"A Good Magazine Is Its Editor"
Stephen Corey joined the staff of The Georgia Review in 1983 as assistant editor and subsequently has served as associate editor, acting editor, and, since 2008, editor. He has published nine collections of poems, most recently There Is No Finished World (White Pine Press, 2003); his individual poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in dozens of periodicals; and he has coedited three books in as many genres, including (with Warren Slesinger) Spreading the Word: Editors on Poetry (The Bench Press, 2001). Over the past twenty-five years he has served as poet-in-residence or visiting poet/editor for numerous writing programs, conferences, and other literary gatherings, and currently he is editor-in-residence for the Rainier Writing Workshop low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University. Born in Buffalo and reared in Jamestown, New York, Stephen Corey holds BA and MA degrees from Harpur College (now Binghamton University) and a PhD from the University of Florida.
Interview by Lynn Holmgren
You have had a long marriage to The Georgia Review – going on 30 years as an editorial staff member. What has this been like, and how do you keep things ‘fresh’?
You are likely to think me naïve and/or arrogant here, but I honestly believe I am neither— believing, instead, that I have been fortunate to have found daily “work” that aligns with both my loves and my abilities. Despite any and all evidence to the contrary in our current cultural-technological climate, I still ascribe to microbiologist Lewis Thomas’ argument, in his essay collection The Lives of a Cell, that the single defining characteristic of humankind as a species is language. We are what we speak—and hear and read. So, to have the privilege of reading, working with, and publishing some of the finest written language from some of the country’s best minds has been a source of unabated pleasure for me. (I am of an age, apparently, where people have begun to ask me for my thoughts about retirement . . . and I must always tell them, with complete honesty, that I have none.)
You started as Assistant Editor, moved to Associate, then Acting, and finally Editor in 2008. Is this a common trajectory for someone aiming to be Editor of a literary journal? What tasks are emphasized in each of these positions on the editorial food chain?
I have to begin by objecting to your characterization of the process here, since to me “food chain” carries some negative connotations about superiority, domination, and even violence. I can, of course, speak with authority only about what these job title changes have meant for me at The Georgia Review, knowing that different literary magazines have very different structures and methods of operation. The aesthetic core of my work has remained constant throughout mytenure with GR: to seek the best writing with as open a mind as possible, to argue my case for that writing, and to do all I can to help authors further improve the works that we are interested in publishing. During my four years as acting editor I added to my core work the unavoidable responsibilities of leadership, which range from taking the blame to putting out personnel fires to attending several meetings. Now, as editor I get all those extras plus fundraising fun and struggling to maintain the beauties of a printed journal in the face of the hard- and flat-faced electronic realm so attractive to so many.
The University of Georgia Press just released a book, Stories Wanting Only to Be Heard: Selected Fiction from Six Decades of The Georgia Review. What was it like to put this together and select the best of your best?
A lot of extra work! But much more importantly, again, a privilege and a serious responsibility: to reread and reconsider, with the great help of my editorial staff (Douglas Carlson, David Ingle, and Mindy Wilson), so much work from writers famous, too-soon forgotten, and never-enough-remembered; to honor all those writers for those particular achievements, and to give readers the honor of discovery and rediscovery.
The Georgia Review seems to really aim to establish good (and in many cases long-term) relationships with its writers, so perhaps in a way Stories Wanting Only to Be Heard also felt like a reunion?
Absolutely. Hear me well, America: Lee K. Abbott, Jack Driscoll, Mary Hood, Marjorie Sandor, and George Singleton are the starting five on the national championship short-story-writing team of our time. They cannot be beaten—and they are all in this anthology.
Tell us about The Devil’s Millhopper.
That telling is long, and important to me, but I will make it as brief as possible. During my first year (1975-76) in the English PhD program at the University of Florida, the department had two distinguished poets in residence—the English icon Stephen Spender and Robert Dana from CornellCollege in Iowa—who was to prove to be my most important writing mentor. Spender and Dana were so impressed by the quality of the writing community at the university that they decided to fund and publish a celebratory anthology called A Local Muse. This fine collection presented many who were writing in the area at the time—among them Lola Haskins, Lawrence Hetrick, and R. B. Kershner—along with work solicited from various national figures who had visited the university in prior years: Richard Eberhart, Robert Fitzgerald, John Frederick Nims, and others.
At a New Year’s Eve party a year later, poet Edward Wilson and I decided, with the help of certain imbibable liquids, that this great publication idea ought not to die, and so we set out to publish a second edition—A Local Muse 2—in the spring of 1977, a year after the departure of Dana and Spender. We followed the same format, adding more local writers and more outsiders—among the latter, Maxine Kumin. As had been the case for the first edition, funding came from the nickels and dimes of English professors and a few other poetry supporters. (Remember, this was long before the day of computers, to say nothing of the Internet, so we are talking about photocopying, printing, and binding at a local print shop.)
Ed Wilson left town, so I invited Lola Haskins to be my co-editor. We turned the magazine into a twice-yearly publication and went for a national profile—but before doing that we went to a new name, because Robert Dana had only leant us the Local Muse name for one year. Taking the hint from “local,” though, we took the name of a famous old sinkhole—complete with its own creation myth—located just outside of Gainesville: the Devil’s Millhopper. Lola and I did several issues together, along the way picking up a small grant from the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (CCLM), the forerunner of today’s fine Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP).
After finishing my doctorate at UF and teaching there for a grace year as a post-doc, I took a three-year teaching job at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Lola and I decided that doing the magazine from two places would be too complicated—still no Internet—and so the Millhopper went with me in 1980. I did it on my own for a year, then took on as my assistant a new poet friend (and former editor of another little magazine, Kudzu), Jim Peterson. Then in 1983 I landed the assistant editor opening at The Georgia Review; since that was to be an actual job, full time and paid, I had to pass the Millhopper to Jim, who carried it on ably for a number of years—importantly adding a chapbook competition that drew a lot of good work from all over the country.
Jim did the magazine alone for some years, then hooked up with an old friend of his in nearby Aiken, South Carolina, Steve Gardner. Steve took over the magazine in the 1990s, managing to get it some financial support from his college—remember, this magazine lived for some twenty years on postage and paper from its editors’ pockets plus handfuls of small donations from friends. Around the turn of the century Steve decided to let the Millhopper (which had also acquired a sibling, the Devil’s Millhopper Press) go . . . and really go, rather than being passed along to someone else.
So, this shoestring magazine lived for a quarter century, publishing many fine poems and poets along the way in its several incarnations—and we must remember that a good magazine is its editor(s) at any given point in time. That may be the most important lesson I learned from the whole experience.
Do you have any advice for students or writers itching to start their own journal?
Be ready to work for love rather than money. Publish only the writing and never the writer. Never publish your own work in your magazine (other than in some overtly “editorial” way). Believe you can help your writers improve their work, but let them decide whether they go along with your belief; but, at the same time, remember that a weak piece of writing is the writer’s fault, whereas a weak piece of writing in your magazine is your fault.
You are not only editor of the esteemed Georgia Review, but a prolific poet and essayist. Sam Prestridge of Gainesville College referred to your thematic bedrock as an examination of “the paradox of the one and the many.” Can you apply this to The Georgia Review, being one of an ever-expanding number of literary journals?
Well, I’m not prolific. If anything I’m the opposite—which would be what, “anti-lific”? I think I’ve written some decent things in both genres, but I’m without question a slow worker—in part because of temperament, in part because of the consuming nature of my editorial work. As to applying Sam Prestridge’s “the one and the many” to the journal . . . well, I don’t think I could do that without wandering off into some ethereal realm, so I’ll beg off by asking everyone who reads this interview to read GR and decide on his or her own.
What is the routine treatment a writer may expect for his or her piece when submitting to The Georgia Review? How many first time publications would you say the journal publishes each year?
Every submitted manuscript gets a serious look from at least one reader, and many get a second look as well; works edging their way toward acceptance may be read and commented upon by three or four staff members. I never use the term “slush pile” except to condemn it, and I forbid my staff from using it as well—which is to say, I make sure their attitude is such that they recognize the demeaning wrongness of the notion. Every writer has a first publication, and sometimes that first one is not just good but superb. We love coming upon great work by new writers. I can’t give you the statistics, but I can say I am certain we have a pretty good record in this area. Marjorie Sandor, whom I mentioned above when talking about Stories Wanting Only to Be Heard, had her first-ever publication in GR in 1984; that was my second year with the journal, and I had the thrill and privilege of finding her story, “The Gittel,” in the boxes and boxes of manuscripts I was going through as a new assistant editor.
Do you remember your first publication in a literary journal?
Of course: it was a poem titled “Wild Strawberries” and it appeared in an anthology called On Turtle’s Back: A Bio-geographical Anthology of New York State Poetry, published by White Pine Press in the early-middle 1970s. It included a poem by Allen Ginsberg, for chrissake, and there I was, too!
Tears, laughter, rage, quiet wonder…What is your favorite emotion evoked by a piece of writing?
I can’t answer that one, either—or at least can’t answer it straight up. The work dictates all the terms, including those involving matters of emotion. Conjuring some works from the pages of GR during my tenure, I think of Jim Hall’s poem “Preposterous,” which is laugh-out-loud funny but interweaves the most tender and painful feelings of love, nostalgia, and inadequacy; Andrea Hollander Budy’s “Black,” the most erotic poem I know of that never uses a single directly sexual term; Jim Heynen’s short-short tales of “the boys”—soft-centered and hard-edged poetic anecdotes about little guys growing up and into the big world; Erin McGraw’s story “Bodies at Sea,” where halfway through the supposed storyline cracks apart as a literal door opens and we are forced to step into a frightening anti-Oz realm; or of David Swanger’s “What the Wing Says,” a musical and mysterious evocation of all that poems—or any art—might do and be. In each case, the “what” of emotion/theme/circumstance does not matter; what matters is the “how,” the deftness and intelligence of the writer making the work memorable.
Poets always have a pocketful of metaphors. If you could compare editing The Georgia Review and the process of putting together an issue to anything else, what might that be?
Oh . . . you’re inviting me to get into one kind of trouble or another here, aren’t you? How about something having to do with sex—you know, getting started with both caring and passion, not making mis-moves [yes, I just made up that word] along the way that might ruin the mood, and getting to the desired completion in a way that will make the whole process memorable rather than another in a forgettable series. Or how about a nightmare: the kind where you can’t get there—and then you wake up sweating and shaking, and you realize it’s over . . . and after you’ve calmed down your mind starts running back through the details of the experience and you think, “Hey, that was some pretty interesting stuff . . .”
Of course, something workmanlike could do as well—as when, as a kid, I shoveled deep snow from our western New York driveway—we lived in what’s known as “the snow belt” just east of Lake Erie—hating every minute of the effort...and yet, when I was done and stood there looking at that pristine and functional emptiness I had created, I couldn’t keep myself from feeling proud and even satisfied. But, I guess writing offers the closest analogy for me: trust your instincts and passions tempered by your knowledge, work hard and patiently with every detail, and then let it go off to be judged (and, you hope, enjoyed) by others—trusting and believing you’ll get another chance if it turns out you were fooling yourself this time around.
Many writers (myself included) seem to think that there is some sort of magic that happens to catapult one into the position of Editor or Author. What would you call it?
I am tempted to say you should go back and reread the previous answer as an answer to this question as well. In fact, I will say that, adding just this postscript: Some would describe/define “magic” as being in the realm of things/actions we cannot finally control or understand, but others would say magic is that which is absolutely controlled and understood . . . by certain people. How one becomes one of those people, and whether or not one should want to become such—those may be the real questions to ponder.
Lynn Holmgren is a fiction writer, living in Dorchester, MA.