"We Believe Literature Has Value"
G. C. Waldrep is the author of Goldbeater's Skin (winner of the 2003 Colorado Prize for Poetry),Disclamor (2007), and Archicembalo (2009, winner of the Dorset Prize from Tupelo Press). His fourth full-length collection, Your Father on the Train of Ghosts--in collaboration with John Gallaher--is due out from BOA Editions in April 2011. He is also the author of three chapbooks, most recently St. Laszlo Hotel (Projective Industries, 2010), and a work of nonfiction, Southern Workers and the Search for Community (Illinois, 2000). His poems have appeared in many journals, including Poetry, Ploughshares, APR, Paris Review, Harper's, The Nation, Boston Review, New England Review, New American Writing, and Tin House, as well as in Best American Poetry 2010. His work has received awards from the Poetry Society of America, the Academy of American Poets, the Campbell Corner Foundation, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. He held a 2007 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature. Waldrep holds a Ph.D. in American history from Duke University and an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. At Bucknell, he teaches creative writing and directs the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets. He also serves as Editor-at-Large for The Kenyon Review.
Additionally, he is the wearer of the above hat.
Interview by Valerie Maloof
Before you were the editor at West Branch you were an editor at Kenyon Review. What did you learn about editing at Kenyon that you took with you to West Branch?
I’m still Editor-at-Large at The Kenyon Review, actually, although my role there has shifted away from reading quite as many submissions now that I’m editing West Branch too. (One of the nice things about being an Editor-at-Large is that the job description can change at will. Originally, I had lobbied for “Key Grip” or “Best Boy,” but David Lynn decided on “Editor-at-Large,” and so.)
One of the beautiful things about The Kenyon Review is that as much as we love showcasing established writers, we love finding exciting new voices even more. The editorial staff at KR reads every single submission; those that interest often get passed around, electronically, for general discussion. I suppose it’s (a) this commitment to finding new voices, (b) this commitment to reading every single submission that crosses the e-desk, and (c) this model of editing-as-conversation that have carried over to West Branch.
At West Branch, we have a staff of 8: myself; the managing editor, Andrew Ciotola; the Stadler Fellow assigned to the journal (currently Jamaal May); two student interns during the academic year; and four Associate Fiction Editors. Actually, we’re currently looking for a fourth Associate Fiction Editor, since Caitlin Horrocks, who was part of our merry crew for two years, has just left us for (wait for it) The Kenyon Review, where she will succeed Geeta Kothari as fiction editor. We will miss her at WB! Our other three Associate Fiction Editors at WB are Laura van den Berg, Cam Terwilliger, and Matt Pitt. They are all wonderful; I would buy them lobsters daily if I could
How has being an editor affected the writing/reading that you do outside of work?
Sometimes one reaches a point of exhaustion. I love to read and edit fiction, but I find myself reading substantially less prose for pleasure now that I am actively, continuously engaged in editing it.
Working as an editor and actively reading the slush pile has an almost sociological function in keeping one abreast of the trends and themes of any given moment. This is neither good nor bad, but I do find that I am conscious of these dynamics in my own writing. In my own writing I tend to be restless—I mean in terms of style and form; it’s possible editing professionally has made me even more so.
How does an editor ever decide what “good writing” and “bad writing” is? What are your criteria for selection?
As any editor would tell you, our criteria for selection are (a) we think it’s good and (b) we like it. (Every so often we encounter work that satisfies one or the other criterion, but not both.) For myself, I tend to like verbal textures that are thick and rich in lyric poetry, whatever the form or mode; I also admire lyric compression (see “exhaustion,” above). Perhaps because I read so much lyric poetry, in fiction I find myself leaning towards plot—towards stories in which something (anything) happens. I also have a pronounced bias in favor of fabulism (Brian Evenson, Kelly Link, China Mieville). But I work with my editorial staff, not against them—in conversation with them—so it’s not unusual for stories or poems I personally like to give way to other work my staff recommends, once they’ve made a compelling argument and we’ve seen how the work might fit into the issue(s) we’re constructing.
What are some trends that you like/dislike in the submissions you receive?
First, the submission queues for KR and WB are surprisingly different—which surprised me. KR gets a higher percentage of poets from outside the MFA-certified establishment: hobbyist poets, occasional poets, international poets unfamiliar with American writing and publishing, passionate autodidacts, troubled youth with internet access. WB’s slush pile is more focused and actually contains less obviously bad writing. Last year KR received 6525 submissions (all genres); WB received 4373.
Every period has its styles, and I’ve written about these elsewhere: the poem of slapstick association and non-sequitur; the earnest free verse confessional poem that is essentially prose broken into lines; the brazenly hip monologue describing living low in NYC/LA/wherever; the gentle anecdote-cum-epiphany. Any of these can be done well, but once they evolve into something like a period style, they become containers into which anyone can pour anything. The mind’s eye glazes over.
That said, most of the work we receive at WB is thoughtful, polished work. I’m thankful for that, although it makes my job, as editor, more difficult when it comes down to the final acceptances and rejections for a given issue. Much ultimately depends upon taste, and also upon the dynamics of each issue (web or print) as that issue comes together.
What are some “don’ts” you have about cover letters?
In the old days, it was no funny fonts; no artisan papers; no photographs (of the author and/or his or her pet[s]). On-line submission has solved these problems, at least! Nowadays, the problems are more conceptual. Cover letters that dare me to accept—or reject—the work do not impress. Trying to be funny in a cover letter is risky (although we all enjoy it when it works), as is the overly literary approach. If you are going to be hilarious/edgy/whimsical/etc., perhaps best do it in your poem/essay/story?
What is your opinion on solicited work?
I would personally love to know what percentage of work in any given journal is obtained via solicitation, rather than via the regular submission queue (“slush pile”). Anecdotally, the journals of our moment seem to run the proverbial gamut, from those that solicit nearly all of their work to those that solicit little or none. On the one hand, soliciting work is often the quickest and easiest way to obtain work from more established writers. On the other hand, every solicited piece one accepts backchannel means not accepting one or more excellent pieces from the regular queue. Of course, soliciting work is also one way of shaping a journal’s focus or aesthetic, independent of the slush pile’s vagaries.
I did not solicit any work at all for WB during my first year of editing, because I wanted to get a sense of our reader/writer audience as it stood. Who sends to us, and who doesn’t? I’ll probably solicit on a very selective basis in the years to come, but I much prefer the sense of discovery I get when reading through the regular submission queue, accepting work, and watching an issue begin to take shape on that basis.
I did solicit a few creative nonfiction writers I’d encountered in other journals this summer, because we get so little challenging, high-quality nonfiction. I’d like to see, and publish, more.
How can writers stand out in the slush pile and possibly avoid it?
Let’s say “regular submission queue,” if that sounds better (grin). Because my managing editor and I work in different buildings, often at different hours of the day, and because my associate fiction editors are scattered across the country, I much prefer that all work be submitted via our online submission manager. (On the rare occasion when someone sends something backchannel, I either ask them to resubmit it through the OSM, or else I key it in myself.) This streamlines the process, not just during the reading period but also later, during layout and production.
As for “standing out,” there’s no magic solution beyond the work itself. It does pay to think of your poetry submission as a chamber suite—since we, on the receiving end, will necessarily encounter it as a suite. Put your strongest work first, and then develop the submission along whatever lines will keep us turning pages. In prose, the concomitant advice is to make sure your story or essay opens strongly. My rule for years has been that I will read three pages of double-spaced prose…and then keep reading, if something (anything!) about the opening draws me further in. Otherwise, not. I’m sure I’ve lost a few pieces over the years (at KR and WB) where weak openings concealed greater glories. The rule, though, runs otherwise, and life is short.
I hope readers are sitting down when they read this--West Branch PAYS its writers! Why do you pay your writers and what are your thoughts on payment for publication in literary magazines?
We pay our writers because we believe literature has value, and because Bucknell University’s generous support of the Stadler Center for Poetry and West Branch enables us to pay.
Poetry has been moving towards what some have called a gift economy in recent years, and I’m interested in that, from an ecological and sociological point of view. From an institutional perspective, however, we’re glad we have the ability to offer writers appropriate remuneration for what they send us.
On a related note, we’re also glad we have the ability to move to three print issues per year, as of this fall, in addition to our quarterly on-line edition. We’ll be able to accept (and pay for!) more work we love.
What is West Branch’s goal?
The same as almost every other literary journal, I’m sure: to publish the very best poetry, fiction, and nonfiction we can. That said, I’ve always appreciated the model of the literary journal as itself a conversation: among poems, stories, essays, and art, with each issue constituting or convoking a small fragment of the larger conversation. As in other areas of life, some conversations are more interesting, more pleasurable, more productive, and/or more provocative than others. What I personally want of West Branch is that it be a conversation one would look forward to, issue by issue.
Valerie Maloof is a writer living in Boston.