Well I’ve been reading literary magazines since college at Southern Oregon, where I used to troll the library between classes. My creative writing teacher, Vincent Craig Wright, had mentioned the names of a few lit mags in class one day—Ploughshares, Missouri Review, Mid-American Review—so I was curious to see what these things were. And I liked what I found. (Work from Jim Shepard and Yiyun Li memorably drew me in, as did the famous Paris Review interviews. Nowhere else in Oregon had I been given direct access to maps of the imagination.) Soon I began reading some of them kind of regularly. The Paris Review. Story Quarterly. New York Quarterly.
But—and here’s the thing, here’s why I put Paper Dreams together—it took me awhile to realize I was becoming a member of a kind of intimate literary conversation. That the literary magazines were my Hogwarts, my very own Bloomsbury. These magazines were the mouthpieces of the literary world just beneath the surface. How come everyone wasn’t more aware of this? Why wasn’t this a much greater part of my—and everyone’s—literary education?
None of this really occurred to me until early 2007 in graduate school at The Center for Writers in Mississippi. By this point I’d become sort of a nerd about the literary magazines; my literary heroes were the editor authors, like George Plimpton, Wendy Lesser, and Ben Sonnenberg. And I began to get frustrated that myself and my peers and writers across the nation seemed to be submitting work to all these magazines without hardly knowing the first thing about what the magazines represented, why they existed, or who the people were putting the thing together. I realized that our literary magazine education on a national level was wanting. So that year I founded Luna Park Review, dedicated to reporting on these magazines, and the following year Gary Percesepe and I put together the issue of Mississippi Review dedicated to literary magazines, which eventually grew into Paper Dreams.
And during these past six years, I’ve seen the conversation about literary magazines increase significantly, with increasing reviews of the magazines and interviews with the editors and scholarship on literary magazines past. This isn’t due to anything I’ve done, but rather the coming together of interest in periodicals as objects of study and the Internet as a new web brining together writers and their interests.
So Paper Dreams is a textbook?
It certainly could be. I mean, that’s how I used it this past semester in my Literary Publishing class at York College of Pennsylvania, and how I plan to use it when I teach the class next year. And I know of a half-dozen or so people also using the book in the classroom.
But honestly I didn’t imagine the book as a classroom thing. Or I did and I didn’t—I imagined it being used that way, I hoped it would be, but that’s not personally why I wanted the thing to be around. In his presentations on creativity and writing, Austin Kleon says “Write the book you want to read.” Well, I edited the collection I wanted to read. Paper Dreams is the sort of book I wanted to find in the bookstore, the kind of book I wanted to buy. There wasn’t any book out there that collected the exciting history of American literary magazines in one place, writers and editors and readers and scholars on the ups and downs of this history and the special place these magazines hold in our reading worlds. I wanted an antidote to the Duotrope-type mentality of seeing literary magazine publications as a means to an end, a means to a book contract, to a novel. (Not to insult Duotrope; in many ways they are doing a nice service to young and busy writers.) I wanted conversation about the literary magazine conversation (which is one of the main features I talk about in my preface that these literary magazines offer readers). And this book is it, I think. I would have been so stoked to find it at a bookstore if I hadn’t put it together myself—with the great help of Dan Cafaro and everyone at Atticus Books.
These are kind of long answers. Self-interviews are usually better kept short and ironic.
Right, sorry. I guess I’m still excited about how the book turned out, that it’s part of the world. It’s got Emerson and Barthelme and Monroe and van den Berg and Kostelanetz and Allen and Munson and just so many great writers and thinkers on literary magazines, on their place past and future. And I didn’t even mention the awesome cover design by Jamie Keenan—one of the best designers working today—and the elegant layout by David McNamara from Sunnyoutside. Atticus did a fantastic job, and I’m still amazed so many writers allowed me to include their work and were so supportive of the book in production.
What is the future of literary magazines?
Unlike much arts culture, literary magazines are expected to be at the same time timely and timeless, as each issue is replaced by the previous issue but every issue’s content—literature—is expected to hold some lasting, human interest. I think the future of these magazines depends on how they solve both of these needs at once, and the Internet of course offers a new medium with which to attempt this. In Paper Dreams, Hobart editor Aaron Burch talks about a union of print and digital publishing to bolter and enhance literary periodical publishing, where the print object is sort of a central focal point for a more transmedia publication (with web extras, social media interactions, and so on). Aaron said that in 2008, and today a number of magazines are doing something similar to this. (Interestingly, I think, that the online magazine Triple Canopy does almost the opposite: the online publication is the central work around which all the print media and events seems to swirl.)
What magazines are you reading now?
Currently on my desk is volume 10 of Lumina from Sarah Lawrence College, in which my friend Melissa Faliveno has an essay. Also I just received an ARC copy of the forthcoming Little Star issue 5, which I am just now digging into. It’s got letters by W.G. Sebald to his translator and—among other things—some fascinating new poems from Michael Klein. Also in the issue is a surreal new translation of work by Andrei Bitov. It’s mesmerizing. Feels like the Russian equivalent of The Savage Detectives.
And I keep some issues just on the desk lying around, like the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Tuesday: An Art Project—perhaps the most elegant literary publication going, a group of poems and images published on individual cards and enclosed in a letterpress wrapping. This is the beginning of one of my favorite poems from the issue, “Nina Simone” by Matthew Lippman (who’s great live, btw):
It’s no mistake that Al Green was all I listened to in 4th grade.
What else was there to do with Derek Williams and David Schwab on the P.S. 84 playground?
We turned up the radio loud even when Elton John was singing Border Song,
all English queer and delicious
though he didn’t know a damn thing.
It didn’t matter, Al Green was getting into our pants
to teach us what to do
when we got too close to Sally or Marisol,
saying: stay soft in silk boys
then dynamite the earth….
TRAVIS KUROWSKI is the editor of Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on American Literary Magazines, published in August by Atticus Books. He teaches creative writing and literature at York College of Pennsylvania and is the “Literary MagNet” columnist for Poets & Writers. You can follow him on Twitter: @traviskurowski