blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Jeff Lodge: This is Jeff Lodge, a managing online editor of Blackbird, and I'm speaking with Gregory Donovan, this issue's editor-in-chief about different ways of reading Blackbird and about reading an online journal in general. Before we get to that, though, Greg, can you speak about the genesis of Blackbird itself, and about why an online journal rather than a print journal?

Gregory Donovan: I think that one of the things that a lot of people who come to Blackbird—at first, they're a little a bit suspicious of us. There are a couple of different suspicions they have, either when they're talking to us, away from the journal, or when they come to the journal online: They're wondering, "How can it be that we're going to get a first-rate literary magazine that also includes visual arts materials for nothing—how can that be?"

Well, the thing about it is, the situation for most literary journals in the United States is that the cost of subscriptions for magazines generally only pays the postage costs and part of the production costs of the journal—some of the printing, that is. And then oftentimes, salaries, staff members' stipends, if there are any, and even stipends or honoraria or pay that goes out to writers that are sending in their contributions to the magazines—those all have to be subsidized by a university or some other charitable foundation or organization. And we thought if we cut out the cost of subscriptions—the cost of postage and producing a print magazine—we would be able to deliver the magazine, not only to the readers who subscribe, but really to anyone who comes on the Internet. That's kind of a balance that allows us to offer to the writers who contribute to us a much larger audience than they might reach otherwise, and a new audience.

So, while all of us here at Blackbird remain, ourselves, lovers of books and of journals that are printed, and enjoy reading them, and probably will never stop—I can't imagine doing that—we also find that the online nature of Blackbird affords us an opportunity to reach people who perhaps never had been reached before.

JL: You just mentioned the word "subscription," Greg. What does subscription mean to somebody who comes to Blackbird?

GD: One of the things that I know people coming to Blackbird might be suspicious about—because their experience with other online entities is that somehow we're going to use the e-mail addresses that we collect from the Subscription button for nefarious purposes. But no, we actually really are offering you a journal for free. The purpose of taking in subscriptions—and really, all that means is that we're collecting e-mail addresses of our readers—is we simply want to know who our readers are and where they're from, offer them a chance to be in communication with us. And what we send to them [by e-mail] are notices of our bi-weekly—every two weeks we put up a new feature. And we also send them any other news that seems like it might be of interest to Blackbird readers.

JL: You just mentioned features. I think that might bring us to our subject for the conversation—different ways of reading Blackbird. Not just ways that reading it might differ from reading a print journal, but reading it might differ from reading anything else on the web.

GD: One of the things that being online offers us the chance to do is to offer streaming media—streaming video, streaming audio—so that we can allow readers to actually hear the voices of the writers that we're featuring and also to use various sorts of illustrations that, for various reasons, would be prohibitive—either in cost or simply would not be even possible at all in a print journal, such as with Elizabeth King's piece, where we actually have a little wind-up monk that you can observe in motion. In that one particular way, the online journal can be superior to a print journal.

So the features will be something we're going to be adding every two weeks because we felt that simply putting up a journal online and letting it sit there, unattended, seemed kind of an uninteresting way to do a journal. And we wanted to offer people an encouragement to come back—busy people who we know might visit Blackbird once and then forget to come back.

The features will include oftentimes interviews with writers. I've just come back from doing an interview in North Carolina with Hal Crowther, and it was very, very informative for me personally to listen to him talk, and I know the readers are going to enjoy it as well. It's an unusual aspect of our journal that…in fact, you remember when we were interviewed recently by a person from radio. He mentioned there was an aspect to Blackbird where we really resembled radio more than a print journal. So that's the sort of discovery we're making about ourselves as we do this.

All of us were uncertain when we first started Blackbird what all it might include and what it might be and I'm quite certain we don't know yet what it will be. We're going to continue to evolve with every issue that we publish, so we're looking forward to finding out what all we're going to get into. But certainly features are an interesting aspect of what we're up to with this journal.

JL: On Blackbird's Browse page, there's a table of contents that lists the order in which the editors suggest you might wish to read, view, and listen to Blackbird. Can you tell us about how you came up with that order?

GD: One of the things that all of us who came to this journal—we came with prejudices from print media. We came with prejudices about putting together books of poems, for example, in which every year I spend quite a lot of time advising students who are working on books of poetry about how they should order the poems. I spend a lot of time talking with fiction students, when I'm working with them, about how they might want to order the short stories and that sort of thing in their collections.

And every journal that I know of spends quite a lot of time considering the arrangement of the pieces and how they're going to present them. Perhaps offering something first emphasizes it and gives it a certain kind of priority. But there are other ways of achieving interesting contrasts or supplements in terms of how people read, moving from one sort of piece to another, moving from poetry to fiction.

Here we were with Blackbird, realizing that we weren't able to make any sorts of suggestions like that at all to readers, to show them how they might enjoy moving from one piece to another. So on the Browse page, we created a table of contents that resembles something like what you might experience if you were experiencing Blackbird as a print journal.

However, there are buttons across the top of the journal that allows you to simply go into a section by genre—poetry, nonfiction, fiction, go into the gallery, go into the features section. And there pieces are listed alphabetically and readers get to chose exactly what they want to look at, and they don't have to worry about what the editors think at all. And there's something about that I find quite appealing, actually. The more I've thought about it, the more I've thought, "Who am I to tell anybody how to read this journal?"

So when readers click on the Browse button, they'll be able to follow our suggestions about how they might want to read the magazine; but I bet that, halfway through that, they'll decide to go off and do something on their own. So you are part of making meaning in this journal—all of you readers are—you can chose to read Blackbird any way you wish.

JL: As in a print journal, if I just want to read the poetry, I can go through, find the poetry and read that piece by piece and skip the fiction altogether, at least for the time being. With the buttons here and with the way Blackbird's set up, of course I can do the same thing here.

GD: Yes, that's right. But we did want to offer something that was an alternative to simply lumping pieces together according to genre. We wanted to make suggestions about how one piece might actually speak to another. So the Browse area is a place where we give you an alternative way to read Blackbird.

Yet another feature on the Browse page is that you can browse by author, you can browse by title, and you can browse for media. So let's say, if a person was particularly interested in any of the pieces that had audio accompaniment, they could just go there and look for all of those pieces. They might particularly be interested in that or find that enjoyable. I know that some teachers who come to this journal are going to want to use it specifically because it allows their students, not only to read poems, but also to hear poems. And that's a very important part of what Blackbird allows you to do.

JL: Can you talk more about why your table of contents there on the Browse page begins with Philip Levine, for example, and ends with Elizabeth King? And why the writers are listed in the order they're listed?

GD: Well, perhaps with Philip Levine and Elizabeth King, it's obvious that you want to start strong and end strong. I think that people will recognize the name of Philip Levine, and it helps us to communicate to the online audience and the literary audience for Blackbird that we're a journal that is going to be publishing first-rate, high-quality literature. And while we're not going to be exclusive about that, it allows us to lend credibility to even the beginning writers that we're going to be publishing as well.

One of the things that's mentioned briefly in the foreword, but also perhaps becomes even clearer as you go through the journal is that it seems like there always is a sort of mystery of synchronicity in how a journal comes together. And that's something that I know lots of people who put together print journals talk about that, and they try to reflect that a little bit in the ordering of the journal. One of the things we noticed about the fiction pieces here is that so many of them include a story within a story, and often they are stories about telling a story. I suppose, in a way, all stories are about telling stories but these particularly feature that.

In the poetry, it was interesting to notice that, here we were just choosing poems based on individual excellence, and yet many of these poems find their focus in the body or, if I'm going to get poetic, to call it what Sir Walter Raleigh called "the body and the body's guest." The visionary William Blake perceived that the spiritual rises in the physical, that the two cannot be truly separated, that the body is always the locus of origin or the source for our being; and so, maybe these poems are reflecting that you can't have soul without body. And they're very much anchored in body: [we have] Beckian Fritz Goldberg's poems which question that and really do some outrageous things with that concept, humorous as well as intense. Margaret Gibson's very sensual poems; Peggy Shumaker's, the same way. Over and over again, it seemed that poems came up that were focused on the body and the survival of the body, that sort of issue. And we were allowing that to be a thread that runs through the journal in the way we were suggesting people read about the Browse page.

I think another principle that we were following was looking for subtle connections, perhaps as you move from one piece to the next, but also allowing readers who are going to follow the Browse order a kind of delight and surprise as they move along. They're putting themselves into the hands of someone else suggesting to them, "I think you would like to read this and this and this"; and so in a way we aim to be not really utterly predictable but grouping pieces that would have a sort of affinity or pleasure in encountering them; but just as often we wanted to have the next piece [to] come up be a kind of a surprise or delight. So there are several principles going on at the same time.

That order was arrived at in a conversation among all three literary editors—myself as well as Mary Flinn and William Tester—we argued back and forth and had a lot of fun with doing that, and actually we hope that there's some fun for our readers as they go through that ordering of the magazine's contents.

JL: Any last words, Greg?

GD: Well I think we've suggested a number of different ways that you can read Blackbird: You can look at it by genre, by using the buttons across the top; you can use buttons down the side; you can go to Browse; you can follow our order that we've suggested to you, you can even decide to just browse by author or browse for media. Ultimately, we're hoping that our own readers will be giving us responses, telling us how they're reading Blackbird.  

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