TM: First, Dan, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I want to start off with a quote from your website.
"Established in 1974 by graduate students in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Alabama, Black Warrior Review publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and art by Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners alongside up-and-coming writers."
That's from a section titled About Black Warrior Review. So we have there a very nuts-and-bolts description of what BWR "is." And in the course of this interview, I'd like to pick at those lines (close-read them in a way, since not too far from the academy…), and try to find out what's behind them. Hopefully, in the process, I and the reader can acquire a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of what exactly BWR "is."
TM: So the date (1974) and the setting (UA) are clear, but I want to know more about BWR's history, and about your personal history with the journal. How did it start, and who started it? What was the readership like in the beginning-that is, who was your audience? Who produced most of the writing? When did you get involved, and what was that like?
DK: Black Warrior Review was founded by graduate students in The University of Alabama's creative writing program, which, at that time, was one of only fifteen schools in the country that offered grad programs in creative writing. As I hear it from BWR's founding editor, Jeanie Thompson (current executive director of the Alabama Writers' Forum, a state agency that supports the literary arts, and continued good friend of the magazine), she and her classmates got it into their heads to make their mark, to start something big. With a bit of funding from the creative writing program, the group published the first issue, which included work by Norman Dubie, Cornelia Guest, and Gary Soto, in spring 1974. A few hundred copies were printed. Retail value: 50 cents. The readership at the time included Tuscaloosa literary fans, some national readers who had seen ads and heard about the magazine by word of mouth, and of course the backbone demographic of moms, dads, aunties, and friends of the contributors and editors.
I got involved with BWR when I entered the MFA program at The University of Alabama four years ago. The opportunity to work on BWR was one of the main draws to this program for me. I spent two years as an assistant poetry editor, a year as managing editor, and am currently editor. A great experience.
TM: BWR, like some other literary journals, is associated with a university. Could you describe that relationship? How does it affect the journal, and how has the relationship itself changed over time? Have there been any specific times, in your opinion, when university affiliation either created problems or proved particularly useful?
DK: To my knowledge, we have always had a good relationship with the university. We get (some) funding and are free to run the magazine as we see fit, no strings attached. Can't beat that. We come under the umbrella of the university's Office of Student Media, which processes our finances and is available for consultation, but OSM has always respected our independence, as has the creative writing faculty.
The partnership between BWR and the creative writing program is mutually beneficial. The magazine promotes the creative writing program in its issues, which are read by many prospective students, and the creative writing program promotes the magazine in its literature and provides funding for staff salaries and things like the magazine's annual attendance at the AWP conference bookfair.
TM: Within this dynamic, what roles do the graduate students play? Do the MFA students who work on the journal (though primarily focused on their writing, I imagine) ever go on to edit at other journals, or remain involved with BWR? Knowing that you publish both young and established (award-winning, even) writers, I wonder, does BWR ever publish work from UA students? How does that relationship work?
DK: BWR is entirely student-run. All grad students in the English Department are invited to volunteer as assistant editors, and there are four paid staff positions: editor, managing editor, poetry editor, and fiction editor. Working on the magazine is a rare opportunity to gain literary editorial experience, as well as glimpse the extreme competition out there (most who work on the magazine are writers themselves).
Some former BWR editors have gone on to other journals. Former editors Mark Drew and Mindy Wilson are now editors for The Gettysburg Review, and former editor Chris Chambers is editor of New Orleans Review. I'm sure there are others. And many BWR alums are now donors and subscribers.
BWR does not publish work by UA students or faculty. That would hurt the magazine's credibility.
TM: I insist on asking editors to describe the content, with an eye toward establishing some journal-specific conception of aesthetics. This time, I want to ask it in a new way: What do you see in BWR that separates it from other journals? What about this journal excites you to see the content as an editor and then to read the printed issue as a reader? Could you also talk about the chapbooks (something that strikes me as particularly interesting)-when were they first included, and what do you think they bring to the journal?
DK: What separates us is (1) our appreciation of humor (we see great value in not being "serious" all the time) and (2) our openness to any style (many say that; we mean it), as long as it's done well (please don't make me say we have eclectic taste). As an editor and reader, I enjoy seeing the wildly uncategorical alongside the strictly formal, the absurd alongside the grounded. I've also heard we're "edgy" and "gutsy."
The chapbook definitely distinguishes us. Each issue features one by a nationally renowned poet, 15-30 pages of poetry, whether it's one long poem or a series of shorter ones. It's nice to give a generous helping of a poet's work, something few magazines do. Rita Dove, W.S. Merwin, C.D. Wright, Yusef Komunyakaa, Tomaz Salamun, Jane Miller, Gerald Stern, Bob Hicok, and many others have been part of our chapbook series. Michael S. Harper's chapbook A Po' Man's Heart Disease was the first in BWR, in 1987.
In celebration of our thirtieth anniversary in print this year, we held our first-ever chapbook contest. Out of the 525 entries, we selected D.C. Berry's Zen Cancer Saloon, which appears in BWR 30.2 (Spring/Summer 2004). It's stunning.
TM: According to a February 24, 2004 article in The Crimson White, UA's newspaper, "BWR will host a reception in honor of its 30th anniversary Tuesday night at the UA Hoole Special Collections Library." Could you tell us about that night? Did you speak? Or did people read? How did you celebrate?
DK: With friends, former editors, local patrons of the arts, and other interested parties, we celebrated our thirtieth in semi-grand (cheese-platter, finger-sandwich) fashion. The event also marked the official transfer of our archives-a complete set of issues, correspondence from authors and editors over the years, photos and other memorabilia-to the university's special collections library, for posterity and safekeeping. The library put the materials into a beautiful exhibition, which will be on display through the spring, and future materials will be housed there. Founding editor Jeanie Thompson, poet/English professor/university VP/BWR supporter Hank Lazer, and representatives from the special collections library toasted our success and the significance of the milestone. And we did a little fundraising. A spectacular night.
TM: In the same vein-what's happened to BWR in those 30 years, from the days you described earlier to the 30th anniversary issue and reception? Have you witnessed either formal or aesthetic changes in literary arts, and in the type of work you receive? How has BWR responded to these changes with the type of work it publishes? Could you try to position BWR in the present? What did you set out to do or display with your 30th anniversary issue, and what does it say about BWR's growth and place as a literary journal?
DK: We're more recognized and respected than ever; if you're able to hang around for thirty years-no small feat-you're obviously doing something right. Impressive about us is that our staff turns over yearly, yet we have maintained a strong, consistently inventive presence in the literary world over our years and continue to grow in reputation with both readers and contributors (and would-be contributors). The combination of our openness to any style of work (again: we mean it), our ability to surprise and delight readers, and the beauty of our finished product sets us apart from both "establishment" publications and the many new print and web publications now on the scene.
Rather than do a retrospective anthology for our thirtieth, we decided instead, while improving our look and adding a few new features (like a full-color art portfolio), to keep doing what we've been doing: bringing new, fresh, memorable work to our readers.
TM: A stock question in this interview series is one having to do with the Internet. Web Del Sol hosts your website, and our readers are always eager to hear an editor's comments on the Internet's affect on literary arts. How do you see journals like BWR reacting to the Web's potential?
DK: The Internet is now essential to the literary arts. The toughest challenge for most writers and small press publishers (of poetry in particular) is how to get exposure, to alert the world of their existence. The Internet creates new channels for reaching people. It helps promote print publications, but is also, in and of itself, an accessible, economical venue for publication. If promoted and linked well, a web-based publication is likely to have many more readers than most print publications and is much less expensive and more environmentally friendly to produce.
At this point, we use our web site entirely for promotion of the print publication. We are always looking for ways to capitalize on the exposure a great host like Web del Sol provides us.
TM: Where do you see BWR in the future? I don't expect you to look ahead to the 60th anniversary, but maybe to the next few years or next few issues. How do you see BWR evolving down the road? What are you plans or hopes?
DK: Our staff turns over yearly, so I don't know specific plans for future issues. But if the trends in our history are any indication, I see our reputation continuing to grow, our audience expanding. I'd like to see us in more stores, with an even bigger subscriber base, and as a venue for more great writers. And I see us accomplishing that by continuing to do what has made us successful for thirty years.
About the Interviewer
Tim McGrath is the Editor at Portal Del Sol. He can be reached at email@example.com