This interview between the minnesota review blog editor, Annie Raab, and Bennington Review editor, Michael Dumanis, took place over the phone on September 25th.
Most writers recognize the esteem Bennington College has earned over the years as one of America’s best low-residency MFA programs. I caught Michael Dumanis right as he escaped a Florence-related rainstorm during a flash flood warning in Brooklyn. Despite the weather inconvenience, Dumanis, editor of Bennington Review and author of the poetry collection My Soviet Union (University of Massachusetts Press) spoke with me on the phone for almost an hour about the origins, future, and achievements in the new iteration of Bennington Review.
Annie Raab: Is there anything that surprised you about the reboot?
Michael Dumanis: I was surprised at how excited people seemed to bring back something that had long been thought dead. In terms of the aesthetic vision of the journal, the original managing editor and I had a notion of where we might be heading from the beginning, long before there was a first issue, and I think that vision has remained fairly consistent. At first, I wasn’t quite sure how much to preserve of, and how much to deviate from, the old incarnations of Bennington Review, which had previously flourished as a literary magazine in the 1960s, and again in the late 1970s and early 80s. The second editor of the magazine, Robert Boyers (1978-1985), made it highly multidisciplinary. They were publishing essays on dance and photography, various columns on craft, all to the point where, when you look at the cover of an old Bennington Review, there’s a long list of all the possible genres the review encompasses right under the title. The compromise we made is a nod to that—we added a commitment to publishing unusual and original writing on film, in addition to publishing a wide range of fiction, poetry, and literary non-fiction. In every issue of the journal, we have one or two film essays, or a cross-genre piece of writing about film that we find hard to categorize.
AR: The journal, as a book, has such a physical presence. This strikes me as a radical thing these days. Do you prefer to read physical books over online publications?
MD: I read a lot online, but I don’t always know what website I’m reading. If someone recommends a poem online, I click on the poem, read it, and then click on something else, and something else, and something else. I always know who wrote the poem, but I couldn’t always tell you where it was published, or what other poems were published in the same issue. There was work adrift in an internet ether that was incredibly accessible to me, but I also missed the experience of being a graduate student, back at Iowa and at the University of Houston, where I would go into a bookstore and walk out with six literary journals published in the past year. I brought them home and would read them as though they were books, from the beginning forward. They would accumulate on my bookshelves and in boxes on the floor. I never wanted to get rid of them, even though they were essentially ephemera. Through reading these, I would get a sense of the true range of was happening in American poetry at that very moment, and of each editor’s particular vision for an issue. That was really engaging—not just reading the work in the journal, but getting a sense of the editorial vision. This is a challenge in on online publication, where, with a few exceptions, one doesn’t read in as curated a way from beginning to end. In Bennington Review, I want readers to feel how the pieces connect to one another, and the editors spend significant time deciding on the arc and order of the work inside.
We wanted each issue to have a unity of focus. We were committed to always featuring interesting artwork on the cover that pointed, directly or indirectly, to a particular subject. Similarly, we wanted the poetry, fiction nonfiction, and film writing that we included to be in dialogue with one another, so for each issue we decide on a loose thematic focus when compiling it, a single lens through which to look at all of the assembled work. It’s the kind of journal that may no longer make sense in 2018, because the goal, for me, is to have a print journal flourish at a time when fewer and fewer people are reading print periodicals. Or maybe that’s precisely why it makes sense.
AR: The Bennington Review guidelines emphasize a dichotomy between graceful and reckless. Do you have any writers in mind that make you think “yes, this is the kind of thing I want to publish”?
MD: I’ve always been interested in works fiction, poetry, and nonfiction that create their own rules for themselves and their own rigorous structures, where a writer has control over their original choices, while taking you somewhere unexpected and leaving you with a completely singular experience of reading. I think the poetry of Olena Kalytiak Davis has consistently been like this, as much as her style has changed over time. Same with the poetry of Terrance Hayes and Mary Ruefle and Lucie Brock-Broido. Denis Johnson’s work does this, in poetry and in prose. So does Donald Barthelme’s fiction. And Toni Morrison’s fiction, and Jonathan Lethem’s, and Carmen Maria Machado’s, and Percival Everett’s. Part of my interest comes from many years spent in a creative writing workshop culture, where students feel an impulse to fix their work as opposed to develop it–as though there is one correct way for their work to exist. In a workshop, the feedback you receive risks making something messy clean, as opposed to making something ordinary extraordinary.
The bottom line is we’re interested in publishing work we consider to be intelligent, innovative, and moving all at once. In whatever genre a writer is writing in, we’re looking for voice and word choice and intensity. We look for work that follows the directive given by the poet Dean Young in his book The Art of Recklessness, that “poets should be making birds, not birdcages.” The decision to base our vision around this Dean Young quote came before we selected a single piece, before we even developed a website or put forth a call to submissions. Organic themes start to emerge naturally after we’ve selected a lot of work for the magazine. These are loose themes, but definite focal points. That approach emerged as we started to read for the second issue and read Evan Lavender-Smith’s “Childish Things.” And we thought, let’s put that piece first, let’s build an arc for this whole issue that focuses on youthfulness, on insouciance and childlike fancy, and see where that take us. And where that took us is the Misbegotten Youth issue.
AR: What have you discovered through publishing established and up-and-coming writers in the same volume?
MD: I’m inherently interested in a range of voices and energy and vantage points, which publishing emerging writers definitely brings. But also, I don’t think the work of the emergent writer in Bennington Review is any less strong than the work of the highly established writer.
AR: Why do you think that is?
MD: We’re interested in a particular kind of work, and we’re rigorous in terms of our own decision making. We don’t weigh how established a writer is when we accept work. We’re interested in work that corresponds with the work very strong emerging writers are tackling—work might be particularly innovative in terms of story, lineation, or angle. We want to see writing that feels like nothing we’ve read before. As editors and avid readers, we’re interested in a particular kind of reading experience, regardless of the writer’s experience.
AR: Do you think we are experiencing a cultural shift in the kind of work coming out of MFA programs? Or do you see things you want to rebel against?
MD: What I discovered—and I didn’t quite believe this before editing a magazine—is the extent to which there are house aesthetics. We get a substantial amount of work from students in MFA programs through Submittable. There’s incredible range, but there’s startling consistency within programs. There’s breadth and rich variation within every program, and in a way, this disappears when someone leaves an academic environment. In work we see from many MFA programs, there seems to be a possible direct connection between the work produced and the aesthetic style I would associate with particular faculty. So there are patterns of influence, and this probably also comes from having active conversations with other writers. As a teacher, I make an extra effort to view every poem on its own terms, to refrain from inadvertently passing any judgment on its aesthetic influences or preoccupations. When I teach, I always keep close a famous quote from Richard Hugo in Triggering Town: “Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. But I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don’t teach you how to write but how to teach yourself how to write. At all times keep your crap detector on.”
AR: How has editing influenced your poetry practice?
MD: The answer surprises me in a way. I’ve been an editor in different ways for a long time. Before I was at BR, I was director of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center, which is a poetry press that published approximately 4 books of poetry each year. I edited about twenty books through them over the five years I was there. Before that, in graduate school, I was poetry editor of the magazine Gulf Coast. There’s always been an editing practice alongside my writing practice, and I think editing practice gives me a sense of how writers respond to the zeitgeist, or how certain concerns permeate work. It’s interesting to watch how politics have entered submissions since late 2016. Writers grapple with their moment, which is interesting to see.
I discovered writers whose work I really admire as a consequence of editing Bennington Review. The ideas I have about writing as a writer probably influence my aesthetic as an editor. In reverse, I find out more about my taste, which is not fixed, through editorial practice. Inherently, you interrogate your own choices when you’re looking at the choices other writers have made. But my approach to writing hasn’t necessarily changed in recent projects.
AR: How do you decide when a piece of yours is ready to publish?
MD: I need to be able to read a poem over a period of time, out loud to myself, without squirming at any word or line break. I have to listen to the voice in my head that says “you were too easy here” or “you could push harder against that idea.” When I read it and don’t notice those clicks in the poem, then it’s ready to show somebody else. When I’m writing, I focus on the integrity of individual lines and individual words. I write a line, and I try to write a second line, then a third line, building from the ground up.
When I was an undergrad, I took poetry classes having no idea what I was doing. I remember thinking, “I don’t understand what a good poem is, or what it means when someone says this is a strong poem, but I understand what a good line is.” So then I tried to write interesting lines. I thought, “If every one of my lines has something interesting and they come together into a coherent arc, then the poem can’t be that bad.”
Michael Dumanis is the author of the poetry collection My Soviet Union (University of Massachusetts Press), winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry; and coeditor of the younger poets’ anthologyLegitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande). His writing has appeared in American Letters and Commentary, The Believer, Black Warrior Review, Boston Review,Denver Quarterly, LitHub, New England Review, Ploughshares, and the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day project. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and a PhD from the University of Houston. Formerly a poetry editor of Gulf Coast and the Director of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center, he teaches literature and writing at Bennington College and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Annie Raab writes fiction and art criticism. Her work has been published in print and online, most frequently in Kansas City’s alt rag, The Pitch, where she was a regular contributor of arts journalism and reviews (2015-2018). She earned her BFA in Sculpture and Creative Writing at the Kansas City Art Institute, and is an MFA candidate in Fiction and Arts Leadership at Virginia Tech. Her internationally recognized art reviews and award-winning short fiction have appeared online and in print.