Interview: J.E. Pitts, Editor

J.E. Pitts is a true Renaissance man. He’s a widely-published poet, a great painter, plays a bit of the guitar, and was once a bookseller extraordinaire. Now, he’s added another line to his impressive resume. He recently launched a new literary journal called Vox.

Mr. Pitts gave us a lot of insight into the world of small literary journals and the lives of editors.

Slushpile: What made you launch Vox? What was the impetus?

Pitts: We launched Vox because we thought our city (Oxford, Mississippi, home to William Faulkner, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, John Grisham, etc.) needed its own independent literary magazine. The city shares a relationship with The University of Mississippi, and the University’s English department has always had a journal of some kind or incarnation. Usually they haven’t lasted. The most recent one, The Yalobusha Review, has been around for about seven years now. But those journals are always student-run and faculty-advised, and they have a set budget to work with-there’s no real risk involved in those journals.

We wanted to take some risks–we wanted to really push some boundaries in what a journal can publish and what it can be and how it can influence people and encourage people to write and to read and to support the great American tradition of the independent press. And we wanted to publish great work. All the best work in this country gets published through small literary journals. We wanted to throw our hats into the ring and see what would happen.

Slushpile: What do you hope to provide with Vox that isn’t already being delivered in the literary journal scene?

Pitts: A mix of cutting edge poetry, prose, and translations. In a lot of magazines you get some of this or that but you rarely have a full issue where you think every piece is extraordinary. Some journals publish an issue like that sometimes and you just sit back and say “wow.” You know you have encountered something really special. It all goes back to what is published. Some journals command your attention because you know the time you spend reading them will be worthwhile. You know you’re going to gain something from your time spent with them. Some journals like The Paris Review and The Georgia Review and Poetry and The Southern Review are like that. We feel that Vox is like that.

Slushpile: As an editor, what do you look for in the work that you publish?

Pitts: I look for a startling image and a command of language. Both of those things are always evident after the first few lines, or they should be. The poem or piece of fiction often has to have some kind of musical tone that grabs me. Either you can work with language to make it do what you want it to do, or you can’t. It’s obvious for me on the first read. I like a good story. I like realistic characters. I like being transported to another place and time. I like feeling as if the writer has bared his or her soul and I have connected with that baring. I like connecting to the thoughts in a work, the ideas. I like getting jealous, saying to myself, “I wish I had written this.” If you can portray your idea or your story in a minimum of words and you can work the language and reading it gives me an instant lift, then I’m on your side.

Slushpile: Many writers feel like it’s almost impossible to escape the slush pile. What is the best way to catch your attention?

Pitts: It’s not impossible. The majority of writers in this country sit in rooms and stick stamps on envelopes by themselves. Most writers don’t have agents. The best way to escape the slush pile is through the work, I suppose. Quality will get published sooner or later–it’s inevitable. One way that you can help yourself in this area is to always submit a professional looking letter and professional pages for your submissions. There’s some red lights that always go off as one wades through the slush pile-no crazy font, we don’t need to know every single one of your publications, don’t talk about how great our journal is if you haven’t read it, because we’ll know, and so on. Address the editors by name, if possible. Enclose a subscription check, or a check for a sample issue. Too many journals get pegged as liking this kind of work of that kind of work, but it’s not a big secret. As editors, we look for quality. We look for something that we like so much that we feel like others have to read it. If you’re a writer, then you know the feeling when you write something of that strain. And as editors we know it when we read it.

Slushpile: Do you read cover letters? Are they important?

Pitts: I do read cover letters, because it tells me where the person is from, which will usually help explain something about their work, and where they went to school, which also helps a little (or even if they didn’t go to school, which is also admirable). I like to know a little about them, but not too much, because I don’t want their bio to overshadow the work they submit. The best cover letters are about four or five lines long. Any more than that, it becomes an ego parade. If you’ve really published that much, then as much as I read, I’ll have seen your work somewhere. Also, you’ve got to enclose an SASE for a response, and not expect your poems to be returned, regardless of the decision. Also, don’t expect an instant decision. Even the best work has to settle a bit and hold up under repeated readings, and, if you run a journal like we do, your work has to pass muster with two or three other people to make it into the journal. It’s the best way–very democratic–and insures that your instincts about a work are correct or off-base.

Slushpile: How would you describe the audience for literary journals? Often, it seems like the only people reading literary journals are the people who are hoping to be published in them. Do you think this is true?

Pitts: The audience for literary journals is small, granted, but it’s not as miniscule as people assume. Writers on the whole are a small subsection of the overall population. I’m sure if Wal-Mart published a journal for its workers and customers, it would have a staggering circulation and readership. But writers are a small group compared to other professions in society, so its market is therefore equally small. I think its amazing anyway that we have 300 or so literary journals in The United States–that’s a large amount of original poetry and prose seeing print every month, or two months, or whatever, issue after issue after issue. You can walk into a bookstore and load up on these journals month after month, and read them, and you have a fairly good barometer of the quality of the fiction and poetry writing at any time in The United States. And the Internet has opened up a whole new outlet for publication. The Internet itself, that promise (and delivery) of instant publication, has created a lot of new poets, also. So it’s not so bad, and I’m glad that writers read literary journals and buy them. If they don’t, they should. Like any other profession, writers have to be current on the latest literature.

Slushpile: What is the usual response time for a writer to hear either a rejection or acceptance from Vox?

Pitts: We can usually get back to them within three or four weeks, but since we only publish two issues a year, our more standard response is to hold the work (we’ll usually tell them within three or four weeks if we want to hold it) until the time that we’ll sit down and weed through everything and choose material for an issue. I know this can be frustrating for writers. I’m a writer, and I don’t like it when journals hold my work, but it’s simply impossible for us to see into the future and be able to tell X writer today that we’ll publish him or her on page X in issue X, which will be out in five or six months.

My thinking on this has always been, I’m a writer, I chose to submit to a certain magazine on the basis of a lot of different factors, I am patient enough to wait for a definitive response, and while I wait, I’ll submit to other places or sit down and write some new material. You simply cannot hang your hat on one or two of your poems that you have sent to a journal; instead of waiting by the phone, you should be writing and submitting elsewhere. It can only benefit you in the end. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you should wait more than three months or so for any response. It is your work, and you thought it was good enough to submit, and you deserve an answer. That’s understandable. Writers give us the courtesy of submitting to our journal; the least we can do is give them a response in a somewhat quick fashion.

Slushpile: How involved do you, as an editor, get with the work you publish? Do you only accept work that is 99% “complete” in terms of what you want to see? Or will you engage in substantial editing of a particular piece?

Pitts: I have and do engage in editing because I know I have the skills to make a poem better. I’ve read and written all kinds of things for most of my life, and I just made myself better at editing through that sort of training. It may be something small, like cutting a word or adding a word, or it may be in how the poem is presented on the page.

There are some things for me that a poem cannot be: it cannot be nonsensical, it cannot abuse capitalization or punctuation, it cannot be violent or pornographic, (violence for me is defined as violence for show only, when it does not contribute to the story, like a movie with a lot of explosions) it must not talk down to the reader, or insult the reader, it must not contain words that are there for no reason, and on and on. I don’t have these rules written out, I just remember them as I read. I do believe I am able to recognize a poem that comes in “complete.” When a writer is able to do that, it’s great, because it takes some work from my shoulders, but that sort of thing is kind of rare.

Everyone can use a good editor. Sometimes the idea is fleshed out but it could be taken even farther, sometimes a character and their relation to the poem is perfect but could be even better. There’s always little things you can do to make a poem better for the reader.

Slushpile: Tell us what life is like for an editor. What do you do? How much time does it take?

Pitts: I suspect that I’m usually, like most editors, doing something that’s journal related. I may be working on the website one day and then reading submissions the next. Or I may be working on layout, or I may be stopping by the bank, or ordering address labels, or looking at paper samples and weights. It’s so unpredictable. But the journal is always in the back of my mind. If you’re going to start your own journal, the pure editing isn’t going to take you that long. It may take a long time to put together the pieces you want to publish, but it’s going to take a lot longer for you to sit down and fit all that into 48 pages, or 64, or whatever. You’re going to make a lot of changes at that stage, and you’re going to make mistakes, which you’ll have to correct, and you’re going to decide at the last minute that you want a red cover instead of blue, like we did, and those sorts of things. And as soon as that issue comes out you start thinking about the next one, and how it can be better. It’s just a love of language and being able to see an idea become a physical book that you can hold in your hand, and enjoy, that gets to me. Being able to read a poem that you know was good but that you made better is also very satisfying. If you like that kind of feeling, then you should be an editor.

Slushpile: What is the hardest part of being an editor? What is your least favorite task? Oftentimes, aspiring authors rail against the evil of editors in regards to them taking too long to respond to a submission or maybe not accepting a particular story or whatever. But what’s your biggest complaint?

Pitts: The hardest part is saying no. Because in a perfect world, we could accept everything and publish it in huge press runs with a lot of fanfare and we would sell thousands of copies and be on The Today Show every week and drive convertibles and be appointed at Harvard as lecturers and be wildly popular. But we can’t. And that’s a shame, but it’s part aesthetics and part economics. Some things that we like we won’t be able to publish, because we won’t have the space. And we’re not going to agree with everything that you write and send in. That’s a given. But we will agree with some of it, probably, and if the parts that we agree with outweigh the parts we don’t, then there’s a good chance you’ll be published. I’m a writer myself and I know how it feels to get a little rejection slip that’s pre-printed and that’s it, so I try to write little notes on each one, or I try to encourage people to submit again, perhaps with different work. The hardest part by far is saying no, and the best part is saying yes.

Slushpile: How do you intend to make Vox last and succeed, in a business sense? In a difficult market, with very little money for ventures like this, clearly this is a labor of love for you and the other editors; you’re not looking to become millionaires. But having said that, what are your goals for the business end of the experience? Do you have any target numbers you’d like to reach in terms of circulation or anything milestones like that?

Pitts: We’d like to have several hundred subscribers. We have about 30 right now, and that’s a good start, and we hope it will expand exponentially as we grow. We’ve applied for local and state grants and have non-profit status pending. That’s a very long process, but when it’s completed, we’ll be able to apply for federal grants, like the National Endowment for The Arts.

We’ve been very wise with our expenses so far, I think, we bid out the printing job for the first issue and received about ten bids which we then had to choose from. We engaged family and friends who were attorneys to help us with our corporate side, and our IRS and banking situations. We traded out advertising with other journals, but we’ll probably set up a rate card and sell advertising in the future. Advertising will never make a whole lot for us, but every little bit helps in an undertaking like this. Single-copy sales are important, but we want to saturate our area through independent bookstores and then move outwards. We also sell through our website, so as long as our print runs are somewhat limited, we should be able, over the course of time, to sell through an issue and use that capital to fund the next one. That’s a pretty standard operating procedure for literary journals.

And like any other journal, we’d love to get a wealthy patron who would like to support our venture, and at some point, we may make those kind of contacts, but right now, we know that we need to do as much as we can on our own, through our own hard work and financial savvy, if you will. One way that I think Vox could be self-sustaining is to just publish great work and develop a core audience of fans and friends who will want to make Vox a regular part of their lives. The audience has to care about the product, but once they care, they’ll do almost anything for you to see your product continue.

Slushpile: You’re quite a skilled writer yourself with poetry and fiction publications under your belt. Are you working on new material yourself now or are you dedicated to editing fulltime now?

Pitts: I always have several projects going. For a year or so now I’ve been trying to nail down a poetry manuscript of my own in a stage that I’m satisfied with so I can begin submitting it to contests. I get it into a form that I can accept and then I write a new poem that I want to include, or I find an old poem that I want to revise and include. Or I think the poem at the beginning should go in the middle, or at the end. Some writers would think that its a waste of time, but the flow of a manuscript is important, as is the flow of a poem. If the flow is off, then the reader will be mentally interrupted while trying to gauge its worth, and that always ends badly for the writer.

So I tinker with that sort of thing once or twice a week, to see what reads better, what sounds better. And I do nonfiction essays for a variety of magazines, including Y’all, and I’m the Poetry Editor for The Oxford American. They just contacted me today and said that they had a “huge” box of poetry submissions for me to read through. I apply the same sort of standards when I read for them, but they may be looking for something in particular to print in The Music Issue, or The Food Issue, so I adapt my reading to that. It doesn’t matter what subject you pick, quality is always going to show in a poem or a story.

And I’m working on the distribution and publicity of the first issue of Vox. So, yes, I can say that my time for my own work has decreased substantially in the last six months, but I know when I get back to it that I’ll have gained a lot in knowledge and skill. So it all equals out. I think it helps a writer to also be an editor; you get to the point where you can spot basic problems in your work that you can fix because you’ve fixed them before in other submissions. You know how to format a submission letter, because you’ve seen so many bad ones. A certain person’s name rings a bell because you’ve read it in other magazines. It all gets thrown into a huge barrel, I guess, and you reach in and pick out what you need when you need it. It can only benefit you in the end to be constantly engaged in reading, writing, and editing.

Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip that you would offer to young writers?

Pitts: Don’t give up. The single thing that stops most young writers is that they can’t handle either rejection or the dedication that it takes to become a full-time writer. When I was eighteen and fresh out of high school I thought that I should travel like the Beats and record every spontaneous thought that I had and that every one of those thoughts should be immediately published and awarded cash and prizes. I figured that I would have four or five books out by the time I was twenty-one. So I did travel, for eighteen months, around America, and I worked really goofy jobs, like as a flower delivery boy, and as a Sunday morning DJ, and as the lone waiter in a Chinese restaurant, and I did write, and I did submit those poems to The New Yorker and Poetry and The Atlantic Monthly and some other very high-profile magazines.

And they all, over a period of a year or so, came roaring right back to my mailbox. And it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me, because it taught me to read poetry, especially my own, with a somewhat overly critical eye, and be instantly suspicious of anything I wrote that seemed to me to be very, very good. Oftentimes it was not good, but was masquerading as good work. I was emotionally invested in the work, so I thought it was wonderful, but I was deluding myself. When that happens to a young writer today, often they will just give up and go into chemical engineering or something. You want people to like your work, that’s understood, and you send out the best work you have and it comes back, rejected. It can be humiliating to a young writer. But if you really want to be a writer, if you recognize that you have a gift for language and you can dedicate yourself to the twin poles of writing–acceptance and rejection–and treat both of them with equal weight, you will succeed.

You will have to read, of course, read, read, read, like Faulkner said, read even the bad stuff so you’ll know what’s good, read literary journals and magazines and collections and work published online. After a while it all starts to bounce around your head and you begin to filter out the stuff that you don’t need, you begin to write not in that old voice but in a new kind of voice, in which fresh and maybe even obscure words start to leap at you, and you’re able to construct a poem or story in the way that you always imagined you could. Your work improves, because you improved. You were dedicated to becoming a better writer, and one day it all clicked and you arrived.

Don’t get me wrong–this is a process that takes time–large blocks of time in which you’ll have to sit with pen and paper when the sun is shining and you would rather be at the beach. But if you really want it, and you work hard, then you will reach that level. Published writers and the editors that publish them will tell you that three things remain: Read. Write. Don’t give up.