"The Ghost Town is Coming Back to Life." A Chat With Chad Sweeney, Editor of California State University, San Bernardino Lit Mag Ghost Town
University based literary journals have their own special set of challenges. Those challenges must be met with creativity and tenacity. Ghost Town Literary magazine rises to the occasion and then some. Editor Chad Sweeney provides in-depth and insightful answers in this interview. There is much to admire about this magazine.
Interview by Connie Post
Can you tell me about the genesis of Ghost Town Literary Magazine? How many years has the magazine been in existence?
For 30 years, the Pacific Review, edited by undergraduates, was both the campus and national literary journal for California State University, San Bernardino. In support of the new MFA program in Creative Writing, the prominent writer and fiction professor, Kevin Moffet, split the Pacific Review into two journals, a campus and a national journal. Thus, Ghost Town was born as a print journal in 2008, edited by the new MFA students and Kevin Moffet. After three years, I became the editor and faculty director of both Ghost Town and the Pacific Review. So, in a sense, Ghost Town is now 34 years old, but it's only existed in its current state for six years.
What kind of changes have occurred in the magazine since its inception?
When I took over in 2012, I opted to offer the journal on-line, so that we would have a much wider readership, but I decided to continue doing print issues as well, both for the love of the book as a work of art and for the opportunities it afforded my student editors in layout, design, and publishing as well as the community-outreach the book-as-object supports, both in this area and at the national AWP Conference which our students have attended each year. We've also added the element of art to each on-line issue, such that California painters, sculptors, and photographers are now in dialogue with each writer's page.
How did the name of the magazine come about? It’s an interesting title that connotes a certain image or perception. How does the title depict the theme of the journal and also go beyond it?
The name, Ghost Town, addresses the severe economic decline of San Bernardino during the Great Recession. Businesses were disappearing, storefronts boarded up, a ghost town, and the old carousel in Carousel Mall, which once symbolized the thriving communities of San Bernardino, had stopped turning, as the mall, itself, became a mausoleum of its former self. The name Ghost Town is both a recognition of this struggle and a rallying cry toward rebirth. Now there is an inspirational effort to revive the city and the area through the arts. The ghost town is coming back to life. The themes of the journal in some ways represent the diversity of the region, with large Hispanic, Asian and African-American communities, extremes of landscapes, including desert, ocean, and snow-capped mountains, windstorms, draughts and floods. In this way, we curate the journal toward aesthetic and cultural diversity whenever possible in the service of meaningful contemporary discourse.
The web site lists 15 staff members and you as the faculty member. That must be challenging. Can you describe the pros and cons of having a staff that large? How often do you meet?
Our meetings are built into the publishing class, ENG 543, which includes the undergraduate students and Pacific Review as well, working in the same space with the graduate students and Ghost Town. The larger staff enables us to do more community outreach, to expand toward the interests of our editors, and so forth, and to generate a livelier discussion about literature.
What is your biggest challenge, serving as the faculty member on this staff?
Well, the greatest challenge is that I am editing two journals at once, organizing discussions and events for Ghost Town, (graduate students), and Pacific Review (with undergraduate students), and both meet in the same room at the same time! I go back and forth between the groups. In addition to the journal publications, we have organized fifty events in the past four years and have facilitated creative writing workshops in high schools for 300 students. It's a lot of work to manage so many projects at once, even as the students are inspirational in their own visions and talents, and dedicated beyond anything I could have hoped for.
How does your team resolve editorial differences of opinion. Do you make the final decision if there is not a consensus? What are the main criteria you base your decision on for acceptance and publication?
Disagreement is certainly generative and energizing. The editors engage in lively discussion over submissions; they are very sincere and dedicated in their efforts and respectful in disagreements. I do serve as a tie-breaker at times, and I try to agree with the students' unanimous choices as much as possible, but I do resort to veto power on occasion if a piece seems cultural insensitive or too weak (in my opinion), and I rescue some pieces from the rejection pile when I feel that the students have overlooked a gem. In terms of curating each issue, I do keep an eye on diversity and request work from specific writers to complement or to contrast with writers we've already agreed to publish. And by diversity I'm including aesthetic approach as well as cultural and gender diversity.
How many submission do you receive annually? Can you describe an ideal submission for me? What is the first thing that will make you reject a submission right away? What is your typical backlog?
We field 3000-5000 submissions per year. There isn't an ideal submission, as our goal is range rather than a preponderance of one theme or style, but I do admire vigor and originality in all of its forms, fresh use of language and an alert sensibility toward the world. In a postmodern poem we may value elasticity and dimensionality, while in a narrative piece we may admire more emotionally traditional qualities even as we look for originality of approach and thematic complexity. There are many ways fiction, poetry, or non-fiction can be "good"; and each piece is evaluated on the merits of its own intentions and achievements. We do look for newer writers for each issue to support the promise in their burgeoning careers, and we often find that our best material comes from this pool, which includes MFA student writers and those newly-graduated, as there is often a hunger in the effort, a tenderness and dynamism, and something lovely in the roughness of the work. The polish of the "professional" writer can feel like glass around a museum object, so that freshness of first sight—risk, vulnerability, prima causa—is crucial, however one may come by it.
You have an impressive list of previous contributors. Do you have a poet or poets you would love to have in the magazine in the future?
That's a secret! Look at our next issue, and you'll probably see a few of them!
We do look for newer writers for each issue to support the promise in their burgeoning careers, and we often find that our best material comes from this pool...as there is often a hunger in the effort, a tenderness and dynamism, and something lovely in the roughness of the work.
What do you think distinguishes you from other university-based literary presses?
Well, I would start by saying that university journals serve such an important role in the support of new literature, and in bringing up the next generation of editors at all levels, and I am grateful for this work going on every day all over the country. For Ghost Town, each issue is a miracle of chance and intention, like throwing a hoola-hoop over a storm and counting the colors that you managed to gather. Our journal is a reflection of the aesthetics of our MFA students which vary widely. If our MFA has a character, it's that the extremes are celebrated, that the students treat one another with love and respect, that they go out of their way to understand and support one another's wildest and wisest efforts. Our creative writing faculty promote this diversity of approach, and the tastes of the editors is as wide as the efforts of their own poetry and fiction. Our editors have gone on to found several significant journals and presses, including Lumen, the Great American Lit Mag, Shuf Poetry, and Orange Monkey Publishing.
It seems that you have a very well rounded magazine, in that you include reviews and interviews. I have read many pros and cons regarding inclusion of reviews and interviews. Can you talk more about why you feel it’s important to include these?
Our on-line journal tries to combine the immediacy and inclusion of a blog with the aesthetic presentation of a print journal. The interviews and book reviews add that blog element by allowing us to post something new whenever we feel like it, and to complement the poetry and fiction with other tributaries of dialogue. They also afford my students a platform to professionalize by writing the book reviews and/or seeking out artists to interview. Three of the interviews were done by students Michaelsun Knapp, Kelly Dortch and Shondra Rogers, and three of the book reviews were written by students, Tim Hatch, Larry Eby, and Natalie Skeith. This provides another teaching opportunity as well as an opportunity for our students to publish.
What are a few of your favorite interviews from previous issues and why? Who would be your “dream poet” to interview?
I enjoyed interviewing poet Matt Hart and Claire Anna Baker a great deal, as they are both geniuses of chaos and order and so articulate about their production. The recent interview with Isabel Quintero (by Shondra Rogers) is especially important, as she is a recent graduate from CSU San Bernardino, and her first novel just won the California Book Award. I would also hope to draw attention to our most recent interview between Sherwin Bitsui and Michaelsun Stonesweat Knapp.
In your view, what is the ideal book review and why?
I think a good book review explores a book for the book's qualities and how it addresses issues in the art itself, more of an essay on craft or theme than merely on whether the book is good or not. A good book review is a work of art unto itself, even if someone never reads the book, itself. The reader-response review can feel honest, but also limited.
I noticed that not all of your issues have creative nonfiction pieces. Is that related to lack of quality submissions? Or simply “not a good fit” for a particular issue?
We publish the best material we receive. Sometimes, there is more non-fiction, sometimes not. We don't tend to go in search of it, unless I hear of an interesting project, in which case I might solicite a piece from that work.
Regarding your readership, are there demographic groups that you hope to reach that are not currently being reached?
We publish on-line to give the widest possible access to readers around the world. I'm not sure who is reading the journal, specifically, but we get submissions from all over the world and from all regions of the U.S., so I suspect that our reach is fairly broad, but is ultimately limited by access to the internet.
I like that you list events on your site. What kind of audiences do you have for your events? What was the best attended and why do you think it was attended so well?
We have solid audiences for our events, 60-120, including students and people coming in from off-campus, in comfortable space with couches, the sun setting on mountains, live music and happy vibes. The Jerome Rothenberg/Merrill Feitell reading was especially exciting, as was the Sherwin Bitsui reading, the Gillian Conoley/Julie Carr reading, Jen Foerster, Matt Hart/Nate Pritts. Another outstanding reading was with UC Riverside students and faculty (Susan Straight, Katie Ford, Alison Benis White) sharing the stage with our own MFA students. We get a large audience by combining the visiting writers with a student open-mic and by offering free pizza and other solid food at dinner time. We also give away free copies of Ghost Town and Pacific Review at our events and make a special effort to make everyone feel welcome.
What hopes and dreams do you have for Ghost Town Literary Review?
Well, this is a sad answer, but the fact is our MFA program is going on hiatus for a couple of years, because our college is unable (or has chosen) not to fund our creative writing program with new fiction hires in a timely manner, just as we are losing faculty to retirement and attrition. My plan is to keep running Ghost Town as long as I can with the help of undergraduates and volunteers, but it might be too much to manage. So this year, I am already working with a skeleton staff, a ghost staff, really. But in support of the MFA's revival, I think it's important to keep the journal going.
What are two things you want readers of this interview to know that were not covered in any of the above questions?
Well, gosh, I'd just like to recognize the work of all editors everywhere who support the infrastructure of writers, both in books and in literary journals, on-line and in print. It's a tremendous amount of work and necessary service to literature. It's easy as a writer to forget that the person on the other end of the line, the editor, is most often giving their time and money to provide us all with opportunities to share our work , even if our work is "rejected" in a given submission. Editors everywhere deserve our gratitude, and I'd like to take this chance to offer mine. Thank you!
Connie Post served as the first Poet Laureate of Livermore, California from 2005 - 2009. Her work has appeared in The Big Muddy, Calyx, Cold Mountain Review, Crab Creek Review, Comstock Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Slipstream, Spoon River Poetry Review and The Valparaiso Poetry Review . Her poetry awards include the Caesura Poetry Award and the Dirty Napkin Cover Prize. Her has received praise from Al Young, Ursula LeGuin and Ellen Bass. She has been short listed for the Muriel Craft Bailey awards (Comstock Review) Lois Cranston Memorial Awards (Calyx), Blood Root Literary Magazine, the Jack Kerouac Poetry Prize and the Gary Gildner Award (I 70 Review). Her Chapbook “And When the Sun Drops (Finishing Line Press) won the 2012 Aurorean Editor’s Choice Award. Her first full length book “Floodwater” was released by Glass Lyre Press in 2014 and won the 2014 Lyrebird award.