12 Winters Blog

Interview with Rachel Jamison Webster: The Endless Unbegun

Posted in February 2015 by Ted Morrissey on February 19, 2015

In the fall of 2013 I attended a reading at Edwards Place, an historic home in Springfield, Illinois, and one of the readers that evening was Rachel Webster, who read from her poetry collection, September. I was very taken with her poetry and her presentation of her work. My fiancée (now wife) Melissa and I were anxious to speak with Rachel afterward and to get a copy of her book, which I ended up admiring very much. The following year I was looking for projects for Twelve Winters Press, and I heard via the literary grapevine that Rachel Webster had a manuscript she was interested in publishing — but it was not an ordinary collection, which of course piqued my curiosity even more, since the Press’s main mission is to publish literary work that is especially difficult to place because of its risk-taking nature.

The Endless Unbegun front cover

I contacted Rachel via email, and she graciously sent me the manuscript, under a different title, and I discovered that it was a hybrid collection of both short prose pieces and poems, and that it told an ambitious, multi-layered story that took place over several centuries. In a word it was wonderful, and exactly the sort of project that seemed tailor-made for Twelve Winters Press. Email exchanges began, and we worked out an agreement to bring out the book in print, digital and audio editions. Rachel wanted to revise the manuscript further, which she did over several months. Then late last fall, 2014, she sent the Press a significantly reworked book, including a new title, “The Endless Unbegun” — and the editors at Twelve Winters and I began the very rewarding process of bringing the book to print, working closely with Rachel at every phase.

Publication was delayed a bit when Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program interviewed Rachel for their upcoming issue, 8.1, and Rachel floated the possibility of including the interview with the book. I thought it a terrific idea, so with Quiddity’s editors’ permission, we prepared the interview for inclusion in The Endless Unbegun. The Quiddity interview focuses in large part on the philosophical and theological ideas that are at the heart of the book, so for the below interview, I deliberately turned my attention to other issues.

The print edition of The Endless Unbegun was released February 5, 2015. Editions for Kindle and Nook soon followed, and the audiobook is in the works as well. I emailed Rachel some questions, and here are her unedited responses.

Rachel Webster 2

You’ve said that the book began as a novella and eventually became a hybrid collection of short prose pieces and poems. I’m wondering if, for you, certain subjects lend themselves to prose expression more naturally, and others to poetry? And if not subjects, then perhaps themes . . . moods?

Yes, definitely.  When I write prose I am combining voices — the voice of the artist, as well as the voice of the teacher or friend.  I know that I am talking outward to another, and so my understanding of that audience is invariably woven into the form and content of the prose.  In this sense, I usually write prose in a way that is reflective of some wider societal or temporal situation.  Even if I am writing prose from my own experience, I am connecting it actively with what I suspect is a shared experience.

Poetry also reflects shared experience, but that connection is trusted in a more intuitive, subterranean way.  It happens way beneath the ground.  So the act of writing poetry — for me — feels like talking deeply to myself, tracing my own subconscious or dreams, my own deepest memories or questions.  I don’t write poetry thinking about audience at all — I just follow the rhythm of the words, and I really interrogate my own feelings and questions in the poem.  There is no “other,” because the self is the aperture to the other.  That was especially true of the poems in The Endless Unbegun, which are elemental and very physical in their rhythms and knowing.  When they do talk to a “you,” they are love poems, and meant to share my deepest being with the “you” as beloved, who only late in the game becomes the reader.

I think of this poetic space of connection as pretty unusual and rarified, and so my idea for this book was that a prose novella would sort of walk the reader into a more and more poetic, metaphorical space, and that in this way, it would be like walking deeper and deeper into a relationship.  The fact is, we meet on the level of persona and appearance, and then we move further and further into knowing one another (and ourselves, ideally!) in an elemental and soulful way.  Eventually, we are at the archetype — the repeating pattern, where we realize that all of our deepest, most individual experiences are not original at all!  They are human, and therefore shared.

Is there a piece in the book that was the one that led you to realize you were beginning to write this book — as opposed to simply writing another related piece that would eventually be published as a stand-alone narrative or poem?

This one was always a book, which was why it was tricky to publish many of these poems individually in journals.  The book came on in a torrent, and held me in its sway for months as I wrote and rewrote its first drafts, and the poems in it were always deeply intuitive, somehow merging story and poetry, self and other.  It was like they needed their own space, their own book, to make sense.

I experienced this book as a crossing over into a new wavelength.  I learned to write more from my own intuitive power, and less from some expectation of form or audience.

You made some significant changes to the manuscript after it was taken by the Press for publication. Did thinking of it as a book that was actually going to be out in the world — as opposed to simply an ambitious creative project — influence how you approached revision? And if not that, then what led to the major changes in the manuscript?

Well, because the book was so intuitive I felt that I needed to do some rearranging and clarifying to externalize its themes a bit more, and guide the reader through its movements.

I also put the prose novella back in. I had been taking that out as I sent out the manuscript, because it didn’t fit most contest guidelines.  But when Twelve Winters accepted the manuscript and I thought about what I most wanted to share and explore with this book, I knew that it was important for me to have this strange, layered shape, and these characters who are recognizable to us, and who also have rich universes within — like any of us.

And finally, I took out a couple of love poems and added some new ones — simply to make the emotional experience of the book present to me again.  A book that was important to me for many years is Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes. It is a book about elemental feminism, and the creative process in which Estes retells fairy tales and folktales to track archetypal shapes in a life.  She talks about the woman as creator and says that when a project feels stuck, or stalled, we should just take something out, get rid of something, in order to lighten its energy and renew it again.  I really experienced this phenomena with The Endless Unbegun.  I took out some poems, added three new ones, and then changed the title, and the book was made new again — like, finally, it had found its moment in time.

What’s the manuscript’s history as far as publication? In other words, how long did you work on it as a book-length project? Had you approached other publishers? What made Twelve Winters seem like a good fit for the book and for you as an author?

I worked on this as a book-length project for a decade, and I always believed in it, but I suspect there was too much going on for editors to see it clearly or to trust its voices. The poems themselves seem more performative, archetypal and intense than a lot of what is being published right now.  It was a semi-finalist for the Dorset Prize a long time ago — maybe in 2007.  And its poems inspired the creation of a band in 2008 — called the Very Small Quartet. I read many of these poems and musicians in the quartet set them to original music, and we performed them live around Chicago. Then Dancing Girl Press published some of its poems in a chapbook called “The Blue Grotto” in 2009.

Twelve Winters was wonderful to work with because the relationship was always founded on respect and understanding of the author’s own experience.  I did not feel that I had to fit this book into any one container, or even one genre, but could really present it in its best possible shape and form. That has been a thrilling opportunity for me as an author, and the entire process of finishing this book has been a pleasure. The Twelve Winters readers and editors were respectful and encouraging, but also meticulous in editing, crediting and proofreading, and so I knew that we were releasing a book that we could all be proud of.

You’re working on an audio edition of the book. One can imagine that poets especially are interested in performing their work for an audience, as opposed to offering it in print only. What are your thoughts or hopes regarding producing an audiobook of The Endless Unbegun

I love reading my poems aloud.  They are usually woven together by sound, and I think when I read them, the listener/reader can really enjoy that and get swept into a more physical, subconscious rhythm.

I am seeking a grant to pay for a really strong recording of this book, because I want to be able to share it in an audio form, in my voice.

What are some of the challenges of recording your poetry, besides any technological ones? 

Well, none really.  Just little technical things, like don’t wear bracelets that jangle, and don’t lisp.  Oh, and the technical glitch of the ego, of course.  I never like my voice when I hear it again.  It is embarrassing. It always sounds too slow, sad and deep to me.  But it is my voice, and I am the one to vocalize my poems.

I co-produced a radio series on poetry for WBEZ a couple of years ago and had to listen to so many hours of my own voice during the production process that I learned to detach from it, much like the way you have to detach as a writer from the idea that an experience is yours.  In the end, these are just two more tools — the voice, the experience — that you can use to share with others.

You teach courses in poetry at Northwestern University and you’ve worked with younger writers as well. Teaching is time consuming of course, and it can be energy draining, but how does teaching influence your writing in positive ways?

I feel so fortunate that my day job is to talk with 20-year-olds about poetry!  And what they teach me, more than anything, is that all of this work is relevant, even necessary.  I mean, if you are just out and about reading the billboards in this country and watching the sitcoms, this stuff we are doing seems pretty anachronistic and irrelevant.

But in my classroom, I get to see how deeply we seek meaning, how much we crave the kind of relational intelligence and emotional awakening that poetry creates.  I watch students embark on this experience of creating and evolving consciousness, and they help me to evolve my consciousness, as well.  My students come to poetry classes, because they want to, because poetry provides a space for us to talk about these ideas of relationship, of creation, of trusting the intuition, and acknowledging the deeper self, and we need these conversations — now more than ever.

And the Jon and Marisol sections, especially, are dedicated to my students.  I put them back in because they represent a kind of atrium in life where we may find ourselves, maybe especially in our twenties or early thirties — the sense that we want to drop down deeper, we want to relate to people soulfully, but our coolness and our intelligence somehow prevents us from sharing all we know and sense.  I think my students are weathering those situations quite bravely, and their earnestness and intelligence gives me hope.

What are you writing now?

I am working on two projects.  My prose project is a book of personal essays that circle experiences of birth and death.  They take place during the first years of my daughter’s life, and during the illness and passing of her father from the disease ALS, when I was caregiver to both.  These experiences were simultaneous, which led to many personal challenges, but also to rich reflection on what we consider opposite — birth and death, heaven and hell.  I now experience these states as related, even interdependent.

My poetry project is a collection of poems written in the voices of Native Americans who can verbalize a very earth-centered, relational consciousness.  Some of these voices are not unlike Radegunde’s, who, as a Pagan, had a different relationship to time and to the earth, but they are taken outside of the context of Christianity, and placed in another time in history.

Rachel Jamison Webster is the author of the full-length poetry collection September (Northwestern University Press, 2013) as well as two chapbooks, The Blue Grotto and Leaving Phoebe, both from Dancing Girl Press. Her poems and prose writing have been published in numerous journals and anthologies, including Poetry, Narrative, Tin House and The Paris Review. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Northwestern and edits universeofpoetry.org, an international anthology of poetry. (Author photo by Richard Fammerée.)

Interview with John McCarthy: Extinguished Anthology

Posted in October 2014 by Ted Morrissey on October 30, 2014

Last March, Twelve Winters Press released [Ex]tinguished & [Ex]tinct: An Anthology of Things That No Longer [Ex]ist, edited by the Press’s contributing editor John McCarthy. At the time I didn’t have the presence of mind to interview John about the book, but the Press has recently announced its Pushcart Prize nominees from the anthology, so I thought it would be appropriate to post an overdue interview.

Extinct cover - front

John and I have known each other since around 2008 because of our mutual involvement with Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program. I was a founding editor who eventually took a step or two back to prose reader; John was an intern who eventually assumed the role of assistant editor. When I launched Twelve Winters Press in 2012, John was quick to lend his support. Knowing his talents and work ethic I was happy to hand him the reins on an editorial project for the Press. In the winter of 2013 we sat down to a Thai dinner and brainstormed possible themes for an anthology. The ideas were flying fast and furious. I recall that I spitballed the possibility of a collection of literary zombie stories. John was … dubious. Somehow we eventually came up with the general idea of extinction, which was refined to extinguished and extinct–and John, as I knew he would, hit the ground running.

We composed the wording for the call for submissions of poems, prose poems and flash fiction, and posted it on Submittable and here and there. Then I sat back and let John and the Press’s associate editor Pamm Collebrusco do what they do so well. They meticulously read and sifted through the submissions that soon began pouring in, selected their favorites and worked through the editing process. John designed the cover and interior pages. I got involved again at the very end for an additional proofreading and to actually publish the anthology, which ultimately offered the work of 37 contributors from five countries. I couldn’t be more pleased with what John and Pamm had produced.

Here, then, is my interview with John (via email) about his editing the anthology.

John McCarthy photo

John McCarthy

What attracted you to the theme of “extinguished and extinct”? What about it made you think it would yield plenty of interesting material?

Part of good writing–part of its goal–is to craft something timeless, something universal people can relate to. When I started brainstorming themes, I decided the best way to do this was to address something permanent. I thought of a line from Larry Levis’s poem, “My Story in a Late Style of Fire,” when the speaker is lamenting a former lover and explains “even in her late addiction & her bloodstream’s / Hallelujahs, she, too, sang often of some affair, or someone / Gone, & therefore permanent.” And what is more permanent than the total, absolute absence of someone or something? Extinction, death. I didn’t want the anthology to be just about a personal death. There are plenty of grief anthologies out there, but in a sense, all poetry is about longing, grieving, lamenting, or venerating the fleeting. I wanted to expand this idea of the permanence of loss to anything: things that are endangered of becoming extinct; things that are extinct that deserve a modern voice; as well as a traditional elegy for a person or thing. I wanted it to address personal emotions as well as open up dialogues about socially conscious topics such as the importance of eco-preservation as well as race and gender. I didn’t want it to be just an anthology about wooly mammoths or dinosaurs, I wanted writers to redefine or reinterpret the word extinction. I wanted them to apply this word to specific entities and abstract concepts. I wanted to make something permanent by pulling it from permanence. Levis is lamenting this woman because she is lamenting someone she lost before him, so it’s this other absence–her own experience with extinction–that inhibits her ability to be totally present with Levis, so in a way, extinction for me means seeing beyond the duality of things dead and things living. It means appreciating absence, acknowledging it in such a way that it really isn’t absent anymore. Once something is, it is forever. That’s a certain kind of philosophy with a lot of debate to it, but it was the jumping ground to a lot of great work which I received.

How many submissions did you receive (more or less)?  Were you surprised by the response?

I got about 1,500 submissions in total. I wasn’t surprised considering how well the calls for submission was promoted. My surprise was with how much quality writing I received and had to sift through. I was worried that the extinction theme would generate a ridiculous amount of genre stuff dealing with zombies, nuclear fallout, all that apocalyptic stuff, which is fine in its own regard, but it was not what I was looking for with the anthology. I received a couple submissions like that, but not as many as I would have thought. I had to decline a lot of good work, too. I had 37 contributors in total, but if I had unlimited page space, I would have accepted around 50 I think. I got quality submissions dealing with everything from extinct animals, to foreign dialects, to pokemon, to jukeboxes, even rotary phones, libraries, and turn-tables. It was exciting to see so many people interpreting and reimagining these historical contexts in new voices. It was cool to look at things that are “gone, and therefore permanent,” but were given light to everything we lost.

Did ideas for any other themed anthologies come to you while reading through the submissions?

Yes, I want to do an anthology dealing with the opposite of this anthology. “Things not yet existing.” I want to see how imaginative and prophetic writers could get with things that don’t yet exist in the world or how curet existing things might get reimagined in a contemporary context. Obviously, I would worry about receiving too many hard science fiction submissions, but I would open it up to any extrapolation of the idea dealing with things that are existing currently. Like maybe a Latino president would be an awesome prophecy, a new kind of rug that floats around the house, maybe a new way of giving birth, or escalators to the moon. I would really look for inventiveness. I would also like to do an anthology of short stories or formal verse at some point. I always have ideas, always looking for platforms to execute them.

How did reading submissions and editing the anthology impact your own writing?

I love working with the persona poem and the elegy. I think it is fun to piggyback off of other persons or events in time. It helps develop a stronger sense of empathy within the work. It was a good exercise to work and edit other people’s interpretations of their personas and the elegies. There is so much you can do with projection. Memory is the world within the world. Working with this anthology helped me access, explore, and appreciate that inner world.

John McCarthy has had work appear or is forthcoming in RHINO, The Minnesota Review, Salamander, Jabberwock Review, Midwestern Gothic, Oyez Review, and The Pinch among others. He is an MFA candidate at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He lives in Chicago, Illinois, where he is a contributing editor at Poets’ Quarterly and the assistant editor of The Museum of Americana and Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program. Follow him @jmccarthylit.

TWP taking submissions and Beowulf book makes its way in the world

Posted in September 2013 by Ted Morrissey on September 15, 2013

I’m happy to announce that Twelve Winters Press, which I founded last year, began taking submissions today for its first anthology:  [Ex]tinguished and [Ex]tinct:  An Anthology of Things That No Longer [Ex]ist, slated for a spring 2014 release.  I’m also happy to acknowledge that I’ve been joined on the Press’s masthead by two of my oldest Benedictine University and Quiddity friends and colleagues, John McCarthy and Pamm Collebrusco.  In fact, John will be serving as editor of the anthology, while Pamm will be a reader and ultimately do what she does as well as anyone I know:  edit and proofread the book before it goes to press.  Pamm has generously edited and proofread my last three books, and is at work on the galleys of my latest novel, An Untimely Frost, probably even as I write this blog post.  (Her work on my monograph, The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters, with all of its technical terminology drawn from a host of disciplines, copious citations, and its Old English, was nothing short of herculean — more on the Beowulf book in a moment.)

The anthology will consist of poems, prose poems and flash fiction (up to 1,000 words in length), and John is accepting submissions through November 30.  Please check out and share the submission guidelines.

My monograph, The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters:  A Trauma-Theory Reading of the Anglo-Saxon Poem, came out in March, but with the advent of the new academic year university libraries have started to add it to their collections (nearly every day a new library or two pops up on WorldCat — and, yes, I’m checking its progress, just like you would a child who’s beginning to make his way in the world).  To date, libraries that have added either the print edition or ebook edition to their collection include Notre Dame, Duke, Purdue, Pepperdine, Nebraska, South Dakota, Maryland, Illinois, Wisconsin, Loyola Notre Dame, Lewis and Clark, Smith College, and Australian National University.

Beowulf Poet cover

The book actually grew out of my doctoral dissertation, which I completed in 2009 (Zeitgeist and the Zone:  The Psychic Correlation between Cultural Trauma and “Postmodern” Literature).  My primary focus was American postmodernism, but I included quite a bit of research on Anglo-Saxon history and culture, and the poem Beowulf in way of support for my thesis.  As almost an appendix to my dissertation I also wrote a trauma-theory reading of Beowulf; however, the Anglo-Saxon scholar on my committee wouldn’t accept my theory about the poem, so I ended up cutting that chapter.  Anglo-Saxonists are notoriously uncomfortable with post-structural criticism (they tend to prefer analysis of a more traditional philological nature), so it wasn’t a big surprise that she didn’t care for my reading.  Nevertheless, I’d put a lot of time and effort into it, and I felt it was valid (even revolutionary — hey, sometimes you have to toot your own horn).

Even as I was cutting the chapter, I had vague plans of bringing my theory out somehow or another (perhaps in an article). After successfully defending my dissertation, my mind switched gears back into creative writing, and I spent the next three years working on the novel that would become An Untimely Frost.  I teach Beowulf every fall, so I continued meditating on the poem and my analysis of it.  Then in late winter 2012 I met with an editor from Edwin Mellen Press who encouraged me to pursue writing a monograph about Beowulf and my trauma-theory reading.  I accepted a contract, and in May of 2012 I began work on the project in earnest.  I transported home from my classroom three copy-paper boxes of books and articles, transforming my bedroom into a Beowulf and postmodern critical theory library (it was a mess, and it was a good thing I was living alone because if I hadn’t been, I soon would’ve been).

I thought I could knock out the project in three to five months; I was wrong.  I pulled quite a lot from my dissertation, but it was now three years old.  An important book or article on Beowulf appears once a week or so, according to the University of Toronto, which is the epicenter of Beowulf scholarship, and to say I’d been keeping up only at my leisure would be putting it rather kindly.  So I had a lot of reading to do.  Also, I’d done a little translating of Old English for my dissertation, but for this monograph I felt that I needed to analyze the original language of the poem, so I set about translating numerous key sections.  Much of the summer of 2012 was spent with my nose in the poem, various Old English dictionaries, and translations that I admired.  I was often at my kitchen table entombed in stacks of books.

The project that I thought I could finish by September (2012) dragged on into the fall … and winter.  In the meantime, two of my three adult sons had moved back home for various reasons, and it became a running joke as nearly every day they’d ask me what I was doing, and I’d say that I was finishing my Beowulf book (or I’d ask them, “Guess what I’m doing today?” to solicit their groans of skepticism), as I was in the process of finishing it for about six months.  There were a thousand details to attend to to get it right.  I was not a known Beowulf scholar, at all, so I was determined to make it as solid a piece of scholarship as I was able to produce.  When I needed to procure supporting reviews before sending it to the press, I sought opinions from the most respected Beowulf scholars in the world, and I was grateful that James W. Earl and Robert E. Bjork, both of whose work I’d admired for years, agreed to review my manuscript.  I waited, a little anxiously, for their reviews — and was considerably relieved when they were returned so favorably.  (See my Beowulf book’s page to read blurbs of their reactions.)

It ended up taking ten months for me to complete the project.  Shortly after its publication, Edwin Mellen’s editor-in-chief awarded it the press’s D. Simon Evans Prize for distinguished scholarship.  Considering I had to cut from my dissertation the chapter on which the monograph was based, I was especially pleased with Earl’s and Bjork’s good opinions, and then the Prize.  In fairness to the Beowulf scholar on my committee, my chapter paid little attention to the poem’s original language, and my analysis of the Geatland/dragon section of the poem, I knew, was undercooked (in writing the monograph, that was the section that received the most new material and most extensive revision — by the time I wrote the book, I had a clearer idea what I’d been wanting to say all along).  Also, her reaction inspired me to make my scholarship as airtight as possible as it represented what the mainstream of the discipline was likely to say about my rather wild reading of the poem.  I thank her in the book’s acknowledgements, and my thanks is sincere.

The press is just beginning to solicit reviews of my Beowulf book in scholarly journals, and I don’t know of any that have appeared so far. As I said, I’m gratified that universities are adding it to their collections, so hopefully some Anglo-Saxonists will begin to pay attention to it (as well as scholars and doctors in psychoanalysis and neuropsychology, which are also important aspects of my trauma-theory reading).


Men of Winter Redux

Posted in August 2013, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 11, 2013

My novel Men of Winter originally appeared in 2010, brought out by a new press, but I was never very happy with the end result, and overall my experience with the press was pretty frustrating.  Not surprisingly, the press went out of business last year, leaving my book “out of print,” at least in paperback (the digital versions represent a different tale of woe).  Because of this event, combined with the extreme difficulty of getting challenging work in print, period, I decided to start my own publishing business, Twelve Winters Press, which I founded in 2012.

Men of Winter Front Cover

Twelve Winters Press’s first order of business was to make Men of Winter available again (for one thing, I wanted to use myself as a guinea pig, before approaching others about publishing their work).  However, as long as I was troubling to bring it out again, I decided to release a revised and expanded edition of the novel.  New to this edition are a Preface (written by me), an interview by Beth Gilstrap (an abbreviated version of which originally appeared in Fourth River), an Afterword by Adam Nicholson, and discussion questions designed to make the book better suited for book clubs and classrooms.  In terms of revisions, I’ve made a few wording changes and corrections here and there, but the most obvious revision is the addition of epigraphs at the head of each chapter from either the Iliad or the Odyssey.  For the cover art, Gina Glover generously allowed me to use her pin-hole photograph, Amandine, Usedom, Germany.

Men of Winter, A Revised & Expanded Edition, is currently available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Espresso Book Machine.  It will soon be available from Baker & Taylor, Ingram, and NACSCORP.  Please note that the Kindle and Nook editions are the 2010 version of the novel, of which I haven’t received a royalty payment in more than two years (folks are making money off the book, but I’m not among them).  I’m currently in communication with Amazon and Barnes & Noble regarding the situation and plan to have new digital versions available in the near future.

I’m working on getting my newest novel, An Untimely Frost, ready for publication, projected release this fall.  Meanwhile, I have the good fortune of my talented and enthusiastic Quiddity colleague John McCarthy coming on board as a contributing editor, and John is going to spearhead some special projects so that Twelve Winters is not simply my own self-publishing venture.

Twelve Winters Logo Maximum

Many of you reading this blog, may have read Men of Winter in its earlier incarnation, and I would encourage you to spread the word regarding its re-release.  And if you haven’t read the book … well, your support would be greatly appreciated.  I’m hoping especially to market the novel to book clubs, with whose members I would be honored to join in conversation either in person or via Skype.  So if you have any book-club connections (or aspirations), again, I’d greatly appreciate your spreading the word.

Please visit tedmorrissey.com.

Reflections on Best of the Net

Posted in February 2012, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 5, 2012

The last several weeks have been so busy that time for blogging was all but nonexistent. There was syllabus writing, and preparing my presentation on William H. Gass’s The Tunnel for the fast-approaching Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, and — most time-consuming, but also most interesting, of all — was reading fiction for the Best of the Net 2011 anthology, published by Sundress Publications.

Sundress was founded and is managed by Erin Elizabeth Smith (whom I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing her read her own poetry in the fall), but it was my friend and colleague Meagan Cass who invited me to read fiction nominations for Best of the Net, which strives to publish the best poetry, fiction and nonfiction that appeared originally in online journals. Journal editors must nominate the work (unless it was self-published, in which case the author may submit the piece). See Sundress’s submissions page for full guidelines.

Meagan had lined up several readers for fiction, so I was in a group that was assigned just under seventy short stories to read; in other words, I read about half of the total fiction submissions — so the observations I’m about to share are based solely on that half; perhaps the other half would have suggested different impressions altogether (though I suspect not). According to the email to readers that organized the reading, this was the largest number of nominations Best of the Net had received, a sign, it seems clear, that the anthology is catching on and more and more editors are aware of it and appreciate its mission to give kudos to work published online, as opposed to that which first appeared in print publications.

Strictly online publications (though many do their own “best of” print editions on, say, an annual basis) are gaining legitimacy to be sure. The Modern Language Association, for example, has been establishing criteria for online publication of scholarly work to assist in the tenure-granting process as more and more academics have been turning to peer-reviewed online and e-outlets. (See the MLA’s “The Future of Scholarly Publishing.”)

There remains a certain prestige to being published in traditional print, especially if by a long-established journal (this is true for both academic and creative writers), but I do believe electronic publication is catching up — thanks to a complex web (ha) of factors, including projects like Best of the Net that call attention to the excellent writing which is appearing in online venues.

It was an honor to be asked to read for Sundress’s project, and I knew it would be an educational experience. As a writer (especially as a creative writer) I’m very much interested in trends in electronic publication, and I had certain questions going into my reading that I hoped the experience would help me answer — and I believe it has. First and foremost I was curious about this legitimacy issue; that is, I wanted to know how online-published work seemed to stack up against work appearing in more traditional, and established, journals. I wondered about the writers themselves: Would they primarily be first-timers in terms of publication, or ones who had only published in obscure and eclectic online sites?

And I wondered about the journals and their editors and designers. I’m hardly a babe in the woods when it comes to my exploring and reading online publications (in fact, I like to think of myself as something of an expert, or as much of an expert as one can be in a field that literally changes by the minute); however, I knew the project would introduce me to journals I’d never encountered, in spite of my regular trolling of Duotrope’s Digest, NewPages.com, and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses’ member directory. I wondered where these journals were originating (from a university English department or from somebody’s basement or from somebody’s smartphone while sipping a latte at Starbucks). I wondered who their editors were, and I wondered what sorts of designs and formats were being used (and how reader friendly they were).

I’m about to get to my observations, I promise, but I should probably point out that I’ve been reading literary journal submissions for years, going back to my undergrad days at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale reading and editing the English Department’s Grassroots journal, but much more recently I published/edited my own chapbook-style journal, A Summer’s Reading, from 1997 to 2004, and since 2007 I’ve been editing then simply reading for Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program.

So let’s just say I’ve supped deeply from the slush pile.

I suppose I thought reading for Best of the Net would be a lot like slush-pile reading in that I would discover early on in a given piece that I wasn’t smelling what its author was cooking, but this wasn’t the case at all. I said earlier that it was time-consuming, and that’s because I found I really needed to read just about every piece to the final mark of punctuation to try to decide yea or nay, and even then it was often a difficult decision. We fiction readers had been charged with finding only about twelve to fifteen “yeses” (in other words, we had to say “no” to around fifty-five in our own batch). I discovered that the writing was overall very, very good; and, for me, it was often the end of the story that moved my metaphorical thumb up or down — which I suppose isn’t surprising seeing that as a writer and teacher I know how difficult endings can be (much more challenging than writing an effective beginning).

The process was also time-consuming because by and large the submissions were full-length stories. Reading online, it’s difficult to gauge lengths as one might when reading from paper, but in my group there were only a handful that I’d call flash fiction or even a short short, and a roughly equal number were in the neighborhood of 10,000 words (which in paper manuscript would be about forty pages). As an editor and publisher of print journals, I’ve been frustrated by space limitations and have had to say “no” to many a worthy offering because there simply wasn’t room for it in the journal; and, as a writer, I’ve been curious why more journal editors didn’t take advantage of the infinity of cyberspace by publishing longer pieces (to be read by whom I’m not precisely sure — but that’s a whole different issue).

In terms of form, I’d say that in contrast to the cutting-edge nature of online publishing, the stories themselves tended to be very traditional. Again, I’d say only a half dozen or so of my seventy-ish were what I’d term experimental in narrative structure or style. I suppose since writers tend to write in a way that would be publishable by either print or online journals, the web editors receive pieces that have also been sent to their print counterparts. And even the story-writers who did play with form did so in a way that would translate to paper-print in essentially the same manner. (Here I am, I should acknowledge, writing quite specifically for the web, and yet I’m composing almost exactly as I did thirty-five years ago when writing a sports story for the Galesburg Register-Mail newspaper, so it seems the medium itself has not greatly affected how we write and process text, regardless of whether we are a forty-something or a twenty-something.)

Thus it’s fair to say that I was surprised by both the consistently high quality of the nominated pieces and also by their consistent ties to their print forebears. Perhaps online editors had published numerous highly experimental pieces but chose to nominate their more traditional ones. My sense, however, from both my Best of the Net reading and my usual snooping about online journals, is that the vast, vast majority of what’s being published on the web would be equally suited to traditional print.

As far as the writers themselves go, I only scanned bios after I’d read the piece and made my yea/nay decision, but I found quite a mix, just as one does in a print publication. There were writers who had not published before and ones who had only published in barely-on-the-radar venues, but there were also many, many writers who had impressive lists of credits and awards. Also just like their traditional brethren, the editors of these online journals tend to be academically trained and, often, affiliated; they are writers and poets themselves, with their own publishing credits and accolades; many are MFAs and PhDs, or are candidates, respectively.

I found that many of the journal sites were attractive and very readable, but at the same time there were those whose designers didn’t appear to believe that people would actually be attempting to read what they were publishing — with tiny, highly compressed text that seemed to say “Go ahead, just try to read me … I dare ya!” Reader fatigue was a problem I often struggled with, and I tried not to let it affect my judgment of the individual story. I should say that editors tended to nominate pieces in two forms, both in text documents and with links to their publications; I generally toggled back and forth to determine which would be easier on my eyes (even if I opted for the text document, I was curious about the journal itself and would poke around a bit).

Here are just a few journals I encountered due to my BOTN reading that I was especially impressed with in terms of design and, in some cases, general mood or aesthetic philosophy, but it is hardly an exhaustive list: Juked, Cha, Serving House Journal, Fiction Weekly, Ghost Ocean Magazine, and Up the Staircase Quarterly.

The bottom line is that there’s a lot of excellent work being published in online venues, thanks to the loving labor of a lot of dedicated editors and web designers, and as a consequence web-based publication, at least in the creative arts, is quickly achieving the prestige which had been granted exclusively to traditional print journals.

So kudos to these writers and editors; and to presses like Sundress that are dedicated to recognizing online excellence.


Pathfinding: a blog dedicated to helping new writers find outlets for their work