Sundress Roundtable: So You Want to Start a Literary Journal, Part 2

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.

What follows is part 2 in this two-part series. Part 1 can be found here


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 (Print-Oriented Bastards): (she/her)

What kind of obstacles have you encountered along the way? 

IL: Probably the biggest one has been life! When we were in grad school, we had so much more capacity to pour ourselves into the magazine. But the shape of one’s personal life changes as one gets older—at various points, we’ve both had demanding day jobs, gotten married, moved around, been busy promoting our own writing (as when my chapbook came out in 2013 and Mia’s book came out in 2018). Mia has two beautiful kids. And with these things have come many more obligations, limited energy, and resources.

I’m in my thirties now, and I can no longer do a string of all-nighters without significant cost to my health. (I still, admittedly, sacrifice a lot of sleep in order to keep up with the work—but it’s a lot harder now than it was eight or ten years ago.) Our solution to this has been to fit LR into whatever shapes our lives are taking at the moment rather than to structure our lives around it. We’ve taken more than one extended hiatus at points when keeping up with the magazine, blog, and/or both felt impossible. We’ve experimented with shifting focus back-and-forth between the blog and magazine. Inevitably, things will change again at some point in the future, and we’ll just have to be ready to pivot and do what we can.

Another obstacle has always been a lack of resources. For example, running LR as a side gig for ten years has meant that we’ve never had the time, contacts, and/or financial resources to develop it into either an actual business or a small nonprofit where we could afford to do things like fundraise, sell merch, and provide volunteers and contributors with some monetary compensation (though we’d love to do all of these things in an ideal world!). So far, we’ve survived by choosing to operate on a shoestring budget (our operating costs consist primarily of web hosting and Submittable fees) and keeping everything very small in scale. But it’s not easy. 

LH: Some obstacles I’ve faced along the way deal mostly with finances. Because I’m not necessarily a fundraiser and know little to nothing about stewardship, 90% of everything is paid for out of my own pocket. So if I don’t have the funds to renew the website, the website will go down and has before. Hopefully, since we’re running the Queer Writers of Color Relief Fund, I can cultivate recurring donors, but we’ll see. Fingers crossed.

SF: Like Luther said, finances are difficult, since COUNTERCLOCK is published online for free, and we provide mini-grants to Arts Collective fellows, and we pay for our online hosting. This is covered by donations from our contributors, our expedited feedback service, and our Feedback Corner, and I’m grateful to all the donors, as well as to the editors who have stepped up to help out with the Corner. 

SC: Not being able to pay our contributors more is the most frustrating challenge I’ve faced at every project that I’m involved in. So much of the funding just isn’t there. And some of the funding that does exist poses ethical questions. Amazon has been offering some very generous grants, lately. But they’ve also been selling facial recognition software to ICE. Target offers some good money, but has previously funded anti-gay hate groups. Target and Amazon have both been cited for not providing personal protective equipment and other protection during the coronavirus pandemic.

I’ve also made the decision to take down contributors’ work when it came out that they were abusers. I won’t say for which projects, because these aren’t my stories to tell. But I don’t want to support the work of people who hurt other people. I recently asked the editor at DIAGRAM if he had any plans to take down work by a man known for sexually harassing dozens of women, who even had a restraining order taken out against him. This editor was baffled by the very concept of taking down work that’s been published online, and went so far as to say that his magazine was just like a print magazine, so he couldn’t take the work down. He absolutely could have, and DIAGRAM shouldn’t have decided to give publicity to a known predator.

MCCB: We didn’t realize what a huge time commitment this would be. As Iris mentioned, we had much more time and energy to dedicate to this in college, and later in our respective MFA programs. However, we found that POB was also taking a lot of time away from our own writing to dedicate to POB. We finally made the difficult decision that, after 5 years, our 10th issue would be our last. Inés and I were at specific points in our lives where we had to realign our focus and energy. So many other journals have popped up online that we weren’t worried about filling a gap anymore. We can celebrate others’ work in such different ways now because of how the literary world has developed. It felt right to end it cleanly at 10 issues. Sometimes I wish we were still going, but I’ve also learned that we can’t balance everything all the time without it costing us something else. 

What have been some of your greatest joys as a lit mag editor?

IL: I love following our contributors’ careers! For example, way back in one of our earliest issues, we published a small piece by Ocean Vuong. And, though we’ve had absolutely nothing to do with his success, it’s been amazing to watch his star rise over the last few years. It’s also been so cool to watch contributors whom we published early on in their careers—like Michelle Peñaloza, Rajiv Mohabir, Eugenia Leigh—go on to win awards and publish books. Equally as awesome is seeing a poem that we published pop up in a contributor’s book. It’s often a complete surprise. I’ll just be reading the book and then suddenly come upon a poem we’ve published before—or sometimes the contributor graciously reaches out to let me know. But it’s always a thrill every time it happens.

I’m just so grateful to be even a small part of a vehicle that is enabling APA poets’ work to be heard on the literary stage. Providing an opportunity for representation—for our contributors to be read on their own terms—is a task that feels absolutely vital to us. It’s why we restarted the magazine in 2019 after having shifted our focus to the blog and newsletter for a few years. Young poets were coming to us at events, asking us when we were going to start taking submissions again, and Mia and I realized that, in some ways, the magazine is even more important than the blog—because it’s a space in which we can highlight new and emerging writers’ work alongside more well-known writers. It’s a question of carving out and protecting a space for them to be heard. It’s a lot of work, but it’s so rewarding and humbling to get to see what happens when we continue to keep that space open. 

LH: My greatest joy as an editor is the writer getting the love they deserve from the greater literary community. Nothing makes me happier to see than people sharing work that was published in Shade, and seeing the writer exclaim their happiness. One particular example that comes to mind is when Tracy K. Smith shared Julian Randall’s poem, “The Space Between Skin is Called a Wound,” on her podcast The Slowdown. Or when K-Ming Chang’s poem, “Yilan,” was awarded a Pushcart Prize. Things like that, getting public and widespread love and support, always reminds me why I love doing what I do and why I started it. It truly puts a smile on my face.

SF: Like Luther and Iris said above, seeing creatives succeed and receive love is so beautiful! When past contributor Khaty Xiong was selected for inclusion in Best of the Net, or when Jamal Michel kickstarted his comic book project IDRISS, or when John Sibley Williams published a new book—these were moments that we cherish. 

What makes me the most excited is working with individual writers, conversing with them, and hearing their rationale between different images and structures, asking them to push it further or rework a scene—and seeing a beautiful, living work re-emerge on the other side, slightly different and still shining, alongside my fellow editors. Having conversations with editors, contributors, and staff members is the highlight of my day, since everyone is able to address facets that are the most impactful for them and suggest new improvements.

I hope it’s alright that I’m bending the rules a little bit to say two favorite parts, as the second relates to the Collective, our affiliated fellowship! In the summer, it is so exciting to help lead cohort discussions in the Arts Collective, where I listen in and occasionally guide conversations between the most creative and intellectual interdisciplinary artists who, last year, discussed climate change, the Notre Dame Cathedral’s destruction, Roman gladiators, and everything in-between through the lens of sculptural art, lo-fi music, and more. They may not know it, but I learn so much from them, and I’m thrilled with what they create during the program. The people whom I meet through COUNTERCLOCK are one-of-a-kind, and interacting with them is definitely my favorite part of editing the journal and directing the Collective. 

Finally, I would love to include a few notes from my co-editors, since their answers to this question resonate with the heart of COUNTERCLOCK as much as mine do, and their passion and collaboration mean the world to me. From Rachel, our managing editor: “I truly feel privileged and grateful to be able to view everyone’s work as an editor—I know just how personal a piece can be to its writer.” From Ernest, assistant editor: “In providing these fine writers with a platform to sing, to be heard, my joy is unquantifiable.” From Sophie, prose editor: “COUNTERCLOCK submissions are by and large diverse and unique, and the opportunity to work with writers who are all coming from different points in their lives is a thrill.” From Woody, blog editor: “The greatest joy has been empowering and platforming voices besides mine and intentionally shaping the space into an intersectional conversation between myself, other editors, and other writers.”

SC: Lately, it’s been the emails coming into beestung. Not just from young, emerging writers but from all over, at all stages of their careers, thanking me for making a space where they finally felt seen—a space explicitly for them. I have difficulty accepting praise (I can barely take a compliment) but being able to have a journal where writers don’t feel tokenized for their gender and don’t feel shut out for not fitting into a neat compartment? This is one of the best feelings imaginable. Writers and editors often talk about finding a home for their work, and being able to provide that home means everything.

MCCB: Seeing how authors we’ve published years ago have come into their own! We’ve been lucky to have kept in touch with many of them, and to see them win awards and publish books. I remember the joy and validation of those first publication acceptances myself, and would like to think that POB was able to offer that same kind of joy and support to our writers, whether they were fully confident or doubting themselves.

What did you wish you had known when you were starting out?

IL: I wish I’d known how much of a long-term endeavor I was getting myself into! I don’t regret one moment of it, but when we started LR, we had no long-term vision because we were just jumping on an idea that felt urgent and exciting. We sprinted for our first several years of existence, and then we realized we didn’t have the energy to keep up that pace and had to adapt. We’re lucky that our audience has been understanding and gracious every time we’ve needed to switch things up or scale back, and they’ve stuck with us even through long silences and periods of inactivity. I wish I’d known, too, how heavy it can feel when you’re representing a community but aren’t able to give everyone the airtime you wish you could. It’s so, so hard when we have to say “no” to people. This is their work; this is their livelihood—and our mission is to promote their work in a literary landscape that so often marginalizes it. I feel guilty every single time I have to say “no.” But we can only publish issues that are so long and write so many blog write-ups if we are to sleep, make a living, be involved in our family’s and friends’ lives, and write our own poetry. How do you find that balance between your responsibility to your readers/contributors and your responsibility to your own life and work? I’ve gotten a little better at setting healthy boundaries over the years, but I’m still figuring it out.

SC: To bite when a senior editor tried to stick his tongue in my mouth.

Don’t be afraid to hold people accountable when it comes to sexual harassment in publishing. Just because you’re new to publishing or younger doesn’t mean you need to tolerate abuse, ever.

SF: This is a note from Claire: “A growth mindset is important. When I first began working at COUNTERCLOCK, I could not have imagined it to grow as much as it has with Sarah’s work over the past year. Whether it’s investing in different website platforms, expanding the staff, or creating new initiatives, I think it’s important to have an open mind on how the magazine can change and improve in the future.” 

MCCB: We didn’t realize what a huge time commitment this would be. As Iris mentioned, we had much more time and energy to dedicate to this in college, and later in our respective MFA programs. However, we found that POB was also taking a lot of time away from our own writing to dedicate to POB. We finally made the difficult decision that, after 5 years, our 10th issue would be our last. Inés and I were at specific points in our lives where we had to realign our focus and energy. It felt right to end it cleanly at 10 issues.

What advice would you give someone looking to start their own lit mag?

IL: Be kind to yourself! It isn’t easy. But also: don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Start by figuring out what tools and networks are already available to you and how you can make use of them. Plan with a long-term vision in mind at the beginning, but also be flexible. The literary landscape, technology, and even the way your readers are engaging with your publication will change as time goes on, and you’ll need to be able to adapt. Lastly, be conscious of whom you’re featuring and how inclusive you are being. What does your contributor page look like? Is it largely homogenous? Are you intentionally seeking out work from marginalized communities—disabled voices, queer and trans voices, immigrant and refugee voices, female-identified voices, racial minority voices, religious minority voices, working-class voices? Equally as important to consider is how inclusive the experience of submitting to and reading your magazine is.

If you are charging submissions fees, how much are you charging, and are there ways to make it more affordable for students or low-income writers to send you their work? Are you coding the work in your issues as screen reader–parsable text and including alt text and/or image descriptions? Can a visually impaired or dyslexic reader still enjoy your issues if they have their browser set to a different default font? Are you providing captions for videos, transcripts for audio? When you hold readings and events, are you providing printed notes, using a mic, and making the room physically accessible? There’s lots to consider, but I promise that it’s very much worth your time to do so.

LH: I agree with a lot of what Iris said above. I will also add if you want to start your own lit mag just do it. Truly, what’s stopping you, right? But logistically, I’d say take a few weeks to write up your mission, plan the submission cycle, think of the color scheme, the fonts, the overall feel and aesthetic, all of it. Like, yes, just do it, but you want to make sure it’s done right and exactly how you want others to see it in the world. 

SF: I think Luther and Iris said it really well. Adding on to their thoughts, I just wanted to note that the very start is one of the most exciting parts, and I would recommend that you consider bringing on like-minded co-editors to help you develop your journal and expand its reach. Since the founding is so integral, I would say be really special about the people you choose to be with you at the start of the journey.

SC: Ask yourself how you can make your journal sustainable. A lot of new outlets get off to an amazing start, but begin to experience a strain after a year or two. Whether it’s giving yourself permission to take a hiatus if you start to experience burnout, making plans for funding beyond an initial Kickstarter, or making sure you’re biting off the right amount to chew—always think of the future and make sure you’ve found time and bandwidth to take care of yourself along the way.

MCCB: You are a gatekeeper. However small or grand the gate might feel, it’s up to you to decide how you’re going to hold that door open, and to whom. As you brainstorm and plan, sustain and expand, remember who you’re making space for, and why. Be kind to yourself because even if you have a lot of experience, you will still learn a lot as you go. Be kind to those who are trusting you with their work. It takes a lot of courage for many writers to even think about submitting their work to a journal. 

However, I also second what Sarah Clark said about not tolerating abuse and harassment. Some writers will feel entitled, like they’re doing you a favor by mistreating you. Others may not take rejection well, and will come for you. Make editorial decisions thoughtfully and conduct yourself in ways that reflect what you believe in, so you can be proud of and stand by the work you’re doing.

Are there any questions you’d like to ask your fellow roundtable participants?

IL: Is there a project you’ve done through your magazine that you’re most proud of? If so, what is it and why?

LH: We did a spotlight issue of poets who haven’t yet published a first book, with an interview alongside their poem(s) about community and their idea of “emerging.” I was proud of this particular issue because oftentimes writers without first books aren’t platformed seriously enough, and especially if they haven’t published in “top-tier” journals. A few poets in this issue were published for the very first time.

MCCB: Before I was poetry editor at Hyphen, I collaborated with them to curate a special folio of adoptee writers for National Adoption Awareness Month in November. Since joining their editorial team, we’ve been able to curate two other poetry folios to run during National Poetry Month. One featured 10 high school poets, and the other featured APIA fellows in collaboration with UndocuPoets. I’m so grateful to Hyphen for the space to highlight these writers. 


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.

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