Since the Spring of 2014, the online literary journal known as Pretty Owl Poetry has brought potent and poignant writing to its growing readership. This is all due to its dedicated, tri-force-powered team: poetry editors Kelly Andrews and Gordon Buchan, as well as B. Rose Huber, the journal’s flash fiction editor.
In its ongoing quest to honor all things on the rise within the literary landscape, the Wardrobe sought out the story behind Pretty Owl’s evolution from none other than the POP editors themselves.
Jacob Cross: How did Pretty Owl come together in the months leading up to the launch issue in the spring of 2014? What was the initial meeting of the minds like for each of you?
Kelly Andrews: Prior to inception, I was working on B.E. Quarterly, a Pittsburgh-based literary zine, with a few other people in the community and loved the editorial process. I was also just starting to read poetry for Hot Metal Bridge, University of Pittsburgh’s MFA online lit mag. I really wanted to learn as much as I could about publishing and so the next logical step was to start a journal from the ground up. I reached out to Gordon and Rose—I had participated in workshops and online critiques with both of them and truly admired their abilities as both writers and editors. Very quickly we decided to make Pretty Owl a collaborative effort—with no designated Editor in Chief or Managing Editor. Our first meeting was a Google Hangout, and we were overflowing with ideas for the journal. At one point, we started working on collaborative writing that we were planning to share on the website, but eventually we shifted our focus to design, aesthetic, and outreach so that we could publish the best poetry and flash on a beautiful platform. The launch of the first issue was an incredible feeling—to have so many people trust us with their work was inspiring, and I still feel that way when we publish a new issue.
B. Rose Huber: During a late winter evening, I received a text from Kelly. It said, “I think we should start a literary journal. We should call it Pretty Owl Poetry.” At the time, I wasn’t sure how difficult this would be to do, but I knew well enough to say, “Yes.” I’d long admired Kelly’s work as a writer and editor and knew Gordon was a cool, artistic guy. The collaboration seemed like a good fit. As Kelly wrote, our first meeting was a Google Hangout with plenty of ideas to get us started. Gordon made me laugh; Kelly kept us on task. Our cats mewed in the background. It was pretty much perfect.
Gordon Buchan: Around that time, Kelly and I had been, not really editing, more like co-mentoring each other’s poetry through email, most notably her chapbook, Mule Skinner. I had been wanting to work on something that wasn’t a poem, was more like artwork, so when Kelly told me about Pretty Owl, I started sketching up blueprints right away. Rose, someone I had met one foggy minded night at a college party — talking, if I remember correctly, about poems folded up inside of cereal boxes — was something of a 5’1” tall tale; I wasn’t really sure if she existed, but everyone I knew knew her, and I had this nascent idea that maybe I knew her, too?
JC: Who designed the logo? It almost resembles a Rorschach test blot. Also, what was the basis for the look of the online journal’s website?
GB: Rorschach test blot? Awesome. The owl logo is based off of one dollar bill clippings. I had cut up a couple dollar bills and repasted them back together in a vaguely strigine shape. On the other hand, for the website design, I tried to work with negative afterimages or “ghosts.” If I’m not paraphrasing too much. According to J.H. Brown’s 19th century pamphlet, Spectropia (or Surprising Spectral Illusions Showing Ghosts Everywhere and of any Colour) if you look at a picture too long, it will cause an afterimage to linger in your vision (especially if you look at a blank page afterwards). I don’t know if I successfully created an afterimage-inducing-website design, but I thought it complimented Rose’s homepage banner well.
JC: Has the aesthetic selection of the journal’s poems and flash fiction evolved in any surprising ways? I love the poetic and concrete metaphors Pretty Owl uses in its submissions section, making the call for “lockets filled with tiny twig hairs.”
KA: Our call for submissions was a collaborative writing effort, and while it does offer a glimpse of what we are looking to publish, it isn’t all-inclusive to what we have actually published so far. What I find most surprising is how open Gordon and I are to different voices and styles of poetry. While there tends to be a bit of overlap in what we want to publish, each of us has had to convince the other to include pieces that fall outside of our intended aesthetic. But this is one of the most exciting parts of publishing for me—finding beauty in voices that are completely unlike my own and sharing that with the world. I don’t think the journal would be quite the eclectic mix of poetry it has become if it wasn’t for that openness that exists in our discussions.
BRH: Our flash fiction has evolved in sort of a backward direction. When you think of the term “flash fiction,” you probably imagine a traditional story told in few sentences like microfiction. But that wasn’t the type of flash fiction we were publishing in the beginning. Instead, I was drawn to the poetic, the lyrical. As a writer, I myself have teetered between prose and poetry, not really identifying with either concretely. And that’s the type of prose we’ve published. But in recent months, I’ve been trying to look more carefully at traditional flash fiction. Telling a short story in a small space is an art, and it’s something Pretty Owl Poetry wants to publish going forward.
JC: How do you keep each issue fresh and distinctive? You receive new submissions and new names, but are there prerequisite, subtle themes that each of you attempt to apply to every new installment? In other words, how do you make each issue stand on its own two feet?
KA: One thing we are striving for in each issue is inclusiveness in terms of different voices. While we want to connect and relate to the pieces we publish, we also want to see the world fresh with each poem or piece of flash we showcase. I’m thinking about Cameron Barnett’s poem “Crepe Sole Shoes” in Issue 2 that recalls the death of Emmit Till in 1955 and the lines, “Today you could//be my grandfather.” That poem gives me chills every time I read it—how much has the world changed since that lynching and murder? How much is the same? The narrative and self-reflection in Barnett’s poem is incredibly relevant given the current headlines of police brutality and discrimination against people of color. The next lines in that poem are “I want to put you//back together, but//how can I rebuild you?” I read these as not just speaking to Emmitt Till, but to all of America. For me, each issue is idiosyncratic because we include phenomenal poems like that one. In general, I think we are less concerned about themes (though they usually manifest once we have accepted a handful of pieces) and more concerned with sharing contemporary poetry and flash that moves us.
BRH: The theme seems to emerge after we’ve chosen what to publish. I choose the fiction exclusively with no input from Kelly and Gordon. I don’t see the poetry they’re choosing, either. When I’m designing the issue and reading all of the pieces together, that’s when the theme begins to emerge. Sometimes it’s uncanny how this happens given our independent selection process. But it’s not terribly surprising because I think, as writers and editors, we are all drawn to similar styles. Since we’ve started including art in the journal, I’ve found the imagery really ties it all together nicely.
GB: If an issue has a theme, it’s probably accidental. Kelly is very interested in diversity, and I am also interested in diversity, but Kelly is really, really interested in diversity. What I’m really, really interested in is keepings things chaotic and destabilizing my comfort zone. Luckily, these characteristics go hand-in-hand.
JC: What are some of your favorite literary journals, publications that each of you draw inspiration from as staff members of Pretty Owl?
KA: I think Gulf Coast, Caketrain, and PANK have beautiful print designs and the work they publish always blows me away. TENDE RLOIN showcases one poet and includes video or sound along with written interviews, and I love getting that big picture of the writer behind the words. Pretty Owl has adopted similar platforms with our online reading series that includes a short interview with the writer and also with our Spotlight Series in Pittsburgh.
I also adore the online journals Big Lucks, Hobart, Octopus, Birdfeast, Phantom Limb, Ghost Proposal, Jellyfish, and 12th House, among others. Each website has its own unique design, and they include such tremendously talented writers. If I could afford unlimited subscriptions to print journals, then I’d be buying copies of The Atlas Review and Gigantic Sequins as well; but for now, I’m just reading the poems that are available online and swooning.
BRH: In the early stages of Pretty Owl Poetry, I leaned a lot on Andrew Keating, editor at Cobalt Review. We went to graduate school together, and I’ve always admired his know-how with regards to online lit mags. We talked on the phone for quite a while about how Pretty Owl should look and feel. Those conversations really shaped our own journal, and now I have a much deeper appreciation for Cobalt Review and what Andrew is trying to do.
I also love, in no particular order: Hobart, Oblong, Aperion Review, Booth Journal, Metazen, decomP magazine and Tupelo Quarterly. I love staring at the beauty that is Ninth Letter. And when I need a good traditional short story, I get my hands on a copy of Glimmer Train.
GB: I think the first journal I ever read was Jellyfish, and that really opened my eyes to a world beyond the New Yorker. Today, I read a good amount of A capella Zoo, Sugar House Review, INK BRICK, and McSweeney’s. I think that Gregor Holtz, the guy who designs Octopus, is a huge inspiration, mostly because the innovative and beautiful things he creates compel me not to be a lazy asshole about my art.
JC: Have you ever considered doing a flash anthology or a sole flash edition? Was there any question when the journal was first formed as to whether or not flash would be included, or was it an instantaneous, unanimous “must-have?”
BRH: Although our name reflects poetry, we felt that flash fiction was a must-have for the journal. But, like I said, if you read through our issues, you’ll see that the work we publish is much more poetic than conventional flash fiction. We are drawn to lyric and sound in both poetry and prose. At the same time, we welcome more traditional flash fiction and often publish these forms in the journal. It’s important for us to include both.
KA: To add to Rose’s response, the poetry we publish is sometimes prose poetry that could easily be nestled under the “flash” title. We published a narrative poem by Jennifer MacBain-Stephens in Issue 5 titled “Growths” that chronicles outbreaks of “birdhouse development syndrome”—people afflicted with birdhouses inexplicably growing from their heads. The poem isn’t necessarily lyrical, but the imagery is so surprising with lines like: “Some of the burliest men I knew had a small raspberry colored birdhouse situated above one of their ears” or “Susan stared at the therapist’s frontal lobe olive birdhouse and felt biasness creep in.” I felt immersed in this strange world that MacBain-Stephens had created. Whether it’s technically prose poetry or flash fiction wasn’t a concern for us, and I think we’re actually more interested in pieces that embody a fluidity of different forms.
As for doing a flash anthology or an entirely flash edition, we’ve never considered this, but it’s a truly great idea! It definitely gives us something to discuss for our next meeting.
JC: I love the way Pretty Owl has formed an interactive alumni of contributors so-to-speak in so little time. With the featured artist interviews, video interviews, and the Spotlight Series, the journal doesn’t just pair bios and names with their poems. Pretty Owl really delves into personality and process by establishing such a community, both online and in person. So thank you for maintaining this commitment to bringing writers together.
Here’s the question: how do you plan to continue to build and interact with this community in the future?
KA: Thank you for those kind words! We’re currently tossing around ideas of how we can improve the online interviews and readings. One thing we might do moving forward is feature two writers at the same time with the hopes of getting a discussion going between all of us. We want the online interviews to be a little informal and fun for everyone involved. I don’t think we’ve done one yet that didn’t have some sort of technology hiccup, and we just try to go with the flow when that happens.
As for our Spotlight Series, I’ve started to bring in one “wildcard reader” from the community who isn’t (yet!) published in the journal. Pittsburgh has an incredibly vibrant poetry community and there’s so many talented writers that I would love to see in our issues and reading for us. We’ve also hosted out-of-town readers like Zachary Schomburg, Joshua Marie Wilkinson (twice!), John Beer, Mathias Svalina, and Noah Eli Gordon. With those readings, we had a great turnout, and I hope to put on more readings with people who are traveling through the area.
BRH: You may have noticed that our journal doesn’t really have a “home base,” and I think that’s a strength. Kelly’s in Pittsburgh; Gordon’s in Philadelphia, and I’m in Princeton, N.J. In our early discussions, we decided to not really label our journal with a place. That makes sense, given that our journal is on the internet, accessible to everyone.
That said, in the future, I hope to expand our Spotlight Series to the East. Kelly has done a fantastic job of rallying writers in Pittsburgh, and I’m certain we could do that here, too. Princeton is sandwiched between two major cities — New York and Philly — and I want to start taking advantage of that. Plus it means I would get to hang out with Gordon more, an opportunity I wouldn’t turn down.
GB: In the future, we want to feature two readings in the same interview, open a conversation between the members of this community. My goal is to be less of an editor or an interviewer and more like a fosterer of chaos. One day, I want that written on a plack: Gordon, Fosterer of Chaos.
JC: What is your journal’s greatest strength? What makes each of you beam with pride?
BRH: Our ability to work as collaborators. We don’t have a set editor-in-chief, making all decisions as a unit. This results in a better final product. At times, it can feel frustrating. That blood, sweat and tears thing? Totally happens almost every issue. But I find — and I think Kelly and Gordon would agree – that it’s during those passionate debates that our vision really shines. Some of our best decisions have been realized after hours of talking and arguing and sending a thousand emails to each other. In many ways, this is the way we established our mission. And I think, for the betterment of the journal, it’s made us all better editors and thinkers. I’m grateful to work with two writers with very different viewpoints; it’s forced me to be more thoughtful, engaged and passionate.
I also think we’re doing something different with our multimedia approach. We’ve really tried to embrace the electronic part of our literary journal. That’s why we’ve introduced Google Hangouts and other online mediums. Since the journal was born, we’ve wanted those voices to extend beyond the poem or story. There is a person behind those words worth showcasing, too.
KA: I’m always amazed by how each of us has certain abilities that have contributed to making Pretty Owl what it is today. Rose designed our layout and physically puts each issue together, along with maintaining our social media outlets. Gordon handles all of our artistic endeavors—from the design of the logos and our website to the cover art. I proofread each issue multiple times before it goes live and handle a lot of the outreach and networking along with the Spotlight Series. I couldn’t imagine what Pretty Owl would look like without our fierce talents combined, and I don’t want to! And we’re all incredibly busy people with multiple projects happening in our lives so the fact that we can work together to make each issue something we can be proud of and filled with writers we admire brings me tremendous joy.
GB: Kelly, Rose, and I are all, for better or worse, very passionate people. We are passionate about our tastes in art, and we are passionate about our passions. Most of Pretty Owl’s issues begin with a healthy dose of dissonance between the editors, and, progressively, the three of us shape it into something more unified.
Kelly Andrews is an assistant managing editor at an economic journal and working on her MFA in poetry at the University of Pittsburgh. Her chapbook Mule Skinner is available from Dancing Girl Press (2014). Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Weave Magazine, and elsewhere. You can read more about her past and future publications and literary endeavors at her website.
Gordon Buchan resides in Philadelphia where he navigates books of etymology and writes about his findings. Recently, he was published in BE Literary and Sugar House Review. Check out his blog, Invisible Woods.
B. Rose Huber spends her days writing about research at Princeton University. She received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cobalt, Pear Noir!, The New Yinzer, the Light Ekphrastic, BE Literary, and Weave, among others. She also binds books for those who ask. Read more here.
Jacob L. Cross lives in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. He studied creative writing and publishing at the University of Illinois Springfield, where he served as editor of The Popcorn Farm Literary Journal. His work has been featured in Still: The Journal, Stirring, and elsewhere. More recently, his poems were featured in Clash by Night, a poetry anthology inspired by the punk staple, London Calling. He enjoys hiking with his wife, traversing Zelda dungeons, spoiling his dogs, and consuming copious amounts of half-priced sushi.