So, this process is full of surprises. Hypothetical aspires now to give others a chance to also push against who rises to editor positions.

What authors are your editors fans of?  Does that have a bearing on how they select submissions?

That’s a great question; I’m sure literary tastes influence our judgment of any writing on some level. That’s why I work with people who read different work than I do, whose literary background and formation is unlike my own. What we’re building is not a shared fandom, so to speak, but an identity for the journal, based on a shared appreciation of craft and mission. That might, and often does, lead us to pick the same submissions from the unsolicited batches for Hypothetical. Yet I want more debates about that.

When we’re reading unsolicited submissions, it’s very important to me that we’re not influenced by who wrote the piece, but by the writing itself. We want to share new voices, but all writers are shaped by the greats we’ve read, no?  We also want to hear from leading thinkers, to give them a new audience and to have conversations with them. Sometimes they submit to us, and sometimes we seek them out. We had a conversation about authors people admire recently, with a piece we were debating whether to accept which showed its literary inheritance.

I approach reading submissions from a craft perspective, based on reading a lot of slush at other magazines, as a nonfiction editor at Columbia’s literary journal and as a volunteer reader for Tin House for a year. I draw on teaching writing when I’m reading, too. When a piece is on the fence, craft questions are what I ask other readers; even when someone votes no, if the piece isn’t an obvious no or a universal no, I’m keen for articulation of why.

If the craft is there, we start thinking about the fit. What would make this a Hypothetical publication?  Why do we want to champion this piece in light of our creed? That’s the north star, whenever I’m stuck or torn about an excellent piece of writing. It’s also the only factor I’m thinking about for future candidates for our conversation section. Who is doing the work we think represents literature’s potential now and who would be a good interlocutor on that process?

Writers I admire influence my editorial work by what they’ve expressed as meaningful writing goals, or via definitions they’ve given of what they look readers. I’ve learned articulations of what makes good literature from so many writers. Working on Hypothetical has challenged me to distill those, and then ask, what makes a good issue? What issues of other publications am I a fan of? What does it take for an issue to be as cohesive as a piece of writing? When I am working on how we aspire Hypothetical to evolve, I am thinking less about the writers I read and more about the journals I respect.

Issue One was important to give us a foothold, to set the standard of excellence. We were honored to publish a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship translator, two Lithuanian poets who you’d rarely see in English, a National Book Award finalist, a Princeton Hodder Fellow, Orbis Books editor, author of books of literary criticism, poetry, and fiction, first-time published writer, critically acclaimed writers never before published in English, a poet with a prize-winning first book released in Bosnia, writers active as teachers. I hope you’ll go read them in the Issue! This a credit for the range of writing but also the quality we yielded. It’s a bit daunting to go up from there. For Issue One we did directly solicit some critically acclaimed writers we’re fans of to introduce the publication. Critical acclaim will draw an audience for other, unknown writers we’re championing.  Critical acclaim is not the same as wide readership, so it is essential to share ‘established’ writers’ work with more and different readers. Inviting writers to submit is still part of what we’ll do, especially for our Conversation series, but I’m really interested in discovering them, having them arrive out of the ether, as some of our Issue Two writers have. That can be simply because they read the publication and send work. How ideas travel is marvelous.

If you look at my answer for what I look for in writing, you’ll find that in all of Cynthia Huntington’s work. It seizes you, in the best sense of being overcome, and then it freezes you, stops you. Then it brings you back to life. She’s an indomitable writer. She’s fearless on the page. As a teacher and editor, she’s gentle, but fierce in yanking your best work out of you. She works with mythology and biblical imagery, creation, transformation, madness, the wild. I am certain that studying with her played a role in what I think about literature, and this mission. She was instrumental in my shift to nonfiction, to my embrace of vulnerability on the page as strength.

We published the first excerpts of her work-in-progress, Terra Nova. In Terra Nova, she takes history and gives us voices from it only she has found, but they sing as if they’ve always been a part of the chorus. It’s some of her best work, and that’s when her previous work was a finalist for the National Book Award. It’s about accountability, and loss, and speaking your loss to those who are not there to hear you. And laughing, and God, and I’d like anyone who reads it to share it with three friends. Sharing that was a thrill for me that keeps on thrilling.

Another Issue One editor who also worked on our Issue Two in progress, Britt Melewski, is a fan of Zachary Schomburg. Britt’s writing has traces of Schomburg. We published dazzling excerpts from Asteroid and Agnes the Elephant. Lauren Westerfield, who served as Issue One and Two associate editor in California and former blog editor, has a sensibility and patience from working in detail-oriented publishing. I’m excited about edits Lauren did to excavate marvelous material from a piece we’re preparing for Issue Two; she approached submissions seeking the mission, finding lightning bolts of language in those that intriguingly fit, and then helping make the hard choices of whether those bolts struck enough times in a piece for us to publish it.

New and more editorial staff will bring more personal canons of writers and of journals, which is the level of literary structure I think about when I’m on Hypothetical duty. We’ll all keep reading, acquiring more authors whose work we admire, and discussing how their writing does what it is we admire. That’s what we’ll then look for in any submission. That’s a level of editorial judgment that I enjoy doing, close reading of a text. I want to instill that in interns as a practice, a professional development opportunity and a way to understand how their writing operates.

I am a fan of Eula Biss. I want everyone to read Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays. Anyone on this list who is alive – consider yourself short-listed for a solicitation letter. I am a fan of Patricia Hampl, Tomas Dobozy, Adrienne Rich, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Radnoti Miklos, Ama Ata Aidoo, Annie Dillard, Andrew Solomon, Ernesto Sabato, Edith Grossman, Miranda July, Rebecca Miller, Edwidge Danticat, Andrew O’Hagan,  Zora Neale Hurston, Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O’Connor, Herta Muller, Gunter Grass, Djuna Barnes, Virginia Woolf, Joyce, John Jeremiah Sullivan, BH Fairchild. An author who surely influences my selection subconsciously is Rodolfo Walsh, whose spare, devastating Operation Massacre was published in English translation from Spanish by Seven Stories Press, just last year by Daniella Gitlin. That 2013 was English audiences first chance to read this in its entirety blew me away. I read it a decade ago in Spanish and it’s such an important book, for its subject and its form, that I could not fathom how it had not migrated to English. Alma Guillermoprieto, whose Dancing with Cuba is as lovely as her Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America was transformative to send me into studying Latin American literature, wrote that it’s shameful there was no English version until now. But I think how many Operation Massacres are scattered around the planet, masterpieces, and I’m excited to encounter them.

 What do you look for in a publishable piece of writing?

I think of voice as a function of both form and content, and am always reminded of advice I heard Robert Atwan give to young writers. He was asked by a college writer how one should pick topics, and he answered immediately to “be the voice of your generation.” He said he didn’t think he had heard that yet. While I could argue I have heard voices of that generation, or that there isn’t one, I embrace the spirit of the answer. It shifts away from identifying what to write about to suggesting an approach. I look for a piece where the writer has embraced our creed, made it their own, is grappling with it, challenges me. I look for the effect a piece has on readers, and usually that is linked to the structural integrity of the work. The effect I want is to be changed in my understanding of something by moving from the first word of the piece to the last.  I’m seeking a genuine voice, a surprise, an insight, honesty, originality, and movement.

I’ve always been advised as a writer that the best way to know where to submit is to read publications and become familiar with them; another way is to look at where the writers whose work you feel kinship with published. There’s a clear distinction between submissions by writers who have chosen a piece for Hypothetical and those who submit indiscriminately. The latter could be brilliant writers but their piece needs a different home. It shows if someone has read our first issue, read our blog, looked at what we’re doing on social media, read at our magazine’s statements about writing. We receive many beautiful submissions that we have not published that I’m so glad have been written, and that we had the opportunity to read. Many were good fits with our mission, but lacking  in some of the craft we need; that’s encouraging as it speaks to a sense of the journal’s identity coalescing. I’m glad those writers have found us, and will read us, and keep submitting their work to journals they like to read. I want to know what drew them to us. Lastly, I look for a piece that has consequence. Those pieces come from writers who are doing the work of staking out the known and the unknown world for someone. That’s a piece that is written for a public, with an awareness of one. I admire that.

How do you select your monthly features?

We started the monthly features on our blog platform; it’s named “Everything Else” as a  nod to the full moniker of the journal, A Review of Everything Imaginable. We’re going to make space for whatever is not in the issues, but is still part of what that phrase conjures. Lauren Westerfield, who served as an editor of the journal since its inception through much of the work on Issue Two, ushered the blog into existence. Lauren created features for it that we’ll use into the future, and her presence in grabbing the potential in submissions, as an organizer, and someone whose lively posts grew our social media presence were invaluable.

We’ve done the original creative content called “Monthly Feature” on the 15th of each month for four months – August, September, November, January – so it’s new. In October, we debuted our signature set of interview questions. We hope to get suggestions from readers about whose answers to these questions they’d like to read, and we’ll interview writers whose work embodies Hypothetical.

The monthly feature in August was a double-header, a bridge between our first issue and our forthcoming one. We published a new poem from Issue One contributor Teresa Mei Chuc, and one from Issue Two contributor Roberto Santiago. In September, we had Melissa Burton’s poetry and we encountered LitBridge in her bio note. In October, VB Borjen, an Issue One contributor, was our first signature interview, talking about the launch of his first book. We had flash fiction from Laurie Stone in November.

We’d like the monthly features to come to us through that submission category. We give those a very short turn-around time for authors, and it’s a great opportunity for flash fiction, prose poems, the type of nonfiction Brevity publishes. We choose pieces that are strong as stand-alone works, tiny nuggets of language. We look for the same things we do in journal content. But we also keep our eyes open for work submitted to the journal that we love and  want to publish, but we can’t fit into the jigsaw puzzle of assembling the issue. In that case, we invite an author to publish it as a monthly feature.

Length is the main difference between work in the journal and the monthly features: the monthly features are  1,000 words or less. We believe in the writers we’ve published and we want to give them as much of an audience as possible by providing multiple reasons for different readers to encounter their work; we hope Everything Else also keeps new people flipping to more of the writing in the issues.

What is the next exciting thing happening at Hypothetical Review?

Issue Two is coming out this winter! We’ve been building the content for several months.  We are still taking submissions, but we have a good deal of it mapped out. We’re excited to bring readers a range of writers. I’ll share two examples: Loraine Bond’s first publication, a set of amazing poems submitted from Montana, and an excerpt adapted from a novel by Voices from War Writing Workshop co-leader Kara Krauze. I have some dream contributors who I hope to include in Two or a future number. I’m working with a writer on a piece about surviving sexual assault in the military, but more broadly, about how she came to love the military even before she was in it, and why she still believes in it.

In terms of the review, I’m very excited that we are moving out of the design-build stage of operations and ready to implement some longer-term planning for sustainability, for production, for each specialized expertise area of a publication to have a dedicated team member, to talk to more writers in our interview and conversation series, to improve our virtual space, to pass on knowledge and mentor interns, to benefit from their knowledge, to meet new writers on the page and for readers to meet them; so much of an editorial vision is about creativity and constant experimentation with forms of communicating it, finding and disseminating expressions or mutations of it. Yet the publication itself does that within a fixed form, in the same way that specific forms – a specific syntax, length, a sestina – are surprisingly freeing for writers’ ideas.

At the start of any venture, there’s a process of testing whether the niche you’re filling does exist, applying ways you’ve worked other publications and modifying them, matching the needs of the publication with the skills of volunteer staff, figuring out what those unique needs are and how they overlap or differ from other journals. From speaking on a panel with other editors, to talking with people who turned out for our first reading, to the submissions that come from the most unexpected places, to tracking visits to our website, there’s an affirmative sense Hypothetical, as young and small as it is, is resonating and connecting.

Hiring the next editorial staff is a direct extension of that. It’s making connections to the minds who will filter what we transfer to the readership and who will be the first point of connection with the writing that writers send us. My journalist side loves our Conversations with Creators section – that is still in the works for Issue Two – and so I’d rank having conversations as part of the application process, and then while working together, with creators of the magazine very high on the excitement scale. With our first issue out in the world, and our next on the way, we hope to cast our net widely, and surpass the linguistic, cultural and literary worlds our original volunteers brought us.