"Our America is Neither Red Nor Blue. Our America is Purple."
Union Station Magazine is a quarterly online magazine that publishes fiction, poetry, photography, book review and interview. With each issue, the editors "seek to bring together diverse and emerging voices in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, as well as showcase freshest talent in photography." To see individual editors' bios, please visit this page.
Interview by Leah Griesmann
First of all, congratulations on publishing your 6th issue of Union Station. Union Station is a relatively new magazine, and yet with 6 issues under your belt, you’ve achieved what passes for a certain level of stability in the world of lit mag publishing. How does it feel?
Lynne Procope: I think the only appropriate answer is ‘wonky’. The magazine is such a labor of love that of course it feels amazing every time we put out a new issue but the process of getting there has been both more exhilarating and more exhausting as the volume of interest in the magazine has increased. I’ve developed a whole new respect for people who have to plow through submissions on a regular basis. At the same time what’s fantastic is that you develop a great sense of responsibility to the contributors who are already up on the magazine so it’s harder and harder with each issue to keep to the established standard and simultaneously raise the bar. It’s heartbreaking some of the work we have to refuse.
Your first issue appeared in February 2010. Can you talk a little bit about how the magazine came together?
LP: Presenting a lit mag was a long held dream for Syreeta and I. We both felt that there was a gap out there in the literary world where we weren’t seeing work by writers whom we’d long admired. That first issue was a gift from our community. We reached out to dozens of friends and colleagues around NYC, asking for work and were really blessed by what was offered.
In the very first letter from the editor, you say, as a way of describing Union Station, “We are a multilingual, multicultural generation.” How does idea influence your magazine, your editorial process?
LP: We’re looking for writing, ideas and images that pull the world together for our readers. We’re hoping that when someone like Jai Chakrabarti (issue 6) writes so beautifully and abstractly about immigration that the readers who join us for Cristin O’Keefe Aptowitcz’s prose poems will cross continents with us to dig into Jai’s story and find some commonality but also learn something key about the fear and displacement and the sort of magical mind of the immigrant. I also remember being really freaked out by Rolando Pellot’s photo essay, La Gallera, in Issue 2. It’s about a Nicaraguan cock fight and the images are gruesomely beautiful. I’m no animal activist but I was definitely taken aback by them. Should we publish it? Of course! The conversation about what the world is really like in other places is so important and Pellot’s images stun but they don’t judge so you can open yourself to grappling with a culture you couldn’t possibly imagine otherwise.
In addition to publishing many diverse voices, what I noticed about Union Station that separated it from many other literary magazines is a sense of style, both in an aesthetic and a literary sense. How would you define the overall style of Union Station?
LP: We’re very interested in work that experiments with idea, with craft, with process and we’re hoping to see much more of that as our name gets out there. We like work that resonates both in the academy and in the coffee house or the open mic. We believe that part of the digital evolution of writing is that lit mags aren’t or shouldn’t be mired in only the same old style of writing that drove prose and poetry in the 20th century. One of my favorite elements of the recent issues was Patrick Rosal’s decision to go with a work in progress video for A Boneshepherd’s Lament (Issue 4) as his submission for the magazine. I should say here that we’re not at all looking for static performance video, and Patrick’s video is as far from that as one might hope to get, but we’re really excited at some of the upcoming video installation work that folks are offering us and that will shift the style of the magazine significantly going into 2013.
Syreeta McFadden: I guess I'd add I'm interested in stories that render a complex and emotional world visible(vision?). Rohin Guha's story, “We Sat Around For a While & Talked About Eyjafjallajökull,” is so indicative of that world for me, Shira Erlichman's “Your Worst Best Friend,” the challenge at communication in love, Villar's, “How I got Over,” Saeed Jones' brave inquiry into his own grief... For a time, it seemed to me that stories that were celebrated, elevated to canon rendered worlds I'm familiar with, yet, exclusive. A good story about suburban ennui is still good, but does it surprise? What of the city? The pulsing heart of a mongrel society? That isn't to invalidate those stories. I love them too, but I must acknowledge a wider chorus of voices – women, people of color – strange and familiar voices character names beyond Joe Smith but Vishnu Thomas. Our America is neither red nor blue. Our America is purple. I'm interested in great stories – real and imagined – that reflect that reality of our world.
Powerful photo essays by emerging photographers was also something that was really critical for me, too, in imaging our zine. Photography was my first love before writing and I couldn't imagine creating a publication that didn't engage that medium as part of a larger, creative and dynamic conversation in art and what's possible in storytelling. I'm a big fan of Burn Magazine, and the photo essays featured on that site as well as the amazing work featured on Women in Photography, a site founded by artists Amy Elkins and Cara Phillips.
Union Station publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and art (photography). It would be great if each editor could give a bit of background and what your reading/editorial process is like, and what you are looking for.
LP: Well I had no experience with what a volume of work we’d be swamped with when we first got started so my reading/editorial process has evolved. I’ll be honest that it’s harsh these days. If the poet’s first stanza does nothing for me, if the language is banal, the idea too bland or cliché or generic, I abandon the poem immediately. I used to try to read all the way through each submission but let’s be honest, we read over 2,000 poems last month in the final push for Issue 6. We accepted just over 20 in total. Of those there are always a small number that we still have to work on with the writer to be sure they’re getting the most they can out of putting this poem into the public sphere.
SM: Gotta echo Lynne, wow, we've read nearly 300 works of prose and generally, we accept 3-5 writers per issue. I think visibility is the real question for me in stories we've selected. Stories of the city. I read wide range of material over the course of a given week: blogs, book reviews, books, poems, essays... and voice-driven work is an immediate seduction.
I suppose the real answer is what I seek in contemporary fiction – I'm looking for music, I'm looking for surprise and poetry. I'm looking for a voice so overpowering that I can experience the world the writer renders as if they're sitting across from me in coffee shop, it's so necessary for her to tell me this story now. I'm partial to an urban setting. I'm partial to stories that reflect communities. Voice is king. You give me a voice I'm willing to follow you on a strange, familiar (unfamiliar) journey.
Jeanann Verlee: My editing background lies in the more finite world of copy and content editing. Fine-tuning, and pushing writers to revise, to nip-and-tuck the poem/work to its most polished. Taking on the task of filtering is distressing work because I’m a working poet, too. My inbox is also routinely filled with rejection letters, so who am I to say “no thanks?” As such, operating from the inside of a journal is exhaustive. I find myself compelled to read through poems with an eye to revision (truly, I almost cannot stop), and have to remind myself that I can’t do that, here. That’s not my job for all our submitters. I’d drown. I have to force myself to move on when the poem is not ready for us yet. The real joy is reading the work that is ready – refined; my auto-correct disappears and I just fall inside. I sometimes literally cheer or coo, “wow!” to an otherwise empty room.
Paula Bollers: It has been a pleasure to join the Union Station Magazine team as Visual Arts Editor for the last two issues. When selecting photography for an issue, first, I look for thoughtful and evocative photographs that complement our strong collection of literary works. While we search for multicultural visual narratives, we are primarily interested in featuring powerful photographic essays that show us something that we haven't seen before or considered from a particular perspective.
That said, we would like to encourage under-represented photographers to submit their photographs. There is a visual vacuum that could be filled by Union Station Magazine. We would like to increase the diversity submissions for the Visual Arts (Photography) section. We are interested highlighting the work by fringe or marginalized artists in order to showcase the diverse stories addressing the breath human experience. We want to explore the boundaries of what is possible through distinct and overlapping photographic narratives.
Although Union Station is open to general submissions, there seem to be a few featured contributors: Jon Sands, Saeed Jones, Jai Chakrabarti all have repeat publications. Can you talk a bit about these contributors and their relationship(s) to the magazine?
LP: Jai’s an interesting one as he’s very multitalented and submitted his poetry (at our request) for one of the early issues then for Issue 6 we were thrilled to find that one of our favorite ‘stories’ was from Mr. Chakrabarti. His reappearance is a bit of us geeking out at his sheer and dazzling array of talent (did we mention he also writes algorithms in the finance world?) and pure passion for the newest work that simply couldn’t be denied. Jon and Saeed are regular contributors whose work informs some of how we shape the style of the magazine. Jon’s ongoing ‘Conversation’ section is about connecting in some real way with the young poets who are shaping American poetry today. He’s been evolving (there’s that word again, it really is a big part of our theme) how he has these conversations and searching for some genuine connection with the writers when they sit down to talk. It’s less an interview than it is a discussion and our readers get to unpack a little more about Jon with each installment. I’m a big fan of Matt Borondy’s e-mag, Identity Theory, and when we invited Jon on board I was hoping he’d be our Birnbaum.
Jon's great at getting intimate ideas and responses and in part I think it's because he's great at giving that back to his subjects. Saeed’s space in our Union Station is intentionally harder to name and point to on our map. That’s partly because Saeed is similarly so. He’s embarking on a reimagining of his life as a writer and as time goes by we get to see very different elements from him about how he’s thinking about writing and books and how his new paths are shaping him. We decided to take the risk of letting Saeed’s be one of the voices that shapes USM and simply see where he could take us. He’s sort of our very fabulous and gifted runaway train, literally. Right now he's on a world tour with a pen in his hand and I cannot wait to see what his dispatches from the edges of the world bring our way.
VIDA (Women in Literary Arts) conducted an analysis called “The Count,” which looks at the percentage of female authors published in literary magazines and the percentage of women’s books reviewed. The Rumpus recently published an article that made an attempt to survey the percentage of writers of color getting published and reviewed. The purported numbers for both women and writers of color seem pretty grim. Do you have any thoughts on this? Also, since the Union Station editorial team is comprised of women and women of color, where does Union Station fit in?
LP: Well, our first commitment is to presenting quality crafted writing that works with the essential goal of the magazine and the issue in question. I also have to say that we don’t read bios or Google writers and often don’t even look at names until we’re in the first leg of our final cut process and we’re starting to talk about this poem vs. that poem. However once that first leg is over I do sit down to wonder if we’ve done enough to engage queer writers or writers of the wider ethnic diaspora or women. It’s up to the writers to submit, and to provide us with work we can publish in USM but we also actively go out and solicit work if we feel that we’re not managing to really represent both the reading and writing population. I think many other magazines could get away with publishing mostly straight white males but it would be a betrayal of Union Station’s core values for us to do so. I think to that I would urge urge urge that if you think you're under-represented in other magazines and you've read USM and feel you understand the kind of work we're driving toward, then you should submit to us.
SM: Exactly, I would just urge all writers to be relentless in submitting work. I'd say that goes doubly for photographers.
What’s been the most challenging part of starting a literary magazine?
LP: Getting people with great quality writing to submit is the most difficult part. I swear you get thousands of submissions from folks who aren’t ready to share their work with the world (and some of them send you an e-submission every single day) but precious few from folks who are doing the kind of compelling and fresh work that we’re looking for with each issue.
SM: Agreed. It's a weird position to make a qualitative judgment about other people's work, but it was borne from place of joy, thinking, 'if I can just gather all of these awesome little things poems, photos, stories and somehow, it's like their having a conversation with each other... ooh and notice how our featured author interview and our nonfiction contributor both point to the wisdom of Wallace Stevens...' In the beginning, I was wearing a couple of hats -prose & photo editor- which was challenging, searching for really compelling narratives from photographers rather than a singular stand alone image.
What’s been the most fun part?
LP: Our ‘work day’. When Syreeta and I first started it was just the two of us and we’d go to our local, the Brazen Head, here in Brooklyn and sit in a corner with our laptops plugged in and just pore over work and play at the shape of the magazine. I’d sip a whiskey all day and Syreeta would maybe have a pint or two and the bartenders would ignore us taking up space in the window and we’d just chug away and hug ourselves with excitement. When Jeanann joined the poetry team we did the same but at my house and over a plate or four of curry.
SM: Sometimes, I'm drinking Jameson. But seriously, getting the transcript from Jon Sands' Conversation series. Actually, work day (it's the bomb), the Conversation transcript, reading the entire proof of the zine cover to cover. I also listen to mixtapes (back when Pinna Storm was regularly updated, a music site from DC area) while I code the entire issue.
What are your goals for Union Station and how would you define its success?
LP: Success would be seeing the magazine really push the envelope on how literary work is presented to a modern, digital audience. We’re in the market for a web innovation editor because what Syreeta and I see as the potential of USM is huge in terms of multimedia interpretations of text and digital storytelling and interactive play. But of course we’re a tiny not-making-a-profit, not yet not-for-profit little magazine run by two women who’ve got careers and their own art to make and we’re doing what we can with an amazing selection of volunteer staff without whom we’d be absolutely nowhere. So success would be in this order: 1. Time in the day to file for 501(C )3 status, 2. A fairy god-funder who’d help us afford a web person so that we don’t need to learn anymore about html coding than we already know. 3. Some money to compensate our ‘staff’ 4. Vast oceans of amazing material in our inbox because at heart we just love to read 5. A brand new site by Issue 8, at the latest, that supports the kind of work we’d like to see and allows us to offer a digital download of the most exciting new stuff.
JV: It is my true honor to be a part of this astounding team of artists working to produce this ever-evolving (see, there it is again) journal. We’ve had our obstacles: personal setbacks and emergencies, work delays, technical challenges, etc. We’ve also had remarkable luck. Immersed in the continually-changing face of contemporary writers and artists, we are able to reach out to, and pull from a vast network. Each issue is more exciting to generate. Our own reading and ongoing conversations of craft and merit inform everything we produce, and how we select work for each issue. As a multicultural and women-run literary journal, we feel the eyes on us and – as Lynne detailed above – we strive to maintain and elevate our own standards. We are eager for work that is polished, surprising, challenging, and imbrued in risk. And spelled correctly. We read a lot, so if you’re revisiting a time-worn concept, please find a new inroad. Surprise us, and do it with sass. Know literary convention and be bold in your defiance of it. Except in regard to submission guidelines – while we are continually upgrading our process, the more submissions we receive, the less forgiving we are of broken rules. Read us. Read our guidelines. Then submit. Visit Union Station here. Read our guidelines here. Submit here. Keep up with news and announcements here.
Leah Griesmann was a 2010-2011 Steinbeck Fellow in Fiction at San Jose State University. Her stories have appeared in Fourteen Hills, The Cortland Review, Litro Magazine, Pif Magazine, and J Journal: New Writing on Justice. She is currently a lecturer in writing at San Jose State University where she is completing a collection of short stories set in Las Vegas. Her story "Desert Rats" is appearing in the current issue of Union Station.