Why do we value the literary journal?

Thoughts on why a literary journal is a worthwhile venture.

by Pamela James, Poetry and Fiction Reader

Sitting over a latté at Panera’s, a younger friend of mine said, “I thought I might make extra money writing poetry. But you can’t.”

I was surprised, not that poetry didn’t pay, but that she hadn’t already known. The near-rhyme of poverty and poetry seems fitting to me, reflecting how I think the world works, as likely as the squirrels infesting the bird feeders, and as perpetual as wind across a Kansas plain.

What I realized, again, is that Rachel is not connected to very many people with literary interests, and what she and nearly every other author needs is community. She’d love a larger supportive group—a writing group, perhaps, although so far she hasn’t found one that might accommodate her work schedule. So, I offered what I could.

“Come to dinner tomorrow,” I told Rachel. I believe in the comfort of food and fellowship for any number of ills and disillusionments. “I’ll make pie.”

I understood her disappointment. A casual glance across the internet might suggest a robust economy, one where writers, even poets, get paid. Writers and literary journals are everywhere. Unfortunately, their very superabundance puts an additional strain on the limited funds circulating in the literary publishing market, a market that historically has struggled to provide the monetary rewards the work of writing seems to merit. In 1948 in “Little Magazine, What Now?” Paul Bixler characterized literary journals as “lucky to make ends meet,” their editors and publishers receiving minimal if any payment, and their continuation normally requiring subsidies.

So why do writers and publishers do the work? It’s not that they are delusional. Megan Garr admits that when she and others started Versal, “we did not set out to make our literary magazine economically viable. We did not even consider it a possibility.” Most contributors find other, non-monetary value in literary journals.

One thing literary magazines have long offered is the future value of published work, which provides exposure and builds resumes. Still that doesn’t seem enough. It’s meat and potatoes, no pie, and might not account for the burgeoning number of online journals which can never expect the subsidies or support of institutional donors, or the ongoing stream of hopeful writers’ submissions.

What’s given up in money may be made up in opportunities for an expanded number of those writers. Michelle Betters says that “fledgling journals undoubtedly provide a much-needed home for underrepresented voices, experimental work, and young writers.” Part of the attraction of current journals is the diversifying range of participating writers, editors, and publishers.

What’s being built seems to be a larger, more inclusive community, or series of communities with more room for the quirky, narrowly focused, or obscure. Brooke Wonders, nonfiction editor at North American Review, started Grimoire, an online journal, with friends. It seems to add a third job to editorship and teaching at Northern Iowa, but she enjoys the creative collaboration, and the opportunity to write to an audience who’ll enjoy the letters to dead authors, the contributions from the resident ghost, and extravagant spells offered to foil hypocrites or repel the vicious.

So many diverse journals also means more possible connections between editors and writers, where roles continue to blur and community seems more possible. M. R. Branwen in “Why Literary Journals Don’t Pay,” not only argues that those who write, edit, or publish do it because they love it, but that many of those who work at lit mags are writers too, “burning the midnight oil writing fiction and poetry . . . having their work published in literary magazines that can’t afford to pay them for their work. This is not an “us” vs. “them—just an us on both sides of the imaginary divide.”

It’s the us, I imagine, that ultimately adds the most value to the literary journal. And it occurs to me that how the literary journal works may be a little like how the travelers in the folk tale “Stone Soup” operate. In the story, travelers visit a village, set up a cauldron, and fill it with water and a rock. Villagers, made suspicious by hard times, watch. The travelers invite the villagers to join them. Enticed, one brings carrots to add to the pot, another potatoes, another seasoning, and so on, their hoarded goods brought out to share. The evening turns festive, a celebration of community. Although none of the variants of this folk tale seem to mention it, I imagine that someone brought pie.


Pam James has a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS and a  M.A. in English from the University of Illinois.  In Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, she taught beginning writing classes and the occasional literature class as a TA. Over the past thirty years in Arkansas, she’s worked as an accountant, as a technical writer, and, more recently as a part-time teacher (reading, grammar, basic composition) at UACCM.
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Exquisite Corpse Poem

An exquisite corpse poem from lines written on Poet-Tree leaves at the 2018 C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference.

By Melinda Ruth, Poetry Reader

Poetry, the migration of blood
through veins pushing thoughts
from head to pen-held hand. It took
my sister saying “that was rape”

for me to realize because the first
thing we are taught is not to call
it that. And so we beat on—

boats against the tide—borne
back ceaselessly into the past. I am
bowed and hang heavy with late

snow. There’s a snapping along
my spine. I am soft wood and very

poplar. And we will never know
our mothers.

                               Letting go as sweet
and sad as salutations. You’re falling now,

you’re swimming. This is not
harmless. You are not
breathing. There’s a place between

bone walls of the brain and the colors
of reality where I float
in the shadows of fake

memories, so far under water light

can’t find me. The rain
gives brief relief.


Melinda is a Baltimore transplant who is currently a graduate student at the University of Central Arkansas, seeking her MFA in Poetry. She has pieces published in Pleiades, The Emerson Review, Red Earth Review, and more. When not writing, Melinda enjoys good coffee, expanding her artistic tastes and late nights with her dog.

Diversity in Publishing: Where do I Fit In?

A call for the need of diverse voices in publishing.

By Melinda Ruth, Poetry Reader

October 11th 2018 was the 30th anniversary of National Coming Out Day, a day designated to celebrate the coming out of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, (and numerous other) identities.

A few days before National Coming Out Day, our class discussed the diversity, or lack thereof, in the publishing industry, and how it affects the industry as a whole. As a queer identified woman, this discussion left me with a harrowing question: Where, if at all, do I fit into the literary publishing industry?

My immediate feeling, is that I don’t. There is a startling lack of coverage on LGBT (formally LGBTTQQIAAP) representation in the industry, both as editors and as writers. In fact, there is a disconcerting lack of diversity in the publishing industry in general. If you’re looking for statistics on ableism in literary publishing, you will be hard pressed to find them.

Recent years have brought about a literary awakening in gender bias. Since the VIDA count began in 2011, the literary community has been forced to confront an ugly truth: that the publishing community is still predominantly led by white, straight, men. The last few years have seen a push for greater diversity in the publishing world, and is statistically expressed through the expanded interest of the VIDA count, in which “the 2015 edition surveyed for the first time the race, ethnicity, sexual identity and ability of its female writers.”

While this is a step in the right direction, it’s still not enough. Even though greater interest has been expressed, the survey still “found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the best represented women were straight, white and able-bodied.” Basically, you still have to be white, straight and not differently abled to succeed.

Another survey, this time conducted by Lee & Low Publishers, “asked publishing houses and review journals to report the racial/ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation of employees, as well as the percentage of their employees who have a disability.”

The results were still dim.

The survey found that overall the industry is still 79 percent white, 78 percent women, 88 straight and 82 percent not differently abled. These statistics leave me wondering, if the industry in now 78 percent women, then why are we still publishing primarily straight white male voices?

The answer is far more complex than I have the space to answer, but it boils down to this: We have been trained our entire lives to read and place value on the straight white male experience and perspective. Everything we watch, read, and hear tells us that their stories are the most valued, and therefore the ones everyone wants to hear.

This concept also negatively impacts the representation of people of color in the publishing industry.

Using the excuse of the limited market, publishers regularly stifle the voices of people of color, stating that their work is just not marketable and therefore, not publishable. According to Saray McCarry, “the industry has already decided [what] is ‘marketable’–heterosexual narratives featuring white characters.”

There is this false concern that if we prioritize diverse works, we compromise quality. So apparently, there is no place for the stories of people of color (as well as LGBT and the differently abled) in the “market.”

By devaluing minority voices, the publishing industry creates a need for minority writers to find different avenues to publish their work, pushing them towards niche publishing houses, that aren’t often esteemed in the industry, or self publishing through spaces such as Amazon. Unfortunately, while this helps get minority work out there, it hinders their chances of breaking into the “mainstream” of the publishing industry.

It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be stopped.

The number one question now is, how do we change this? The answer is two-fold: (1) Editors must seek out minority voices, placing equal value on their works, to that of white male works. Editors must also seek out more diverse employees, actively pursuing minorities to fill open positions. (2) Readers need to read outside of their perspective, learning to value experiences not their own and thereby creating a demand for diverse works.

Arkana’s mission is to seek out marginalized voices, and incorporate diverse works into every issue we produce. So where should our readers start?

Aside from reading each issue and overwhelming submittable with minority voices, my class has come up with a short list of diverse books to introduce you to reading outside of your experience:

  1. Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead. Danez is a black, gay, POZ poet who prefers the pronouns they/them and writes about the experiences of black boys. Danex also writes about their struggle with their sexuality and POZ diagnosis.
  2. Kalia Kao Yang, The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father. Born in a Thai refugee camp in 1980, Kao Kalia Yang and family immigrated to Minnesota when she was six, driven from Laos by America’s Secret War. Her book focuses on her fathers role as a Hmong song poet who is responsible for recounting the history of their people.
  3. Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas, Don’t Come Back (21st Century Essays). An essayist raised (mostly) in Bogota, Colombia, her work focuses on growing up amidst violence and local myths, in an exploration of identity.
  4. Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. An English novelist, he is most famous for this novel about an autistic boy who sets out to solve the murder of his neighbor’s dog.
  5. Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Apocalyptic Swing. An American, lesbian poet who explores the tension between the ideas of the small town, gender, sexuality, violence and the body in her work.
  6. Thomas Page McBee, Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man. The first Transgender man to box in Madison Square Gardens, McBee writes about his experience transitioning and the idea of “manhood” and “violence.”

As for me, I’m still searching for my place to fit.


Melinda is a Baltimore transplant who is currently a graduate student at the University of Central Arkansas, seeking her MFA in Poetry. She has pieces published in Pleiades, The Emerson Review, Red Earth Review, and more. When not writing, Melinda enjoys good coffee, expanding her artistic tastes and late nights with her dog.

For Better, For Worse

Musings on the future of writing and publishing in the digital age.

by Ed Robson, Fiction and Poetry Reader

There’s good news and bad news for writers in the digital age, that much is certain. What I’m trying to sort out is, which is which?

Publishing is easier than ever. Getting published is harder than ever.

Everyone can write. Anyone can write.

More people are writing poetry. More people are reading poetry. Fewer people are buying poetry.

The opportunities. The competition.

The technology.

We’re doomed, it seems, to live and write in interesting times. Still, I do see some signs that to my mind look encouraging. For instance:

  1. The Internet can monetize your popularity. The digital marketplace for literature, as for other forms of art, is tough. Most people who upload their work, even if it’s really good, will never see a cent for it. But platforms are appearing now that make a point of rewarding content creators who get hits. The first few poems, blogposts, or stories you post may not make enough to buy a sandwich, but if you are persistent, and if your writing is appealing to an audience of primarily millenials, and IF TODAY’S YOUR LUCKY DAY, the next one may tweak someone’s fancy and you’ll start to build a fan base.
  2.  Micropoets. Atticus is only one of several poets whose haiku-length musings regularly reach six-figure fan bases in Instagram and other platforms. I’m not saying we should all start posting 6- to 12-word poems on our social media–it must be harder than it looks, right? But I think it’s safe to say, there are niches yet to be discovered in a world where billions of people seem to live with eyes locked on their cell phones.
  3.  Print on Demand. Everybody knows you can’t make money selling books made out of paper, right? But a few publishers have started taking advantage of the new printing technology that prints and binds single books, one at a time, never more than have been ordered and paid for. POD is still utilized more by the vanity publishing industry, but little houses are appearing now that can say “Yes!” to any book they really like. It’s still largely up to authors to do most of their own marketing, but with waste of unsold books eliminated, publisher and author both make money on every single sale.
  4.  The Opportunity for Digital Litmags. The literary world continues to need journals that select and promote good writing, but publications must adapt to digital reality. Consumers reading on their phones want easy access to searchable content that allows them to select one item at a time. Internet readers will be loyal to journals with specific niche appeal. The Arkana staff, you can be sure, is paying close attention to these trends.

Ask a writer why they write, they’ll tell you it’s just what they have to do. For better or worse, we’re married to those words upon the page, whatever form that page may take.

And that’s good news, because the world–now more than ever–needs that thing we do.


Ed Robson is a retired clinical psychologist from Winston-Salem, NC.  His poetry has recently appeared in The Hungry Chimera, Right Hand Pointing, Failed Haiku, and Perfume River Poetry Review.  His current works in progress include novels, short fiction, and creative non-fiction.  Between writing assignments he enjoys cycling and cooking.  Past pursuits he hopes he’ll someday have time to reactivate include camping, mineral collecting, gardening, woodworking, and silversmithing.  His role models are mostly teenagers, especially Emma Gonzales and Malala Yousafzai, and he secretly suspects the Hokey Pokey may in fact be what it’s all about.

Ginormous*: My Meeting with Author Kathryn Miles

A member of the Arkana staff reflects on spending time with author Kathryn Miles during her recent visit to the University of Central Arkansas campus.

by Greg Smolarz, Scriptwriting Editor

*Ginormous is her favorite word. It took some persistence, but I finally got it out of her.

My introduction to Kathryn Miles was in the form of one of her books titled Quakeland. I opened the book and the first word I saw was persnickety, and this tickled me to no end. I’m a word guy. I love words, and I feel like I knew persnickety was a word before, but it had also been years since I had read the word. So internally I was like, Yeah I could get on board with this, right away. The next day I sat down to read the selections from her book for our class, and it was such a wonderful piece that I grew way more excited about the fact that we were going to be meeting this author later that day for an interview with her to be included in Arkana’s fifth issue. Then the thought hit me, I should post a tweet and see if she responds.

So that’s exactly what I did. It was a casual post, nothing too crazy. I didn’t think too much about it until after I attended a class I’m auditing for another class. Casually walking home, I pulled up my twitter feed to find several updates. I was shocked. Surely, theres no way. But it was. Kathryn Miles had liked, and even commented, on my post. I was elated.

From there it was a hurry up and wait type of situation because we weren’t technically meeting her until four, and it was still early. So I busied myself, prepared my list of questions, and went over them for the umpteenth time. Finally the time came to leave for class, so I grabbed my book bag and headed out.

The anticipation during this first class was excruciating because Pam, my partner in crime for the interview, and I were to go directly from that class to conduct the interview with Kathryn Miles. I was starting to hyperventilate during class I was so nervous.

Finally the time came for us to head up to Thompson 331 at UCA where we would be conducting the interview. Pam and I strategized on the way up about how we would go about conducting the interview. My heart was really starting to pound, but I tried to hide the nervousness the best I could.

DING!

The elevator door opened, and I stepped out to face my destiny for that day. It was like I was floating into the room. Thank god Jack West, Arkana’s Creative Nonfiction Editor, was there to break the tension, “You guys mind if I crash your interview?” She called out.

“Of course not.” Pam and I said in unison.

So we rounded the table to our seats and Kathryn Miles declared, “You must be my new Twitter friend.”

“Yup, that’s me.” I replied with a huge grin.

All the formal introductions were made and due to time constraints we jumped right into the interview. Her answers were incredible, and I’ve conducted a lot of interviews, but this one was one of the best I’ve ever been involved with. She was funny, witty, and loved to laugh. So we interviewed her for about half an hour, and everything went great, until I looked at my phone.

My intention was to record the interview to transcribe it later, but I had a call had come through and knocked the recording app out of sync, so it stopped recording. My heart fell into my chest.

Jack West reassured me that it was going to be ok. I had no choice but to believe her. So on we trudged.

I spent most of the dinner in my head about the recording incident, so I’m not sure I showed up the best that I could have, but everyone else was having a blast, and despite the incident, I was still having fun.

After the dinner, we headed over to the business school for Kathryn’s reading. Social gatherings make me really nervous, but I also like to try and face that fear head on because whenever I do show up I always feel better after. I had a great conversation with John Vanderslice about taking his class next semester. He’s the fiction guy here at my school. So we chopped it up a bit, and now I’m even more stoked to take his class next semester.

After a little more hob knobbing, the reading started, and that’s when we entered the auditorium.

Dr. Jennie Case, Arkana‘s Supervising Editor, provided an excellent introduction, and then Kathryn started talking about her work. She exuded confidence in front of this group of people. It was like she had done this a million times before, and maybe she had, but her speech was intoxicating and her level of engagement with the crowd was through the roof. She really knew what she was doing. It all felt so surreal. It was like I was seeing my dreams come true in front of my eyes because she’s got the life I’m chasing.

All in all, I commend our faculty for doing such a great job in putting this together. As a student, this is the sort of thing I signed up for, although next time I will definitely put my phone on airplane mode for the interview.


Greg Smolarz is a creative writing MFA student at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. His background is in film, but he jumped ship four years ago to pursue writing full time. He is an unpublished author, but hopes to change that very soon. His biggest accomplishment in the world of film was having a documentary accepted into a small film festival in Prescott, Arizona. One of his favorite quotes states, “My biggest weakness is that I’ll never be the smartest guy in the room, my biggest strength is that I don’t pretend to be.”

Diversity In Publishing: Will It Ever Be Rectified?

A personal discussion of the need for diversity in publishing.

by Victoria Mays, Scriptwriting Editor

I am black. I am a female. As a writer, those very distinct qualities that are genetic and unalterable are the very things I fear being discriminated against in publishing. Though one may believe the fight for gender equality in the field has been conquered, the question still remains: Did we fail to include minority women? In my case, black women. So, that still leaves me at two strikes. When I was asked to do a presentation over diversity for class, I wasn’t surprised by the numbers for the lack thereof in the industry. It wasn’t news to me that the fight still isn’t over and that it may never be over.

As a black woman, I feel the need to create literature that will be empowering and uplifting to people that can identify with me personally or know someone that can. Throughout my high school and early college career, I studied some of the so called greats in the literary canon: Virginia Wolff, Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Mitchell and Oscar Wilde. Though I admire and respect the energy and passion they put into every work that has gained them the fame they have today and wouldn’t dare rob them of it, I have always wondered why there weren’t any black writers amongst the literature we read. Writers like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Walter Mosley and Richard Wright that captured the essence of the black soul and shared the struggles that my ancestors had to endure and overcome in their time.

Being a writer of the times, I feel the call to represent the beautiful and ugly things that black people have encountered in their human experience. In his essay, “Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing,” Jame Older stated, “Publishing is always negotiations between what you want to say, what you can say, and what society will allow you to say.” Not only do I have to worry about publishing quality work, but also facing the fear of presenting quality work that isn’t accepted because of the message that it conveys. Will it be another story thrown into the pile of work that doesn’t contain the idea of a universal character that “generally indicates a false neutral that more or less resembles whiteness?” (Older)

The VIDA Count, a system that “started when the cofounder Cate Marvin sent out an email addressing the lack of feminist conversation in contemporary literature,”  has expanded to include data that addresses race and ethnicity, gender, sexual identity and ability (Prufer). The data covers information for a variety of publications. While we still have work to do as far as increasing diversity in the publishing realm, VIDA shows us where change and progress is needed. If everyone in the industry were to get on the page and use the data that is free and readily available to the public, we could take steps in the right direction.


Victoria Mays is pursuing a MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Central Arkansas.  She is a freelance editor and writer.  When she’s not crafting stories, she is inspiring people through her blog, Soul-Liberation.

Keeping our heads above water: can the lit mag survive?

The struggle for lit magazines to survive in the 21st century.

by Gabrielle Lawrence, Poetry Reader

“The problem is not whether print will survive, but how literary publishing adapts to a world where to publish something has lost value,” Jane Friedman writes in an article titled “The Future Value of the Literary Publisher” from Literary Publishing in the 21st Century. It’s no secret that the shift from print to digital sent the publishing industry into a crisis, and with literary journals already existing in a vacuum or a “null economy” as scholar and founder of Versal Megan Garrcalls it, there’s no clear view of the future of publishing. In a time where literary magazines are seemingly becoming irrelevant and dying out, why should we still publish? Editors, readers, and writers are losing faith in the power of literary journals, but we recognize it’s value in contributing to the richness of our literary community.

Megan Garr interprets the literary journal economy as an industry dependent upon both capitalism and the gift economy. Capitalism is of course referring to the exchange of gifts and services such as press and postage. The gift economy refers to the exchange of time, content, and recognition on behalf of the authors and the editors with hopes of greater future returns such as exposure.

However due to the imbalance of the industry, our most common circular business model is failing. That is, hoping that sales from magazines and profits from community-run programs will pay for the expenses of the magazine. For journals without external funding from universities, endowments, etc, we’ve seen this model deteriorate over and over again. There just seems to be no money in the literary magazine world anymore; in the publishing world anymore. Now that publishing is effortless thanks to the digital world, it seems as if there’s no esteem in the practice let alone profit to be made. With externally funded magazines competing in the same space as volunteer and donation based magazines, and the failure of the recommended retail price not offsetting the costs of production and distribution, the industry seems “doomed to need something outside of itself to survive” Garr says.

So why do we do we continue to pour our own time, money, and resources into something that continues to unravel? For the good of the literary society? For recognition and reputation? For the sliver of a promise for greater future gain? Both Garr and Friedman suggest we start there, with the questions that mean the most. Discover the why, and build it into a brand. Focus on branding our publications and drawing out a devoted readership. Focusing inward, on our business models and really crunching the numbers. Or banding together and consolidating in an effort to stretch resources and pool our shares of the market. The point is most literary journals are barely staying afloat, as is the publishing industry. Arkana takes its mission seriously, we’re passionate about telling and sharing stories, and we recognize something needs to change. We can start by breaking away from old habits and having more open and honest conversations about our purpose, our finances, our business models, and how to adapt for the rapidly evolving future of publishing.


Gabrielle Lawrence is a poet and writer.  She is pursuing her MFA in poetry at the University of Central Arkansas. Her writing can be found in Gravel Magazine, Words Apart Magazine, The Chaos: Journal of Personal Narrative and West Wind Literary Journal.