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Sonora Review, Mike Coakley

Sonora Review was founded in 1980, run by students in the Creative Writing department at the University of Arizona. It is one of the oldest student-run literary journals in America. It accepts fiction, poetry and nonfiction from September through May, only previously unpublished work by emerging or well-known authors. Each year, varying contests are held for poetry, fiction and nonfiction, the winner receiving a 1,000 dollar cash prize and publication in the following issue of the magazine. The staff changes with every two issues, so each year there is a different aesthetic and a different overall feel to the magazine as a whole. The current head editors are Mike Coakley and Laura Miller. FUSE interviews one of the Sonora Review head editors, Mike Coakley.

In constructing the next issue of Sonora Review, what exactly are you looking for in a submission? What does it take to make it into your literary magazine?

We’ve got all sorts of pieces in our most recent issue. There’s a less-than-one-page story by Rikki Ducornet (“a small address,” she calls it) alongside an expansive twenty-four page piece by Matthew Baker. We’ve got a delightfully strange essay in which Eric LeMay assembles a baby out of spare parts, along with a fairly traditional, wonderful specimen of literary journalism by Irina Zhorov. So I’m afraid I have to give the common answer here: We’re not sure what we’re going to like until we see it. And the “we,” in this case, is constantly changing. Because the graduate program at the University of Arizona lasts for only two years, the editorial board today is completely different from the editorial board of issue 59 or 60 or 61. It’s an ever-revolving door. In other words, a piece rejected by the current staff might be accepted unanimously by a future one.

The je ne sais quoi response is potentially a frustrating one, but as a submitter to literary journals myself, I find it kind of liberating too. I can safely say that we’ll never discount a submission based on subject matter or “topic,” if you catch my drift. We’re looking for stories, poems, and essays that blow us away on their own terms, that make us rethink, reconsider, or question what we thought we already knew. We want submissions to show us some tucked-away nook or cranny of life we’ve forgotten about, or that we never knew existed. Perhaps that’s vague, but as Francine Prose says in her essay “What Makes a Short Story?” in Tom Bailey’s On Writing Short Stories, any time you try to define what a “good” story is, you realize there’s some masterpiece out there that defies your definition. The same goes for poems and essays, I think.

All of that being said, current nonfiction editor Tommy Mira y Lopez has a wonderful Essay Daily post in which he talks about what he looks for in nonfiction submissions. You can find it here. How important is it to you to have pieces that correspond with each other, or link to one another in some way?It’s important when we’re arranging pieces, but not so much when we’re selecting them. A funny thing happens when you bind a bunch of quality stories, poems, and essays between two covers. Similarities rise to the surface. You notice a conversation starting to emerge. We take it on faith that the pieces in a given issue will cohere, and we like to think that that faith hasn’t failed us thus far.

Once you’ve chosen your submissions, what’s next?

Once we’ve filled an issue, there’s a whole lot that needs to happen. We send off publication contracts to our contributors, and while we’re waiting to get those back we copyedit, copyedit, copyedit. We ask our genre editors to proofread. We send the contributors their own pieces to proofread. I personally read each piece in the last issue about four times each, slowly and carefully, because I have nightmares about misprints. And as all of this is happening, we’re already combing through our unsolicited manuscripts to prepare the next issue. John Gialanella is our graphic designer. He’s a saint among men. Most of the time we can offer a vague vision for how we want the journal to look, and he delivers a staggering initial draft. From there, it’s a back-and-forth conversation via email (he lives in northern Arizona) about margins, paragraphs, typos, biographies, front covers, back covers, order of work, and much more. It takes at least a month to go from final acceptance to final proof, but it’s worth the wait!

How did Sonora Review get its name?

It’s named after the Sonoran desert, which covers much of the southwestern United States (Arizona included) and northwestern Mexico. That said, I’m not sure about the exact story and reasoning behind Sonora’s naming. I am glad we’re not The Arizona Review or The Tucson Review, though. Something about naming ourselves after the saguaro-studded desert just feels right.

One of the major issues we discuss today is the impending “death” of literary magazines. What’s your opinion on this?

I don’t think they’re dying out at all. Nor will they, if we continue to read and support them. There’s a fantastic collection of literary journals at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, and it gives me heart every time I see someone walk by and pick up the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction, or Glimmer Train, or Hayden’s Ferry, or even Sonora (all of these in just the past two weeks or so). I do a short unit with my students on literary magazines every semester, and two things always happen. When we start off, they look at me with confusion, as though I’m talking about some esoteric custom from some ancient, dead civilization. When we finish, I’m inundated with questions about cover letters, and where so-and-so should submit such-and-such piece, and, if all goes incredibly well, which magazine so-and-so should read. In other words, there’s interest in literary magazines. Open to either the copyright or acknowledgements page of almost any short story, poetry, or essay collection and you’ll find that at least half of the pieces within were published in a magazine first. They’re accessible publishing markets for emerging writers, and they give us our first healthy taste of cold, no-means-no rejection. And there’s readership for these journals, too, but they can always use more. It can be daunting to read everything that’s out there, but I try to commit myself to reading five to ten magazines regularly. I’ve got my favorites.

Nick Ripatrazone, a Susquehanna alum, has an article in The Millions about literary journals in popular culture: It’s nice to be reminded that writers might not be an insular as they think. Thanks, Mad Men!]

Are there any plans for the expansion of Sonora Review?

I’m fairly sure we’ll always be a print journal, but I’d definitely like to see our web presence beefed up a bit. Our web editor, Jess Jenkins, did a website overhaul this year, and it looks so much cleaner and slicker than it used to. But the fact that we so often find ourselves juggling graduate student responsibilities means that online features, such as the blog, aren’t updated as consistently as we’d like. We’ve been working in the direction of having more regular interviews, reviews, and special features posted on the blog. Also, we do our online orders with Submittable, which is a wonderful platform for submitting work, but isn’t ideal for ordering issues. We’re hoping to have a more intuitive shopping cart up by the fall. We’re always looking for increased visibility and circulation. The submission count for this year’s poetry contest increased by about 400% from last year’s, and the fiction and nonfiction contests are looking to be in similar shape. We’re very happy about that, but obviously, if we had our way, everyone would read and submit to Sonora!

How did you get to be the editor of the Sonora Review, and what does that personally mean to you?

Because Sonora is run through the writing program at the University of Arizona, it was a fairly typical application process. I volunteered to read for Sonora at first opportunity, and spent my first semester on the editorial board. Over winter break, I applied for the position of managing editor, got it, and then spent the spring semester shadowing the previous editors, Lawrence and Heather. Right now, we’re in the process of preparing next semester’s editors, Jake and Will, for that same transition.

It’s an honor to have served Sonora this past year, and to have the opportunity to work on a graduate-run magazine with such a rich history. I remember at one point, near the end of last semester, I felt incredibly daunted and overwhelmed by the build-up of editorial tasks. We were having an intern meeting in our office, and I came across a copy of the very first issue of Sonora. I flipped through it and read some of the work inside—work by the likes of Denis Johnson, Mary Karr, and Jorie Graham—and it sort of kicked my ass into gear. Our editorship changes annually, meaning a whole lot of people have put a whole lot of work into shepherding wonderful writing out into the world. That’s important to remember when working for any literary magazine, at any level. It’s a service. It’s humbling and gratifying to have people trust you with their words, offering them up as an act of faith in the journal and the art.

We’re taught that reading is a quintessential part of being a writer. Would you like to speak a little about that? What are you reading right now and how has it influenced you as a writer or reader?

In my introductory writing classes, I skipped a lot of the assigned readings, or I’d read just enough to get by during group discussion. I was convinced that my writing was most important. I had a story to tell, and to hell with what other people had to say. To hell with context. So I turned in a 31-page story for my first workshop—a masterpiece, I was sure—and my fiction teacher (Tom Bailey, of course) crossed out all but two or three pages. You would think I would have taken that as a clue, but it was a few years before I realized how important reading is. It’s essential on every level. It improves my sentences. It kindles ideas. It reminds me of the broader context of my work, which is humbling. And most importantly, it reminds me that I’m not alone, neither as a writer nor as a human being.

Right now I’m reading Susan Orlean’s The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, which is a wonderful collection of profile pieces on surfer girls, show dogs, average children, and others. Orlean is incredible at finding the extraordinary in ordinary folk; “An ordinary life examined closely,” she writes, “reveals itself to be exquisite and complicated and exceptional, somehow managing to be both heroic and plain.” I’m reading her because I’m trying to write a nonfiction profile myself, but I think that idea—that there’s meaning in the everyday—is important to remember no matter what you happen to be writing. If what Orlean says isn’t true, then why bother? I’m also reading Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, and I could go on and on about how awesome it is, but I’ll leave it to folks to check out themselves.

What’s your favorite day of the week?

Every Wednesday, a few friends and I grab a cheap box of wine and go to a local Tucson restaurant for delicious Ethiopian food. Zemam’s, the restaurant is called. So until we switch up the Ethiopian day, Wednesdays reign supreme.

If you could be any animal, what would you be?

A person. Particularly, a Sonora Review contributor.

Do you have any funny stories to tell? Horror stories about editing, submitting, or writing?

Nothing major, thankfully. I did once submit a nonfiction piece to The Missouri Review with a typo in the first word. The first word. Instead of “Eight years ago…,” the first line read, “Eights years ago.” But as is always the case with Missouri, they were very kind in their response and didn’t mention it at all. Which is to say that, amid all the hard work and potential stress of writing and submitting and editing, the literary community is often very kind and generous.

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