An Introduction

From The Desk Of Glenna Luschei Editor-in-Chief Kwame Dawes

Filed under: Oxcart |

As I began to plow through old editions of the Prairie Schooner and to read everything I could find about the journal and its history, I ran across this interesting tidbit: for a few decades the founding editor, Lowry Wimberly, wrote an editorial called, inevitably, the Oxcart. “Inevitably” because, if nothing else, the Prairie Schooner founders were savvy to branding and corn, farms, prairies, and of course prairie schooners were the branding icons they could not get enough of. The Oxcart eventually died, and subsequent editors drifted away from the farming brand. I want to reassure our ultra modern urbanites that I am not returning to the farm lock, stock, and barrel, but I believe that there is something irresistible about the poetic possibilities of the Oxcart—this rugged mainstay of the farm and the pioneers—a thing to carry everything that needed carrying, a necessary vessel, a thing that needs a warm body to make it useful—a tool. It works, and even if my columns will not be shot through with metaphors of the prairie, the fundamental impulse to practicality and efficiency will, I hope, guide what I offer you in these columns.

I am not sure what compelled me to start sending out poems and stories to journals again a few months ago. I have to think it had something to do with the fact that I had just began to edit Prairie Schooner. Perhaps, I wanted to experience something of what those who send work to us feel. If that was my motivation, it was not something I was conscious of. But I can see the way that the business of making decisions about the work of other people, the pleasure of being able to tell them that their work is accepted, might have filled me with a certain optimism about the whole business of sending work out.

Then my work got rejected. And I began to wonder what had possessed me to go back to the cycle of disappointment, insecurity, and anxiety. Did I really need any of this? I also started to have quite unsavory thoughts about the editors. I would have to have been fairly incapable of self-reflection not to have recognized the irony of the situation, not to have at least welcomed the chance to feel again what so many of the writers we reject must feel all the time. I felt bad. Then I felt bad for them.

I began to ask questions about my role as an editor. As a writer, the editor felt like a gate-keeper. As an editor, I have felt like someone who is collecting, trying to find gems among the many things sent it. In other words, my focus was less on the work being rejected, but on the work being accepted. And in that world, it all feels giddy and peaches and cream. The poet or prose writer whose work has been accepted is a very happy person. They are amenable to changes, they are polite, they are happy.

On the other hand, I was feeling like a failure, feeling as if the entire edifice of the literary establishment was whispering, “he is a fake, a big fake; don’t be fooled.” I felt it was personal, and it was difficult to shake it off, to dismiss it.

The fact is that I am something of a gate-keeper. I am editing one of the venerable and highly respected journals of American letters. People respect Prairie Schooner, and they expect a certain “standard” from Prairie Schooner. I am reading work passed on to me by our senior readers and saying “yes” or “no.” Those who receive the no will be like I have been for a week. Demoralized, uncertain, and shot through with insecurity.

Somehow, this information has to help me to do my job a lot better. I realize that while I don’t come from a particular school of poetics, nor do I have assumptions about what the Prairie Schooner poem or story is like, I do try to be as honest as I can about why I might like or not like a piece.

This subjectivity is simply a reality for most journals even if editors like to pretend that it does not exist. It is there. In many ways, the longer a person is with a journal, that person will start to shape the content and direction of the publication as it reflects what she knows and whose work she knows.

As an editor I am torn between two basic impulses: the first is to rejoice at the thought that people have sent in work and to want to publish everyone’s work out of profound empathy and understanding of the motivations that led them to send in their work. In other words, my first impulse is that of the writer imagining that I have work to show to the world. I want that writer to be able to do so. But my other, equally powerful impulse is to create a journal that I will enjoy reading, first of all, and that other people will enjoy reading. The closest feeling to this is that of organizing a festival—wanting to create an atmosphere of engaging variety and depth that is a pleasure for both the audience and for those who are reading at the event.

Perhaps my strange decision to begin to send work out again grew out of a need to be reminded of what is at stake every time I accept or reject someone’s work. But I suspect I have always been prompted to do so out of a more personal impulse that grows out of the tentative arrogance a writer needs to persist in what she does—the sense that the world needs to see her work. When I sent my work out to those journals that said no, I was fully convinced that they needed to have me at their party and that my work would do just fine in the mix of their party. This time they did not agree. And even though this week, while licking my wounds, I don’t feel as if they deserve me at their party, I will get over it and return to the door and knock, insisting that they should have me.

I expect that the writers who will send work to Prairie Schooner will have that sense. And instead of keeping our party inside the house (to strain an already strained metaphor), we are letting it spill out onto the lawn, and we are putting our speakers on the porch and turning the entire yard into a dance floor.

Our revamped website, our expanded blogging presence that includes music and film bloggers, our reinvigorated social networking presence on Twitter and Facebook, our Fusion collaborations with literary organizations all around the world, our Air Schooner podcasts, our Poetry News in Review column, and our Prairie Schooner digital project that showcases multimedia approaches to the literary arts by using digital media to enliven our amazing archives, effectively reflect this fiesta spilling out of the building. These are exciting efforts that are just a small part of what Prairie Schooner can and should do for good writing, good writers, and the readers of good writing.

I feel extremely fortunate to have a remarkable team to work with here in Lincoln. Marianne Kunkel, the new managing editor, is at the head of a crew of senior readers, interns, sub-editors, contractors, designers, proof-readers, and so on who have never lost track of the importance of treating the work of writers with respect and care.

I hope you enjoy what you see here, and that you will continue to be a part of this effort. Where I have come from, the word “community” means a great deal—so much so that it even can start to sound like a tired cliché. But it remains a very alive word for me, and if nothing else, my hope is that during my tenure as editor of this really important journal I will be able to continue to do what each of the past editors managed: to expand the community of Prairie Schooner in meaningful ways.