"Art isn't an extra for society,
it's something we have to have."
An Interview with Matt Bell, Editor of online magazine The Collagist by Jessica Powers
Posted September 12, 2011
Jessica: Can you tell me how The Collagist got started? How did you get started with Dzanc?
Matt: We just had our 24th issue, so we’ve been doing it two years, once a month. And I’ve been working for Dzanc Books in a couple of different capacities. I started as a member of their Writer in Residence program, where I taught elementary school creative writing once a week, and then I worked as the Best of the Web Series Editor for the 2010 edition. After that, we started kicking around the idea for an online magazine, which they fund and support. We started working on it in May 2008, and the first issue came out in August 2008.
Jessica: Out of curiosity, how has it done during that time period? Are you getting a lot of submissions, a lot of readers?
Matt: It’s been really good. I think the hits go up constantly. Submission quality goes up. We had a period of about six months just after we came out where submissions dropped quite a bit and then they came back, with more submissions that fit us. We were doing things consistently enough and had a good enough editorial vision that people were picking up on it and sending us the right kind of work, which has been really great. But we’ve had fantastic submissions from the beginning. Other than the first issue, we didn’t solicit anything, so everything we have in the magazine came in through the general submissions.
Jessica: Were you ever able to figure out why you had that dip?
Matt: I think there’s always a dip at certain times of the year anyway. But part of it was a lot of people had submitted when we first opened for submissions, and then there’s a waiting period before people submit again. But now it’s pretty consistent. I think we have about the same amount all the time when I go into the system to look. But there’s only one person reading for both poetry and prose, on each. Matthew Olzmann edits the poetry, I do the prose. We get as much as we can handle, maybe.
Jessica: What’s The Collagist’s mission statement? What’s your shtick?
Matt: I’m not big on mission statements but the idea for us—and this is true for Dzanc in general—is that we want to publish work that maybe other people wouldn’t or that is unique in some way. I think rather than having a mission statement, I’m much happier having the issues themselves speak for themselves, or the books we publish speak for themselves. When people ask what The Collagist is about, I want to talk to them about stories we like as opposed to giving them, “We want to publish fresh and exciting emerging writers,” like everyone else on earth. I try to talk more about what we’re doing than the bad mission statement I could come up with.
Jessica: I agree that a lot of mission statements sound the same. Since that’s true, how do you suggest people find what is the best stuff to submit if there’s no mission statement?
Matt: Always the best way to find out is to read the magazine. Every editor says that and it’s just the truth. That’s how I know where to submit stuff as a writer, that’s how I know what a magazine is about, or what kind of my work they might be interested in, the different things I do. Other than solicitations or first issues I’ve been in, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a magazine that I wasn’t already a reader of. I don’t think you can skip that step. That’s a really important thing. Why would you want to be in a magazine that you don’t read? If you don’t like the magazine or you don’t know what it is, even if someone else tells you it’s prestigious, it’s not going to mean anything to you.
Jessica: Are writers who submit to The Collagist already familiar with your magazine or are you getting a wide variety of submissions that are clearly writers submitting everywhere, you know, throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing if it will stick?
Matt: I think you get some of that. I don’t think you get very many successful submissions like that. One of the benefits of being the only reader for a magazine is that you don’t have to linger over something or get nine different opinions on it. I can go through the initial reads on stories pretty fast, and the things that would never be a fit for us—they’re just aesthetically not right—are pretty easy to see within a page. It’s not difficult to do that part of the job. The hard part is the stuff that could be but…
Jessica: It’s not quite there or…
Matt: Yeah, or we have limited space. There are lots of reasons something might get turned down. But the initial read with stuff that doesn’t fit—sometimes that’s really good stuff that just isn’t for us. We have a pretty specific thing we do and it doesn’t fit everything.
Jessica: So why another literary magazine and why online?
Matt: One of the things we thought about at Dzanc is that we were publishing six to eight books a year at the time, and we have several imprints that were publishing books, and we were interacting with all these writers that we really liked and were interesting and publishing new works in literary magazines. Reading for Best of the Web, reading 1500 nominations, you’re just reading all this great stuff being published. You know, Dzanc only gets to support six to eight people a year with a book. With The Collagist, we’re publishing a hundred writers a year in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction and doing book reviews. That was really important to us. It was a way to interact with and support a broader cross-section of writers.
We also do two other things in every issue: We publish novel excerpts from books that are coming out from other independent presses that same month, so that gives us the chance to cross-promote other presses and promote writers that are publishing in other presses that we really like and get to share some of their work. And we usually do between four and five book reviews, which lets us support books from other presses, emerging writers, building the community that way, especially with book reviews disappearing in so many places.
And why online? In some ways, obviously, starting a print magazine is more difficult, so there’s that, but it’s also allowed us to do a lot and to be very timely. In twenty-four issues in two years, it means we’ve published almost two hundred pieces of fiction, say fifty novel excerpts, and two hundred book reviews… In print, it’s very slow. And things like book reviews and novel excerpts couldn’t be as timely as we are able to be online. So I think there’ve been a lot of advantages.
Jessica: Do you and the press find that the online magazine helps market Dzanc books as well? Is there some cross-pollination purposes going on there?
Matt: One of the reasons I think we got so many great submissions right away is because it’s attached to Dzanc, that if I were just starting an online magazine by myself it wouldn’t have that built in reputation, which is really useful. I think we get book submissions from people that have been in The Collagist and vice versa. One of the things it does for us, as a press, is that, where a book only comes out every two months, and we’re not constantly having something new, with the magazine coming out every month, and us doing podcasts and blogging, it gives us something new happening at Dzanc every day or every couple of days as opposed to just every two months, this big thing. The big thing of the books and the big thing of the issues, and all the small stuff in between—that’s really useful.
Jessica: Can I just say that I get tired seeing all that Dzanc does. Do you guys ever sleep?
Matt: We get asked that a lot. We do do a lot. We have a really good staff, and everybody works hard, is very dedicated to what we do. But it’s also really rewarding, and we’re lucky to be able to do this with a lot of our time. We like what we’re doing. I enjoy sitting down and reading submissions, I enjoy laying out an issue, I enjoy editing a manuscript. I’ve had to do a lot of things for a day job that I didn’t particularly enjoy, and this is really pretty fantastic, so it’s easy to work hard at it.
Jessica: Does the Emerging Writers Network play at all into The Collagist’s work?
Matt: The Emerging Writers doesn’t play directly into The Collagist. The way Dan Wickett initially became involved in Dzanc was through The Emerging Writers Network. That’s how he and Steve Gillis met, and certainly a lot of the early authors that worked at Dzanc knew Dan from there. As far as The Collagist, I don’t think it’s had that kind of direct pollination, though it moves in the same realm.
Jessica: I’m curious besides the obvious benefits of being online—not as expensive, etc.—can you list some of the other benefits that are not as obvious?
Matt: It allows us to be really flexible in what we publish. We’re interested in different mediums—we published an essay that was done in html. It was a personal essay that was blending things from an old text-based video game and we used html to mimic the video game look in the essay. We’ve published things with art. We’ve published linked pieces by different writers that were writing in collaboration with an artist. It’s really easy to do that online, where with print you might have to decide, “Can we afford to do this?” We don’t have a specific page size, we can print up something that is two pages wide instead of just one, etc. There is just work that can be done online that can’t be done in other ways, and we’re constantly open to that.
Jessica: I remember back in 1999, when I was graduating from my MFA program, one of the writers was experimenting with hypertext, and it seemed really bizarre. Only twelve years later…
Matt: I think for awhile there was a lot of hypertext fiction, people were doing it directly, but I think there’s less of it now. I don’t want to say it was faddy because some really good things were done that way, but for whatever reason, it’s faded a little bit. But people use html every day now. If you use Facebook, you’re writing hypertext—it’s being done for you, with tagging and so on.
Jessica: How do you find your readers and how do you market The Collagist?
Matt: We do very little direct marketing for the magazine—we’ve never taken out an ad or anything. We do Facebook and Twitter, as I’m active on them personally quite a bit, but the biggest way is our contributors and our submitters. We have great people sending to us and being [published in] the magazine. One of the benefits of publishing so much is that we very quickly built a large contributor base. And a lot of what we get, submission-wise, is coming from people being recommended, and some of that brings in readers. We also do interviews with all of our contributors on our blog which is, in part, just a way to keep mentioning the piece one more time, trying to draw in more readers. I spend less time on marketing the magazine than on most of the other things I do for it. Doing the best job I can on the publication is, to me, the best ad for it.
Jessica: You mention Facebook and Twitter. Do you find any other social networking sites helpful?
Matt: We’re all using Google Plus now, as you know, so we’ll have to figure that out. In general, though, those are the two I mostly use, but those are the two things I like. I enjoy using Facebook, I enjoy using Twitter. Google Plus seems promising. But I would say that as far as what other magazines or writers— people should use what they’re comfortable with or what they want to use. I think if you enjoy it and you have fun with it, great, but I don’t think every magazine has to have a Twitter or Facebook account.
Jessica: Or every writer.
Matt: Or every writer, absolutely. The same thing with blogs. People shouldn’t have blogs if they don’t want to update them. Blogging’s not for everybody. It’s better not to have a blog than to have a bad one. But you should probably have some kind of website, by the time you’re publishing seriously. Certainly by the time you’re ready to send out a book.
Jessica: The thing that keeps running through my head, I keep harkening back to what you say about being employed full-time at The Collagist.
Matt: Not by The Collagist, that’s a small part of it. If I did that full time, that would be nice. I work for Dzanc full time. I’m the Senior Editor there. The Collagist is part of it, but I’m also editing books and reading manuscripts and doing website design. I do the e-book design and a variety of other things, promotion. We have fundraising to do because we’re a non-profit. So I’m there full time, but I’m not doing the literary magazine full time.
Jessica: One thing I was going to ask and I think it’s still pertinent, how does an online magazine survive without a connection to a university or a press or independent wealth?
Matt: Sure, sure. It’s a lot cheaper to run than a print magazine. A print magazine is really difficult to run by yourself, but an online magazine—hosting? Ten bucks a month! I think you can run an online magazine for the price of a really good dinner and a bottle of wine. So I don’t think it’s that difficult, financially, especially compared to print, where a hundred copies of a magazine is a lot of money, and it’s hard to sell a hundred copies when you’re a new magazine. So it’s a different thing. We don’t have that need to generate customers in the same way.
One of the difficulties of magazines or small presses in general is that the people who are most likely to be your customers when you’re starting out are the people who are submitting to you. So you’re spending all your time saying no to the people most likely to buy your product. When you’re starting a small print magazine, that can be a real hard thing because the first people to know about you are the people trying to be in it and you’re spending all your time telling them "no." I think there are a lot of advantages to starting online.
Jessica: How many hours a week do you actually devote to The Collagist?
Matt: I’m not sure. It depends on the week. I’m always reading submissions; I read submissions every day, at least a little bit. Sometimes I’ll sit down and spend hours making final decisions or reading heavier amounts, depending on how much is in there. When it’s a week where we have a new issue, and I’m doing layouts or managing copyedits or editing all the prose except the book reviews, those times can be whole days. But there might be one whole day a month and then lots of time in between. I’ve never tried to break it down.
Jessica: How do you balance everything? You also teach, don’t you?
Matt: I do. I taught last year on a really limited scale and I’m teaching this fall at Michigan. It helps if you like everything you do. If you enjoy it, it’s easier to juggle. I write as soon as I wake up in the morning until lunch every day, and then I do Dzanc work until 8 p.m., every day, give or take. Obviously, it gets broken up by other things.
Jessica: You clearly don’t have children, Matt.
Matt: No. No children. But Dan and Steve have kids and they also work really long days, so you can do it. But as I said, it helps; it’s a twelve hour work day or a fifteen hour work day, but it’s not the same kind of work as other things. I used to manage restaurants and put in a sixty-hour work week and it wasn’t this. This is enjoyable. I can’t complain.
Jessica: I had a baby last year and I remember those twelve to fifteen hour days. I’m still putting in those days but differently.
Matt: Well, I think what you’re doing is pretty valuable and fulfilling too, right?
Jessica: Yes, it definitely feels valuable. With the internet and other electronic formats becoming such an indispensible part of the literary world, how do you see that changing literature?
Matt: As far as how online magazines will affect it?
Jessica: Yeah, sure.
Matt: Here’s what I think. I think that long-term the internet and books and print publishing aren’t different things. I think the idea that they’re different things is already fading. Every print magazine is also publishing online or doing a kindle version or something. Every new book that comes out is also an e-book. I read online magazines on my iPad and I read books on my iPad. They’re basically the same thing in my mind at this point. It’s not that different to read something in an online magazine or a print magazine. It’s different but not vastly different. I think that difference is going to keep diminishing.
Ten years ago, it was interesting to talk constantly about online magazines vs. print magazines or e-books vs. print books, but more and more, people are finding that they’re the same thing. The magazine they’re reading online might be the same magazine you have a print copy of. Watching something on Hulu is the same thing as watching it on your television. It’s not a different thing. For the most part, we’re just going to be reading and it’s not going to matter as much where we do it.
Jessica: One thing that does seem to be changing, to me, is that there’s a lot more coming into print for lack of a better term, and by print, I just mean published, online or actually printed. There’s a lot more being published than ever before.
Matt: Oh, absolutely. Even starting a print magazine, the barrier to entry is so much lower than it used to be, with desktop publishing and digital publishing and print-on-demand. You can start a literary magazine and print copies of it tomorrow if you want, which you didn’t used to be able to do. It used to be vastly more costly and time-consuming, you had to have different scales. I think today just about anybody could reasonably publish something that looks like a book tomorrow, which is why people are. That’s great. I don’t have a problem with anybody starting an extra hundred magazines.
Jessica: Are there any electronic resources you find indispensible as an editor or as a writer?
Matt: Wikipedia? I use Google Reader every day to consume the internet. I use Facebook and Twitter in a community and social kind of way. I read a lot of magazines online, a lot of lit blogs I really like. They’re part of my daily life, so maybe they are indispensable. I’m just trying to think of something I use all the time. I’m not submitting to a lot of magazines right now, so that’s not part of my thing, but certainly sites like NewPages and Luna Park I read a lot and they were always ones I suggested to other people starting out to find out where they fit into the lit mag world.
Jessica: Does The Collagist use any sort of online submission process as opposed to just emailing it to you?
Matt: We use Submishmash. We were one of the beta testers for that and so we’ve been using it since it first got developed. I think it’s great. They’ve been really fantastic people to work with and continue to evolve the software. That’s the only one of the submission managers I’ve ever used, so I haven’t experienced the other ones. But I really like Submishmash, I’ve been really happy with it.
Jessica: So tell me what you think about the AWP [Association of Writers and Writing Programs]. Is that really important for writers to attend? And why or why not?
Matt: I really like AWP. There’s always animosity towards it, but if people don’t like that sort of thing, they don’t have to go. The book fair is a great time; it’s great to see what everybody else is doing, publications you don’t know about, it’s good to interact with editors you’ve submitted to or interacted with. There’s always a couple of panels every year that I get a lot out of. We have a table for Dzanc, and I’m usually there all day behind the table with Dan, talking about our books and the magazine and that sort of thing, which I love. We get to meet our authors, and every year there’s somebody we haven’t met before. And, of course, you get to interact with a lot of people who send us work or bought a book and loved it. There’s always a lot of great readings.
I think you get out of that sort of thing what you put into it. I’ve gone for three years, and I’ve always been on a panel, worked on a table. It’s more enjoyable because I’m part of it. I’ve never had the experience of just going. If you’re already an interested, involved person, you’re going to find more things to be interested and involved with there.
Jessica: Last year was the first year I haven’t gone in a few years and for some reason, I’ve never noticed this before. Do a lot of online magazines advertise there?
Matt: There are a number. A lot of them do readings, because that makes more sense, but there are a number that always have tables. Again, that’s something you feel a little awkward about because it’s an online magazine, you can’t look at it. But I think people bring laptops or iPads to show what they’re doing more and more, and I think it’s becoming more common. But it’s a little different kind of promotional thing than bringing a stack of books. The nice thing is, you’re not trying to sell your stack of books, so you just get to be friendly.
Jessica: The last thing I would like to hear from you is how you balance your work—your editing work, your writing career—what you’re working on, what you’re reading outside of work.
Matt: I mostly balance it by doing all of it every day. I always write first—that’s my first priority after my family. But I wake up every morning and I write at least a little bit, usually quite a bit but at least a little, then I work in the afternoons doing editing and reading manuscripts and doing other things. Then I tend to read in the evenings, if I’m not doing something with my wife. So in some way, it’s balanced—the way I think about it is that I used to have a lot of jobs I didn’t like, and I wanted to do this all day. So now it’s easy for me to do this all day because this is what I wanted—I wanted to read and write and edit all day, and I get to do that. I do, generally, seven days a week, spend my time doing that. Living this literary life I wanted, it’s easy to balance because I’m not balancing it against something. I’m already doing what I want to be doing when I’m doing it.
Jessica: So what are you currently working on?
Matt: I’m working on a novel. It’s really all I’ve done since last January, so pretty seriously just that. I have a new book coming out next April and then hopefully the novel after that.
Jessica: What’s the new book coming out?
Matt: The new book is called Cataclysm Baby. It’s a novella-in-shorts, a series of twenty-six post-apocalyptic parenting stories. That’ll be out next April, from Mud Luscious Press.
Jessica: And so outside of your work, are you reading anything?
Matt: Yes, absolutely! I just finished this morning a book in Graywolf’s Art Of series, it’s Mark Doty’s Art of Description, which was phenomenal. This year I’m trying to read or re-read all of Cormac McCarthy’s books. He’s one of my favorite writers and there’s a couple I haven’t read or hadn’t read in awhile. There’s always, always something I’m reading. I’m the kind of person who has five books in every room of the house and supposedly reading them all. It does seem weird to spend all day reading and writing and then, to take a break from that, to read, but it’s great. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing.
Jessica: Now the real question, is your wife also a workaholic?
Matt: Well, she is right now. She’s a Ph.D. student at Michigan and she works very hard and is gone most of the day, which does make it easier for me to do this, which might not always be true. But yeah, we both work really hard; we both tend to work all week. We have a lot of fun, too, but these things are important.
Jessica: Do you ever think that maybe you should be saving the world?
Matt: [laughs] God, I hope that is not my responsibility because I probably would not be up for that.
Jessica: I ask that because back before I had the baby, I was, like you, spending twelve hours a day reading and writing, and there were times when I thought, Am I making a difference in the world with this at all? You feel really selfish to be able to do that and yet it was what I loved.
Matt: That’s fair. I don’t know. There are lots of ways inside our position to give back. I just got done teaching a summer camp for high school writers. And I taught elementary school, getting to work with young people who are just starting to read and write well. And of course, my college-level teaching. And I think editing is part of this too. Art is important. Art isn’t an extra for society, it’s something we have to have. When you edit a magazine or edit a press, if you’re good to the people who submit to you and you’re good to your contributors, and if when you edit, your goal is to help them not only make this piece great, but help them be a better writer down the road—because that’s what people did for us—then maybe those things are making the world better.
I think art is important and the making of art is important. So maybe you’re not curing polio—well, it’s already cured, so you don’t have to—but okay, you’re not curing any disease, but you’re doing something that’s also very important. My wife does cancer research and says she always feels like she should be doing something important to help people, so I don’t think you ever get rid of that, even when you are literally doing something important to help people. We all feel like we’re not doing enough, but in our own ways, we find ways to contribute. And there’s lots of opportunities to do so in literature.
Jessica Powers writes as J.L. Powers. Her recent novel, This Thing Called the Future, a coming-of-age story set in post-apartheid South Africa, was just published by Cinco Puntos Press. She can be found on the web at www.jlpowers.net.