Why I Love Editing a Lit Mag

Poetry_South_2018_frontcoverThere are a lot of good reasons to love editing a literary magazine: for one, you feel like you’re doing something for writers and readers by providing an outlet for talent and curating content for the public. That is certainly true about Poetry South, the magazine I am fortunate enough to edit with a small staff of students and alumni of our low-residency MFA program. And it is true of Ponder Review, the multi-genre magazine our program started to reflect the kinds of writing that we practice in our classes. But my reason for loving my role as editor of Poetry South is more selfish.

As editor, I have the enviable (and unenviable) job as final arbiter of whose poems are in and whose are out of the magazine. I read every submission, but I also have a staff who reads and votes, and often we disagree — not vehemently, but our votes aren’t all identical. Naturally, there are practical considerations of length and our page format that sometimes dictate whether a poem will fit our pages or whether we have room for another poem. There’s a balancing act to try to put together the best issue that we can from the submissions we receive, and I know there have been times when we’ve sent back very good poems.

Sometimes a reader has read too many poems when she or he gets to a poem that may be quite good, but because of everything that came before, her or his vision is clouded. That’s where the process helps. We try to have at least 2 and often 3 pairs of eyes on every poem. It’s not a democracy, though. Ultimately, a decision has to be made, and that’s what I love — not the power of making the decision, but the responsibility.

An assistant editor may have loved a poem that I passed over on an initial read. Maybe two other readers liked it, and I didn’t. This challenges me to reread and rethink the decision. Or the opposite may occur, where I loved a poem (or liked it — maybe in a generous moment) and it got voted down by one or two other readers. In either case, I end up reading the poem two or three times, and I have to justify my final decision.

Yes, I change my mind, swayed both for and against poems that I voted for or against in my initial read. Often you notice things the second time around that you didn’t notice initially — reading for a magazine is an imperfect art. I learn as much when my mind isn’t changed as when it is.

To make these decisions is to constantly reevaluate and challenge myself about what I think about poetry. Yes, sometimes a theme or a voice develops for an issue and that’s why you make the decisions you do, but often what you learn is more about what you value in a poem. I’ve learned, for instance, that I like a poem with a good narrative, but that I want a poem with more than a narrative: it has to have rich sounds and be said in such a way that I can’t imagine another way to say it. I like a poem that challenges my sense of form and structure, but I want that poem to also have something to say. And I’ve learned that I can’t second guess what I like because just when I do, a poem will come along that challenges all of those preconceptions and still manages to amaze.

I love editing a literary magazine because I get to read so much poetry — not just the poetry that we decide to publish, but also those poems we decide to send back. And I learn from it all. Perhaps more than anything, I learn just how many different poets are out there, and how many different kinds of poetry they write, and how much passion each brings to their art. And I can’t help hoping they’ll all get published. If our little magazine isn’t the right fit for them this time, I suspect they’ll find the right place at the right time soon enough.

But for those we do publish, when I start compiling contributors notes and find out who the poets are — we tend to read fairly blind — I love seeing that we publish some poets with multiple books and many magazine publications to their name, and that we also publish poets for their first or second time. It’s nice to know we have a good mix of experience, age, background, etc., and that it all comes together between two covers to form a cohesive whole. Within those pages, we introduce these disparate voices to one another, and we hope we create something new and valuable in the process.

In Memoriam: Robin Metz

I first met Robin Metz when I hitch-hiked to Knox College in the midst of a November blizzard. In typical Robin fashion, he took it all in stride, found me a place to stay on campus, and proceeded to sell me on transferring. It would have been hard to do anything else after being exposed to Robin’s charisma and the incredibly vital environment for writing that he and Sam Moon had created. They will remain two of the most influential educators and writers in my life.

I have many fond memories of long discussions in fiction workshops with Robin that went long beyond the official end of class, especially on the nights (at least once per term) when Robin would have us all come out to his house on Broad Street. A five-hour class was not uncommon—the fact that we were allowed to drink and smoke in these night classes (maybe not the wisest policy and one that he would change in later years) may have contributed, but so did his wide-ranging discussions. Critiquing a story was never just about ‘fixing’ issues of form or style; for Robin it was always an opportunity to discuss the deeper meanings of life.

No one I knew worked harder or gave more of himself to his students than he. We joked that he sometimes didn’t pay his bills, not because he didn’t have the money but because he couldn’t find the time to write out the check. But he always had time for coffee in the Gizmo and the conference that would often last at least twice as long as scheduled. And his friendship and devotion lasted long after we graduated.

I got to spend time with Robin in Chicago when he was leading the ACM Urban Studies program. He invited to help with a workshop and then invited me back to Knox a couple years later to help with the Alumni Catch and be his assistant for two terms when I was between a job and grad school. He welcomed me into his home until I found a place to stay in an apartment across the street. And he invited me back twice mores to read on campus when I had a new book out. I also saw him many times at AWP or when I passed through Galesburg, which wasn’t as often as I wish now. But every time I saw him, it was like no time had passed.

And of course, we had our differences, and even a run-in or two, but we also had an enormous amount of mutual respect. I don’t know of anyone more curious about life and more dedicated to his craft and to his students, who he alwasy treated as fellow writers. I learned more from working with him than I have from any of my other mentors.

Robin Metz died today, after teaching at Knox for 51 years. I am in the middle of my 25th year of teaching at Mississippi University for Women. To imagine doubling that is nearly unthinkable, yet Robin never stopped. Despite pancreatic cancer, he always wanted to be teaching and inspiring new students and colleagues. He built a creative writing program at Knox that is unrivaled by any udergraduate college, and he inspired an army of writers who have all gone on to do great things, whether as writers, as educators, or in other creative fields. He was fortunate to be able to celebrate the program’s 50th year by traveling around the country visiting alumns (though for part of that year he was undergoing treatments).

I don’t know that I will try to match him in longevity, but I do know that he inspires me every day to create a legacy. For Robin, it never seemed to be about his own ego, but always was about helping others to achieve their potential. Yes, he had books and awards to his name, but I believe he was most proud when someone he taught had their successes. And whenever we meet up at AWP or in any other context, I know the talk will always turn to Robin Metx and how much we will all miss him.

Eudora Welty Symposium at 30

The big day has finally arrived. The Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium will begin its 30th iteration with the kickoff in Poindexter Hall tonight at 7:30pm. Steve Yarbrough wil read from his fabulous novel The Unmade World as we explore the place of Southern writing in the world through our theme “As if the Ear of the World Listened,” a line from Delta Wedding.

weltyposter2018aIt’s always great to bring a dozen writers to campus, spend time with them, our students, and our community. My nerves usually start to settle down once everyone is in town and I pick them up from the hotel in a W van. This year, we’ll be without one writer: Silas House is down in his back and in some serious pain, so we’re talking about rescheduling for a later date. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 11 years of directing the symposium, it’s that you have to go with the flow. You can redirect it somewhat and try to keep everyone happy and moving in roughly the same direction (good food and great writing helps), but there are some things you just can’t do anything about, and you just have to let the momentum of the weekend develop as it will.

It helps that there are so many gracious writers out there, who will come and give us their all. Every year we think ‘this was the best group ever,’ and by and large that is pretty true. All years have been great, and ‘best’ is a relative term of course, but the group of writers usually gels. I expect no less in 2018, given that many of our writers are returning to the symposium and we have some wonderful new folks as well. In a few days, the blur that is the Welty Symposium will be over, and we will all be better for it, with new friends, new ideas, and more than likely with a bag full of new books.

Life as Department Chair

This summer, I made the transition from faculty member and director of our low-res MFA program to faculty member, director of our MFA, and chair of the Department of Languages, Literature, and Philosophy. That may be misleading, since I’m sure the transition is far from over, but I have moved offices and begun work as chair, so it’s been a very busy start of the semester. In addition to all the usual things I do at the start of classes, I got to do all kinds of fun new things like:

  • fill out the paperwork to hire dual-enrollment and adjunct faculty
  • hire a new instructor of Latin
  • cancel low-enrolled classes and create new sections of other classes
  • review all of the department’s syllabi for compliance
  • lead department and discipline meetings
  • pack up my old office and move all my books, files, etc. to my new one
  • hire a student on work-study to help out in the department
  • get set up to purchase supplies
    • thanks to the other chair in the building for doing our first order
  • talk with prespective and current students who drop by for advising
  • begin work on next semester’s schedule while the current semester is barely starting
  • attend meetings with other chairs, etc.
  • spend most of every day in my office, rather than working from home

I’m not making this list to brag (much) or complain, but just to acknowledge that life changes, especially when you take on a new role. Though I’ve been involved with many of these kinds of things in my role as director of a graduate program, the complexity of managing a department of 16 faculty and 10 adjuncts with 2 grad programs, 3 majors, 6 minors, and 2 areas of teacher certification, is a little more complicated. It is challenging and exciting, and it is a little overwhelming, but with good support from my colleagues and dean, it ought to be manageable.

A Beautiful Day on the Capitol Lawn

Yesterday was another beautiful day at the #msbookfest! I spent the day, from 7am to 4pm on the lawn of the Mississippi capitol, talking with people who had been to the many panels of the book festival, and ran into a number of old friends, including authors Katie Pierce, Becky Hagenston, and Mike Smith and alumni Katrina Byrd, Amber King, Trey Harper, and Rei Lott. I also talked to a lot of people and handed out flyers for The Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, The Ephemera Prize, our undgraduate programs, our Low-Res MFA, Ponder Review, and Poetry South. It was a fine day. with cloud cover most of the day (though we were in the shade), a little breeze (which felt great, though it threatened to blow our flyers away — pens helped hold them down). It was great to meet Mississippi high school students and teachers, as well as writers who are considering an MFA deegree or who are looking for places to submit their work. And it was nice to hand out sample copies of our magazines. One of our most common comments was “I didn’t know The W was doing all this!” Worth the price of admission right there.

And for anyone who has thought about attending the Mississippi Book Festival or a book festival in your state, I highly recommend it. Everyone was having a good time, and only us poor exhibitors, booksellers, and the authors in Author’s Alley had to stay outside all day. All of the sessions were in the capitol building or nearby, so attendees could visit our tables and wander around outside between sessions, but could also escape the heat whenever they felt the need. And those of us outdoors had shade, a welcome breeze, and only one shower of rain to cool us down!

A Few Do’s for the MFA Applicant

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post titled 15 Things to Do Before a Low-Res MFA (plus 5 bonus things). That title was a little tongue in cheek because I’m not a big fan of numbered lists (since there’s no magic number), but they were some good things to at least consider before embarking on an MFA. I thought it would be good to follow up A Few Don’ts with a few things to do, and revisiting that list is a good place to start.

  • Read literary magazines both so you can get a sense of the many kinds of writing that is out there and to begin to get a sense of the many places your writing might land. It’s a little daunting to see how much good writing exists, and it’s exciting to see how many people, programs, and organizations are busy publishing that good writing.
  • Submit your work, get rejected, maybe even get published. If you can’t handle the pain of having a magazine not love your poem, story, or essay, then you won’t be ready to handle rejection by an MFA program. Odds are, some program will turn you down; and odds are, if you apply to enough of the right programs (for you), one or more will accept you when you’re ready.
  • Learn about the business side of writing. Yes, a good MFA program should be the place where you learn more about how to make it as a writer, but the truth is, most programs focus more on your writing than on the business side of things. That’s because here’s no one right way to go about making your life as a writer, so we can present you some options, but ultimately it will be up to you. Why wait until you get in a program to start that journey? Inform yourself about the practical side of your chosen career by reading Poets & Writers and books like Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer or Stephanie Vanderslice’s The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life, two great resources that didn’t exist when I wrote the original post.
  • Research the programs you want to apply to. Don’t just apply to the top-rated schools (and don’t give up on them either). Find the programs that seem right for you! Those should be programs that will support the kind of writer you think you want to be and programs with a culture that fits the kind of person you are. Consider fully- or partially-funded programs, and consider low-residency programs that allow you to work your way through your degree on your own terms. Depending on where you are in life, one might be the better option for you.
  • Make a financial plan. This doesn’t have to be super formal or complicated, but it also should be realistic. Consider how much your MFA could cost and how much you have saved or can earn while you’re in school. Yes, you can consider taking on (more) student loan debt, but don’t bury yourself in debt to get an MFA. There ought to be ways to earn your degree and keep your debt load to a minimum. If you already have a lot of student loans from college, you may need to consider paying them down somewhat before starting another degree. Talk to your loan counselor, so you know what your options are. And try not to live above your means while you’re a graduate student. You shouldn’t starve, but you aslo may need to live simply. Know what you’re getting into.
  • Consider whether you really need an MFA. Might there be other opportunities for you to grow as a writer through writer’s colonies, summer workshops, residencies, local writer’s clubs? I believe in the value of a good MFA program, but I also realize that for some writers it may not be the only or the best way to obtain your goals. No writer has to have an MFA, but many have benefitted from earning one. If you do your research and decide it’s right for you, and if you find the right programs for you, then you will be happy with your decision and your application will be stronger.
  • Write, read, and write some more. Don’t wait until you’re in an MFA program to get serious about writing. Write right now, and read, read, read, so you’re informed in your writing. And write and read what you enjoy. Find a community of writers where you are and get involved. You’ll be preparing all the skills that will make you a successful member of your MFA community, should you decide to apply.
  • Take time for yourself. Walk the dog, pet the cat or feed your goat. Fall in love (or not). Live your life, and let the MFA application be one part of that, but don’t let it become an all-consuming part. It will happen (or not) and you will be happier with your choice if the rest of your life is also happening when it does, though life can get complicated—that also keeps it interesting and maybe good material for writing.

A Few Don’ts for the MFA Applicant

It’s getting to be that time of year again, when college seniors and graduates planning to go to grad school start thinking about their applications in earnest. I’ve written a fair amount about the process and even compiled some of my best advice in a Guide for Applicants for my MFA program in Creative Writing that I hope is helpful for anyone. I even compiled a list of things I think you ought to do before applying for an MFA program. Recently, as I was going through some old emails and cleaning up my office, I decided it might be good to add a list of things to avoid when applying. These may not get you into the program you most want to go to, but they might help you avoid giving the wrong first impression. So here they are, in no particular order.

  • Don’t apply to grad school because you don’t know what else you’re going to do with your life. Realistically, many people do this, and sometimes it turns out for the best. But you risk wasting time and money on an education that you won’t use, so it’s better to figure out realistic goals for your education, and especially when applying for a creative writing degree, to have Plan B. In other words, if you’re going to grad school just to avoid getting a job, then figure out how going to grad school will help you get a better job when you’re finished. Or consider taking a year or two off after college to work in a job (that doesn’t have to be your career) and figure out what your goals really are. Why is this important for your application? Grad programs make an investment in you; even if they don’t provide a scholarship, they give more than you pay in tuition, trust me. They want to admit students with clear goals who will stick with it throughout their degree program.
  • Don’t apply only to the top-ranked programs. I tell this to my undergraduate students all the time. Pick the programs that seem like the best fit for you! It’s fine if some are highly ranked, but you need to remember that the odds of getting in are stacked against you (just because they receive so many applicants, many of which could be as great as you are, and they only have a few spots). There are great programs that may be a better fit for you, so do your research and find a good range of programs. You will be happy if you have two or three programs to choose from at the end of the application process! You may be happy if you have one school to choose from! But you won’t be happy if you apply to one or two highly competitive schools and don’t get in. If that happens, though, then learn your lesson and apply to a wider range the next time — it doesn’t mean you can’t write, only that you didn’t find the right program for you.
  •  Don’t wait until you apply to ask for letters of recommendation. Your recommenders will appreciate some advance notice, and they’ll be able to write a much better letter for you and get it in by the deadline. Contact your prospective recommenders as soon as you decide you’re going to apply. Ask them politely if they would be willing to write for you. Esp. if it’s been awhile since you had them as a professor or worked with them, it is a good idea to say something nice about your experience as a reminder and to fill them in on what you’ve been doing since you saw them last. Give them a list of the programs you’ll apply to and the deadlines. Getting your letters in on time can help your application a lot, so it’s up to you to give your recommenders everything they need to make that happen.
  • Don’t send a writing sample that is too long or too short. I’ve seen writing samples that definitely seemed padded and others that really needed more material. Either error can be a deal breaker. Length is fairly subjective, though, so how do you know what is too much or too little? First, follow the guidelines for each program! Ours states that you should send 10-30 pages. 10 pages is for poets or flash fiction writers. You can probably show a good range of work in short genres in 10-15 pages, so there’s no need to strive for 30. Fiction writers may feel that 30 pages doesn’t give them enough room to work with, and though I’m willing to entertain 31-33 pages if it seems necessary, I don’t have time to read your full novel. I tell prose writers to send me one or two pieces. If your stories or essays are short enough, you could send two or three if that shows the range of work that you’re doing. But I’d rather see one 15-page story than two, unless the second really adds depth to your portfolio. Either the first one is going to be best, so why give me another that is a let-down? Or the second is best, in which case you may have lost me before I got there. Send your strongest work and send a good selection (esp. of short work) that represents the kind of writer you are. But don’t send more just because you can.
  • Don’t use non-standard fonts. Trying to reach the minimum page count? Don’t do it by increasing your font size. Trying to keep within the maximum? Don’t make your font tiny. You want me to be able to read it! And don’t use a funky font unless you’re a poet and there’s a reason for it. For prose and most poetry, 12 point Times New Roman is a good standard font and size. Don’t stray to far from this golden mean.
  • Don’t make your letter or statement of purpose too long or too short. I’m more than happy to read a 2-page letter, but probably don’t want to read much more than that. On the other hand, a letter that is less than a page shows that you haven’t put a lot of thought into your application. You do want to tell some about who you are, but you don’t have to describe your full résumé (especially if you’re allowed to include one with your application. Hit the high points and give more personal detail in your letter than in the résumé. You should also indicate why you’re interested in the program you’re applying to and what your goals are for the program and for your writing career.
  • Don’t be too informal in your letter and in your follow-up correspondence. An MFA is a professional degree, so you should act professionally. Yes, it is also an art degree, so you don’t have to go all corporate on us, but we do like to be treated with respect. If the director of a program uses their full name, don’t address them with a nickname unless you know them personally and know they don’t mind. Using a salutation, like Dear X or Dear Dr./Mr./Ms. X is wise, even in an email. Treat the initial email like a business letter and subsequent emails like professional emails. You might drop the salutation in your follow-up replies, but generally follow the other person’s lead. Remember, there is a difference between emailing with your friends and emailing for work or school. Keep the tone of your email professional as well. Every piece of writing you send a program makes an impression. Make it a good one!
  • Don’t ask the program to tell you whether you have talent or not. If you apply to the program and they accept you, then you can assume they think you have potential. If you apply and they don’t accept you, then you can assume you weren’t the best fit for that program (or just weren’t lucky), but it doesn’t mean anything about your level of talent.
  • Don’t expect a decision overnight. MFA programs follow their own schedules, and admissions committees and program directors lead busy lives when they aren’t reading your writing sample. Some programs may wait until after their deadline to begin reviewing applications. Some work with a committee. It can take weeks or even months for a program to make a decision (see the program’s website for information on their process). Patience is a virtue, though it can feel like torture. To relieve the stress and maybe gain some insight in to your program’s decision-making schedule, consider joining the MFA Draft group on Facebook, where people post their experiences and whether they have been accepted, etc.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions! If you’re unsure how to apply or whether your application was received, a polite query is perfectly fine. If you have a problem submitting your application or paying your fee, someone will be able to help. But no one will likely help you if you don’t ask them first. Peppering the program with questions is probably not a good strategy, but neither is maintaining complete silence during the application process. You don’t have to ask questions if you don’t have anything to ask about, but you shouldn’t feel intimidated either. We are humans. We understand, and we’d rather fix something if it isn’t working right than let people become frustrated.

I’m sure there is more advice I could give, but for now, this is a pretty good list of things to avoid and a few things to do when you you are applying for MFA programs in creative writing.