West Branch Valediction
As my ten years as editor of West Branch draw to a close, I’m thinking much about the gatekeeping role of any editor. This gatekeeping quality is irreducible: the power to choose which voices to present, which voices to decline. In our present culture both the power and the consequences of such choices are formidable—even at a small literary journal. Perhaps the best one can do is to acknowledge this, examine one’s own practice, and, in due course, hand off the job to someone else.
I began my career in professional editing in 2004 when I joined the poetry readers at The Iowa Review under then-editor David Hamilton. In 2007 I began reading for The Kenyon Review, eventually becoming Editor-at-Large before stepping back in 2018 to a role as Advisory Editor. In 2011, my colleague Paula Closson Buck approached me about taking on West Branch, and I gladly accepted. I had been reading West Branch off and on since the late 1990s, and West Branch had in fact published two of my early poems.
I suspect I have always taken the ethical component of professional editing seriously because I came to poetry late, as an outsider, with no creative writing training, no MFA. I began submitting work in 1996 while living in an Amish community in rural North Carolina and working as a baker. I had no writing community. Or rather, my writing community was half imagined (the writers whose work I responded most fervently to, e.g. Carl Phillips and Brigit Pegeen Kelly) and half editors to whom I could, at least, for the price of a stamp, send my work. As everyone knows the usual response to sending one’s work out is a preprinted rejection slip or email. But every now and then an editor—some complete stranger to me—would take an interest and offer helpful advice. Even more rarely, an editor would take a poem or two. From these occasional, very slender contacts, my sense of the literary world grew.
There is something thrilling—by turns exciting and terrifying—about sending one’s work to strangers. How will they respond? With each and every submission I read over the years, at Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, and West Branch, I opened the envelope or file with a reciprocal sense—of electrifying possibility, but also of ethical duty. I wanted to take the work of others seriously, on its own terms, because some (other) editors had taken my work seriously. I wanted to interrogate the work, yes—for its quality, its depth, its integrity, its overt positioning and underlying assumptions—but I also wanted the work to interrogate me. I wanted to be challenged in my own preferences and antipathies, my own assumptions.
Recently an editor at another journal told me, in response to a query about my own poems (which that journal had held for over a year), that they “were in the business of accepting pieces, not rejecting them.” During my decade at West Branch I strove to make the journal as writer-friendly as possible in terms of not keeping work any longer than necessary. We read everything—we take every submission seriously—and we respond to everything as swiftly as we can. Issues of professionalism aside, however, that other editor was right: editors are, first and foremost, in the business of accepting work. These are the pieces that remain memorable.
Perhaps because I am myself a poet and spend most of my working days in or alongside the lyric moment, my biggest thrills involved fiction that surprised and moved me, simultaneously. Roxane Gay’s story “I Will Follow You” stood out for its vibrant emotional portrayal of two sisters dealing with the prospect of their childhood abductor and abuser’s imminent release from prison as well as with their current boyfriends—one of whom (rather surprisingly) measures up to the emotional demands of the moment, and one of whom does not.
I hail from the rural, working-class South, and two of the stories I remember most strongly handed that world back to me in vivid, painful, unexpected ways: Matthew Neil Null’s “Gauley Season,” a loose-limbed narrative of survival and betrayal in rural West Virginia, and Hazel Foster’s “The End of the Dock,” which has more and wiser things to say about the opiate epidemic than reams of reportage. LaToya Watkins’s “Vigil” convoked an urban world, very different from any I knew, but the emotional fault lines of her characters were rendered so vividly they took my breath away (as the cliché has it), page after page. Its quieter, perhaps stranger twin, Blair Hurley’s “The Home for Buddhist Widows” struggled (along with its protagonist) to figure the intersection between spirituality and loss. On the realist side, there was also Victor Robert Lee’s “Border Control,” in which a long-haul European trucker confronts a stowaway. This is a story I’ve dreamed my way back into more than once.
But realism is only part of what fiction can accomplish, and I’m especially proud of the work we’ve published that takes a step over that line into something that might be called slipstream or new weird or simply the uncanny, the unheimlich. Paige Cooper’s “Spiderhole” is both a Vietnam War memoir and a riff on resurrected dinosaurs: each time I type this I second-guess myself, but then I reread the story. Similarly, each time I read Neil Grimmett’s irreducibly odd “This Is the Way the World Ends,” I have to ask myself: is the protagonist suffering from senile dementia? Or is she misinterpreting some very basic activity she sees outside her window? Or is something entirely stranger happening here, as she begins to suspect?
We don’t get enough quality historical fiction at West Branch, which has disappointed me, since my academic background was in history (not literature). We published one of Tom Noyes’s shockingly odd investigations of the youth and psychology of Charles Guiteau, who would graduate from 19th-century utopian communes to the murder of a president, as well as Adrienne Brock’s “The South,” set in early 20th-century revolutionary Ireland. And we published Lindsey Drager’s “Circumnavigations,” from her novel-in-stories The Archive of Alternate Endings. Drager’s story is another I dreamed my way back into more than once. Indeed I found myself living with it in my mind for close to a year, to the point that I begged her to join us as West Branch’s fiction editor. (Happily, she accepted.)
In nonfiction, some standout essays came from Roger Topp, Lesley Jenike, Philip Metres, Ilya Kaminsky, and the late Helen Degen Cohen. When it comes to poetry, more voices spring to mind than I can enumerate specifically: Charlie Clark, Corey van Landingham, Kathryn Nuernberger, Lo Kwa, Donika Kelly, Page Starzinger, Natalie Scenters-Zapico, Diana Khoi Nguyen, Shane McCrae, Kaveh Akbar, Nina Puro, Andres Cerpa, Leslie Harrison, Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley, Felicia Zamora, Catherine Imbriglio, Endi Bogue Hartigan, John Gallaher, Yuki Tanaka, Sarah Gridley, Karen An-hwei Lee. I take it as an immense, irreducible honor to have published any and all of these remarkable voices.
As a writer whose own work perches—at times uneasily—on the cusp of religious experience and associated phenomenologies, I’ll single out two more poets whose poems brought me up short at the edge of a spiritual experience like my own, but emphatically not my own: Gina Franco’s trio of lyrics (“with fire:,” “of thorns):,” “the one throne”) and David Kutz-Marks’s “The Bull of Heaven.” Franco’s recent work aspires to a cartography of faith and doubt in the context of opulently sensual experience. Kutz-Marks’s poem draws on the Gilgamesh-and-Enkidu saga in unexpected ways; in long hikes across the USA and the UK I’ve found Kutz-Marks’s seemingly artless lines in my head, knocking slyly around, asking me to question the narratives I fashion for myself.
Ten years at the helm of a literary journal is a long time. My emotions at stepping away, though strong, are surpassed by my excitement to see what the new editors will do.
I want to thank Andrew Ciotola, West Branch’s long-serving managing editor and reviews editor, for his long and constant labor in keeping the journal going, as well as Bucknell University for their funded belief that the work of literary editing is of cultural value. Thanks also to my predecessor, Paula Closson Buck, and to my colleagues K.A. Hays and Joe Scapellato, who stepped in to helm the journal during my leaves. Finally, and above all else, I want to thank all the writers who entrusted their work to us at West Branch over the past decade—whether we accepted it or not. Literature is a conversation. Thank you for letting me be a part of that, and for the privilege of inviting each of you, writer and reader, further in.