Friday, September 19, 2014

In Praise of Disability Literary Journals

I’ve just finished putting out the September issue of Wordgathering.  There is always a mixed sense of excitement and relief when it is accomplished.  As frustrating as it can be to try to be sure that the journal presents the work of writers in a way that makes them feel good about having their work a part of Wordgathering, when I finally see it all out the work – the poetry, essays, book reviews, short stories, interviews, art and music – laid out on line, there is a real sense of satisfaction.

The current issue of Wordgathering is especially exciting because it introduces readers to Pentimento, through an interview with its editors, editor-in-chief Lori Brozek and poetry editor Marie Kane.  Pentimento is a new, hard copy literary journal of disability-related literature.  The journal began just a year ago and plugs up a huge hole left in the wake of Kaleidoscope’s decision to go totally digital.  Moreover, like its predecessor, Pentimento, is not just a saddle-stapled magazine run off at Staples.  It is modeled after The Sun, and, beautifully presented.  For those of us over 30, there is still some truth to the feeling that going to the mailbox, pulling out a professionally published magazine and seeing your work in it provides a kind of jolt that publication in an online journal like Wordgathering just can’t deliver.  Even more important, though, it gives writers with disabilities or those whose work engages disability, a new venue for their writing – raising the number to four.

Raising the number to four: Kaleidoscope, Breath and Shadow, Wordgathering and, now Pentimento.  In a society that prides itself on diversity, that is an embarassingly paltry number.  True, there are academic publications such as Disability Studies Quarterly and Britain’s Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability that produce amazing and much needed work, but these are, in the main, scholarly – written by scholars, for scholars.
Moreover, they use very little of the kinds of writing that the word literature invokes for most people, that is poetry, fiction, the imaginative essay or drama.  

Last year, I wrote up a proposal for a panel on small magazines of disability literature for the annual AWP conference.  The proposal included editors from Kaleidoscope, Breath and Shadow and me (representing Wordgathering) as well as Jim Ferris and Laurie Clements Lambeth, both poets who had worked in an editorial capacity with DSQ. I’d  been on several AWP panels previously and knew that they were looking for panels that had something new to offer.  One would have thought giving the writers of the country’s largest minority a chance to meet and talk with the editors of the few literary magazines that actively sought their work would have been a no-brainer.  It wasn’t. To my amazement, the proposal was rejected, even as panels re-treading previous conference subjects were put on the roster.

Because none of the four disability lit journals is attached to universities, funding is an issue.  Breath and Shadow and Kaleidoscope both receive a small amount of agency funding. Pentimento, did receive a small initial grant, but now is funded entirely by the editor, Lori Brozek, herself.  Because it is a print journal, it also has to get funding through subscribers.  Each of these three gives a small token payment for the work it accepts from writers.  Wordgathering, which depends entirely on volunteers, does not pay.  As the editor, I’m fully aware that once writers whose work I publish find a paying market for their work, that’s were they’ll go.  I don’t blame them.  They deserve monetary recognition.

Despite their lack of glamour or ability to make any real contribution to a writer’s income, small poetry magazines – particularly within the disabilities literature community – do fulfill an important function.  Sure, even the Pushcart Prize committee, is going to throw our nominations into their slush pile. Where we get our satisfaction is when a previously unpublished poet that we’ve championed comes out with their first book of poetry, when a better known poet decides to write a poem about their disability and credits our journal with the first publication in their most recent book or when a book first reviewed in our journal finds its way into a recommended reading list in a college course on disability literature.  Those are the kinds of successes that drive us as editors.

The September issue of Wordgathering is now up and I hope the writers whose work is included there see an ever widening audience.  I hope that some readers relate to Dan Simpson’s poems or that someone reads Michael Uniacke’s essay on writing Deaf historical fiction and decides to take a crack at it.  I like to think someone googling John Milton comes up with the reaction of nine writers with visual impairment to his Sonnet XVI in this issue.  Or that Deaf artist Cynthia Weitzel’s latest work or Ona Gritz’s wonderful review of Jennifer Bartlett’s important book of poetry Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography catch the attention of those already involved in teaching disability studies.  As anyone who spends a few minutes out in a field or roadside this time of year knows, there is no telling where the seeds let loose will land.  You only hope that some find the right soil and flourish.


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