New Letters, Robert Stewart
In February, Amanda Chase (Susquehanna University) conducted an interview with Robert Stewart, editor of New Letters.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you become interested in editing? What path led you to the position you’re in now?
Sometime in the mid 1990s, while reading the Zen scholar R. H. Blyth – one of the guiding forces of my life – I came across the statement, “The work you are doing is your work.” That was the first time I realized that I might actually be an editor. I had started as a volunteer at New Letters magazine many years before, in the late 1970s, and proceeded to work there on the paid staff, part time into the early 1980s; I then got a job as editor of an art-criticism magazine called Forum, which I did for seven years; I co-edited a small literary press called Woods Colt (with my great friend Conger Beasley Jr.). I also worked as copy editor for Universal Press Syndicate. I was doing a lot of things as a writer and editor, much of it overlapping. I returned in the mid 1980s to become managing editor for New Letters and teach at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. I also wrote commercial magazine articles, poems, short stories, and so on. During much of that time, I kept wondering what direction I would eventually take in my life. Not until I read that statement by Blyth, did I realize that I already had found a career.
How did you receive your position with the New Letters? Were there particular experiences that you think most prepared you for the position you have now?
My position as editor of this literary magazine – and director of BkMk Press, and executive editor of the radio series New Letterson the Air – is due entirely to the fact that I had been in the field, publishing poems, stories, and magazine articles, working as an editor for various agencies, and engaged in the art and craft of writing as the principle vocation of my life. I mean to say, my job is not academically confered. My degrees are in literary studies. Virtually everything I know (or think I know) as editor, came from the work and taking a deep interest in things such as typography, design, layout, and literary art.
Many literary editors these days are also published writers, and thereby establish a certain reputation. David Remnick at The New Yorker somehow finds time to write books and articles, just like Juno Diaz at Boston Review, and many other editors. I never have become well known as a writer, but the little I have done has helped my credibility inside and outside of the institution.
Ultimately, I am editor of New Letters because of my 30-year dedication to the magazine, and the generosity of my superiors to acknowledge that dedication. It didn’t have to happen like that. I know of a prominent literary journal in the late 1990s (in another state), where the university pushed aside its long-time associate editor and opened a national search to find a new editor-in-chief (a move that university later regretted, by the way). My former boss, editor James McKinley, and our dean in 2002, could well have pushed me aside also; instead, they saw that I had a record of writing, publishing, and editing; and I had devoted my career, much of my life, to New Letters. Because of those things – and the fact that the dean, Bruce Bubacz, was a human being – they moved me from managing editor to editor.
Because the dean and English department here rewarded my past work with their faith, I have spent the last decade trying to make sure this university never regrets that decision. Among our accomplishments, New Letters won the National Magazine Award in the Essay category in 2008, the magazine industry’s highest honor. All of our accomplishments here at the magazine, including that award, came from a combination of work and luck. I am grateful to every writer who sends his or her work here. I give it my full attention.
How much time do you spend working on New Letters? Do you ever have duties one might not expect going into this position?
Yes, we have a lot going on beyond solely publishing the magazine – which, by itself, would be a full-time job. New Letters comes out four times a year, not two or three like many other journals. We use art extensively, plus keep a variety of things active in the magazine, such as original interviews, reviews, and so on. Beyond that, I direct a book publisher, BkMk Press, and a weekly, national radio show, New Letters on the Air. I also teach two course per semester (including summers), serve on committees, run an annual writing conference in June, and write a new poem from time to time. Every bit of that work – which really is fun, fun, fun — does, however, put a squeeze on the time I can give research, writing, and manuscript evaluation.
Your magazine has been around for a long time, nearly 80 years. What steps are you taking to keep it fresh and interesting?
The only meaningful determiner of what is fresh and interesting is the writing, itself. A Chekhov short story could remain fresh and interesting to me on the 20th reading. When writing succeeds on the level of art, the editor just needs to turn it loose. So, recently, after cultivating contact with the writer Judy Blunt, we were able to publish her amazing essay “Occupying the Real West.” Because one of the best poets alive, B. H. Fairchild, read the magazine and respected it, we were able to publish his “A Journal of Poetics.” Because the writer Thomas E. Kennedy knows that we are open to new writers, he introduced me to a young woman, Cassie Hay, who sent in her amazing memoir about being in the Roller Derby, “Queens of Pain.” It’s all about the writing.
Beyond that, I am dedicated to designing a readable, lively page – a page that invites the reader with generous line spacing, wide margins, light, more light. You will see the magazine evolving over the years in more modern typography, livelier page layout, an effort to reach new writers through our awards program, a much wider variety of content than most other literary journals, more color art, and unpredictable cover designs. New Letters ventured into national radio broadcasts 35 years ago and now owns one of the largest audio archives of original literary recordings in the nation. We never stop looking for ways to promote and encourage engagement with the single most meaningful source of excitement, great new writing. I hosted New Letters-TV for a couple of years, on a local cable channel, but it exhausted me. We have, of course, begun to promote our content in all the social media and have a new website due in the spring of 2013 that will offer online streaming of over 1,000 interviews with writers that we have conducted.
What is your process when considering submissions? (Who is involved? How much of a not-so-good submission are you willing to read before tossing it aside? Are there circumstances during the reviewing of submissions where a submitter or a work is in danger of being disrespected?)
Disrespected? I am not sure what that would look like. As a writer, myself, I have never been treated with disrespect. Sure, some other magazines lose my submissions or take two years to reply, but they didn’t do it to be mean to me. It’s just life. As an editor, I am generally businesslike. I helped create a system designed to reduce undesired delays or missteps, by which we keep close track of all manuscripts and keep them in the right order. Some writers, themselves, have been disrespectful toward me when I don’t choose their work – unbelievable, really – but they are rare. I try to keep interactions on a professional level.
We are lucky to have many people reading manuscripts for us – staff, interns, volunteer students, and writers in the community. They offer advice to me, but the final decision is mine. There is no committee vote. Furthermore, I look at every manuscript – manuscripts are not screened out. I read every manuscript until I am convinced that it will either work or not work for the magazine. Sometimes, I get only onto the second page and reject it. Sometimes, I read a prose work several times and wind up rejecting it. At a certain point in the process, I need to make a decision, knowing full well that I might be wrong. I make every decision based on what I think is best for the magazine (meaning, the readers).
How much do you think about a particular voice for your magazine while looking over submissions?
Voice matters. Unfortunately, it is hard to articulate what the term “voice” even means. For the magazine, I aspire to many tones and styles – ranging from the dazzling, intellectually rich prose of Willis Barnstone, to the inspiringly naïve voice of Clarissa Hay, as she describes her Roller Derby idols. In all cases, I want the writing to be clear, affirmative, detailed, and – as I attempt to get closer to what voice really means – capable of change and variation. Cassie Hay, for example, in her essay “Queens of Pain,” transforms her tone during the essay, from confusion and awe to confidence and joy. That kind of transformation in tone and perspective is the core of what we mean by voice, in my opinion. In all cases, I want for the magazine writing in which the style and tone not only change but appear authentic, with a real sense of who the speaker is. That requires intensely particular diction, so that Afaa Michael Weaver can publish his poem “When My Heart Failed” and mean it. “I hit the sidewalk,” he wrote. I eschew writing the equivocates and waffles. It so happens, I am sick of coyness, evasion, generalities. I like writers who name names, speak their mind, say it straight.
Which literary magazines have most influenced you and your magazine? Do you have any favorites that you find yourself returning to again and again?
Grand Street magazine, which ceased publication in 2004, opened me up to more innovative page layout and use of art; Ploughshares continues to impress me with its elegance and variety; The Georgia Review is one of the most consistently and generally excellent literary magazines around, and it continues a loyalty toward Southern literary history. I learned, from that magazine to embrace the literary tradition of Missouri, Kansas, and the Midwest – my home region — even while we remain international in scope. Yes, a magazine can do everything. I give a nod to the late George Hitchcock’s Kayak magazine (ceased, also) out of California, inexpensively made with lots of graphics clipped out of old books; somehow that magazine managed to publish Raymond Carver, Bly, Sexton. I remember Ironwood, edited by Michael Cuddihy, back in the 1970s – a single issue contained new work by Linda Gregg (then, little known), James Wright, Paul Auster, Tess Gallagher, Mary Karr, and more people now considered superstars. My goodness. I am bent over in humility. Of course, I always keep an eye on The Missouri Review, our neighbor across I-70, as Speer Morgan continues to to dazzle me with his accomplishments. This list could go on and on, frankly. I am a student of magazines, always seeking to learn better ways to draw in the reader.
In the same vein, who (or what) are you currently reading and loving?
Mary Jo Bang’s translation of Dante’s Inferno has astounded me; I have been learning a lot from Dean Young’s New and Selected, as well as recent books by Charlie Smith – both poets who helped open me up in my own poems. I seek writers who are different from me in style, and therefore have been reading David Shields and Valzhyna Mort with great pleasure.
What advice do you have for new student editors?
Up-and-coming literary editors should remember a few main things:
* Editing is a writing skill. One must care deeply about how literary writing works. Pay less attention to what the writing says, the message or topic, than whether or not the writing and language have integrity. Here are my criteria: Is the writing fresh; does it advance literary art; does it offer hope? Writing can offer hope only if it confronts serious issues and avoids cynicsim. Hope is a structural challenge; it demands that the writing see alternative perspectives.
* I see too much writing in other magazines and books that resort to conventional phrasing and cliché, without embarrassment, apparently, and that happily wallow in the shallow mud of general diction without ever standing up and shouting the names of things. Have some courage.
* Be open to new expressions but, at the same time, remember that a “good idea” for a story does not necessarily make a story good. It has to be executed all the way through.
* Love literature. Welty. Justice. Ponsot. Herbert. All of it. Seek beauty.
Robert Stewart is editor of New Letters magazine, New Letters on the Air, and BkMk Press at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he also teaches writing, magazine nonfiction writing, and magazine editing. His books include Outside Language: Essays (Helicon Nine Editions, a finalist in the PEN Center USA Literary Awards for 2004; and winner of the 2004 Thorpe Menn Award), Plumbers (poems, BkMk Press), and others. His poems and essays have been included in many magazines. Stewart worked as managing editor under two former editors, and played a central role in design, typography, and art; and he has had a long-running voice in the poetry selections in the magazine.