What pulses beneath the soil? What do our roots seek when they dig deep? What sap rises in spring to feed the branches that reach for the stark sky? Place an ear to the trunk of Arkana to hear the hushed voices at work beneath the bark.
Jennifer McCune: This is a very beautiful, lyrical piece. How would you say being a poet contributes to composing prose pieces?
Madari Pendas: This is a great question! Poetry forces one to think about language on an almost atomic level, so to speak. What I love about poets is that they are very attuned to the way their work sounds, and often you will catch them reading aloud their words. I want each sentence to go beyond its utilitarian function and feel like a gift. I want a reader to feel that the author has attempted to compose something beautiful for them, something that sounds lovely in their mind’s voice, something they too want to repeat aloud. Poets are so attentive to language and I think that type of careful curation is something I try to bring to my fiction and nonfiction works. Poetry is such a generous art; it gives you writing that you read for the simple pleasure of how lovely it sounds in your mouth. So when I write something, I want to give them a story, but something that is pleasurable on an additional level. For instance, my mother doesn’t speak English, but there are certain phrases or words in English that she loves and repeats because they’re fun to say, like “bouncing beach babies” and “what’s new pussycat?” from the Tom Jones song. In a certain way, poetry is like bubble gum and can stick with you and can be chewed over and over. Poetry carries a beauty beyond its literal meaning. Sometimes when I’m cooking or cleaning I’ll remember: “esta noche puedo escribir los versos mas tristes”/”tonight I can write the saddest lines,” and feels like a secret little pleasure. Poetry inspires me—if you do well, your lines can be with someone for the rest of their lives. So, I think language can go beyond being a means of communicating information and become something lovely, haunting, and borderless.
JM: You are a painter and author. Which medium are you most comfortable creating in, that is to say, which medium do you feel gives you the most freedom of expression of your intersectionality?
MP: There’s a line in one of my favorite Derek Walcott poems, “Love Letter from Brooklyn,” and one of that piece’s haunting lines is “heaven is the place where painters go/all who bring beauty on frail shell or horn,” and it reminds that all these different mediums are constantly conversing with one another. There’s a long history of writers also working as painters (or vice-versa), like Victor Hugo, Oskar Kokoschka, Maynard Dixon, Elizabeth Bishop, Leo Tolstoy, and many more I try to use painting and sketching techniques with my writing. For instance, sometimes an artist will sketch with their non-dominant hand because doing so helps them be more loyal to their reference. With the non-dominant hand, you’re focused on stability and keeping your lines straight. Whereas when you’re working with your dominant hand (in my case my right hand) there’s a tendency to deviate from the reference and draw the way you think the subject is supposed to look versus how the subject actually looks—you’ll make more assumptions. Some artists will flip the reference upside down to achieve something similar or drop grids on the reference and work from one box to another box. I apply this to writing by asking myself “what assumptions am I making about a character or their behavior?” “what are some references from real-life that I can look at?” “Am I looking at this in detail?” Also, longhand calligraphy is art itself. When I look at someone’s journal with cursive, I can’t help but think that too is art and something aesthetically beautiful—separate from the literal meaning of the words. There’s a theme here, words being emancipated from their meanings to do different work (visually and auditorily). To your question about freedom, I think writing is more liberating and allows me to be more expressive. Paints, turpentine/mineral spirits, canvases, thickening medium, palate knives brushes, and varnish are expensive, so it’s not the most economically accessible artform. I didn’t start painting until I got my first full-time job, but I’ve kept diaries and written since fourth grade. A notebook or journal at the Dollar Store is cheap and none of what I write is openly displayed the way a finished painting hangs somewhere on your walls. So I can be more open and dangerous in a notebook. I can write unfinished stories or bad poetry or about a memory or list off the first words I learned in English. With a painting, I’m always aware that when I invite someone over, it will be seen; it’s a bit more public-facing than a journal that I can stash away. But what painting gives me is the ability to express myself without the constraints of language. My mom, uncles, grandparents, and more relatives can’t read my work in English, so painting allows me to make art that doesn’t require language fluency. I’ve also found that with painting I don’t have to justify the subject matter—like in fiction I need a plot; in a poetry chapbook I need thematic harmony—it can just be a pretty sunset or a recreation of the way light from a streetlamp reflects across wet pavement at night.
JM: Which authors/painters inspire you the most and why?
MP: Painters: Remedios Varo, Amelia Peláez, Mario Carreño, Nikki S. Lee, Marc Chagall, Oskar Kokoschka, Mon Laferte, Henri Matisse, Vincent Van Gogh, and many more, especially the Dadaist (I dig the idea that art is the process of making art and not necessarily the final outcome). Authors: Ashley M. Jones, Jacquira Diaz, Carl Philips, Martin Espada, Christina Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, Ana Menedez, Julie Marie Wade, Richard Blanco, Martin Amiss, Gregory Orr, Tim O’Brien and so many more.
The works of the above-mentioned artist are always so layered, textured, rich in composition and color, and do an excellent job of deconstructing our assumptions on form and structure. Their paintings and many would fall under the flexible term “Expressionist”, demonstrated the importance of painting from emotional memory versus strict obedience to reality. Perhaps for similar reasons I love the above authors’ works—they’re beautiful, challenging, political, and instruct us. It’s the type of work that moves you off the page and into your own journal.
JM: When did you begin writing and painting?
MP: I’ve always had a diary. My abuela took me to the dollar store when I was in fourth grade and got me a pink plastic four-by-four journal with a tiny lock on the side. The pages were pink, and I believe perfumed too. I started submitting work for publication and taking the medium more seriously around 2013. The first poem I ever submitted for publication, to my local college’s journal, was a persona poem about Van Gogh’s painting “At Eternity’s Gate.” My grandfather’s brother, Cheito, was a painter and I remember as a kid seeing the stacks of canvas rolls in his poky duplex. He was always a little sad that when he emigrated to this country, he had to leave some of his favorite works. I began trying to imitate him—really, I just wanted to bring him something I had made and hear him say, “wow, good job.” I started at twenty-two, after getting a full-time job that allowed me to buy more materials.
JM: Aside from Arkana, are there any other recent publications, projects, or opportunities you are excited about? (Please provide links if available.)
MP: Yes! My flash fiction piece, “Mispronounced Girl” was recently published in Everyday Fiction. Another one of my fiction pieces, “Your Life as Told by a Stranger” is forthcoming publication in The Flagler Review.
Madari Pendas is a Cuban-American writer, painter, and poet living in Miami. Her works focus on the surreal aspects of the exile experience and the ways Latinidad intersects with other salient parts of her identity as a queer, working-class woman. Her work has appeared in The Acentos Review, Pank Magazine, The New Tropic, Lambda Literary, WLRN (Miami’s NPR affiliate), and The Miami New Times, among others. She is currently a graduate student at Florida International University.
Kathryn H. Ross reflects on her short story, Ara, from Arkana’s 9th Issue!
Questions from Arkana’s Fiction Editor Victoria Mays & Arkana Staff.
Victoria Mays: Throughout Ara, we learn a lot about Ara’s mother and father. I’m curious about your decision to leave them nameless. Is there anything a reader should draw from that? Anything, in particular, you were aiming for?
Kathryn H. Ross: In leaving Ara’s parents nameless, I wanted to keep Ara himself at the forefront. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in regards to parenthood. In each of our lives we are the main character in our story. As we pick up other characters (friends, colleagues, a partner), our story expands and the focus on ourselves (hopefully!) diminishes, but having a child is like a shifting of the spotlight completely. Let me be clear: I don’t have children. I’ve mostly built this view from now being at that age where my friends are having children, and honestly watching my parents and grandparents and how, as my sister and cousins and I— all the kids—grew up, their spotlight shifted to us. I never considered how much of a sacrifice that is before, but it’s also so natural—so a given Some can go too far and only care about their children and forget about themselves. In addition, I’ve seen what it looks like when that spotlight doesn’t shift. When a child is born or a kid is growing up and their parents didn’t allow the light to slip from them and illuminate their child. Usually in those scenarios, the child becomes nameless.
Of course, the reasons why this happens or doesn’t happen are varied. Some adults are unable to give up the spotlight because they didn’t have it much to begin with. Others never felt cared for so that can’t bear to lose it. I think with Ara’s parents, I’m trying to fit all these thoughts into who they are as unnamed but important entities. They created Ara’s life, but his life is the meat of the story. How they react to his life is the meat of the story. What happens in response to their reactions to his life is the meat of the story. They’re important, too, but Ara is centerstage.
VM: The thought of an expiration date being printed on a baby’s foot is fascinating and terrifying at the same time. How did this idea come to you?
KHR: I’ve had this idea for a pretty long time. I think it came to me in the summer of 2012 and I’m not really sure what brought it on. I’ve rewritten this story many times but I would always get caught up in the why and how of the expiration date. I was trying to explain it and doing way too much exposition. As time’s gone on, I’ve learned that not all stories have to tell, because life doesn’t always tell. There’s probably an answer for why Ara was born with the expiration date (and whether or not it’s viable), but I personally don’t know those answers. I just wanted to focus on the “what if” of the immediate situation. What would I do? What would the reader do? What did Ara’s parents do? It’s such an absurd thing to think about, but what if it was real?
VM: There seems to be an air of vagueness, almost leaving the reader to interpret the situation on their own. Was this intentional?
KHR: Yes! One of my favorite writers and biggest influences is Ray Bradbury. As someone with such a prolific repertoire of sci-fi shorts, there are so many fantastical stories that he just doesn’t explain. However, the lack of explanation never bothers me. Bradbury is such an amazing, masterful writer that the reader gets just enough of what he’s saying, but there’s also room for thought and interpretation. I think keeping some vagueness in storytelling removes some of the control I want to have. I can’t make the reader see or think exactly what I’m seeing or thinking. So, why not just lean into that? I think some of the best art and the best stories are those that tell you what happened, but don’t tell you what happened. They capture a moment in time, but don’t tell you how things end up. They’re just snapshots. This also gives me the freedom to revisit Ara and his family if I want to. Maybe next time I see him he’ll be all grown up. Maybe he’ll be becoming a father. Maybe he’ll be a kid in therapy. There are so many avenues to take and an air of vagueness keeps those paths open.
Caitlin Woolley discusses her short story, Baby Boy, from Arkana Issue 9.
Questions from Arkana’s Fiction Editor Victoria Mays & Arkana Staff.
Victoria Mays: The language in this story is so poetic, and I love how the imagery plays with tongues and language itself. Why did you choose to tell the story more figuratively rather than using a more traditional format?
Caitlin Woolley: This story is a history of memory. There’s not a lot of present action—it’s all cyclical emotions like reminiscence and feelings and resentment and love and relief, all intoxicating in their own way. Once I started writing, I found I was less interested in exploring what happened through traditional scene than I was figuring out how the narrator felt about it, what it meant to him. For me, he was such an intriguing mess of complicated emotions I couldn’t resist spending time in his head. That led me to writing in this voice that’s wounded by memory and burdened by that pain—and maybe even a little indulgent—to try and express what he’d felt for so long. And because memory and emotion are themselves so figurative, it made sense to write the story figuratively, too.
VM: The perspective is so haunting: a grandfather who couldn’t really love his troublesome grandson despite years of trying. What made you decide to tell the story from his point of view rather than the mother’s?
CW: Selfishness and vanity! My grandparents moved into an assisted living facility just before the pandemic started, so I haven’t been able to go visit them, and I really do not call them as often as I should. I wondered—worried, rather—if that affected the way they think of me. I never even considered writing it from the mother’s perspective—the grandfather’s voice was the only one that interested me. So you could say this story functions as a manifestation of that anxiety. (I called them last week!)
VM: What inspired you to write this piece?
CW: Oh, so many things that all came together to make this piece happen. I’ve been working from home for close to a year now, which means I’ve gotten to experience so many neighbor sounds in such close proximity. The family that lives below us has a little toddler who is very, very loud. Always screaming, crying, throwing things. In a moment of irritation, I started wondering what this little kid would be like as an adult, if he never grew out of these behavioral patterns. What would his life look like? What would he do to the people who love him? What would happen if he always lived this way?
Then, over the summer, a very dear, enviably talented friend of mine asked me to look at a piece of flash fiction she’d written. I was captivated by a line about a little girl with pockets full of seeds and cookies, an image that helped give shape to “Baby Boy.” So if your friends ever ask you to read things for them, do it—smart friends are the best antidote to writer’s block.
This last influence is much sillier. I listen to a lot of metal music, especially while I’m working during the day. When I was writing this story, I was listening a lot to Lamb of God’s song “To the End,” which includes a lyric that goes: “Oh Lord have mercy, thank God you’re gone/ Here’s to the end, thank God you’re gone.” So while it’s not as profound an answer as I’d like to give you, that song’s sentiment definitely wormed its way into this story.
James Jacob Seawel discusses his nonfiction piece, Big Fat Freebird End of Times, from Arkana Issue 9.
Questions from Jennifer McCune & Arkana Staff.
Jennifer McCune: This is such a curious and engaging piece. What inspired it?
James Jacob Seawel: The committee of voices that live in my brain penned this piece. Often I feel as if I’m a bridge between multiple worlds—gay and straight, black and white, rural and urban, liberal and conservative, believers and non. It’s exhausting, but I don’t know any other way to live.
JM: How do you approach capturing dialect in a humorous, yet thoughtful way?
JJS: One of the pitfalls of living in a politically correct world, and I say that as a wannabe-woke liberal, is a constant fear of offending. I grew up around old Ozarkers who would unknowingly drift into Appalachian and even Elizabethan speech. To a Midwestern observer such dialect might come across as quaint or even cornpone, but it sounds like home to me. My Granny was forevermore commencing to do somethin’-or-‘nother and never failed to use “yonder” when giving directions. When I miss home, I just turn on some Loretta Lynn and home comes to me.
As much as I love the Ozarkian and Appalachian folk speak, African American Vernacular English blesses my ears too. I hope I never see the day where folks in the Ozarks talk crisp mainstream suburban newscaster English and I hope the old Black men of Biddleville don’t start code switching. It just wouldn’t be funny if the old gentleman in my story had said, “Excuse me kind sir, but your posterior is immense.” Actually, on second thought, it would have been hilarious, but you know what I mean. As much as I want America to be united, let’s not homogenize our speech. Let’s preserve it. It’s a beautiful part of the patchwork quilt that is America. Apologies to Karl Childers, but when I’m in a culture with rich accents and dialogue I could easily say to many folks I meet, “I like the way you talk.”
JM: What impression/feeling did you want to leave with the readers of this colorful piece?
JJS: I wanted to paint a picture of America. For better or worse, this global pandemic has revealed and exposed us for who we are, and we’re not just rural white people in red states or urban blacks in blue cities. We’re Americans and most of us haven’t played by the rules very well during this pandemic. My liberal friends in Charlotte might have worn masks, but they didn’t do a good job of staying at home. People still have birthdays and the local watering hole is still serving margaritas, so Cheers! Meanwhile, my conservative friends in rural Arkansas often didn’t even think the coronavirus was a thing. Someone’s old Grandpa died and it was like, Well, he was 90. It was his time to be with Jesus. Let’s go to the home game. Pappaw would have wanted us to. America was handed a mirror in 2020. It’s been a 1 Corinthians 13:12 moment in my mind. Sadly, most of us are still seeing dimly. Lord, help us.
JM: One notices the mention of Faulkner at the end. Is he an author who inspired you, and if so, how?
JJS: Goodness, yes. I grew up on Faulkner. I didn’t read him until high school when I struggled through A Light In August under the tutelage of owl-eyed professor, Herby Early. But my parents quoted Count No ‘Count. I know Faulkner wasn’t gay, but I always sensed a kindred spirit. It seemed he would a helluva lot rather sit around and tell ribald and racy stories than work in the fields. Most of my male peers wanted to bust a gut in the fields to show the menfolk they could lift that barge and tote that bail. I just wanted to nap and read. Hell, I’d mow the yard and pick the tomatoes, sure. I wasn’t trying to get a Democratic handout, but I wasn’t trying to get a hernia to prove to some redneck I had balls. I’d discovered those already. All the more reason to stay home.
Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha is much like Randolph County, Arkansas where I grew up. Maybe not to the casual eye, who just sees rice and soybeans in the Delta east and oak groves and cattle farms western Ozarks foothills. But I have always seen that there are those with the right last names and those who’ll never measure up in the eye of public opinion because of what their ancestor of generations ago might have done. It may not be spoken, but that world is alive and well even to this day. Faulkner showed the best of such worlds in pleasant, happy people and he showed the worst of such worlds with cruel, miserable people. And often as not all of those traits lived in each person and in each family. I would never deign to condemn my culture of origin, but in order to paint a true picture I can’t omit the ugly. I did try to lighten it in Big Fat Free Bird. I’m sure the couple in the pickup truck from my story had different outlooks on life and the current culture wars than I, but for just a minute we were fellow travelers enjoying just a moment of a springtime afternoon on a gravel road and none of that mattered. That’s the South I miss. Faulkner captured that South in spades with his Snopeses and Sartorises.
I thank you for the question, but I realize I don’t deserve to have my name in the same sentence as William Faulkner.
JM: What comment did you want to make regarding the pandemic with this work?
JJS: Putting it into a little bit of context seemed appropriate to me. No one on my timeline wanted to hear one more do-gooder liberal wax self-righteous with stay-at-home/save-a-life preaching. Some of the folks screaming stay at home had jobs that, you guessed it, let them stay at home. Liberals, like myself, can be out of touch sometimes, but at the same time I felt I had conservative friends, especially rural ones, go out of their ways to flout the rules that even our conservative Republican governor put into effect. As much as it all made me want to scream, I tried to focus on the humanity of it. People on both sides love their mommas and want the best for their children, we just aren’t functioning as one America right now. We aren’t making a lot of sense. I know rural folks who to this day believe the whole Covid-19 shebang was a hoax concocted by the baby-eating pedophiles who rent space in the basement of Hillary’s New York pizzeria and email-deletatorium. And, I know urban liberals who believe every word out of the mouth of Dr. Fauci who never turned down an invitation to cram in the backseats of Ubers and gather at the local bar to talk about how stupid country people who don’t believe in science are. Heaven help us.
For many, the Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be the most difficult challenge of 2020—a year which will largely be remembered for the number of obstacles it has presented. Workers and organizations in all industries have had to adapt in some way to the operational restrictions, reduced traffic, declining revenue, and public health risks associated with the pandemic. The literary publishing world has not been spared from the fallout of these conditions.
Across the country, some literary magazines have overcome the hardships while others have succumbed to them. Many states enacted lockdowns, restricting workforce operations to essential employees/industries. For print-based magazines, this translated to numerous supply chain interruptions. In many states, printing presses were not operating. Deliveries of all types experienced significant delays as various US courier services struggled to navigate the intricacies and differences in local public health guidelines. Turnaround times on in-house projects and general operations increased significantly as entire teams transitioned from working together in an office to working from home—a circumstance which brought with it an entirely new set of hurdles.
Different magazines have had to face different sets of challenges. Many of the more established magazines have chosen to simply press forward with business as usual, maintaining their normal publishing schedule, medium, and size. There have even been university publications, like the MIT Press, that have been able to produce rapid publications in response to the pandemic. If there is to be a reduction in revenue, it seems these publications are prepared to absorb those losses in exchange for maintaining their consistency and reputation. Many other magazines, however, do not have that luxury, and have been forced into areas of significant change.
To cope with the conditions, some magazines, such as San Francisco State University’s Transfer and New York University’s Dovetail,have shifted to online publication and/or distribution. Most of those in this camp expect the change to be on an interim basis. After all, many journals already publish exclusively in the online sphere (our very own Arkana, for example). Online publication offers opportunities to circumvent a portion of the pandemic restrictions. With no physical subscription deliveries required, there is no concern over courier delays and transit interruptions. By eliminating the need to produce physical issues, the organization eliminates much of the logistical concerns of the production process, not to mention the lion’s share of their expected production costs. With most editorial staffs already collaborating and conducting business exclusively online via their home-based work environments, many working platforms offer a natural gateway into the online publishing world. Ultimately, the adjustment serves as a stopgap measure for some, but I cannot help but feel as though some magazines might make a permanent shift.
Financially, the margins were already slim for most literary magazines. It will be interesting to see the long-term effects for publishers who have taken the online leap. Some may have been considering the switch for some time and took this opportunity to finally ignite a new phase for their organization. Others, who have done so more reluctantly, will have to monitor their survivability and carefully determine the appropriate time to resume their physical production. Others, unfortunately, might find that they cannot endure the loss of advertising revenue or overcome their subscribers’ expectations and desire for uninterrupted print publication.
For those publishing companies who do manage to stay afloat, the next challenge they have to deal with is deciding what to do with the influx of prose and poems about the pandemic. This new era of quarantine-related work is reflected in submissions to magazines, as well as the newly Zoom-based open mics happening across the country. Some of these pieces offer urgency and would be best served as an immediate response to current events. Others may be more impactful as a reflection later on. With many magazines either running on a skeleton staff or simply running on fumes (partially due to Zoom fatigue) rapid publication is often unrealistic.
Arkana, just like many other magazines, has had to make its fair share of adjustments. It’s been difficult going virtual, but there have been some encouraging takeaways. For one, switching to a virtual launch party made it possible for more contributors to read their work. Another positive is that traffic on our website has actually increased since last year. There was a lot that went into making this issue, and doing it apart didn’t it make it any easier. At the very least, it’s good to know that despite the challenges, we’re still making steady progress. Arkana and others had to find innovative solutions to the current circumstances. However, some of these creative digital solutions—whether they be in the form of publication, distribution, or operation—might not be as temporary as initially thought.
Garrett Long is a first-year MFA student at UCA who writes poetry and watches way too much Star Trek. He currently resides in Hot Springs.
Thomas E. Moran is a playwright, educator, avid comic book reader, and shameless Miami Dolphins fan. He is a first-year member of the MFA program at the University of Central Arkansas. He lives in Conway with his fiancée and their colony of Charmanders.
Writers love to showcase their work, and contests, just like regular journal submissions, are another way to potentially get their work seen with maybe a few perks to the winners. So, what the writer wants, publishers and third-parties are ready to provide. Writers are hungry to be noticed, and literary magazines and journals carry the weight of maintaining reader and writer engagement, often relying on contests and continued interest to keep their publications in business.
But what’s really in it for each side?
Whether it be a seasoned writing professional or an up-and-coming writer, in the world of contests, one thing we know for sure is that competition is fierce! We all know the possible benefits for writers. Many contests offer cash prizes, big-named judges, editorial commentary, and most importantly to many—publication.
Some of the pitfalls, however, include stiff competition and potentially large entrance fees. The number of contest entrants may range in the hundreds, even thousands, with only one or two lucky few rising to the top. Then, after paying the big bucks, contest submissions come with an added worry that the work may or may not be given the attention the writer feels it deserves. There is no sure-fire way to predict who will read it or how they will respond to it. The mystery is part of the excitement or the anxiety.
So, what about the industry side of contests?
It might surprise many writers to know that on average, hosts are losing money with each contest they hold. Between the cost of advertisements, submission readers, payouts, and other related expenses, many contest hosts are barely making ends meet. But with that being said, they still rely on contests to provide a level of reader and writer engagement and loyalty and open new avenues for readership. Often, if a writer enters a contest for a literary magazine, they are also a reader of that journal and want to continue to read and support their efforts.
Even though it is costing both sides money, contests are still in the spotlight and don’t seem to be going away any time soon. Each yearPoets & Writers devotes an entire issue to contests and a special section in each monthly classifieds section. Likewise,Writer’s Digest features regular articles on the subject and hosts annual contests in multiple genres to keep writers writing and submitting. Both of these journals offer similar information on their websites for easy access and up-to-date information.
Maybe submitting to contests motivates writers to keep producing the work and seeing where that work can take them. Maybe it’s about the deadline or the curiosity of comparing their work amongst peers. Maybe it’s about the win or a line on their CV. Whether it’s personal or professional, each writer (publisher) has their own needs when it comes to submitting contests. So what’s some advice?
Publishers: Make sure you are putting forth the effort to maintain ethical standards of contest operations. Don’t be shady. Make sure contest intentions and rules are clear and no confusion over such issues will impede either side from having a trustworthy contest experience. If you make a promise, keep it.
Writers: Make sure your work is the best it can be. Do your research and find reputable contests. Follow all the contest guidelines, don’t give them a reason to say no for formatting or other silly reasons. When you’re ready, hit that submit button!
Kathy M. Bates studies creative writing in the MFA program at the University of Central Arkansas. She is a writer, freelance editor, and non-recovering planner and stationery addict. Her work has appeared in NECESSARY FICTION, ARKANA, and elsewhere.
It’s an ongoing issue; marginalized voices struggle to find a place in the publishing world, and when they do get their foot in the door, some feel pressured to conform their writing to fit a market dominated by and designed to accommodate the tastes of white, cis, straight, non-disabled readers.
If we look into the statistics of those who work in the publishing industry, we can see that diversity among those who control literary spaces reflects the market that publishing highlights—creating a divide between marginalized authors and their potential audience.
In 2015, Lee and Low Books, a publisher of children’s books with a focus on presenting the work of authors of color, created a study called The Diversity Baseline Survey to highlight the lack of diversity in the industry as a whole. In this study, they found that the majority of people in the publishing industry overall identified as white (79%), cis-woman (78%), straight (88%), and nondisabled (92%.) In 2019, Lee and Low ran their survey again—and the numbers didn’t change much. Overall, the industry was staffed by a 76% white majority who were also largely cis-woman, straight, and non-disabled.
The homogenous nature of the industry has created a kind of paradox; while the demand for diverse literature is climbing, those in power are ill-prepared to champion these works into a market not just for its current audience, but for the audience that has long been ignored.
In our MFA class, we discussed how this lack of diversity in the publishing industry could create a disadvantage for marginalized authors, and what we, as editors for Arkana, could do to make sure we upheld our mission to present those voices even if our experience doesn’t align with those of our authors. In the end, there wasn’t an easy answer, but acknowledging our biases and lack of experiences is a start.
In Lee and Low’s study, one category held promise; the diversity in the intern field was much more varied, with only 51% of interns identifying as white, 51% as straight, 78% cis woman, and 78% non-disabled. While the numbers didn’t all stray from the overall average, diversity in race and orientation stood out compared to the overall numbers. Between the growing diversity in those seeking a career in the industry, the creation of diversity offices within publishers, and recent openings in top positions, the future of the publishing industry promises change. In four years, if Lee and Low runs their survey again, we may see a vastly different set of numbers—and a richer literary world as well.
Brandi Lynch is a second-year student in the Arkansas Writer’s MFA Workshop at the University of Central Arkansas. She writes YA fiction and SFF, and her videogame characters have pointy ears and pointy weapons.
What is diversity? And what does it mean to the publishing world? More than one is perhaps the simplest definition of diversity, which is interesting when considering how there is more than one way of being diverse. For many journals in recent years, diversity has been the inclusion of more non-male writers in their issues. This effect is seen when flipping through years of statistics provided by the VIDA website. In 2015, about one-third of the writers featured in The Paris Review were women. That number jumped to nearly half of the journal’s total featured writers that did not identify as male.
The publishing industry has been male-dominated for most of its existence in America. The simple truth is that equal civil rights do not mean equal representation which is why Erin Belieu and Cate Marvin created the VIDA Count in the first place. In an interview, Belieu mentions that the creation of VIDA was not an effort to create a quota, but rather simply highlight the realities of gender representation in modern literature. The result was more journals making a conscious effort towards including women and non-male writers in journal issues.
In the foreword of the 2019 VIDA Count, author Marcia Douglas describes the potential for evolution of the VIDA Count as, “one which pushes beyond gender to engage multiple measures of accountability.” According to the “Directors’ Note” this evolution will include a new type of VIDA Count released in 2021 called the VIDA BIPOC Survey whose purpose is to focus on data concerning race in the literary world. Why does the inclusion of the VIDA BIPOC Survey matter? As Douglas puts it, because “[there] is power in who gets counted, and how, and by whom.”
As this year draws to a close, its unique stamps on the calendar of recent history will never be silent. 2020 will be remembered by many for a variety of things, but one major reason is the reopening and expanding on topics surrounding diversity and racial justice in American systems. As history unfolds before us and continues to shape the ways we look at culture, we at Arkana continue to have conversations about diversity and inclusion to maintain our goal of using literature to uplift marginalized voices.
One of the biggest challenges of diverse representation in literature is unrecognized biases. Many of the systematic problems in America are a result of unchecked and ignored attitudes towards particular cultures, races, sexual orientations and genders. This is why the Arkana team is committed to continuously asking ourselves questions about individual biases that could impact our reading process. Searching for preconceived attitudes and confronting why those attitudes exist is the first step to tearing down the gates that keep many talented writers from stepping into the literary world.
Sydney Austin is a MFA student and Graduate Research Assistant at the University of Central Arkansas. When she’s not writing fiction, Sydney enjoys devoting too much time to stacking Tetris blocks and drawing. She lives with her husband and cat in Little Rock.
A Review of As One Fire Consumes Another by John Sibley Williams
Review by Mel Ruth
I have a system. Whenever I approach a new book of poetry, I do certain things: I look for a dedication and/or epigraph, I analyze the organization—does it have a proem, how many section breaks there are, etc.—I read the blurbs last. But all of this comes after I’ve flipped through the book, holding the weight of the pages in my hands, gauging its feeling.
During my initial scan, one of the first things I noticed was the regimented, unified form of every poem, a blocked format that never changes. I was intrigued. After all, what does this form do for the collection that various other forms could not?
I quickly found my answer.
In the proem, “Instructions for Banishment,” we are introduced to multiple themes—war and death, music, a return to nature, the language that ropes around it all—but the most pervasive is the timelessness of it all. A timelessness that is reflected in the books form.
In the block style, the form does quite a lot of work. As said by Simone Muench’s review of the book, “Williams’ poems are composed of casket-like rectangular frames, their feral energy throbs against justified lines.” Similarly, Sean Thomas Dougherty says that “Williams offers us a book of little boxes, ‘each one contained eternities and histories.’”
But the box style does more than just frame or contain. It reveals.
The format mimics the galley style of newspapers and magazines, as if these poems are reporting events in a form that transcends time, much like the poems do.
What I found most fascinating, however, is that when these poems are placed one after another, they become a moebius—a loop with only one side and one boundary, that has the mathematical property of being unorientable. In this way, the poems, and the book, become cyclical creating one eternal feedback loop. Where one event ends, another begins, overlaps, becomes timeless.
Like in “American Quanta,” where it says, “before my name there were other names, & after my name, the same.” The ampersand is especially important, as it lends to the quick pacing and repetitiveness of a loop like a speedy reel in a movie theater.
But above all, these poems are about bearing witness to the cyclical nature of history—of the past, present and future. Like Muench said, these poems act as “witness to lives lost and interrogations of America’s violence as well as its willed amnesia of that brutality.”
Similarly, in “I Sometimes Forget This Isn’t About Us,” the speaker posits that “in no particular order the dead return to us, palms open, as if in apology or self-defense.” This is just one of many instances in which the cycle is juxtaposed against violence. In “Harm,” the speaker equates “harm: hurt: home: etc.” insinuating that home is pain, and that violence is learned at home
This cycle continues throughout in different ways, but it is always a cycle of death and rebirth. We begin with life then move on to religion-hate-war-death-fire to cleanse it all-then rinse and repeat.
This violence is also found in language, another thing we begin learning at home. In “Of Milk & Honey,” the speaker says that “the language of the town hasn’t quite caught up with the dark-skinned girl left half dead in the watershed,” and that they “bleed the body of its language.” In this way, language is connected to blood and skin. And yet not all hope is lost.
Sibley-Williams claims this language, this history as his own, as something he has to grapple in order to create a better world for his son, and for others. We must all claim this history and break the cycle or, well, you know the rest.
What Literary Journals Could Learn from Nonprofits
by Stephanie Meincke
The most critical concern in literary publishing today is the sustainability of literary journals into the future. What will they look like? How can we make them financially productive? Are there too many literary journals cluttering the landscape? As a longtime CEO of various nonprofits across the country, I follow these discussions with a sense of déjà vu. I have spent a lifetime trying to find the financial sweet spot in order to continue to do good in the communities I have served. Like literary journals, nonprofits have also seen the rise of thousands of competitors for too few charitable dollars. Unlike literary journals, most nonprofits accept this. It is just how it is. So, if we cannot change the landscape, then we must change our perspective of the landscape. Changing our perspective can then change the status quo by bringing in new ideas, practices, and outcomes.
For example, due to rising production costs and changing cultural norms, journals have been quick to see the value of publishing online either in part or in total. Still, this move has not improved financial bottom lines unless you are scrapping a print journal for an online one. Nor has it culled the proliferation of competing literary journals. Rather, it has expanded the number of literary journals. It has not brought in dollars to pay authors. It has not changed the status quo.
Changing our perspective on the status quo, then, may offer real change in the world of literary journals. By publishing online, journals have been able to expand reach. Reach represents community, and community represents loyalty and commitment to your literary journal. Loyalty and commitment to your mission and product can eventually translate into funds through the purchase of subscriptions, attendance at literary events (post COVID) or in donations. In other words, learn to operate on a capitalist playing field without sacrificing your literary journal’s mission and art. Know your market.
Nonprofits, too, have operated in a capitalist and a gift economy as described by Megan Garr in her article, “Hold the Damn Door Open: Idealism is No Currency.” The nonprofit has become more capitalist than is sometimes comfortable for those serving needy communities. Shrinking federal budgets, too many competing needs, and the notion that the work nonprofits do should be at no cost and no profit have all led nonprofits to embrace capitalistic methods of raising cash.
In my experience, charging fees for high quality training opportunities helped leverage training grants to realize a profit of $30,000, which was used to fund programs for those we served. Developing membership categories in several of the statewide associations I managed brought in more than $60,000, which was renewable every year. Literary journals are now facing the same compromises as nonprofits in the same ways for the same reasons. Selling what we know – the art of writing., may be one way to change the status quo. Perhaps, literary journals could also register for a 501(c)3 tax designation to attract donors with a tax exemption. Know your value, create a structure that supports it and charge for it.
Another way to change the status quo is to focus on literary citizenship. What does it mean to support and sustain a literary community, the art of writing, and the sustenance of readers’ souls? We will pay for what we value. If crowdfunding has shown us nothing else, it is that large amounts of money can be raised by many people who support a cause. Give your readers a chance to buy into your mission. Think of ways to engage them and keep them to give for years to come.
What are other ways to disrupt the status quo? Data and benchmarking are one way. How can we make decisions if we do not know who our audience is and why they selected your journal above the many in the field? How many patrons do you have and what is the depth of their engagement? Do they read every submission, every issue, comment, offer suggestions, submit? You can understand how valuable this information would be, not only to develop readership, but to also develop a funding source and improve your content. In short, use this information to build a responsive product and your journal’s brand. Create a why for the consumer, not a what.
To cut through the noise of the glutted market and other numerous reading outlets, literary publishers and editors, like nonprofit leaders, will have to step into the fray and create a value for reading new literature from gifted writers as an end into itself, rather than as something you do between everything else you are doing. A strong literary community keeps the art of literature alive where it lives best, in the hearts and minds of writers and their readers. For this to happen, in the words of Jane Friedman, veteran author and publisher, “Literary publishers [and editors] must be a beacon amidst the noise.”
Stephanie Meincke is a first-year student in the MFA program at the University of Central Arkansas. Her writing life began later in life after a 35-year career managing statewide nonprofits. She is the mother of five children and more animals than is considered sane.