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December 5th, 2011 / 1:00 pm
Literary Magazine Club

{LMC} A Conversation with the Editors of Beecher’s

It has been a great month and some change talking about Beecher’s. I had a roundtable discussion with editors past and present about the magazine, what they look for, and what they hope for the future of Beecher’s.

Why the name Beecher’s? 

Chloe Cooper Jones: Obscure Kansas history reference!

Iris Moulton:  It’s meant as a reference to Henry Ward Beecher, an abolitionist who wanted to make sure Kansas would enter as a free state. He packed rifles for this cause in crates labeled Beecher’s Bibles, sneaking weapons for the cause. Chloe’s right, it is an obscure Kansas reference, and that’s part of why it endeared itself to us. And we felt like we were putting some serious ammunition in an unsuspecting package as we worked to assemble Beecher’s One.

Ben Pfeiffer:  Also, we liked the simplicity of Beecher’s, the sound of it, and we liked the flexibility that name provides to future KU-MFA students: They can put their own stamp on Beecher’s while retaining continuity with earlier editorial boards. In the future, we anticipate editions with titles like Beecher’s Last Stand, Beecher’s Grocery List, and Beecher’s Carnival of Sadness. Even in the beginning we were thinking: “How do we build a magazine that lasts once we’re graduated?”

I often talk about how there are too many literary magazines. Of course, there can never be too much writing in the world but you have to wonder about the value of introducing new magazines into a saturated market. What made you start Beecher’s and what does the magazine have to offer that must be in the world of words?

CCJ: We started Beecher’s primarily because we wanted to make something, I think. We were/are all graduate students at the University of Kansas where there had never been a literary journal run by graduate students and that seemed absurd to us, or at least to me. Writing is a lonely and insular act, and within the MFA system the act of writing can take on a level of repugnant, suffocating self-importance. For us, a way of combating this was to drink a lot on the back patios of bars and talk together about OTHER people’s writing. This naturally transitioned into wanting to make something that connected us to these other writers we admired. Making a journal seemed a logical way of rendering that connection tangibly.

Now, what did Beecher’s One offer that must be in the “world of words”? I don’t know. I think any editor–if answering this question honestly–would have to say, “My own superior taste in literature.” I mean, can’t get rid of all of our self-importance here.

IM:  This conversation– about an over-saturated market– was had at many of our first meetings. It was something we were all conscious of going into this, the problem of how to make something wonderful. We started with the physical object– I think the word fetish was used a lot– and then talked about finding work worthy of that.

But Beecher’s was started too for selfish reasons: the grad students at KU looked around and saw a lot of interesting and strong aesthetic perspectives, and a lot of talented writers, and wondered why we weren’t running our own magazine. So, because there would be tremendous personal value to each of us, we decided to start one. And we hope our passion for great writing brings something to the table.

BP:  We’re not claiming to offer any Holy Grail of Language; Beecher’s isn’t better than anyone else in that sense. We do take our work seriously, and we do believe in finding only the highest quality writing and using a design that compliments it. Paying too much attention to what everyone else does can sometimes lead to a paralyzing self-consciousness. You need to know the market of publications, you need to know what’s being published now, but obsessing over what everyone else is doing is prohibitive to creativity. So we try to encourage people to find the absolute best poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Trust that it’s good. You know the standard for good content. Make sure you meet your own standards first. Know what you want to offer to the larger community of reader and writers. If you’re doing it right, people will pick up on it, too.

Daniel Rolf:  I am in total agreement.  There are too many literary magazines.  I am so glad you posed this question about the value of putting yet another literary magazine into the world.  This question of value was something we pondered before we had much of a concept of what our publishing venture would be, beyond having something to put on a CV.  All of us involved in creating Beecher’s are all writers, so the question of value is familiar to us all.  Paraphrasing what Chloe said, writing is lonely act. And further, who will see it when you are done, let alone care?  So why write anything?  I think this familiarity with futility gave us the confidence to go ahead shove another magazine into the world.

But knowing the reality of what we were entering into was not a resignation.  We saw it as a challenge.  If there was one driving force behind the foundation of Beecher’s it was:  the will to walk into the crowded world of words and care enough to at least try to throw a few good elbows.

This is a really fine looking magazine. That paper! The binding!  What guided your design and production decisions? Who printed Beecher’s 1? 

CCJ: That is all Daniel Rolf. I will say this: it looks so good because Dan was unwilling to do anything less than exactly what he had envisioned for the design of that issue. He eschewed all pretense of practicality. He ignored all budgetary or time constraints. As editor, I would fret a bit and want to check in on him too often, and he would always–gracefully–respond in a way that amounted to, “Leave me alone, I’m making this thing.” Dan is a man of unflinching sight and I wanted the content to carry that same weight. I solicited writers who I thought were singular and tough and strange and uncompromising. What I received were pieces that are acerbic, smart, precarious, brave. The design and the content had to do each other justice, and I think we achieved that. But I’ll let Dan explain this further…

IM: Daniel Rolf! I can’t say enough about this man. It has been an honor working with him, and I’m so thrilled that he’s already busy envisioning our next issue.

BPThis is Dan’s vision. We’re lucky he stayed on, too, to design our second installment of Beecher’s, and for the second round we’re doing the same thing we did the first time: Staying out of his way and trusting his expertise.

DR: At the most essential level we wanted a very nice object to hold the very nice work we would be publishing.  The next concern was that, because this was our inaugural issue, we needed the design of Issue One to set the tone for Beecher’s as an ongoing project.  We didn’t narrow the mission of Beecher’s to focus on a certain genre, theme, or some other boundary to give our new magazine a face.  We were going to be just another multi-genre journal in a world full of them, so we wanted the object to set us apart.  But it was important to us that we didn’t employ a gimmick to so.  We didn’t want to stray from the “book” format, at least not in the first issue.   We were setting out to make a new literary journal, and we wanted it to be easily recognized as such.

I wanted the physical object to be a simple container from which the reader could consume the text.  But rather than just send some .docs and a logo to a printer and say, “make this as simple as you possibly can” I wanted to explore the concept itself in the making of the physical object.  So I spent a lot time holding books, turning pages and examining the bindings.  I became fascinated by the way the evidence of readers could be seen and felt as I examined the books they had handled.   So I tried to design Beecher’s One in a way that would both give readers a straightforward and simple object from which to consume the content, but also, secondarily, allow the interaction of the reader with text to be easily recorded.   The layout is simple, the paper absorbs oils, the pages dog-ear easily when turned, and the binding lays bare the construction.

Finding a bindery that could construct the binding was a bit of a challenge.  I’m not sure if some just didn’t want to deal with it, or they actually couldn’t technically.  Whatever the case, I was put on hold a lot and often left there until I hung up.  Circuitously I finally found, The Covington Group, a book manufacturer based just minutes away in Kansas City, and I confused them for months.

I am always interested in the different editorial approaches magazines take. How do you run your magazine?

CCJ: With Beecher’s One, we didn’t have much of a process. No one had ever heard of Beecher’s, so we weren’t getting many submissions. I solicited every fiction piece in the first issue by calling in favors from my friends. Bobby Baumann and Iris Moulton did the same with the poetry content. Luckily, we have extremely generous, talented, and accomplished friends who were willing to offer up their work to a magazine that didn’t exist at that point. That’s how we ran the first issue: fast and loose and mean.

IM: Because the idea for Beecher’s started with the hope that our graduate students would get the chance during their time at KU to, first, decde what they like, and then articulate why it is that they like it, and then go out and find it in the slush and solicit for it, and then work with the writers through an editorial process, and then to assemble and copy edit a flawless issue, our process thus far has been quite egalitarian to allow for this. Because of the success of the firstBeecher’s, we are receiving very strong pieces every day, and are in constant communication about what is coming in, and what we’re out in the world trying to find.

Our managing editors this year, Caitlin and Jason, have been amazing at the actual running of a magazine– working almost constantly on issues that arise with funding and fundraising, publicity and advertising, shipping, and many other things that the rest of us don’t have to think about because they’re so great at their jobs.

BP:  This year, we’re opening up the process even more, and encouraging editors and readers to take ownership and to solicit work from their favorite writers. At the same time, we’re making sure we maintain the kind of quality we saw in the first issue. We meet somewhat infrequently, but we’re in constant contact through email threads and through Submishmash, the database that organizes our unsolicited submissions. We have a kind of subcommittee structure, where editors and their assistants are in charge of each kind of writing: for example, Mark Petterson, our fiction editor, heads up a committee of fiction readers. He’s tireless in soliciting and reading work, as is Jen Colatosti, our assistant fiction editor. From time to time Mark or Jen will come to us and say: “So-and-so sent me a story.” Then we all read that story. We haven’t been discussing submissions too much yet, because it’s still very early in the process. We’re still gathering as much good content as we can. When we get to the process of choosing exactly what goes in the second issue, editors will submit their top choices, and we will assemble a packet of the content, one for each editorial board member, and then we’ll meet and discuss each piece. We will probably argue about what should and shouldn’t go in — not everyone has the same tastes. But empowering editors is important. They’ve been fantastic so far. Everyone has pitched in without fail. And so far it’s paid off: We’ve got some really exciting work coming in, and we’re not even close to the publication date of the second issue.

What is your favorite piece from the debut issue?

CCJ: I think Justin Runge’s poetry is exceptional. He was the last person I solicited. I knew there was something off about the balance of the content–we needed a closer. I knew Justin’s work really well and knew it could lend an important grace to the end of the issue.

My favorite fiction pieces are probably the two by Yelena Akhtiorskaya. She had three brilliant pieces in N+1 around the same time that Beecher’s One came out. Her writing has a strength and insight to it that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere ever. It is writing that seems to say, “Why be showy or falsely performative when one could simply be the smartest writing in the room? Why is everyone else bragging so loudly?” I really admire her work for the same reasons that I admire her as a person–she is quiet, but all-seeing.

IM: I have such an appreciation for the poetry of Rebecca Wadlinger. After I read her work I feel like I am in a different place, almost physically, and she manages to have that power with such a funny streak. I’ve admired her poetry for years, and to get to include her in Beecher’s One was an honor.

BP: I hate to play favorites, but I have a soft spot for James Yeh’s “Your Mother and Henry Rollins” first and foremost; even though it’s short, James’s story is haunting, and I can’t get the final half of the story unstuck from my brain — a good sign, an indication that something is working on a deeper level. His writing captures so well the awkward reunions we have with people from our lives, people we haven’t seen in years, how they’re familiar and yet incredibly different (in this case, a high school friend from South Carolina comes to visit the narrator in the big city). I also loved Lincoln Michel’s “Foreign Lands,” Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s “Wyoming,” and John Dermot Woods’s illustrated short-shorts.

DR: I really can’t pick a favorite.  Chloe, Iris and Robert J. Baumann did an amazing job securing some great work.  I would live with them all in a villa in Italy forever if I could.  I know all our dreams would come true.

What do you want for the future of Beechers?

CCJ: I think it would be ridiculous for any of us to speak to the future of Beecher’s. The reality of a graduate student magazine is that the editorial board turns over every year. What I wanted for Beecher’s is different from what Ben and Iris will do in the second issue, and those who follow them will (hopefully) bring a different and expanded vision and it will go like this on and on, etc. Beecher’s is so young and there are too many people who want to put their mark on it. At least for a while, it has some shapeshifting to do. It doesn’t have the stability of a journal consistently edited by the same person/people, but does have that exciting possibility of newness, which would ideally keep it relevant. When speaking of the future, I think the best thing any journal can say is, “I will do my best not bore you.” All other promises for a “future for the magazine” seem naive and hollow to me–you know? Like someone selling something, rather than artists aware of the necessity for newness and renewal.

IM:  I agree with Chloe that the future of a literary magazine is unpredictable, especially one with an inconsistent and constantly changing editorial board, but since you’re asking what I would want for the future I’ll bite.  I hope that the future staff(s) of Beecher’s are as excited to work on this issue as the first few editorial boards have been, and I hope that they carry that enthusiasm into their search for fantastic and thrilling work. Starting a literary magazine has been hard, and starting one at a University is its own process– there’s a lot of paperwork and meetings involved, and money is so scarce for everything that the existence of the magazine has to keep justifying itself. So, what I guess what I want is for Beecher’s do that: to not only have an undeniable home at KU, but to keep earning a standout place amongst the myriad journals already out there.

BP:  I hope students in the KU-MFA will pick up where we leave off and continue developing the magazine into another pillar of the institution. We certainly tried to build the infrastructure that way, so it could serve future boards and hold the whole thing together. As managing editor of Beecher’s One, I designed everything to be easily transferable: the website domain, the email forwarders — everything was designed to help keep Beecher’s alive. We knew this was bigger than us. Right now, if Beecher’s can survive another two years — and I think we’ve done as much as we can to encourage that — then I think we’ll see interesting things happen for the magazine. Basically, though, Beecher’s Magazine will only ever be as strong as the students who come to the KU-MFA and decide to make the magazine their own.

DR:  I want future graduate students to care about it.  I want it to continue.

What other magazines do you look to for what you accomplish as editors?

BP: Absolutely Black Warrior Review. In fact, they helped us when we started, providing us with some of the infrastructure we needed to promote our contests — things like that. I’m an admirer of what they accomplish; their model provided an inspiration from Day One. Actually, one of BWR’s former editors, Kate Lorenz, now lives in Lawrence and edits a journal called Parcel. In some ways, it’s a sister journal to Beecher’s, and we help each other out from time to time. So, speaking of Parcel, I have tremendous respect for their journal, too.

DR: I think as far as overall quality, competency and sustainable success in the world of university-published journals it starts and ends with the Black Warrior Review.  What that program has done with that publication is a model.

As a designer I look to the publications that you can tell are considering every aspect of the physical object. As far as literary magazines go, obviously McSweeney’s puts out beautiful and interesting objects. The Agricultural Reader and Gigantic are two newer publications that stand out. But I draw from wider swath than just magazines. Actar is big publisher that puts out great-looking books. But there are so many small-scale book and zine makers that are making little pieces of art. They start from a completely different point than most publishers. The object is absolutely essential, and as carefully considered as the content inside. I feel at this point, where writing can be delivered comfortably and legibly in digital formats, why not consider the object if you are going to use the energy and materials to put words in print?  It’s not necessary, but neither is putting it on a page at all.

Every editor, at some point, develops some kind of pet peeve about writers and how they submit their work to magazines. What’s yours?

BP: Oh, I don’t know — unsolicited submissions aren’t so bad. There are some weird ones, definitely; but it doesn’t bother me so much. I respect anyone who is going to send their work in — even if it’s so-called bad work — and who treats the editors with respect, too. So rudeness would be my pet peeve, I guess. But no writer sending in work has been rude yet.

You all mentioned, in one way or another, that you want Beecher’s to continue to thrive under future editorial boards. What do you do to ensure that transition goes smoothly and that the magazine remains successful?

IM: I think the best thing we can do now to ensure the Beecher’s future is to encourage the involvement of all of our staff, and there’s no shortage of people eager to help out. Everyone gets the chance to solicit, read, and to have their opinions made known, and there’s a lot of energy right now for that.

BP:  So far, actually, we haven’t faced that problem, in that many of the people serving on the second editorial board also served on the first — that is, there’s still a bunch of co-founders. I served under Chloé as managing editor, Iris was assistant poetry editor under Rob Baumann, and Mark was assistant fiction editor under Nate Barbarick. Caitlin, our managing editor, was assistant managing editor under me. We all started this together and now we’re seeing it through in some ways. In the end, Dan’s right: We hope that Beecher’s will continue, but I think passion will cement its survival, not by-laws. Rules can help things go more smoothly, but they can’t be a substitute for the intrinsic motivation of other writers and students.

DR: It’s a big concern for me. It would be unfortunate if Beecher’s didn’t continue and continue successfully, for the sake of our program and future students. Being given the opportunity to realize a publication with your colleagues is an invaluable experience, and the program would suffer without it.  But really, there is only so much we can do.  This is a wholly student-centered project, so its continuation will be wholly contingent on the level of energy future students put behind it.

That said, we did put together by-laws, which will hopefully foster some amount of sustainability (the others can address this more.)

But I feel these rules and regulations are absolutely secondary to the energy put behind the project and the product. So, this will be the responsibility of others.  But, I think we all worked hard on this putting this publication together with its future at least in the back of our minds.  You can have every part of the process completely structured, with a plug-in for every succeeding editorial board and a set list of jobs for each person to complete, but that insures nothing.  Releasing a nice product is all that counts.  Hopefully that is what we did.  And hopefully that will excite future students to carry-on, and do something better.

What do you love most about editing?

IM: I love to read the submissions. There’s always that chance that I’m going to read something surprising and outstanding, and I just wait for that moment. I love to think about the relationships between the pieces and how that might shape their juxtaposition within the magazine. This is my first editorial position, and I’d have to say that one of my favorite aspects has been how it has demystified the process of submitting to a journal– when I submit now, I can picture it on the editor’s screen. And the potential relationship between editor and writer feels less intimidating to me now than it used to.

BP:  Maybe it’s naïve, but I’m interested in the old, tight-knit relationship between editors and writers, because it’s something I hear has gone away. “No one edits anymore!” I think that’s false, though. I just don’t believe it. With the rise of multinational publishing houses, editing became the agent’s job, and then the writer’s job, or the job of an M.F.A. workshop. But I think you can still have a close relationship with writers as an editor. I think that’s something small publishing can bring back to the marketplace — close friendships and partnerships between professionals. So obviously I’m encouraging editors to think that way, and I’m trying to think that way, too, when I’m reading a story. Does this story have potential? Can I improve it in some way? Some writers will be open to that and some won’t be. But to me, I think that’d be a great thing, two people working together as friends to make a story or poem or essay as good as humanly possible.

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