When I first started sending work out to journals, I soon became overwhelmed with the sheer number of journals out there. There are tons! Billions! Some made-up number like Brazilians! And this was over a decade ago, also, when there weren’t new online journals popping up every fifteen minutes. One way I devised to help me wade through them was to create an arbitrary project: I decided I would try to get published in at least one journal in every state. It’s harder than it sounds: some states (Montana, the Dakotas, etc.) have few journals, and those are often themed or heavily biased in a certain direction. Other states, of course, have tons. Of course, the point wasn’t just to be published – it was to be published well, to be published in good journals (regardless of their reputation). So I thought I would revive this project and track my success. And failure. So let’s walk through the process, in no particular order. Also, as I’ve pursued this, I’ve placed work in a handful of really good journals that aren’t around anymore, so I’m excising them from the list. I’m also skipping glossies or journals that are pretty much impossible (TNY, Paris Review, etc.) because there’s nothing really for me to share about them other than I sent them some work and they form-letter-rejected it. Also, this isn’t an exhaustive study of every journal in every state: it’s totally biased towards ones I like. So there.
1. Arkansas: Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies. This is a quarterly, print, university (Arkansas State University) journal run by faculty and with little web presence, though they do take email submissions. If you remember your history, you’ll recall that the Arkansas Review used to be the Kansas Quarterly, which published everybody and their brother.
I’m from Arkansas, and a buddy of mine was actually on the staff of the AR for a while, but that didn’t mean they’d publish me. I sent them a couple memoir pieces, through my friend, but they passed. I sent them fiction, poetry, etc., and they passed. It took me years to establish a decent relationship. More on that in a moment.
Let me deal with some possible preconceptions: AR is a good journal, by that I mean they don’t publish crap. A story about Ol’ Jimmy, the blues man who played a mean mouth-harp since his woman left him down in Memphis probably isn’t going to make the cut. Imagine how many stories/poems/etc. like that they’ve seen, and then try something different. They publish traditional narrative fiction and narrative or confessional poetry, but AR has a very specific focus: the Mississippi River Delta. The work they publish relates to place (i.e. the Delta), significant people from the region, cultural elements, etc. What does that mean, exactly? The Mississippi River Delta is one the most impoverished places in the country. Pick a bad quality (drugs, poor education, suicide, etc.) and the Delta is at the top of the list for it. But it’s also the birthplace of many artists, musicians, writers, etc. The editors are very aware of the socio-economic, racial, and historical realities of the Delta. They publish poetry, fiction, interviews, reviews, etc. but they really like scholarly essays when they can get them. This might be a good “in” to keep in mind.
So getting back to my many rejections, remember the buddy I had on staff? He took over as the reviews editor and offered me a book no one else would take. I took it. It was a tough review, but I used that experience to build a relationship with the editor. I did another review for them, and after that, I sent along some poetry dealing with my experiences growing up on a rice farm in eastern Arkansas. They took them. Since then, I’ve had a handful of poems published in the AR and several reviews, though they’ve rejected me plenty of times also. They’ve even reviewed me. I can’t stress how important it was that I build that relationship and “get on their radar.” That’s been a very effective ice-breaker for me with several journals. Reviews, interviews, and nonfiction in general are great ways to do this. There are a Brazilion books published every year and hardly anybody reviews them.
There are a handful of other journals in the state. Oxford American is there, now, but I consider that a glossy which I’m not covering in this project. (OA really likes reportage, though, and unrecognized Southern art – music and film, especially, but also food. But mostly, they like you to already be famous.)(Of course, there’s a lot of weirdness around OA right now.)
Another standout journal in Arkansas is Foliate Oak. It’s not on the level of selectivity of AR, but it’s a fine journal that’s been around for at least five years. It’s an online journal which puts out a best-of print issue, annually. It’s also a university journal (University of Arkansas at Monticello) but is run by students. The first thing that drew me to FO was a “writers we like” list that included Kathy Acker. Okay, says I; let’s do this. (I read a couple issues online to get a feel for their aesthetic.) But this is misleading because FO tends to publish traditional narrative fiction and fairly straight-forward narrative or confessional poetry. They’ve got good taste, though. It’s a solid journal.
2. Oklahoma: Nimrod is a print university journal (University of Tulsa) that holds a lot of contests. Of their two yearly issues, one is a contest issue, and the other is themed. Either of these can be another great “in.” I discovered Nimrod while at the University of Arkansas just by reading issues on the newsstand, locally. The way I got into Nimrod was through a special issue on the theme of family. I sent them thematically similar work to the poems I sent to the AR. On a side note, it took them a year to publish the poems, and they published one they’d actually rejected, which I’d placed elsewhere in the meantime. They also only take hard-copy subs, which is a pain. But for all its quirks, Nimrod is a standout publication that consistently publishes solid work.
Another, probably better-known journal in OK is The Cimarron Review. This is a top-notch journal that has published who’s-who of American literature. They’re a university journal at Oklahoma State University, staffed by faculty. They also tend towards fairly straightforward fare. I discovered CR, likewise, while I was at the U of Arkansas and read issues on the newsstand. I placed a memoir piece in CR about my late-teens/early 20s experiences working at a grocery store run and staffed, in part, by members of the KKK. It was culturally relevant, provocative, and didn’t cast me in the most positive light, so it took some risks. I have to say, the pieces I’ve mentioned that I placed in the previous journals probably wouldn’t have made it into CR because they were a little too regional.
3. Wyoming: Owen Wister Review. The OWR is a 30+ year old print university journal out of the University of Wyoming, run by students. Owen Wister was the author of The Virginian, a western, but they don’t focus exclusively on western-themed work. Again, imagine how many stereotypical western stories/poems they must get and how bored they must be of them. And lest we get too uppity about westerns, let’s remember that Cormac McCarthy started his career writing westerns. (OWR has published McCarthy, btw.) I was having a hard time place my more traditional fiction, so I found OWR. I was impressed with the samples I read online: lots of nature imagery and character-focused short fiction, just solid writing. I placed a story with them set on a farm about a neglected bruiser-type teenager and his relationship with an alcoholic farmer. I don’t have a ton of stories like this, but I think OWR would be interested in less regional work. A few of the fiction pieces I’ve read have been somewhat formally inventive, though nothing too groundbreaking.
CL Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel Sunlight; three poetry collections, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online at www.righthandpointing.com/bledsoe. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available at here. His story, “Leaving the Garden,” was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for story South‘s Million Writer’s Award. His story “The Scream” was selected as a Notable Story of 2011. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 5 times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings. Bledsoe has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.