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The Black Warrior Interview
Dan Kaplan interviewed by Amy Unsworth

Black Warrior Review is a nationally respected literary magazine that publishes the best in contemporary fiction, poetry, and essays from both established and emerging writers. Started in 1974 by graduate students in the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Alabama, Black Warrior Review has published work from Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners, and stories and poems that have appeared in Black Warrior Review have been reprinted in the Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and Poems, and New Stories from the South anthologies. Each issue features a chapbook from a nationally known poet.

AU: How long have you been with Black Warrior Review? Did you expect to be involved with a literary magazine during your studies? How does your work on the magazine influence your own writing?

DK: I've been with Black Warrior Review for three years—-two as an assistant poetry editor, one as managing editor. This year I’m serving as editor.

I did expect to be involved with a literary magazine as part of my studies. The opportunity to work on BWR was one of the primary draws, for me, to the MFA program at the University of Alabama.

I try not to let my work on the magazine influence my own writing. But as a writer who avidly reads, I'd have to say that the work I see—-both the extraordinary and the less-so—-makes an impression.

AU: Black Warrior Review grew out of the MFA program at the University of Alabama. Does the editorial process still involve creative writing students? If so, what do you find to be the most valuable part for these young writers?

DK: For its entire 30-year history, BWR has been edited by the MFA students at the University of Alabama. Working on the magazine gives young writers not only the rare opportunity to make significant editorial contributions to an important literary institution but also gives them a view into just how tough it is to crack the market—-we get roughly 6,000-8,000 unsolicited submissions a year for our two issues—-with their own writing.

AU: In the Poet's Market, BWR’s entry doesn't indicate what style of poetry is preferred. Is there a marked "house-style"? How well do the sample poems available on-line represent the past few years' choices in poetry?

DK: We're looking for the freshest work out there, whether it's free verse, formal verse, prose poetry, or something we've never seen before. It doesn't matter to us as long as it surprises us, moves us, stays with us. More than anything, we care about attention to language and craft and fulfillment of what a poem sets out to do. We couldn't care less about potential contributors' bios. We're thrilled to publish newcomers.

Our staff changes every year, so it's hard to say how well the poems on-line represent our current tastes. We advise potential contributors to order a sample copy or subscribe and to send only their best work.

AU: I often hear discussions between poets trying to define their audience. Can you describe a “typical” BWR reader? Is this the reader you imagine as you select the poems for each issue?

DK: Our audience is a mix of readers of fine literature and writers (and aspiring writers). From our years of publishing innovative and fresh work, they’ve come to expect--and this of course informs our editorial decisions--just that in every issue.

AU: Which poets would you pinpoint as influences in your own writing? Do you have a recommendation for a book on the craft of writing?

DK: CD Wright, John Berryman, Denis Johnson, Wislawa Szymborska, to name a few. As for a book on the craft of writing, The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, is an excellent book of poem-making and imagination-triggering exercises.

AU: Your website information on submissions states a quick 2-4 month response time. Can you tell us a bit about the process from the time a poem reaches the mail room to the acceptance/rejection stage? Do you have any pet peeves about the tactics writers employ?

DK: We open submissions, log them, then read through every one. The poems that shine for us make it into periodic review meetings, during which we vote by committee to accept or reject. The sheer volume of submissions we receive makes a long wait inevitable sometimes.

A few pet peeves: trying, in cover letters, to impress us with credits (a brief bio will do for us); not proofreading and general carelessness; not following our submission guidelines; not taking the time to become familiar with the magazine; impatience for a response.

AU: Over the past few years, public poetry workshops have drawn a large number of participants. Do you feel that this will be the "coffeehouse" or "literary salon" for the next generation of writers?

DK: I'm never sure about classifying things. But I would say that anything that reintroduces (or introduces) poetry to the wider public is good for poetry.

AU: Several colleges and universities have recently moved from print journals into the world of electronic publishing. Do you think this will impact the future of traditional print journals? Are there plans for BWR to evolve into a electronic magazine?

DK: I understand why so many are switching to electronic publishing—-it's more environmentally friendly, cheaper, easier to reach wider audiences, and in many ways allows a more efficient system of production. But I would hate to see the death of printed journals (and I don't think we will) because the book in itself is a piece of art.

The trend does seem to be affecting traditional print journals—-some are crossing over entirely, some maintaining the print editions while having web-only content, which is essentially a separate magazine. I consider both web and electronic magazines equally legit, just different venues.

A couple of years ago, we established the Warrior Web, which contained web-only content (those early issues are still available on our site). But we determined that, for the time being, we need to use the web in service of the print magazine. Hard to say if eventually we'll evolve into an electronic magazine. I doubt it.

AU: Is there a poem you'd like to share with our readers?

DK: Bob Hicok’s "Goodbye in the Shape of a Knot" from Black Warrior Review issue 29.2.

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