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History

By Gary J. Whitehead


fffff I became an editor in much the same way that I became a poet. One day I simply decided to start a literary magazine. All my life I loved books. I remember the satisfaction of putting school reports between two construction paper covers, centering my byline on the title page. Once I discovered them, I loved literary magazines just as much. When I first started reading listings like Poet's Market and The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses, I couldn't get enough of the jargon of the trade saddle stitched, perfect-bound, offset printed, photocopied, digest-sized, full-page, tabloid, glossy stock, matte card cover, newsprint, manuscript, rejection slip, SASE.
fffff Learning this new language, I'm not exactly sure when I first considered the possibility of starting my own literary magazine, but there was one incident that I'm sure planted the seed. A friend enrolled in a creative writing course told me that an editor was visiting the class that night to discuss the little magazine he published out of his apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts. I sat in on the class. The editor was Joseph Torra, an industrious-looking man with slicked black hair, no older than thirty. His magazine was called lift. No capital. I'll never forget Torra describing the joy he derived from reading manuscripts while riding the subway on the morning commute to his day job. Up to that point I had thought of editors as little more than the vague hands behind those treasured scribbled notes, or the hands that stuffed pre-printed rejection slips into my carefully typed return envelopes. Now here was a face attached to one of those sets of hands, and he wasn't much older than I was. Torra advised the class not to simultaneously submit poems. I piped up, arguing about long response times, lost submissions, the slim likelihood of having a poem accepted by two magazines. He explained the privilege that editors naturally felt, even demanded, in being offered the first choice on a manuscript. He asked us to imagine having the same poem accepted by two different magazines, and then having to withdraw the poem from one of them. He asked us to imagine an editor who selects a poem because it fits nicely alongside another poem already accepted. Then that editor's dismay when the first accepted poem is withdrawn. After that night, whenever I sent poems out, I imagined editors all over the country commuting to their unfulfilling day jobs with the real work of their lives, my clean manuscripts, secreted in their briefcases. None of them under consideration elsewhere. I imagined editors delving into my poems with all of Torra's intensity. The image was, of course, romantic, and it wasn't long before I learned that editing is three-fourths drudgery, one-fourth delight.
fffff About a year after Torra's advice on publishing, I was driving home from Mystic, Connecticut with Sharen, soon to become my wife, when I made the decision to start a literary magazine. That afternoon, in a gift shop, I'd come upon a literary magazine to which I'd sent some poems several months before, without ever receiving a reply. Standing at the cash register, I thumbed through the magazine, and there was one of my poems!
fffff "Oh my God, that's your poem," Sharen said. "How'd they get it?"
fffff "I sent stuff to them months ago. Never got a reply either way."
fffff The woman behind the register peeked at the pages, looking perplexed. "Isn't that like against the law or something?" she said.
fffff "Jeez.," I said, "I'm just glad they published my poem."
fffff But all the way home, as glad as I was to see my poem published, I wondered why I'd never gotten an acceptance letter. Wasn't it customary? Maybe it was illegal (I hadn't yet realized how little poetry is worth in relation to fiction, from a legal standpoint that is). Half-way to Providence, I announced to Sharen that I was going to start a literary magazine, that I'd be the editor, that I would always reply to submissions, and in a timely manner. She simply asked what I would call it.
fffff "How about the Providence Review?" I said.
fffff "Boring and conservative."
fffff "Wickenden Street Quarterly?" It was my favorite street on the east side of Providence. Sharen shook her head. "We live in Rhode Island, so I'd like it to indirectly have something to do with the state," I said.
fffff "How about Divine Providence?"
fffff "Too religious. I'll get nothing but psalms in the mail." By now we could see the Fleet building rising up out of the city.
fffff "Defined Providence." she said. Word play. And somehow it was decided.
fffff I started off by renting a post office box, $35 a year, out of my own pocket. Then I made up a few hundred flyers and stapled them to telephone poles all over Providence and Cambridge and every other city I happened to find myself in. I mailed bunches of them to my sister in New York, Sharen's cousins in Florida and Los Angeles. I placed ads in the artsy newspapers if they were free, and when I'd saved enough, I put an ad in Poets & Writers. I begged friends for donations, sold my uncle some ad space for U.S. Sheet Metal, his business. My parents, thrilled with the idea, wrote me a check. Every place I read my poetry, I plugged the magazine.
fffff Ironically enough, before the first issue went to press, Sharen and I moved from Providence to Joe Torra's town, Somerville, the poor person's version of Cambridge. Sharen was in graduate school at Tufts. I was hoping for work in Boston. Meanwhile, I had my father sending me the mail from the post office box, and while I continued to spread the word, I inquired after cheap printers. I wanted the magazine to have a flat spine rather than staples, and a matte card cover rather than a glossy one. With the computer and printer my parents bought me when I earned my first Master's degree, I designed a letterhead and wrote to poets I liked, soliciting work. It was my mission to blend the work of both well known and unknown poets, and I knew having the names of a few noted poets printed on the back cover would only help the first issue. I was stunned to receive mail from poets like Robert Morgan, Neal Bowers, Wendy Bishop, Gary Soto. Gracious letters of thanks and poems that weren't just rejects. Other poets, perhaps more in demand, poets like Donald Hall, Tess Gallagher, Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, sent their kind regrets, usually on postcards and in longhand. And then one day there I was, riding the Red Line into Boston, reading the poems of people living in Kansas, Texas, California, Alaska. There I was at my stop, stuffing what I felt was the real work of my life into my knapsack.
fffff Was I presumptuous? Of course I was. Editing, by virtue of its position of power, has a prerequisite of arrogance. What else qualifies a person to one day decide that he should judge and showcase the art of others? In my case, though, I think it had less to do with arrogance than it had to do with my love of poems and the incomparable satisfaction of organizing them between two covers. I'd accept the charge of arrogance if I was publishing my own poems, but I'm not and I never have. Joe Torra's lessons in privilege were well learned. And if it's me now doling out the small deaths of rejection, I try to do it as painlessly as possible, even if it's a simple thanks that I write by hand, or a suggestion for revision. But God knows that playing God is more than having to say no. It's having to apologize for typos, for the delay in printing, for having the gall to suggest someone subscribe. It's having friends send you poems you don't like. It's having boxes full of unsold issues crowd the spare bedroom in your apartment. It's having the till for each issue fill like the Nile, only to drain again to a trickle after printing and mailing. So do I love the mail less now that I'm on the receiving side? Not a chance.
fffff Having assembled nine issues of Defined Providence, and having published the first poems of beginning poets and the poems of Bollingen Prize and National Book Award winners, I still enjoy reading manuscripts, piecing issues together thematically, offering my suggestions to make a poem the best it can be. I correspond regularly with poets I've never met, poets like Walt McDonald and Sarah Patton two Texans, two poets I've published, and who continue to write to me without ulterior motive, without including poems. Then there are those poets I've met and befriended because I've had the pleasure of publishing their poems. Poets like Neal Bowers in Iowa, Vivian Shipley in Connecticut, Rhina Espaillat in Massachusetts. After every issue there have been letters from people I don't know, commending me on a job well done; I say this not out of immodesty, but out of sheer surprise and delight.
fffff I know that what I do has little effect on the literary world. At best a poem I publish might here or there appear in a poet's book. In minuscule print on the acknowledgments page the poet may thank me among other editors. If I'm a bit disillusioned, I'm not deluded. Defined Providence exists in an age when anyone with a laser printer and a mailing list can start a literary magazine. I started mine with only an inkjet and an open hand. Each year's Poet's Market includes an average of 300 new listings, and the existing listings are often "85% newly updated." What this indicates is that a new magazine is appearing almost daily, not to mention the magazines not listed in Poet's Market, and that the existing magazines are constantly in flux. A beginning poet must find the sheer number of potential publishers staggering.
fffff I've been asked what distinguishes good little poetry magazines from bad ones. Of course, it's a matter of taste, but I think it comes down to which editors are picky and which aren't, and whether an editor reads with any frequency the poetry appearing in books and other magazines. I have, at times, published the work of acquaintances whose poems I often thought were not quite as good as I had wished they'd be when I invited them. But I've learned to turn poets down, even poets whose work I've solicited. Those magazines that I consider good are the ones that publish only the best they receive, and many little magazines starting out don't receive much from which to choose.
fffff The poetry journal Defined Providence began as a biannual in 1992, and became an annual in 1995. Over the years the journal enjoyed a small but loyal audience. Sadly, we will no longer be publishing the journal. Instead the press will be publishing full-length collections of poems selected through biannual open competitions awarding prizes of $1,000, publication of a professionally printed book, and author's copies. We may also be publishing chapbooks and books outside of contests. And now, as I make the transition from journal to book publisher, I remain just as determined to showcase quality poetry.