Literary journals often dedicate single issues to major themes – grief, transformation, technology's effect on humanity, birth, hunger, so many others. Prairie Schooner is a terrific read no matter what, but their Fall 2009 Baby Boomer issue especially captured my attention. I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek and to ask guest editor Grace Bauer some questions. [Note: a Prairie Schooner subscription give-away is underway – see note at end of post.]
Lisa Romeo. How did you prepare for the role of guest editor?
Grace Bauer. I was very excited and also somewhat nervous about taking on the task of editing this special issue of Prairie Schooner. I had served as Acting Editor seven years ago when Hilda Raz (the Editor-in-Chief) had a semester’s leave, but then I just put finishing touches on an issue that was pretty much together. This time I was, by choice, taking on much more control – and responsibility. Many years ago, I worked on a short-lived little magazine called Pontchartrain Review in New Orleans, and have also co-edited an anthology, so I wasn’t completely lacking in experience. I’ve been reading literary journals for a long time -- but still, being at the helm of The Schooner was a little daunting.
The first (and probably smartest) thing I did was to sit in with Hilda as she put together an earlier issue. Hilda and I have worked together on our own books -- she was instrumental in helping edit my last collection, Retreats & Recognitions -- so I had some idea of how her editorial mind worked, but the journal seemed like a different kind of creature, and I wanted to see how she tamed it.
Over the course of an entire afternoon, I observed how she made (and often re-adjusted) her choices for ordering the poems, stories, essays, and reviews with an eye toward achieving some balance while making connections and creating interesting segues from one piece to the next. I asked a lot of questions. I had confidence in my ability to recognize good work when I saw it, but I am notoriously “technically challenged” and had a lot to learn about some of the “nuts and bolts” aspects regarding the journal’s formatting template, etc. I knew I had a capable managing editor, James Engelhardt, to rely on for much of that (and I did so). I asked more questions.
And then, not having much choice, I just got into it!
LR. Writers who submit to journals would love to know more about how the editorial mix comes together, particularly for a themed issue. Can you talk about the kinds of decisions you made, where you agonized, etc.? Did you get any inappropriate material?? Did you solicit specific writers, and if so, did you then have to turn down any piece that came about from those requests?
GB. As I discuss a bit in my Introductory essay, the work in The Boomer issue came to me in three basic ways: 1) solicitation 2) the back files of already accepted work at the journal, which I combed through, looking for anything that might fit the boomer theme, and 3) announcements we handed out at the AWP Conference.
Part of my challenge was time. I was technically only serving as guest editor for one semester – and doing it while teaching and keeping up with other obligations. I got a bit of a head start towards the end of the Fall 2008 semester (soliciting the essay from Dorothy Barresi early on, because I knew it would take her some time to write it) but for the most part, I started working on the issue in January, and had to have it to the printers by April. This did not allow for a “general call” or to advertise a special issue.
I solicited from people I knew, and from total strangers whose work I knew – mostly by email. Many responded enthusiastically and promptly sent work my way; some said they’d send me work, but never did. Some responded that they had no available work that seemed relevant; some never responded at all – whether because they were too busy or uninterested or never got the email, I don’t know. Some people told their friends, who also sent work, or recommended people for me to contact, which I usually did. The Schooner staff at the AWP Bookfair handed out flyers, and I found myself walking up to people and saying “hi, were you by any chance born between 1946 and 1964? And have you written about it?” -- which resulted in a flurry of post-conference submissions.
I was, from the get-go, more anxious about the prose than the poetry. I knew that, because of length, I would have to choose fewer pieces, so I was prepared to agonize over that, but both Marianne Boruch’s hitch-hiking piece (an excerpt from a longer memoir) and Marly Swick’s story seemed so perfect for the issue, it was easy to say yes to those – (I did work with both authors on cutting for length) though I then had to say no to other long stories and essays. I was happy to be able to include a few “short short/sudden” fiction pieces – because I’ve always been intrigued by that genre, and it seems to have flourished among boomer aged writers.
With poetry, I had lots to choose from, and once certain choices were made, they influenced other choices. While I expected – and wanted – some recurring themes and motifs, I also wanted variety -- in subject matter, style, tone, perspective, diversity of writers, etc. I wanted some “big name” writers, but was open to including anyone whose work spoke to me. I went out of my way to solicit from formalists as well as experimental writers, and everything in between. I didn’t get much that I would call “inappropriate,” since I was thinking “boomer” in the largest possible sense.
I didn’t want an entire issue full of work that looked back on “the good (or bad) old days” -- though I counted on getting some of that (and did). As things were coming together, I tried to follow Hilda’s lead in terms of making connections and interesting segues, which meant I sometimes turned down work I thought was very good – and relevant to the issue – but maybe too much like something I’d already accepted. Or, conversely, I might accept something because I thought it would work well with/speak to -- or against -- another piece I’d already taken.
It’s little comfort, I know, but I think that’s something all of us need to keep in mind as writers – getting rejected doesn’t necessarily mean the rejected work isn’t good or that the editor didn’t like it. So many other factors might influence a decision – especially, I think, when it comes to theme issues. In the end, I had to reject work I liked quite a bit – including work I had solicited from people (I tried to be clear when I did so that I wasn’t making any promises). A journal is finite, and I simply ran out of pages.
LR. The issue wrestles with the notion of nostalgia. Some pieces look backward, but they resist sentimentality. Even your intro celebrates the boomer generation's achievements but also points out its excesses. When writing a piece that looks back over a life or an event, what strategies can help avoid over the top sentimentality?
GB. Wallace Stevens famously said that a poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully. Note the modifier. Also the one in your question: over the top sentimentality.
Because there is a good bit of work in this issue that “looks back,” there is a certain amount of nostalgia, and some of that may risk sentimentality, but hopefully resists it almost successfully. I think any adult who can look back at the life they’ve lived and not feel the occasional pang of nostalgia for things that are gone – youth, love, time, people, places, brain cells or whatever – has not faced up to their own mortality.
Over the top sentimentality can certainly make for bad writing because it’s too easy. It may mean the writer hasn’t looked closely enough, felt or thought deeply enough, or – even more likely – struggled enough with the language to really get it right. On the other hand, I sometimes read work that seems so determined to not be sentimental that it’s devoid of any human emotion, or even consciousness. While over the top sentimentality may make me cringe, its polar (as in frigid) opposite doesn’t speak to me either.
As for strategies for staying on the right side of that fine line – attention, vigilance, a bullshit detector in good working order?
Note from Lisa: Prairie Schooner editors would like to give away a one-year (four issue) subscription to their excellent journal. Simply leave a comment on this post before midnight on October 17. If you like, share a boomer memory, an experience submitting to or editing a literary journal, or a response to something discussed here. Please include a way for us to contact you.