"We wouldn’t do this if
we didn’t believe in the capacity
of others to amaze us."

An Interview with James Engelhardt,
Managing Editor* of
Prairie Schooner

by Jessica Powers

Posted June 6, 2011

 

NewPages: What do you love about editing? What’s fun? What’s not so fun? What keeps you going?

Engelhardt: Well, the fun part about editing is the reading. I get to read a lot. One of the good things about working for a literary journal of our standing is that people want to bring their best work to it. So I read a lot of great work. And finding some new voice, some new approach that you haven’t seen or heard before, that opportunity is really where a lot of the joy comes from. The people you work with—the staff that are here—the institutional staff of the university as well as the grad students, faculty, and volunteers reading for the journal—they are all educated and passionate about literature and they bring all their knowledge and attention to the reading we do, and to the conversations we have.

What’s not so fun? Doing taxes. Doing budgets. Realizing that you’d really like to do this amazing thing—a launch party, a symposium—and there’s just no space in the budget for it. And it’s not fun to say no. I’m a writer, and everybody who works here is a writer, and we all get rejection letters. When we send back a stack of rejection letters, we know the recipients are not going to say, “Well, that’s okay.”

The thing that keeps a lot of editors going is the energy of all of the hopeful writers that are out there looking to you. They’re excited by your publication. There’s a lot of energy that comes our way. When you feel tired, you get revitalized when you realize that what you’re doing is in service of all these other writers, bringing these other visions to life, and they depend on you. When people stop by the table at AWP and say, “I was so happy to see poems by my friend,” those words are worth their weight in gold—well, if the words weighed a lot! [laughs] There’s an alchemy of those words going out and affecting some other person somewhere. When those words come back to you, that’s what’s golden.

 

NP: There's a lot of close-reading—and reading generally—how do you stay focused and fresh?

Engelhardt: Lots of coffee! [laughs]

Another way I stay fresh comes from being housed by the English Department. These Ph.D. students are coming in with a lot of life experience, and they come from all over the world, each student with a different vision and a different view. They’ll ask, “Have you read this author or that author?” and you haven’t, so you go and read. Getting new eyes in all the time is important—listening to what our readers say and learning from them keeps us fresh. To listen only to your own private attitudes about art and aesthetics is a great way to become stagnant. You can only learn so much from yourself.

 

NP: That’s important as writers, too.

Engelhardt: Yes. There’s a cultural sociability to it. We ask poetry students that, too—“What are you reading?” “I just read my own stuff.” Well, good luck with that. How will you know how new or interesting your stuff is?

James Engelhardt

NP: Are you ever overwhelmed with submissions? How do you slog through? Or is there a more positive way to think about that question than “slogging” through and can you speak to that?  

Engelhardt: I wouldn’t call it “slogging” through the manuscripts. You’re always hoping to find some new compelling voice, some different twist on subject matter, some new vision, and so it’s an extended exploration of the bleeding edge of literature. You’re hoping to find that new ‘ah! just take the top of my head off!’ piece. Going back to one of the aspects of being around for as long as we have, people send us really good work, and it is heartbreaking that we can’t publish all of it. That’s one of the not-fun things, again, to pick up that “no.”  

We get thousands and thousands of submissions during our reading period, and if it were not for our very dedicated students, and some community members, and a very few undergraduates… If it was just me, oh my God, I wouldn’t make it out of here alive. We have well-established protocols for moving manuscripts through the office. One of the beautiful things about a lot of the Ph.D. students is that they have publishing credentials themselves, a lot of passion, keen insight, and they are here reading for us.

It’s easy to get the impression that these university magazines are just using very young people for reading. I know that writers who have lived a great deal longer worry that if they submit something dealing with older adult themes—like the heartbreak of divorce or the death of a spouse—this young person might not understand what’s really at stake. But our reading staff ranges in age from 19 to 65 years old. The advantage for us is that we have people who have experienced many life events reading submissions.

 

NP: I was on a panel about publishing at the Wisconsin Book Festival a few years ago and I could see all the faces in the crowd shining with hope that this time, one of us on the panel would let them in on The Big Secret of How To Get Published. Of course, we failed them. Can you speak about the belief in this secret path to publication for those in the know vs. the publicly-offered channel?

Engelhardt: There are no secret channels. Maxine Kumin, for example, sends us envelopes just like everybody else does, with her SASE inside. If we’ve published you in the past, we will read you faster than we read others. But, and I make this explicit to all our readers, that this does not mean we will love the new submission, and it does not mean we will publish it. I’ve had writers call me and say they had just sent a packet of poems and they re-read the selections and realized they hadn’t sent their best work. Will I discard it when it gets to the office?

I ask our readers to take the same critical approach to the names they recognize that they take for any other submission. So there’s no secret, no back door, no smoke-filled room (well, there’re no smoke-filled rooms anyway, since nobody can smoke indoors anymore).

But as a magazine, you do try to treat your contributors well. They’ve sent you good work, you like them, you want to keep that relationship going. At the same time, you want to publish new work, new voices. I know that as a young writer starting out, I had the same frustration all new writers have. Why do I keep seeing the same names over and over? As a writer, you stay with the work, you keep the practice going, and you keep reading. There’s a lot of magazines, and there’s an expanding community online—there are a lot of opportunities, more so than when I was coming up. The key to success is just to keep working.

And keep in mind, editors make mistakes. Hilda Raz, the editor in chief for a long time here, rejected a short story that, six months later, she found in The New Yorker. She called our editor at the time, Bernice Slote, and said, “I can’t believe I missed this.” Bernice said, “It’s okay. We make mistakes. That’s why there’s more than one magazine in the world.” If you’re a writer, keep in mind that we are that human being who makes mistakes. The only sure way to fail is to stop writing and stop sending work out.

 

NP: What do you do if you have to turn down an established, well-known author?  

Engelhardt: You have to be very delicate. That is one of the invisible parts of this job. There are a lot of political realities that you want to be aware of—who’s reading what, who’s talking about what, and if you turn down somebody famous, you want to be sure you know who you’re turning down and why.

Here, each piece gets read by 3 or 4 people at least. So, particularly when we have undergraduates reading, there’s always other sets of eyes. If we’re on the fence about something, we don’t look at the c.v. of the author—it really is just the work itself.

The cover letter speaks for the writer. It’s a place that says, “I know what I’m doing.”

This is the toughest question about being an editor. It goes back to Hilda’s story about not taking the piece that The New Yorker took. It’s about trusting the people around you and yourself enough to say, “Let’s publish that.”

 

NP: How do you judge work in different genres? What do you bring to each? How can you judge each?

Engelhardt: Once again, I rely a lot on the readers. My training is in poetry, my background is in poetry, and I trust my instincts there. But when it comes to other genres, I ask our readers to point me towards writers they admire and craft books they respect. One of the great things about being an editor is that you keep learning—about language, genre, about the business of literature. It doesn’t stop. Keeping your mind moving is one of the great parts of the job, and stretching your mind to consider the concerns of other genres is part of the challenge. You get used to thinking about writing or language in a particular way, for me, it’s the shape of poetry, and I’ll read something and think, Well, this is damn prose-y. Well, it is prose! You have to engage each genre—to judge within each genre—for what it is.

 

NP: It seems to me that it’s all about curiosity. Curiosity about the world, learning things—that’s why you’re a writer, that’s why you’re an editor.

Engelhardt: Yes! The world is amazing; it’s full of stuff I don’t know, my God. You run into people who aren’t interested in the world around them, and I just can’t understand why not.

We keep going over the same ground as humans, as writers, the same emotional or intellectual ground—we keep exploring what it means to be human, finding new ways to explore the human condition. You’d think we’d have done that already, that we would know everything there is to know about love, or loss, but we don’t. The world seems to excite the imagination endlessly. The brain is the most complicated structure in the universe and the ways that that yoghurt-like material of the brain keeps encountering the world, keeps exploring and interpreting its encounters with the world…it seems endless. We endlessly reinvent the world and our stories about the world. It’s astonishing!

 

NP: That’s such a different attitude from Solomon [in Ecclesiastes], that there is nothing new under the sun. 

Engelhardt: That’s the weird tension. Sometimes there is nothing new under the sun. Was it Faulkner who spoke about the human heart in conflict with itself being the only story worth telling? So there is nothing new. It is love. It is desire. It is thwarted ambition. Yet we seem to find new ways to explore it, to mull over it.

 

NP: Any suggestions on what not to do (as an editor, as a writer)?

Engelhardt: Not reading, not paying attention. Shutting yourself off from the world. I couldn’t imagine an editor actually doing that. Being an editor is an act of service, an act of generosity. There are many of us who can be curmudgeonly and grumpy sometimes, but we wouldn’t be doing this particular part of the business if we didn’t believe in the capacity of others to amaze us. The short way to fail as an editor is to just lose that capacity for surprise and delight.

 

Engelhardt: Any predictions? For the industry, for the various genres, for the literary writing world in general...?

I have one word. I feel like I’m in The Graduate: Digital. The challenge right now is to find a stable, digital reader for poetry. Copper Canyon has this $100,000 grant from the Paul Allen Foundation to build an e-reader platform for poetry.

The trouble they’re facing involves one of the central concerns of poetry: the line. If you have a Kindle or a Nook and you change the size or the font, the machine will automatically re-wrap the pages so your reading isn’t disrupted. For poetry, that means that the machine re-breaks the line for you. If you’ve got Emily Dickinson with short lines, maybe that won’t be a problem. But if you’re trying to do Whitman, let’s say, and you start to break the line up in the wrong place…

 

NP: That could be quite unfortunate. 

Engelhardt: We don’t have a lot of poets in the trenches of digital coding, but now Copper Canyon has the grant and with that kind of attention and money, I’m hoping for a big breakthrough. Then there will be a lot of poetry publishers who will be flooding the digital spaces.

 

NP: Are you seeing any interesting trends in the literary world?

Engelhardt: I’ve seen a lot more of the fantastic. There’s a building sense of America’s relationship with magical realism, which is interesting.

Online submissions are another issue, as a business practice—reliance on online submissions is really driving a lot of writers right now. It crosses generations, too. I’ve known a lot of people who you think would never master the interface are complaining that we don’t take online submissions.

And then there’s another trend, print-on-demand self-publishing. Bill Knott left Farrar, Straus, & Giroux for Lulu. Self-publishing started with genre fiction but it’s taking off in the literary world as well.

My own interest is in eco-poetics, and so it’s been interesting to watch a new convergence of nature-oriented, ecologically-centered work linking up with more theoretically-driven practices. We tend to think of nature-based writing as Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry, where language acts as a window pane giving you a clear shot on the world, and instead people are applying these densely theoretical modes to their writing. That’s been an interesting trend to watch.

 

NP: What do you do for getting subscribers and making your publication visible to potential readers? How do you contact bookstores and libraries? Do you have distribution? Do you do direct mail campaigns?

Engelhardt: We do direct mail about three times a year, and we do a rolling subscribers reminder campaign. So we do a lot of mail. And we’re working on an email strategy. So we’re always reaching out to our subscribers, our readers, and to other readers who are potential subscribers. For those mailings, we buy and trade lists. AWP is a great source.

We’re distributed by Ingram and Source Interlink, but there are other options for people just getting into the business. I know I’ve mentioned CLMP (Council of Literary Magazines and Presses) a few times already, but their email list is a great place to get advice from other people who have developed relationships with distributors recently. And then there’s their monograph series… Really, CLMP is just a fantastic resource.

We have reached out to individual stores and libraries. We built a list of regional bookstores—a list that’s shrinking, as we’re all aware. It’s possible to build relationships with bookstores, and you can negotiate the terms with a finer degree of granularity, but I’ve found it much easier to work with distributors. But again, this is not necessarily the experience a new magazine is going to have.

I try to make the magazine visible by going to conferences, doing the mailings, sending copies to bookfairs, taking advantage of all the literary activities I can. And we advertise. We don’t have a huge budget for ads, but we have enough to run a few things here and there. We’re very picky about where we place ads. And we answer all the calls for competitions and nominations we hear about. The Pushcart prizes. All the various Best American series. We send work to Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. We put ourselves in front of as many doors as we can. Some will open, and we just don’t worry about the others.

 

NP: You've mentioned Project Muse in the past. Can you explain what it is and why it's important for literary magazines?

Engelhardt: Sure. Project MUSE is journal aggregator. There are others, but they all do roughly the same thing. They bring a lot of academic and other journals together online and provide full-text access through institutional libraries. Project MUSE is non-profit, so they can offer a good deal to libraries as well as to the journals. And it’s usually a very good deal for libraries, so one problematic consequence is that a library signing up with Project MUSE will drop their physical subscription. We get paid by Project MUSE, and they have more than offset our losses.

We like Project MUSE and what they’ve done for us, but the important issue is the increased web readership. There are other methods, other aggregators, and the choices and strategies are many. We’re able to turn some of the headache of turning our issues into searchable texts over to someone else.

 

NP: Why do you exhibit at the AWP (or any other conference)? Does it pay for itself? Are there other important reasons to be there even if not financial?

Engelhardt: Mostly, it’s important for the sense of community. It’s where we all get together to actually see each other and put names with faces and make new acquaintances. Most of us don’t make a lot of money going to these conferences. We might break even. We go for the opportunity to get new readers, to meet authors. We had a good year at AWP this year.

As a writer, seeing all these magazines and getting a chance to look at the material, that’s one of the great things about going to the AWP. And that’s what’s great about NewPages, you can go to one place and find a lot of very good, accurate information.

 

NP: How would you recommend small, indie magazines with very small budgets approach exhibiting at AWP (or other conferences)?

Engelhardt: I’ve been really excited by the Table X trend. They started it in Denver, I think. There were two or three rows, all with Table X on it, with many people sharing tables and resources. I would look at any option for sharing [not just for AWP but for other conferences]. CLMP has a sliding scale for joining and getting their resources; the work they do is really fantastic. They go to book fairs all across the country and will send out calls every once in a while, “Hey, do you want to send a couple of magazines?” Being part of that is a good option. You don’t have to go, but your magazine can still be represented.

Look for local, regional opportunities—and go! Nebraska has a state book festival. It costs something like twenty bucks. They give you a little table, and you put your magazine up, and you meet other presses nearby and other people who live in the area and who are interested in the literary world.

People are making great use of Twitter and other social media outlets. These outlets are a great inexpensive way to find people and get people interested. Cutting through the noise and finding your audience is tricky but the more you can hook up to like-minded people, the better it works.

Prairie Schooner cover

NP: Prairie Schooner already has a name for itself because it’s been around for quite a while (whew, 80+ years!) What do you recommend to a literary journal starting out for creating a sustainable and enduring publication?

Engelhardt: I think in any sustainability model—and this can be for the planet itself or for journals—you have to ask, “Where’s the energy? And how is that going to get renewed?” If you can’t keep that energy going, you’re going to fail. Part of that energy is going to be money. And part of it will be your vision.

Some new journals I admire are Cave Wall, relatively new, out of North Carolina. Octopus Magazine. And Apt, which, like Octopus Magazine, started online and recently went to print. Hawk and Handsaw started off in print. As I’m thinking about all of those, Octopus Magazine has a very particular vision. They have hooked themselves into a very particular community and that helps them pull a lot of energy into their project. If they need money or volunteers, they can tap that resource. Hawk and Handsaw is based at a small college; their energy comes from the administration of that college. Like Apt, they have a particular take. Hawk and Handsaw is the journal of creative sustainability. Cave Wall does poetry and art, and their editorial readings are blind. So you have to find something that sets you apart from all the other journals or have a source of energy to keep you going—ideally both. Kate Miles, the editor at Hawk & Handsaw, has energy and works with her students to develop her magazine.

And always think about money. Poets get into editorial positions because we’re interested in literature but then it turns out we need to be accountants.

 

NP: Speaking of which, Prairie Schooner has institutional support. What do you suggest for literary magazines that lack institutional support? For those that have it, how do they shore up their importance to the institution?

Engelhardt: One of the ways we have survived is that our long-time editor-in-chief Hilda Raz was extremely canny about getting this magazine and herself personally in front of administrative people. So whenever we won awards or had pieces in Best American or pieces about us in the larger literary community, she made sure other people in administration knew, not in a trumpety ah-ha! way but as a steady stream of information. That’s not an easy thing to do, but she devoted a lot of energy to that. We’re hiring Kwame Dawes as our new editor-in-chief and his hire was the highest priority of our college in the university. It was because of Hilda’s work that the magazine got that kind of attention.

It’s a long-term vision and it’s a long, slow process. You can’t run out right now and give everybody a stack of information about your magazine and think that they’ll say, “Oh, we won’t put your magazine on the chopping block.” You have to work at building institutional support for a long, long time. Reach out, build bridges, make the institution a community. It’s much easier to fire someone you don’t know. If you can make the case that your magazine is doing good work and the administrators know you and your face, then axing the magazine becomes harder, which is sort of a grim way to approach it.

For those that lack institutional support, pursue all the grants you can. Join CLMP because they have great resources for how to do marketing and promotion and grants. Octopus did a chapbook subscription service. You subscribe and they send you eight (because they’re an octopus) chapbooks over the course of a year. Talk to other small publishers and learn from what they’ve done. It’s a forgiving group of people. We’ve come together for the service of writers, and we don’t tend to be defensive people about this kind of thing. We’re competing cooperatively. There’s a large audience out there. CLMP discovered that if a person subscribes to a literary journal, they tend to subscribe to five. One customer is a customer for a lot of people. Those are issues to explore.

 

NP: So what are you writing these days?

Engelhardt: I’m writing poems and essays. The poems are about the plains. I keep wanting to explore the place that I’m in, the history of the place, the eco-poetics of the place. The folklore of the plains is what folklorists call fake-lore—it’s made up by advertisers, newspapers, other business interests. But the stories and attitudes are real enough. I’m trying to explore those attitudes a bit as well as the native cultures. And the flora and fauna. You get great language out of closely-observed scientific articles. I was reading an article from Biosciences about intermittent streams and stream life. How do you explore that, as metaphor or reality? It’s great to read about the world with a continued curiosity, to see what your brain can do with it. So that’s the poetry. The essays [I’ve been writing] are about board games. I like the essay genre and I like playing games, and just a little bit of research turned up the observation that games are a huge part of human culture. I’m not interested in console games, but I am thinking about social aspects of board games and how they make us act and think.

 

NP: How do you balance your job & your own art?

Engelhardt: I go to bed early and I get up very early so I can get some writing done before I head to work. The job and the writing feed each other pretty well. I get to read a lot of very good, new work and that keeps me going.

 

NP: I happen to know you’re a dad and a dad of a young daughter. How does that affect your editorial and artistic life?

Engelhardt: This new creature who is exploring the world has me thinking about how she must be learning everything anew, and that makes me think about everything I do anew. Why do we do this? Why is that there? How does the brain work? How does the brain process? What does it do?

I also find that I’ve been more affected by stories with kids in them. You never blow off a story where a child dies, but now, if there’s a story where a child dies, I feel that more keenly. But also, if I’m reading a story where there’s a death of a child and the characters all sail blithely along after, I think, No no no. There’s a new filter. You bring a different attitude to what you read.

Because I have a daughter, I’m thinking a lot more about the lives of girls. I had a little brother growing up, I still do actually—but he’s huge now. [Laughs] But the lives of girls were a mystery. And so I’m watching for this now and looking at kids wherever I go. I think, Oh, will she be like that girl? Or like that girl? Who’s she going to grow up to be? That speculation has been compelling. You start to remember and revisit different parts of your own childhood.

*Editor's Note: Since conducting this interview with NewPages, James has announced he will be leaving Prairie Schooner to take a new position as acquisitions editor with the University of Alaska Press. Kwame Dawes will be the new editor-in-chief with Prairie Schooner beginning this fall. We wish both the best in their new roles!

***

J.L. Powers is the author of two novels, The Confessional (Knopf, 2007) and This Thing Called the Future (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011). She is the editor of the online literary journal, The Fertile Source (www.fertilesource.com). Her website is www.jlpowers.net