Sundress Roundtable: So You Want to Start a Literary Journal, Part 1

Sundress Publications has given space for writers to discuss important topics impacting the literary community. We have hosted roundtables on plagiarism and accountability and, today, we are glad to offer space for a roundtable on publishing.

In this two-part series, editors Sarah Clark (ANMLY, beestung, and Bettering American Poetry), Sarah Feng (COUNTERCLOCK Journal),  Luther Hughes (Shade Literary Arts), Iris A. Law (Lantern Review), and Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello (Print-Oriented Bastards) discuss the ins and outs of online publication and running your own literary journal. While we at Sundress may individually agree (or disagree) in whole or in part with any or all of the participants, the views expressed in these roundtables are not necessarily representative of Sundress Publications, Sundress Academy for the Arts, or any other part of the collective.

We’d also like to thank Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello for her work in organizing this roundtable.


PARTICIPANTS:

Sarah Clark (SC), ANMLY, beestung, Bettering American Poetry: (they/she)

Sarah Feng (SF), COUNTERCLOCK Journal (Editor-in-Chief, 2019): (she/her)

Luther Hughes (LH), Shade Literary Arts: (he/him)

Iris A. Law (IL), Lantern Review: (she/her)

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello (MCCB), Print-Oriented Bastards: (she/her)

What inspired you to establish your own literary magazine?

Iris Law: Loneliness, honestly. When Mia Ayumi Malhotra and I started Lantern Review back in 2009, we were both in MFA programs in separate states. We were two young APA writers who were desperate for community—for peers who could identify with our experiences as well as for literary mentors and role models to whom we could look and say, If they did it, so can I.

For me, in particular, the notion of being a professional poet was just not something that I grew up with a preexisting model for. Until I was in college, I didn’t know what poets did, frankly. Or that it could be a career. I’d never met one—let alone one who looked like me. It wasn’t until my undergrad years that I even realized that living Asian American poets existed (though when I did, it was a revelation). When Mia and I went off to our respective grad programs after college, we were both in that hungry, exploratory phase in which we just wanted to learn everything we could about other APA poets out in the world and also be reminded that we were not alone. 

During the MFA, you’re told to read journals that publish writers with whom you and your work have an affinity—and then to submit to those periodicals (a piece of advice that I still find to be pretty sound). But, at least at the time, there were no literary journals out there that were specifically focused on poetry by APA writers. So one summer, I sat Mia down and asked her to help me found a journal that would do just that. Early on, we envisioned Lantern Review as a space to illuminate—to highlight and shed light on—APA poetry. And, at least at first, it was as much a means for the two of us to explore and learn as it was an opportunity to carve out a space for writers like ourselves in the world. 

Luther Hughes: Shade first started off as a blog I created in undergrad. I had just begun studying a lot of writing by queer poets of color, poets I had no idea existed, and poets I knew existed but didn’t know were queer. I felt enlightened and overwhelmed. And then I began wondering what my life, my poetry would have been like if I were told about these amazing poets like Carl Phillips, Timothy Liu, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, and many others. It was then I knew I had a duty to my community to create a platform so I can highlight works by queer people of color. I began doing spotlights, interviews, and more. The idea was that some queer Black or brown kid would come across the blog and feel seen; I wanted others to feel seen. The name “shade” was created to emphasize people coming to relax and feel comfortable.

In 2016, I realized the blog had run its course and I needed to expand. This is why The Shade Journal was created. Not only did I want to highlight already established queer poets, I wanted to publish “emerging” ones. One of my goals in life is to support queer writers of color any way I possibly can. 

Just last year, 2019, I changed the name to Shade Literary Arts. This decision was made because I am working to make Shade a nonprofit and to expand outward to support not just queer poets of color, but all queer writers of color. While the journal will still be the main programming for Shade Literary Arts, there will be other programming like readings, workshops, retreats, and more to really be a place where queer writers of color recognize as home. 

Sarah Clark: Last year, I was thinking a lot about how to really mean it when I talk about solidarity between women writers and non-binary writers. Too often, “women and non-binary writers” flattens non-binary people into “honorary women” or “women-lite.” Earlier that year, Sundress had approached me about joining their Editorial Board. So, I pitched the idea of a small magazine just for non-binary writers—beestung. 

When I first started out as an intern, I didn’t think I’d ever really get the chance to work at a magazine that didn’t tokenize me for my identities. I thought there was no way around working somewhere that published mostly men, mostly white writers, and mostly abled writers. That I’d always have to swallow the toxic work of writers like Kenny Goldsmith and Vanessa Place. That I’d always have to tolerate the inevitable hand on my thigh from a more senior editor, and more of the same behavior from contributors swept under the rug. With both ANMLY and beestung, it’s been important for me to try to create places that are as equitable as I’ve been able to make them. To not tolerate abusers, and to strive to be accountable in our editorial practices. Being able to carve places like this out is part of what drove me to start my own magazine with beestung.

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello: In my senior year of college, my friend Inés Pujos and I found a huge gap between our school literary journal (which was print and open only to current students and alumni) and “The Famous and Important Journals”for writers who had already published. Sometimes it felt like the same names were being published in the same magazines over and over. There didn’t seem to be many easily accessible outlets for emerging writers with no previous publication credits. Our school library only subscribed to recognizable names, and if we didn’t discover a magazine through word-of-mouth, how would we even begin to look? How would we set it apart? We started Print-Oriented Bastards to provide space for emerging writers without a flashy list of publication credits, to create relationships with the writers we published rather than just have it be a transactional one-and-done relationship, and then promote it in a far-reaching grassroots style.

How did you develop and keep your team true to your specific mission statement? 

IL: The size and structure of LR’s editorial team has varied throughout the years. Mia and I have always been associate editor and editor, respectively, though in practice we function as partners. She and I have been friends for a very long time, and there’s always been a deep trust between us. Over the years, we’ve gone through periods where we’ve had a team of blog contributors, then no one (other than us), and then, in 2019, we were lucky to have an amazing editorial intern on board. Currently, we’ve got two staff readers who helped us work our way through the record number of submissions we received in January and February.

Our team members have mostly come from preexisting relationships—we tend to ask people in our network whom we trust to help us—though we’ve also had strangers apply to write for us and who eventually became trusted staff. But at the core, there’s always just been Mia and me. We’re an editor-driven magazine. LR is not a business or a nonprofit; it’s our passion project. We spend a great deal of time personally poring over the choices of work that go into each issue—as well as their order and how to put them in conversation with one another.

Over the years, we’ve developed a strong sense of what we like and don’t like, as well as a rhythm to our process and a vision for what we want the magazine to be. I think that’s been a large part of what has helped us stay true to our mission. We’ve always shared the same priorities and sense of purpose: we’re providing a space for APA poetry, and we want to both showcase the best possible work as well as challenge our reader’s notions of what APA poetry can be.

LH: It took me some time to feel comfortable enough to ask others for help, or to hire staff. In fact, I didn’t hire staff until 2018, two years after the journal was created. When it came to hiring people, I put out a call and asked people to write a statement explaining why they were interested in working for the journal. I don’t know if I have a direct answer to this question, but what I was looking for when reading statements was a commitment to support queer writers of color and a willingness to step outside the box. 

SF: So much of COUNTERCLOCK Journal originates from a shared vision among staff members, so something I was very interested in was having a dynamic, changing vision that kept true to a few original points: highlighting the diversity, resilience, and power of the human experience, and telling stories that were authentic and innovative. How we accomplished that was a question I was excited to see changed and shaped by the hands and eyes that would come across it. 

When I became editor-in-chief, we wanted to make sure that when we expanded the staff, we hired people who had this kind of interest in pushing boundaries and being unafraid of experimentation and creativity in telling honest stories. We already had about 7-11 people on staff from when Rachel Sucher and Claire Lee were editors-in-chief before me—they were actually more involved than me at the very outset of the journal—but I hoped to have more people from around the world involved. We reached out to a lot of our past contributors whose writing we admired, and some of them agreed to join us. We also opened general applications and asked people to submit a few questions about their interest, as well as creative writing samples, and asked people we knew would share our conviction to send in applications. We appreciated the honesty in applicants’ responses, and we wanted to bring together a group of writers with varying styles. 

I think that most people are willing and thrilled to contribute to a common vision when you communicate clearly with them about how open you are to that, as well as the bottom line of your journal’s mission. Literature erupts from the synapses of human connection, so magazines are born of the best of collaboration. (I apologize for waxing poetic—I believe in this truth, though!) We expect one another to come up with new ideas and give one another constructive criticism. Some of COUNTERCLOCK’s best initiatives were ideas of my incredible friends and co-editors, like the OUTBREAK folio, biweekly staff calls, and Facebook solicitations. 

SC: I’m always trying to be a better editor. I’m always trying to learn and listen when readers, writers, and editors talk about how to make a journal that’s more fair, more ethical—more of what readers and writers need us to be. I’m very grateful to the experiences that I’ve had at other literary journals and presses. Working with Apogee Journal and The Atlas Review taught me a lot about what to do right. I won’t name the journals I’ve worked at that taught me what not to do. But needless to say, one journal required their interns to scrub toilets. And I was an intern.

Embracing the fact that all editorial work is subjective has been important for me. Embracing the fact that we all have implicit biases. That sometimes, it’s important to sit with work and ask yourself why your initial reaction wasn’t positive. To look for trends in the work that you do like, and challenge your own tastes. My previous work on the Board of Directors at VIDA and as former Editor-in-Chief at VIDA Review solidified a lot of these ideas for me. 

Self-critique needs to be a part of editorial praxis. And there’s no end point to self-critique.

MCCB: For Print-Oriented Bastards, we kept it simple: Make space for emerging writers being overlooked. As editors, we wanted to love our role in championing new voices, but we also wanted to feel passionate about every single thing we published. With two equal editors, we decided we must both love every piece we published and had many discussions about what and why and how we meant “love.” We knew we were young and still learning, so we allowed ourselves to change our minds, to fight for pieces we believed in, to listen to each other, and to learn as we went. We made so many mistakes, but we made decisions we could stand behind with the knowledge we had at each point. 

What were your reasons for choosing an online platform over print medium? 

IL: When we began LR, we were both graduate students with absolutely no money for printing, mailing, or distribution. The Internet was cheap (for us) and free (for our readers). The possibilities of the technology also interested us: I knew how to code (I’d been building my own websites from scratch since high school), and I thought it would be interesting to experiment with ways to improve upon the experience of reading poetry on the web. We began with small things, like simulating a “page-flipping” experience in our early issues (though when we restarted the magazine recently, we got with the times and finally switched to having each piece on a single page) and using an elastic layout to code caesuras, breaks, and indents in a way that would stretch and shrink proportionally with the size of a browser screen. This made it possible to publish multimedia poems and poems that made complex, even tricky, use of white space on the page. Now, everyone can do these things, but back then, it made us a little different. An online platform just made more sense for us, both practically and in terms of the possibilities of what we could do with the space.

LH: I think we live in a world now where print journals aren’t the only way a writer can feel validated; online journals now have just as much validity as do print journals. To put it simply, though, I didn’t have the resources to create a print journal. I was broke. I needed the journal to be out in the world and easily accessible. And if I’m serving an under-supported community, online instead of print felt like the right move.

SF: When it first started out, we believed an online medium would be much more accessible to a wider readership. COUNTERCLOCK would be a click away for readers interested in experiencing an issue. Perhaps some part of it was related to the finances of printing as well. In addition, formatting an online issue gave us a lot of freedom in terms of graphic design and embedding audio or visuals.

SC: Print journals are expensive! I love holding a book in my hands, but I wanted to create something that people could read for free. Convenience was also a factor. I wanted beestung to be something that you could read on the subway or after work. Something bite-sized and accessible.

MCCB: Our university offered an annual publishing grant called the Charles. C. Dawe Publishing Award. Students could apply with a specific publication project, many of which were one-time projects. Part of our pitch was to establish a literary journal that could be sustained indefinitely. Print-Oriented Bastards (POB) received a grant, which allowed us as broke college students to print the first few issues. We designed them to be small and square, like a pocket-sized address book. We included full-color art to visually break up the pages. Since we both felt guilty when we didn’t finish every new magazine issue burgeoning with work every month, we wanted to provide only a small number of pieces in each issue. After the first year the funding ran out, so we moved everything online. Neither of us knew how to code, so we were only able to do this because of click-and-drag website-building platforms like Weebly. We found that it allowed contributors to share their work more widely and proudly, and we were excited because so few journals were online at the time. 

When starting out and gathering submissions, how did you get the word out? 

IL: We relied on whatever small networks we had. I wrote all the Asian American poets I’d ever met and had an email address for, asking them to spread the word. I wrote to Carolyn Micklem, who at the time was serving as admin for both Kundiman and Cave Canem. I wrote to one of my college mentors who has a lot of contacts in the APA literary world. I asked professors and peers from my program for help and support. We started Twitter and Facebook accounts. We started a blog months in advance of our first call for submissions. Mostly, though, it was just a lot of networking. At AWP 2010, we bound little excerpts from our blog into mini chapbooks, gave them out, and left them on tables around the bookfair. We showed up to APA literary events and went up to the readers afterward to thank them for reading and tell them about ourselves. And people were so incredibly generous in helping us to spread the word! Kundiman and Notre Dame Review let me leave promotional materials on their bookfair tables. Neil Aitken of Boxcar Review took us under his wing right away, let us put stuff on his table, and introduced us to everyone he knew. Poets like Barbara Jane Reyes and Luisa A. Igloria kindly spread the word about us online and even sent us work. We also got connected with other APA literary journals like Kartika Review and AALR and partnered with them to promote one another’s work. Really, I think we were very lucky to tap into a community that was already very generous and eager to encourage us. Now that we’re in a position to help others in the same way, I try and pay it forward.

LH: To be honest, it was a lot of social media pushing. Luckily I had already made genuine connections with a number of people who were down to support and promote and put their trust in the mission. The community has held me close for so long, so I truly appreciated it when editors, writers, and other journals promoted my first call for submissions.

SC: Most of our work at beestung has come in through Twitter. I also reached out to various organizations, like the Asian American Writers Association, Cave Canem, Lambda Literary, and the Institute of American Indian Arts, and asked them to share our call for work. We’ve been really lucky that our mission has resonated with so many people, and I’m so grateful to everyone who’s shared our call via word of mouth.

SF: Claire Lee, the 2018-2019 editor-in-chief of COUNTERCLOCK said,We started by posting in ‘Call for submissions’ and other literary and visual art Facebook groups. We were fortunate enough to receive many submissions we truly loved for our debut issue, and from there we also asked previously published writers and artists to spread the word about COUNTERCLOCK.” 

MCCB: We solicited heavily for our first issue of POB. We asked our fellow students and current and former creative writing teachers to promote, recommend, and submit work. Once we had the first issue in hand, we mailed copies to several colleges and universities, every MFA program in the country, and a few literary organizations for archival purposes. It snowballed from there.

Your work encompasses much more than a lit mag, whether that work includes publishing books, featuring blog content and reviews, running a collective, etc. Can you talk about the decision to extend beyond the lit mag?

IL: In 2009, blogging was coming into its own on the Internet. Blogs were where everybody got their information (other than newspapers). We thought that beginning by launching a blog and then extending to a magazine would help us build an audience in advance of our first issue and retain it between issues. We intended for the magazine itself to focus mainly on the work. But we also believed that the conversation surrounding APA poetry was much larger than the poems themselves. So the blog became our designated space for extending the conversation beyond the magazine. We’ve experimented with different types of blog content over the years, from reviews and interviews to craft-centric posts and writing prompts. The magazine is more of a focused, curated document, a showcase of work, while the blog keeps us engaged in the current dialogue surrounding APA poetry and literature.

SF: Literary journals are beautiful, but I think, occasionally, they can feel a bit final: people submit, have their work published, readers experience that work, and then the cycle renews. The dialogue is not the most direct between writers and readers, and we wanted a space where the lines of communication and growth would be open. We hope that COUNTERCLOCK can be another lighthouse amongst the sea of lovely, trailblazing organizations and journals doing amazing work, that serves as a point of anchorage for creatives to find one another, to open up dialogues about culture, humanities, and history, and to ask questions of one another, so that the process of creation is less solitary and more fluid. In our Feedback Corner, we offer advice from our editorial staff to submitting writers. Our editorial staff uses it to hone their skills, and the money goes into paying for COUNTERCLOCK scholarships, initiatives, and website feeds. 

We also wanted to deflate the idea that writing exists in a vacuum, and highlight how important it is for artists to collaborate in solidarity. Music, art, and creative writing are sisters cut from the same cloth; they’re songs of the same soul. Our masthead believes in that, and that’s why we created the COUNTERCLOCK Arts Collective—so young people around the world could create multidisciplinary projects and learn from one another’s experiences. We didn’t see someone else creating this interdisciplinary experience for free, so we decided to open up this space. 

Our latest initiative is OUTBREAK, a special folio of poems for poets to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. This is still in-progress, but our outreach director and poetry reader, Patrick, thought that we could do something to alleviate the isolation and racism faced by so many community members during this dark and unprecedented time. In honor of National Poetry Month, we wanted to bring a beacon of solidarity to readers while increasing the visibility of poetry. Going forward, we hope to host more folios that are connected to real-world events and national dialogues, so that poets visiting our site feel that COUNTERCLOCK is not just an escape from reality, but a plunge into it. We want it to be a mirror for what creatives around the world feel. 

Additionally, we publish book reviews and cultural commentary in our blog, where we hope to intertwine poetry with culture, society, and politics. The reason we decided to open the blog is to better highlight long-form works by emerging authors—especially womxn, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and other marginalized folks who are underrepresented in the publishing industry—and to serve readers who are interested in learning about poetry, as well as the social backdrop that informs it. The blog is catered toward readers of the journal who are interested in more direct, article-like pieces, and is aimed at generating more awareness in literature. 

The arts are designed to dissolve barriers, and we think there are many ways to do that beyond publishing a traditional literary journal. 

Keep your eyes out for part 2 in the new few days.


THANK YOU TO OUR ROUNDTABLE PARTICIPANTS:

Sarah Clark (they/she) is a disabled two-spirit Nanticoke editor, writer, and cultural consultant. They are Editor-in-Chief of Anomaly, EIC of beestung, Co-Editor of The Queer Movement Anthology (Seagull Books, 2021) and the Bettering American Poetry series, a reader at The Atlas Review and Doubleback Books, and an Editorial Board member at Sundress Press. She has edited folios for publications, including the GLITTERBRAIN folio and a folio on Indigenous & Decolonial Futures & Futurisms at Anomaly, and co-edited Apogee Journal’s #NoDAPL #Still Here folio and their series WE OUTLAST EMPIRE and Place[meant]. Sarah is a former Executive Board member at VIDA and former Editor-in-Chief of VIDA Review, where they curated a series of essays by writers outside of the binary, Body of a Poem, and the interview series, Voices of Bettering American Poetry. Sarah is on Twitter @petitobjetb.

Sarah Feng is a rising freshman at Yale University from the San Francisco Bay Area. She has been recognized by the Poetry Society of the United Kingdom, the Academy of American Poets, the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the Adroit Prizes in Prose & Poetry, NCTE, The Critical Pass Review, Teen Vogue, and The New York Times. She plays piano and dabbles in charcoals, and she thinks rhythm and light and lyric pulse in every field of the creative arts—if you can call them distinct fields at all. In other words, she has faith in the power of the interdisciplinary arts and their persistence in our memories and minds. Her work is published or forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Gigantic Sequins, DIALOGIST, and Indianapolis Review. 

Luther Hughes is from Seattle and author of Touched (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018). He is the Founder of Shade Literary Arts and Executive Editor for The Offing. Along with Gabrielle Bates and Dujie Tahat, he co-hosts The Poet Salon podcast. He has been featured in Poetry, Forbes, The Seattle Times, The Rumpus, and others. Luther received his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. You can follow him on Twitter @lutherxhughes. He thinks you are beautiful.

Iris A. Law is a poet, editor, and educator living in the San Francisco Bay Area. A Kundiman fellow and two-time Pushcart nominee whose poems have appeared in journals such as wildness, Waxwing, Dusie, and the Collagist (now the Rupture), she is also founding co-editor of the online literary magazine Lantern Review. Her chapbook, Periodicity, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2013.

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello is the author of Hour of the Ox (University of Pittsburgh, 2016), which won the AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, and was a finalist for the Florida Book Award and Milt Kessler Award. She has received fellowships from Kundiman, the Knight Foundation, and the American Literary Translators Association, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Best New Poets, Best Small Fictions, and more. She co-founded Print-Oriented Bastards (2011-2017). She currently serves on the editorial board for the Sundress Academy for the Arts, as poetry editor for Hyphen, and as a program coordinator for Miami Book Fair.


A 501(c)(3) non-profit literary press collective founded in 2000, Sundress Publications is an entirely volunteer-run press that publishes chapbooks and full-length collections in both print and digital formats, and hosts numerous literary journals, an online reading series, and the Best of the Net Anthology.

Website: www.sundresspublications.com. Facebook: sundresspublications
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