“We Look for Passion, Precision, Risk, and Surprise.” A Chat with Nick Almeida, Editor of Bat City Review.
Bat City Review, founded in 2004, is supported by the James A. Michener Center for Writers and the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin. Nick Almeida, Editor-in-Chief of Bat City Review, talks to us about the journal’s selection process, its predilection for pieces that take risks, and its interest in diversity. Almeida is an MFA candidate at the Michener Center for Writers, where he studies fiction and serves as editor-in-chief for Bat City Review. His work can be found at The Baltimore Review, Broadsided Press, Yemassee Journal, and will be anthologized in the The Best of Small Fictions 2017, as selected by Amy Hempel.
Interview by Jennifer Stern
Can you talk a little bit about the history of Bat City Review?
Bat City Review is in its fourteenth year and was established by the poet and translator Kurt Heinzelman. Since its inception, the magazine has been run by graduate students from the University of Texas’s MFA programs, The New Writer’s Project and The Michener Center for Writers. Year by year, as students graduate and new students are admitted, the staff changes, and as a result the particular aesthetic of each issue of Bat City Review is vastly different. What runs through BCR, every year, is an undercurrent of strangeness. “Risk-taking” is a bit of a cliché in how magazines define what they’re looking for, but in our case, I think the cliché holds true. Every issue has surprising, challenging, unexpected pieces.
What do you feel sets Bat City Review apart from other literary journals?
We’re lucky to have such a phenomenal talent-pool here at the University of Texas. Our MFA programs are wonderful, and the writers who come here to study are exceptional in every sense of the word. There’s an editorial eye—or many eyes, I suppose—that aid Bat City’s fundamental goal of diversity. Diversity in voice, in thought, in form. Diversity from issue to issue. Bat City is tremendously eclectic. I suppose that’s what I feel sets us apart. And art. The visual art in Issue 13 is unbelievable.
In a recent issue of Bat City Review, you talk about how the motif of air recurs throughout many of the issue’s prose pieces, poems, and works of art. Was this purposeful, or did you discover this after the individual pieces were selected? How important is synergy between the different pieces in a particular issue?
The recurrence of air as image and preoccupation was something I noticed long after Issue 13 was constructed and ready for printing. The project of writing an Editor’s Note is new to me, and I pared my note down from its original draft, this really long and mournful essay about air and an incredible project that researchers in Beijing have put together called The World Air Quality Index. Their mission is to promote air quality awareness by providing live data on air quality for every place in the world. Right now, this same team of researchers is working to create a database that compares real time air quality with historical data, so we might compare, say, up-to-the-minute air quality measurements in Austin, Texas against measurements from decades ago. Once this new iteration of The World Air Quality Index exists, we’ll have a tool that collapses time and environment; a way to see, in real time, how climate is and was.
That idea feels like an analog to our new issue, in some ways, as if all the pieces of writing and visual art in Issue 13 are concerned with air across time and space, or they at least record what the air (physically; politically; spiritually) is and was like in particular places around the world. And therefore we’ve created some kind of physical compendium or database for how air has changed, what’s been gained into the atmosphere, and what’s been lost. Only instead of data, our issue gives you vital information in image and verse.
In terms of the relationships between pieces, I suppose I’d rephrase “synergy” as dialectic, or simply as conversation. Readers typically peck around in a journal. They hunt for writers they know, titles that catch their eye, or whichever genre they like best. Still, as we put together this issue, we were certainly conscious of the way pieces were interrelating. When read from cover to cover, I think there’s a series of very trackable conversations going on in Issue 13. It’s a little like a four-part chorus. You can follow how each voice modulates and moves in mood and thought and rhythm. Conversation-making is just one of a dozen factors that go into how we decide to sequence work, though.
On your website, you note that Bat City Review receives thousands of submissions a year. What makes a submission stand out to you?
Again, because our staff rolls over annually, there really isn’t a single answer to this question. Still, I’m comfortable saying that we look for passion, precision, risk, and surprise. If you can hook us and make us writhe a little, in pain or pleasure, you’ve got something.
Bat City Review has published established writers, including Pulitzer and National Book Award winners, as well as emerging writers. Is there a particular balance between emerging and established writers that the journal maintains? How much of a role does a writer’s stage in career play in the selection process?
This is a great question. We ask ourselves this question throughout every stage of the editorial process. How can we empower what we haven’t before read while paying homage to the work we’ve loved for a long time? One conversation we had this year was particularly educational for me. Our Managing Editor, Katelin Kelly, mentioned the good practice of sequencing new work that excites us—work that we’re eager to promote—beside the work of known writers who might immediately attract a reader’s attention. If I can introduce you to a new voice by placing an “emerging” piece after something you’re already drawn to reading, I’m doing my job.
That said, our selection process is based completely on the quality of the work (and of course "quality" is fraught and flexible and needs to be constantly interrogated—how we define quality is an ongoing conversation, too). Every year we have to write awkward emails to established writers we love because a piece isn’t quite right for us, and every year we are overjoyed to find someone new and magnificent who we can’t wait to publish.
What besides the quality of the work would make you less likely to accept a submission? Are there themes that you are seeing too often? Do you see quality submissions that are simply not a good fit with the journal? If so, could you talk a little bit about factors that might make a submission less of a fit?
At the risk of sidestepping your question, I think I’d rather tell you what keeps us from taking the “almosts”—or, work we love initially but ultimately don’t take on. When we read and discuss a piece, we’re attempting to simulate what a reader might do if they pick up one of our issues. So, if the piece slays us the first time but doesn’t merit a rereading, it might not pass into more significant rounds of consideration. We want work that twists a little deeper each time we read it. Elizabeth McCracken has a wonderful term—“complexity of afterthought.” Does the story or poem demand a life in our imaginations? That’s what separates the “almosts” from the “hell yeses.”
Is there anything else that you would like readers and writers to know about Bat City Review?
One thing I’ll mention, as an insider tip to your readers, is that historically we receive far fewer submissions in nonfiction each year than in fiction or poetry. We love nonfiction, and we love the multimodality of the genre. It’s so exciting when we receive a piece of nonfiction that takes full advantage of the form—scene, essay, treatise, verse, etcetera. There is so little nonfiction can’t pull off. That’s the only thing I’ll mention. Send us your nonfiction! We’re hungry for it!
Jennifer Stern’s short fiction has appeared in Colorado Review, Hobart, and Gulf Stream among other journals, has received honorable mention from Glimmer Train, and was selected for inclusion in The Masters Review Anthology. She earned her MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.