Interview with Diane Smith, Joseph Michael Owens, and Annam Manthiram, editors of “Grey Sparrow” (2011)

1.  Universities and presses back several magazines, but this does not appear to be the case with Grey Sparrow.  Where do you receive your funding?

Diane Smith: I personally fund Grey Sparrow from a modest savings I established during my tenure as a social worker in child welfare.  Grey Sparrow Press incorporated May 11, 2009 shortly after I retired and now operates as a non-profit 501C3 in Minnesota.  My husband teases me on occasion and says, “Grey Sparrow is a negative profit corporation.”

I take no income, nor does my staff.  We are all volunteers.  Submitters are paid in one free copy of the printed journal they appear in.  Modest funds from sold journals are placed in the Grey Sparrow account for further development of the press and journal.

2.  Upon looking at your masthead, I’ve noticed that you don’t indicate genre editors.  Does this mean that you handle art, poetry, and fiction by yourself?

The short answer? Grey Sparrow has a two-tier review system.  There are several readers as well as visual photography and art evaluators.  Each volunteer agrees to a one-year commitment.  I assign three submissions per month.  They evaluate and make recommendations to me; I again evaluate and make a final decision.

And, the longer answer:  As part of the process, evaluators may offer a few words and recommendation regarding publication.  On occasion, they suggest rewrite or request additional photography and/or art for consideration.  Some comments remain private and some are shared with the submitters at the discretion of the reviewers.

3.  In an interview with Duotrope you note that all of your readers are volunteers.  Who are the majority of these volunteers?  Are they students, scholars, friends, family?  Can one apply to be a reader for your magazine?

I could give you a big hug for asking this question.  Our volunteers/art/photography reviewers generally come to Grey Sparrow with submissions of their own; we have already decided to publish their work or have published their work.  Donna Trump, Kim Suhr, Pam Parker, Judith Zukerman, David Petranker, and Sita Bhaskar offer their skills as readers.  Joseph Michael Owens, our technical editor, and I also read submissions as we have had an exponential rise in them.

I have two more readers who have asked for discretion.

One can definitely apply to be a reader!  We welcome our readers and evaluators, we love them, we deeply appreciate them and I’ll give you an idea as to what we are looking for—a warm body—a petite joke of course, but I will mention, I have never turned down a volunteer.

Those who help Grey Sparrow generally hold a BA, some have graduate degrees, all have writing credits.  Just send an informal email to us with a biography.  All our volunteers are kind and competent—they know that when someone submits work—the writer and artist are putting all that they are out there.  For some artists and writers, it is a feeling of vulnerability, even after years of publications.  Like many, they consider their work an extension of who they are.  We are always respectful.

Perks of Volunteering:  We are an all-volunteer staff, but we are not without perks.  I am delighted to publish an independent review for a book coming out by a volunteer, cover a major event, note success, write letters of recommendation for a workshop or possibly a job, give a free copy of the journal that a volunteer has worked on, and consider all requests while supporting the Sparrow.

4.  What are the worst mistakes writers make when submitting to Grey Sparrow?

It is almost impossible to make a mistake with Grey Sparrow.  On occasion, writers, artists and photographers don’t read prior issues or guidelines.  We don’t publish the genres: pornography, science fiction and horror as a general rule.  We do not entertain stories that contain gratuitous drug use and/or abuse.  Read the writing of our 2011 Pushcart nominations—it will give you a sense of the Sparrow style quickly.  View the visuals of our special guest photographers and artists.

5.  Many people ask what you look for in terms of writing, however, what are your criteria for art and photography?

Flash and flare—fine art and photography with an emphasis on message and technique as well as presence in the fine art and photographic communities are important.  James S. Oppenheim shares his personal photography for our primary web pages and print on occasion.

6.  You have several featured artists on your website.  What’s the process for selection?

This might surprise you.  Grey Sparrow receives only a handful of work from artists and photographers on a routine basis compared to the 1,200 submissions for writing we received in 2010.  We have accepted almost everyone who comes to us for the guest slots—do keep in mind, the photographers and artists have strong portfolios and credentials.

As for photography and art included on our main pages, again, James S. Oppenheim helps me a lot!   I also visit Flickr and Red Bubble requesting permission from photographers and artists for inclusion of their work.  We include clip art and clip photography in the public domain from time to time, giving attribution whenever possible and one free copy.  The primary reason for clip art is that we can’t find an appropriate photo for a piece of writing with little time to publication date.  Anyone who would like to submit seasonal art and photography for our changing issues would be so welcome!

7.  What do you (and your editors) like the most/least about your job(s)?

Diane Smith: I love the writers, the artists, the photographers, layout and design, the birthing of each new issue—creativity swirling, twirling in the Milky Way.  Working with such a talented staff is always a joy and I don’t say that lightly.

What I like least is proof reading prior to our copy editor’s final review.  I and submitters often miss 50 or more errors when Annam Manthiram, our copy editor, steps in and corrects them along with several more we missed.  I will say, the Sparrow does not strive for perfection, just competence.  By the time we go to print, we’re generally synchronized.  I’m thankful I have received Annam’s help as print is unforgiving—online corrections can be made in nanoseconds.

Annam Manthiram:  The best part of what I do is working with Diane.  Her passion for nurturing the best creative work out there, her dedication despite personal obligations, and her elegant worth ethic and manner inspire me to be a better person and an accomplished writer.  I learn so much from her, everyday, not just about how to manage a successful literary journal but also how to be grateful for the gifts we have and to perpetuate that cycle of giving.

What I dislike the most:  Sometimes on deadlines, I have to work quickly and read in “copy-edit” mode, which means I am not really absorbing the work, just reading for errors.  In an ideal world, where there were no deadlines, I could sit with the proofs, drink a cup of coffee, and relish in the beautiful words first and foremost, and then do the actual work later.  Diane is kind enough to send me a copy of the completed journal, so I do get to enjoy it after the work is done, at my leisure.

Joseph Michael Owens: I tend to agree a lot with Annam.  Diane is truly a fantastic editor to work with.  She has provided us a real opportunity in working with Grey Sparrow; for newer writers like myself I can see the other side of the literary journal business.  Typically, writers only get to see the submission/acceptance/rejection side of journals but rarely are afforded the chance to experience the nuts and bolts of production and all the hard work that goes into each issue.  I personally love getting to read all of the quality work that gets submitted on a quarterly basis.  I’ve also gotten to see how hard it can be to say no to some really great pieces.

Deadlines are also probably my least favorite aspect, only because they seem to coincide with deadlines I’ve got in my day-to-day life, specifically the deadlines in my MFA program.  However, Diane does a truly fantastic job of never giving me more than I can handle at a given time.

8.  There are hundreds of magazines in the U.S.  When a reader picks up Grey Sparrow, what do you want him or her to take away from the magazine?

Grey Sparrow, as you probably know, was honored with the Best New Literary Journal of the Year Award January 11, 2011 from our professional association, the CELJ in Los Angeles.  Nicholas Birns stated, “The Council of Editors of Learned Journals (CELJ) is pleased to announce that Grey Sparrow has won its Best New Journal Award.  Our judges were impressed by the Journal’s multimedia and interdisciplinary focus; its bridging of the gap between academia and the arts; the felicity of its design; and the international scope of its coverage.  In a time when the print journal is thought to be in danger from economic and technological forces, Grey Sparrow has shown there is still room for innovation and excellence in the traditional journal mode.”

I believe our international voice and style as noted by Nicholas Birns, while touching on global issues that haunt us all, and as Horace said, throwing in a little nonsense and fun, is what readers enjoy.  Did I say that all in one sentence?  We do shy away from writing that is riddled with clichés.  A creative voice is important to the Sparrow along with a strong vision.

9.  Do you have plans for expanding in the future?  Perhaps to a longer magazine, a larger staff, or a wider circulation?

To date, we have had a large online circulation—well over 150,000 readers since inception of the online journal on June 1st of 2009.  The print format was first published January 1st, 2010 and does not include all of the online work.  I use my equipment in the home and I am only geared up for 50 pages in print—I may be buying a flat spine system soon and then, I would explode the size of the journal along with additional publications.

To date, we have added an annual imprint, Snow Jewel.  This is in addition to Grey Sparrow.  This year Snow Jewel honored poetry.  Next year, flash fiction will be honored for Snow Jewel and we may have a flash competition.  A new poetry release is scheduled for October 21st at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis – Andrew Kaufman’s poetry book, Both Sides of the Niger.  His book will be printed locally.  Grey Sparrow just published a poetry monograph, Approaching: Poems of Brazil by Hugh Fox in Portuguese and English.  I am fully capable of producing any poetry chapbook in the home with the saddle staple binding of 50 pages or less and may open the door to more manuscripts next year.

10.  Several magazines have flopped during the recession and a lot of readership has gone down.  What do you think is the key to keeping literary magazines up and running?

Yes, and what do I do?  I found Grey Sparrow during the worst economic times this country has faced in several decades.  I created a five-year plan to start Grey Sparrow Press after retirement and purchased equipment to publish the journal in my home with a simple saddle staple binding.  We do have an excellent high-end color laser jet, paper folder, and saddle stapler that have served us well—we also use expensive heavy, high gloss presentation paper.  I am proud of our quarterly journal.  I’m not sure one can succeed if one is motivated by financial success though.  Literary writing, as a general rule, is not a big seller.  I do know our rise in readership, submissions, and our award this January feel like success to me, keeping in mind everyone’s definition of success is different.  What motivates me is hearing the heartbeat of the nation–listening to what writers say about global and national issues; sharing their concerns and ideas in a creative way with our readers.

That said, I’m deeply saddened tier newspapers, journals and magazines have gone under over the last few years.  They have given us critical in depth coverage around the world in a way Grey Sparrow never could; we’re just a modest little journal.  Employment of hundreds of writers has been lost.  I hoped one day I could pay our staff, but who knows.  I just keep working and realize it takes time to develop a journal.

For more information on Grey Sparrow or its editors, please visit http://greysparrowpress.net

Interview by Alyssa Palazzo

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