Thirty years ago, when I began to write in earnest, a teacher encouraged me to start submitting my work to literary journals. Just a teenager, I was unfamiliar with the form, but over the years journals have become for me, as for most literary writers, the way into the world of publishing.
For readers, these publications are like a tasting menu – dozens of poems by a variety of poets, several short stories or essays, even excerpts from novels-in-progress – all by writers from different backgrounds, different levels of experience and often with wide-ranging attitudes and voices. It’s like the mixtape of the written word, introducing audiences to a group of writers of whom they might otherwise never be aware.
There are hundreds of active literary journals in the U.S. today. Some, but by no means all, are affiliated with universities and MFA programs, but there are many that are independent entities or offshoots of small presses. For every big-name journal like Gettysburg Review or Kenyon Review, Ploughshares or Poetry magazine, there are dozens of smaller, lesser-known publications with dedicated staffs who sift through submissions out of love of the written word and respect for the writing community.
Baltimore is home to several well-respected journals — The Baltimore Review, Little Patuxent Review, Loch Raven Review, and Smartish Pace, to name a few. The Jarnal is Baltimore’s latest, the project of Mason Jar Press, a Baltimore publisher established in 2014 that publishes both handmade, limited-run chapbooks and full-length books. In 2021, managing editor Michael B. Tager and the rest of the staff at Mason Jar embarked on the process of bringing us this exciting new magazine. We spoke to Michael about this endeavor.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Why a literary magazine? What were your goals when you decided to start The Jarnal?
Michael Tager: Everyone here at Mason Jar got their start, in one way or another, with literary journals: submitting to them, creating them, reading for them. We’re firm believers that lit journals are the heartsblood of the whole writing “thing.” They’re just really cool literary artifacts, curated from a particular editor(s)’ aesthetic and formed from whatever came in on the call. Then out into the world, to wreak what havoc they may.
We’ve tinkered with doing a journal here for years but were never able to get it together for one reason or another. Online journals are a nonstop endeavor with rolling submission periods, long back-and-forths with staff members, etc. We knew we couldn’t do it.
Back in April we decided to go for it, but in a sustainable way, like other journals and magazines like Hobart After Dark (HAD) do: brief submission periods, brief reading periods, and then shutting it down. We leaned into this spirit of a pop-up in every way: four-day submission window, low word count (3 poems or 1000 words per sub) and a time limit on acceptances–1 week from close of submissions. Even our editing and publication window were tight; it came out in October, so a 6-month turnaround from start to finish.
This was all to keep it in that spirit. To not overthink things, to go with the gut and still put out something cool and weird and literary. Which we did! And we have another one that’s going to open for submissions at our website on March 1, with a guest editor (Aditya Desai) to keep the whole thing fresh.
BFB: What is unique about The Jarnal? What do you hope readers will take away from your publication?
MT: Mason Jar has its own aesthetic: we like it weird, but we also like it accessible, and our catalog reflects that. The kinds of writers who follow and submit to us are drawn to what we do and reflect that same kind of taste. It isn’t avant-garde, but it isn’t exactly the run-of-the-mill, either and we think it’s a pretty good time. We hope a reader will sit down and snicker at its idiosyncrasies, and then be leveled by the occasional gut punch, which is sort of how we like to roll in general. We’re all serious people who don’t take ourselves too seriously, and we tend to put that out into the world.
BFB: What was your editorial process? Did any aspect of the process surprise you? High points? Low points?
MT: I went into this with the mindset of not overthinking anything. As may be suspected, a lot of writers are big overthinkers and that can bog down any creative process. It’s not a bad thing, but I wanted to avoid it, so I made a lot of snap decisions and I’m surprised that it worked well. I mean, I accepted one piece about 6 minutes after it was submitted because it hit me just right. The author was quite surprised by that turnaround.
I don’t know if I was surprised by anything beyond the number of subs (450 submitted in that 4-day period). Since it was our first time doing it, and we didn’t advertise beforehand or anywhere besides our social media, I didn’t expect that kind of response. Of the 23 authors whose work made it into the book, 18 of them were total strangers to me. We were also the first publication for at least one of those authors, which is an amazing feeling.
BFB: There is a huge range of voices and styles in this volume. Did you set out with diversity as a goal?
MT: Diversity is something we’re committed to and something we’ve been working toward from the beginning. There’s always a lot more work to be done, but we hope that the kinds of submissions we get are the results of years of doing our best to be responsible citizens. So, no, the goal of the journal wasn’t to be diverse so much as the goal of our press is to be as inclusive as possible.
BFB: If you could give any advice to submitters, what would it be?
MT: Read the guidelines and follow them. I couldn’t tell you how many submissions for this call that I rejected out of hand for not doing that. I’m not a stickler (I’m not going to reject something that’s 1001 words when I asked for 1000), but for something like this, I was more of one than usual. I don’t think writers realize just how many submissions presses and journals receive and what kind of limited staff they have. For me, I had 450 subs to get through, by myself, on a very tight deadline, and that meant that if someone really drew outside the lines, they were pretty much automatically rejected, with a form letter that said they failed to follow the guidelines.
Showing up prepared is more than half the battle as far as I’m concerned, because so many people don’t.
BFB: Any other plans — either concrete or just hopes/dreams for the future — for The Jarnal/other projects through Mason Jar?
MT: We have every intention of doing an issue of The Jarnal every year with a new guest editor! Every year it will have a different tone and sensibility, in order to get different viewpoints out in the world. We’re super excited about it.