"Never Be Satisfied." A Chat With Jason Teal, Editor of Heavy Feather Review
JASON TEAL is a Founding Editor of Heavy Feather Review and is currently pursuing his MFA in Fiction at Northern Michigan University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Quarter After Eight, Eleven Eleven, and Entropy, among other places. Former Managing Editor of Mid-American Review, he is an associate editor for Passages North and lives in Marquette, Michigan. Describing itself as a “literary arts annual with ambitions to become a full-fledged press,” Heavy Feather Review is a virtual cartwheel through the weird, beautiful and edgy, both literary and visual; you’ll also find a decent smattering of book reviews and interviews.
Interview by Tanya Perkins
Who came up with the name Heavy Feather? How do you want it to be understood, or is that an irritating question?
I take credit, though the spurring came because Nathan didn’t laud the first one I suggested. I have this habit of pleasing people—a Midwestern nicety I picked up due to living here—otherwise I don’t pursue it and the idea dies with me.
I had been tossing around the name Dead Horse or its plural for days, and on the return trip from a bar—Nathan and I met through our internships with Mid-American Review—I told him we should edit Dead Horse, because we could create meaning by beating the dead corpses of language—naming the thing meant too much to me then—so, somewhat deflated by his lackluster groan, I quickly spit out two words repressed from a story or poem I would never write. The expression arrived mumbled, resignedly, but the look on Nathan’s face was seriously contemplative: a wise, dry smile only Dumbledore could crack smoking his pipe. He asked me where it came from, and I bluffed that it came out of nowhere, from thin air, but he said it was great.
I wish there were a more inspired story behind the name. There just isn’t. It doesn’t have to do with birds, and I’ve come to terms with that. I tried coming up with a meaning once, that published content should convey to readers a softness yet demonstrate great force, but typing that out seemed hyperbolic, so we cloaked our guidelines and public profiles with more adaptable language when the website was built. The illustrated baby logo (penned by John Dermot Woods), at any rate, threw a metaphorical wrench into the whole thing.
You are one of two founding editors. What does a founding editor do, once he’s founded?
I look at my position as Managing Editor, and have never enjoyed the hierarchy Editor-in-Chief sponsors. I design issues, maintain the website, and post to social media. I love being hands-on with the publication, maybe more than is asked of founding editors elsewhere, and I don’t think I could consult on an advisory board if Heavy Feather were to progress beyond the DIY approach. I’m too interested in learning, in making, for it to end up this way. I read and solicit submissions, and see that we’re in conversation about the next big thing for the publication (my editors have probably turned off notifications to their phones by now). I have established relationships with presses whose books we review, and promoted our new issue via partnership with the Lit Hub, who in turn teased Amy Long’s nonfiction piece and organized a giveaway of the issue. If there are conferences or book fairs I can attend, I do, and I’m behind the table, proud of the books we make, hugging poet friends across the table.
What was your and co-founder Nathan Floom’s original intent or vision for Heavy Feather? Has that changed?
We always wanted a print book, and when we found the means to make that happen—David Braughler at Braughler Books being a brilliant resource and printer—we ran with it, straight into it, fueled completely by good will. I had learned how to make eBooks when the market was being written about in interesting ways, and we started as an electronic publication, but I’ve always wanted Heavy Feather to be a brick-and-mortar mainstay, drawing inspiration from veterans around us like Two Dollar Radio and Dzanc Books. Now we’re archiving work online from out-of-print issues, though we want to publish full-length books, and are making moves toward that kind of future, professionally and internally. I once joked that we would coordinate a music festival when we reached our peak, but we are still searching for that outlet. I wouldn’t turn down an office building where everyone could interface, but a lot of variables would have to sort themselves out for that vision of the future to crystalize. For now, we are an annual literary publication, but we were twice declared as biannual and only recently pulled back from a quarterly schedule, when my school work was unduly being sacrificed.
Heavy Feather has published eight issues since its inception. How has it evolved in that time?
We’ve come to appreciate the short comic form and experimented with a variety of contests, from chapbook interiors to short story submissions. We never dreamed we would have the kind of art we find for covers, but Tumblr has been a consistent wellspring for connecting us to great visual artists from all over. We are pursuing zines as a mode of distribution for past chapbooks and contest winners, but I have to edit Volume Five before that comes to fruition. When we started Heavy Feather, I took on too many things, and continue to do so, but now I knowingly do so.
How does Heavy Feather distinguish itself from other journals?
We’re often experimental, willing to take pieces that strive for more things than readership, and try to blur lines between genres and forms. We’re neither consistently funny nor sad issue to issue, and appreciate the interplay of aesthetics between different writers and artists. I am not looking for one kind of writing going into reading submissions, and being able to create a product that cannot be pigeonholed is important to me. I don’t want Heavy Feather to be a publication that people make jokes about, whether that is how we publish only one variety of work, or have incomprehensible submission guidelines, or respond with vague critiques, but rather a journal that is alive and connects readers and writers of many backgrounds, one that does not contour to thick skin of stuffy academics.
Your website is pretty engaging—lots of interesting stuff to read and look at. How do you see the relationship between a journal’s website and the actual journal?
I see websites as being supplemental materials to the actual journal, and view the website as a media through which to promote the journal. I can’t, at this point, conceivably publish stories, essays, poems, and comics in print, and then turn around to publish different creative work online but also call it Heavy Feather. Our reviews explore the potential and sustainability of literature, but I don’t think of the blogspace as a place to publish new work in or from the journal. This has been a changing trend in publishing as more and more print publications transfer materials online, and perhaps when my own coding skills can express my intentions for work as they exist in print, I will come around, but it’s not in the publishing cards for my experience with the journal at this time. Meanwhile, we have started an essay component for the website that is reaching for this distinction. I do think the website, however, in this day and age, is a vital, necessary component for any publisher.
We’re often experimental, willing to take pieces that strive for more things than readership, and try to blur lines between genres and forms.
When you’re reading submissions, do you have a particular audience in mind?
Audience has never been of much importance for me. I am my only audience, my reader. I am sensitive to misogynist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, and other hateful literatures, and read submissions for work I would like to write. I am obsessed with forms in my own compositions, whether those are obvious usages or less obvious usages, and really like to see work that shifts or pluralizes the conceit in and of its arc. Language is very important to me and writers that use this in a new way, such as the inimitable Anne Carson, very much warrant second read-throughs. I am greedy and read for all genres, including poetry and drama, and encourage my genre editors to point me to things they vibe with.
The current Paris Review reproduced a manuscript page pretty heavily marked up by famed literary editor Gordon Lish. Do your editors ever suggest revisions to work with heavy potential, or is it pretty much take it or leave it?
We’re pretty laissez-faire about edits overall, and don’t often suggest rewrites or entire passages be cut, though we have on occasion. We take a work because we are over the moon for it, not because we see potential and want to hash this out in subsequent correspondence with the writer. We leave acceptances open to the possibility for revision, but because this is a side job for most of us, we have to be realistic with our expectations for pieces. A rejection from us is an implied consideration for rewrite and submission elsewhere, but an invitation to send to us again, whenever the writer has something they are jazzed about sharing, and simultaneous submissions are of course welcome. We relish the opportunity for refinement of pieces and don’t reject based on cover letters or grammar if the work sings around those issues. The freedom of not being bound by aesthetics as a publisher is that the works truly speak for themselves in their final incarnations in print or online. There are certain writers I emulate and learn from in my day-to-day, but I would never cut down a piece by another person to make it sound like one of them.
What are two pieces of advice you have for submitting writers?
Revise. Read widely and mimic everything. You won’t find your voice and your publications until you sort out your people. And when you find those people, read others. Revise again. Never be satisfied. Trust your gut instinct, but scrutinize it closely. We are always reading and connecting to new literature as editors, so we expect the same from submitters. Reviewing and interviewing for publications are good ways to claim free books and think out loud about them.
So what’s good writing?
Good writing is an inherently spiteful catch-all term meant to put down literature beyond its influence. We say the finest in our guidelines, but even that term presupposes issues with critique, and makes me want to rewrite our guidelines—which is in the cards. I would say good writing means to illustrate, and so I think illustrative writing is the term I prefer to use, whether that is in reference to life experience or some completely made-up world. We need to be able to access conceits as readers and writers if works will ultimately be memorable or regarded.
Talk about Baby Eat Books.
I get (I think) my best ideas while walking places, and this name came as a result of walking with my friend and co-editor Colette to a campus office when she was enrolled at Bowling Green for her MFA. It is the phase for eventual book publishing (read: imprint) and is the publishing entity that recognizes and supports Heavy Feather in the book realm. Like McSweeney’s Books and the Quarterly Concern before it, the literary journal aims to exist beyond its means, and for this reason, there had to be a place to it to shoot for. The name also exists as a mantra in my subconscious whenever I sit down to work on an issue or some other thing for the publication. It is an address to the reader, to submitters. Baby, eat books. Don’t just read them, live them. Wear them on your sleeve. We have tried to inconsistently increase the presence of the hashtag on Twitter, so please help us spread it around. If you are reading, use our thing, not the silly #amreading
It serves a lot of simultaneous functions for me and Heavy Feather, and is the most literal interpretation of the baby logo I could muster. Really, it was for the fans, as I was tired of shooing away people who asked about the correlation between feathers and hangry babies. It is my thrown-together justification for the image: The baby pose came to me in a dream and John was kind enough to draw it so I had it tattooed on my forearm was not polling well with readers.
What’s your single biggest frustration?
Not having a budget in place. Heavy Feather is, at its core, a passion project, and my ambitions to become a writer conflict with manageable deadlines.
What about Heavy Feather makes you get up in the morning?
It has gotten me this far. I wouldn’t know anyone, or had the opportunities I have, without it. It has made me some of my best friends in life. I love books and treasure them as objects that unlock experiences I could never have—but, for me, this publication is so much more than that. I really cherish the memories I have made because of the visibility of the project. I am a self-starter because of it. It has promoted change in my lifestyle where otherwise I might have resisted it. I suppose it is the same feeling others have about writing, that if they find enough success by publishing their work and are able to sustain a readership then, by transitive property, they haven’t been draining their being all this time, screaming into an empty void. I like to talk about books, not just scream at them. Especially those that I don’t like. I want to change books, to challenge books, and publishing supports this compulsion. I love the opportunity to write, and waking up knowing I can work with other writers gives me fuller access to this privilege, like being backstage with my favorite band.
Tanya Perkins is on the faculty of Indiana University East, where she is advisor for Tributaries, a Journal of Creative Arts. Her work has been published in The Chattahoochee Review, Big Muddy, Storyscape, Wilderness House Review and other journals. She has an MA in English from Western Washington University and is an MFA candidate in fiction at Murray State University.