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Getting the Word Out?

Despite Distribution Woes and Tiny Audiences, Local Lit Journals Soldier On

By Michael Anft | Posted 7/4/2001

Few read them. Bookstores won't stock them. Writers largely ignore their fiction. And the verse? Well, as one local wag once noted, "Selling poetry is like selling popsicles to Eskimos."

So, why do editors and publishers of the micro-literature known as journals, reviews, or literary magazines put up with the indifference of millions of readers and the lack of respect from the bookselling industry? "It's a labor of love," half-jokes Barbara Simon, president of the Maryland State Poetry and Literary Society, which publishes the on-hiatus Maryland Poetry Review. "It's also frequently a labor of hate."

Other local journal editors narrate the same tale, one resplendent with nonliterary paradoxes and real-world pains in the ass: They're flooded with submissions, they say, but can't get them out to a general audience because of an unforgiving distribution system. They're beset with writers who desperately want the space they offer, but not much else.

"There are a lot of people who don't want to give anything back, who don't care to support the magazines they write for" by stuffing solicitation envelopes or doing other "grunt work," Simon says. "A lot of folks just care about being published." Although scribes frequently buy copies of the review that contains their work (or gleefully accept free copies of it), few of them make a habit of buying lit journals. "If half the people who submitted stuff bought literary journals, we'd all be filthy rich," says Barbara Westwood Diehl, editor of The Baltimore Review, a semiannual journal based in Riderwood.

Yet, for all those troubles, the micro-lit scene here appears to be in the pink--or as close to it as one could expect, at least. As many as 10 journals printed in the region defy Maryland micro-lit's tearjerker of a history, which is filled with the detritus of well-regarded journals past.

Black Moon, Dancing Shadow Review, and The Pearl are three of the best of the local and the dead. The refined, sometimes haughty Maryland Poetry Review closed shop last year after an impressive-by-micro-lit-standards run of 15 years, but its former editors say it may reappear under a new guise.

While acknowledging the egocentricity of writers--as well as journals' bête noire, distribution--editors and publishers say the failures of some lit journals don't scare them. Being small, they say, means having small expectations. Diehl, for example, considers The Baltimore Review to be a success "because we've come out every six months" since 1996. Others say that journals prosper--or at least don't slide downhill--when editors keep their do-it-yourselfers' wits about them and avoid delusions of grandeur. Rupert Wondolowski, editor of Shattered Wig Review (and a City Paper contributor), says that his publication's "avant-pulp-surreal" content contrasts with the pragmatism that comes from running a journal. "Once I accepted that this isn't the road to fame and fortune, it became fun," says Wondolowski, now in his 12th year with Shattered Wig.

Journals exist almost invariably to discover talent that flies beneath the radar of big-time publishing houses and national magazines. Simon speaks of "acknowledging the validity of genuine voices," while Susanne Kass, fiction editor of the Hagerstown-based Antietam Review, says her publication's mission is "providing exposure for people who wouldn't normally be read."

Eli Flam, editor and publisher of the Charles County journal Potomac Review, adds that journal folks often run their publications to save writers--and themselves--from obscurity. Flam took over Potomac Review in 1995 after its founding editor decided to call it quits. "I took it, lest Moses perish in the bulrushes," Flam says. "There were no other takers." Wondolowski says that he and local visual artist/musician Nancy Sexton decided to start Wig after "getting excited about people's stuff and figuring we should get it out to the world." A kind of underground connectedness and egalitarian spirit suffuses the insular turf of journals, as does the constant threat of extinction.

Journals partially propped up by government arts grants (as is the case with the Antietam and Potomac reviews), or supported either financially or with materials and space by universities (such as the University of Baltimore-affiliated Passager), are often viewed enviously by less well-heeled publications, many of which have to go to unusual lengths to keep themselves going. Rosemary Klein, editor of Maryland Poetry Review, says her journal met its costs by having a raffle at Artscape each summer. Wondolowski features monthly poetry readings/concerts/happenings called "Shattered Wig Night" at the 14-Karat Cabaret to raise money (although, he adds, "I'm lucky if I just break even on the deal"). Some journals rely on subscribers to pay the printing costs.

Not surprisingly, no Baltimore publication pays its staff of writers, editors, and grunt workers--though Diehl makes sure her daughter, who sends out rejection slips, gets a little chit for "doing the dirty work."

The journals may not be rolling in dough, but they certainly aren't hurting for copy. The mounds of submissions that pour in prove that every literate being on the planet wants to be a writer. Most local journals claim a slush pile of 30 to 60 manila envelopes per month, most from strangers and the previously unpublished. They come from all over the country, sometimes New Zealand or Canada--in one case, Albania. "It's a tidal wave," Wondolowski says. "Any time you get the word out that you've got a lit magazine, it's insane."

Sam Schmidt, editor of the monthly Baltimore Writers' Alliance journal and calendar WordHouse, says the front end of the business is the easy part. "Getting the product is hardly a problem," he says, adding that the cheap availability of modern printing makes it easy for would-be journal-makers. "You can go into Kinko's with a few poems, then come out two hours later with a journal."

But getting the words out to an audience is something else entirely. As the number of live literary events dwindles, it becomes tougher for journals to connect directly with those most likely to read them. Retail sales are even more difficult. While the Baltimore and Potomac reviews work with a national distributor, most Maryland journals scrounge for placement in bookstores and libraries.

"With Bibelot [Books and Music], Adrian's [Book Café], and Louie's [Bookstore and Café] all gone, there really aren't many places left for journals here," Simon laments. Complicate that with policies by big chain stores such as Barnes & Noble to keep only a few nationally distributed literary journals in stock and you have a recipe for obscurity. Among smaller shops, both locally and across the country, journals get no respect at all, even when they're well-liked by shop owners. Wondolowski says he hears from Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. "They love us. They keep telling us they want more copies, but they never pay us for the ones they've already sold," Wondolowski says, echoing a familiar complaint.

Along with about a thousand others across the country, Baltimore's journals battle to get noticed. The handful of major distributors who handle journals will carry only 60 to 70 of them at a time, says Susan Kenny, interim executive director of the New York-based Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP). With few openings on shelves for smaller, poorer, lesser-known operations, some have turned to publishing primarily on the Web. But some note that journals face the same limitations online as in print. "You basically see the same hierarchy of journals there as you do on the store shelves," says the Maryland Poetry Review's Klein. "There are a few prestige sites that draw attention," such as The Paris Review's (www.parisreview.com), "while the others scuffle for attention."

To ease the distribution crunch, Kenny says CLMP is co-sponsoring a move designed to get 50 small journals distributed nationally. (None of them are from Maryland.)

But there are other worries for the future of literary journals as well. Although maintaining an audience remains her greatest challenge, Passager co-editor Kendra Kopelke says she also faces the prospect of editorial "burnout" after running a journal for 15 years, about five times the average life span of most micro-lit offerings. And Klein says there are too few younger editors and writers willing to take up the thankless task of running journals. "There is a history that's being endangered," Klein says. "Where are all the young poets and writers out there?"

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