Interview with Ariana D. Den Bleyker, editor of “Emerge Literary Journal”
Ariana is the editor of Emerge Literary Journal and scissors & spackle. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary journals, and she is the author of the chapbooks Forgetting Aesop (Bandini Books, LLC, 2011) and Naked Animal (Flutter Press, 2012), and the poetry collection The Trees are on Fire (ALL CAPS PUBLISHING, 2012). She lives in a small town in New York with her husband and two children.
[James R. Gapinski]: What prompted you to start a journal that specifically focuses on emerging writers?
[Ariana D. Den Bleyker]: This is the question most people first ask me, and I’m happy to answer it, but please keep in mind it is a very lengthy story that has roots extending back to 2004.
When I was an undergrad studying creative writing, I had attempted to submit to journals now and again as part of putting together my portfolios and for certain course requirements. Back then there were only book listings of poetry markets, and most of the markets that were available for submitting were not geared toward beginning writers. I felt like the whole book was filled with everything but a white circle. For the next five years I wrote quite frequently but was intimidated by the submission process despite encouragement by my former professors that my writing could hold its own.
When I began actively submitting again in 2010, I had received rejection after rejection after rejection. I, of course, as any writer would, was significantly frustrated by the entire process. In fact, it wasn’t until I received one of my last rejections prior to being accepted by The Homestead Review that I finally hit the wall. This particular rejection included a note from the editor that gently told me I should resubmit when I get a couple of publishing credits under my belt. My first thought after reading the scribbled note was how could I possibly get more publishing credits under my belt when I can’t even get the first one?
Three months later I found Doutrope, which at the time was a free writer’s resource. It became my best friend. I was able to research markets more thoroughly and had found several markets that were either geared towards publishing underrepresented voices or voices regardless of pedigree. Enter Stone Highway Review and scissors & spackle. I found tons of encouragement from both editors, particularly Jenny Catlin. She was very encouraging about my writing, and for the first time ever with the encouragement of a kind editor, I began submitting even more.
But, I cannot get a head of myself or forget the most important detail that lead to the founding of the journal. Reading journals. I was doing lots of it since 1999. After all, reading and reading and reading is the key to sharpening your writing. The one thing I noted about the journals I was reading and supporting versus the journals I was beginning to be published in was that most of the bios were extensive. At that time, I felt emerging writers were not being given a solid chance to launch their careers.
One day I was discussing my thoughts with my husband about how hard it is to get published when you’ve never really been published before. He looked at me and simply said, “Then change it.” In that moment, Emerge Literary Journal was born. While my original intent was to limit prior publication credits to less than five, after a few weeks, I found this would be very difficult to do because I would still be limiting a demographic of writers that were still emerging. Always having been a fan of Thoreau, I knew if I had a lot of castles, other beginning writers must too, and I wanted to establish a journal that would be the foundation, perhaps the first credit, that could get a poet (at the time) started in their publishing careers.
[JRG]: You talk about encouragement for new writers and the importance of getting that first publication credit. But how do you encourage writers that you reject? Do you send a lot of personalized rejections?
[ADDB]: This is a really great question that forced me to look at my statistics. Since our inception we have received slightly over 2,100 submissions. According to Submittable we have a 40% acceptance ratio. When I do reject a poem, I tend to emphasize strong points in a piece from a broad perspective. Sometimes, at least based on Duotrope responses, they are perceived as form rejections. However, regardless of what is put into the body, I always offer personal feedback should the writer want it. Now, when it comes to rejections, I have to say it is truly not 60%. When I request the option for a re-write, I do so in a rejection for ease of use of Submittable. I offer a large number of re-write options. I make suggestions for improvement but do not change anything. I invite the writer to revise and resubmit only if the suggestions resonate them. When I see a bio that reflects a very new writer, I am apt to try and make it work. Rejections are hard, but I never limit how many time a writer can submit during a window. There have been many occasions when I didn’t connect with one piece, but three submissions down the line I was blown away by a piece and had to take it. I also try to give very quick determinations to alleviate the nail biting that happens on the other side. The hardest part is knowing I have limited space in an issue. I like to think I’m a very open editor. Many of my contributors will agree.
[JRG]: You also mentioned the importance of reading literary journals. What some other journals that you read on a regular basis?
[ADDB]: You mean besides the two I currently publish? Well, I’ll start by saying I’m not independently wealthy, so I consume as much material as I can through online journals. Some of the online journals I frequent are THRUSH Poetry Journal, Lunch Ticket, Word Riot, Hot Metal Bridge, Camroc Press Review, Birdfeast, A-Minor Magazine, Utter, anderbo.com, Map Literary (can’t forget the alma mater), and a slew of others. As to print, I’m a big fan of The Seneca Review, Ploughshares, Stone Highway Review, A Clean Well-Lighted Place, The Adroit Journal, Tar River Poetry, The Homestead Review, Caketrain, Heavy Feather Review, and anything else I can get my hands on regularly. Bottom line is, I’m all about small/indie presses. While I enjoy an occasion large press bound presentation, I don’t find the kind of eclectic variety I find in small journals. This is one of the reasons why I continuously pursued publishing in scissors & spackle as a writer, and why I am now the Editor-in-Chief of the same journal. What Jenny Catlin started was a work of art, and because it essentially launched my writing career I couldn’t let it go when she stepped down. So, on one hand, I support many emerging writers, and on the other hand, I look for the most eclectic, experimental work I can. I do love what other journals toss away. It’s that old adage that no two editors will take to the same piece in the same way. I’m meant to read some journals and not others. Sure, The Best American Poetry anthology is always worth reading every year, but I find more connection in all the diamonds in the rough.
[JRG]: It’s interesting that you read a lot online, because I saw on your blog that Emerge is now a print-only journal, effective August of this year. Why did you decide to publish exclusively in print?
[ADDB]: Moving to exclusively print and completely altering my publication schedule from what I had started in the beginning was one of the toughest decisions I ever had to make, and when I did, I also had to alter scissors & spackle‘s. Truth be told, when I started the journal I had to take a few years off of working to raise my youngest. In February 2013 I went back to work full-time as an insurance underwriter once again (yuck). In January, I had make the decision to go print with online features to keep the journal alive online because a lot of writers like to Google themselves. In April when I took over scissors & spackle, which was available both online and in print, I could not maintain its website, so I made a decision to turn it into a print magazine with highlights on-line. It’s really been a balancing act. I’ve made no changes without surveying my contributors and readers first. It is easier for me to edit and compile a print issue than it is to maintain all of the HTML code for the website. My life completely altered the publication schedule too. Both scissors & spackle and Emerge Literary Journal have turned into annual journals and the press’ focus has been on chapbooks. My publishing schedule is September 1st to May 1st. It was a concession I made for my husband because he has a side business as well. Fact is, both journals had become important to so many people that it was more important to keep them alive. Again, I had done plenty of surveys and speaking with many of my contributors before making the decision. This change was not made in a vacuum. A lot of the contributors, especially the more emerging writers, felt that if they had to choose, they would choose the print because as a new writer, it was more lasting to them to be in a book for one of their first publishing credits than it was online, especially if I were ever to go defunct. I understood that and weighed it heavily. So, the decision was mostly to balance the journals and my personal life. For many of my readers and contributors it was more important that the journals survived however they could than to where the content is available. Beginning with the Winter 2013 issue, which is being released in two volumes, because I got acceptance happy last spring, I will follow what we’ve done with scissors & spackle and put issue samples up on the website. If anything, but to keep my online ISSN active I should be able to go back to utilizing online material in the future. I would like to note that all of my ISSUU issues are still live as are my weekly features. I do not plan to take any of it down.
Please keep in mind that prior to the start of the chapbooks, I made no royalties from any of my print issues. The reading fees, the royalties on any issue or chapbook roll into the next project. For my contests, I also award 50% of the reading fees to the winner, which is rare for a journal to do. Because I make no money and have chosen to do this for the love of it all, my day job had to take priority because that is what pays my bills, you know. Again, though, I must emphasize, it is because I love what both journals stand for that I will not let them go gently into that goodnight. The chapbooks, which are much easier to edit and publish, have become more of a vehicle to give emerging and experimental writers their first books, especially since I tend to treat the chaps like mini-collections as opposed to the traditional chap
I did leave out that I am also a writer. In order to balance most of my personal life and editing life, I took a year hiatus off from writing, which really hurt me personally. I’m back to writing again, and with the new publication schedule and my new balancing act, it’s easier to take time for myself again (when I can).
I should also mention that when I started the journal, rather than compile online content as an anthology, my first two print issues were compiled from certain material. That is to say what went online did not necessarily go into print. I did start to get a lot of negative feedback from writers when I chose their work for online content as opposed to print and had quite a few withdrawals as a result. It really has not been an easy road. For many people print is dead. For many people online is all they read. Again, it was not an easy decision. I shed a lot of tears over the whole thing.
[JRG]: Lastly, do you have any general advice for new writers?
[ADDB]: Well, to start, the writing life can be a lonely one. Taking some of that loneliness out of it helps you to hang in there. Create a supportive environment that allows you to give it the kind of time it takes. Book clubs, workshops, etcetera. They may not teach you to write, but they can support you and give you time. Also, don’t be jealous of others’ success. Jealousy and envy are the enemy of genuine creativity. Wish others well and hope to join them someday. We can never forget that failure is part of it. You will be rejected dozens and dozens of times. The best way to prepare for it is to have something else in the works by the time the rejection letter arrives. Invest your hope in the next project. Learning to cope with rejection is a good trait to develop. Writing is good for the soul; it’s good for your character—to be observing, interpreting, producing (not just consuming). It’s good to share your work with others. You have to write from your whole self. The only way to last for the long haul it to avoid boredom, and to avoid boredom you need to let your whole self in. Always write first. Worry about getting published later. Write it first. Prove you can do it and then others will listen.
When you’re stuck, those aren’t the worst parts, those are the best parts. They’re your chance to be creative. Embrace subjectivity. No two editors will ever see your work the same way. Only by embracing it, truly, can you take the gloves off and let your take fly. Moreover, if you give yourself the time, you will not only get better as a writer, you’ll develop some correspondences with other writers, perhaps even editors. You’ll have met some in person at bookstores, other writers from your classes will work published here and there—slowly you will develop those elusive connections that seem so necessary to getting published. You’ll know some people. Not many people, but enough to carry a conversation. You’ll have had so-an-so as a teacher. You’ll get how it works. This wisdom just happens. Always tell a story. It grounds the reader in a shared experience. Understand voice. Write the same sentence ten different ways by imitating the writing voices of ten different writers.
Work on your weaknesses. There is nothing wrong with early drafts acting as scaffolding. Don’t be afraid to part with your favorite line that doesn’t work. You might be able to use it in another piece. And, finally, read . . . read everything, cereal boxes, newspapers, toothpaste tubes, journals, anthologies, billboards. See words everywhere until they find their way to your heart and flow through your pen.