Wednesday, April 27, 2011

First publications with Ninth Letter

I thought it would be interesting and maybe even useful if from time to time in this blog I highlighted a journal editor who's recently published new writers and poets, and to also include the insights of those writers/poets whose work first found the light of publication with that journal. So I have.

I figured I would start close to home with the unique and well-respected journal Ninth Letter, a collaborative arts and literary project produced by the Graduate Creative Writing Program and the School of Art & Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Ninth Letter combines top-flight writing with way-outside-the-box design (some issues look more like the creative writing folk collaborated with U of I's School of Engineering -- it's that elaborately imaginative). Don't take my word for it. Here is a review of issue 7.2 by Sima Rabinowitz of

Editor Jodee Stanley says, via email, that her number-one piece of advice for anyone wanting to publish in Ninth Letter is "don't oversell your work in a cover letter." And for new writers in particular she adds, "Don't try to cover up for that fact by summarizing or 'pitching' your work. Let your story, essay, or poetry speak for itself." 

Moreover, says Stanely, "It's a really good idea to read Ninth Letter (or any journal you are considering submitting to), just to see if our aesthetic fits with your own. If you read a few pieces in 9L and generally like what you see, chances are we have similar tastes to yours and will be more likely to be interested in your work."

Shes goes on, "If you don't really dig any of our stuff, though, you'll be better off submitting to other journals whose aesthetic runs closer to your own. That's not to say you need to write stuff that's exactly like what we've already published, though!"

Stanley emphasizes the need for perseverance: "Don't give up! Many, many writers appearing in our pages have submitted numerous times before hitting the mark with something."

Two previously unpublished writers who hit the mark in Ninth Letter are J. Nicholas Geist and Marianne Jay. Geist's essay "Completion" appeared in issue 6.1, and Jay's short story "Cherry Ripe" came out in issue 6.2.

Geist, via email, says that he had virtually no experience submitting his work prior to submitting his piece to Ninth Letter. "This was a piece that I'd put a lot of work into, and it was one of the few pieces at the time that I'd really felt was ready to submit," says Geist, who was an MFA student at California State University Fresno when he wrote "Completion." One of his teachers had cautioned him against sending out work prematurely: "The worst thing you can do as a writer is send out something that's less than your best, because if it does get published, then that mediocre piece will always be associated with your name -- and it may be what your reputation is based on."

Proud of his essay, Geist decided to send it to a journal that he "admired, with no real expectation of acceptance. That journal was Ninth Letter." He adds that he "love[s] the interplay between art and text.... They're open to new ideas, they like experimentation." Geist had also seen an essay on a similar topic to his in an earlier issue, and it encouraged him to think the editors may like his essay as well. 

Geist describes the "[g]reat, odd, troubling, anxiety-ridden, comforting, exciting, exhausting" process of having his piece accepted:

Maybe a month or so after submitting, I received a phone call from Steve Davenport, then editor of 9L, saying that their readers liked my piece, but because they'd recently run another (aforementioned) essay on the same topic, they didn't want to include my piece in their upcoming issue. But, he said, if the essay was still available he'd talk to Jodee Stanley, who would be taking over the relevant editorial duties for future issues, to see if she was interested in the piece as well. Yes please, I said. I got off the phone and my eyeballs exploded. This was one of the most anxiety-ridden periods of my writing career, such as it is -- the excitement that they liked my piece was at war with the panic that the other editor wouldn't. I don't know how long it was between the first phone call and the second, but if memory serves, it was something like forty or fifty years.

Obviously, Stanley wanted the piece, but they did delay publication for more than a year due to the similar essay they had recently run. "I was incredibly appreciative of the work that the 9L editorial staff put into making my piece work the way is was supposed to," says Geist.

Geist has since received plenty of rejections, including from Ninth Letter. "Publication is, I think, really all about finding the right fit. It usually feels like a pity dodge when you get a form letter saying 'It's not for us,' but it's entirely possible that every editor who read the piece absolutely loved it, but it really just didn't fit the magazine."

As far as advice, Geist believes he may be too selective with his submissions, but some selectivity is important: "We can't know every journal, but I feel like a lot of rejections probably could be avoided if we just payed a little more attention to where we're throwing manuscripts." Furthermore, he says to "love rejection" because it "means people are listening, people are reading your words, people are considering your work.... Rejection means you're in the game ... you're learning."

Marianne Jay received her MFA in poetry from University of Wisconsin-Madison, but took a fiction workshop her final semester that eventually led to her writing more fiction than poetry. She says, via email, that in the fall of 2008 she began sending out work and garnering rejections. Some of the rejection notices were encouraging, but, "[s]till, rejection is rejection. How do you not tell yourself, 'Not good enough' when you get an envelope, addressed in your own handwriting, which contains this news exactly?"

However, in April of the following year she finished writing "Cherry Ripe," which she thought "might be a good fit for Ninth Letter." A friend had wanted her to check out the unusual journal. "It was the first and only place I sent 'Cherry Ripe' and they accepted it within a month," she says.

Jay talks about what came after that joyful news:

But the story wouldn't be printed until the following winter, and whatever I'd been hoping for when I'd think, "If only someone would publish me ..." didn't happen. Writing was just as hard. The vulnerability of sending out work was just as hard. I still found myself at the mailbox, recognizing my handwriting, feeling wounded. And while it was great to see "Cherry Ripe" in print months later, in a lovely journal among work by such writers as Sherman Alexie and Benjamin Percy, I felt no transformation. What I did feel was a new thread of accountability. This publication came at a time when ... it was easy to retreat from the blank page into cozy self-doubt. But like the personal rejections, like the grad school experience, like the support of writing teachers from second grade through college, publishing a story told me that writing wasn't the most ridiculous thing I'd ever done, so I might as well keep it up.

Jay adds, "I wish I weren't so motivated by external validation and expectation; but I am."

Jay knows both sides of the mailbox, so to speak, as she's worked for a literary magazine for the past few years and has "read (and rejected) thousands of submissions." She says, "There are days when it seems that the most efficient thing would be to just mail myself rejection slips, rather than bother with sending out work at all. Most days, however, the piles of manuscripts are a reminder that writers write, and that I am in good company."

She says that she writes and sends out work "in spurts," but the more she writes, "the more I learn to write. Some pieces will be finished when they are published. Others will be finished when I grow bored of them, or embarrassed of them, or when I revise them into their best possible selves, have them rejected again and again, and eventually put in a drawer with old diaries."

For advice, Jay says to try to know where you're submitting your work: "Know the magazine and want to be a part of it." Moreover, "Life is short. Go ahead and simultaneously submit." And, if possible, "[M]arry my husband. If he's not available, find someone else who supports what you do, challenges you to do it better, and who brings you a full mug of coffee even when he knows you will probably only get through half."

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