"A Space to Nurture New Talent"
When Jonna G. Semeiks succeeded Confrontation co-founder Martin Tucker as editor-in-chief in 2011, she assumed the top post of a magazine that enjoys a well-earned reputation of featuring distinctive works from writers “unknown, known, and great.” Indeed, since its inception in 1968, the Long Island University literary journal has welcomed fiction, poetry, and essays from Nobel and Pulitzer winners, writers who are just beginning their careers, and college students. We talk to Dr. Semeiks about her vision for the journal as she and the staff continue to celebrate the magazine’s unwavering commitment to eclecticism.
Semeiks is an associate professor of English with a doctorate from Rutgers.
Interview by Jacqui Barrineau
You assumed the top post at Confrontation in 2011, succeeding co-founder Martin Tucker, who stayed on to lead Confrontation Publications. What had been your relationship to the magazine prior to that?
For ten years, I had served as Associate Editor and Fiction Editor of Confrontation. Of course during those years I was also fulfilling my professional obligations as a professor in the English Department at Long Island University’s Post campus. Confrontation is certainly not the oldest literary magazine in the country—it was very much a child of the sixties, even down to its name—it is nonetheless not a newcomer either; it has a considerable and interesting past. When Martin Tucker, who in the earlier decades of the magazine’s history had struggled to edit and produce the magazine almost single-handedly, retired in his late seventies, he had in mind discontinuing Confrontation’s role in periodically publishing fiction, non-fiction, poetry and plays and instead publishing books only. (We’d had for years a book-publishing division.) But I believed in its historical role—to create a space to nurture new talent, new literary visions and voices—and was, I believe, instrumental in persuading him to change his mind. Actually, it meant, for a variety of reasons, stepping up to the editorship.
March/April 2011 Poets & Writers's Literary MagNet quoted you as saying: "There will be a change in emphasis and certainly of editorial 'voice.'” In the three issues produced under your leadership, how have you changed the magazine’s emphasis? What sort of change in editorial voice are you seeking?
Oddly, I suppose, one of the things I wanted to do was shrink the magazine—compress it, taking only the most memorable, haunting, disturbing, or exciting things that came across my desk—and hence pay our writers more. Serious fiction writers, poets, and dramatists have always been abysmally rewarded for their labor, as everyone knows, and it’s rather appalling, given how much pleasure they provide us and how urgently they speak to us of what it means to be human and to live in the age we live in. Everyone also knows that money is perennially a problem for literary magazines. I wanted to see more of Confrontation’s go to contributors and comparatively less to printers, designers, and manufacturers of paper. The magazine is smaller now, so we are halfway to our goal.
In addition, I wanted to make the magazine a more physically beautiful object—increase its aesthetic appeal. We’ve done this partly through internal and external design elements and partly through creating a space for visual art (beginning with the last three issues). I believe that this art complements the stories, poems, memoirs, essays and plays found in our pages: it’s one kind of beauty “confronting” another. I’m very pleased with the way the magazine looks now.
As to the changes in editorial voice I alluded to, I think it is inevitable that a new editor brings a new sensibility—different aesthetic standards, different preferences in literary form and style, new eyes and a new mind to bear on the literature of the day and on the magazine that contains it. The differences may be slight in some cases, but they are there nonetheless. These things are part of what I meant by a change in voice; they are all reflections of the “voice” we speak to the world through, the voice that is fundamental to us. In addition, editors are writers as well as assessors of other writers. In that sense, too, when there is a change of editorship, there is a change in voice. Martin Tucker is a skillful, erudite, and playful writer, and his “natural” voice is very different from mine.
A visitor to the Confrontation website can easily lose an afternoon enjoying the excerpts from selected pieces that are in each issue. Do you foresee ever moving the journal to a strictly digital format?
I’m glad you have enjoyed exploring the magazine. There are members of the staff who would like to “publish” the magazine digitally, and the editor that succeeds me, when there is a need for a successor, may well choose to do that. I love books, magazines, print, partly because of their visual appeal and tactility and for their long, storied past. I love my computer too, and my smart phone (which is like a second brain for me, remembering all the necessary but not very interesting things I can then forget about), but when I want to curl up with a book, I do not ever think of curling up with a laptop or iPad. I can’t quite fit my body or my mind around one of those rigid, hard things.
According to the website, the reading period is Aug. 16 through May 15, and e-mail submissions are only accepted from writers living outside the U.S. Writers living in the U.S. must send previously unpublished work through the U.S. postal system, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Why is that?
The answer is simple. We’ve a small staff, with a small number of readers, and though it seems counterintuitive, it’s easier to keep track of who has what manuscripts and when they got them if we’re receiving physical manuscripts. And again, I don’t like to read literature on the computer. I spend more hours than I would like on my computer as it is, and so does everyone I know. No one is very happy about this aspect of our electronic age. We make an exception for people living outside the country because postage costs are so high.
I’d like to make one other point: literary magazines that accept electronic submissions from all writers find themselves flooded with submissions. It’s simply too easy for a writer to submit to fifty magazines simultaneously, particularly since it costs nothing. (Some magazines in response are thinking of requiring a reading fee in order to read this flood of submissions.) And I have a theory (not tested by any scientific method, I hasten to add) that work that’s written out, edited, and then printed off is likely to be of higher quality than something sent electronically—in the same way that an email tends to trump a text message: it takes longer to write. Or maybe again it’s the mystique of print on paper: it forces a kind of seriousness and self-questioning.
The masthead shows a respectable-size staff. What’s the makeup? Approximately how many are undergrads, grad students, and faculty?
We think our staff is rather small. We could do so much more with a larger staff and of course a larger budget. There is only one undergraduate on the staff, my Administrative Intern, who despite her youth possesses all the qualities an editor could want. All of the readers below the Editorial Board level are working on their Master’s degrees or already have them. All but one on the Editorial Board have doctoral degrees and are full-time university members. All are writers as well.
According to the 2012 Poet’s Market, Confrontation receives 1,200 submissions a year and accepts 150. In addition to you, the editor-in-chief, the magazine has a poetry editor, two fiction readers, and two editorial consultants. How does the staff handle the 1,200 submissions? How hands-on are you in the selection process?
I believe the Poet’s Market listing refers to the number of poems submitted to Confrontation each year. From writers living in this country and abroad, we probably receive almost that same number of stories, twenty or so plays, and somewhere between 150 and 200 essays and memoirs on an annual basis. Altogether there are eleven readers, including myself. Two members of the staff read the first page of all the stories carefully and skim the remaining pages. Those that pass this first hurdle are then sent on to two readers who, after assessing the stories themselves, pass them along to me with an evaluation sheet; I immediately pass those the two readers recommend we publish to the members of the Editorial Board, all of whom read manuscripts. If the Editorial Board member feels we ought to publish a story, we almost always do. I make the final editorial decision, of course. I almost always accept the recommendations of my Poetry Editor. I am very hands-on in the selection of non-fiction and drama. Every story that appears in the magazine has been read and judged worthy of publication by four different readers. All of us work very hard, as you can probably tell from this description of the winnowing process. It really does feel a little like harvesting only the best fruits we see.
How many – if any – pieces are commissioned?
Very few, actually. A handful. Reviews, yes, and political pieces. I’d like to start commissioning some stories and poems, though.
The website says, "Confrontation is eclectic; eclecticism is in fact our mission," and notes the magazine's history of publishing works by the likes of John Steinbeck, Joseph Brodsky, and W.H. Auden, as well as pieces from college students and even younger writers, including a 14-year-old. How much are you willing to work with the newer writers to polish a piece? Say, for instance, a piece was submitted that had great plot, a unique voice, or a truly original use of language – but the mechanics weren’t there. Would Confrontation reject the piece, urging the writer to polish and try again? Or would a staff member work with the writer to make the piece publishable?
I’ve actually worked very carefully with six or so writers (some of them in the early stage of their careers) over the course of the last two years, and in some instances, the process of improving a manuscript has spanned three revisions. It’s incredibly time-consuming work, but I enjoy doing it. The writers are always very grateful, I should add, and they agree their work is improved. As you suggest, I have indeed seen, in the work of these writers, something special and compelling: an original voice, a very intriguing or important subject, a gift for metaphor or imagery, a probing intelligence. I would not, however, make this sort of intense editorial effort for a writer whose language is full of clichés, who misuses words repeatedly, who mangles idiom accidentally, or who doesn’t seem to understand the conventions of syntax or grammar. (Fortunately we receive few of these.) Deliberate breaking of the “rules” is of course perfectly okay, as long as there’s a purpose behind it and as long as I am sure the writer knows what conventional grammar and syntax are.
Belinda Kremer, Confrontation’s Poetry Editor, makes the same kind of effort with poets.
Name three pieces in the Spring 2012 issue – or any issue -- that really took your breath away.
I really hesitate to do this. I’m wary that it might seem disrespectful to the effort of all the writers I don’t mention. So I will just name a half-dozen or so writers and works from the last four issues that particularly appealed to me (a list I think that will reflect my own eclectic taste) and that are fine works of art. Stories, then, by Jennifer Anne Moses, Carolyn Kegal, Ted Sanders, and Reema Rajbanshi, and poems by Daniel Tobin, Doug Ramspeck, James Doyle, Annie Boutelle, Kate Robinson and Lara Egger.
Beginning with Issue No. 109 (Spring 2011), Confrontation began featuring a visual artist’s work as an “additional source of aesthetic pleasure.” For the inaugural issue, the art of Spanish artist Esteban Vincente was selected. Finding the art for the issue, you wrote in the editor’s remarks, took longer than anticipated. Confrontation has since featured Chilean artist Claudio Bravo (Issue No. 110, Fall 2011) and American painter Dana Schutz (Issue No. 111, Spring 2012). Has selecting the artist for each issue gotten easier? Do you select the artist or is the process more of a group decision?
I select the art, but I don’t generally find it. (Dana Schutz was an exception; I went to see one of her exhibitions at a museum.) It’s extremely time-consuming; galleries, museums, artist’s representatives must all be contacted, copyrights obtained, critics engaged, discussions about resolutions debated, and so on. Terry Kattleman, the magazine’s Publicity Director, finds art he thinks I might like; I choose; he handles all the rest of the work. Frankly, I’d love to involve myself more in the process of locating art. Going to museums and galleries (and New York City has an abundance of these places) is something I deeply enjoy. Alas, I haven’t much time to do any of this any more, having assumed the Editorship of the magazine.
Tell us about the Sarah Tucker Award for fiction and the John V. Gurry Drama Award.
These are awards that we’ve given for exemplary work in the past, but not since I’ve been Confrontation’s editor. We should begin to do so again.
What’s the best part about being editor-in-chief? What’s the not-so-great part? (Every job has its irritations.)
Oh, getting to read the literature that comes across my desk is certainly the best part, that and “spreading the word” about these writers, hearing their pleasure when they tell me how pleased they are about the magazine and their work within it. I don’t like, of course, to reject the work of any writer who has mastered the craft and is making a real effort to achieve something lasting and urgent. (All really good art has an urgency to it, I think, an intensity, a burning sense of purpose, a desire for distinction.) Curiously, what I like most about being an editor is also what is most difficult and exhausting: reading all those manuscripts and choosing among them.
I suppose I also dislike all the small details that must be completed, however merely organizational and administrative they are, in order to be proud of the finished product I ultimately hold in my hand. By the way, a doctor and surgeon I know (a very successful one too) told me a few years ago that he envied me for what I do: in the end, for being able to hold in my hands an object I have physically, carefully wrought (along with, of course, my staff and dozens of writers). Since he improves the health of his patients and sometimes even saves their lives, I thought what he said was remarkable; I keep it in mind always. This may be another reason I cling to the material embodiment of Confrontation’s intellectual, aesthetic, and even spiritual mission: its paper stock, its typography, its weight and beauty in the hand.
Jacqui Barrineau is an editor and writer living in Northern Virginia. In a younger life, she was the assistant editor of Cold Mountain Review.