"We're Wide Open to Ideas."
Barbara Westwood Diehl is the founding editor of The Baltimore Review and now back after several years to resume the journal's management, along with Kathleen Hellen and a very talented board of fellow editors and writers. She is currently working on her M.A. in Creative Writing at Johns Hopkins University and works for the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Her short stories and poems have been published or accepted for publication in a variety of publications, including MacGuffin, Confrontation, Rosebud, Thema, JMWW, Potomac Review, American Poetry Journal, Measure, Little Patuxent Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Caper Literary Journal, Gargoyle, Superstition Review, and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
Interview by Lisa Mecham
What was your original intention behind The Baltimore Review when you founded it in 1996? How did that change when you returned to manage the journal again in 2011?
Creating The Baltimore Review back in 1996 fulfilled a long-time ambition of publishing a journal filled with the best stories and poems I could get my hands on. (Favorite hangout throughout childhood? The library. I never learned to roller skate. Later, I tried to start a literary journal in high school and failed spectacularly; my administrative and business skills have improved a bit since the 70s.) This may sound hokey, but I’ve always loved holding that finished product, the book, in my hands—and delivering that book into other hands. It’s incredibly satisfying. And there weren’t as many literary journals in Baltimore back then as there are now, particularly markets for fiction. I wanted to fill a gap. With the backing of the now defunct Baltimore Writers’ Alliance and some seed money from the Maryland State Arts Council, the BR was off and running. And although we’ve always accepted work from anywhere on the planet, I wanted to put out a journal with the Baltimore name on it, to put the Baltimore name out there just a little bit more. I love my city, warts and all. I’m always especially happy with issues that include a selection of Maryland writers.
How did my intention change? Knowing that Susan wanted to pass the torch after running the journal for many years sparked some ideas about how to move the journal into the future. All these light bulbs turned on in my head, and I couldn’t resist the challenge. Technology offered new ways of getting great work to readers, as well as ways to explore new media and content, ways to interact with readers more frequently, and ways to be more cost effective. I felt as passionate as I did in 1996—my second wind. To tell the truth, my bottom-line intention hasn’t changed. I’m still the kid in the library who can’t roller skate. I want to showcase fine writing. Period.
I really enjoy how your online edition is laid out with the photographs of the authors on the front page. It is also neat to read the quotes from the authors or editors with insights about each specific piece. You have created both a supportive climate for your writers and an intimate experience for the readers. Tell me about the Baltimore Review's transition to its current quarterly online format and how you plan to balance that with the print edition.
Glad you like the new look!
Yes, it sounds a little strange, at least to me, that technology facilitates intimacy. But it does. We can be present for readers more often, easily. Readers can comment on the blog, and we will respond—as we will respond to posts on Facebook if there is an opportunity for a worthwhile dialogue. We can provide pictures on the site—don’t you wonder what the writers look like? (I’m always surprised)—and those insights from the writers—something I especially enjoy, by the way. Totally selfish of me. I love reading what writers have to say about how they came to write particular pieces. So I ask for them. The guilty pleasure of editorial authority.
All poems, stories, and creative nonfiction published online will also be published online in annual print collections. Other content is mentioned in the print collection. Thanks to print-on-demand, we can do that in a much more cost-effective way. I’m using Amazon’s Createspace now. Hoping that process goes well.
How many total submissions do you receive each year?
Close to 4,000 during our first year with Submittable. Insane, right? Know anyone who likes to vote and comment on submissions?
Take me through what happens when a submission is sent to the Baltimore Review. (How many readers have their eyes on the work, etc.)
The editors are divided into poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction groups, although we have been known to cross over into other camps as the mood strikes us. Some of us dive in and read any and all submissions, casting votes and commenting on work. Other editors wait to be assigned submissions. We send work back and forth until a final decision is made. I do a lot of the initial fiction reviews and assign them to other reviewers if I think they merit additional reviews. Our creative nonfiction group makes recommendations about what to include. Eventually, we boil the submissions down to the 20-30 we want for each issue. We’re trying hard to keep on top of our three-month max response time. We slip occasionally, when we’re still debating work. I should mention that, with that kind of volume, work does have to grab us from page one.
What makes a particular submission stand out to you?
Readers should definitely read the “Staff” page on our website. Each of the editors provided comments on what they’re looking for. We really did mean that page to be helpful to writers who want to send us work. Work should always be well written, but being competent is not enough. “Fresh” is a word that comes up a lot. We always want to read something we haven’t read before, to not be bored, to learn from what we read, to be 100% engaged from beginning to end. Like Sam Schmidt says in his “Incredibles” quote, I’m waiting to be amazed.
What are some trends that you like and/or dislike in the submissions that you receive?
Not sure you’d call this a trend, but I see a lot of promising work that would benefit from another revision and careful editing. I think a lot of writers (guilty!) are sending work out before it’s ready. It’s almost too easy to submit work to a boatload of journals simultaneously. Maybe we were more careful when we had to print them, stuff them in envelopes, apply postage, and mail them. Some editors will take the time to work with writers to polish. Some, considering the volume of submissions, simply can’t do this.
There are books and books out there on all the don’ts, so I won’t go there. Writers shouldn’t be submitting until they’ve honed their craft. Although we’ve certainly published emerging writers, I wouldn’t say that the BR is a journal to cut your publishing teeth on. Oh, and characters who are getting wasted from page one on—this is a problem for me. And people going insane. Or dreaming. Sorry—I said I wouldn’t go there.
A good trend: I’m seeing more intertwining of prose and poetry, and I like that. Music and risk in the writing. And more risk in terms of content, a willingness to write without worrying too much about the consequences, and doing this in unpredictable ways. Voices that are heard above the crowd. I like to be startled.
The new video section of your magazine is very interesting. Tell me about that.
We would love to see more videos. I just asked some poetry slam people to send me videos. They were incredible. Hear that, Slangston?
We’re wide open to ideas. As long as they use words in an innovative way. Yes, including the song was kind of cheating, but I loved it.
What other current publications do you admire?
There are so excellent literary journals out there now—and more being born every day—and I read tons of them. I don’t want to play favorites. Sorry. But I’ll put it in a plug for the Baltimore area locals, JMWW, Little Patuxent Review, Potomac Review, Artichoke Haircut, Smartish Pace, Passager, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review—and there are more, I know.
I believe you are currently pursuing your M.A. in Creative Writing at Johns Hopkins University? Which do you prefer: editing or writing?
Sorry, you won’t get that out of me, either. I love them both. But if you demanded that I give up one and never, ever be able to do the other again—I’d have to say, give me my writing.
A midwesterner at heart, Lisa Mecham lives in Los Angeles with her two daughters and the dog that they suckered her into. She is pursuing a Creative Writing Certificate in Fiction from the the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and her poems have appeared in WordPlaySound and Emerge Literary Journal. Lisa is working on her first novel.