What led to the idea of the Roanoke Review? What were you hoping to achieve?
It’s my recollection that Ed Tedeschi, a senior English major, came into my office one day and said he had something he wanted to talk to me about. He thought it would be a good idea for the College to have a literary magazine that published work from outside the Roanoke College community, and wondered whether I would serve as a faculty advisor to the effort. I agreed to that, and we talked for a while about what to call the publication. He was for something catchy, and I was for something traditional like The Roanoke Review. I think I actually persuaded him, rather than pulling rank or anything like that. We figured out over the next few days or weeks what it would cost, and found support from the administration, and were launched. While we were fully conscious that a serious magazine reaching beyond the campus is usually a good thing for any college or university, I think we did all that out of a sense of adventure, as well as a conviction that there’s always room for another good magazine.
Did you imagine that the Review would still be publishing content fifty years later?
I doubt that I gave much thought in those days to anything about the two-thousand-teens. I was twenty-five years old, learning to be a college teacher with about middling success, trying to find my way. I had been in the business long enough to know that magazines had a way of springing up, thriving a while, then folding. I am inexpressibly delighted that the magazine continues as it does.
What drove you as an editor? What kind of content were you seeking then?
We need to be clear here that in fact Ed Tedeschi was the magazine’s first editor. I was the faculty advisor. I understand that at a point in its history, the magazine began to have a faculty member as its editor; I think that may have occurred during the tenure of Robert Walter. Even as faculty advisor, though, I put a lot of effort into rounding up work from people I knew well enough to ask them for it. Ed and I wanted the first issue to have good work in it, by at least some people already known to a decent readership. I had come to Roanoke College immediately after completing my Master’s in creative writing at Hollins College, and I pulled pretty hard on the threads of connection there. Malcolm Cowley was Writer in Residence there that year; R.H.W. Dillard (a Roanoke College alumnus) was on the faculty then, and is still; William Jay Smith had recently converted an appointment as Writer in Residence to a full-time position in the English Department; Don Goertz taught Classics; Lee Smith was a senior, and Christine Costigan, now the novelist Christine Schutt, was maybe a junior. Roanoke College was represented by Cathy Wills, a student, and a couple of faculty/staff members, Grace Bosworth and Marjorie Kirby. Franklin Haar was a local poet not affiliated with the College. Kelly Cherry, Jim Seay, William Stafford, David Slavitt (writing as Henry Sutton), and William Peden were all distinguished writers at various stages of their careers, and were friends of mine.
What did you learn during your time working with the Roanoke Review?
I was lucky enough to have spent some time as editor of a literary magazine when I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. So in the realm of ordinary content selection, arrangement, copy editing, and so on, I had some experience. I got a fresh lesson in the generosity of my superiors, as I went about asking for submissions.
One of the things I remember best about the magazine’s early development was that I could sometimes be lucky with a counterintuitive hunch. When the time came to think about a successor to Ed Tedeschi, who was graduating, a student who kept re-occurring to me was Walter Erhardt, a junior with virtually no literary experience—a chemistry major with a strong GPA who had taken one or two of my English classes. He was getting A’s from me, on papers that were not only very good fulfillments of the assignments, but also examples of grace in style. It was obvious to me that he was very well organized, and would probably not suffer academically if he took on a hefty extracurricular task. Of course he was a bit startled and mystified when I first broached the subject with him, but he came to understand why I had thought of him, and did a fine job. I no longer have the thirtieth anniversary issue of the magazine, but I recall that he sent a message saying that the Roanoke Review contributed to his later involvement in editorial matters as part of his professional work.
What place or purpose do you think a literary magazine has in the writing community?
There is a large number of such places and purposes. It’s not unusual in the history of literary magazines to find one here or there that was brought into existence primarily to publish the work of the people who started it. For one example, William Carlos Williams and Robert McAlmon began in 1920 to put out Contact, which was at first just a stapled batch of mimeographed pages. This sort of thing happened often enough in those days that E. E. Cummings satirized it in a poem collected in No Thanks (1935). It has no title; its first line has a quotation mark at the beginning:
“let’s start a magazine
to hell with literature
we want something redblooded
lousy with pure
reeking with stark
and fearlessly obscene
but really clean
get what I mean . . . .”
[E. E. Cummings, Complete Poems 1913-1962 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972), p. 407.]
Over time, a durable magazine reflects changes in editorial personnel, but such changes take place in the light of the magazine’s past.
How have you seen literary magazines evolve over the years? Where would you like to see them in the future?
A word such as “evolve,” like “develop,” suggests some sort of progress, but I think we’re talking about something that does not necessarily improve with the passage of time, at least not in the way automobile tires or computers can be said to have improved over the past several decades. (When I say “computers,” I don’t include software. The past several versions of Microsoft Word have varied in quality in much the same way that a series of books by a novelist will vary.)
Poetry, for a sterling example, has been in existence for over a century, and has published work by most of the country’s leading poets in any given period. It has had several editors since its founding by Harriet Monroe, who with the help of Ezra Pound brought into its June 1915 issue “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In November of the same year, she published a version of Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning.” No subsequent editor of the magazine has had that combination of luck, good advice, and judgment. Nevertheless, it continues to receive thousands of submissions each month.
The Roanoke Review is among the participants in a very significant contemporary development in periodicals, namely going online and saying goodbye to print. This is a phase in the evolution of literary magazines that is still shaking down. My first electronic publication was just over thirty years ago, so the phenomenon hasn’t exactly sneaked up on me; I’ve been aware for a long time that issues of copyright security and archival durability are on one pan of the scale, and on the other are issues of accessibility, electronic searching, and relative ease of production. And readers are still divided concerning whether reading bound hard copy is better or worse than reading on a screen.
What inspires you as a writer?
Every piece of writing I do has been kicked into gear by some unique stimulus—a phrase read or overheard, something seen, something recalled in a different light than whatever illuminated it every other time I’ve remembered it—and so on. I have no rituals or habits that I use to switch on my writing self; it comes when it comes. Of course it’s useful not to be tired or unusually distracted.
There was a period of many years when all my first drafts were written on a lapboard as I sat in a particular armchair. Therefore, just sitting down there and putting the board across the arms would usually get me into a productive state. However, about ten years ago, arthritis in my fingers made it increasingly difficult to sustain long stretches of handwriting, and I went over to the computer even for first drafts. This seems to add more steps to the revision process, but other than that I don’t see much difference.
One aspect of my past has made a strong contribution to my process, though it’s hard to define its effects very precisely. In most of the years before I was about thirty-five, I was active in horsemanship—mostly training young horses for showing, hunting, and eventing. Among the great lessons a writer can take away from that activity are, first, that you can visualize what a two-year-old horse might be like when it reaches the age of five, but you can’t really find out what it will be in less time than those three years. Patience goes with the territory. Second, although horses can learn what you mean by a few spoken words, virtually all the communication between horse and rider is non-verbal, and the rider develops an increasingly subtle and versatile physical “vocabulary.” The metaphorical force of this, on a writer trying to find words for the inexpressible, seems to me powerful, even if it is no more than a kind of encouraging reassurance.
What was the Roanoke College English Department like?
In the fall of 1966, there were, if I recall correctly, seven people in the English Department, five of whom had been there a while, and two of whom had arrived that semester. Larry Andrews and I, the newcomers, shared an office that was off across the campus from the rest of the department. Current campus maps are too hard for me to use to locate where we were in those days; too many new buildings (at least one named for Homer Bast, who was there when I was), have sprung up. The following year I moved over to whatever building it was that housed the rest of the department. Perry Kendig, the President of the College, may have had a faculty appointment in our department; he came to Roanoke College as Dean of the College, but he had a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, and would give me a sympathetic ear when I sought a little extra honorarium money for a visiting writer.
We were a small group, and had to work hard. A twelve-hour load with three preparations was fairly standard, and most of us taught at least one section of freshman composition and one section of sophomore literature; in my first semester, and again in my second, I taught two of each. The design of those courses had been well established before I arrived, so I was spared the task of making up a syllabus until my second year, when I was allowed to teach a course in creative writing and a course in modern poetry.
Theories of composition pedagogy have sprouted, flourished, and gone to seed a few times since those days. At that time it was believed that students should learn to recognize by name such sentence destroyers as errors of agreement between subject and verb, dangling modifiers, failures of parallel structure, sentence fragments and run-on sentences, comma splices . . . . These topics were covered in class, supplemented by readings and exercises in the Harbrace College Handbook, a classic text that greatly enhanced the philanthropic resources of its author, Professor John C. Hodges of the University of Tennessee. Study of this text may have been helpful in preparation for the dreaded Grammar Proficiency Test, a strict requirement of the freshman composition sequence. A passing grade was 90, so it was known as “The A or F Test.” It still stuns me to think that a passing grade on all other work could combine with a score of 89 on that test to compel repetition of the course. (I suppose that in fact the questions were so weighted as to make it impossible to earn as close a score as 89.)
When I think over my two years at Roanoke College, I recall that my level of maturity and professionalism was not yet what it should have been. I had an enthusiasm for teaching in the classroom and in the office, and I learned quickly to get graded papers back as soon as possible, because so many of them were constantly pouring in. (In my first semester I graded 1,384 items, many of them, admittedly, as short as a paragraph.) But there were ways in which I was neglectful of basic duties, and I have ever since been grateful for the quick and kindly way in which Matthew M. Wise corrected me. The English Department was small, but it was a real community that cared for its members, and I have long felt privileged to have been a part of it.