by Alexa Garvoille
As a staffer for the minnesota review, I wear many hats. Before I get to the hats, though, let me mix my metaphors so you know how the sausage is made. And I’m only interested in the sausage because sometimes the machine that makes the sausage is also asked to make hats. Or something like that.
With its creative pages selected by students in Virginia Tech’s MFA program, the minnesota review is one of many journals with a rotating staff of readers and editors who are all, themselves, early-career writers. We read through submissions (“the slush pile”), talk about your writing, select what goes in the next issue, and decide ordering of the creative work within the journal. At Tech, we contribute to the review through a course — Editing a Literary Journal — which all MFAs must take twice in their three-year program. We learn how to contribute to the literary community through service on the journal’s staff. This is part of our coursework.
And besides coursework, the other half of the life of a (gratefully) fully-funded but-not-as-fully-funded-as-a-job MFA student is the assistantship. Here at Tech, our assistantships vary from working in the writing center, to teaching composition, to TAing classes, to — in our final semester — teaching Intro to Creative Writing.
Across the country, there are many MFA programs operating on this model. Teach your Creative Writing class in the morning, go to Lit Journal in the afternoon. In fact, some MFA faculty operate on this model: teach your grad workshop in the morning, run your press in the afternoon — or, rather, select poetry for the journals you staff, read books for prizes, serve as a guest judge, etc. etc. etc. in the afternoon. The responsibilities of a writer are wide-ranging, but they often include teaching and some form of reading that amounts to gatekeeping.
Not that gatekeeping is bad. In fact, we’re pleased to have gatekeeping power over the journal because who we let in the gates is decidedly queerer, browner, and more international than who has historically been admitted. I digress. Let’s get back to hats.
We wear two hats: the reading-gatekeeping-yes-or-no-pile hat and the teaching hat. (Yes, there is a third hat with WRITER printed across the front. We wear it at night when no one is around, look at ourselves in the full-length mirror, slow dance to a bop, and intone the words I am a writer over an over, lock-eyed with the reflection, method acting our way to suspending disbelief.)
As a discipline, creative writing has historically tricked itself into believing these are actually one and the same hat. A workshop leader edits a student’s poem from the head of the seminar table; faculty bestow approval of the writers with the most promise so their career options unfold before them; a word of disapproval on a draft and a student’s work retreats to the Rejections tab of the mind’s shoddy version of Submittable.
Obviously, anyone with a human heart will tell you that you can’t treat a classroom of humans like you treat a Submittable cue. This morning, giving feedback on work written by my Intro to Creative Writing students, I had to stop myself, peel off the Thumbs Up / Maybe / Thumbs Down hat. When I transition from reading for lit journal to reading my students’ work, it’s sometimes hard to get that cutthroat stock analyst off of my head. I look through my students’ work in Canvas, where the grade box is in the same upper-right portion of the screen as the Submittable comment box. The lightning-speed assessment of Thumbs Up / Maybe / Thumbs Down is stored in my body, efficient and pleasure-seeking. Instead, I put on my multicolored cap with the propellor and then support students, ask them what they need, and cheerlead them toward manifesting their own writing goals.
These two hats are why it’s such a struggle to read your work in the slush pile: I want to call each of you up and tell you the parts I like, what the poems have going for them — to ask you what your goals are and see how I can be of use, suggest poets you might love, grab a volume from my bookshelf and read aloud to you. But that’s not generally how literary journals work.
And it troubles me. But until I run a journal that is my loving equivalent of Borges’ Library of Babel — where every poem gets to grow into its best self with careful nurturing and then live out its days on the page — I will just have to remember to switch hats and be kind.
Alexa Garvoille spent ten years in the high school classroom before coming to Virginia Tech, where she is a third-year MFA in poetry.