The Writing Life: Starting a Literary Magazine, Part Two, from Whole Beast Rag
Editor’s Note: For those of you interested in starting a literary magazine, take some notes from Katharine Hargreaves and Grace Littlefield, the women behind Whole Beast Rag. They’ve got something fantastic and erotic and creative percolating in their feasting minds, and we think you might just benefit from their perspective. Part 2 of 2 (find Part One here).
by Grace Littlefield
Kat went over most everything you need to know about starting/producing a literary magazine extremely well. There are just a few things I’ll add to make this blog post even more long-winded than it already is, though, and they’re slightly less interesting: compatibility within your staff and contributors, spreading yer tentacles wide in the community you’re based in, reading as many other lit mags, books and other media that you can, and editing consistently.
To start: staff/contributor compatibility. I’ll use a personal anecdote, since this is the first time anyone’s formally asked my opinion on the matter, and I love our staff: If you don’t connect with someone you’re trying to create art with on an other-worldly level pretty immediately, do not try to create art with them. Especially if they’re a partner. Meeting Kat back in the summer of 2009 was a birth of its own; I’d just moved to Minneapolis from northern Minnesota, and there hadn’t really been anyone I’d connected with, holistically, before that period. Aside from her introducing me to a lot of amazing artists and writers, letting me live in her broom closet, and sharing her booze with me from time to time, we opened up with one another and had quite a few successive conversations that concreted our friendship and our mutual desire to create a lit mag that served our mutual interests.
That mag did not begin the same way it’s presented now, though—it began with our hope to create a literary erotica magazine, which is hard to do and to get people into. I, like most everyone on Earth, have quite a few repressed sexual memories and desires. It just so happened that I met the right person at the right time in the closet of her house, and I was able to communicate those things to her better than anyone else. That relationship is rare enough that I wanted to capture it, write about it, talk about it, and get other people involved.
At first, we mostly tried to write erotica ourselves, and to be perfectly honest, I’m really terrible at writing any erotic moment; I genuinely applaud any person able to do so (well). Kat could—her first piece completely shamed me (along with all her other writing). But the context of sexuality, tension, the “edge” —to hearken back to the theme we’re trying to hone in on for our September issue—is, we’re now realizing, the most erotic part, and simultaneously the part that shapes our everyday lives in a way that we don’t directly associate with sexuality, gender, et al.
After Kat and I got to that level of understanding ourselves and our hopes for the magazine, more people became interested in the magazine. We could talk about it clearly and meticulously, and that confidence convinced people. And because we both know where we want the magazine to go, we both know how to talk with other staffers and contributors.
When Bernd Sauermann, our Poetry Editor, approached us and asked how he could be involved in the magazine, I left the decision up to Kat; she knows what I like in terms of poetry, and can tell if someone else has that same personal taste, which Bernd does. The same situation applied to Aaron Bickner, our Art Editor. I hadn’t met Aaron until our launch party back on June 2, but had absolute faith he’d kick ass in that role, based on Kat’s suggestion. And he did. If I was running this operation with someone I didn’t entirely trust, in terms of taste and objectives, there is absolutely no way I would have let them make such a decision without evaluating the potential staff members much more thoroughly. Submissions work the same way.
Number two: spreading yer tentacles. Most people, even if they read pretty often and/or have a vested interested in literature of any kind, will not give a shit if you start a literary magazine (even if CK Williams is the featured interview for it). People are gonna read it if their friends/roommates/crushes and lovers/brothers and sisters/neighbors have content in the magazine. They’ll ooh and ah at the one they’ve been asked to read, and hopefully—cross your fingers—will read other content in the magazine, too, and realize that the magazine isn’t a poorly-constructed Brooklyn export that just sits on your coffee table intimidating everyone; it’s full of the stories and interactions you wish you’d thought of (because it’s crossed your mind once or twice) or had (because we all get drunk on the back porch during a heat wave at some point in our lives). As icky as it is that we’re all so dependent on social media and word of mouth, knowing that fact and owning it like Kanye will get the word out much sooner.
Read, too. Read read read read read. Have money for an obnoxious new Best Coast album on iTunes? Skip it and buy a lit mag or two or a book that’s highly recommended by your local bookstore clerk instead. Read through it, take notes, process and become more literate; it’s amazing how many slush pile submissions I went through at Graywolf Press, the authors of which didn’t seem to hold a basic understanding of English grammar. Or if the author used awesome slang, it was random and hard to follow; there has to be a patterned syntax that flows, otherwise it sounds and reads like a nightmarish stream-of-consciousness manure pile. But even if the book or mag ends up being kinda bad or not really your cup or tea, you’ll know what’s out there and will begin to understand why rejecting certain pieces betters your magazine and gives a more crystalline image of what content you want. Plus you can recruit from these books and mags for your own future issues, wink wink.
Editing, as annoying as it is to writers, is also vital to the success of a magazine. Editing strictly with the 16th Edition of the Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t necessarily guarantee success in this realm, though; you need to develop a flow that’s yours alone, and if you’re the lead editor of a magazine, like I am, you need to lay down the law but also give reasonable explanations as to why you’ve edited a piece a certain way. And if writers aren’t willing to edit their work in a way that makes it fit within your issue, be honest—sometimes you just need to say no in order to make other pieces in the magazine shine like they deserve.
I’ll also reveal that there is no way in hell your first issue will look the way you imagine it. But this isn’t a bad thing: Either it’ll be slightly less than you had hoped for, but you’ll finally have finished the fucking thing, or it’ll be much more than you’d hoped for, and you get props from organizations like Hazel & Wren. But finish it. That’s important. Over and out.
Pssst: Whole Beast Rag is taking submissions RIGHT THIS SECOND for their second bomb-ass issue, calledEdge. Do it, to it, folks.