An Interview With Dana Johnson

We’re just past the halfway point of our submissions period for Indiana Review’s 2012 Fiction Prize, which will be judged by Dana Johnson, author of Elsewhere, California and Break Any Woman Down.  If you’re unfamiliar with Dana’s work, you should put down that copy of IR (just for a little bit) and pick up one of her books.

Recently, I got the chance to ask Dana a few questions about the many ways stories can succeed and fail, and about the importance of literary journals like IR.  My favorite line from her responses:  “I don’t have the patience for stories that are clever but have no heart.”

I’m going to have that printed on my business cards.

Here’s the entire interview with Dana:

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Indiana Review’s Selection Process, Demystified

Over the past few weeks, Indiana Review’s genre editors have posted about what they look for in poems, stories, and essays in terms of craft. These posts have elicited several questions from readers about the nuts and bolts of selection process itself—that is, how, logistically, we go about deciding what to publish in Indiana Review. I hope to begin to address those questions in this post.

Being an editor is the best job in the world. There are few things more exhilarating to me than “discovering” an incredible piece in the slush pile, especially if it is the author’s first-ever publication. There is something really magical about finding that poem or story or essay, reading it over and over again, discussing it at length at a selection meeting, hoping it gets voted in, seeing it on its way through the long, long production process, and then finally getting to send the print journal out into the world.

Maybe this enchantment has something to do with the fact that here, at Indiana Review, our editors and readers are all aspiring and emerging writers, too. We are continually putting ourselves in the exact same situation as the writers who submit to Indiana Review (if you’re reading this post, I’m guessing you’re probably one of them). That is to say, most of us here on staff have been rejected time and time again, and we know how extraordinarily special (and rare!) it is if/ when one of our poems or stories is accepted for publication.

That said, the more I engage in dialogue with editors at other literary journals, the more I realize the selection process varies widely from publication to publication. It is my hope that this post will make what we do here at Indiana Review more transparent to our submitters, subscribers, and everyone and anyone who is interested in how we practice a democratic selection process.

What happens to my submission?

When a writer submits to Indiana Review, her submission is first read by the Editor, Associate Editor, or genre editor. And read again. And again. Yes, it’s true that the majority of pieces (probably around 98-99 percent of the submissions we receive) don’t make it past this point. If a paper submission is rejected, a rejection notice is put in the SASE and put in intern logout box.  Intern logs submission out of our database and mail the SASE. If an online submission is rejected, the editor selects the “reject” function in our online submission manager, and an electronic notification is sent to the submitter’s inbox.

But don’t get discouraged! There is also a potentially happy ending to this story.  When an editor finds a piece that she or he thinks might be a great fit for Indiana Review, the editor places it in “the box.” “The box” refers to the group of about twenty poems or 8-10 stories that will be discussed at the selection meeting any given week. In addition to the work that is culled from the slush pile, the genre editor might also include work from a writer that she or he has solicited.

Once the box of work to be discussed at that week’s selection meeting has “been set,” the work is made available for readers.

Read more after the jump!

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Partial Transcript Of Secret Presidential Debate On Contemporary Literature


[“You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem…”]

“…because you know, that sense that they’re getting a taste of the real, that’s what the audience eats up.  ‘My people’—heh, sorry—my people, your people, doesn’t matter whose people, this is a broader American thing, to need to see beneath the veneer of the public persona into some darker, messier private place that complicates the image.  The idea that the average American success narrative is just the glossy cover over a writhing field of neuroses and tics and dark hidden things.  In literature, unlike in public life, it’s much more complicated, though, right, because that sense, within the space of an essay or poem, of receiving a more unmediated or “real” transmission from the author, something that’s not supposed to be seen, has to be false; if anything, that “authentic moment” that thrills the reader just represents a higher level of mediation and fabrication, right?”

“Do you really think I want to talk about this right now, Barack?”

[“All right, we have a potentially volatile situation but we sort of live with it…”]

“And I guess, kind of related to that, one of the important questions of our current literary moment—think about, say, recent work by Ben Lerner or Sheila Heti or Teju Cole—is whether it’s possible for contemporary fiction to find ways to make use of the charge of the writer’s identity and the incorporation of materials from real life and journalism, to play with textual form and markers of authorial presence to create that frisson of the real that comes naturally to poetry and the essay, or whether, as a genre, it’s become fundamentally handicapped there in relationship to the others and it just has to cede that territory for a while and focus on what it can do better than the rest of literature.”

[“And we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen…”]

Read more…

Five Marks of Oft-Rejected Poems

There’s a bug going around the IR office. We’re drinking plenty of fluids, popping lots of pills, but everyone’s on edge. Just yesterday, I shook hands with Fiction Editor Joe Hiland, and I think I caught it: I caught the grouchy bug. So, I think it’s time for a poetry take on Joe’s post about what we often reject:


1. Boring first lines. I get that the first line often needs to set up the scene or narrative or conceit of the poem, and so there’s a desire to use it as a kind of exposition, but if I, while getting paid to do this, don’t want to read past your first line, potential readers probably won’t, either. Don’t just tell me you met Janine when you were twelve, or that the moon was overhead, or that May became June. Hook me, flatten me, fuck me out of my senses with your first line. It should be one of the best lines of the poem.

2. Over-associating. I’m not a minimalist by any means, but I do believe in earning your fireworks. Your winter breath is not a constellation of fireflies axeing their way through the winter like little lumberjacks. There’s not a hot air balloon filled with jackrabbits in your chest every time she looks at you like a prison guard bleeding sugar. I don’t care that it’s Tuesday. A poem ought to be, I think, more than just a collection of assorted images. What is your poem doing? What does it add up to? How is it governed?

3. Abstractions, clichés, stale language. This one should be obvious, but, apparently it isn’t. Fire licks, smoke curls, sunlight dances and dapples. Clouds of grief. I receive so many poems that are generally interesting and well-crafted and then drop a big fat cliché in the middle. Regardless of how honest, genuine, or deeply felt these phrases are, I’ve read them many times already. Be fresh.

4. Refusal to transcend. Whether a poem originates in a painting or myth or fairy tale or memory of the poet’s first boyfriend or phrase in another language, it ought to transcend its originating material. How is the poem, the poet, the speaker, or the reader changed by the end of the poem? Where have we gone? I want to be MOVED, in any and all of the wild and various ways a poem can do that to a person.

5. Weak endings.  I think the phrase “but the ending…” is probably the most-said phrase in the IR office. Across all the genres, we get so many pieces that are killed by their own endings: pieces that sputter out or say too much or don’t say quite enough, pieces that end on a confusing phrase or an abstraction after so much crisp imagery, endings that go in a whole new direction and leave that direction undeveloped, endings that repeat what the whole piece has already said, endings that aren’t emotionally resonant and endings that are manipulative. Anything less than a great ending is probably going to kill the poem, for me. Endings are hard, man. Like drawing hands.

I don’t mean to suggest that these are all-important rules for making a good poem, that there is never a reason to do one or more of these things. But a great number of the poems I reject from the slush pile, or that don’t make it out of our editorial meetings, are turned down largely for one of these five reasons. Hopefully, this gives you a better idea, via negativa, of what kinds of poetry we like.

On Submitters and Subscribers

I suppose this post is something of a riff on Michael’s first rule of good literary citizenship: read literary journals. It’s good advice, and Michael rightly invokes the communal spirit of journals in support of his point. I’m not going to be quite as nice, however. Consider this the grouchy old man version of the argument.

Two questions: 1) Do you submit work (poetry, fiction, or nonfiction) to literary journals? 2) Do you subscribe to any literary journals?

If the answer to Question 1 is “yes” and the answer to Question 2 is “no,” then we have a problem. Read more…