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Interview: Green Mountains Review

Interview with Neil Shepard, Senior Editor, Green Mountains Review

Neil Shepard has published three books of poetry: Scavenging the Country for a Heartbeat (First Book Award, Mid-List Press, 1993); I’m Here Because I Lost My Way (Mid-List, 1998); and This Far from the Source (Mid-List, 2006). His fourth book, (T)ravel/Un(t)ravel, is due from Mid-List in October of 2011. His poems appear in literary magazines such as Boulevard, Harvard Review, New England Review, North American Review, Ploughshares, Paris Review, Shenandoah, Southern Review, and Triquarterly, as well as online at Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. He founded the Writers Program at the Vermont Studio Center and directed it for eight years. He now teaches in the low-residency MFA Writing Program at Wilkes University (PA), and he is the long-time editor of Green Mountains Review.

Dana Burchfield: Thanks so much, Neil, for taking the time for this interview. You’ve been with Green Mountains Review (GMR) since the beginning, nearly twenty-five years. What is your current relationship with the journal?

Neil Shepard: When I retired in 2009 from my teaching job in the BFA writing program at Johnson State College (where GMR is housed), I signed a contract to stay on as the magazine’s Senior Editor for the next five years. I believe in the importance of institutional memory, both for a university and for a literary magazine, so my new duties include teaching the incoming editor, Elizabeth Powell, not only about the inner workings of the magazine – manuscript submission and selection process, layout and design, printing, distribution, fund-raising, and other mechanisms that sustain the magazine – but also about the history of the magazine, the writers we’ve supported over many years, the ongoing correspondences and friendships with many of them, the awards and kudos we’ve received, the aesthetic positions we’ve staked out in the literary world. At this point, Elizabeth, who serves as both the daily editor and poetry editor, and the new fiction editor, Jacob White, have learned most of what I have to teach them. As all new editors should, they’re making innovations of their own, such as designing a better web-page and thinking about how to have a better presence online. They’re also attracting work from younger writers with whom I’m less familiar, and this is absolutely vital to the ongoing vitality of a literary magazine.

My own continuing role, over the next three years, will be to co-edit some of the issues with Liz and Jacob (witness our most recent effort, the special issue on Age & Influence, featuring interviews, essays, and poems on Ruth Stone, Maxine Kumin, and Stephen Dunn), to edit outright at least one more special issue, and to continue to help with fund-raising and distribution for the magazine. After the current five-year contract expires, I’ll renegotiate with the college president, either being bumped upstairs to Founding Editor (the realm of the ossified and the dead) or continue on in a more active role as Senior Editor.

DB: With what impetus and vision was GMR founded?

NS: We started as a mom-and-pop “little magazine” with $3000 and three enthusiastic editors. Tony Whedon edited the fiction, I edited the poetry, and we both read the literary essays, interviews, and creative nonfiction. After casting about for a few years, we found a superb managing editor, Kate Riley, who also happened to be, at the time, my newly married spouse. What the three of us had in common were tenacious wills, amazing dedication, naïve optimism, and a good sense of comic relief; we were also willing to give our life’s blood, as the cliché goes, to produce a first-rate magazine.

From the start, we weren’t content to be a regional magazine. Our contributors came from all over the United States, but we did want some definition of GMR as a Vermont-based magazine. So we decided to feature one New England writer per issue – a suite of connected poems, a literary essay or a piece of fiction somehow tied to New England concerns – and we decided on a two-tone (two color), matte (non-glossy) cover, sort of a folksy feel. This format lasted for several issues – during which we featured W.D. Wetherell, the poet Roger Weingarten, a Vermont fiction issue with work by Julia Alvarez (according to rumor, her first published story) and Ellen Lesser, and a special issue on Vermont state poet, Galway Kinnell. For the Kinnell issue, we printed several of his poems and surrounded them with photographs, essays, interviews, and news articles on the poet. I drove to his home in Glover, Vermont, to conduct the interview, and on a fine fall day found myself chatting, instead, for the first half-hour, with his son Fergus, who appears, along with his daughter Maud, in many of Kinnell’s poems. I guess I expected Fergus to be a literary fellow like his father, but we talked for a half-hour about auto mechanics, I think – about the car he was working on in the barn – while Galway finished soaking in his claw-footed porcelain tub in the next room and cluster flies buzzed by the hundreds along his windowsills.

But back to the short history of GMR. Kinnell, of course, has never been simply a Vermont poet, nor a regional poet, but a nationally-acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winner. The folly of our venture – to stuff him or Wetherell or, later, Hayden Carruth, Ruth Stone, and Grace Paley into the strait jacket of New England writer – was abundantly clear. So we abandoned the folksy New England image, became a proper America-spanning magazine, put on a glossy, laminated, 4-color cover (with a bar code for the B&N superstores), and began to court a larger audience.

DB: You refer to GMR‘s humble beginnings: $3000 and three enthusiastic editors. In the world of litmags today, as evidenced at any AWP Bookfair, there is an absolute onslaught of new publications, all with what must be just as humble beginnings/existences. Is this a good thing? A sign that all is well and healthy within the literary community?

NS: I confess to being overwhelmed by the hundreds of literary magazines at the AWP Bookfair and, more broadly, by the thousands (as evidenced by the International Directory of Literary Magazines and Small Presses) throughout America. Looking at this proliferation, I’m naturally of two minds: on the one hand, it signals a healthy literary community, with lots of opinionated writers and editors launching manifestos, staking out aesthetic positions, immersing themselves in the discovery of new (and ongoing) talent and representing it to the serious reading public. On the other hand, the sheer number of literary magazines guarantees the ongoing dispersal of what we once imagined as a unified field of readers – readers galvanized to the same few dozen literary magazines such as Poetry, The Kenyon Review, and The Southern Review. If writers published poetry or prose in one of those magazines, they imagined that every serious reader of literature would see their work. Now, there are so many literary positions staked out (each with its own imagined or real readership) – Fence, Verse, Volt, Denver Quarterly, and Jubilat vs. Poetry, Sewanee Review, New England Review, Georgia Review, and Hudson Review – that they virtually guarantee smaller readership for any one magazine.

Writers have ever been a contentious tribe, so perhaps this fractious state of American literature signals a healthy community. Who can say for sure? Twenty years ago, in Bill Clinton’s day, we called this fracture the Balkanized state of American poetry: multicultural politics, gender politics, formalists, deconstructionists, realists, surrealists, New York poets, poets of the Heartland, and every other possible landscape or marginalized group in between. During those years, some of us imagined a future that would contain a sort of Yeatsian counter-spin: the unspooling gyre of American literature would gradually gather the disparate threads and spin them together again into a new harmony. Sometimes, I think this has happened. A new generation of writers has synthesized the various experiments and aesthetic conflicts of the 20th century, incorporated what they could use, discarded the rest, and regarded it all with a dispassionate eye. Many magazines, both new and old, now include an eclectic mix of work – sonnets next to prose poems, linear narratives next to de-centered texts – and editors claim their only standard is excellence. But other times, to my eye, not much has changed. The fragmented state of American literature is still with us: new magazines, as they often do, make outsized claims for their existence, launch broadside attacks against the literary establishment, and promise great revelations and changes. Ah well, perhaps a fragmented state of literature is a healthy state – no orthodoxies, no overarching pressure to write in a particular style, some assurance that somewhere in this variegated landscape of literary magazines there will be a magazine whose aesthetic interests (or lack thereof) will match your own creative temperament, as a writer or reader.

DB: What factors determine the litmags that succeed and last…and those that do not?

NS: Some magazines have no distribution beyond their campus or community. They serve a small audience, perhaps happily so, and will rarely grow larger. They hold “publishing launch” readings in their backyards or basements; distribute the magazine on the street or in local coffee-shops, get the word out by word-of-mouth or, increasingly, via the internet. Other magazines aspire to greater things but must survive “the start-up years” – when funding, readership, distribution, and even ongoing purpose are all called into question. IF a magazine survives these first few years, then perhaps the grants and distribution will follow, as well as splashy launch-parties for each new issue at fancy bookstores in the big cities, poems and prose reprinted in The Pushcart Prize anthology, the Best American series, or Harpers, issues reviewed by literary magazine reviewers such as New Pages (online) or Small Press Reviews (paper) – all of which can increase a magazine’s readership. Another model, of course, is to gather sponsors and distributors immediately as, say, Fence, Five Points or Tin House did. These magazines launched with great fanfare, but few magazines have the resources and wherewithal to do that. So we’re back to the first model: small, steady growth in funding, distribution, and readership.

As for what factors determine who succeeds and who doesn’t, it’s hard to predict. Editors need a run of luck, and they need technological savvy in this age when so many readers are online. But for the long haul, they need a way to convert their initial creative frenzy (with which they launched the magazine) into a long-range, disciplined approach to producing, publishing, and distributing issue after issue, as well as doing the work of funding and advertising the magazine both online, at book fairs and library association meetings.  Beyond that, if the magazine’s aesthetic position or reliable stable of writers or contentious letters-to-the-editor or tell-all interviews or visually pleasing surface attracts a committed readership, then the magazine will survive and flourish.

DB: As we’ve already mentioned, GMR is housed at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vermont. The Vermont Studio Center (VSC) is also located in Johnson. Living in Johnson myself, I know it’s “small town.” How would you characterize the relationship between GMR and the Studio Center over the years?

NS: The Vermont Studio Center is now the largest arts colony in the United States, located right down the hill from our college. When I started GMR in 1987, the Studio Center was a visual arts colony ONLY – the president and founder of the Studio Center had an allergic reaction to literature, period – so it took me several years to convince him (with the help of Joseph Brodsky who had been invited to read at our college and who, while drinking vodka at the arts colony, demanded that there be a place for writers as well as visual artists). Thus, by 1990, I established the writers program at the Vermont Studio Center and served as its director for the next eight years, inviting an array of writers from Stephen Dunn, Stephen Dobyns, Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, Naomi Nye, Jane Hirshfield, Michael Harper, Bill Matthews, Robert Pinsky, Richard Howard, and Linda Gregg, in poetry, to Phillip Lopate, Scott Sanders, Vivian Gornick, Lynn Sharon Schwartz, Grace Paley, Antonya Nelson, Ron Carlson, and Carole Maso, in prose. Here was a large source of writers whose works I could solicit directly – creative work I’d hear at a reading (sometimes things they had just written at the colony) or craft-talk essays or interviews.

I always wished I had more time to prepare and conduct interviews, in the mold of the old Ohio Review, but I had no time, given my full-time job as a professor, my editorship of the magazine, my director role at the Studio Center, and my budding responsibilities as a family man. As you can tell, I was out of my mind, at the time, overbooked, over-committed. But the key point is this: I managed to solicit wonderful poems and prose pieces for the magazine and, in fact, at one point, did an entire Special Issue on writers associated with the Vermont Studio Center. Work by Matthews, Dunn, Dobyns, Emanuel, Gregg, Carruth, Nye, Hirshfield, Schwartz, Paley, and others made its way into our pages, and though I no longer work for the VSC, Elizabeth Powell and I still meet the writers and solicit work from them.

DB: What I find most striking about GMR is the intense array of ways in which the journal is operating: regionally, nationally, internationally, special issues, in conjunction with Johnson State, with the Studio Center, etc. Is it fair to say GMR‘s success comes from its ability to flex and move accordingly? Add web and online into the mix, and I wonder if this is the necessary reality of any successful litmag today.

NS: Most litmags, even the stalwarts, have had to be nimble in a new age. I remember many of the esteemed journals nervously attending conferences in the 1990s on fundraising, marketing, and distributing their litmags, and I remember similar panel discussions convened at AWP over the past many years. Clearly, after those conferences, some of the top litmags improved their marketing and distribution techniques. Several of them formed alliances. Since then, there have been more conferences about online presence; and I’ve noticed many of the stalwarts now have flashy websites, more biographical links to their authors, more links to each author’s work, photographs, interviews, discussion boards, tote bags, t-shirts, calendars, and so on. Does this help to develop a larger or more loyal readership? Does it bring in more revenue for the magazine? Does it turn the magazine into something other than a magazine, just as the bookstore – with its music section, coffee shop, games and calendars and clothes – has become something other than a bookstore? I don’t know yet.

With universities suffering budget crises, litmags as currently published are perceived as costly ventures, and they’re vulnerable to the fiscal axe. If litmags shift to online publication, they save money (as well as trees) and have a better chance of surviving. As universities tilt further toward the business model (“value” commodified; revenue streams analyzed; outcomes assessments made) and tilt away from the humanities model (“value” as uncommodifiable, as measured in self-knowledge and exploration of worlds unknown) – those litmags which depend upon university funding for their livelihood will become MORE vulnerable.

Probably, there are a few venerable magazines whose fates are so intertwined with their institutions – The Southern Review and Sewanee Review come to mind – that they will be funded as long as the institutions themselves survive. But for the lion’s share of litmags, they’ll need to innovate to survive. Simple rotation of editorships, from the old to the young, will solve some problems. The newer faculty members are all computer and web-savvy; they spend their hours online and consider it the place where most readers spend their hours, so they’ll shift the print magazines to the web.

That’s where the next generation of readers will be, with their computers, smartphones, iPads, iPods, and whatever new technologies Apple invents. Of course, this will probably prove short sighted: there will be an unprecedented revolution in the way information is delivered and digested. (Maybe all former book-information will enter our brains on digitized sound waves and we’ll no longer use our eyes at all.) But unless, someone re-invents the BOOK (packaged with new, cost-effective paper and ink), the era of the book’s dominance is pretty much over.

DB: Things feel much more frenetic in terms of what a journal must be prepared or able to do in order to be. Good thing or bad thing? Can we ever go back to “less is more”?

NS: Yes, as a counter-spin to all of the above, it’s worth remembering that you CAN still launch a literary magazine using the “less is more” approach. If you target your readership carefully; if you limit the magazine to online publication; or, hell, if you want to do a palpable, paper-based journal and you’re savvy enough to do the magazine’s design and layout by yourself and you find a printer who’s willing to print copies on-demand – you can still afford to produce a literary magazine that’s relatively inexpensive. After that, the key is in the constituency, the readership you develop: perhaps just readers interested in contemporary sonnets; or readers of apocalyptic fiction; or of comedic haiku; or of hybrid memoir-fiction.

DB: Nuts and bolts editor talk: with so much slush (ever-increasing piles of the stuff), what does it take anymore to stand out as a writer? To catch a reader’s eye? Is there anything an “emerging” writer can do, or is it just luck of the draw and who has the most impressive cover letter credentials?

NS: There’s no secret handshake writers need to know to get published in GMR. Simply, the literature has to be stellar and “fit” with the literary predilections of the GMR editors. Beyond this, here’s some submission advice for emerging writers.

The obvious advice: for those who submit by postal mail (yes, we still read postal mail), include clear, legible (but not flashy) copies of your work, include a SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) and a brief cover letter that’s not too self-congratulatory. For those who send electronically, the same rules apply (minus the SASE). Send no more than 5 poems or 20–25 pages of prose. Read an issue of the magazine before you submit to it so you’ll have some sense of the editor’s literary biases. For book reviewing, query me first and send samples of your previous reviews. Ditto for interview proposals. In any case, if you can indicate that you’ve actually read a copy of GMR and have found commonality with the work we publish, all the better.

Perhaps less obvious: I favor groups of poems that exhibit some design as a group, if nothing thematic, then perhaps some type of connection from first to last poem (Peter Johnson once sent me 5 poems about an alter-ego named Eduardo; Wes McNair sent poems from rural Maine that introduced the same characters from 5 different perspectives in 5 different poems; Angie Estes has sent 5 poems with metaphoric subtexts of opera or linguistic subtexts with French cognates. And so on.)

My literary predilections? In a past issue of Poetry Society of America, here’s what I said about what makes a poem memorable: “The confluence of memorable language, intriguing imagery and metaphor, intelligent discursiveness, visible signs of formal discovery, intensity and pressure that bring the poem into being – all of which dramatizes the poem’s content and, to rephrase a Charles Olson chestnut, brings it all the way over to the reader…. I favor poems with embedded narratives and dramatic contexts, but I’m also drawn to apparently “subjectless” poems, if other elements of the poem attract me…. Overall, my main requirement is that the piece succeed on whatever terms it establishes, that it clearly articulates the arc of its endeavor, makes me recognize and live its discoveries, performs its functions with notable style, and attempts, in the old grand phrase, to change my life.” In short, I hope always to publish memorable work at GMR, work that the reader will want to return to many times.

Beyond this, have courage, perseverance, and patience. Editors are a quirky lot and who’s to know what they’ll finally like. I’ve known editors who refuse to publish work that resembles their own – either because they’re bored with their own work or because they’re too competitive – and I’ve known other editors who refuse to publish anything that doesn’t conform to their own narrow aesthetic. Good luck, and may the Muses be with you.

Dana Burchfield received her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared or is forthcoming in Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Crab Orchard Review, Cream City Review, The Journal, and Marginalia among others. She lives in Vermont.

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