Editors Talk: Jane Huffman, Editor-in-Chief of Guesthouse
As a platform for emerging poets, our mission is to provide practical help for serious writers. The community lifts itself up together or not at all. In that light, we’ve been asking some great editors from around the literary community for their frank thoughts on why poems may get accepted/rejected from their own slush pile of submissions, and what poets can do to better their chances. Today, we’re speaking with Jane Huffman, Editor-in-Chief of Guesthouse: a panoply of modern writing.
What led you to study and work in the teaching of creative writing? Who were your early literary/artistic influences/mentors?
Jane Huffman: Reading and writing and art-making were focal points for me throughout my youth, but I wasn’t keyed into poetry as a contemporary art form until I took one of Diane Seuss’ poetry writing classes at Kalamazoo College. She assigned books by living poets, provided rigorous writing prompts that took seriously our ideas, thoughts, and feelings, and challenged us to lay it all out on the table. Her classes were transformational, and what came through was her dedication to helping each student walk to the edge of the unknown. I could name a hundred books and poems I studied in her classes that formed me, but the one that stands out is Evie Shockley’s The New Black. It was the book that first exposed me to the possibilities of form. After that first course, everything –– my shoelaces, the very heads of the dandelions –– began pointing me toward a writing life. Di has supported me continuously over the last ten years, as she has to so many poets, and she has been pivotal in helping me find my footing as an educator now that I have students of my own. If I’m lucky, I inherited from her an iota of the tenacity and humanity she brought to the classroom.
When did Guesthouse start? What are the origins of the name of the magazine?
I founded Guesthouse in 2017 with the help of a few peers from my graduate program. I was on the brink of graduating with my MFA, I was working a day job I hated, and I wanted to stay tethered to the writing community. Even though those peers have since moved on from the project, they were formative in its origins and helped establish its vision. I wanted to found a journal that filled a gap I saw in the field –– a journal that incorporated a critical foreword that analyzed not some but all of the pieces published in each issue. Seldom, I thought, do the poems, essays, and short stories published in literary magazines get the critical attention they deserve. That was the seed that grew into what the journal is today, and writing that foreword, with the help of my team, is one of the most rewarding parts of the process. The journal was also a realization of an inkling I’d had for many years. Prior to founding Guesthouse, I volunteered for Sundress Publications in various editorial roles. They taught me the inner workings of online publishing, down to the smallest cog, and what is possible when you build strong, inclusive online communities.
The name of the magazine, Guesthouse, was spontaneous. It occurred to me that it would be a good name for a literary journal because it captured the ethos of online publishing. A literary magazine, like a guesthouse, is a liminal space, one through which people move. Although we keep an archive so that all published work is accessible in perpetuity, we feature one issue of writers at a time, and then they move on to make room for the next. I thought that “Guesthouse” captured the shape of that movement. I also liked the name because it’s warm and welcoming. I try my best to take care with every part of the journal, especially in working with our contributors. I want them to feel like their work has been treated with respect and dignity. I want the journal to be a bit of a resting place for our visitors, too, somewhere they can spend a few minutes and enjoy an experience that has been curated for them.
What advice do you have for new poets who are submitting work?
I’d advise anyone who is submitting work to cast a wide net and research smaller, independent magazines like ours. There are entire universes of literary publishing beyond the major players in the field. I’m all for divesting from the paradigm that creates a fixed hierarchy among publishing venues. It’s a hard paradigm to break because it is reinforced at every level of the industry –– and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with holding a venue in high esteem, including the big dogs. But there’s so much value in publishing small, too.
From a craft standpoint, what usually causes you to accept a poem?
Di, who I mentioned above, works as our poetry editor, so she and I work as a team to curate the poetry we publish. (We publish prose, too, and have great fiction and nonfiction editors at the helm of each genre). What I look for in a poem for Guesthouse is brains, a poem that is rigorous in its vision, no matter what that vision is. Be rigorously playful, rigorously meditative. I tend to go for poems that use form as a tool rather than a container, a poem whose form is considered. I’m also deeply moved by surprise. If that sounds all-encompassing, I’m glad. I try to be open to many different poetic approaches and traditions, and I hope that diversity is reflected in our issues.
What are your favorite/least favorite parts about running a literary journal?
My favorite parts of running the journal are spending time with our contributors’ writing and curating a unique look and feel for each issue. I love graphic design and enjoy that part of the process. The online medium allows for a lot of design flexibility and interactivity, and I have learned so much since founding the journal about what makes a website engaging for visitors. My least favorite part is the time crunch. At the end of the day, Guesthouse is a volunteer-run project run by four people. We work on the journal in our spare time, which means that when an issue is about the launch, I’m pulling late hours and early mornings to make it happen. There’s also the financial pickle of running an independent journal; we rely on charging a small submission fee to cover our expenses. I’m grateful to the community that has sprung up around Guesthouse, and I hope that in doing the work, I can give back to the people who sustain us.
Jane Huffman’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, Poetry, The New Yorker, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She is a 2021 Gregory Djanikian Scholar via The Adroit Journal, and she was a 2019 recipient of the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Jane is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is founder and editor-in-chief of Guesthouse (www.guesthouselit.com), an online literary journal.
Jose Hernandez Diaz
Jose Hernandez Diaz is a 2017 NEA Poetry Fellow. He is from Southern California. He is the author of The Fire Eater (Texas Review Press, 2020). His work appears in The American Poetry Review, Boulevard, The Cincinnati Review, Georgia Review, Iowa Review, The Nation, Poetry and in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. Currently, he is an Associate Editor at Frontier and Guest Editor at Palette Poetry.