"Sharing the Desire to Open U.S. Literary Culture to Outside Perspectives."

"Sharing the Desire to Open U.S. Literary Culture to Outside Perspectives."

An Interview With Geoffrey Brock, Anna Vilner, and J. Bailey Hutchinson, Editors of The Arkansas International

The Arkansas International is a vibrant space, evident in the recent publications of Anneli Furmark’s comic “Horses” (translated by Hanna Strömberg) and Ladee Hubbard’s essay “Mafolie Hill,” which describes the author's time in the Virgin Islands. The journal, published by students of the University of Arkansas Program in Creative Writing and Translation with Geoffrey Brock as editor-in-chief, seeks to place “US writing in conversation with writing from around the world.” The editors seek more creative nonfiction in translation from underrepresented countries as well as writing in English from underrepresented voices. The enthusiasm of its staff is evident as they describe their process in the following interview conducted via email with Geoffrey Brock, nonfiction editor Anna Vilner, and poetry editor J. Bailey Hutchinson.

Interview by Ruby Hansen Murray

Ruby Hansen Murray: The Arkansas International is a relatively young publication. Would you talk about its genesis and how you’ve seen it develop since its inception?

Geoffrey Brock, Editor-in-Chief: In 2015, one of my grad students pointed out that many comparable MFA programs publish journals and she made it clear that she would like to help start one. It’s something our faculty here had considered before, but none of us had been willing to take the leap, in part because we didn’t know where the money or time would come from. I had the idea to run the magazine as a course and that’s what we started doing in 2016. The students who take the class are the magazine’s staff, and we put together one issue per semester. We were incredibly fortunate to have, in that first group, some truly stellar students, including Sacha Idell as our fiction editor and was recently hired as the new editor of The Southern Review, and Anthony Blake, who was our managing editor and was recently hired as marketing director of Open Letter Books. In addition, Anthony’s replacement, Elizabeth DeMeo, was recently hired as an editor by Tin House Books. Either we had an anomalously good founding group, or we’re on the verge of taking over American publishing.

RHM: Would you talk about your role as editor-in-chief? I’m interested in your background, what you bring to this position, and your goals.

GB: My background is as a poet and literary translator. I have both an MFA in poetry and a PhD in Comparative Literature. I’ve published two books of my own poetry and have translated books of poetry, fiction, literary nonfiction, and comics. I’ve also published hundreds of poems and translations in literary journals over the past two decades. So I suppose one of the things I bring to this position is a useful familiarity with the several facets of the US publishing industry, from the burgeoning literary journal landscape, which we are now a part of, to the increasing number of vibrant internationalist presses (from Archipelago to Zephyr), whose desire to open US literary culture to outside perspectives we share, and whose writers we aim to publish in our magazine, and whose books we aim to review on our website.

RHM: How would you describe the journal’s overall aesthetic? Are there forthcoming themes you hope to address? What would you like to see more of in your submissions?

GB: I don’t like to define a “house aesthetic” for several reasons. The first is personal: I’m always hoping to be surprised by something I didn’t know I would like. The second is because our journal is not, in any case, meant to be an expression of my personal tastes, but rather the expression of a frequently-changing collective of which I am only one member. The genre editors and their assistant editors all have voices in the process, and each has different aesthetic preferences. And finally: we’ve already published work from several dozen different countries, from five continents, from many different languages and cultures and literary traditions; how could we impose an “overall aesthetic” on such a wide range of work even if we wanted to? We often say our mission is to put US writing in conversation with writing from around the world, and you can’t very well do that without putting different aesthetics in conversation with each other.

As for what we’d like to see more of, I suppose the short answer is: good work in any form. More specifically, good literary nonfiction in translation comes to mind--we get very little of that over the transom. Also: good comics of any kind (whether original or translated), translations from underrepresented countries or languages, and original work in English from underrepresented voices.

RHM: Would you give a sense of your relationship with the genre editors? Could you (or would they each) be willing to talk about the specific focus or aesthetics that guide them?

GB: The genre editors change every year or so, depending on things like graduation. Currently the poetry editor is J. Bailey Hutchinson, the fiction editor is Joy Clark, the nonfiction editor is Anna Vilner, the poetry-in-translation editor is Jake Collum, the fiction-in-translation editor is Samantha Kirby, and the comics editor is Claire Pincumbe. You’re welcome to ask them individually about the particular interests and aesthetic preferences they bring to our collective.

As for my relationship with them: we meet as a large group (the “magazine class”) once a week during the semester. After meeting in small groups with their assistant editors, the genre editors give me weekly recommendations for work to accept and reject. If I disagree with or have questions about any of these recommendations, we discuss them, either in-person or by email or text. I have the final say, but I follow the large majority of their recommendations. They constantly impress me with the intelligence and care they bring to their task.

Anna Vilner, Creative Nonfiction Editor: I am drawn to work that is layered and nuanced. I’m looking for essays that contain singular voices—essays that surprise their readers or challenge them to think differently about the world around them. If the author contemplates smaller, everyday questions, they need to be doing something to evoke this contemplation in the reader as well.

Since we are an international journal, we are particularly interested in receiving essays in translation. We were delighted, for example, to publish an excerpt from María Sonia Cristoff’s hybrid collection False Calm. Cristoff’s essays chronicle her return to the Patagonia she left behind as a teenager. Her slow, patient wandering through the ghost towns of her past, paired with the careful attention she pays to the lives of their residents, captivated me as a reader.

J. Bailey Hutchinson, Poetry Editor: Because we publish a variety of poetic styles and aesthetics at The Arkansas International, I'd say our editorial process focuses on creating a varied and vital reading experience for anyone who picks up our magazine. We want the journal to reflect the internationality of contemporary literature, which (on the poetry side) means balancing new and established voices, paying attention to cultural representation, and diversifying the types of poetry we include in each issue.

Above all, of course, we publish poetry that excites us—pieces that, when compiled, form a collection that feels vivid and alive. That isn't to say we only publish living poets; we published a suite of Sarah Arvio's Lorca translations in our third issue, but I'd say those poems possess the exact vividity I described above. They absolutely breathe on the page. I love the moment when the poetry staff gets together to read submissions and someone looks up with that big-eyed look of wow, did you read XYZ's packet? and we all look over said packet together. It's like electricity, or brain signals jumping between synapses. Anyhow, to make it concise: we look for work that demonstrates the liveliness and variety of poetry.

RHM: It appears the journal is sensitive to the need to charge submission fees, deferring fees until you hit a cap in Submittable each month, then charging $3.00. You’re also paying contributors “based on the budget of each issue. For issue six, contributors will be paid $20 a printed page (capped at $250) and in copies of the journal.” Would you talk about the values that inform this policy?

GB: I had no interest in being involved with a journal that didn’t pay contributors, and so, from the beginning, we organized everything financially around meeting that goal. And given that we do pay and have a free submission period for each issue, we feel okay about charging a small submission fee at certain times of the year. So far, we’ve paid $20/page. We’re hoping to raise that in the near future.

Ruby Hansen Murray is the winner of the 2017 Montana Nonfiction Prize and a 2018 Artist Trust GAP award. She was awarded fellowships at Hedgebrook, Ragdale, and VONA. Her work appears in World Literature Today, CutBank, About Place, and The Rumpus. A writer and photographer, she received an MFA from The Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. www.rubyhansenmurray.com