The Kenyon Review editor, Zach Savich, talks with FUSE about editing and publishing. The Kenyon Review is a prestigious magazine, both because of the excellent standard of literature it publishes–it has recently been ranked 3rd for poetry and 9th for fiction by Pushcart Prize Literary Magazine Ranking–and for it’s long life–it was founded in 1939. It is backed by Kenyon College in Gamble, Ohio and publishes poetry, fiction, non-fiction and book reviews. It supports writers not only by finding new voices, but also by hosting a reading series, a literary festival, and writer workshops, both for adults and students. They have a lively and intelligent blog that has guest authors and staff write about literature and writing.
How did you receive your position with the Kenyon Review? Were there particular experiences that you think most prepared you for the position you have now?
I serve as Book Reviews Editor for The Kenyon Review, along with Kascha Semonovitch and Daniel Torday. We each assign and edit between twelve and twenty reviews a year. I’ve been proud of the lucid, thoughtful reviews we’ve published. We bring good attention to books that readers might otherwise miss, and we offer fresh takes on books that are discussed elsewhere. These reviews are a lively part of the content you can find each month in The Kenyon Review Online. I also serve as a Consulting Editor, reading general submissions to the magazine.
From 2008 to 2010, I wrote about one book review each month for publications including Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Pleiades, and Poetry Northwest. I wanted to slow down my reading and, having had luck with my own poetry, I wanted to contribute to the discussion of the books I love, many of which receive little critical attention. KR accepted several of these reviews and, in the summer of 2010, invited me to join as an editor. I have previously served as an assistant editor with The Iowa Review, an editorial intern with The Massachusetts Review, and a founding editor of Thermos, a deliberately and joyfully small scale poetry magazine. I’m very happy to now be a part of KR.
How much time do you spend working on the Kenyon Review? Do you ever have duties one might not expect going into this position?
We hope our book reviews are well-crafted and engaging, and we typically work with reviewers on several drafts of each piece. We value good writing more than we value the senseless timeliness of a media cycle, so we can correspond about edits for as long as we need to. This process is one of the chief pleasures in my life: I get to email with dozens of interesting, intelligent reviewers each year, discussing recent books and the best ways to write about them. The book reviews you’ll see at KROnline, such as by Anna Journey on Eduardo C. Corral or by Dilruba Ahmed on C. Dale Young or by Eric Weinstein on Jennifer Denrow, show the caring work of a reviewer, at least two editors, and KR’s production and design staff.
While reading books for review or submissions for a journal, how much do you need to read before you can consider it to be unsuccessful? Are there circumstances during the reviewing of submissions where a submitter or a work is in danger of being disrespected?
Like most editors, I read hoping to be surprised, hoping to fall in love, humbled by the time writers take to send pieces in which they’ve tried to say something that matters in a distinct and accomplished way. I stay mindful of the respect this shows the magazine, the faith it shows in our process, and the heartening liveliness this shows regarding contemporary writing. Though most pieces will be declined, many have moments that I read aloud to myself, phrases that stay with me, ideas that make me excited to see the writer’s next submission.
Follow each magazine’s submission guidelines, don’t be unfriendly or unprofessional, understand that editors are often also writers, working hard to support contemporary literature, and your work shouldn’t be disrespected. Become involved as an editor of a magazine yourself, and you’ll understand this process more.
For the Kenyon Review you write book reviews. What do you think a review should do? Who or what do you keep in mind the most while writing one, the readers of the journal, the author, or the work itself?
There are many types of book review, and there are many purposes a review can serve. Some reviews are purely promotional, and that’s fine. They inform readers about which new books exist and offer reasons to feel enthusiastic about them. Other reviews demonstrate the reviewer’s participation in certain academic or artistic scenes; they communicate as much about the sociology of current literature (or literary studies, or the ambitions of a reviewer) as they do about the titles under review. Other reviews offer personal or rhapsodic responses to literature, and they become literature in themselves. (We occasionally publish such pieces at KR, such as Caryl Pagel’s singular take on Sawako Nakayasu’s Texture Notes and an upcoming review by Darcie Dennigan and Carl Dimitri that combines images and text.)
I’m most interested in reviews that combine close description of a work, including illustrative quotations, with precise interpretation—along with pinches of wit and startling vision. I think a review should give a general, interested literary reader a clear sense of what a book is about and why the book matters, so that one who’s read the review could talk about the book’s significance to a friend without having yet read the book. That purpose is one reason I regularly read The New York Review of Books, Boston Review, The Quarterly Conversation, Constant Critic, Pleiades, and other current review outlets. For poetry titles at KR, I hope that reviews remain accountable to the history of poetry and to current practices in criticism and poetics, without depending on a reader’s investment in academic jargon or in the churn of disposable literary fashions. This approach doesn’t require dumbing down discussion, or favoring audience over expression, but attending to, you know, good sentences.
Those who’ve read my nonfiction, such as the lyric memoir Events Film Cannot Withstand, know that my own prose runs a wide spectrum, and I know that poetry can be hard to write about. I don’t want reviews to tame that difficulty, but to make its wildness present, thrilling, and interesting for our readers.
Would you recommend undergraduate or budding writers to submit to prestigious magazines like the Kenyon Review? Is there a type of totem pole one should work up when it comes to sending out submissions?
I’d encourage undergraduate writers to think in terms of literary community, not literary prestige. Find magazines you love, that publish work you think your writing could be friends with. Not because your work is exactly like everything they publish, but because it shares something less tangible. If you are reading honestly and ambitiously, you should be drawn to some magazines that you can add to a “submit in two years” list, that you can learn from reading and admiring as your writing continues to develop. I’d encourage anyone to submit as widely as they like, and I’m interested in every submission I spend time with for KR, but, remember, there really is no hurry to publish. The time you put into reading and writing now will help you write better for the long haul, and it will make your submissions stand out down the road. It’s easy to tell when a submitter cares more about a potential publication credit, and a dream of literary stardom, than about the writing. Focus on the writing. The Kenyon Review is an excellent magazine, and it will be here when your writing is at its best.
That said, submitting avidly and ambitiously can help one regard her work as “done.” Put your best work together, put it in an envelope. You’ll learn to not mind rejection, you may have the thrill of an acceptance, and you’ll be able to approach your next piece with new eyes. Remember that you can always start your own magazine, too. You can always publish your writing on postcards you mail your friends or on t-shirt you put into dryers in the laundry room of your college.
What space do you think that literary journals fill in our society? Do they advance us in some way that books or anthologies cannot?
When I was in the MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, my favorite part of the week was the day you could pick up the packets of poems that had been submitted to each graduate poetry workshop, not just the one in which you were a student. You got to see what everyone had been up to over the last week. There’s Kiki Petrosino with a poem in the form of twenty questions. There’s Robert Fernandez with something that looks like a play. Did John Craun really submit a poem on a chalkboard? I think literary journals play a similar purpose. They show us what’s current—pieces by writers who haven’t yet published books, pieces that have not yet appeared in celebrated writers’ books, that may change before they do, pieces that have been discovered from the past, pieces that are ephemeral yet worth saving from the wind—and they show us what happens when two such currents are next to each other.
In my favorite journals, such as Conjunctions, Laurel Review, Lana Turner, VOLT, Denver Quarterly, Missouri Review, and many others, you read pieces you wouldn’t otherwise, that are united by something that’s less tidy than in an anthology. In the Fall 2012 issue of The Kenyon Review, for example, you can see work by the high school writers who won the 2012 Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize, fiction by Segun Afolabi and Michele Christle, nonfiction by James Longenbach and Bruce Bond, poems by Victoria Chang and Arthur Sze, and much more. That table of contents is a superb refutation to anyone who’d complain about the state of current literature. One’s only complaint should be an exuberant acknowledgment that, with so much great writing, we may need more coffee. We may need to sit by the window all day reading. It may feel really good.
Zach Savich is the author of the poetry collections Full Catastrophe Living (University of Iowa Press, 2009),Annulments (Center for Literary Publishing, 2010), and The Firestorm (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011), as well as a book of lyric prose, Events Film Cannot Withstand (Rescue Press, 2011). He received a BA in English from the University of Washington and MFAs from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. His work has been awarded the Iowa Poetry Prize, the Colorado Prize for Poetry, the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s Open Competition, and Omnidawn Publishing’s Chapbook Award. His poems, essays, and reviews appear widely in journals including Boston Review, Gulf Coast, and Poetry Northwest. He currently teaches poetry and literature courses at Shippensburg University and serves as an editor with The Kenyon Review.