Thursday, August 23, 2007

Editorial Profile: Dawson Steeber

Fiction Editor Dawson Steeber gives us the lowdown on reading submissions, writing in the NEOMFA program, and enjoying stories with "dirty-realism."

MB: Dawson, since you don’t blog (to my knowledge, at least) you are still an enigma to many of the folks who are reading this interview. Could you please tell us five interesting things about yourself: four that are true, and one that isn’t? Don’t tell us which one is a lie.

DS: Hmmm…I’m really not that interesting…1) I have a sweet bullet wound on my hip from being shot at through the door of my old truck. 2) I prefer the classics in literature and music. (See? Not very interesting) 3) I once traveled from Vancouver, B.C. to Eugene, Oregon in the trunk of a ’77 Pontiac Grand Prix. 4) I’m the proud papa of a beautiful chubby baby boy called Giovanni. And 5) I once arm-wrestled Rick Flair and won. Okay, that was a lie, but I did have a drink with him in a hotel bar in Indiana.

MB: Has the editorial experience at BOR surprised you in any way? What is your approach to reading fiction manuscripts? What kinds of stories are the most interesting to you? The least interesting?

DS: The entire experience has been a surprise. I consider myself to be very lucky to be thought of for the position. I guess I’m also surprised by the number of submissions coming in from abroad.

As far as my approach to reading manuscripts, I sit down to read every submission as if it were already a published piece. I also read every word of every story. I don’t ever want to be one of those editors that gives a writer two-three paragraphs to convince she/he to continue reading. That said, it can get a bit tiring sometimes; like walking through wet concrete.

I like all kinds of stories. I like the dirty-realism slices of life, the painful rainy day depressing types, but I also really like the kind of story that isn’t afraid to be nice. I’m not sure if I’m articulating that very well. I remember a friend telling me once that, “Nice stories are boring.” Though I completely agree, a story’s conflict and crisis need not always be of gargantuan proportion. Ultimately all I hope to find when I sit down with a story is a good story. Every writer, when she/he sits down to write a story, I would hope, attempts to write the best story they’ve ever written. Every writer wants to write a story that is bigger than the story. The problem is that that mission often times gets in the way of the writing. It’s hard to remind ourselves that it’s okay to just tell a good story, and if it is in fact a good story, the other bigger parts are almost inherent in that writing.

So, I guess the least interesting stories to me are those that try too hard to be something other than good stories. If I wanted to read a lecture on modern philosophy, the state of the nation, or global politics, I’d sign up for a class.

MB: What advice do you have for writers submitting stories, both to BOR and other journals? Are there common mistakes that writers should avoid making?

DS: I think I may have answered that above. Certainly, getting your hands on previous issues to the journal you intend to submit to is the best piece of advice I can give. Where possible, get to know what type of stories the journal tends to look for. I certainly wouldn’t send a piece of dirty-realism to Black Secrets, or True Confessions. Granted, if it’s a new journal like BOR, well, shake the dice and let them roll. And please, please, please—I think GT said something about this—proofread your work. If you aren’t sending out your best work, why are you sending it?

MB: You’re in your third and final year of the NEOMFA program. Please share your thoughts about the MFA. How has it helped you grow as a fiction writer? What are you working on now? If readers out there are considering applying to the NEOMFA, what are a few benefits of the program?

DS: My time in the NEOMFA program has been of great help to me as a writer, a reader, and as a person. Sounds cheesy, I know, but it’s true. It has been of immense help to be part of a community of writers learning and honing their craft together, and to have the opportunity to learn from such an array of excellent writers has been invaluable. I’ve been exposed to, and facilitated a session at, the Winter Wheat writer’s conference in Bowling Green, Ohio. I’ve been exposed to AWP this last year in Hotlanta. Wow! I’ve seen and heard accomplished writers from all over, from various lecture series to applicant interviews to classroom visits. I was also chosen, along with four fellow students, to participate in a summer workshop in Bisbee, AZ. at the Wick Ranch under the tutelage Maggie Anderson. All of this has helped me to grow and mature as a writer. I’d always scribbled, but now I’ve learned and been exposed to the elements of style and voice, the ways in which to make your metaphors earn their place, the requisite components to good story writing. I have also grown a much greater appreciation for poetry.

I am currently working on my thesis whenever I can find a spare moment. It is intended to be a collection of short stories, but, as evidenced in my responses to your questions, I have a real issue with brevity. The majority of my stories are over twenty pages. I guess I missed the class on minimalism.

The NEOMFA is full of great opportunities. Not unlike any other MFA program, it is an excellent opportunity to share three years with other writers while learning the trade, and you are guaranteed large readership through several workshops (no more calling up a buddy to beg, “Hey, man, you want to hear a story?” or annoying a significant other, “Hey, you got a minute?”). But what really separates the NEOMFA from the rest is the opportunity to soak up the resources of four different universities. No one writer is shackled to the same two or three professors, or the same five to ten students. Every semester students have the opportunity to learn from different professors and students with different backgrounds, different ideas, and skill levels; after all, the more eyes reading your work the better.

MB: As a writer, who have you been influenced by? What single short story best defines the genre for you, and why? Conversely, are there any writers whose work you’ve never been able to connect with, even though you admire it?

DS: I think I’m influenced in some capacity by everyone I’ve read. Most of my influences are novel writers—Céline, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Malamud, to name a few—and that is probably why I have a problem writing truly short stories. Of course there are the big guns: Chekhov, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Maupassant, the list goes on; but I feel I’ve learned a great deal from the stories of Bellow, Fante, Goyen, and most recently Richard Yates and Patrick McCabe.

Though I hadn’t mentioned her, one of the short stories that best defines the genre for me is a story called “Bones of the Inner Ear” by Kiana Davenport. It is a story so rich with language, a sense of place, loving and loathing, family legacy—it is simply a truly visceral experience every time I read it, and it is all wrapped up in eleven pages. There are plenty of other stories that might better define the genre (e.g. Hills like White Elephants, The Lady with the Little Dog, Babylon Revisited) but this story always stays with me.

Hmmm…I guess I’d have to say that I’m not sure how much I really connect with most of the POMO writers, though I have read and reread David Foster Wallace, Pynchon, and Safran Foer, and enjoyed their works very much. There seem to be elements of the zany for zany’s sake, more cheeky than clever puzzle box writing in that genre that I feel isolates and/or distances readers unnecessarily. That’s not to say that I don’t recognize and respect its place in the fiction world. I just don’t connect as well with that type of writing.

MB: Finally, since the fiction section of BOR is still in the works, tell me which two poems you like best in the issue thus far, and why you were struck by them.

DS: That’s a tough question. There are so many excellent poems to choose from. I really enjoy both poems by Nin Andrews for their sad sense of place and their simple truth telling. I am also partial to Clay Matthews’s “Self-Portrait as an Aging Human Type” simply because I can relate, though I don’t search for old classmates on the internet. In fact, if I see old classmates I usually duck into the nearest store or alley. I remember nearly getting beaten up by two brothers after trying to avoid an old friend by pretending to get into the nearest car; their car. The commotion drew this friend’s attention and cost me an hour of, “So how’ve you been…” conversation. Anyway, in danger of following the pack, I found Corey Mesler’s “It was a Test was What they Told Us”, though (and maybe because) it leaves me asking so many questions, to be an excellent achievement in minimalist story telling. Fiction is my bag after all, and for that reason (though not solely) Nin Andrews’s “Youngstown, OH” and “The Years the Mills Closed” are at the top of my list. Notions of work and the deceit inherent in the American Dream have always been of great interest to me in both my reading (pleasure and scholarly) and my writing.

Thanks, Mary, for sharing our time. I hope I haven’t rambled too much. Thanks to my fellow editors for the opportunity to be a part of this project, and thank you to all of our contributors. This is sure to be one hell of a journal. See you in New York.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Editorial Profile: Gregory Thompson

Gregory Thompson, Fiction Editor and Managing Editor of Barn Owl Review, discusses his aesthetic goals for the journal's design, offers advice for folks submitting fiction, and represents on behalf of the MFA-free writer.

MB: As the designer for all of Barn Owl Review’s materials—from the website and t-shirts to the magazine itself—tell us a bit about your artistic vision for the journal, including the photographs that we’ve seen on the website.

GT: I feel an obligation not to over-design the journal. That is, the poems and stories in the journal shouldn’t have to fight with design elements for attention. I prefer minimalism. The design needs to stay out of the way of the work so the reader can just read.

The photos are all places that have caught my eye in and around Akron, Ohio. We’re lucky to live near a state park and I’m lucky in particular to drive to and from work each day through that park. As the seasons have changed, it seems a new photo op lurks around every bend in the road.

Once I had a handful of photos that worked, including some nice shots of the Akron Zoo’s own Barn Owl, the layouts for the website, logo, and t-shirts fell into place.

MB: Will you give us any clues about what the cover will look like? On the other hand, will you list five things that definitely will not appear on the cover of the inaugural issue of BOR?

GT: On the EVENTS page of the website there’s a picture of a ruined home that’s in the state park. It looks like maybe it burned down or something years ago. So the foundation is there. A set of stone steps. It must have been years ago because a pretty healthy crop of trees and vines and weeds have overtaken the ruins. Anyway, I’m a big fan of this sort of thing – to me it suggests the closest thing America has to true ruins, being such a young country. In another way, it suggests nature taking the land back, so to speak. So it’s got a few things going for it.

Anyway, I’ve a strong suspicion that the ruined house will feature on the cover. Maybe I’ll catch an owl there sometime. Who knows?

Five things that won’t be on the cover:
* Chairman Mao
* Proof of Intelligent Design
* My thumb obscuring the picture. At least I hope not.
* Yoda
* A well-staged case of Budweiser. Product placement is detestable, even if Budweiser is The King of Beers.

MB: Aside from your duties at BOR, what do you do for a living, and how does it influence your work on the journal?

GT: I sell ads for a business-to-business publication that covers the tunneling industry. It gives me perspective on putting a publication together and it allows me to work around writing, which is all I ever really wanted to do.

MB: The BOR editorial staff wasn’t intentionally planned as such, but it includes writers from a variety of paths (one with an MFA, one with MFA in progress, one without an MFA, one with MFA + Ph.D.). Not to single you out or anything, but how does it feel working in literary publishing outside the MFA scene? Do you have any advice for folks wondering if they can still write and edit without getting the MFA?

GT: Step one: meet and marry an up-and-coming writer. Step Two: ride his or her coattails to glory.

I don’t know that it feels odd because it’s all I know. There are some events, like AWP, which are more geared toward academics and I have occasionally felt a bit out of place but really, I’ve never been made to feel that way. It’s not like the cool kids with the initials behind their names can smell my lack of advanced education and batter me intellectually for my lunch money.

Learning to write outside of the MFA scene is something that every writer needs to do. Eventually, when the funding dries up, it’s just you and your work. No deadlines. No built-in audience whose course participation grade depends on the amount of meaningful feedback they provide to your story or poem. I wouldn’t say that MFAs don’t prepare writers for the world, because they clearly do, but I would argue that no writer can know what he or she will become until they are a few years out of a program.

In the end, building a writing life is about dedication and perseverance. While it takes such qualities to pursue an advanced degree, the process doesn’t necessarily teach one how to be dedicated or how to hold firm in the face of the inevitable rejections.

MB: Speaking of advice, after reading over a hundred fiction submissions (and counting), what suggestions do you have for folks submitting manuscripts, both regarding the stories themselves and they way that they’re presented?

GT: Send your very best work. Every journal says that, so we’re no different. Fact is, you should never submit a story for publication that you wouldn’t want to see published. The temptation is there to send out everything you’ve got, cast as wide a net as possible. While it would be great if everything is picked up, the writer must remember that once something is published, it’s out there and you can’t take it back. You’ve got to be sure something is ready to publish – ready to you – so that if you get good news, you don’t think: “Oh, man. I kind of wish I’d done that one better.”

Another thing: a new journal is not necessarily easier to get into than an established journal. New journals are still trying to build a good reputation and as such, may have to be more choosy than some of the better known pubs.

While we’re leaning in the direction of choosiness and rejection, let me say this: nobody decides to start a litmag so they can reject people. Quite the opposite. We started Barn Owl Review to publish good writing. To add to the body of work that’s already out there. We didn’t decide that it would simply be a gas to shut the door on a bunch of people. It’s not fun sending rejections. It’s a necessary evil, though. I hope that rejection notes from BOR are met with the understanding that all it means is that this piece is not right for us at this time. Now, it might not ever be right, but still, it’s not personal. I can say that we’ve rejected some work that might have been good enough, but, as mentioned above, we’re not well enough established that good enough is going in the book.

Speaking of editorial duties, I would also hope that the good folks who’ve submitted work understand that we’re reading and discussing LOTS of manuscripts. In our first two months we’ve gotten 50 or so stories each month. Let’s say each story is 10 pages long on average. That’s 500 pages of fiction. Bear in mind this is not a complaint. We’re beyond thrilled at the response and enthusiasm we’ve seen. It is a lot, though, and we’re doing our best to get through the stories.

Finally, it’s always a good idea – well, a necessity really – to read and follow the submission guidelines. Stay under the requested word count and so on. We’ve not had too much of a problem with that, but it’s worth mentioning. Speaking from experience, if I’m reading something from somebody who couldn’t bother to take the time to read the guidelines, I’m not going to spend much energy on the manuscript. If the writer couldn’t read our guidelines, why should we sweat over their work?

MB: As a writer, who have you been influenced by? What single short story best defines the genre for you, and why? Conversely, are there any writers whose work you’ve never been able to connect with, even though you admire it?

GT: Raymond Carver and Donald Barthelme mostly. Also Ron Carlson, but I haven’t read enough of him. Every time I read a Carlson story, I’ve got an overwhelming urge to write.

The story that best defines the genre is “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates. Is there a more perfect short story? Seriously?

Where to start? A writing professor told me that short stories should strive to do everything a novel does. This might sound nuts and impossible, but before you write off the notion altogether, read Oates’ story. And again. Heck, three in a row. Everything is perfectly rendered: dialogue, detail, character, and so on. The plot moves beautifully, lingering here and there when it needs to, but always charging toward its conclusion. The story picks you up, carries you along, and drops you off with a punch in the gut. You’re bleary eyed as the real world comes back into focus. Like getting really into a novel on public transport and then your stop comes and you can’t quite stand up straight because you’ve just been in another world.

Not many stories can do this. This one does.

As for writers who I haven’t been able to connect with… I don’t know. I’m not as well read as I should be and I’ve just never gotten into Faulkner. I’ve tried, but it hasn’t worked out. I take full responsibility.

MB: Finally, since the fiction section of BOR is still in the works, tell me which poem(s) you like best in the issue thus far, and why you were struck by them.

GT: Wow. Let me first say, that an impressive lineup of poets have been accepted into the premiere issue of BOR. Having read through the accepted work, I have been struck by the overall quality of what will be published. Great great stuff indeed.

Enough preamble. Cory Mesler, “It was a Test was What they Told Us.” (Now that this one’s been singled out by two of the three interviewed editors – and I’ve got a feeling DS is going to like it as well – it’s really getting some BOR-buzz.)

Anyway, Mesler’s piece is a terrific example of a story told in the perfect manner. Had he tried to stretch this one into a short story, the magic would have been gone, buried under too many words. It’s just absurd enough, just menacing enough.

I can’t think of anything other to say than: Had Donald Barthelme followed up, “The School,” with a companion piece told from the POV of a student, it would have looked like this.

Another one I enjoy is Gary McDowell’s “On the Death of Houdini.” I’ve always been a bit of a magic fan and particularly a fan of Houdini. I love how McDowell de-mystifies Houdini’s cause of death – it wasn’t, as rumored, an escape trick gone bad – but then re-mystifies it by the way he tells of Houdini’s passing. Wonderful.

Thanks, Mary. And I think I speak for everyone, editors, contributors, and readers alike, when I offer special thanks for bringing BOR into the litworld.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Contributor Update

As of today, these folks will have work appearing in the first issue of Barn Owl Review. We'll be accepting poetry submissions until September 1st, and fiction submissions until November 1st. If you're waiting to hear back from us, thanks for your patience!

Kelli Russell Agodon * Neil Aitken * Ivy Alvarez * Nin Andrews * Rusty Barnes * Erin M. Bertram * Patrick Carrington * Adam Clay *William Coughlin * Melissa Culbertson * Adam Deutsch * Jehanne Dubrow * Noah Falck * Brent Fisk * Jeannine Hall Gailey * John Gallaher * Jessi Lee Gaylord * Do Gentry * Bernadette Geyer * Brent Goodman * Jessica Greenbaum * Susan Grimm * John Guzlowski * Anne Haines * Brandi Homan * Jessica Jewell * Leonard Kress * Jenifer Browne Lawrence * Alex Lemon * Rebecca Loudon * Louise Mathias * Clay Matthews * Nathan McClain * Gary L. McDowell * Corey Mesler * Natasha Kochicheril Moni * Steve Mueske * Jeff Newberry * Julie Platt * Stephany Prodromides * Susan Rich * Renee Ruderman * F. Daniel Rzicznek * Steven D. Schroeder * Peter Jay Shippy * Sarah Sloat * Matthew Thorburn * Debbie Yee * Susan Yount

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Now available: Barn Owl Review gear

We now have a handsome assortment of Barn Owl Review gear ready for you to check out on Cafe Press, thanks to our designer Greg. We'll have a lovely assortment for your perusal at our AWP booth, too.

I'm sure Rubi will be asking Santa for one of these dog shirts. Stickers and kids' items should also be forthcoming.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Editorial Profile: Mary Biddinger

Jay Robinson poses a few questions on editorial delights, poetic influences, and moving beyond the first book.

JR: How has the experience of being a poetry editor for Barn Owl Review, a lit mag you’re responsible for, differed from your past editorial experiences?

MB: I guess the most significant aspect of editing BOR is the scope of my duties, since as founding editor I feel responsible for just about every detail of the publishing process, even though we have a crack editorial team. I’m so thankful for all of the experience I received at Mid-American Review, ACM, and RHINO, where I still serve as an Associate Editor, and it’s fun putting that experience to work. I’m glad that I have a history as an editor, since that helps folks have confidence in the magazine and allows me to actually enjoy the editorial process.

Having more responsibilities is exhilarating, though I would probably feel differently if we hadn’t gotten such a sensational response to our call for submissions. I don’t just want to produce an attractive and respected print mag, however. I want to do things differently, whether it’s acknowledging receipt of every submission by email (there’s nothing more unsettling than sending work out into the ether), giving our contributors little keepsakes, or updating everyone with the BOR blog.

I’m mostly concerned about making BOR a friendly venture, a table at AWP where everyone’s welcome to stop by and say hello. I still feel too nervous or dorky to approach the editors of many mags where I’ve published, and there’s absolutely no reason for it other than the lack of communication happening between acceptance letter and contributor’s copy. I want to maintain a relationship with our contributors and readers, and being friendly is the best way to accomplish that.

JR: Two-part question: What’s your favorite poem from the inaugural issue of BOR? And also, what poem has surprised you the most, and why?

MB: You cheated with this question, so I will cheat too. Obviously I love them all, but if I had to choose, my favorite poems accepted thus far would be “[Beat Fast My Heart]” by Erin M. Bertram and “The Canary” by Louise Mathias. I love the way Erin’s poem catapults the reader right into a disorienting, fragmentary narrative—my favorite kind—and alternates between short, halting statements and astonishing enjambments. Louise’s poem is one that I admire immensely because it is so tight and luminous; this is a perfect example of how what’s withheld in a poem is just as essential as what is included. I haven’t been able to shake it. I want to keep it within reach at all times. I’m sure others will too.

As a general observation, I’m surprised by how many themes are shared between the poems we’ve selected, without having a particular theme in mind. It’s great having a number of humorous poems in the mix, as well. I was most surprised by the submissions from Nin Andrews, John Gallaher, and Jeff Newberry because I could not pick one single poem to accept. I’m usually a rather decisive gal, but there was no way I could narrow it down, so we ended up taking two from these three folks. I was especially surprised by the way Jeff Newberry’s poems made me sway and tap my foot when reading them. There’s an organic musicality in his work that I’ve never really seen—or felt—before. I think we’ll be hearing a lot about Jeff Newberry in the future.

JR: How have the submissions BOR has received in its first few months influenced your own poetry?

MB: I’ve been really struck by how many amazing young poets—late twentysomethings to early thirtysomethings—there are today. There should be a revolution! This has given me a kick in the ass when it comes to pushing my own writing. I’ve always worked best under pressure, so seeing all these wonder kids out there, you know, starting their own presses and winning major prizes, is a good reminder that the clock is ticking and the competition is fierce. I was also shocked at how many talented writers there are who I’m not familiar with yet. It’s like stumbling upon a gold mine of poetic brilliance!

The submissions have reminded me that there’s a vast world of poetry outside academe. It’s easy to think that universities are the only places where poetry happens, especially when teaching in an MFA program, but that’s simply not true. It’s everywhere.

JR: In the last year, who has been the most influential poet that you’ve read when it comes to the way you view your own poetry? Conversely, name an oft-praised poet you’ve read and not jived with at all.

MB: I have a copy of Margaret Atwood’s 1974 volume of poetry You Are Happy. I hadn’t looked at it in about ten years until last semester when I loaned it to a student writing a paper about eye imagery in poems. It’s amazing looking through that book—which I bought as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan—and seeing how profoundly Atwood has influenced my poetry. I’ve gone through phases like everyone else, but this one really stuck with me. I felt almost as if I had written the poems myself, and it was eerie but wonderful.

As for the second question, I’m lukewarm about a lot of poets, and I tend to read fiction for fun. I teach the “big names” of contemporary American poetry, but I don’t really enjoy them as much as I like reading first books by emerging authors. Thankfully I’m teaching a MFA Craft & Theory on first books this semester, in addition to a new American poetry class, so I’ll be able to bid adieu to the anthologies and teach the single-author small press collections that I admire.

I will confess that I am much more fond of Ray Carver’s fiction than his poetry, for various reasons. My friends always liked Marge Piercy a lot more than I did, too. There’s no one poet that I actively dislike, however. At least not for reasons of poetics. Just kidding.

JR: Your first book, Prairie Fever, came out in February. What’s your current project and how do you view it in relationship to the work of your debut? In other words, how have the poems you’ve written changed? Why?

MB: Prairie Fever was in so many ways a coming-of-age manuscript for me, with some of the poems written in the 1990s, and it was definitely what I wanted as a debut. Now I’m working on a more focused and specific persona—a contemporary reincarnation of Saint Monica, patron of bad marriages, among other things—which is greatly affecting the architecture of the collection. After PF came out I felt liberated, especially since I needed the book for tenure. Now I can mess around a lot more and take more risks.

One surprise with PF is how readers seem to either love or hate my prose poems. I’m writing more prose poems now because there’s no other way to say some of these things. My new series is probably more cynical than PF, and the sexuality is more straightforward, less obscured by arborvitae and Trans Ams. Though I deal with Saint Monica’s childhood in the series, I hope to write more poems about the mature female experience, and about motherhood. I don’t think I’ll ever write about my own children, though. They’d have to be heavily reinvented.

JR: If characters from TV shows wrote poems, whose work would you be interested in reading (Don’t tell me you don’t watch television)?

MB: Jay, you know that I’m not a big TV watcher or pop culture aficionado. However, I would be quite interested in reading the poetry of Special Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks. I imagine Cooper’s work would be telegraphic yet straightforward, mystical yet grounded in sumptuous concrete detail. It would be poetry of place, but not to the extent that the body—in all of its florid permutations—would be secondary. He would be an intuitive poet, like Neruda. Fueled by cherry pie and coffee, Cooper’s work would maintain a pithy narrative while occasionally lapsing into the hallucinatory and the sublime. It would be primitive in reasoning and sleek in syntax, a veritable petrified forest of subtle arcs and minute-yet-riveting sensory gestures. Think Rubén Darío meets James Schuyler with a hint of John Donne and a droplet of Jacques Prévert, all bundled up in Whitmanesque waxed paper under a heat lamp fueled by a thousand Lucille Cliftons. Who could resist? Not me.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Important announcement

Due to the overwhelming deluge of high quality poetry we've received, Barn Owl Review's reading period will end September 1st instead of November 1st. We will still be reading fiction submissions until November 1st, however. Thanks for your excellent submissions, and please send soon if you intend to.