In this first installment of the “Editor’s Corner” interview series, Dr. Jenny Molberg has generously provided her invaluable insight into the editorial process as an editor for both a highly prestigious literary magazine and press. Dr. Jenny Molberg is Co-Editor of Pleaides Magazine, Assistant Director of Pleiades Press, and an Assistant Professor of creative writing at the University of Central Missouri. Founded in 1981, Pleiades Magazine has long been a nationally admired literary magazine, publishing some of the finest emerging and established contemporary poets, fiction writers, and essayists (such as Joyse Carol Oates, Sherman Alexie, D.A. Powell, Tiphanie Yanique, Adrian Matejka, and many others). Pleiades Press also publishes a fantastic catalog of contemporary writers (i.e. Jennifer Givhan, Bruce Snider, Julianna Baggott, Amy Meng, E.J. Koh, and Bianca Stone), who are selected through annual contests, including the Lena-Miles Wever Todd poetry prize, the Pleiades Press Editors Prize for Poetry, the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the Visual Poetry Series. They also publish the Unsung Masters Series, which focuses on celebrating exceptional writers who have not received their fair share of attention.
Jenny Molberg: Working as poetry editor for Pleiades Magazine was part of my hire as assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Central Missouri; a year after I started the job, I became co-editor of the journal with Phong Nguyen. As an MFA student, I had an internship at Poet Lore, and then as I was working towards my Ph.D., I worked every year at American Literary Review in a different position at the journal. That experience prepared me well for my position at Pleiades. As for Pleiades Press, I am fortunate enough to serve as assistant director and help out my colleague Kathryn Nuernberger, who works tirelessly on the press. I read for the Editors’ Prize and various other small tasks, but we have Kathryn to thank for the beautiful books that come out of the press.
SE: What is something that has surprised you about working in a professional capacity as a poetry editor?
JM: A pleasant but challenging surprise is the amount of very strong work that Pleiades receives during open submission periods. It is often difficult to reject many of the poems that are sent in, because there are so many excellent poets writing today. A not-so-pleasant surprise is the amount of people who will come up to the Pleiades table at AWP and say, “you rejected me.” What do you say to that!?
SE: What do you look for in selecting poems for publication in Pleaides Magazine?
JM: I find that the poems we publish are ones that have an electric quality that jolts me; they are the poems I keep thinking about for days and feel excited to share with our readership. What gives poems this quality, I think, is interesting tension between form and content, fresh and lively diction, a balance of emotional and intellectual resonance, a keen sense of strangeness, and most importantly, an element of bravery, which varies from poem to poem, and which makes a poem memorable. Writing a poem is an intense act of bravery.
SE: Is your thought process for choosing book-length manuscripts for Pleaides Press any different than when choosing individual poems? What do you look for with poetry books?
JM: When I read for the Editors’ Prize, I do think that the books I send forward share that electric quality I spoke about with individual poems. However, writing a successful book of poems is another beast. I look for a narrative arc, a sense of wholeness with theme, concept, and voice, and cohesiveness between the poems. That said, a book also has to wake you up in the first few pages.
SE: In terms of aesthetics, how do you see Pleaides Magazine and Pleaides Press situated in relationship to other poetry publishers right now? Also, do you think the magazine and press have different aesthetics?
JM: It’s difficult to speak to the aesthetics of other publishers, but I do think that one thing that is special about the magazine is that it is important to us to highlight new writing, so Phong Nguyen and I are constantly making an effort to read new work by up-and-coming writers. I seek out poets who are just publishing their first collections or who do not yet have a book. Another important part of the magazine is “Literature in Context.” We often include international features and writing in translation, which is relatively unique–our forthcoming issues include a folio of Eastern European poets translated by some of the best American poets writing today, and a collection of short fiction by African American women writers curated by Amina Gautier. The Pleiades book review is unique as well, since we publish more reviews than most, and we have made it its own small book so that it’s portable and better highlights the important work our reviewers do. I think because my colleagues and I share similar aesthetics, the magazine and press echo this union.
SE: If you had to describe the Pleaides aesthetic in one word, what would it be?
JM: Vital, in all its definitions.
SE: How do you find balance among being a professor, editor, and writer?
JM: It is definitely a challenge to wear three different hats, and to prioritize when I’m forced to. The common thread, though, is my love of poetry. I cannot live without writing it. To be a poetry editor is one of the best jobs in the world for someone who loves poetry and wants to support our community of poets, because I am able to have a role in sharing new voices. Sending acceptances and sharing the work of my favorite new poets is one of the best parts of my job. Being a professor is also immensely rewarding, as when I see my students revel in their first successes as writers—one of my undergraduate students recently had a poem accepted in Third Coast, and we ran through the English department celebrating! I also live for that moment when a literature student who never believed they “got” poetry finally realizes that no one’s keeping a secret from them, to watch their faces like lamps turning on when I read them Bishop or Dunbar.
SE: Has being an editor changed the way you look at sending out submissions at all?
JM: Yes, I realize the volume of work being sent out, and rejection becomes a bit easier to cope with. On the flip side, though, I think being a writer who sends out work makes me a better editor, in that I’m sure to spend a lot of time with submissions and give them their due attention.
SE: Do you have any advice to writers who are just starting to send out submissions to literary magazines?
JM: Read the journals you’re sending to, and help support the community in the ways you can. We are the ones who keep the literary community alive, and it’s important that we support each other. You will get to know the editors who love and support your work, and finding those people is important.
SE: What was the last poem you read that stuck with you for days?
JM: Sorry to cheat, but I have three: “Self Portrait as Banshee” by Erin Adair-Hodges from her new collection Let’s All Die Happy (originally published in Pleiades), “Door” by Hadara Bar-Nadav from The New Nudity, and “litany with blood all over” by Danez Smith in Don’t Call Us Dead.