"We Want to Read Stories and Poems that Leave Us Feeling Electric."
A Chat with Daniel Finkel, Editor of The Penn Review
The Penn Review, founded in 1951, showcases writing and artwork from around the world. Daniel Finkel, Editor-in-Chief of The Penn Review, talks to us about the magazine’s writer-friendly focus and its recent new initiatives.
Interview by Jennifer Stern
Can you talk a little bit about The Penn Review?
The Penn Review is Penn's oldest literary magazine. Founded in 1951, and formed in our modern incarnation in 1966, we publish biannual issues of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and artwork. We welcome submissions from across the globe and are especially eager to publish works by emerging writers.
In the past year, The Penn Review has undergone substantial change, including establishing an online presence and having a 5000% increase in the rate of submissions. Can you talk about this transition?
Despite publishing a number of influential writers over the years, including figures like William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, our primary focus has always been to cultivate emerging voices. As a result, two years ago, when we sat down to discuss The Penn Review’s role in a changing literary marketplace, the goal we settled on was to adopt as many writer-friendly policies as possible.
As writers ourselves, we know that few barbarities can surpass the awfulness of waiting months and sometimes years at a time without hearing from a magazine, so our first goal became to respond to all submissions within 1-2 days. The rest of our initiatives—broadening our online presence; publicizing our contributors’ works through social media; nominating poems and short stories for national awards; establishing prizes to cultivate exceptional writing; funding scholarships for undergraduates in the Philadelphia area—were natural continuations of this process. Thanks to the efforts of a youthful and ferociously-dedicated staff, we’re constantly expanding.
Above all, we’re grateful for the enthusiastic response we’ve received from contributors and readers across the world.
According to Duotrope, you receive so many submissions that you are able to accept less than one percent. What are some of the factors that make a submission stand out to you? Do you have topics of particular interest? How much weight do you give to the cover letter?
We want to read stories and poems that leave us feeling electric, where we can go back time after time and pick each line apart to admire how unbelievably intelligent the writing is. That being said, we don’t have any set list of topics that we prefer. We like to be surprised.
To ensure that no single person’s set of preferences determines the publication of a piece, every accepted submission goes through a three-stage review process that includes discussion among our full board of editors followed by a vote. As the submitter’s identity is kept anonymous throughout our process, we don’t give weight to cover letters or credentials. An emerging writer and an internationally-acclaimed poet laureate have equal chances of being accepted for publication.
In your Editor’s Note in a recent issue of The Penn Review, you write, “From the enrapturing rhythms of childhood to the glitter of port-holed cities telescoping into infinity, these works are a compendium of images with clear surfaces and hard edges.” Is image an important part of the stories that you seek for The Penn Review? Are there other particular craft elements of a story that grab you?
In terms of short fiction, some of the basic questions we ask ourselves are: is there a distinctive character voice? Are we grabbed from the first paragraph? How do the sentences flow? What about individual word choice—is it plain, elegant, uncanny? Are actions depicted sharply and without remorse? Are the characters allowed to emerge without the author explaining them to us? What makes this story memorable? Where is it most subtle? Does the ending stick?
Imagery becomes more of a concern for us when we consider poems. In addition to elegance and understatement, we're always searching for an unconventional set of images to bind a poem together. We also look for rhythm that sweeps the reader along without drawing too much attention to the “wordiness” of the lines. For us, writing a successful poem is like cracking a safe—it takes daring, persistence, and a strong set of ears.
What advice would you give to writers who hope to publish in The Penn Review?
While it may be something of a cliché to cite, I still like James Joyce’s statement that writers should remain “within or behind or beyond or above [their] handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring [their] fingernails.” Sometimes we get stories with swift pacing and fluid prose that lose track of the protagonist in their eagerness to present the author’s ideas. So I suppose the best advice I can give, for fiction writers, would be to stay with the character. As editors, we have spreadsheets to fill and emails to respond to and deadlines to complete and personal lives to pursue, but we’ll gladly set it all aside to spend a few more minutes in the company of a compelling character.
In terms of poetry, whenever we see explanation in the text, we feel the urge to cut it. This usually takes the form of unnecessary adjectives and adverbs which clutter up an image, blunting its force. It’s hard to go wrong with brevity and precision. As an example, the first piece published in our Spring 2018 issue was Allison Adair’s poem “Fine Arts.” When I read it, I was struck by how delicate her lines are, as they delve into questions of secrecy, innocence, maturation, aesthetics, and soft power while remaining entirely grounded within imagery.
Finally, on a technical note, we tend to appreciate cover letters that don’t provide a synopsis, as we like to experience each submission on its own terms.
Do you feel that your experiences as a writer inform your experience as an editor or vice versa?
As a writer, I’m always seeking to make The Penn Review as accessible to contributors as possible. From the submission process to revisions, copyediting, publication, and publicity, my goal is to make The Penn Review into the type of publication that I would look forward to submitting to.
In terms of how working as an editor has influenced my writing, this question makes me think about my piano teacher, who used to say that you should practice not just the sections of a piece that need improvement, but also the sections that you love. I feel the same way about writing. For all the hours you may spend punching out words, I also think it’s important to take a break once in a while, spend a few hours reading something that you admire, and remind yourself what drew you into the whole sordid business in the first place.
One of the pleasures of being an editor is that it gives you the opportunity to encounter so much poetry and prose that inspires you.
Jennifer Stern’s short fiction has appeared in Colorado Review, Hobart, Blue Mesa Review, and Gulf Stream among other journals, has twice received honorable mention by Glimmer Train, and has been anthologized in The Masters Review. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College. She is also a physician.