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The Common, Jennifer Acker (Interview)

The Common editor, Jennifer Acker, talks with FUSE about her experience with editing and publishing. The Common is a biannual literary magazine based at Amherst College that has been recently cited by The New Yorker as a journal that’s found its way. It publishes fiction, essays, poetry, documentary vignettes, and images that embody “a modern sense of place.” The editors seek to capture an old idea: that the extraordinary can be found in the commonplace.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you become interested in editing? What path led you to the position you’re in now? What I love about magazines is that they involve a sustained community because issues are continually published over the years, unlike a book which is a one-time affair…for a few years until the author’s next book. A magazine brings together a group of readers with similar literary interests; in our case it’s an excitement about sense of place.

Editing is a special relationship with authors and with writing.

If you don’t mind, I’ll point you toward a local TV interview that includes some of the magazine genesis story:

This is a relatively young journal. As the The Common grows and evolves, what goals do you have for it? In the fall, for Issue 04, we have a special portfolio of contemporary Anglophone South African poetry. The following year will likely include pieces that grow out of the Middle East because I’ll be spending some time there.

On the horizon is a podcast channel in which I, and perhaps other hosts, interview authors about their books. Our involvement with visual art is also expanding. We have a new image curator who has just issued a call for submissions for the fall issue that might also lead to more images online and possibly a gallery show next spring. One day I’d like to publish a color image gallery in print, too.

For the online version of the magazine, one thing I’m looking for is more coverage of other place-based artistic endeavors, essays on architecture and landscape design, dance, and visual art that speak to humans’ relationship to the physical world. I’m also interested in publishing more interviews, not only with writers but with editors (we have an irregular “editors corner”) and artists and professionals in the fields I just mentioned.We might publish fiction online in the future, but we don’t at the moment.

Tell us a little bit about how you draw publicity for your journal? The Common has recently gained national attention (cited by the New Yorker in December!). What methods do you have for getting people excited about new issues, excited about submitting? I go to as many events (book fairs, readings, panels) as possible with magazine staff and try to engage personally in new communities. We also send copies of the magazine to literary festivals around the country. Collaborating with other magazines and arts organizations is a great way to reach new readers also. For example, we have cross-published pieces from the print magazine online in Places, such as this Phillip Lopate piece:

Of course we use the social media trifecta of Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr to whatever extent we can, again engaging with other magazines and arts organizations and publishing original content when possible. We also send out a monthly e-newsletter to our readers.

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?) Prose submissions are read by at least two volunteer Readers and then by me–I am the final decision maker. I read as much as I can of a piece before deciding that it’s not right for us. Poetry is read and selected by the poetry editor.

How much do you think about a particular voice for your magazine while looking over submissions? Our sense of place mission means that the piece must be superlative in every way–innovative language, narrative interest, rich characters–and that the setting play a crucial role in how the characters relate to each other and how they think about what it means to be alive.

Which literary magazines have most influenced you and your magazine? Do you have any favorites that you find yourself returning to again and again? Ploughshares, Subtropics, Ecotone, Tin House

In the same vein, who (or what) are you currently reading and loving? I’m currently reading and loving Edith Pearlman’s acclaimed collection Binocular Vision and was recently thrilled by Lauren Groff’s Arcadia. Other than that, I’m behind on contemporary fiction because I get caught up in reading submissions! I’m recently interested in the work of Geoff Dyer, and, for older writers, I’ve been reading Orwell’s essays work by Leonard Michaels.

Two of my all-time favorite novels are Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson and The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. The settings of each are wildly different, and these places and circumstances give rise to such enthralling, distinct voices and conflicts.

What advice do you have for new student editors? Read a ton, and practice your editorial career by reading the work of friends and articulating your thoughts about their piece in writing. Writing book reviews hones a similar skill. Volunteer as a reader for your local lit mag and get used to reading many pieces at a time to become practiced at recognizing what makes a successful piece of writing in your mind.

Place is obviously important to you and your magazine’s purpose. Do you have a very favorite place? If you could take The Common anywhere on the planet (or off the planet, if you’d like), where would it be? I love all kinds of places: deserts, mountains, cities, swamps, small towns. Each has its own charms and drawbacks. I think it’s important to see a lot of different kinds of places in your life and to experience many kinds of human and natural communities. I have a particular affection for the kind of river-traversed rolling farmland in the rural town I grew up in.

If I could take The Common anywhere… I’d want it to be a quiet place with a view and soft, natural sounds, so that I could concentrate on the writing, and when tired of that, let the landscape carry my thoughts somewhere else. That’s probably because it’s hard for me to concentrate when there are other people around or too many interesting things going on!

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