"I Wish All of Our Acceptances Soar So High!"
A chat with M.E. Silverman—Editor of Blue Lyra Review
M.E. Silverman, editor of Blue Lyra Review, moved from New Orleans to Georgia to teach at Gordon State College. He is a graduate of McNeese State (M.F.A.) and L.S.U. (B.A.). His work has appeared in over 70 magazines including: Crab Orchard Review, 32 Poems, Chicago Quarterly Review, Many Mountains Moving, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Tapestry, The Southern Poetry Anthology, The Los Angeles Review, Neon, Cloudbank, The Broad River Review, Pacific Review, Because I Said So Anthology, Sugar House Review, and other magazines. His chapbook, The Breath Before Birds Fly (ELJ, 2013), is available. His Manuscript, Mud Ange & the Last Mermaid, was a finalist for the 2008 New Letters Poetry Award and the 2008 DeNovo Contest. He is currently on the editorial board of 32 Poems. He has recently finished editing The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry (Fall, 2013).
Interview by Julie Schlack
What’s the origin of your journal’s name? Why Blue Lyra?
First, thank you for taking the time to review this publication! All of the editors do an outstanding job and I am lucky to have such a great staff to help fulfill our mission.
Ah, you are asking the age-old question of what is in a name. On the Masthead page, I posted the answer to this very question: “One of the most difficult decisions was coming up with a name that was not already taken, and had a free domain available! So after inquiring with some acquaintances and colleagues, I finally stumbled onto an idea while watching my daughter play Rocket Girl. I have always loved blues and jazz and the color blue. I loved the echo of sound in ‘review.’ Then I remembered the story of Lyra. The Greeks believed after Orpheus died, Zeus sent an eagle to get his lyre and then placed both in the sky. Now it is one of the 88 constellations (according to International Astronomical Union) with the second brightest star in the northern hemisphere. One can only hope to strive for so much, and I wish all of our acceptances soar so high!”
You founded Blue Lyra to bring together a diversity of voices, with a particular emphasis on Jewish writers and those from other communities that have been “historically underrepresented” in literary journals. Do you think there is currently some (perhaps unconscious) ethnic or cultural bias evidenced in the works selected by most literary journals? And if so, how would you characterize it?
Good question. I think any magazine is going to be biased toward their own aesthetics and their own mission statements/goals. This probably becomes less so with bigger staffs. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. However, if you mean is there an absence of places to publish for minorities? In today’s age, I like to think not, especially with so many magazines and journals in existence! Most journals are simply looking for quality by whatever standards they measure it. However, I think there are several journals who, shall I say, “specialize” in only Jewish writers or only Asian writers and so forth, but I don’t think there is one like us that focuses on all minorities and puts them together in one “melting pot” publication. Does that mean we turn our backs on anyone who does not (dare I say?) ‘fit’? Of course not.
Should writers who are neither Jewish nor members of some other minority group refrain from submitting?
Of course not! In fact, I think some folks just submit because they are drawn to a particular name or word in a journal’s title, or they see a writer they like that we have published. That is okay too. We just want people to send their best work and for people to enjoy their writing being published, no matter who they are.
On visiting Blue Lyra for the first time, I was impressed by your lengthy and excellent list of links to other sites, by your promotion of charitable giving, and practice of nominating selected contributors for literary awards. All of these relatively unique touches seem to reflect a desire to create a real community among the journal’s writers and readers. Is that an explicit goal of yours?
With people from so many locations, it is more important than ever to be “connected” and to feel connected to a community of like-minded writers. The web can be a bridge. It took me awhile to realize this. For me, after earning an MFA, I moved into the world of teaching but felt an absence of the support and community a writing program provides. I surfed magazine websites, read work by writers through the Web, and participated in some online workshops. But I still felt there was a “me and them,” a “here and there.” I hoped a magazine could fill this gap to some extent. I talked with Adrienne, my non-fiction editor, for a few months about creating a magazine and achieving this. (She is one of those lucky Facebook meets who has been here from the get-go!)
I was inspired by 32 Poems because they have managed to do this so well through Facebook and with their magazine. I was also inspired by Red Ochre Review who give to charity. I also noticed several journals supporting their writers by nominating them for awards. However, I never quite found one journal who did all three of these ‘unique touches’ as you say. Recently, we started a newsletter (you can sign up for it on the right side of any screen on our website) to help foster this. We are also using Facebook too. For example, you may notice we post regularly but we have also done giveaways (recently a box of literary journals or books) to two randomly chosen people when we hit 150 ‘likes.’ We welcome participation and comments too. In fact, except for the one Anti-Semitic comment, I have let all the comments posted for each piece go through. What I am trying to say is we want people to return as readers, as writers, as voices and thinkers, for this to be a “real community.” But it is baby steps right now.
Your contributors range from relative newcomers to well-known writers like Marge Piercy and John Wood, with multiple pieces from some contributors. Do you actively seek a balance of emerging and established writers, or do you simply publish what you like, without regard for the authors’ credentials?
This has been an active conversation amongst the staff. I think one has to seriously consider an author’s credentials as an emerging journal in a market like this. But, if any writer submits, we will accept (both new and established) so long as it is a piece we want to read more than once, so long as it reaches us. First and foremost, we are dedicated to the work.
However, few known writers have submitted on their own, so we send out invites to make them aware we exist and our mission statement, that we would love for them to be a part of BLR! While this is mostly through email, one of our editors happened to be in the same row in a movie theater with a well-known writer. Afterwards, our editor approached her and that is how her work became published in BLR! Another known writer sent me their entire new manuscript and told me to pick my favorites!
Let me show how we publish both established writers and new voices with a hint forthcoming from our next issue coming out end of June: Linda Pastan, Joy Ladin, Judith Skillman, Steven Sher, Sue Ellis, Deborah Bacharach, Tiff Holland, Tim Tomlinson, Rose Waldeman (translations), and others, just to name a few!
You seem to have a wonderfully diverse staff – in their geography, age, and ethnicity. Is that by design? And how does it inform what makes it into Blue Lyra?
For the most part each editor has full control over what gets accepted in their genre. We may make recommendations to each other and sometimes look for a second opinion/reader to help make a decision, but in the end, each genre is a direct result of that editor. I look at art and poetry, Adrienne Ross Scanlan is nonfiction, Brittany Kari Moore is fiction and Nancy Naomi Carlson is translations. While I am glad we have such diversity, it is simply by sheer coincidence. Except for Adrienne who has been here from the beginning, everyone else applied through a job posting on Alison Joseph’s list-serv. I never met a single one of the BLR staff and simply took into consideration their level of interest in the journal and the journal’s goals, and not their credentials or their appearances.
What are the joys and challenges of publishing translations? And how do you check their accuracy?
I am going to let Nancy, our translation editor, take this one:
“More and more journals, including Blue Lyra Review, are becoming more global in terms of what they publish. Although most editors will agree that some of the best work around is NOT being written in English, they may be reluctant to publish translations. Translation, though imperfect, bring some of the world's greatest literary moments to our American doors. One great challenge of publishing translations is finding those worthy of including in the magazine. It's not that hard to translate something, word-for-word. What is hard is to write a translation that reads as if it were originally written in English...that pays attention to the music of the line...without sacrificing meaning. If a poem in the original language makes use of slant end rhyme, it does the poem a disservice, in translation, to ignore this feature.
If the poems are written in French, Spanish, or Italian, I can generally check their accuracy. We have folks around who can check the accuracy for German. We have "friends" who help us out with other languages. In the end, no matter how accurate a translation, if it doesn't "flow"...if it doesn't look like the original on the page...if it lacks the music of the original language...it's not going to make it to our pages.”
In selecting the photography and art appearing in each issue, do you consider the submissions in relation to the editorial content? Or, come to think of it, vice versa?
For the most part, I see artists I like through Artsy Forager, Escape Into Life, Share Some Candy, Deviant Art, or Pinterest – all links found on the sidebar of Blue Lyra Review. Occasionally it is through a direct submission but for whatever reason, artists do not submit that much to us (yet!). Maybe we are not announcing in places artists look? However, I strongly think Art is an important component and my favorite literary magazines all include artwork. For example, Gettysburg Review, Artful Dodge, Tin House, Georgia Review, Five Points Review, and others. As far as connecting it to content—no, with the exception of our first theme issue coming up this October: Stories We’d Rather Not Tell. There I am looking for work that is revealing or holding back some sort of secret.
I was delighted – and almost amazed – to see that your readers actually comment on your content. Before launching the journal, did you have any internal conversation about whether or not to enable commenting? And does this form of reader feedback have any impact on your editorial choices?
I am going to let Adrienne, our nonfiction editor, take this one:
“Allowing reader comments was Matthew’s idea, and what a good one it was! As a writer, I know how affirming it is to discover that someone read your work and was moved by it. As an editor, I don’t pick pieces that I think will generate comments (I’ll leave that to the quality of the writing and the ideas expressed), but it is useful to see that we’re publishing pieces that stay with people after the essay is over.”
I’d also like to comment on this question of whether non-Jewish writers are welcome:
“All writers are welcome to send non-fiction pieces (or any other genre) that fit our guidelines. While I have a particular interest in Jewish- or nature-oriented themes, that’s not all we publish. Far from it! So take a look, and if you think you have a piece that’s a good fit, send it our way.”
Matthew adds: Hm, I think it was Laura Hong, our web editor, who suggested it and set it up.
I gather that Blue Lyra Review is currently an exclusively online publication, but that you aspire to print version as well. If and when you’re able to publish in both formats, what will you do differently in the print edition?
Right now, it is a dream we hope to achieve. We are short on funds and would love more donations to help us achieve this goal and establish an AWP presence. So please help us support the arts and with any money left over, we will donate it to the charities we support! If we get a print edition together (cross your fingers!), we hope to print a best of anthology from the previous year. We plan to add a few new pieces not available online too.
Your poetry has appeared in over 70 publications. Are you going for some kind of record? And for as long as you’re its editor, will Blue Lyra ever make it onto that substantial list?
I do not like journals or presses that print their own staff. One should take comfort in knowing the wizards are behind the curtain but one doesn’t have to see them to know they exist and that they are working hard! As far as 70 goes, I have seen some writers with over 200 or 300 publications and still not have a book out. But if you are interested in the editors, I just published a chapbook, The Breath before Birds Fly; Nancy Naomi Carlson recently released Stone Lyre: Poems of Rene Char; Adrienne Ross Scanlan is working on a book about discovering home and restoring nature in the urban wild; Lenore Weiss, our copy editor, released a book of poetry called Cutting Down the Last Tree on Easter Island; B. Kari Moore is writing stories and I know she will have a book out soon that will be wonderful and moving; and Laura Hong, who is our amazing web editor, is finishing her Master’s Degree in media and public relations and she will center her thesis around art or maybe literature.
I think if anyone is looking to submit to any magazine, it is always best to both discover what the editors like to read and to write by reading the magazine’s past issues and by reading their own published writings!
Julie Wittes Schlack writes book reviews for the Boston Globe and won a Hopwood Award for Fiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Shenandoah, The Literary Review, The Louisville Review, The Dos Passos Review, Eleven Eleven, Ninth Letter, The Ledge, The Rambler, Tampa Review, and The South Carolina Review. She lives with her husband in Cambridge, MA.