Monday, September 28, 2009

Interview with Grace Bauer, Guest Editor of Prairie Schooner's new Baby Boomer Issue

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.


Carol Berg said...

Liked what she said about editors not taking something--even though the work might be just fine. Need to keep that in my head for next rejection.
Thanks for this Lisa!!!

ARB said...

I'm about to release an entire collection on a similar theme. I'm sure I could have gotten something in, if only I'd known.

Great insight and the questions were all on target.

Having selected the top ten poems out of 840 submissions, I know a good poem when I see it, but then to pick the top ten from the top twenty, and the top five from the top ten. It's not something I'm sure I'd want to do very often.

Anonymous said...

Born in '54, I enjoy reading baby boomer related work. Can't wait to see Prairie Schooner's collection.

Lorri said...

Reading this interview, I realized that as writers, we try NOT to think about the fact that a thousand other people are competing with us for, say, twenty or thirty spots in a magazine. If we thought too hard about it, we might not submit at all. But on the other end, if we get a rejection, we should try TO think about it, because it lessens the sting.

Thanks for the interview. I know it's challenging on the editing side too.

Ginger B. (Barbara) Collins said...

Learning more about the "nuts and bolts" process really helps. Besides choosing relevant stories, there's a final page count that needs to be considered and the puzzle must fit perfectly.

Thanks for the insight.
Ginger B.

Lorri said...

I'm sorry, I forgot to leave my email with my comment. It's



Erika D. said...

I'm not a Boomer (please do consider me for a Gen X issue!), but I so admire Prairie Schooner and I'd love a subscription (I think I said as much awhile back on this blog). Thanks for an excellent interview, which I'll be linking to (even if it reduces my chances for the subscription)!

Unknown said...

Thanks so much for this insider perspective, Lisa and Grace. I miss my Prairie Schooner subscription and this interview reminds me why. I appreciate the amount of time and effort it takes to pull together a themed issue. LOVE the idea of a Boomer issue too.

You can contact me here:
or debra at

Just contact me! to let me know I'm the winner! Thank you :-)

Debra Marrs
Editor and Coach for Writers said...

Great interview questions Lisa. And I especially appreciate Grace's comments about sentimentality and creating a balance between nostalgic and work that rings true.

Thanks for the opportunity to win a subscription. Count me in!

- Drew

Dawn Herring said...

I always appreciate an insider's view on the makings of a publication, especially with a literary journal.
Grace's transparency about being nervous with taking on the task of editing this special issue of Prairie Schooner prompts me to be kind to myself when I get nervous about taking on a large task assigned to me.

Insightful interview!

Dawn Herring
JournalWriter Freelance
Be Refreshed

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Enjoyed the interview with Grace - and her approach to the special issue.

I've edited Blue Fifth Review - - since Winter of 2001. BFR appears 2 or 3 times a year, normally has 1 or 2 special/themed issues a year. Past themes: journey, awareness of violence against women, film, the world from the female perspective, the world from the male perspective, and the body. Felicia Mitchell guest-edited a special themed issue: Appalachian poets. Next year, Barbara Jane Reyes will guest-edit an issue - Code-switching: Poets working in multiple languages.

The themed issues are my favorites to read & and to edit – mainly because those issues put me closer to the material and also allow me to contact new writers and artists.

Contact: Sam Rasnake

Rex Walton said...

Fractionizing -- the blogosphere, together with Facebook, self-publishing software ( soon it will read your mind, print it?), more telephone poles with space for Post-It notes of various sizes, the zany giveaway programs whereby you purchace Alphabet Cereal, and there is a CD inside with 457 poems from some line operator running the packaging machine in Michigan or Peru, and now you can have your poem miniaturized and printed on a personal postage stamp, to give weary postal workers poking your letter into a cubbyhole at 2 am in Billings or Ypsilanti (or both)something to memorize, or what has shown up on google as a legit hit for the word fractionizing during the time I've been fractionizing: well, it is just incredibly daffy! How many place to go for words! But, Ok, I read the Schooner -- shouldn't you?

Really, folks -- smaller is beautifuller -- but quality is rare: try a Prairie on ( one size fits most - some adjustment recommended...)

rex walton

(and thanks for making the word verification to authenticate easier this time -- or am I becoming acclimated? WOW! )

Cris Trautner said...

That nervous feeling, while uncomfortable, is also a part and parcel of the excitement of approaching a large editing project. Or at least that's what I tell myself.

Grace and Lisa, thank you for sharing this interview.

Cris Trautner

Susan Bearman said...

Though theoretically a boomer (born in 1960), I'm the oldest in my family and don't really meet the other criteria. I always felt like I was born too late (although that feeling is fading as fifty approaches). My husband, however, is 10 years older and a full-fledged boomer.

My favorite quote from this post:

"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."

Wonderful insight. Thanks for the interview and the chance to win the subscription.

2kopeople at gmail dot com

Claudia said...

Is the writing of boomers being considered too nostalgic or sentimental by younger editorial minds at some journals or is this writing not fresh enough? Have boomers said all there is to say about our generation? said...

One Boomer’s perspective… getting old just sucks! Call it what you like: aging gracefully, experienced wisdom, relished retirement… who gives an old rat’s behind in a rotten rolling donut what you call it, the dictionary says it like it is: Age is the process of growing old, especially of acquiring the physical and mental characteristics of old age. It’s depressing… body parts don’t work like they used to; can’t remember why I walked into rooms; discussions of one’s health are now prime social events; fiber is required in/on everything one eats; wrinkles are exaggerated dot to dot lines connecting age spots; and hair, hearing, and sight decrease proportionally to the increase in flatulence. Isolation is inevitable as medical advancements allow Boomers to live longer while everyone we know around us dies. Pessimistically my Death Clock calculation says I will die, Sunday, September 1, 2030… optimistically it means I have 659,323,882 seconds to live, 659,323,881… 659,323,880…

Go Boomers!!

Dory Adams said...

I'm a Boomer and admire "Prairie Schooner" -- would love to win a subscription. I was lucky to catch Hilda Raz speak as part of a panel at AWP a few years back. Enjoyed reading this interview with Grace Bauer, who made a very important point that "getting rejected doesn't necessarily mean the work isn't good or that the editor didn't like it." I was the founding fiction editor at "Paper Street" and know all too well how a good story may have to be rejected because it doesn't fit well with the other pieces or because there just isn't room for it due to page constraints. The hardest part of that gig for me was writing the rejection letters for stories that I liked.

Lisa Romeo said...

Congrats to the winner, Debra Marrs.

And thanks to everyone who participated.