Stories You May Have Missed: a Conversation with Jill Allyn Rosser of New Ohio Review
Jill Allyn Rosser is a member of the faculty at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. She was born in Pennsylvania and attended Middlebury College in Vermont as well as the University of Pennsylvania where she earned a doctorate.
Her works include Bright Moves (1990), which won the Morse Poetry Prize, and Misery Prefigured(2001), winner of the Crab Orchard Award. In 2007 she was awarded The New Criterion Poetry Prize for a new book of poems entitled Foiled Again, published in the Fall of 2007. She was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2010. Rosser’s poetry has also been published in such periodicals as The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, and Ninth Letter.
Can you tell us a little bit about New Ohio Review and how you came to be involved?
New Ohio Review is sponsored by and associated with Ohio University's Creative Writing Program. Because the Editor must be a member of the program's faculty -- which I am -- and because I have always been passionate about the importance of literary journals for emerging and established authors alike, not to mention general readers, hungry for well-written, original, engaging, contemporary literature, I volunteered to take on the position. It has proven to be as rewarding as it has been time-consuming. Which is true I guess of all worthy pursuits.
The magazine offers a lot in one issue. In addition to poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, sometimes NOR will publish translations and at other times, drama. Can you explain the features?
We believe that a strong literary magazine should offer more than purely creative work -- that it should also give the reader some provocative discussions -- analytical material to stimulate new ways of thinking about literature, or even about a single author (as was the case with our Szymborska feature). A friend might send me an email and casually bring up an issue that strikes me as rich territory for exploration, and I ask that person and a number of other writers who may have an interest in writing on that subject to contribute a short essay. I always tell them the essays can be quite short, because people are naturally caught up with their jobs and personal lives; the last thing I want to do is burden writers or interfere with the precious writing time they have carved out of their schedules! Our jazz feature came about when I discovered that Ohio University's Kennedy Museum of Art held a stunning collection of photos by the amazing photographer (an alum) Herman Leonard; I wanted to use one of the photos (of Charlie Parker) for our cover art and asked a number of writers to give me a jazz-related piece. The number of contributors has always varied; the ones you actually see in a given feature average about one-sixth of the people I'd solicited.
One of my favorite features was called "Stories You May Have Missed: Fifteen Writers on Underappreciated Contemporary Fiction." Our contributors for that feature -- Lydia Davis, Stuart Dybek, Jim Shepard, and Andrea Barrett among them -- opened my eyes to amazing writers I'd never even heard of, and made me take another look at some I'd only grazed before. Many of our readers wrote in to say the same. Our translation feature was so popular that we did a second installment of it in the subsequent issue.
Our just-released fall issue focuses on the question of truth in poetry -- what are readers' expectations of a poet who appears to be writing autobiographically? Is there any obligation at all to stick with the facts? Many of us will have an instant response; but the more we think about particular examples, the more uncomfortable we may become with a flat yes or no.
How does being affiliated with a university writing program help or hinder the publication process/the business of running a literary magazine?
First and foremost, without my Associate Editors (faculty in our creative writing program), and my Managing and Assistant Editors, and the all-important all-volunteer Readers (our graduate students), I would collapse in despair trying to read all the manuscripts that come in, not to mention updating the website, getting an author's audio posted, corresponding with the printer, preparing contracts, juggling budgets and grant-writing and so forth. Mainly I love being able to turn to a Reader or one of my colleagues and ask for a third or fourth opinion on a piece I'm on the fence about.
We have this community of smart people who love to read and who care about the caliber of the work appearing in the magazine, and while it may sound cheesy, I am deeply grateful to be a part of it, and to be bringing them together to weigh in on what does or doesn't make the cut for New Ohio Review. We like to think of it as a reflection of our program; you'll see several aesthetics represented.
And of course our funding from Ohio University helps enormously! Though we have also received grants from the Ohio Arts Council and the NEA, as well as generous donations from readers, we depend on subscriptions and the reliably annual funding from the university to keep us afloat.
Does the affiliation hinder? Well, those stories of red tape bogging down university procedures are not mythical.
I've noticed New Ohio Review has a history of publishing the likes of Bob Hicok, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Tony Hoagland. How does the magazine balance between publishing well known writers and emerging voices?
We are always proud to introduce brilliant work by authors who have never published before, or perhaps only rarely. I think this is an editor's primary responsibility, searching for gems in the flood of manuscripts, and this is what makes the work hard, why it never ends, why it must never end. I think of writers I knew as an undergraduate, classmates who were clearly very gifted, whose work has stuck with me all these years, yet I've never seen their names in litmags or books. I'm speculating they sent out work maybe twenty, fifty times, and became thoroughly discouraged when it was rejected. Perhaps if they had received one letter of enthusiasm, even if it amounted to a rejection, they would not have quit trying. Not everyone can be Emily Dickinson, and can work for many years without getting any readerly response or encouragement. We receive upwards of 5,000 submissions per year, and we try to approach all of them with the same hopeful attention. We will often send recommendations for revision, if we see that a given piece is almost there. The revisions that come back do not always result in publication, but I know that the exchange is still valuable for the author, receiving feedback from completely impartial strangers who are good readers.
On the other hand, we have a very high standard for work we publish, so we wind up printing a good amount of work by established writers, who often email us to praise work by writers they'd never heard of who appear in our pages. They are genuinely grateful to learn about new talent. And the emerging writers are thrilled to be presented alongside writers they have admired for many years.
I believe if you examined our archives, you'd see that each issue has a different proportion of known to unknown writers; we have no policy about that. We have rejected submissions by MacArthur Award recipients and Pulitzer Prizewinners and the next day accepted a group of poems or a story or essay by someone who has never seen her words in print before. We want to publish the best writing anywhere by anyone: it all depends on what comes in.
Do you have any pet-peeves when it comes to submissions or mistakes writers often make?
Regarding submissions: this will sound schoolmarmish, but hey: spelling is important -- you can really confuse your reader with a misspelling or typo. And even when we know what the word missing would have been, or the error is not confusing, it suggests to us that the work has been written in haste. Writers should care enough about their work to spend time with it, and check it over carefully before sending it to someone, especially an editor.
As for writing mistakes, I am annoyed when the author seems to be playing with words as though she or he just kinda likes their sounds, or their visual arrangement on the page. I believe in varying levels of mystery and lucidity, but I don't have any response to work that is impenetrably incomprehensibly obfuscatorily opaque -- and redundancy, that's another peeve.
What are some recent works (any genre) that you've been reading that have blown you away?
Recently I've been reading Moby Dick... oh, you probably mean VERY recent. I'm floored by Sarah Lindsay's new book, Debt to the Bone-Eating Snotflower; and I'm now rereading Don DeLillo's Falling Man, which did not remotely get the critical approval it deserves. And just an hour ago I reread this terrific poem by Sandy Gingras, "POOF." You haven't seen it? What, you don't have our new fall issue?
Finally, just for fun, what is your most favorite thing about Ohio?
I love that the foxes are back. We hadn't seen them for a long time anywhere, and this is one of the most fascinating and appealing creatures on the planet (clearly I'm not a chicken farmer). I love Ohio's landscape of dense woodland and lush, hilly meadows -- at least where I live, in Athens -- and the way people say "That shirt needs washed."