"Where Language Breaks Down."
A Chat With Jason Thayer and Aaron Reeder, Editors of Blue Mesa Review
Jason Thayer is an MFA student at the University of New Mexico and the Co-Editor-in-Chief of Blue Mesa Review. This year, his fiction and non-fiction pieces were published in Hobart and the Rumpus. In the past, his stories have won contests judged by Antonya Nelson and Bret Lott, respectively. He is currently knee-deep in writing a memoir. When he isn't writing, he is recording and performing bleak and unusual hip hop. Twitter: @jasoncthayer
Aaron Reeder writes from Albuquerque and is an MFA student of poetry at The University of New Mexico. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Washington Square Review, Literary Orphans, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Apeiron Review, Kudzu House Quarterly, Bitter Oleander, Black Tongue Review, The Great American Literary Magazine, and others. He is the author of the chapbook, DAWN (Orange Monkey Publishing, 2015). Visit aaronreederwrites.com for event and contact information. Twitter: @reedaaro
Interview by Matt Broderick
To get started, why don't you guys tell me a little about yourselves and the first thing you would want someone to know about the Blue Mesa Review.
Jason: Aaron and I are both third year MFA students at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Aaron is a terrific poet with a new chapbook out. Collectively, we eat more tacos than anyone else you know. We made tacos together the other night and I slept on his couch with his little dog. He and his wife just had their first baby and named him Wolff. Aaron's poetry is absurd and heartbreaking. He knows more about surrealism than anyone I've ever met. When we roomed together last year at AWP, he would sleep with a pen in his hand, every so often rousing enough to write down a line of poetry on a piece of paper without even opening his eyes. His work ethic is inspiring. And his baby is cute.
With Blue Mesa Review, we are always looking for work that surprises us, either in terms of content or in terms of form. When I was the fiction editor last year, I was seeing so many submissions, all with this similar narrative: a middle aged man going through some sort of mid-life crisis, reflecting on his life, his children, his career in the wake of divorce. That is a totally valid story, but I'm pretty sure Raymond Carver already wrote it 25 different times in a very precise, stylized, minimalist way, which he (and Gordon Lish) pioneered, or at least popularized. Now if I want to read a realist story about a depressed middle-aged white man I'll crack open What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. That's not to say writers can't write about middle-aged white men who drink too much and miss their ex-wives, but writers engaged in this kind of material should challenge themselves to present this story in a fresh way, offering readers a new lens by which to glimpse this facet of the human condition.
Aaron: Well, like Jason said, we’re both third year MFA students at The University of New Mexico. Jason is one my favorite prose writers right now. I love his ability to thread together the real and surreal in his stories. He recently had some stuff published in Hobart and The Rumpus. Jason makes an excellent marinade for taco meat! Seriously, Jason loves to cook. Correction: Jason loves to cook while camping. He has a great collection of obscure cassette tapes.
As for BMR, I have to echo what Jason said about surprise. I want the works that cause me to feel deeper or expand my thinking. BMR is entering into its 27th year of publication. I think what writers should know about us is that we’ve lasted this long by publishing new and fresh voices. BMR’s editorial staff is revolving from year to year, but the one thing that remains consistent is our vision to see the magazine connect disparate communities. I think what some writers assume is that we’re a southwest based magazine and want those stories set in the region, or those poems inspired by the landscape. I mean, yes, we want it all, but we don’t gravitate toward those kinds of pieces over everything else.
So, if I am getting this right, stories involving tacos are sure to grab your attention? What other material/themes do you enjoy seeing explored through creative writing? What are you sick of seeing?
Jason: I have a soft spot for localized magic in stories. Think Margaret Atwood's "Hairball" or Jonathan Lethem stories--so long as the magic is rendered to an end, not just plunked down in a gimmicky way. It needs to be used as a fresh lens to investigate some facet of the human condition. Wait. Did I say that already? I think I already said that.
Our new Fiction Editor, David Morgan O'Connor, is a voracious reader--I mean the guy has read everything, he's a machine, an animal--and he has a pretty keen eye. If a piece of prose is sharp, innovative, or just plain good, he won't let it slip through the cracks. David reads blind, but I don't. Mainly, this is due to a pet peeve: sometimes we get people in places of privilege (read: white males) writing from the POV of oppressed people, trying to speak for them. This implies that the author thinks these people aren't capable of telling their own story. It's condescending. It's appropriation. It's exploitative. Last year, we had a fiction submission about a Mexican woman, told in close third person. The protagonist was trying to cross the border with the aid of a coyote in an effort to give birth in the United States. It was written by a white man. My question is, what gives this author the authority? This is problematic in fiction, though not everyone thinks so. Given Aaron and my position, I can assure you something like this will not be published during our reign. So don't even bother sending it. Unless you are Dave Eggers and you are sending us a chunk of the sequel to What is the What? expect a kind rejection.
Aaron: To answer your first question, any writing with food in it is sure to grab my attention. Mostly because I am really horrible at reminding myself to eat at regular intervals. I usually exist on a steady diet of coffee and breath mints.
As for your second Because I primarily write poetry, I’m always moved by those poems where language breaks down, or fails to adequately convey the emotion of the moment. It seems to me in those moments the poet’s inclination is to make wild associative leaps to fill in the gaps. The words that fill those gaps are my favorite. I’m currently reading, and crying, through C.D. Wright’s The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All.
It’s hard for me to say what themes we like to see explored, because Jason and I have relinquished our duties as genre editors. I think a good portion of us on the editorial board enjoy those pieces that explore family and social dynamics. We’re not limited to that, though. And yes, like Jason said, those pieces that hijack another person’s story, experience, struggle are not for us. Remember when that whole Michael Derrick Hudson thing came to light? Well, he submitted poems to BMR. Of course we made a hard pass. That’s not for us. That kind of writing shouldn’t be right for any lit mag.
I'm seeing a nice unity here between your responses, which gives me better insight into how working as Co-Editor-in-Chiefs is successful for Blue Mesa Review. Am I right about this success? Has BMR always operated with two individuals at the helm?
Jason: In the past we've had a single EIC, but I think the workload is more manageable with two people. Aaron and I are armpit deep in our own creative projects right now, trying to finish books of poetry and memoirs and collections of short stories in our final year at UNM. I don't think either one of us would have felt okay about taking on the position alone. It's also good as far as checks and balances. When Aaron wants to run a blog about "Writers as Dogs," with Kurt Vonnegut as a basset hound, I have to step in and tell him that, actually, "Writers as Cats" is the better blog to run, with J.K. Rowling pictured beside an orange tabby.
This is great, but what about any downfalls to working as Co-EICs? Are there moments of butting-heads? How do you handle difficulties as a pair?
Jason: We began this year settling arguments by arm wrestling, but Aaron has these massive baby-lifting muscles and he would always win. We have since implemented a more democratic system. Each of our genre editors is an active participant in all decisions. There are 5 of us and everyone gets a vote. If we added another editor, we'd have an even number of voters, risking a hung jury, and get nothing done. We'd have to shut down the magazine, 26 years of hard work down the drain. As it is, we can swiftly and efficiently address important issues like "Do we have the money to pay contributors?" or "How much should we charge for expedited submissions."
And are you able to pay contributors? Or, offer expedited submissions for an additional cost? Are there any unique aspects of submitting/contributing to BMR that the world should know about?
Aaron: Good question! Well, the BMR board just voted to start paying regular issue contributors. It had been a goal of ours for some time now, but we really needed to consider if the funds would be there long-term. BMR is going to start paying contributors for issue 35, due out this spring. We’re excited to be in that category of magazines that has a free general submission and pays its contributors. Yes, we do have expedited. What a writer can expect from expedited is that the submission will be read within a month’s time, and it is read by the editor of the genre you’re submitting to.
I think what’s unique about our magazine is that whether it’s expedited or a general submission, each piece is given great consideration. I love it when our readers and editors go to battle for a piece during the discussions. I love seeing our editors and readers fight for what moves them.
Matt Broderick is a writer/artist living in Boston. He is the former Reviews Editor for The Review Review.