Black Warrior Review, Robert Hitt (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.
How did you become interested in editing? What path led you to the position you’re in now?
A couple of years ago I enrolled in the graduate program at Western Washington University, and during the first week I heard about an informational meeting for Bellingham Review. I had sent pieces out to journals before, but this was the first opportunity I had to read for one. After the first year, I applied to be the Poetry Editor and got the chance to delve deeper into the workings of a literary journal, even representing the journal at AWP 2013 in Boston. When I got accepted to The University of Alabama’s creative writing program later that year, I was excited for the chance to try out the more business-oriented role of Managing Editor.
How did you get involved with BWR? How long have you been working there?
During the first semester of my first year at UA, I read for BWR in each of its three genres: poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. I wanted to become more familiar with the journal, and lots of reading was required for the M.E. job. Soon I’ll be wrapping up my first full year working for BWR (Jan – Dec 2014), and it’s been an eye-opening experience; there’s a lot more nuts and bolts to running a journal than I ever expected.
Do you ever have duties one might not expect an editor to have?
One unexpected “duty” actually came up last winter, though it was more of a cool opportunity. I found out that BWR’s editorial board coordinated with the Alabama Writers’ Forum to judge AWF’s annual contest for high school literary magazines. My old high school in Washington never had its own literary journal, and it was amazing to see the quality and passion that kids from around the state showed in creating their school’s writing.
What are some of the challenges of running a literary magazine?
More often than not, keeping track of everything! There are fundraising events to plan, web content to schedule, a social media presence to maintain, and other journals to coordinate ad swaps with. But it’s great having a wonderful staff to work alongside and support each other.
Is it ever a struggle to find the right pieces for each issue? How do you decide what to include and what to reject?
This is more the arena of the Editor and genre editors, but once pieces make it through the first screening and into the editorial meetings, we have lively discussions about the merits and weaknesses of particular submissions. Sometimes I’ll go into a meeting thinking a piece isn’t really outstanding, but my opinion will sway after hearing some of the other readers trumpet it (and vice versa). After 20 minutes or so of discussion, we’ll have a vote to see whether or not it gets into the journal.
BWR has been around for 40 years. What are some tips for producing such a long running magazine?
I’d say become very involved in the writing community. Reach out to other journals to see if they’re interested in exchanging ads, attend AWP and schmooze with other editors, swap issues with them. It can take several years, but once you begin to establish yourself in that community, ears will start to perk up at your mention. In the past, I’ve read fantastic work that just doesn’t really fit BWR’s aesthetic, so I or another editor may refer the writer to another journal that’s a better match.
How did BWR get its name?
Easy answer! This I can pull straight from our website: 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).
How has BWR evolved over the years?
I’ve only worked with the journal for a year, but if I recall correctly, it’s historically been a journal that is a bit experimental, that pushes a bit at the boundaries of traditional literature. I’d say BWR has evolved right along with the experiments of the writers who submit their work each year; as the country’s idea of what’s beautiful and weird adapts, so too does BWR’s.
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 magazine?
One idea that I had last year that I never really got the chance to follow through with was to better utilize the online presence ofBWR. Some journals now offer audio recordings of the published works via Soundcloud.com and have their pages available on their websites or on eReaders. I don’t necessarily agree with the view that print media is fading away, but I do think that there are great opportunities to reach new audiences with this kind of technology, and social media too is a part of that.
Who is your ideal reader? Who do you intend BWR for?
This could just be me, but I see BWR’s audience as people who enjoy work that is a bit weird, but not just for weirdness’ sake. Even though BWR is experimental, we choose pieces that demonstrate intent and purpose in those experiments, that aim to challenge or accomplish something specific. Pieces where the odd form often complements the odd content.
Do you have any helpful tips for the members of FUSE who intend to pursue a career in editing?
Read. Read a lot. If you want to work for a particular journal or magazine, know well in advance what its aesthetic/style is, and know which journals are similar. Specificity is what helps you stand out.