Redefining New Voices
Ronald Spatz is the Founding Editor of Alaska Quarterly Review.
Interview by Suzanne McConnell
How would you describe your aim as Editor of Alaska Quarterly Review?
Our aim is to promote and to publish powerful new voices. We encourage new and emerging writers of fiction, short plays, poetry, photo essays, and literary non-fiction in traditional and experimental styles. With every issue we aim to ensure that Alaska Quarterly Review (AQR) is a literary magazine of consequence and that through our pages readers will experience a world made larger and more meaningful-- that they will have the joy of discovering something true.
Why “new?” I just attended an Annie Proulx interview two days ago, and one of the things she talked about was how many prizes and awards and attention goes to young writers. She didn’t start writing until she was over forty. She asked, more or less, why the attention for young writers? “Let’s hear it for writers over fifty!” Everyone clapped.
For AQR, new has more to do with when one starts the journey. We have published new and emerging writers, young and older, writers who have begun the journey much later in life. Some of our authors have come to writing only after they have retired from careers that did not afford them the time and opportunity to truly reflect in such depth. For example, we recently published John Gamel, a professor emeritus of ophthalmology. He moved from academic articles to creative nonfiction after retirement. His latest Alaska Quarterly Review essay, “The Elegant Eyeball,” has been re-printed in 2010 The Best American Essays. On the other hand, back in 2000 we were the very first to publish the work of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. This past June she was featured in The New Yorker's “20 Under 40” fiction issue.
What distinguishes Alaska Quarterly Review from other journals?
I believe Alaska Quarterly Review’s character, consistency, and national/international focus separate it from the pack. It is informed by Alaska – the place and people and cultural traditions -- without being provincial. AQR provides a forum for writers whose work challenges accepted forms and modes of expression, experimenting with language and thought.
I like what Nancy Lord, the 2008-2010 Alaska State Writer, recently wrote about the AQR fall and winter 2010 issue: “There’s nothing provincial about this or any other issue of AQR; it brings us the world in variations of experience, thought, and form—which is, perhaps, what’s most Alaskan about it: an openness to the new, the fresh, the experimental, the risky, the oddball surprise. Alaska is a place for invention and reinvention. (Just look at our politics.) It makes sense that our collective literary aesthetic embraces the same possibilities and questions of creation and identity, regardless of the origins of writers or the particulars of their stories.”
I notice that you publish “traditional and experimental styles.” Do you pride yourself on that mix? This seems rather unusual. Many journals seem to aim for one or the other.
Yes, we cast our net widely! I would find exclusively advancing a particular style both artificial and artistically limiting. If the works published in AQR have certain characteristics, they are freshness, honesty, and a compelling subject. The voice of the piece must be strong - idiosyncratic enough to create a unique persona. I look for the demonstration of craft, making the situation palpable and putting it in a form where it becomes emotionally and intellectually complex. One could look through our pages over time and see that many of the pieces published in AQR concern everyday life.
We're not asking our writers to go outside themselves and their experiences to the absolute exotic to catch our interest. I look for the experiential and revelatory qualities of the work. I will, without hesitation, champion a piece that may be less polished or stylistically sophisticated, if it engages and surprises me. The joy in reading such a work is in discovering something true.
Having said that, I’m not saying a specific focus can’t be valid as well. The Bellevue Review (BLR) has a focus on health. I’m very interested in what some term narrative medicine and the nature of narrative and healing. In fact, I’ve developed a website that features “Narrative & Healing” for the University of Alaska Anchorage. The site is called LitSite Alaska and it explores the power of narrative to contribute to learning, healing and well-being. In fact, BLR editor-in-chief, Danielle Ofri generously contributed a wonderful article, Poetry in Medicine: Take Two Sonnets and Call Me in the Morning.
Alaska is a unique state, partly in being isolated from the rest of the US geographically and out of the cultural mainstream. I would think one of your aims would be to fill in that vacuum. (I went to U. of Arkansas, and remember how much the university was a cultural center). Comments?
Yes, Alaska is certainly in a league of its own-- a young state—only 51 years old. Its massive and extraordinary geography with a small population—roughly 700,000 people—and its reliance on natural resources unquestionably frames its frontier identity. Although Alaska is indeed very far away from the nation’s cultural media centers, it is not necessarily out of the cultural mainstream (although I’m not sure what the term cultural mainstream means).
If one focuses on Alaska’s cultural diversity, one sees a different picture. For example, English is not the first language for many students within the Anchorage School District -- 87 languages are spoken. Throughout the state, Alaska Native cultures and their rich heritages also play significant roles. So in my view the issue is not one of a cultural vacuum that needs filling but rather an issue of geographic and cultural divides that need to be bridged. In that respect, Alaska Quarterly Review makes an important contribution; it has connected Alaska to the larger literary world for 28 years.
To what extent do members of Native cultures contribute to the Alaska Quarterly Review?
I am looking for voices our readers do not know, voices that may not always be reflected in the dominant culture and have something important to convey. That certainly includes writers who have an indigenous heritage and experience. With literary publishing grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, we produced two special editions: Alaska Native Writers, Storytellers & Orators (1986) and Alaska Native Writers, Storytellers & Orators: The Expanded Edition (1999). The latter is still in print after multiple printings. We’ve published a number of special features as well.
What’s AQR’s history? When did it start, who founded it?
It was founded in 1980 when I pitched the idea to another brand new faculty member and we decided to see if we could bring it to life. We enlisted two additional faculty members as section editors. It took two years to bring out the first issue. I’ve been fully engaged with Alaska Quarterly Review every step of the way—more than 30 years.
What does “contributing editors” mean? Does it mean “guest editors?” (Also, you note Grace Paley’s passing, note her as a contributing editor. I knew her as well; her best friend was my dear friend.)
At Alaska Quarterly Review, contributing editor generally means both—contributing work to AQR and involved in editing or being featured in a special section. Grace Paley provided inspiration and, on occasion, advice as well. I first met Grace Paley in the mid ‘70s when she visited Western Michigan University where I was teaching. I had proposed and arranged Grace’s visit in my role as a member of the “Program Committee.” Her writing deeply affected me and meeting her was quite a thrill. Another amazing writer at that time, Donald Barthelme, whose work I also loved, said it best: “There’s no writer in our country whose work exceeds in beauty and truth that of Grace Paley.” In every respect, Grace Paley was a remarkable literary artist and an exemplary human being.
You went to the Writer’s Workshop. So did I. When did you go there?
Did it influence you in terms of putting together this magazine?
Yes. Being surrounded by so many talented people helped broaden and shape my overall aesthetic. I should add that I had spent my whole life until then in New York City and going to Iowa itself was the big leap for me. Nothing in my life had prepared me for that change! It opened up the world for me...
Suzanne McConnell is the fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review.