47 // Black Warrior Review Editor Josh Brandon on Taking Necessary Breaks

“You’re kinda playing with fire when you delve into trauma writing. It’s possible to push yourself past your own limits and touch on things that are more tender than you thought.” —Josh Brandon of Black Warrior Review

Host Rachel Thompson speaks with Josh Brandon, Editor of Black Warrior Review, about taking a break when writing is difficult and about submitting and publishing your writing with their journal.

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Full Transcript

Rachel Thompson
Welcome, Luminous Writers to the Write, Publish, and Shine podcast, I am your host, author and literary magazine editor Rachel Thompson. This podcast explores how to write and share your brilliant writing with the world. In each episode, we delve into specifics on how to polish and prepare your writing for publication and the journey from emerging writer to published author.

Rachel Thompson
My guest for this episode is Black Warrior Review editor Josh Brandon. Black Warrior Review is named for the river that borders the campus of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Black Warrior Review publishes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, comics and art twice a year. Contributors include Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners alongside emerging writers. And Black Warrior Review editor Josh Brandon’s bio reads, “Josh Brandon is here, they’re queer and so full of fear.” We talk about taking a break from writing and that it’s OK, especially when you’re writing heavy and autobiographical material. And we also discussed how they are working to make submissions to BWR more accessible, starting with a break on contest entry fees this year and free submissions for BIPOC writers and also laying the groundwork for bigger shifts to more economic accessibility for writers. So welcome to the Write, Publish, and Shine podcast, Josh Brandon.

Josh Brandon
Hi, Rachel. Thank you for having me.

Rachel Thompson
At the beginning of 2020 in my research of you, which is largely based on an interview you’d done on the Black Warrior Review website when you became managing editor. It tells me that you had three projects. You were rotating between an essay where you talk about lemons and gender, an ongoing project about inherited trauma and a recipe-slash-poem chapbook. You called it “a poem chapbook thing that’s sad and Midwestern as all get out.” Can you tell me about these projects?

Josh Brandon
Sure. So the essay about inherited trauma is probably the thing that I have been working on for the longest time. I started it in undergrad and it’s evolved a lot over the years. But I did start that in undergrad and that was actually a senior project. I was a creative writing major. So we did a senior capstone project. After that was completed, I kind of dropped it for a while, but then I started it back up when I came here to my MFA program, and it’s evolved a couple more times. But the thing about that one is that I, I feel like I never nail it down to my liking. It’s never quite what I wanted to be. The lemons essay I did under a big time crunch. And it’s just for myself. I didn’t even do it for a workshop. And it’s kind of a multi-modal essay. So there’s a lot of pictures. There’s pictures that I’ve drawn in the essay and it goes into kind of an exploration of gender. My gender specifically. I’m non-binary. I use they/them pronouns. And so it’s kind of thinking through that because, you know, I don’t have it all figured out even by this point. I’ve known this about myself for years now. And then the third project, I would say it’s kind of a sister to the inherited family trauma, essay because it kind of delves a lot into the same things. It’s more expansive with which family members I explore, like the inspiration for it was I was at a antique store and I found this old Clabber Girl Baking Powder pamphlet. And I was like, I’m going to use this for something. And so I decided to make this chapbook because it kind of looks like a recipe book.

Rachel Thompson
That’s why you’re calling it the chapbook thing, because it’s like a found book that you’re like you’re repurposing for it, is that right?

Josh Brandon
Yes. And I guess I was leaving it open to it morphing into something else. But I created these recipe poems. So each poem revolves around a specific dish. Sometimes they are a little out there. I’m just going to be very candid. In college, I was experiencing a traumatic event and I had a period of alcoholism and drug experimentation. And so, I have a poem called Reheated Chicken Chilli on a Hot Dog. Because I was, you know, really out of my mind one night and decided to get my Indian food leftovers, put it on the hot dog, top it with some shredded cheese and call it a night. So it kind of tracks a lot of my life from beginning to where I felt like I was in the present moment. And then what I did, so the Clabber Girl book, I wrote them all out and then I hand wrote them in the Clabber Girl pamphlet and then scanned those and used that as a workshop piece.

Rachel Thompson
Thank you for being so open. And I know you recently told me when you were a guest in the Lit Mag Love course, and thank you for that, that you and writing, sorry, were either done or on a break. You’re on a break with writing. I wonder, you know what you’re saying now, too, about that traumatic experience. I wonder if this is related to trauma writing, and I wonder that because I just really relate about how difficult it is and how healthy it is to take breaks when you’re writing difficult materials.

Josh Brandon
I think that’s really insightful. And I think that there definitely is some truth in that in what you’re saying. So I primarily work in nonfiction and then I dabble in poetry, but my poetry is always nonfiction as well. And kind of the thing that I’ve discovered with the personal essay, with nonfiction, is that you’re kind of playing with fire a little bit, especially when you delve into trauma writing. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to push yourself past your limits and maybe touch on things that are still more tender than you thought, wounds that maybe are more open than you had previously thought, and it can be kind of dangerous. I would say at times, and I don’t know if I would necessarily say that the projects that I’m working on, that that has happened necessarily. But this is definitely something I’ve been thinking about recently, even in therapy. And it is very possible that that was a big factor in me kind of shutting down from writing in a way, which is how I would describe it. It wasn’t like I one day decided I’m not going to do this for a while.

Josh Brandon
It just it crept up on me and I just realized that I don’t have the urge to do it in the same way that I had before. I’m leaving, you know, doors open and I definitely don’t want to say that, like, I will never do it again. It’s very possible that I will. And that’s fine with that, whatever comes my way. But I do think, yeah, there is some truth in what you’re saying, because, I mean, the truth of the matter is, is that I’ve been doing this for years and it gets tiring. It gets exhausting. But the thing is, is I don’t know how to stop because that’s kind of all I know with writing with myself. And it’s hard for me to get out of that and to find a different route with my writing.

Rachel Thompson
Like all you know is writing from your life and CNF writing. I relate to that, too. That’s what you’re saying. It is like we’re kind of different kind of writers then, because some of the ways that writers get through writer’s block and whatever that is, and all of those tips and techniques going on about that, don’t really relate when you are writing about trauma, I think it’s really important and writing from your life and you’re finding it difficult. I think it’s really important to take breaks. You still have an obvious passion for other people’s writing. And I’m wondering, how do you channel the interest you have about writing into your work at Black Warrior River now?

Josh Brandon
I mean, it is really exciting to see what other people are doing in writing because, you know, the thing with BWR is people that are experimenting in all kinds of ways and that have pieces they maybe think are too risky for other journals. We get to see them and they’re very inventive. And that is really exciting, especially when you come across something that is hitting all the right notes for us. So I think that is where I channel that love is just in knowing that I’m going to be surprised and kind of relishing in that moment when I have seen some really great stuff in my time. That’s wonderful, truly.

Rachel Thompson
I know you’re also more into the book production side or maybe I’m saying the wrong term for that. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you’re learning about that and how that program at the University of Alabama kind of interweaves with the MFA program?

Josh Brandon
It’s kind of an unknown thing. I guess they’re like it’s hard to describe because I think it’s maybe out of, like people’s common knowledge. I certainly didn’t know anything about this before I came here. So the University of Alabama is one of three, I believe, schools in the US that has a graduate program for book arts. And what book arts entails is bookbinding, hand paper making and letterpress printing. And so they have a graduate program here. And as a graduate student, I’m allowed to take graduate classes in other subject areas as well. And actually we have to take two elective courses. So I started with just a bookbinding class and got hooked. And so this semester I’m taking Bookbinding II and Papermaking. So I have to physically be on campus for one day a week and go into a paper mill. We have a vat of paper pulp and water. We draw it up with a mold. With bookbinding I’m cutting down sections of paper, sewing them together, making covers, things like that. So my favorite part of that is, I mean, my immediate answer is to say the finished product, like when I get to the end of it, and just seeing the fruits of my labor. But I think it’s just as much the process for me, too, like, you know, when I have everything set up for a binding and I’m just sewing, it’s really relaxing. It’s really therapeutic in a way. Like it’s the same motions over and over again. But I’m just going through the holes and putting things together. That’s nice.

Rachel Thompson
I love that I’m definitely getting into visual journaling a bit myself, and just working with paper is such a nice compliment for writers. We love books after all. You said in your interviews, so that same interview, my big research of reading that interview from the from the Black Warrior Review, when you started as managing editor, that “experimental as a qualifier is real tricky and can be a slippery slope at times that it’s a unique balance we’re all constantly reckoning with.” So can you tell me about that reckoning now that you’re the managing editor at Black Warrior Review?

Josh Brandon
Just to clarify, I’m the editor now. I was managing editor last year. I mean, it’s confusing because we turn over every year. The slippery slope of experimentation, because I think there’s kind of a white Western way we can think about experimentation. That’s just like it has to be super crazy and it has to be like something that is just like all over the page or just, you know, looks visually weird. And that’s not necessarily all that entails experimentation. And when we say that, I think sometimes our readers and some of our submitters think of it in one specific way and then it actually becomes something so common that it’s not really new or fresh, I guess. And that’s not necessarily bad. Like it’s not bad to be inspired by what other people are doing at all. I think if you say experimental, it can put a specific image of what that means in someone’s head. And that’s not necessarily what we want to happen because we want it to be very open for interpretation. It doesn’t have to be just formal experimentation. It can be as much experimentation within the storytelling itself and it can, like, stand on the page. And I would say that we are reckoning with it because we come into this every year as new people, or not as new people, but we only have these jobs at B.W.R. For one year. And so I think we can even come back to this job with our own ideas and maybe set expectations for what experimentation is or what experimental writing. I hope that makes sense.

Rachel Thompson
Yeah, and that’s like taking some kind of flexibility in looking for newer newness within the experimental writing that you’re accepting. That’s actually my next question, too, is like what kind of room is there for your individual taste? Because I understand that, you know, now that you’re the editor, you’re the editor for the year. And I guess I’m asking this because I’m thinking of people submitting to the journal and there’s a changeover in the staff every year. And so the vision of Black Warrior Review and then put that beside the, you know, the vision of the editor. How much of an influence, I guess, do you have over those aesthetic choices?

Josh Brandon
That’s a great question. And I don’t know how much submitters know about this whole process. We’re not, like, trying to be intentionally opaque about that. We’re actually very open to people knowing exactly our process. It’s kind of hard to put that down somewhere because it’s kind of so strange and interwoven. But in my role as editor specifically, I actually don’t have that much room to insert my own tastes, which maybe would sound weird. But the reason for that is that we are very much a journal that values the aesthetic vision and the aesthetic choices of the genre and also the assistant editors that volunteer their time to read our packets and, you know, tell us what they’re liking and what they don’t like. The part where my taste comes in, I would say, is when genre editor goes through their whole slush pile, assembles a packet and then brings a proposed packet to me and the managing editor, which is now Kelsey Nuttall this year and we look through it and if there are more pieces than kind of what’s reasonable for people to read within the given time before the actual meeting, we can give our input and have them tear it down. But my word isn’t gospel with that, I give my opinion, but I always say you can take my opinion with a grain of salt. And at the end of the day, you’re behind the steering wheel, a genre editor. So I really say that when people are thinking of submitting to B.W.R., it is critical to look at what the call for submissions are from the genre editors and really try to take heed in what they’re saying, because they’re the people on the frontlines who are reading all of the submissions, who’s reading everything that everyone is putting through our queue, and they are the tastemakers here. They are the ones that assemble a packet based on their own aesthetic vision. And so there’s not one singular aesthetic vision of B.W.R can actually evolve and change and more based on what the genre editors are looking for.

Rachel Thompson
This episode of the Write, Publish, and Shine podcast is brought to you by the Nasiona. The Nasiona Centers elevates and amplifies the personal voices, histories, and experiences of those Othered by dominant cultures via interviews and memoir stories as well as community events. The Nasiona to cultivate empathy, connection, healing. Guided by a social justice compass, the publication actively works toward dismantling systems of oppression and being a catalyst for cultural transformation. You can head over to the nasiona dot com, and Nasiona is spelled N-A-S-I-O-N-A to read the online magazine and listen to the podcast.

Rachel Thompson
So one of the things I’m wondering, I always wonder about people who get into positions as gatekeepers as I think, you know, we can honestly say that we are in terms of reading people’s work and deciding whether they go into the issue, although you’re saying that there’s most of the genre coordinators who are making those decisions. But I’m wondering if there’s something that you’d like to see change in the literary world and what are ways you feel you can make change in the world as a gatekeeper, as it were?

Josh Brandon
Oh, that’s a really good question. I think something that’s big for me is accessibility in the literary world and specifically submitting to magazines. I think because I have been in the seat of the submitter before and I know firsthand how pricey it can be to have these pieces you want to send out, but then have to balance your paycheck with submission fees and especially with contest admission fees. Oh my God, they get a bit high, but it’s not even the individual magazine that you’re sending to, it’s the fact that you have to send it out to multiple places in hopes of getting a bite. And that price tag can rack up really quickly over time. And so definitely monetary accessibility, accessibility for, you know, Black, Indigenous, and people of color to the magazine, to all literary magazines is really essential. We are trying to make a concerted effort to have outreach past MFA programs and past institutions because we want to have as expansive of a submitter base as we possibly can. And we definitely don’t have it down pat. We’re not perfect. I think there’s still things that we can definitely do and things we are actively working on to make happen. But so specifically last year when I was managing editor, and this was a project that was in the works before even I came into the role, people in the past have tried to lower our own contest fees. And the thing about us, as a magazine, and because we’re coming through university is that we don’t hold the purse. The purse strings are held by administration at the university. The money that we have, we’re not in control of at all. And so we have to ask permission to do a lot of things when it comes to money, when it comes to budget. So, there had been quite a few times where editors have asked to lower contest fees because there were certain fees over the years that we thought was too expensive. I realized when I came into this role that just making an impassioned argument, touching on ethos, and accessibility actually wasn’t enough to convince them. So I drew up this whole proposal with spreadsheets and numbers. I projected what our revenue would be with certain prices for submitting to the contest. And I made a more impassioned proposal. You know, I talked about accessibility. I talked about the fact that people may not have the money to do this, but that they really want to submit to us and that they believe this is a home for their work. And we want to make that happen for as many people as possible. And I had talked about my own experience, like I have been in the seat before. I know exactly what it’s like. I don’t make a lot of money. So balancing that has definitely been tricky for me, too. And we got it approved, finally, and we got it approved during the Covid-19 when the pandemic was starting. So I considered that a big win. I don’t think that we’re done in terms of the contest fees. And actually, in addition to that, we eliminated fees. We did a big fundraising campaign to eliminate fees for up to five hundred Black writers this year. We are hoping to continue that, but then also extend that to Indigenous writers. And currently, general submissions are free for Black and Indigenous writers. They just send the pieces directly through email and we do it that way. But our, kind of, eventual hope with that is that we can set up an interest accruing endowment that will allow us to completely eliminate contest fees for everybody that submits to us. And then we can still give a prize in the form of publication and a cash grand prize.

Rachel Thompson
Wow, that. Is remarkable, I mean, everything you’ve done this year is remarkable and then carrying the plan to move forward with the endowment, too, that’s so great.

Josh Brandon
So the endowment is going to take time. Like it’s definitely not going to happen within my time at B.W.R. I don’t think it’s going to happen maybe within the next couple of years because the amount of money we need to open up this kind of account is a lot. It’s I think the number is twenty five thousand dollars, which is definitely money we have to do that right now because, you know, we have to have ourselves paid for the work that we’re doing, and we have to be able to pay for printing the magazine, and also paying our contributors, which is something that we definitely value and prioritize, is making sure that the people send us their work, we pay them, they get money for it. But one thing that we do have going for us is that in 2019, B.W.R. won the Whiting Award for literary magazines. So the first year they just gave B.W.R. Money outright and the second and third year, they really encourage you to kind of up your fundraising game. And so there’s like a whole matching thing that happens in year two and three. The only way you get any additional money from the Whiting Award is by fundraising up to a certain amount and then they just match it for you. So that’s something we are taking advantage of for this specific purpose, for the elimination of contest fees. And at the end of this year, I don’t think we will have enough still to create the endowment, but it will definitely get us on the right path. So, that’s something we have on our side.

Rachel Thompson
Fabulous. Turning to the submissions to the magazine, what are some of the things you look for in submissions in each genre? And another thing actually occurred to me. I want to ask you about, because you said this in the Lit Mag Love Q&A that you joined, that you’re OK with submissions not being perfect in execution. You know, it’s like more the ideas that matter. So would you mind talking about that when you’re also talking about, you know, the qualities, I guess, that you’re looking for in the submissions?

Josh Brandon
Again, my own tastes, my own esthetic vision definitely doesn’t hold as much water here as the genre editors. So the kind of specifics of what you’re asking about really is up to them. But I think a good way, generally, that we operate how last year’s fiction editor, Saul Alpert-Abrams, how he put it to us, which is in a meeting to us, he said, I don’t know exactly how to describe risk and experimentation, and I don’t always know what I’m looking for until I find it, until I see it in my queue. But that’s something that surprises me in some way. And that, I believe, these are his words, that I believe may not find a home elsewhere. If the genre editor can kind of easily place a piece in another journal that they know it would fit into, it kind of has less of a chance of them putting it into a packet, I would say. And you know that that is different for genre editor to genre editor. But that is what Saul specifically articulated. And I think that’s a pretty good articulation of maybe what we look for in general as a whole, as a magazine. And then what was the other question?

Rachel Thompson
Oh, just about the idea of the execution not being perfect, but the ideas being more important.

Josh Brandon
Oh, yes. Yes, we value that risk and that surprise over perfect execution. And what we mean by that is pieces being polished. So, there are, you know, journals, especially like academic journals, everything needs to be formatted in a certain way, like twelve point Times New Roman, and everything needs to be thoroughly edited, structured a certain way, those types of things. And those are the things we are not worried, I mean, if something if the pieces like that, we’re not going to turn it down or anything, obviously, but that is not something we are factoring into when we decide on what to accept. That also goes back to the accessibility thing. Not everyone has access to the academic formatting of things or of, you know, editing things perfectly in Chicago style. We use the Chicago Manual of Style for our purposes. That’s where we’re coming from with that really is that we don’t want people to feel that kind of pressure because it’s unnecessary.

Rachel Thompson
Our Quick Lit round of questions and ask you to finish these sentences, being a writer is

Josh Brandon
Hard.

Rachel Thompson
Literary magazines are

Josh Brandon
Literary magazines are a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.

Rachel Thompson
Editing requires

Josh Brandon
Relying on your gut instincts.

Rachel Thompson
Rejection for a writer means

Josh Brandon
It’s not the end of the world and to try again.

Rachel Thompson
And finally, writing community is

Josh Brandon
A writing community is very nice to have.

Rachel Thompson
Wonderful. Well, thank you so much, Josh, for being my guest today in the Write, Publish, and Shine podcast. I really appreciate the time you spent with me.

Josh Brandon
Thank you for having me again. This was so fun. I love these questions.

Rachel Thompson
Thank you. So that was my interview with Josh Brandon. I’m really struck by their efforts to make B.W.R. more accessible for writers and think a lot of lig mags and I know a lot of editors listen to the podcast, so this is a shout out to all of you that we can aspire to find creative ways to get the resources so we might cancel contest fees while still offering cash prizes. Wow. Black Warrior Review reads general fiction and poetry submissions from December 1st to March 1st and June 1st to September 1st. Nonfiction submissions, however, are always open. Submissions are accepted through their Submittable. And there is a three-dollar submission fee for their general categories. They use those fees to pay contributors. But if Submittable is not accessible to you, they invite you to email them and they accept physical submissions only from incarcerated writers, who may send their work for no fee. Black and Indigenous submitters also may email their submissions for no fee to the editor corresponding to the submission’s genre. And otherwise their email and mailed submissions will not be considered. Black Warrior Review pays a one-year subscription and a lump sum fee for all works published. And they offer royalty payments to regular submission print contributors between 100 to 220 U.S. dollars, depending on the length of pieces. These numbers are subject to change per issue and differ for contributors to Boyfriend Village. That’s their online edition, and for chapbook and featured art contributors. And thank you to this episode’s sponsor the Nasiona. You can head over to thenasiona.com, to read the online magazine and listen to their podcast. The Write, Publish, and Shine podcast is brought to you by me, Rachel Thompson. You can learn more about the work I do to help writers Write, Publish, and Shine at Rachel Thompson, dot-C-O. And when you’re there, sign up for my Writerly Love Letters sent every other Thursday. They are filled with support for your writing practice. If this episode encouraged you to go gently on yourself when you’re writing hard things or to submit your experimental writing to Black Warrior Review or other journals, I would love to hear all about it. You can tag me on social media. I’m at Rachel Thompson on Twitter or at Rachel Thompson Author on Instagram. And tell other luminous writers about this episode. I’d really appreciate it if you could. You can do this by sending them the podcast at Rachel Thompson dot-C-O- slash podcast, just sending them to my website, or searching for Write, Publish, and Shine wherever they get their podcasts. Thank you. And I encourage you to keep writing and caring for yourself as you write, Luminous Writers.

 

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