Black Warrior Review, Bethany Startin (interview)
“Black Warrior Review is named after the river that borders the campus of The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The city, river, and journal derive their names from the sixteenth-century Indian chief Tuscaloosa, whose name comes from two words of Creek or Choctaw origin—tusca (warrior) and lusa (black).” Black Warrior Review was established in 1974 by the University of Alabama Creative Writing MFA students. The magazine publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and art by known and emerging writers. Each issue of the magazine has a chapbook from an established poet. To read past issues and learn more about Black Warrior Review, visit http://bwr.ua.edu/.
How did you become interested in editing? What path led you to the position you’re in now?
I became interested in editing around my late teens, when I started reading the blogs of literary agents and editors: though these were mostly written for an audience of writers, I thought the jobs themselves sounded so cool that this career path shot right to the top of my list. During my time as an undergrad, I interned at a London literary agency for a summer and learned a lot during my time there. A couple of years later, when I was applying to creative writing MFA programs, the presence of a literary journal — and especially the prospect of working on said journal — was one of the things that really drew me to a program. It seems like the ‘standard’ route for MFAs is very much a teaching-based one, but even though I enjoy teaching and I like my students a lot, I knew from a long time ago that teaching wasn’t my end-goal.
How did you get involved with BWR? How long have you been working there?
I got involved with BWR when I first joined the University of Alabama MFA program: as it’s a totally student-run journal, all the editors and assistant editors are members of this MFA program. I started out as an assistant editor, which anyone in the program can sign up for — this meant reading ‘packets’ of poems and nonfiction essays, and discussing them in meetings. It wasn’t till my third year in the program, though, that I felt prepared to stand for the role of poetry editor (all the genre editorships are elected positions). Now I’m in my fourth year in the program, and soon the next group of genre editors will be taking over, which is a little sad but also very exciting — I look forward to seeing where the magazine goes next!
Do you ever have duties one might not expect an editor to have?
I think because BWR is such a democratically run magazine, that changes the playing field a little in terms of my responsibilities. All poetry submitted via our general submission manager goes through several rounds of being read (by both me and the slush readers) and although I get a lot of autonomy on what I want to bring to the discussion meetings, the final say on whether a piece is accepted belongs solely to the assistant editors. This means that I take a definite backseat in the final stages of the decision-making process, and in the meetings, my role is very much one of asking questions rather than giving my own opinions.
What are some of the challenges of running a literary magazine?
I’m not too knowledgeable about the business side of things, but on the editorial side: I think one of the big challenges for a lit magazine like BWR, where the editorial team is newly elected every year, is the difficulty of ensuring that we don’t let our own individual tastes conflict with maintaining the ethos of the journal. BWR is definitely an experimental journal — we love the weird, in all genres, and keeping up this identity is important to us.
Is it ever a struggle to find the right pieces for each issue? How do you decide what to include and what to reject?
It’s never a struggle to find enough great material for each issue. We get a whole lot of submissions, and due to our limitations as a print journal, we can only publish a select few. But it’s definitely a struggle sometimes to select the few poems that we have the time to talk about in meetings, and if a poem I really liked didn’t go down well with the assistant editors, it often really stings to reject it.
When selecting the poems that I want to go further in the editorial process, the input of slush readers is of course invaluable, but I also think about whether a poem fits in with the ethos of the magazine, whether it’s fully successful in engaging the reader throughout (sometimes if I really love a single line in a poem, it can be difficult to detach myself and realize that the rest of the poem isn’t right), whether it’s something I feel like I’ve seen before, and whether it succeeds on multiple readings (there have been times I’ve voted yes on a poem initially, only to go back weeks later and have a completely different reading experience). Mostly, though, I try to select the poems that are a pleasure for me to read, and I keep my fingers crossed that our assistant editors — and, of course, our readers — will find them equally pleasurable.
BWR has been around for 40 years. What are some tips for producing such a long running magazine?
I’ll be honest — I’m not too familiar with the early stages of the magazine, and it’s only in the past few years that I’ve become really knowledgeable about the work we publish and our aims as a magazine. But what I have been consistently impressed by is our focus on maintaining our commitment to our readers. For example, in the issue we’ve just released (41.1) we decided to accept all of the work, aside from the chapbook, from our general submissions — we wanted to publish as much non-solicited work as possible. We also consistently aim to keep at the forefront of what’s happening in the literary world, both via technology and via our rotating staff of editors and assistant editors, many of whom are experimental writers themselves.
How did BWR get its name?
The University of Alabama campus is located in the city of Tuscaloosa, which was originally named after the Mississippian chief Tuskaloosa — which means ‘Black Warrior’ in Muskogean (‘taska’ means ‘warrior’, and ‘lusa’ means ‘black’). The Black Warrior River also runs through the city, and we have a lot of local companies (like the Black Warrior Brewing Company) that also take their names from their location. Although the writers we publish come from all over the world, the Black Warrior Review is definitely involved in the local community — we participate in the upcoming arts festival Kentuck, and we host a local reading series throughout the year — so I think it’s fantastic that we maintain this link to our surroundings via our name.
Where do you see BWR in the future? What innovations do you and your colleagues have in mind to utilize today’s expanding technology? How important is social media, like your Twitter page, to the review?
Utilizing expanding technologies is definitely something that we see as important and even necessary. Though we’re a print magazine and hope to remain so, we have additional content on our website (like interviews with authors and reviews of recent books), and for this year’s National Poetry Month in April, we posted a different poem from various issues of the magazine every single day. We’ve also started experimenting with audio-accompanied interviews — in other words, when interviewing an author, we’ll have them record part of their submission to give readers a taste of what is available in the magazine.
As for social media, the BWR Twitter (@BlackWarriorRev) page is a great resource for anyone who wants to keep up with the magazine and the related website content. I don’t tend to post about BWR on my personal social media accounts, but I see a great deal of publicity about magazines and contests disseminated on social media, and I’m always thrilled when people who aren’t officially associated with the magazine tweet or post about us.
Who is your ideal reader? Who do you intend BWR for?
The vast majority of our readership consists of writers — often writers who are interested in submitting, or who have submitted in the past — which is great; I think it’s so important for writers to keep abreast of what is happening in the literary community, and to pay attention to what’s being published in their genre. But I also think it’s fantastic when a non-writer picks up an issue of a lit journal, any lit journal, and finds something within its pages that lights up something inside them. Or when a poet who’s never had any interest in nonfiction glances through an essay, and recognizes the poetry within it. Even though much of the work within our pages is experimental, I like to think that BWR still remains accessible on these levels, and that there’s enjoyment to be found in our poetry even for readers who’ve never considered writing poetry themselves.
Which literary magazines have most influenced you and your magazine? Do you have any favorites that you find yourself returning to again and again?
It’s very difficult for me to say which lit magazines have influenced BWR, but as for those that have influenced me on a personal level — I absolutely love Rattle, both for its fantastic poetry and for its commitment to always doing something different. I keep returning to Ninth Letter, particularly for its nonfiction offerings, which I think represent much of the best that current nonfiction has to offer. Whenever I read DIAGRAM, I find something new and delightful that I’d be honored to see in BWR. And this summer, I spent whole days reading through past issues of Drunken Boat, which offers some amazing and innovative work that I hope to reread so many times in the future.
Do you have any helpful tips for the members of FUSE who intend to pursue a career in editing?
Editing is a notoriously competitive field, so it’s awesome that you guys are thinking about this while you’re still in undergrad. What I would suggest is that you embrace whatever opportunities are open to you now — for example, if your university has a university press, see if they offer internships. (Probably the majority of internships in publishing are unpaid, which can make them effectively inaccessible for a lot of people, but it also means that it’s important to take the opportunities when you’re at a stage of life and in a place where they’re available to you.) See if your university has a lit magazine, and if you can get involved and if it doesn’t, see if you can start one.
Think about what your end-goals are: there are so many different kinds of editing, and something like BWR — though I love it — is definitely more of a stepping-stone for me than a full career path. Do you want to eventually work at a magazine? At a large publisher? At an academic press, or at a literary agency? Do you want to work in acquisitions, or marketing, or editorial work? Figure out what you want to do, and then — if possible — see if you can schedule an informational interview with somebody who’s doing what you want, to find out how they got to where they are.
Lastly, while I think there’s a perception that a career in editing is all about getting to read books all day (and that is definitely a huge perk) it’s important too to figure out what technical skills would make you most marketable. A lot of publishers (and magazines) use InDesign for documents, for example, so see if it’s possible to learn how to use that program at your university. A lot of editing right now is about metadata and content management, and this trend is only going to continue, so consider how and where you can learn these skills.