What goes on inside poetry editors’ heads? is a burning question for publishing and wannabe-publishing poets everywhere. With this third Ten Questions series, we are showcasing weekly answers from a diverse group of poetry editors to Ten Questions for Poetry Editors. Each editor’s responses will appear as a separate blog post and all posts will be linked back to the series’ standing page.
1. What drew you to editorial work in the first place?
I have always enjoyed editorial activities. I participated on the editorial staff for university literary journals as both an undergraduate and a graduate. My belief has been that closely reading and thoughtfully responding to the works of others foster skills that enhance the experience when encountering any texts. These actions also assist in developing an ability to read more objectively and revise more carefully one’s own poetry. I emphasize this exercise as an active reader when I advise my creative writing students. In addition, like many readers, when I come across impressive pieces of literature, I want to share such a discovery with others. In a sense, that describes the editor’s role.
2. Describe your editorial trajectory – when/where did it start, how long have you been at it, where is it now? What are your editorial ambitions?
My “trajectory” as an editor has not been continuous or easily charted. As mentioned above, I served on the editorial staff for undergraduate and graduate publications. When I arrived at Valparaiso University, there was not a journal devoted solely to literature. However, after I had been here a few years, a professor emeritus who thought there should be a literary journal established at the university approached me. He asked if I would be willing to act as editor if one were begun, and I agreed, but he soon learned the amount of funding needed to initiate a quality print periodical eventually prevented the project from being approved and going forward.
Nevertheless, in the late 1990s, when the presence of the web began on computers at the university, I discerned an opportunity to create an online publication that would contain the quality of a print journal without the costs normally involved. At the time the idea was somewhat novel and seemed experimental. Nowadays, of course, there are so many electronic journals, and numerous print journals migrating online, that it is difficult to recall or appreciate how innovative an action that was.
My ambitions as the editor of Valparaiso Poetry Review remain the same as when I posted the first issue in 1999. Indeed, the language on the journal’s information page has stayed the same since the premiere issue appeared: VPR “presents new, emerging, and well-known voices in contemporary poetry alongside one another, and this literary journal offers another opportunity for more readers to discover young or established poets whose writings deserve an even larger audience.” In addition, “this electronic journal has been meant to serve as a complement to print issues of literary magazines and poetry collections, not as a replacement for those traditional and greatly valued publications.”
3. Apart from following submissions guidelines, what should a poet sending work do (or refrain from doing) to stay on your good side?
Other than someone not following the submission guidelines, I have had little problem with writers staying “on my good side.” Perhaps I have been fortunate. Nevertheless, I would recommend those considering submitting should read extensively through the issues of VPR to get a feel for what has been presented in the past.
4. Do you co-edit or edit on your own? Talk about this choice – what are the pros and cons of both options, in your view?
Since I began the journal as a personal experiment, the publication has been an individual effort. In fact, when I started I had no idea whether the endeavor would succeed. Access to the web had just been introduced to the university, and I had no knowledge of online publishing. I spoke to my wife about the possibility of such a venture one day while we were shopping at Staples, and she noticed a self-help book on the shelves for publishing web pages online, which she purchased for me.
In the following week I sat at my office computer with the book in my lap and developed some sample pages as practice. I told nobody about my intentions, especially since I wasn’t sure it would work. I only spoke to the English department chair, asking him for permission to use the department’s website as a home from which an electronic publication could branch. I told him that I thought I could create a quality literary journal that would cost the department nothing except serving as its online host. I only needed to create a page labeled “vpr.” I’m not sure he even knew what I was truly undertaking or how extensive the project might prove to be (honestly, neither did I); nevertheless, as a friend as much as an administrator, he said “sure.”
In the beginning the technical learning process was difficult, but the task as editor wasn’t as time consuming or complex as it has now become ten years later. For example, during the first year total submissions to VPR numbered in the hundreds, which I thought was terrific. In contrast, this past year saw about 7,500 submissions, an amazing amount. In addition, the journal itself has become more involved — including more works among its contents for each issue and expanding its presence online though the editor’s blog (“One Poet’s Notes”), a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and other venues. In fact, the disk space needed for storing VPRhas grown tremendously since all issues are maintained in its archive; consequently, the university recently decided to moveVPR out of the English department website and give it an independent location online. This change of address initially caused some difficulties with many existing links around the Internet, but certainly it was necessary.
I like that the journal has held a consistent editorial imprint since I have been the only reader. At the same time, I have purposely tried to be expansive by including works that exemplify assorted styles, subject matter, and experiences, as well as accepting poems by writers from various backgrounds and in different stages of their careers as poets.
Since I also still do all the technical construction of the pages in VPR, I find the process time consuming and the product admittedly limited by my abilities. I have thought of adding an editorial staff and drafting some folks more knowledgeable of web design, and I may do so in the future. However, I would like to continue the simplicity of the structure in VPR and its resemblance to the traditional print journal as much as possible. Fortunately, the addition of the VPR blog a couple of years ago has allowed me to include a variety of audio and video elements without interfering with the reading experience of the journal itself.
5. What gets you most excited when you read a submission? How frequently do you get “exciting” submissions?
Whenever I read a poem, review, or essay that I can’t wait to share with others because of the quality and insight displayed, I find that impressive and exciting. Fortunately, this happens often enough to fill the pages of the journal.
6. How do you sort through and narrow down submissions and finally select pieces for publication?
I read and respond to all submissions by following a procedure used years ago when I was the poetry editor for Quarterly West. I have two wire bins on a shelf above my desk for materials received by postal mail and read: one contains the “return” stack for mailing back to poets and the second holds the “further consideration” stack of works that I want to read a second (or third) time before making a final decision. All accepted materials come from that second stack and have been evaluated more than once before a final selection is made. With email submissions, I follow a similar process, except that I have electronic folders with labels rather than wire bins.
7. Is your publication online, print or hybrid? Share your thoughts on the differences between these formats from an editorial point of view. Does your publication accept both snail mail and email submissions? Explain your policy in this regard.
As explained above, Valparaiso Poetry Review was begun as an online journal for economic reasons. Since my background consisted of editorial experience with print publications, I have adopted similar attitudes in point of view with my approach as editor of VPR. In addition to the economic advantages of an online journal, readers benefit by having easy access to the current issue, as well as all past issues, anywhere in the world. As a result, the readership and the potential audience for the works in VPR could never be matched if it were a print journal. Indeed, writing about this in an article at “One Poet’s Notes,” I once stated that I am pleased readers can click onto so many journals online, more than even any library could ever afford in individual subscriptions.
As I have written in another VPR blog entry, when the journal was initiated reputations of existing electronic literary magazines among authors and readers were spotty at best. In the past decade, opinions have changed as the quality of work in online journals has proven deserving of respect. For most, the stature of online journals is no longer questioned by authors to the extent it once was, nor does it continue to be an issue of concern for readers. Valparaiso Poetry Review today displays a wide range of well-known poets among its pages whose presence was limited to print journals only a few years ago. Nowadays, acknowledgments pages of prominent new books of poetry display many titles of online journals, including Valparaiso Poetry Review, alongside those titles of traditional print periodicals.
Also, when VPR was begun most poets submitted by postal mail. In the past decade that situation has shifted, and the vast majority of submissions received are sent by email. Other editors will confirm that handling email submissions is much more convenient for us, and writers will verify that email submissions are simpler and inexpensive. Therefore, many newer online journals now restrict submissions to email. However, VPR still accepts submissions in both formats. In fact, some of the best poems from a number of the well-known poets included in VPR have been presented only because snail mail submissions are acceptable. I know some poets we have published, usually older and more established figures, who will not send submissions by email.
In a recent informational piece on the VPR blog, I reported the following: the majority of submissions received in the first few years were sent by postal mail; however, a bit more than three-fourths of the nearly 7,500 poems received in the last year were sent by e-mail. Curious about the relationship of submissions to acceptances, I have examined the results and discovered that a little more than three-fourths of the works appearing in the most recent issues of VPR were submitted electronically, indicating there is no subconscious editorial bias toward either form of submission.
8. Talk about the challenges and opportunities involved in accepting or rejecting work submitted for publication by poets you know personally.
I am fortunate to know quite a few poets who produce incredibly fine work, and I am pleased that their poetry has been represented in the pages of VPR. However, I also have found myself returning submissions by friends and requesting that they send other poems another time. Since I am familiar with their poetry, I know the quality they are capable of demonstrating in their pieces, and that is what I am seeking for the journal. In that case, because I know their past work so well, I might be even more demanding of them.
9. If you are a publishing poet, how does being an editor affect your performance/behavior as a poet? Do you ever publish your own work? If so, why? If not, why not?
As I mentioned earlier, I believe my role as an editor carefully and closely reading others’ works helps hone my eye as a writer when examining my own work. In addition, encountering so much fine literature inspires me to want to write well. I also have greater understanding and appreciation for the tasks at hand for editors to whom I might be submitting work.
I do not publish any of my poetry in Valparaiso Poetry Review. On the other hand, I usually do include in each issue a review or essay I have written about others’ books. I think my critical commentary allows readers to grasp the editorial perspectives I bring to the journal. I also hope my reviews exhibit the seriousness and detail with which I approach all works I read.
I once observed in the VPR blog that “I was particularly grateful to those poets and critics who contributed to the journal, especially in the earlier years, based solely upon a confidence that I would place their works in an atmosphere reflecting literary integrity. I appreciated their trust that I also would exercise editorial judgment that would reflect well upon all the contributions included in every volume of VPR.” To me, developing the trust of readers and contributors seems essential for an editor and for the success of a literary journal.
10. Describe how you conceptualize what you are trying to achieve with each edition – e.g. do you see each edition of your magazine as a big poem, or as something else? How do you get feedback on the quality of your publication?
On a couple of occasions the issues of Valparaiso Poetry Review have been shaped by a specific concept. The Fall/Winter 2002-2003 issue focused upon confessional or autobiographical poetry in coordination with the editors of a recently released anthology concerning that topic. The upcoming Fall/Winter 2009-2010 issue will be an expanded special tenth anniversary celebration of VPR’s start in the Fall/Winter 1999 issue. Readers can examine the list of poets to be included in the anniversary issue at a notice on the VPR blog.
Otherwise, I organize VPR’s issues in a manner similar to when I once arranged pages for print journals; whenever possible, I place in proximity those poems that seem suited to one another on the basis of form, topic, setting, or some other characteristic. This process only occurs after all the poems have been accepted based upon the specific merits of their individual attributes.
Feedback from readers frequently happens and is encouraged. The home page of Valparaiso Poetry Review states that VPR welcomes comments from readers. If requested, remarks on specific works will be forwarded to the authors. In addition, for the convenience of readers, the journal’s home page contains a “comments” link to the VPR mailing address.
Edward Byrne has had five collections of poetry published, most recently Tidal Air (Pecan Grove Press). A sixth book of poetry, Seeded Light, is forthcoming in October from Turning Point Books. His essays of literary criticism also have been published in various journals and book collections, including Mark Strand (Chelsea House Publishers), edited by Harold Bloom, and A Condition of the Spirit: The Life and Work of Larry Levis (Eastern Washington University Press), edited by Christopher Buckley and Alexander Long. He is a professor in the English Department at Valparaiso University.
Previous Ten Questions for Poetry Editors responses:
Steve Schroeder, Anti-
Helen Losse, Dead Mule
Susan Culver, Lily and Poetry Friends
Justin Evans, editor of Hobble Creek Review
Paul Stevens, editor of the Shit Creek Review, The Chimaera and The Flea
Nicolette Bethel, editor of Tongues of the Ocean.
James Midgley, editor of Mimesis.
Reb Livingston, editor of No Tell Motel.
Kate Benedict, editor of Umbrella.
Christine Klocek-Lim, editor of Autumn Sky Poetry.
Lindsay Walker, poetry editor of Juked.
Mary Biddinger, editor of Barn Owl Review.
This series’ standing page: click here.
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