"We Publish So Many Different Things." A Chat With Kathleen Volk Miller, Editor of Painted Bride Quarterly
Painted Bride Quarterly, one of the country’s oldest literary magazines, began in a bridal dress shop in Philadelphia in 1973. The impulse to create something new gave birth to both the quarterly and the Painted Bride Arts Center, but they soon became separate entities although they shared an address. Kathleen Volk Miller, an essayist and memoirist whose work has appeared in Salon and The New York Times, and who teaches at Drexel University, took time to speak with The Review Review about the quarterly by telephone. She has co-edited the magazine for the past twenty years with Marion Wrenn. More recently, Jason Schneiderman became the magazine’s New York editor.
Interview by Laura Moretz
My first question is to do with the name “Painted Bride.” I don’t know the history of that name.
The oral history we have, since we weren’t there at the founding in 1973, is that there was an abandoned bridal shop on South Street in Philadelphia. South Street was kind of Philadelphia’s Haight Ashbury, people living on the edge, hippies, that kind of thing. This gang of young people took over this bridal shop and turned it into an art center and started making a literary magazine. And nobody could decide on a name for it, but there were bridal mannequins left in the window that they started dressing funky and posing funny, and it just happened, people started saying, “Did you see what the painted bride did in the window?”
So, the magazine was organized in 1973, or it happened in 1973. How did it continue?
For years and years people who cared just passed it down from one to another, and it’s always been a non-profit, it’s always been an independent, always had a supportive, hard-working consortium of volunteers to keep it going. When my cohort-in-crime Marion Wrenn and I took over, I was teaching at Rutgers, and it kind of happened organically that they said why don’t you officially be housed here? You can keep your independence, but our students benefit from your presence. It was a good situation, but it was kind of awkward to be in New Jersey when PBQ is incorporated in Pennsylvania, has gotten money from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts, all of those things, so it was a little strange, and to be honest they didn’t give us a boatload of support, so we decided to shop around a little. Drexel was willing to give us space and more support, and it’s in Philly, so we moved operations to Philadelphia, but we are still our own independent magazine, and we sometimes joke that we squat here. It is a win-win because the university gets the cultural cachet of saying that they house one of the countries oldest literary magazines. The students benefit from working on it in different capacities, and we certainly benefit from those students; always having new eyes and new energy is fabulous. So that’s the trajectory of how we moved around.
In what year did you come to Drexel?
So that’s when you started having the annual anthology?
A couple of years before, actually. When the internet became a thing that you had to do, we were one of the first lit mags online, but like everybody else starting way back, like, 2000 maybe, we thought it would be a great way to monetize your magazine, and you would be able to put up just a sample and then people would subscribe based on that sample, but super quickly everyone started offering everything online. We had to do that because there was too much free content available. A lot of lit mags of our longevity were in the same exact position. So for one year we tried to make an online issue and a print quarterly; we tried to do both, and we quickly discovered that that was just too difficult, and we came up with the idea of the hybrid publication that we are now. Now we change four times a year online then everything we put online ends up in that anthology and the anthology comes out annually. We always aim to have it ready by the AWP Conference. This year it’s so early! It’s going to happen, but we’ve been copyediting stuff up to the second we have to get it to the printer.
So now we’re a hybrid publication, and back when we started being in that format, it was so avant-garde and new, we even were getting asked to speak at conferences about how we came to that decision and the whys and wherefores. I do have to say that it’s a really great choice for a magazine, and we like to say that our authors get two moments of joy, and they do. They get really excited when we send out the note—“Hey, your work’s online!”—and then they lose their minds when they get the big, beautiful book.
The reason why we have it ready for AWP is that it’s fun to celebrate it there because AWP is so gigantic. We’ll put something up on social media or send out a group email and say, “We’re at Booth 192, come get your book!” We literally have people run from wherever they are at the conference to get their book and then they are so thrilled to see it on the page. So they get two moments, they get the instant gratification—not that we publish you instantly—but you can share instantly, and then you get that second rich pleasure of holding the book in your hands.
I was looking at your About page and so I’m going to give you a quote: “The editors at PBQ are proud of their democratic editorial policy, and believe that it helps PBQ to retain an eclectic aesthetic.” Tell me first about the democratic editorial policy.
When I first came on PBQ I was in grad school, and the editors were much older than me at the time, and at my very first meeting, my vote counted as much as theirs did. We literally read the work aloud, discussed, and then literally said one two three shoot, thumbs up, thumbs down.
It felt very empowering, and we’ve just kept up that philosophical idea that we wouldn’t want the magazine to have my aesthetic or Marion’s aesthetic, we want exactly as it’s described there, a more eclectic aesthetic. You can’t really categorize PBQ very much, “Oh, they publish blank sort of stuff,” because we publish so many different things, and the reason why we can do that is probably on the same About page.
We have this office in Philly, where I’m talking to you from, and my co-editor Marion Wrenn who I keep mentioning, she lived here with me for a long time and we ran it together here, and then she went to NYU and she started another editorial staff, so we do all of the business here, but she started a satellite editorial staff in New York, and that was established ten, twelve years, but she teaches at NYU Abu Dhabi now. She had so established the New York office that Jason Schneiderman, who you’ll see on the masthead, he runs the New York group, and Marion runs the Abu Dhabi group, and I run the Philadelphia group, and among all three of those groups, each group is made up of—there’s no other way to say this—grown ups who stay, adults who are already in their careers and stuff, and then students who kind of rotate through. So with all of that in place—established editors, rotating crop of students and three different cities—it’s very hard to nail down one particular voice or say that we lean into one particular style. We’re psyched about that. That’s one of the things that makes us very happy. That’s something I can’t imagine changing.
That eclectic spirit shines through when I look at the anthology. I saw a lot of humor (one quarter of it was a humor issue, which explains that), but also a lot of experimentation among the works you’ve selected, and I also felt, and it’s hard to prove it, that your writers are a bit askew from mainstream aesthetics. It felt like I was in an experimental place or I was in a place where the writers were taking more risks than they do in other publications.
That’s an interesting thought. The only thing I can say is that it’s fun to work with the students, and when they say to me, “How do I know to say yes or no?” I’ll say, “Did you feel like you were punched in the stomach, did you think about it for the rest of the day? Did images stick with you? It’s so nebulous to try to define. Maybe: the fresher it is, the more it wakes us up? The more we’re drawn to it. We get about 300 submissions a week. We accept less than 2 percent of what we receive, which, in my experience, is about the same for any magazine of our longevity. Let’s just say Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, any of those it’s about the same data. I guess you could say: If you want us to pay attention, wake us up.
I don’t know if this is a good time in your set of questions, I don’t know if you came across the fact that we do a podcast now?
Yes, let’s talk about the podcast.
The reason that I’m thinking about it right now is that not only do we have this democratic policy that we just went over but everything that comes to us must be read by three people before it’s rejected or brought to the editorial table. So we feel—it’s again another thing that we feel very strongly about—we feel that it’s wonderfully fair to the authors but it does slow down our response time.
How we came to do the podcast was organic. We were like, “Let’s do a podcast!” Like “Let’s form a band!”, and we let that ferment for a while. We were also talking about our slow response time, and how three people read each piece, and I’ve told you how we have grown ups and students at every table. Students have definitely found work for PBQ. There has been work that had been no-ed by two editors, and a student said yes. If even one voice says yes it gets brought to the editorial table. You must be at least a sophomore to work with us. It can be one 19-year-old who said “yes” out of five readers, and it gets brought to the table, and sometimes things change when it’s read aloud and the group discusses it and a piece gets in, and if we hadn’t listened to that 19-year-old, it wouldn’t have, you know?
We decided to make this podcast to kind of reveal our process. The podcast episodes are discussions of work that truly came in as a cold submission, unsolicited, that got at least one “yes.” We do of course ask for permission between the yes and the podcast. The material we discuss must be in a sweet spot of not a “gong” of a no and not a high five of a yes either. Kind of something that has meat on the bone that we’ll want to discuss. We literally have that discussion as the episode, and we vote live as part of the episode. When we ask the author’s permission, we tell them we don’t know if you’re getting in or not but we’re going to record our conversation about your work, and it’s wonderful –we’ve been doing this from late March of last year—authors so frequently say the same sort of thing, “Oh my God how terrifying. OK, I’ll do it.” Or, “This is the scariest proposition I’ve ever had. Count me in.” Very few people have said “No.” And knock on all the wood in the world, even after they listen, and even if they’ve been rejected, they send us a note thanking us and say they respect the conversation, they feel more informed about the work. Or, “I haven’t been that thoroughly discussed since graduate school.”
They love it. Teachers have been using the podcast in their classrooms, and I would love to grow more of that, but the people who have used it have written us to tell us how well it worked, how much conversation they got from our conversation.
Every now and then we do these special episodes and sometimes during a regular episode we’ll discuss work and then we’ll discuss an issue like paying to submit. And we always have at least one student in the room, and we always have people from different places, like Marion will be calling in from Abu Dhabi, Jason will be calling in from New York. We have different people on every episode but me, Marion and Jason and Senior Editor Tim Fitts are on almost every one I think, the three heads of each city.
Your goal for the podcast is to keep it up at the interval it’s airing?
Well, of course, like everything, you want a larger audience. We’re up to about 2,000 subscribers and a couple hundred unique listeners each month, but of course we’d like to be bigger than that. You always want more.
We can’t focus on only that as a marketing thing, but we’ll see. We were in Submittable’s newsletter and we were on CLMP’s newsletter, and now we’ll be in The Review Review.
You get a a huge number of digital submissions. Has it changed for you personally how you read—you’ve been doing it a long time...
More than twenty years …
More than twenty years, so how has it changed your reading style when you’re going through a submission queue?
Oh, I didn’t think that’s where you were going and I had an answer ready the other direction.
Give me that other answer too!
I don’t think it’s changed my reading style—it might have in a subconscious way that we’re not aware of, in that it’s easier to click through—but I can tell you that as far as the submitters go, the authors—I’m going to sound like an old curmudgeonly lady now—but people are sloppier, people simultaneously submit and forget that they did, I’ve gotten cover letters that say “Dear the wrong name” because it’s just so fricking easy for authors now to submit. I was part of PBQ when one had to think about printing out a page folding it up, paying for postage, you know what I mean? And now it’s just so easy. So, there’s a kind of sloppiness in that regard and secondly, and this is what really makes me sound old, because I’m just incredulous that people would do this, but we get tons, every week, at least ten, twenty people saying, “ I revised my poems. Can you read this group instead of that group?” Again, that’s maddening, because it makes you think, “If you sent it, why were you still screwing with it? Why is it revised? Obviously it was a three-in-the-morning moment where you thought you were brilliant. You put that last period on that last sentence and said, “I’m brilliant!” You sent it out because you could, because it was easy. So we get at least somewhere between ten and twenty people saying read this one instead of that one which makes me think how much thought was put into the first submission?” . Then when we accept work, (these numbers aren’t as bad, maybe one in ten), and we write, “Dear Laura, we would like it.” And she writes back and says, “Oh, I revised it. "Can you print this one instead.” And we will give it a read, but it’s always aggravating. I would dare say 80-90 percent of the time, we go with the original submission.
But you actually read it.
Oh, we do, we do, because we feel that we should give them that opportunity, and sometimes the changes are minute but most of the time it’s been mucked with for too long and they should have let it go. I’m a writer as well, but I don’t do this, I am able to let it go when it’s submitted out there. Maybe if it’s rejected, I revise, but I don’t revise when things are out there. Anyway, that’s what’s changed with electronic submissions. It’s too easy to submit simultaneously, and I think people submit too quickly and have second thoughts. It may make me more likely to dismiss, but I can’t be sure.
One other little thing that I should mention that we’re a Philly mag. We do get involved in any Philly festivals that go on; we are a part of the local community. That’s part of our mission and part of our objective, to be a part of the human beings in the world among people, so we throw two events a month.
Really, every month?
Philosophically, it’s part of who we are, to be a presence. That’s why I mention it. We do a traditional reading once a month and then we do something that we invented, but of course it’s a rip off of other things in the world It’s called a “Slam Bam Thank You, Ma’am,” and it’s an improv writing competition, so we have different people or hosts, sometimes writers, sometimes comedians, and it’s at a divey bar, The Pen and Pencil Club, the oldest journalism club, and the host will go, “Give me a noun,” and people will throw out nouns, and then she picks a noun, a verb, an adjective, then everyone gets five minutes. We have passed out blue books, like old school exam books, and pens and people write for five minutes. And then whoever wants to share, shares, and half the room ends up coming up to read what they wrote. Of course, it gets bawdier and rowdier as the drinks are consumed, and then it goes on. So many people want to read and it’s so fun that we only probably get through three rounds. And we do that once a month. People do, very frequently, create work. Like I said it’s bawdy and rowdy and all that, but sometimes people write stuff that they want to keep and work on. We have published twice in the five years we’ve been doing the Slam Bam, we have published something that was written on the scene. The traditional reading series is what you would expect. I think that is part of who we are, too.
Laura Moretz is a fiction writer who has been published in r.kv.r.y literary quarterly, Stoneboat, and Cutthroat, and who has won the Rick DeMarinis Fiction Prize. She is an assistant editor for Boulevard and the interviews editor for The Review Review.