With only three weeks left before Finals Week, I find myself reflecting on my temporary assignment as editor of the Potomac Review. As classroom hours go, I have had my lightest teaching load yet, but in terms of other projects and committee work, this has been my busiest semester ever. I don’t remember another time in my teaching career when I felt this purposeful, this satisfied, this tired. Still, instead of looking ahead at the two-week break between the spring semester and summer school, I must prepare my exit as interim editor of the Potomac Review. Julie Wakeman-Linn, the editor-in-chief, will return to her desk in the fall of 2012. In the meantime, there is lots to do. Issue 51 has been sent to the printer; reports have to be written to document what I’ve done and how I’ve progressed in this temporary role; and there are still submissions to read, writers to recognize, supporters to thank, and associate editors to praise–deservedly so. Not to mention, PR issue 52, which is fast becoming the Prose Issue, will still be under my stewardship during the summer transition phase.
What is my point? My point is I’m going to miss this crazy thing we call editing.
I expected that editing a journal would be a challenge; I expected to enjoy reading strong submissions; and overall, I expected that I’d learn a great deal from this professional experience; but I didn’t expect to find real pleasure in the learning process nor did I expect to recognize in myself the difference a year can make. But here I am, almost a year-and-a-half later, ready to move on – back to the classroom, to committee work, or to college governance – and I can see even beyond these, to a landscape of possibilities that has broadened before me. To exactly what, I don’t know. I do know one thing, though, the Potomac Review editorship is one of the most rewarding roles (outside of the classroom) at Montgomery College. It feeds both the writer’s creative urges and the literature professor’s daily habit: to interact with writers and to read their stories.
Did you know there are real people behind the scenes that actually read a writer’s work? It’s not just a void. There are human readers behind a submission manager. Someone writing on a ranch in the desert of Arizona or in a cabin deep in the hills of Appalachia or from the isolation of a prison cell can send a piece “out there” and it gets picked up in here, at the Potomac Review’s office, by an intern or a staff member, and the piece is sent to a reader, someone who takes time to consider each line, each plot. I knew this, of course, because I began at PR as one of the associate editors assigned to read fiction. Also, in the early 2000’s, I was the sole fiction editor at 42opus, an online literary magazine founded by Brian Leary, a college friend from Arizona State. Today, Brian has a masthead of associate editors that can rival even the Potomac Review’s, which has about 30 readers; but in the early days of 42opus, it was just me and Brian, me slushing through the prose, Brian, the poetry. For a small, new website, we did surprisingly well at drawing immediate attention and submissions quickly poured in. They poured in so quickly that perhaps “a submission avalanche” would be a more fitting description. At the time, I had recently finished the Johns Hopkins writing program and was beginning the English M.A. at Georgetown, so unfortunately, both workloads, important and deserving of my reading time in their own ways, forced me to give something up. Sadly, I left 42opus in 2007.
Since then I had never considered being put back into an editorial position; after all, with a few recent publications under my belt, I thought I knew the side of the writing industry I belonged to. But, in the fall of 2010, when Julie announced her lengthy trip to Tanzania, the English department chair asked me if I would take care of PR, I said yes. At this point, with two graduate programs behind me, several years of teaching college English, and working with Julie on the slush pile, I felt strongly that I had mastered the art or skill of quick, fair, purposeful reading. Also, I knew I’d have ample support; Julie would be available as needed via email or Skype; the managing editor would stay on at least until I got my bearings; and the administrative assistant would be able to guide me through the ins and outs of the College’s policies and procedures. Also, I’d have interns, students with willing and ready hands to help with the day-to-day tasks (and they’d be smart help, too, as each intern must have a 3.5 gpa and must have taken an MC creative writing course to qualify for the program).
In the wintry spring of 2011, my first semester in the PR office, we hit the ground running. We participated in two conferences, AWP and Conversations & Connections, both held in Washington, D.C. Also, issue 48, the Poetry Issue, had just gone through its final editing stages; soon after it was published, we began to assemble and finalize the tome that would become Potomac Review’s Best of the 50.
After issue 50, my work to read, select, and assemble pieces for issue 51 began. Robert L. Giron, a poet, professor, publisher, and trusted colleague, accepted my invitation to select poetry for this issue. His experience and expertise as editor of the award-winning Poetic Voices Without Borders 2 and founder of Gival Press would serve our issue well. (From that time to the present, Robert served and continues to serve as the English Department chair at Montgomery College’s Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus.)
Countless meetings, readings, and two writing contests later, we anticipate the delivery of issue 51, which will be available for purchase in early May.
As I have suggested at the beginning, I had some expectations, but I really didn’t know what to expect. I have definitely learned a great deal about personalities, publications, and politics, and how these play a part in achieving any goals. For example, regarding personalities, writers are an inherently sensitive lot. After all, we deal with describing character relationships and human emotions. It comes as no surprise that writers, who are genuinely invested in their work, would regard each submission piece emotionally. Accepting a piece is like telling someone she has won the lottery. Joy and excitement are exchanged between us by email or phone. On the other hand, rejecting a piece is an unpleasant task and can be interpreted as our telling someone his child doesn’t deserve to be our friend. In some circumstances, particularly for strong pieces we cannot for some reason except yet, we send encouraging rejections: praise but no thank you. This kind of rejection may sound strange to our non-writer friends, but as a writer myself who has had his share of rejections, the ones most meaningful to me are those with encouraging notes, a handwritten signature, or a few comments. Those rejections push the writer even further because someone felt we deserved a touch more than the form letter. (An aside: my very first story submitted after grad school received a handwritten rejection note from a very good journal. I ripped it up and threw it away, offended that the editor hadn’t had the professionalism to type it up. Looking back, I see how foolish and youthfully ignorant I was.!)
Like any other writer, I have my copies of publication guides, and with the internet, I have bookmarked for easy access a database of journal editors. There are thousands of journals out there, each with editors waiting, reading, accepting/rejecting. And each publication varies in personality, too, depending on its reputation or its previous or current editorial board, and certainly its personality is affected by its financial situation, whatever that may be. Some have large budgets and are institutionalized and some are independent and are produced out of the pockets of the editors themselves (and there is a spectrum in between). Knowing about budgets, the kinds of support journals have or don’t have, and understanding that workloads are being balanced and that some editors are probably going unpaid, deepens my respect for the many print and online journals out there. I encourage you to buy a subscription or make a donation to your favorite journal. You can’t go wrong by supporting those very people who inspire new voices and help to keep literature alive. (Zach gets off his soapbox and pushes it back to the corner.)
During my senior year in college, when I was an intern in Washington, D.C., I learned one truth: every workplace has office politics. The word “politics” has so many negative connotations that adding it to the workplace makes it seem like at all businesses, deals are made in backrooms, alliances are drawn or cut, and favors are made based on who is in favor. That’s probably true for some workplaces, but this is not how I would describe my experiences at MC. Still, I’m sure such maneuvering is out there, however subtle it may be, so the way to get through office politics is to stay ahead of ever encountering it directly. I have done this by remembering the following: I am doing meaningful work that my superiors value; I have institutional support in the form of an office, a salary, interns, and admin assistance; and everyone is a potential donor, financial supporter, or contributor.
What comes next, I know not. Certainly, I’ll get back to teaching a regular course load and I’ll be able to spend more time writing and submitting my own work for publication, but now that I’ve had this tremendous opportunity to serve the College in this particular way, I really do wonder what I’ll do next at MC or beyond. Until then, I’ll think fondly of my short time at PR – and marvel at how time flies! – and I’ll be more considerate of the editors reading my work. And when I pick up a journal I’ll know that one issue alone can represent many stories, stories that exist far beyond the page.
For more one-on-one time with editors and for practical advice on publishing, check out the Conversations & Connections Conference, Saturday, April 21, 2012 at the Johns Hopkins University classroom office buildings in Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.