Category Archives: Editing

A Founding Editor’s Farewell

The following is a revised, abbreviated version of Martin Lammon’s original farewell essay “A Journal of Contemporary Culture,” published in Arts & Letters #29, the fall 2014 issue.

This year, I’m stepping down as editor of Arts & Letters, handing over the leadership of the journal to my colleague, Laura Newbern (who will be ably aided, of course, by other colleagues). After fifteen years since the journal first appeared, I’d like to offer readers a little history.

Spring 1997, I interviewed for a unique opportunity that I found advertised in Poets & Writers magazine. In my June interview for the Fuller E. Callaway Endowed Flannery O’Connor Chair in Creative Writing, I made three promises: To build an undergraduate minor in Creative Writing, while also offering a “Creative Thesis Option” for the department’s new M.A. in English degree; to establish a Visiting Writers Series featuring distinguished and new writers; and to develop a national literary journal publishing such writers. Otherwise, the job required that I teach and that I would continue to write, publish, and contribute significantly to the contemporary American literary landscape. At the time, Georgia College had just been given a new mission by the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents: To serve as the state’s public liberal arts university.

I got the job, and I hope that I’ve lived up to those original promises (and maybe a little more), but that assessment’s best left for others. What I can offer is the story of what happened back then, and since then, and perhaps a glance at what’s to come.

In 1997, thirty-nine years old, I felt as if I’d been thrown into the deep end of the pool. That first year at Georgia College, I knew there was no real budget for what I’d promised. The endowed chair included a $2,500 discretionary budget, but that was all. In addition to teaching classes, writing and publishing, I knew I’d have to become a fund-raiser. Given the generous endowment of the Fuller E. Callway Foundation, which I considered a gift, I determined to implement two principles I’d learned when I was a boy. First, I’d put my money where my mouth was (I pledged $10,000 a year of my salary to kick-start the journal, a pledge that would grow in years to come); and second, I’d tithe, but instead of 10 cents a week in the offering plate, it was $1,000 a month over ten paychecks to a university Foundation account.

In my previous teaching position at Fairmont State in West Virginia, I’d also learned how to apply for state arts funding, and right away, even when all we had was vision and a budget plan, I applied for funding from the Georgia State Arts Council. Over the years, that funding would grow from $1,800 in 1999 to $5,000 a year. I’m sorry to say, but more recently, after the so-called “great recession,” that funding dwindled, and now is gone.

By the time we published the first issue of Arts & Letters (spring 1999, the end of my second year), I’d set aside $20,000 to support the journal, and we’d secured other funding through grants. But most important, we established the annual Arts & Letters prizes competition. A writer’s $15 submission fee was exactly the cost of a two-issue subscription, and all our spring contestants received the fall 1999 and spring 2000 issues, featuring our first $1,000 prize winners in fiction, poetry, and drama. Those spring 1999 revenues were deferred to the next fiscal year, establishing an accrual accounting plan for the journal that would ensure another principle I’d learned when I was a boy: Don’t count your chickens until they’re hatched.

If numbers, budgets, and aphorisms seem boring, well, they are. So here’s the flip side of that coin: That first issue of Arts & Letters featured poetry by Michael Waters; fiction by Thomas E. Kennedy; essays by Dinty W. Moore and Ethelbert Miller; an interview with Ernest Gaines; and poetry translations by W.S. Merwin (Dante’s Purgatoria XIX), Carolyn Wright (Taslima Nasrin), Robert Bly and Sunil Dutta (Ghalib), and Virgil Suarez and Delia M. Poety (Juan Carlos Galeano). That first issue (and the first seven issues) also featured a distinguished artist on the cover and in an eight-page glossy insert (Maritza Dávila in issue #1).

To help establish the journal, I recruited an editorial advisory board of writers I trusted and respected, many of whom contributed work to the journal, visited the Georgia College campus, recommended the journal to other writers, served as final judges for the annual prizes competition, and in general, helped us get started. We no longer claim that editorial advisory board, but here I’d like to acknowledge and thank those writers, editors, and artists. I owe personal thanks to Maggie Anderson, Coleman Barks, Doris Betts, Robert Bly, Fred Chappell, Lee Gutkind, Maxine Kumin, Bret Lott, W.S. Merwin, E. Ethelbert Miller, Rudy Pozzatti, Shannon Ravenel, Virgil Suarez, Jack Troy, and later, Gail Galloway Adams and Dinty W. Moore.

dhallandstudentsBut most of all I owe personal thanks to Donald Hall, since 1980 a mentor and friend, who early on recommended poet Laurie Lamon to us, a frequent contributor and Pushcart Prize winner at Arts & Letters. Don’s visit to our campus in 2004 was memorable. Here’s a photo I’ll always cherish.

In those days, my editorial goals included space for the “World Poetry Translation Series,” book-review essays and featured artwork, and the “Mentors Interview Series” (after that first interview with Ernest Gaines, future issues featured Bobbie Ann Mason, Jean Valentine, Charles Simic, Maxine Kumin, Jane Hirshfield, Lee Smith, John Guare, Janisse Ray, David Ignatow, Tina Howe, Bob Hicok, Charles Baxter, and others). Each issue, I wrote an introductory essay, trying to put the work we published into a contemporary context that was relevant to our own community, but also to a national, even global community. However, after the fall 2004 issue (Arts & Letters #12), in which I eulogized a new colleague and her son, who’d died tragically in a car accident, my introductions became less visionary and more perfunctory. After Susan Atefat-Peckham and Cyrus were killed in that accident, it was hard for me, moving forward.

But the journal survived. Those were the years after our MFA program started (2001-2002, and onward). Financially, our resources were redirected to building that program’s foundation. The effects were small at first, but the journal I’d envisioned in 1999, and that had endured for the first dozen issues or so, had to be scaled back. Slowly, the interviews, translations, book review-essays, and artwork features were diminished, or cut.

However (and here’s where that “boring” financial planning paid off), Arts & Letters never scaled back on our commitment to writers, to publishing their outstanding fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and drama, and to paying those writers. We never cut back on honoraria to regular contributors ($50 minimum, usually to poets; otherwise, $10 per published page). And we never cut back on our annual $1,000 prizes in fiction, poetry, or drama; in fact (thanks to a generous gift from Bahram and Fari Atefat), we expanded them to include, in our spring 2008 issue, the first $1,000 Arts & Letters/Susan Atefat Prize in Creative Nonfiction.

In an essay I wrote for Poets & Writers (“One Editor’s Take on Clean Competition,” Sept/Oct 2005, available online at, I address two essential principles about literary contests: first, no contest fees should fund the promotion of the competition (the organization should already have a budget in place for such advertising and publicity); and second, contest prizes should be covered by funds not connected to contest submission fees. In the early years, my tithing set aside the funding to cover the $1,000 annual prizes; later, generous gifts large and small from others (but especially from MFA alumnus, Dr. Barry Darugar, and later, the Atefats) have helped to endow our prizes.

For fifteen years, our prizes ($56,000 as of 2014-2015) have been funded by such gifts and endowments. The university generously provides office space and infrastructure for the journal, but so far (with some exceptions), publicity, production, distribution, and contributors’ honoraria are funded primarily by journal revenues, thanks to our save-now-spend-later accounting plan.

I know, that’s not a very sexy vision for a literary journal. But I hope that I’m handing over the journal in good financial shape, and I hope that after 15 years, there’s a strong fiscal and literary foundation upon which others can build.

In 15 years, the writers we’ve featured include Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award winners; new writers (like poet Beth Ann Fennelly in issue #2, and fiction writer Adam McOmber in issue #23), whose first books were yet to be published; and other distinguished writers, such as George Singleton, Brenda Miller, and Gary Fincke (in issue #27, spring 2013). Our most recent issue (spring 2014, issue #28) features Jennifer Bowen Hicks, winner of the Susan Atefat Prize in Creative Nonfiction for her compelling essay “Candling Delicious.”

Keep an eye on Hicks. I have a hunch she’s our next break-out, kick-starter contributor.

Finally, at the end of the Twentieth Century, when I imagined a journal of national prominence, I was thinking only of a semi-annual, glossy color cover, 8-page color insert, perfect-bound 192-page print journal. Translations would include original poems and facing-page, translated text. In 1997, I’d barely tapped into the new-fangled World Wide Web, and even E-mail was new to me when I moved into my office at Georgia College. By 1999, or maybe it was 2000, I realized we needed to have a website, and my amateur efforts just a decade or so ago were embarrassing. But at least we were plugged in, and ready for what was coming. You can see the impressive changes, and the new vision for Arts & Letters, at our revamped and amped-up web-site.

Whatever new vision for the journal awaits us (and I really don’t know what’s next; I’m excited just like you), I do hope one core value remains. The Fall 2010 issue (#22) was the last to include our subtitle on the cover: Arts & Letters Journal of Contemporary Culture. In 1999, when we published our first issue, I wanted to distinguish between popular culture that so dominated our media, and a contemporary culture that thrived not on television or the cinema (and that wasn’t measured by Nielsen ratings) but reached out, in print, and especially in a “living literature” to bring authors we’d published to our campus and community.

I hope that, as the journal moves forward, even if the subtitle has receded into the past, in the future that vision of a contemporary culture will prevail, because I do believe that our neighbors, our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, and even (maybe especially) folks sequestered in universities, do actually long for stories, poems, essays, and other contemporary literature that will offer substance, satisfaction, and not just a way to kill time, or deconstruct a text.

I do believe in you, one reader at a time. I’ve met you in classes I’ve taught for 35 years, in workshops, readings, and conferences where half a dozen or 10,000 were gathered. I’ve met you in New Orleans and Chicago, Phoenix and Boston; I’ve met you in Ohio, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Costa Rica, Spain, Italy, and Georgia, USA.

None of this matters without you. After all these years, it’s high time I said thank you.

Martin Lammon, Founding Editor, Arts & Letters

Good Taste vs. Good Judgment

This essay is a modified version of Lammon’s editorial introduction to Arts & Letters #9, the spring 2003 issue. The closing references to living in a post-9-11 world, America on the brink of war in Iraq, and other observations seemed (unfortunately) still relevant fourteen years later:

I’d be content to imagine an America where leaders and citizens alike took more time to examine the “content of their character” and less time engaged in rhetoric about an “axis of evil.”

(Martin Lammon’s note; July 21, 2017.)


Is There Anyone Out There?

When I was in college and graduate school about 25 years ago, writing teachers often looked you in the eye and talked about “finding your voice.” Back then, I spent my twenties trying to cultivate a voice, which I took to mean my style. I searched my poems for recurring words (night, fish, river, corn) and themes (family, farms, death). I tried writing long elegiac poems, then longer surreal poems, as if I were trying to choose between singing bass or baritone. I was acutely conscious of trying not to sound too much like James Wright, an Ohio poet (a tenor?) who so dominated the poetry stage of that time.

Now, I look back on those days and wonder who I was searching for. Over the past dozen years or so, instead of cultivating one voice I’ve tried to allow poems to become whatever they need to be. Some poems want to be longer, more narrative, less attentive to music and linebreak. Others want to be lyrical, their essence found more in the way words sound than in what stories they might tell. But if I’d been paying better attention when I was 25 years old, I might have noticed how James Wright’s poem “A Blessing” (“Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom”) differed significantly from his prose piece “The Flying Eagles of Troop 62”:

   Ralph Neal was the scoutmaster. He was still a young man. He liked us.

I have no doubt that he knew perfectly well we were each of us masturbating unhappily in secret caves and shores.

The soul of patience, he waited while we smirked behind each other’s backs, mocking and parodying the Scout Law, trying to imitate the oratorical rotundities of Winston Churchill in a Southern Accent.

“Ay scout is trusswortha, loll, hailful, frenly, curtchuss, kand, abaydent, chairful, thrifta, dapraved, clane, and letcherass.”

Two voices, one man. These works were originally published in The Branch Will Not Break (1963) and To a Blossoming Pear Tree (1977), probably written about 15 years apart. Although a critical reader could find stylistic and thematic links to the same writer, only a dogmatist would insist that both works share one style or “voice”, let alone a style particular to James Wright. Each work is unique, but not because one can find a discrete “voiceprint,” as if identifying a writer’s style were a matter of scientific calibration.

Ain’t That Sweet

As a writer, as an editor, and as a teacher of writing, I’ve come to realize that searching for one’s “voice” was really a matter of learning the difference between indulging one’s personal taste (however good) vs. cultivating good judgment. There’s a kind of poem (or story, or essay, or play) that I prefer to read, but if the only works I ever read (or wrote) were of one kind, my life would be impoverished and malnourished, as if all I ever ate were ham and cheese sandwiches, smoked almonds, and java chip ice cream. I certainly have a taste for all those foods!  But obviously I’ve had to broaden my culinary choices and make judgments based on more than mere taste. I’ve even learned how much I like asparagus, grilled salmon, and yogurt—all those foods I wouldn’t go near when I was a boy.

There are limits to metaphor, of course, but one more will help illustrate what I mean. Perhaps the most clichéd description of the relationship between authors and their works (and this description applies to editors and their journals, too) is the comparison to a parent and child. This comparison also has everything to do with taste and little to do with good judgment. Parents will love their children to a fault, a point often overlooked in this common familial analogy yet observed all the time in younger writers who love their poems and stories too much. How often do teachers witness this phenomenon among their students, who, despite insightful suggestions for revision, cannot bear to change one line of their beautifully crafted and well-intentioned poetry. They have a rationale or an affection for every word, every line, every trope. (Older writers—and some are friends of mine—are just as prone to indulge their personal tastes.)  Such poets are like mothers who have learned the very smell, taste, and texture of their adorable baby sons, who will love them even if they grow up to become serial killers. Such authors are like fathers who believe their sweet daughters are brilliant no matter how dull they might be. Such progenitors have imprinted themselves on their infant poems and stories and will never willingly relinquish them.

Enough of metaphor and analogy, which will take us only so far, because those doomed sons do deserve to be loved and those good daughters are brilliant. But poems and stories require a more disinterested judgment, and if writers and editors make choices based only on their good taste alone, then their work will surely suffer aesthetic consequences.

Casting Stones

No matter how disinterested an individual may be, no writer or editor can make consistent good judgments alone. Personal taste will always insinuate itself. Editors I know tell me they read everything, judge everything, and select everything for the journals they edit, and I wonder if they truly can temper their judgment with humility. Writers and editors must be arbiters of writing, but such arbitrations can (and I think should) depend on a process by which the individual listens to the intelligent voices of others. That process holds true at both the writing workshop and the editorial table. Over the years, I depended on assistant and associate editors to read and advocate for works submitted. I have often deferred to the judgments of my colleagues who served as poetry, fiction, and drama editors. Although I may sometimes have disagreed with their choices, I abided by them.

I do not think that I eschew responsibility, to borrow language from the wonderful poem “Ethics” by Linda Pastan. In the poem, an ethics teacher asks the students a philosophical question: If a museum were on fire, which would you save, a “Rembrandt painting / or an old woman who hadn’t many / years left anyhow?” Pastan replies, “why not let the woman decide herself?” and is chastised for “eschew[ing] the burdens of responsibility.” The poem ends:

This fall in a real museum I stand

before a real Rembrandt, old woman,

or nearly so, myself. The colors

within this frame are darker than autumn,

darker even than winter—the browns of earth,

though earth’s most radiant elements burn

through the canvas. I know now that woman

and painting and season are almost one

and all beyond saving by children.

Passing judgment is about deciding whether something will happen or won’t happen, and ultimately, whether something lives or dies, another reason why the analogy to the parental relationship becomes horrible when applied to authors and their works, as if they faced a kind of “Sophie’s Choice.” If I write a poem that fails, then I should let the poem lapse into obscurity, or if personal taste overwhelms my better judgment, then other readers—editors or publishers or good friends—will surely help the poem find its inexorable dead end.

When we are children, we are intellectually isolated, egocentric. We pout when we don’t get our way. We believe that the group laughing in the corner is laughing at us. We have no idea what death is. Only a thoughtful, informed community of readers and writers (a community defined more by experience and maturity than one’s age) can ensure that mature, disinterested aesthetic judgments are possible. Individual writers and editors will ultimately make their own decisions, but no one should have to make such decisions alone.

Higher Stakes

I write about making poems, stories, plays, and essays, about editing a journal. Yet as I write, it is the first day of a new year, and as a country we stand at the brink of war. Since 9-11, our personal freedoms are more and more threatened by a “War on Terrorism” that reminds me of the “Cold War” at its worst, back in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

It is the year 2003. When I was a boy, I imagined I’d be visiting cities on the moon, that we’d have landed on Mars, and that, just maybe, we’d have discovered there was life beyond our world. Older now, I’d be content to imagine a society where we valued teachers more than athletes, movie stars, and pop singers. I’d be content to imagine a country where people in airports were not “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I’d be content to imagine an America where leaders and citizens alike took more time to examine the “content of their character” and less time engaged in rhetoric about an “axis of evil.”

I imagine that James Wright’s piece about Ralph Neal and his boy scouts is one that the poet must have agonized over, a work of lyrical prose that balanced precariously between indulging his personal tastes and exercising his better judgment. Which is to say, it is like all essential writing that perseveres before, like everything, it ultimately perishes. Perhaps what I like best about “The Flying Eagles of Troop 62” is how Wright imagines that their leader, Neal, loves them not because they were handsome and talented—they were “dreadful and utterly vulnerable little bastards,” like the one who grew up “doing life at the State Pen in Columbus,” or the man who drove “one of those milk trucks where the driver has to stand up all day and rattle his spine,” or Hub Snodgrass who spends “a good hour…trying to scrape the Laughlin steel dust out of his pale skin”—but instead loves them because…

he knew damned well what would become of most of us, and it sure did, and he knew it, and he loved us anyway. The very name of America often makes me sick, and yet Ralph Neal was an American. The country is enough to drive you crazy.

Finally, what I learn from reading Wright is how a deeper imagination transcends rhetoric, how good judgment supercedes mere good taste. I also learn that I cannot do this alone. I try to imagine all the Ralph Neals in my life, all the Hub Snodgrasses, and how what I do next depends on all of them.