Engaging in Life: An Interview with Barrett Warner

Engaging in Life with Barrett Warner, Associate Editor of Free State Review

By Nicole Bartley

At first glance, you may not believe that a man who raises horses at his farm in Maryland’s Gunpowder watershed is also a poetry editor for a literary magazine. Yet Maryland’s new biannual literary magazine, Free State Review, saw both its first issue release for Winter 2013 and Barrett Warner’s inauguration run as an associate editor. Warner’s lifestyle fits well with the magazine’s theme of “people doing things.”

Warner, a poet himself, concentrates primarily on poetry submissions and helps with short stories. However, much of the magazine’s content does cross his desk. He is also a reviewer for Coal Hill Review, Loch Raven Review, Rain Taxi, Rattle, Otis Nebula, JMWW, Concho River Review and Chattahoochee Review. His poetry has appeared in Gargoyle, California Quarterly, Roanoke Review, Natural Bridge, and Comstock Review, among others. His chapbook, Til I’m Blue in the Face, was published by Tropos Press.

Coal Hill Review managed to distract him from his busy schedule for an interview before a reading event in Pittsburgh on April 17, during which editors and featured writers will present at the East End Book Exchange.

Coal Hill Review: What got you into writing?

Barrett Warner: I was one of those kids that was just fascinated by letters. When I was a kid, I was constantly drawing letters. When I was in 2nd grade, I read the Magical Monarch of Mo by L. Frank Baum. It just totally set me sailing. I dabbled at [writing stories]. When I was in high school, I began writing stories in earnest. I had an ability to type three pages an hour and always had three hours. I must have three dozen stories from that period, all nine pages long.

CRH: When and why did you shift toward editing literary magazines?

BW: It was a shift that was 35 years in the making. I shifted primarily to writing poetry in 1994. I had published a dozen stories and was a finalist for a Stegner fellowship at Stanford University right out of college. I didn’t get it, but I was sort of on a real fiction track. I segued into editing by starting with revising my own poems. When I switched to writing poetry, most of my poems were outlines for writing my stories. It took me 10 years of revision to write the short story out of my poem.

CRH: How did you get the job?

BW: One of the other editors knew me and knew my work, and knew that in the past year I’d been doing a lot of book reviews and felt like I would be a good person. I had a lot of breadth of knowledge of what was out there and what people were trying to do. I’d written a lot of essays on it. It was just sort of putting a couple things together and it worked out.

CRH: How were you approached to do it? What was your reaction?

BW: The other senior editor called me up and I immediately wanted to do it. Part of it was anything that my friend Jim Clark was involved in, I felt like I wanted to be part of. I just knew instantly that I wanted to do it.

CHR: Were you part of the process to start this new literary magazine?

BW: Hal Burdett… he recruited Jim Clark and Jim recruited me. There’s another person who helps out with some of the readings we have and some of the managing. Her name is Raphaela Cassandra.

CHR: Did you set out to emulate a particular literary magazine, or to start with a clean slate?

BW: I’ve been publishing my work since 1982; Jim since 1966. Both he and I had seen a lot of literary reviews come—some make a splash—and we also saw ones that seem to stick around for a while. We knew what our own experiences had done and we just wanted to steal from the best and try to be original—just try to have our own focus. We knew what we liked and we just wanted to concentrate on that for the most part. We like the print journal, we liked activities, so a lot of the literature in our journal is not so much conceptual and speculative, it’s more like people doing things.

We really emphasize that we like literature that comes out of action. It doesn’t mean like an action-thriller. The easiest way to look at it: It used to be that you’d have a window installed by somebody that made the glass. There’s a real sort of in-touch with reality there. We go for the literature of people who are out there doing something and living life. Riding horses, rolling up nets, just engaged in life rather than a more academic sort of thing.

CHR: Were there any dreams for this literary magazine? What were the realistic expectations?

BW: Well, we sort of dream one issue at a time. Hal comes from this newspaper background, so the big thing in newspapers is distribution. We didn’t want this to necessarily be something that was read by 100 people just like ourselves—we wanted to see if we could get it out there in the world, both to be read by other writers and also with general readership. We want to be able to support print runs of 500. We want it to become a national literary magazine.

CHR: How was its name created?

BW: We were just kicking around some ideas and we like the Maryland state motto (The Free State), and just started with that. We’re all Marylanders. It’s sort of like a Maryland’s publication, but at the same time it’s also a little bit like bringing in the world a little bit and exporting the state a little bit.

CHR: How did you determine the cover image? Does it match with the magazine’s contents, or stand alone?

BW: When Mark Strand was in Baltimore, we got to know him a little bit. As a result, we had some of his paintings. I just asked him, “Mark, do you mind if we use [one] for the cover?” And he said, “Absolutely, go ahead.” The way it transferred to the cover, you can’t see it well. It’s a very sort of Prince Edward seascape. In the original painting, it … [is] as if you’re viewing a book that’s opened—viewing it from the top. Not all of that came out when we digitized it. We just thought it was a striking portrait of land, sea, and sky. I do think it matches with the content in the sense of cross-genre. We have a poem submitted by a novelist, we’ve got an essay by a poet, we’ve got a poet who wrote two short stories in plain verse. So there’s a real cross-genre element of people stepping outside themselves. Mark is much more known as a poet, so that’s why we were interested in having him as a painter.

CHR: Was there a minimum page count in mind for the first issue?

BW: We just wanted to have enough pages to be able to have a spine, so that put us in the 60s range. We ended up having around 90 pages. We were really worried we weren’t going to have enough pages. But submissions came in. The funny thing is that we had only one rejection.

CHR: How did you advertise for submissions?

BW: We just put the word out like word of mouth. We canvassed a lot of readings and talked to people. We sent smoke signals up everywhere. We did everything we could to put the word out during announcements at the poetry readings—we let people know we were up and running. We felt like we got some really nice submissions. For the next issue, of course, we got swamped by submissions. [Page count is] not a problem we’re ever going to have again.

CHR: Did you solicit for stories and, if so, how did you decide who you were going to ask?

BW: We just let people know that we were putting together a literary review. A couple of people that sort of followed my book reviews, they knew about it, so some of them sent in work. We didn’t make a special appeal.

CHR: Will you solicit in the future?

BW: Our policy is: “Hey, we’re just letting people know.” We feel really good about it. We think these issues are taking really nice shapes. I suspect if we have special theme issues, [we will solicit].

CHR: How long did it take to receive submissions after advertising?

BW: It took about two months before we got the first batch in. In the first batch was Edgar Silex, Barbara DeCesare, Chris Toll (who died after he submitted), and Jessica Lynn Dotson. The interesting thing there is that Edgar and Chris and Barbara were veteran writers. Jessica Lynn Dotson had not published anything before. But since we took those two poems, she’s been in six other magazines and has a Pushcart nomination. She’s just skyrocketing—this is all within three months. Two other authors, Bethany Schultz Hurst and Katherine Cottle, after we accepted their work, they became finalists for the Yale Younger Poetry Award.

Part of the success, I think, is that we were able to put the word out and we’ve been in the business a long time. Probably, if you ask the other writers, they would say, “I always wondered how long it would take Bar and Jim to do something like this.” The other thing is: Because we’re so involved with literature, writing poems and stories and doing all the book reviews and going to a lot of readings, we’re all able to find these authors when they’re really on the rise.

CHR: How did you determine what piece is featured on the website, like Bethany Schultz Hurst’s?

BW: We’re just basically trying to feature a different one every month. First we chose Scott King, and then we chose Bethany. Part of it had to do with the timing of when they made submissions. Scott King submitted his work early, so we had more time to fall in love with him. As for Bethany, she is somebody I’ve sort of been tracking for six months and I’m seeing her get more and more stuff out there. So I felt like I knew her a little bit as well. The point of the splash page on the website is to share a story about the author, if there’s a story to be told.

CHR: Is anyone on the staff paid, or is it all volunteer?

BW: We’re all crazy volunteers.

CHR: 14 clams?

BW: We’re happy to receive clams. We were offered a dozen oysters, but that’s not a rarity in Annapolis. We took the oysters but we still made them buy the review. None of us are used to being hustlers—we’re not used to being salesman. We’re just trying on these outfits and doing the best we can to make it work.

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