In our next installment of “Interview with a Journal,” we catch up with the staff of the Kenyon Review. The Ohio-based journal, originally founded in 1939, was first helmed by poet and critic John Crowe Ransom. During Ransom’s 21-year tenure, he published well-known and emerging writers such as (but not limited to) Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, William Empson, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Lowell, and Peter Taylor. In 1969, Kenyon College ceased publication of the journal due to budget issues and a decline in the journal’s reputation. Kenyon Review was revived in 1979. In June 1990, Marilyn Hacker joined the editorial team as the journal’s first full-time and first female editor. In 1994, Hacker left and Kenyon Engish professor David Lynn was hired as editor.
In April 2020, Nicole Terez Dutton was named the 14th editor, succeeding David Lynn.
Today, the journal not only publishes a print magazine six times a year, but its offerings include KROnline, KR Reviews, special issues, literary programs, education opportunities, contests, a reading series, and the Kenyon Review Literary Festival.
Why do you want to work for a literary journal?
There are many professions within the literary world that allow one to witness the development of a writer from those early days when they’re finding their voice to those later days when they’re sharing their books with an audience and teaching others how to write. But I can’t think of many jobs that allow one to potentially be a part of every stage in that journey in quite the same way as at a literary magazine. By nature, literary magazines are made of a small staff of people who fill many roles.
On any given day, I might be reading the submission that becomes an author’s first published piece, inviting another author to come to a reading in celebration of their first book launch, and corresponding with even another author who will serve as a writing instructor at one of our Writers Workshops. And over time the author whose first piece is published with us might become the author I’m bringing to campus to teach a workshop. To find an unknown voice and amplify it, and then to get to be part of strengthening its amplification all along the way, is one of the greatest uses of my time that I can imagine. And to be part of a staff that gets as excited about that as I do is pure gold. –Elizabeth Dark, Associate Director of Programs
Why do you love literary journals?
Literary magazines are time machines that offer a glimpse into a thrilling future: they give readers a connection to writers before their work vanishes into the slowly grinding machinery of commercial publishing. It’s in literary magazines that we discover new writers, get as close as possible to the writer’s scribbling hand, hear what’s being whispered in the literary culture almost before it becomes words that can be spoken aloud. Pick up a literary magazine, and you can find the opening section of the novel that will come out in a few years, the first poems from the prize-winning collection that’s still taking shape, the essay that will change the way we think about what an essay can do.
In literary magazines, we see literature as it’s still being imagined and writers as they’re still dreaming themselves into being. Nowhere else can we see that magic in such a pure form. –Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, Associate Editor
What is one of your favorite pieces that you’ve published? Why?
“Coffins Patch is dying, and everything suggests there is no hope of saving it. Still, wet suit clad, Ei Mun rolls backward off the boat.” These are the opening lines of “Coffins Patch” by Rachel Heng, a short masterpiece (am I allowed to say that? I’m saying it) from our Jan/Feb 21 issue. It’s about a love for work that runs so deep it almost feels romantic; intimacy with the natural world, a coral reef that is about to disappear; and, as if that weren’t enough, it includes an exceptionally nuanced take on pregnancy loss. Her prose is elegant and this indelible story will leave you with more than one heartache. Rachel published another story with us in Kenyon Review Online (“You Know I Want It Ice Cold,” a story about caring for elderly parents and watching Shark Tank). This is the first time her work has appeared in our print magazine. Everyone who reads this story seems to feel it differently, but they each feel it deeply. I hope you’ll read it. –Kirsten Reach, Fiction Editor
A talking lizard? In the pages of the Kenyon Review? One of things I love about our journal is that our editors are open to such a wide range of aesthetic styles and forms. Last year, we invited a series of guest editors to fill the pages of the Review with sections of either prose or poetry, and the Mar/Apr 2020 issue edited by Jaquira Díaz was one of my favorite issues of all time. The stories she chose were vibrant, strange, and, as she titled her section, “Unexpected.” The talking lizard is from Joseph Earl Thomas’s story “Cold War Kirby.” It delighted me from its opening moments: the gruff Gex, an anole lizard, is complaining about the food young Imani drops into his tank. But the story is really about a young boy trying to keep his family together in the face of stiff odds and difficult choices. The injection of the unexpected in this story highlights the youthful hope of the main character even as he faces real challenges and setbacks. –Abigail Serfass, Managing Editor
How did being on the staff of a literary journal change the way you read?
I think that my time working on the editorial staff of the Kenyon Review has turned my reading practice into one that’s much more deeply conscious of correspondence and chorus between texts. What I mean is that: whether I’m reading submissions for the journal, considering teaching texts, or just reading for my own pleasure, I’m more apt to think about the way that the essay I’m reading is in indirect dialogue with another writer’s work, or to read a poem and immediately here an echo of some other stanza from another poem, no matter how separated the two pieces might be by time, distance, or even style.
My reading life is now a kind of extended conversation. Some of this, I’m sure, is a consequence of the habits of editorial reading: the way we look for correspondences when we’re putting together issues, or consider points of tension with other work when we’re sorting through submissions. But I also think that, more broadly, it’s a consequence of KR’s communal vision. In everything they do, I’ve found the staff to be conscious of cultivating, diversifying, and fueling literary community and conversation, and so now I read that way, too: thinking of texts in communion with one another, and all of us in communion with them. –Molly McCully Brown, Kenyon Review Fellow in Poetry
What are the most important things that a writer should include in their cover letter/pitch?
Editors who have written to you—whether it’s an encouraging rejection, a previous publication, or a request to see revised work—will remember you. But they might not be the first to see your submission. If we’ve been in touch, please mention this in your cover letter, and name the editor you’ve worked with before. Otherwise it may be assigned to anyone on staff who is looking for more to read, and they won’t have the context you do. If we asked for more work from you, we’re looking forward to seeing it! This information will help us get your work to the right editor.
Is this submission an excerpt of your forthcoming book? If so, the cover letter is a good place to let us know the publication date. (The managing editor will have to confirm we can publish the piece in time, and that would be a factor in whether we’re able to say yes.)
If you’ve never been published before, it’s okay to note that in your cover letter. We’re always looking out for debut work. It may even be eligible for a prize or two, if it’s your first story and the timing is right; we’d be glad to know that so we can nominate you. –Kirsten Reach, Fiction Editor
What are some subjects or topics you want to see writers address in their work?
Let me begin with an answer that people might find frustrating: we are literally interested in interesting writing. Having said that, I don’t know if I can foresee what will catch the attention of the editors at KR, but I can give you a compendium of stories that have recently excited me from those we have in our slush pile. One story I can’t forget uses gossip to structure a narrative of loss and a big life lived to the fullest, another story, traditionally wrought, tells a quiet but surprising tale of a man who has left the seminary, still another story pushes the boundaries of literary suspense and literary fiction with wonderfully mouthy dialogue. We have also published eco-fiction that looks beyond pitting nature against man, but instead tries to provide an answer for coexistence. In the May/June issue of KROnline, we are publishing a surreal tale of a relationship buzzing (there are flies involved!) apart. What I love about the people who make up the Review is that we have such disparate tastes and apart from wanting to be a conduit for well-told stories, we are also open to stories that take all kinds of risks. –Misha Rai, Kenyon Review Fellow in Prose
What do you look for in new authors you publish? What should stand out in terms of their work and style?
We want to hear your voice. We want to be surprised. We want you to show us your morning vision, when the world is still fresh in your eyes. It’s all too easy for a literary magazine with a long and distinguished history like Kenyon Review to rest on its laurels. We want you to set the ground beneath us on fire. –Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, Associate Editor
The publishing and media industries have recently undergone a long-overdue reckoning in how they handle equity and diversity. How can literary journals promote inclusivity without indulging in tokenism? What actions have your publication taken to support equal representation?
We’re excited to make structural changes that demonstrate our commitment to equity and inclusivity. For example, this summer we’re launching our inaugural developmental editing fellowship, which pairs writers with editors who are able to provide individual feedback over the course of three months. This is one small way we can provide access to expertise, welcome and support for writers to evolve drafts of promising, important work. We will continue to reach out to readers and writers and let them know that ours is a journal that reflects a broad range of experience and that there is room for everyone in the boisterous, ongoing literary conversation. –Nicole Terez Dutton, Editor
Tell us about your submission process.
In recent years, the Kenyon Review has opened for submissions once a year from September 15th through October 1st. There is no cost to submit. All submissions are considered for publication in either the Kenyon Review or KROnline.
All work must be submitted using our submittable.com portal. Please check our website at https://kenyonreview.org/submission/ for updated submission calls and guidelines. Published authors are compensated according to the following rates of pay: $0.08 per published word for all other prose work (minimum payment $80; maximum payment $450); $0.16 per published word of poetry (minimum payment $40; maximum payment $200).
The Kenyon Review also administers two contests each year: Short Nonfiction in December and Short Fiction in January. Both contests require an entry fee of $24, and all entrants receive a one-year subscription to KR. Please contact email@example.com with any questions.
The Kenyon Review staff:
Molly McCully Brown is the 2019-2021 Kenyon Review Fellow in Poetry. She is the author of the poetry collection The Virginia State Colony For Epileptics and Feebleminded (Persea Books, 2017) and the essay collection Places I’ve Taken my Body. (Persea Books, 2020). With Susannah Nevison, she is also the coauthor of the poetry collection In The Field Between Us (Persea Books, 2020). Brown has been the recipient of the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, a United States Artists Fellowship, and a Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellowship. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, the Guardian, the New York Times, and elsewhere.
Elizabeth Dark is the Associate Director of Programs at the Kenyon Review. Her essays have been published in journals like Ruminate, Curator, Blue Bear Review, and Riverteeth online. Before arriving at the Kenyon Review, she enjoyed teaching college writing courses and working at Paragraphs Bookstore. She holds a Master of Arts in Education from the University of Georgia and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Ashland University. Prior to her work in higher education, Elizabeth ran a nonprofit after-school arts program and served as a gifted coordinator and classroom teacher in Georgia public schools.
Nicole Terez Dutton joined the Kenyon Review as Editor in July 2020. Her work has appeared in Callaloo, Ploughshares, 32 Poems, Indiana Review, and Salt Hill Journal. She has received fellowships from the Frost Place, the Fine Arts Work Center, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her collection of poems, If One Of Us Should Fall, was selected as the winner of the 2011 Cave Canem Poetry Prize.
Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky is Associate Editor at the Kenyon Review and Editor of KROnline. He joined the Kenyon Review as Associate Editor in 2006 after serving for many years as a consulting editor on the magazine. He has taught English and Creative Writing at Kenyon College since 1993. He has published a series of crime novels including The Burying Field and Cold Steel Rain under the pseudonym Kenneth Abel. Lobanov-Rostovsky guest-edited the Sept/Oct 2016 issues of KR and KROnline devoted to literary science writing.
Alicia Misarti is Marketing and Operations Director for the Kenyon Review. Prior to her time at KR, she worked in various marketing and business development positions for MetLife, Guardian Insurance, and the United States Department of Transportation, among others. She earned her BA in Political Science and Spanish from Drew University and her Masters in Public Administration from The George Washington University. While at GWU she specialized in Federal Policy, Politics and Management as well as Nonprofit Administration.
Misha Rai is the 2018-2021 Kenyon Review Fellow in Prose. She is a Shirley Jackson Award nominee, whose novel-in-progress has received support from the Whiting Foundation, the Ucross Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Dana Award in the Novel Category. She is the first-ever and only fiction writer to be awarded a Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellowship in Women’s Studies for creative work. She has been an Edward H. and Mary C. Kingsbury Fellow and has been the recipient of the George M. Harper Award. Her essay, “To Learn About Smoke One Must First Light a Fire,” has been listed as a Notable Essay in the 2019 Best American Essays anthology.
Kirsten Reach is Fiction Editor and Social Media Director at the Kenyon Review. Before this, she was an editor at Melville House, Grand Central Publishing, and Henry Holt & Company. She specialized in debut fiction and narrative nonfiction, working with award-winning authors such as Lynne Truss, Philip Hoare, and Hilary Mantel. She has also worked for the Gaea Foundation and the Institute for the Future of the Book, studying how reading is changing from page to screen.
Abigail Wadsworth Serfass has been managing editor of the Kenyon Review since 2013; she has worked at the Review since 2006. As managing editor she has overseen a complete redesign of the print magazine, implemented a more frequent publication schedule, and collaborated on a significant expansion in programmatic offerings. She recently served as a panelist for the United States Artists Fellowships and for the Ohio Arts Council.