The Committee Room continues its Literary Journal Series with a look at the Bellingham Review. Founded in 1977 at Western Washington University by poets Knute Skinner and Peter Nicoletta, the Bellingham Review states its mission as publishing "literature of palpable quality: poems, stories, and essays so beguiling they invite us to touch their essence...a kind of writing that nudges the limits of form, or executes traditional forms exquisitely." BR's Editorial Advisory Board includes Tess Gallagher, Rita Dove, Henry Taylor and other stellar names.
Bellingham Review publishes twice annually -- a print edition in the spring and an online edition in the fall. BR also sponsors three contests --
The 49th Parallel Award for Poetry (final judge 2012 Linda Bierds)
Annie Dillard Award for Creative Non-Fiction (final judge 2012 Sheila Bender)
Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction (final judge 2012 Robin Hemley)
BR's current editor in chief is award-winning essayist Brenda Miller. Miller is the author of Listening Against the Stone: Selected Essays (Skinner House Books, 2011), Blessing of the Animals (Eastern Washington University Press, 2009), and Season of the Body (Sarabande Books, 2002). She is co-author with Suzanne Paola of Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction (McGraw-Hill, 2003). Her work has appeared in many publications including Utne Reader, Georgia Review, and Missouri Review. She has received six Pushcart Prizes.
Miller recently sat down for a chat with The Committee Room.
TCR Talks with Bellingham Review Editor Brenda Miller
Q: Could you elaborate on what "literature of palpable quality" means?
A: We mean writing that is so vivid you feel you could literally “touch” it. We mean writing that resonates for a long time.
|Brenda Miller and her dog Abbe (photo by Anita K. Boyle)
A: It depends. During open submissions, between September and December of each year, we usually receive about three hundred manuscripts a month. During our contests, between December and March, we’ll receive a little more.
Q: What happens when a manuscript is received at BR?
A: We’re now encouraging authors to submit their work via an online submission program, Submittable, so it is automatically logged in to the genre readers’ mailbox. The readers, read several pieces a week and write notes about them and assign them to the genre editors, who also read every piece that is submitted. Those they feel are publishable, or that have merit, are then submitted to me with their rationale. I then read those pieces and choose the ones we will publish. I will sometimes write to an author and ask for revisions before guaranteeing publication.
Q: What percentage of submissions are rejected after just one reading?
A: Probably about ninety percent of the work we receive is rejected after one reading.
Q: What are the most common reasons a manuscript is rejected?
A: The first page of a prose piece needs to be perfect, and it needs to grab our attention (in a good way). If the first page has awkward sentences or typos, or starts with an explicit, offensive scene, it will be rejected. If it starts with clichéd descriptions, it will be rejected. If it is about a time-worn theme, without evidence that the author has found an original form or voice for this theme, it will be rejected. The same goes for poetry. The writing needs to be original, vivid, sensory, with a distinctive voice.
Q: BR has impressive names on its Editorial Advisory Board. What does the Advisory Board do?
A: The Advisory Board had more of a role in the establishment of the journal and its transition to the university. Now they do not have a real formal role in the running of the journal.
A: It’s very exciting to have two different versions of the journal now available, as this diversity allows us to publish more work. We look for the same quality of work for each edition, and often when I decide something seems right for the online version, it’s because I can envision the perfect illustration to go along with it. The online edition allows us more leeway with graphics and illustrations than we can have in the print edition.
Q: What is the circulation of the print version? Of the online version?
A: The circulation for the print journal is about 1,200. We haven’t tracked the number of hits we’ve received in the online edition, but our hope is that the online work reaches an even larger audience. We are going to be adding a podcast and enhancing the design of the online edition next fall.
Q: What separates BR from other literary journals?
A: I’d say it’s the consistent voice we’ve developed, though my editorial staff changes every year. If you read several issues, you can “hear” how our contributors are all quite diverse, but all seem to approach their material with a compelling blend of reverence and irreverence.
Q: Who are BR's readers?
A: Most of our readers have contributed to our three literary contests: The Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction; the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction; and the 49th Parallel Poetry Award. Since they receive a subscription with their contest entry fee, the majority of our subscribers have submitted to our journal in the past. So our audience is made up mainly of other writers.
Q: How does BR or any academic-based literary journal reach beyond people in the "field" of creative writing?
A: We’re always looking for ways to do that. We donate copies of our magazine to schools and shelters. We’ve had a poem from our magazine read on the air during a baseball game! But I think our primary role will always be to provide publishing opportunities for creative writers, a way to showcase their work and enhance professionalism.
Q: How do you balance your work as a writer with your work as an editor and professor?
A: It’s not easy! I do most of my new writing on writing retreats when school is not in session, and then revise and send out work during the school year. I write with my students to keep my writing mind going.
Q: Could you talk about the different skills required in writing, editing, and teaching?
A: In writing, I need to get very quiet and listen. In editing, I need to get very judgmental. In teaching, I need to be compassionate.
A: For me, my strengths come from my poetry background; that is, I relish in language and imagery, in metaphor and connection. My essays can be quite fragmented, held together by shimmering threads. While some fiction can also work this way, my strengths are in revealing my own vulnerabilities through these kinds of lyric structures. Fiction has a different purpose, it seems to me.
Q: Does a short story really need a plot?
A: No, but it does need something that keeps it moving forward. As does nonfiction.
Q: Would you agree that contemporary readers are more interested in "real life" than in fiction and if so why?
A: Not necessarily. Fiction still sells really well.
Q: Can you explain what "creative non-fiction" is?
A: Well, I’ve written a whole book on the topic (Tell it Slant), but the nutshell version would be that creative nonfiction roots itself in fact, but uses imagination, memory, metaphor, scenes, and literary forms to enhance fact into literature.
Q: What is the biggest challenge in editing a literary journal?