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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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Editor Notes

Issue 2 Notes from the Editors: Fiction

A story about the fiction included in Arkana Issue 2

By Cassie Hayes, Fiction Editor, and Liz Larson, Fiction Reader

A thing is incredible, if ever, only after it is told.
            —Eudora Welty, “No Place for You, My Love”

We’re going to tell you the story of the stories that the Arkana fiction editorial team chose for inclusion in our second issue. Is the story of the stories incredible? No. Not really. No golden beam of light came down to shine heavenly light upon any one of the four stories included. No angels sang. There were no trumpets or burning bushes or any other foolproof sign that said we have to publish these, that it is our moral responsibility to share these stories with the world.

But there was a haunting feeling left over after we read them. There was a feeling that we had touched common humanity and heard voices we needed to hear that we hadn’t exactly heard before. There was an awe that always accompanies the taking in of good art.

We had many exceptional fictions submitted, and we were hard pressed to make the tough choices. Believe us, every editorial team loves that kind of problem.

We noticed the uptick of diversity of submissions for this issue. Thank you submitters for listening to our mission statement, and keep that coming, please. We want to hear your voices. We want to continue to hear the voices that have been silenced, but speak to us and bring us the awe.

In the end we had to just go with the stories that worked together, forming a unified whole of themes and ideas. Because we have such sunny personalities, the four stories we ultimately chose deal with death. There’s a strange darkness to every one of them, but also a stiffened lip, “there’s no storm we can’t weather” sort of feeling too. The characters in these stories are survivors. Survivors who, like only survivors can, see and celebrate the beauty of life.

“Central Park: A Ghost Story” involves a strange attraction in blinding snow, the struggle to keep warm, to see, and to get back home. “Falling Season,” our contest winner, similarly involves attraction, strange because of societal norms, and the struggle to overcome the death of a parent. “The Winter Cabin,” our contest runner-up, like all the other stories, deals with attraction in the face of death—in this case a terminal illness—and also like the other stories shows nature as a dynamic force surrounding the characters. Finally, “Follow the Sun” portrays a woman determined to keep moving after the death of a spouse, facing ageism, poverty, and plain old bad luck.

Reading submissions and choosing which pieces to accept is a humbling experience. Yes, humbling. Far from the Judgy McJudgypants persona you might think of in regards to editors at literary journals, we are not of jaundiced eye. More often than not, we feel the awe. Then, after the awe, we cut our eyes right and left, nervously making sure no one has seen our hand, that we actually care very much about the work we read and our submitters. But alas, our tells are loud and we give lousy poker face.

We can’t hide our excitement about these stories. Every time we open up a new submission, we find new complexity—that richness of experience that unfolds when you get to meet another voice. There are always new ways of seeing things, fresh perspectives, and just damn good prose that await our not-so-jaded eyes.

There’s also a feeling of being connected to the larger literary world when you’re getting to read submissions and publish wonderful stories like the four included in this issue, and that feeling is very humbling. We have a responsibility to publish work that both fits into the current literary landscape but also pushes the boundaries of contemporary fiction and society. Stories, when they are shared, can bring human beings together like nothing else, bridging ideologies and backgrounds and fostering empathy. Like the mythic Jacqulyn West, Arkana nonfiction editor, chanteuse, and wicked raconteur wrote in her blog post “Arkana Rooted in Diversity”: We’re all in this together, and we want to represent.

The story of the stories is hardly awe-inspiring. Behind-the-scenes production, getting the art out into the world, involves all the dull bits of reality that the art itself tends to cut out. Reading through submissions, emailing each other about the work, trying to pick four stories out of a plethora of good pieces, inputting those works on WordPress, sending out contracts, etc.

Hardly incredible, even when told.

But, still meaningful. After all, our main goal as an editorial team is not to have a great story, but to share the great stories we come across with you. And that duty and privilege, at least in our humble opinion, is incredible and awe-inspiring.


Check out the four works of fiction included in Arkana’s Issue 2:
“Central Park: A Ghost Story”
“Falling Season”
“The Winter Cabin”
“Follow the Sun”


Cassie Hayes is a fiction writer and sometime taco-maker from Waxahachie, Texas. She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Texas at Arlington and now attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program and interns at the Oxford American.
Liz Larson is a member of the Arkansas Writers MFA Program at the University of Central Arkansas. She is a bigly believer in risk-taking. Though fearful of falling down, she will do it with aplomb.
Arkana News

ARKANA UPDATE

by the Arkana Staff

Good news, folks—the second issue of Arkana is on the way! On Monday we met to discuss each editorial team’s picks for work to be included in the journal, and we’re super excited about the literature that will soon reside on our website. Poems, nonfiction, fiction, and perhaps less traditional genres (you’ll have to read the issue to find out what) will be displayed online for your perusal.

You want a space to reflect where silenced voices can be heard? Well, we have the lit for you.

And to celebrate the launch of our second issue in April we’ll be having a launch party at the Lantern Theatre here in Conway, Arkansas. At the party, we the staff will come together and celebrate by reading from our published works, discussing craft and connecting themes, and explaining how the work points right back to our lovely mission statement.

We’ll also have some cool stuff heating up on our blog. Soon we’ll be featuring short series of posts by members of the staff. These posts will pop up every couple of weeks and will cover topics diverse in scope and subject matter, highlighting our various interests and voices.

The blog will also feature letters from the editors of Arkana. Want to know more about the submission process? Want to know how the pieces of each issue fit together? Want to know more about Arkana’s place in the larger literary landscape? Check out our forthcoming editor letters to learn more about what makes the behind the scenes world of Arkana tick, and how each issue and work included in each issue comes together to promote our mission to “foster a sense of shared wonder by privileging art that asks questions, explores mystery, and to discover and uncover the overlooked, the misunderstood, and the silent.”

For the rest of this month we’ll post on our blog and be busy putting together the next issue of the journal, which comes out in late April. In the meantime, check out our older blog posts or our last issue.

Exciting stuff is happening here at Arkana. We’re glad that you’re a part of it!