Life in the Bushes
Interview by Dell Smith
Shenandoah has a rich literary history. How do you maintain the connection with the past while looking ahead?
In the past Shenandoah could not be accused of yielding to trends and herd pressures, and I try to maintain that course. What’s wonderful about our sixty-year history is that the foundation for the magazine has been built broad and dense. There was room for Cummings and Flannery O’Connor, for Auden and Marianne Moore. Now there’s room for James Lee Burke and Mary Oliver and Barry Gifford, Joyce Carol Oates and Ha Jin, plus a host of young writers neither you nor I had heard of before. The continuity also depends upon our commitment to seriousness of purpose (even in the comic) and the belief that good writing begins with the visceral and moves through the intellectual and the emotional until our spiritual dimension is activated. I guess that’s a mighty tall claim, but it’s what I’m always shooting for.
What elements are you looking for in a story, poem, or essay? Do you have a house-style or criteria that you adhere to?
We don’t even have a house style, as most any issue will imply. In some ways (often sprouted in my mind) the works in an issue are talking to each other, but they’re often disputing, as well. I’m always looking to be surprised (no surprise there, all editors are), and in any genre I want to feel right away that the writer is presiding over the material, not just plugging in phrases and ideas that are lazily adrift in our national conversation. If a character has an eccentric but compelling manner of speech, I’m attracted. If a character is a little bit bewitched, I’m nearly hooked. In non-fiction, I have a strong resistance (sometimes overcome) against the writing that begs to be called “memoir” because the writer is self-absorbed or exhibitionistic. I’m addicted to work that displays a historical sense, a knowledge of the work world beyond the university and a dialogue with traditional notions of form.
Has the Internet changed the way you publish Shenandoah? Do you offer different content on your website from what’s printed? And has your Internet presence helped to grow your audience?
We have two professional staff members: a managing editor who works half time and me, who teaches as well as editing. That doesn’t give us much time to work with the website. Our pages contain FAQs and announcements, contents of the current issue and samples from previous issues. Nothing beyond the print issues. I hope that will change in just over a year. I want to redesign the website, installing a blog, an audio section and a column for work that isn’t in the print issue. It’s an ambitious projection, given our resources, but I think it’s the way to go. Every time I look at Per Contra, Blackbird, Cortland Review, StorySouth and others, I shed some of my inertia.
Shenandoah is affiliated with Washington and Lee University. How closely do you work with the school? Do you have students on staff?
Shenandoah is funded directly out of the Office of the Dean of the College, and Dean Hank Dobin is my immediate supervisor, which is lucky for us. Although I’ve never been called upon to “answer” for Shenandoah, I strive to publish issues that coincide with the University’s commitment to serious and honest inquiry, discipline, imagination, wit and industry. I do teach a course (usually twice a year) in literary magazine editing, and the students (they’re all undergraduates here) enrolled act as interns. It’s a combination seminar and practicum, with focus on the history and composition of the literary magazine community, issues facing editors, manuscript evaluation, literary journalism (especially reviews) and other matters. The students keep journals, write reviews, discuss design and contents, and also perform some of the daily tasks concerning manuscripts.
You’re a writer as well as an editor. Does this bring a different perspective to editing a literary magazine? Which do you enjoy more, editing or writing?
My lover’s quarrel with writing is more intense and personal than the one I carry on with editing. Although testing the quality of what I’ve written against submissions (and vice versa) is inevitable, the real benefit is that I know both ends of the transaction. I try not to avoid the writerly follies that make editors crazy and the editorial ones that drive writers into the woods screaming.
Writers often write with an audience in mind. Do you do the same thing as an editor?
I have a phantom audience looking over my shoulder, shaking their heads and offering either helpful or caustic advice. The members are old friends and mentors, some of them communicating from beyond, all of them a part of the internalized idea of readers I’ve constructed over the years. Needless to say, they are well read, serious, mischievous, by turns tolerant and short-tempered, all of them wise and shrewder than I am. I want Shenandoah to alert, provoke and satisfy them. But I’m not altogether nuts, either. We conduct occasional reader surveys, and I’m not blind to what they say. Lately they have seemed excited by the non-fiction we’ve featured, and the interviews, so look for a little increase there.
What makes Shenandoah different from other journals?
Because I operate as a one-man editorial crew, the magazine can make surprising little forays into Appalachian Literature, Native American poetry, the literature of old-time music and so on, pretty quickly. Obama keeps reminding us that the country is a huge tanker that has to be turned from its present course very gradually, but I’m running a little sloop here and can tack and run. Last fall I decided, with little preparation other than one Flannery O’Connor story in our pages back in the fifties, that we’d dedicate a big 60th anniversary issue to her in 2010. Stay tuned.
What advice do you have for writers looking to submit to Shenandoah?
I think you have to write to your daemons and keep the idea of editors away with a stick until you’ve said what you have to in such a way, as James Dickey advised, “that it cannot easily be unsaid.” Then comes the business part. If a writer likes a lot of what appears in our pages, then we’re a reasonable direction to send a ms. I want to take the simple, ambiguous route here and quote someone else. Claudia Emerson has said that the bottom line in poetry is that it should “be beautiful and make sense.” That goes for all genres. I know that, especially in poetry, there’s a real stampede to be impressively oblique, involuted to the verge of solipsism, elliptical almost to the vanishing point. One way of doing that seems to be an alternating of passages with only prose rhythms and passages so cryptic Poe couldn’t unknot them. The Jesuit Tomaso Ceva said that poetry is a dream dreamed in the presence of reason; I need the presence of reason as much as the dream. I’m not positively disposed toward work that fits this description, but I confess that I can be seduced away from my certainties by any writing that is beguiling beyond description.
What's a secret about editing a literary magazine that you wish more writers knew?
The manuscripts come not as single spies but as battalions, sheaves, torrents. It almost amounts to paperboarding. And an editor’s situation is often like a poet’s: sitting there staring and thinking, which choice?, which direction?, what the hell am I trying to do? The editor’s muse is elusive and unpredictable, as much Caliban as Ariel, but you have to thrash through the bushes every day hoping to jump a rabbit. You really have to like being in the bushes. What I’m not sure I really want everyone to know is that the bushes aren’t bad at all.