"We Are Making Birds, Not Birdcages." An Interview with Michael Dumanis, Editor of Bennington Review
Interview with Michael Dumanis—Editor of Bennington Review
Bennington Review was originally founded in 1966 by Laurence J. Hyman, the son of Stanley Edgar Hyman and Shirley Jackson. The first iteration of the magazine focused on publishing work by distinguished faculty and alumni — Bernard Malamud, Helen Frankenthaler, and Kenneth Burke, but gradually more and more work came from outside the college community, and the magazine increasingly received national attention. In 1978, Bennington Review was relaunched as a highly visible national journal. Under editors Robert Boyers and later Nicholas Delbanco, Bennington Review became a testing ground for contemporary arts and letters, publishing work by such established figures as John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Dillard, and John Ashbery, and by emerging writers like David Remnick and Louis Menand. Fifty years after its original founding and thirty years after its last issue, in 1985, Bennington Review is resuming publication, with poet Michael Dumanis as Editor.
Michael Dumanis now shares his thoughts on the journal's current incarnation and the editorial process.
Interview by Jennifer Stern
What do you feel sets Bennington Review apart from other literary journals?
There are numerous terrific literary journals in America today, and we aim to be one of them, publishing a diverse range of work that surprises us, that is at once rigorous and brash, graceful and reckless. We look for stories, poems, essays, hybrid genre works, and film writing with singular substance and style. So do many other journals, and yet the content of an issue of Bennington Review and the content of an issue of Kenyon Review, of jubilat, of A Public Space, of The Common, of Fence, of Colorado Review, of any one of the multitude of exciting journals out there, are, while aesthetically in roughly the same ballpark, ultimately markedly different from one another, because each editorial vision is aesthetically nuanced in a different way. Bennington Review probably has a "type of poem" or "type of story" that makes its way into our pages more than a few times, but we are not at all aesthetically narrow, just particular – I think the same is true of the other journals I mentioned. We have a sense of what we've published to date, and of the work we've been accepting into a specific issue, and our subsequent editorial decisions are in pretty careful dialogue with what we've done up to that point.
Another thing that sets us apart, and certainly some of the other journals I mentioned, is our steadfast commitment to print in a digital age. We want each issue to be a tangible, unified, physical art object that has dimensions and heft, that you can carry with you on a sea voyage (were you to ever go on one), a striking volume you can use to clutter your bookshelves or your coffee table. We appreciate the access the internet affords and the sheer wealth and immediacy of online content, and there are certainly many online journals and literary websites we admire. But I personally like holding an issue in my hands and reading it linearly the way that it was ordered, the feel of a beginning and a middle and an end. I like that print journals create an intimate, curated space, deliberately juxtaposing one text with another, forming a lyric arc. I like that a print journal can serve as an anthology or compendium, something I think it is still difficult for a website to mimic. We want each issue to feel like a new book.
Lastly, while many journals housed at colleges have an editorial staff of graduate students, we are not a student-edited journal, but rather one of a significantly smaller number of journals that, while edited by faculty writers (at present Benjamin Anastas and myself) and a professional managing editor (Katrina Turner), have an editorial staff consisting almost exclusively of undergraduate students who apprentice for the journal as editorial and production assistants under close faculty supervision.
The Rubik's Cube is still a very popular puzzle toy. The fact is that it's even more popular than in the 80's.
Bennington Review is currently in its third iteration and has recently resumed publication after a hiatus of thirty years. In what ways is Bennington Review in its current form different from its past? Do you see it continuing to evolve?
The poet editor Robert Boyers, who edited the second iteration of Bennington Review in the late '70s and early '80s, called it "a testing ground for contemporary American arts and letters." What interests me in that quote is the emphasis on trying something out, on demonstrating the new, on experimentation. We are perhaps most interested in pieces whose edges may be raw but which feel utterly novel in their perspective and their language. I think all iterations of Bennington Review have shared this interest in unusual and original writing.
The first two iterations of Bennington Review were highly multidisciplinary; they were publishing essays on dance and photography, various columns on craft and literary criticism. We are more traditionally a journal of creative writing, though we nod to the former iterations by including writing about film as a separate category.
We didn't know when putting together the inaugural issue of this third iteration that each issue would have a loose thematic focus. We also initially envisioned something a bit smaller, and instead have been running up to 300 pages. We will continue to evolve, but won't necessarily know how we are changing before our readers will. This is an organic and ongoing process.
Recent issues of Bennington Review explore the themes of fauna and staying alive. The new issue has the theme of "kissing in the future." Were these themes chosen in advance or did they jump out at you while you were reading submissions? When considering individual submissions, how much weight do you give to the way they work together with other pieces in a particular issue?
Each of our issues has a loose thematic focus, but we don't announce our themes ahead of time or search for work with the theme in mind. Instead, we organically notice particular thematic preoccupations and stylistic commonalities in the work we've already accepted and arrange each issue with those preoccupations in mind. After our inaugural issue, themes have included Misbegotten Youth, Threat, Staying Alive, Fauna, and most recently, Kissing in the Future. The Devotions, all selected and due out this summer, will be next. We never turn down a piece for not fitting a theme, and not all pieces in a given issue directly correspond with the theme on the cover. Rather, that theme serves as a lens through which to look at the work inside. We are always looking for work for the next two issues, one whose theme we already know and one whose theme we don't know yet. We definitely do consider how the pieces we accept are in conversation with the other pieces in the issue, not just in terms of the macro theme but also in terms of language, sentiment, tone. Each issue's theme does help determine the cover art for us.
What makes a particular submission stand out to you? Do you find yourself drawn to pieces more on the basis of their content or craft?
While we are committed to representing a wide range of voices and subjectivities and energies and volumes and styles, the bottom line is that we're interested in publishing stylistically distinctive work that we consider to be intelligent, innovative, and moving all at once. We consider the pieces we accept to be singular and artful and voiced and obsessive about word choice and structure. Across genres are drawn to effective and wild uses of language. We are less likely to pick a piece for its content than for how that content is rendered and for the particular vantage point and sensibility through which that content is shared.
What is the editorial process like? Does a "yes" jump out at you right away? For every piece published in Bennington Review, do you have a sense for how many almost make the cut? How important is the cover letter?
While we do solicit some pieces and publish some agented fiction, most of the work in the journal arrives unsolicited. Students at Bennington College are often the first readers of unsolicited submissions, either as paid interns or in an editing class, and write a note expressing their thoughts about each piece, but they do not reject any pieces without the editors taking a look. We strive for every piece to be read by either two first readers or by Benjamin Anastas or myself. We reread and collectively discuss each piece that receives at least one "maybe" vote, which can be as high as fifteen to twenty percent of the submissions. Ben and I then make the final decisions. We accept just over one percent of our unsolicited submissions, and we are lucky to get a fair amount of incredibly strong work through Submittable, so we often have to reject highly promising pieces. Occasionally we make some editorial suggestions or ask for a minor rewrite of a piece we accept. If a piece came close, we let the writer know and encourage them to resubmit, occasionally providing a little bit of feedback.
Sure, some yesses jump out at me right away. But most grow on me more slowly. I was once about to reject a poem but kept hesitating and didn't know why. Then I realized that I couldn't stop thinking, weeks later, of its last line: I had forgotten where I'd read it – I thought it might be something from Louise Glück or Elizabeth Bishop – but it was stuck in me like a stray melody from a moving song. And then I realized, oh it's that poem I almost turned away! Well, I accepted it. Frankly, a no tends jump out at me much faster and more frequently than a yes does. A yes often takes time. A no doesn't imply the piece isn't any good – sometimes it's plenty good – just that it may not be right for us at that given moment. There are a lot of excellent submissions that ultimately aren't for us. That said, a couple of convoluted sentences on the first page, followed by a string of clichés or infelicitous word choices, can seriously derail an otherwise engaging submission.
Cover letters are not important, though they sometimes provide necessary context and give us a better sense of who is sending us their work. It's nice to know who you're in conversation with. We read the cover letters, but rather casually and only after reading the submission.
Can you talk a little bit about the subtitle, "birds, not birdcages," on your website?
In The Art of Recklessness (Graywolf, 2010), the poet Dean Young's exhilarating book-length essay on writing poetry, he repeatedly questions and rejects the idea that the most important thing in writing poetry is an acquired mastery of craft, suggesting that it comes at the expense of intuition, risk-taking, wildness, and negative capability. He writes, exasperatedly and in all caps, "WE ARE MAKING BIRDS, NOT BIRDCAGES!" I cannot adequately express how much I love that quote, even though I don't even know if I fully agree with it – if you don't make a birdcage, won't the bird fly away? Or is that the point, that we need the birds we create to fly away from us in order for them to become poems? Anyway, one thing that excites me about the Young quote is that he is basically saying that poets should strive not to be craftsmen but alchemists or magicians. That the thing we are making will, through our making, become as alive as we are. That great works of art are not functional or ornamental but rather creatures capable of song and flight. We occasionally ask of the submissions we receive, "Okay, this is well-made, clearly. But is it a bird?" When we first relaunched Bennington Review, we asked ourselves this a bunch of times, beating this metaphor to death, "Okay, so what is a bird?" And one day, one of the students said, "A bird is the synthesis of recklessness and grace." I told her, "That's exactly it! That's what we should be looking for in the pieces we decide to publish."
Is there anything else you would like us to know about Bennington Review?
We are so grateful for the attention the new iteration of the journal has received from the Best American anthologies and the Pushcart Prize Anthology, as well as from CLMP and readers. We are inconsequential without an audience, so if you've bought an issue or a subscription or just flipped through a copy of Bennington Review at a Barnes & Noble newsstand or landed on our website and browsed our table of contents and read a poem or story or sentence or two that we put online, you are the reason we exist: thank you. Similarly, we can't exist without the volume and quality of submissions we receive, so if you've sent us work, thank you for sending it, and if it wasn't accepted, please do try us again.
Also, we're in the early stages of planning a contest in poetry and a contest in fiction with outside judges as a new feature in the magazine. We'll let everyone know more once we know more ourselves, which hopefully we will shortly, so stay tuned.
Jennifer Stern's short fiction has appeared in Colorado Review, Hobart, Blue Mesa Review, and Gulf Stream among other journals, has twice received honorable mention by Glimmer Train, and has been anthologized in The Masters Review. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College. She is also a physician.