Richard Greenfield is the editor-in-chief of New Mexico State University’s (NMSU’s) literary magazine Puerto Del Sol and the co-founding editor with Mark Tursi of APOSTROPHE BOOKS. He is an associate professor of English at NMSU where he teaches poetry to graduates and undergraduates. He has published three books: Subterranean (forthcoming Omnidawn 2018), Tracer (Omnidawn 2009) and A Carnage in the Lovetrees (University of California Press, 2003).
Over the past week or so I have had the privilege of interviewing Richard Greenfield about what it’s like, behind the scenes, to edit pieces for both a literary magazine and small book press. The following is a compilation of phone interview notes and email correspondence. Read on to learn more about print versus digital platforms, issues of diversity in literary editing, an editorial perspective on soliciting and negotiating differences of literary opinion among staff members, and how enthusiasts might go about starting their own small press.
YASMINE KAMINSKY: I am very interested in Puerto Del Sol’s byline “weirding it up since 1964”: could you speak more on this philosophy?
RICHARD GREENFIELD: I think one thing to keep in mind about Puerto Del Sol is that it’s had a lot of varied stewardship, which is typical of literary magazines hosted in universities with continuously rotating staff. I have only been editor in chief of the magazine since August of 2017. Before that, Evan Lavender-Smith was doing it for two years. Before that, Carmen Giménez Smith for seven years. It’s evolved over time.
Puerto Del Sol, which has been around for over 50 years, in its earliest decades focused on more of an engagement with the local, which is an ethos I appreciate and support. As a mostly regional southwest magazine, its orientation was toward representation of literatures, communities, cultures, histories, canons of the southwest—and that would mean also how the landscape is represented as a part of that culture, history. Yet, when I look at these older issues of Puerto Del Sol, I see far more white men and realist and heteronormative representations of reality bracketed within a southwest context than is present in the contemporary Puerto Del Sol.
The big turn in the magazine began in about 2009 when Carmen started to overhaul the design of the magazine and the types of writers we were looking for. She started to turn it away from being exclusively contextualized as a regional magazine. Puerto Del Sol became much more expansive in its publishing goals and in reaching a broader audience. During her tenure—and in Evan’s and my recent taking over—the magazine has much more of an emphasis on work in translation, work by diverse ethnicities, sexualities, aesthetics, artistic practices, and genre-blurring. Also, there has been a shift to publishing more emerging writers, which I think results from empowering the students to make decisions from the open submissions.
Along with this turn, we began building up a digital presence and embraced experimenting with what we can do in a digital framework. One of our most massive, time-consuming projects was to digitize the archive of past issues to be read online.
I did notice that Puerto Del Sol’s website features issues parallel to the magazine such as its Black Voices Series. What can you tell us about Puerto’s website and its relationship to the magazine?
We have updates on a weekly basis to keep it active and topical to readers because the print magazine now only comes out once a year. The Black Voices Series was launched recently, initiated by one of our graduate students, Naima Yael Tokunow. She wanted to continue working on the magazine after she finished in our MFA program. Naima is a poet who felt the magazine should provide a space to provide increased exposure to Black writers in contemporary literature and art.
We are also starting a Latinx series soon, which we’re all very excited about. In the future I hope we will expand these editorial spaces on the website. We want to create a kind of continuous virtual presence of the magazine that is different from what you would get in an annual print magazine.
And I think these editorial spaces are interesting too because they are online. We are able to represent writers whose projects challenge being printed in a magazine. Artists who are doing digital media, music, and visual work as a sort of hybridity with literature can achieve effective representation of that work in a digital format.
I think the diversity we are talking about in genre is a diversity of platforms: offering people multiple ways of experiencing a literary magazine, redefining what a literary magazine is, and providing a topical, contemporary picture of the wild diversity of genre and platform use that’s happening in literature.
We don’t want to make something static. We see a lot of literary magazines that use a PDF or an html page to represent sampled writers from a given issue—which is something we do, too, but is not all we do. I think there’s some concern with some publications about “giving away” too much of a magazine for free on a site—a valid concern mainly if you’re being distributed. We are in Barnes & Noble stores for example. When magazines don’t sell, they rip off the magazine cover and send it back to the distributor for credit. Most literary magazines have more returns than sales. Editors may be concerned about further damage to sales if the magazine is available online.
Our print magazine is another platform. I wouldn’t necessarily argue that the print version is hierarchically more important than the digital magazine. I do think that the digital magazine still has room to grow and improve and become something greater than it is. As a new editor, I’m excited about new possibilities of pushing the web magazine in different directions. I think a lot of students who are coming into this and working on the magazine will have some pretty conservative ideas about what a journal is or can become.
That surprises me since writers in MFA programs tend to be early in their writing lives.
Well, I think a lot of students come from undergraduate creative writing departments with journals devised to be distributed among the university. It’s a big transition, rethinking ideas of what a magazine is and what it means to be published.
And I think there is a lot of valorization of publishing work in a print magazine. Younger writers have been exposed to the idea of having a virtual self and having the complete ability to self-publish, and thus the idea of an active curation, a process of peer review, has more significance for them, even as the digital publication provides greater access for audiences. The role of the magazine editor is just as important in reaching a wider audience as it always was. It’s not so much that a text is in print. Cultural capital may not be the right word given the marginalization of so many literary magazines in our culture, but within the literary communities, in being actively reviewed and accepted by a peer, there is a sense of community affirmation. This hasn’t gone away, even with the vast expansion of digital publishing.
Students have to learn the politics of editing as well. There are many, many different approaches to what makes a piece of writing “good.” I think about seeing how pieces you select play off of one another, become more exciting and enhanced in a community. They learn what happens on a political level when you select work for publication. What if we end up with all white people? What if we end up with all men? They start to think about a diverse representation of writers—how they are going to get more diverse work and attract more diverse writers. The only way to do it is to publish a diverse magazine in the first place.
And how do you suggest editors go about making sure their publications are diverse?
You need to solicit, run contests, publicize that your magazine is looking for diverse content constantly. You cannot be relaxed or non-vigilant of reminding people that you exist. We are lucky that we typically do get a very diverse pool of submissions and the editors—both the students and editor-in-chief—are very conscious of soliciting and thinking about where we are lacking and what we need—and that can happen on a issue-by-issue case.
We are currently working on the “science issue,” and one of the earliest conversations we had this semester when we met for an editorial meeting was that we were not well-represented in women’s prose writers, so I made a list of women writers I associated with science-concerns and began actively soliciting, alongside the students. The editorial board initiated the conversation; these values are being passed down through mentorship—cultivating editorial values organically.
But these values had to be built up. It doesn’t just happen naturally. Magazine staffs themselves may not be diverse. It is possible for them to be almost entirely white, which is a concern—and one that creates an inherent collective blind-spot when we are not careful.
We should work hard when we don’t have diverse representation. I’m really pleased that recently, a couple of our staff initiated sending out emails to the broader university community asking for new potential diverse readers to apply to be on our team. In this call for readers and editors, we expressed an interest in building a diverse editorialship.
That is not something I have considered, reaching out to the community for additional readers.
And you have to be conscious that a lack of diversity is present. Self-awareness comes from these values being disseminated every year, as the staff continues to change annually. I think Carmen was initially responsible for cultivating that community, but now it is so well-organized, it continues to flourish.
Returning to an earlier suggestion you mentioned—soliciting. How and where do literary journals solicit for submissions? How might editors approach a writer when they want them to make edits to their piece?
A lot of editors handle this very differently. I vacillate. I don’t respond to all of my soliciting experiences the same way. Is the writer someone I know? If that’s the case, I might have the social basis to more actively engage in an editing process with the writer.
Not all writers invite a conversation about editing their work when they submit though. The idea of the editor as someone who makes editing decisions on a particular piece is an old one—but I’m not sure it necessarily represents mainstream thinking about what an editor does. In some cases, you’re dealing with egos, people who disagree with you and don’t have a relationship with you. You may not even be in their aesthetic encampment. For example, if you think about an experimental writer who is being edited by a person with a preference for realism, there may be different concerns about character development, linearity, conflict, structure. For an experimental writer–say someone influenced by Samuel Beckett—all those elements are suspect. There’s going to be a significant conflict between the editor and the writer that arises from 150 years of evolution of narrative writing!
That can make editing solicitations tricky.
Yes, I think because of the diversity of the Puerto Del Sol—we do publish experimental writing; we do publish realist writing; we publish across the spectrum—the editor has to be flexible about these aesthetic traditions before thinking about editing the work. The more diverse the magazine, the more likely it is that the editor is someone whose editing responsibilities are more about the shaping of an overall curation rather than editing individual pieces on a language or craft level.
Other magazines are narrow in their aesthetic niche—something understood by people submitting to that magazine—for these publications, the fact that the editors and writers are participating in a dialogue about that literary niche makes it more possible to edit based on common ground.
When I solicit writers that I don’t know, I typically have to spend a lot of time “foregrounding” in my email. I put together in my email a greeting that signals to the writer that I have read the writer’s work in the past, that I value it, that I see that potential writing by that writer would fill out my curatorial desires for that magazine. I typically provide a lot of information about the magazine: where it’s distributed, how long it’s been around, links within the email that the writer can check out to get a sense of what the magazine is and whether they think their writing is served by being in the magazine.
That can depend on what kinds of audiences the writer is trying to reach and with what types of writers the writer wants to appear. For example, when I publish as a poet, I publish based on my familiarity with other writers in the magazine. I want to be in a kind of community with other writers. The places I publish are consistent in the types of communities they support in their writing. For example, Lana Turner, which is a magazine published by Cal Bedient and David Lau, has this kind of Marxist ethos and is interested in how art and poetry historicize our moment and responds to our political realities. It’s one of the more political engaged publications in the poetry world. I’ve published in 2-3 issues of it. The reason I send them work is that I am very honored and astounded by seeing my work by alongside the work of people who are equally politically engaged.
And on the other hand, a magazine like Poetry is interesting because it has evolved from being a magazine people associated with high modernism to middle-road modernism to narrative lyric in the American mainstream and then evolving yet again to being open to writers across the spectrum, from experimental to prosodic or formalist work or lyric writers or narrative poets. It’s a magazine you can’t really pin down with one specific aesthetic editorial tradition unless you contrast the tenures of its various editors over time, and you get the sense that American poetry—and actually it does publish international writers in translation, but it mostly still publishes American writers—that poetry is incredibly pluralistic and varied. Honestly, as a reader, it’s always a mixed bag with Poetry, which I’m just using as an example that is illustrative of most literary magazines. Some of the writers I admire, and others, I cannot connect to the work. Of course, that’s the point of a literary magazine: it’s a site of engagement and disengagement. Poetry gives you a comprehensive snapshot of what is happening in poetry; there seems to be a more open editorial mission behind broader aesthetic representation behind it all. I think this is very different than Lana Turner, which is quite focused in its politics. Puerto Del Sol is probably right in the middle on the spectrum between these magazines.
But getting back to your question about soliciting, when I solicit someone, I assume they care about the kind of magazine their work is appearing in: what this publication is, what our vision is, and how their work will be read in this magazine.
The hardest part for me in the soliciting process is when a writer sends you work you are not necessarily excited about—or perhaps when I champion work but others on the editorial board are not excited about it, and now I’m in this position as editor-and-chief, and I have to think about how I will navigate the situation. I want to respect the editorial board and their position—sometimes, I try to convince them that there’s merit to the work. There have been a few times in past magazines where I felt I had to make an executive decision and put work in that I thought very strongly needed to be in the magazine.
It’s hard to go back to a writer and say there was nothing here that we can use at this time. It seems especially fraught because you’ve gone to the trouble of soliciting the writer. I think if you reject something you solicited, you spend a lot of time in that communication about what it was that wasn’t working, trying to be very positive about it: you emphasize that it’s a “fit” issue rather than a rejection of the work. It can be an opportunity to invite more work from a writer that may be a better “fit.” I also see trying not to frame it as a wholesale rejection of the writer. You remain a supportive reader of their work. You have to be diplomatic. But of course, not all editors have that perspective.
I am sure a lot of writers appreciate editors who take the time to be sensitive.
I have encountered a lot of sensitive writers. A lot is at stake in having submitted their work to you. In a lot of cases, you’re the first person to see the work, especially with writers who are productive but may not have trusted readers. Your reaction to it can be a surprise to the writer.
That’s a really good point. Switching gears, though, you are also the co-founding editor for the small poetry press Apostrophe Books. Would you like to tell us about that?
It’s a micro-press. We only have been bringing out one book every year and a half. I run it with Mark Tursi in New Jersey. We do everything by phone, Skype, email.
We first talked about it in 2005 and then brought out our first book in 2007. At the time we were graduate students, and we had a particular worldview about the kind of poetry that was being published and the kind of poetry that we thought was represented—and this was utterly aesthetic—but we wanted work that was strange. We just wanted to publish weird poets, weird poetry.
We felt that most of the books we were seeing were participating in trending stylistic ruts or tropes. There’d be a dominant stylistic mode. We could see trends happening in poetry and not a lot of risk-taking happening. Many books were crafted in an MFA-kind-of-way that resulted in homogenous poetry, and we thought poets writing strange, challenging books were finding it difficult to find supportive presses because the books were too outside the perimeters of dominant trends in poetry.
The first book we published was definitely outside the norm of what we were seeing at that time—Tonight’s the Night by Catherine Meng. The title refers to Neil Young’s album Tonight’s the Night. The song is itself an elegy for someone Neil Young knew who died. Reportedly there was a concert where Neil Young performed this song over and over again, angering the crowd. Catherine Meng became interested in fugues and depression and reading pianist Glenn Gould. His Goldberg Variations is considered to be controversial because of the way he performs it and the studio qualities that were present. There was a squeaky chair and he kind of moans and groans. He was an eccentric. The book was centered on this guy called the professor, who, in a state of dementia, is caught in a fugue. All the poems are named “Tonight’s the Night.” The book brings to together dementia, fugues, Bach, Glenn Gould (who suffered from hypochondria), Neil Young, grief, and recursive grief. It was a kind of book that a larger poetry publisher was unlikely to publish. It was a weird book.
APOSTROPHE BOOKS was modeled after the brilliant and canon-disrupting Action Books, edited by Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson. They inspired us to start a press when we saw their first books at a conference at the University of Denver. All of the books we published at that time were strange—pataphysical, conceptual, and resisting the well-crafted poem. One book (coincidentally or not coincidentally) by Johannes Göransson (A New Quarantine Will Take My Place) was influenced by European high modernism and featured Jean-Luc Godard-style interruptions. The third book, Paul Foster Johnson’s Refrains/Unworkings, presented the world of a postmodern flaneur responding to post 9/11 urban space in Manhattan. Our next book, Jessica Baran’s Remains to Be Used, was a series of feminist ekphrastic prose poems that try to understand and subvert the male gaze. All the poems refer directly to pieces of male gaze art or film. I mean, I could talk about every one of our books, which I’m proud to have played a role in bringing to an audience.
That is quite a variety.
Yes. What makes them all similar is an emphasis on books that are challenging, that don’t fit into specific stylistic encampments. Books that enact their own ideas. They tend to be project books where the poet has successfully found a form over the course of a book. We are currently on book number nine!
At this point, you have selected several books for APOSTROPHE BOOKS as well as several pieces for magazines like Puerto Del Sol. How does reading submissions for a poetry press compare to reading submissions for a literary journal? Do you engage with submissions differently for a book press versus a literary journal?
It’s very different. For the press, I am only choosing one manuscript, so I’m not thinking about how the work I’m selecting is fitting into a relationship with a collective magazine. On the other hand, the series of books on the press is kind of like a collective. We also think, how is this book similar to a book we’ve done in the past?
We publish a letter on each of the bindings of the books spelling out the name of the press as the books come out. When it’s all done, we’re coming out with a slipcase for the whole series. We think about it as a singular project. We think: what’s the relationship of this book to the books we have already published? The final letter in our name for the press, the letter E and the tenth letter in the word “apostrophe,” in our logo features a red box around it. When we finally reach book 10, we will publish new poems by the previous nine writers, an encapsulation of the whole series into a community or chorus.
One of the issues for me and the other editor is that we never agree on the book we should publish, so it ends up being a battle.
How do editors of a small-scale operation negotiate these differences in opinion?
One way is I make the case for the book I am backing. And then he (Mark Tursi) makes his case for the book he’s backing. We go back and forth talking aloud and acknowledging what we find valid about the criticisms of the book the other person is trying to support. Eventually, we reach a compromise where the other person is convinced by the other person’s argument. I’ve convinced him to publish books that he was not initially interested in, and vice versa.
Another way is we will take two books and individually back the one we really want. Because we’re a micro-press, this doesn’t always happen.
A third way is neither one of us ends up with the one we wanted, but we go with the book we both have solid feelings about. We go through our lists looking for common ground.
What other issue have you run into, aside from editorial differences?
Money has been an issue for us because we pay out of our own pockets for the expenses of the press, the largest expense of which is printing the books. We are not a nonprofit. We don’t do enough business and production to warrant a non-profit status. We became an LLC for a while, but that did not help us out much except to keep track of expenses. How we envisioned being able to write off the cost of producing the books did not ever meet substantial deduction numbers where it was worth all the hassle. We have never made a profit. I know small presses that have made a profit, though. You have to run contests, and you have to continually put 100% of your free time into promoting and running your press. Then there are the distribution costs. We have to pay a distributor fee for every title. We have to pay for shipping to our distributors like SPD and Amazon and Ingram. After the cost of printing, distribution, promotional events, and web hosting, etc.—we end up in the red. We have never made a single cent.
But that’s not why we did it. It’s opened a lot of doors for us in other ways. It’s provided access to, and participation in, communities we care about. There are so many friendships that started with Apostrophe. We love supporting writers. Our publications have helped emerging writers gain a readership. Our books do help the poetry community and add to its aesthetic diversity. We have fans who come to our AWP table and say they love our books. That’s so rewarding.
What advice do you have for readers who are looking to start their own small presses?
It depends on how ambitious you are about your press. You have to start with what kind of press do you want to be. How many books do you want to bring out a year? How much work are you willing to do for your writers? You have to do a lot for your writers. And they don’t always do a lot for you. They don’t necessarily promote their events. Some of these writers can’t afford it. They work full time, and it’s an extreme expense for them to fly somewhere to give a reading of their poetry book.
You need to have a clear sense in advance about what kind of poetry or fiction you want to publish, how many books you want to bring out, how you are going to support your writers other than publishing their work, and what you expect to get out of this in return. You should have a serious dialogue about the potential disappointments you are going to face if you have grandiose ideas or expectations about the material reimbursements or spiritual rewards.
I think there is an extreme sense of pride about publishing a book for me—almost like bringing a baby into the world—and I want to support it, and I think everyone should read it. There are a thousand other publishers who feel the same way about their books, though.
When you buy a book of poetry, you are investing in the health of the community. I invest in a press. Anytime there’s a subscription for a press, that’s how I buy their books. They’re raising money to print their books in a subscription model. I give donations to presses that I care about. I want to see them flourish. I just think wherever you have your money is a vote you’ve made in support of the people running that press and their ability to bring out more books, their ability to keep all of this going.
I think it’s really fun too, to publish books. If you decide to publish books, it’s like you put the pause button on your own writing to do this work, and you see how it makes you feel to participate in bringing something out to the world and supporting another writer. It’s not a coincidence that so many small press publishers are writers, too.
Yasmine Kaminsky is a first year poet at Virginia Tech. She is a poetry reader and the blog editor for the minnesota review.