Will Koch ’21 talks with former NER intern Alicia Wright ‘11.5 about her pursuit of a doctorate, her experience as an editor, and how NER has shaped her career pursuits.
Alicia Wright on Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia
Will Koch: Where are you now, geographically and professionally?
Alicia Wright: At present, I’m tucked away in an old stone house overlooking a small swamp and the Etowah River in northwest Georgia, where I’m from, in retreat from the Colorado winter. I’m happy to be surrounded by birds, ferns, and trees, to take my dog out canoeing. Because I’m working on my dissertation for my PhD, and because I have the good fortune to be able edit Denver Quarterly remotely, I’ve been able to come back to the place I focus on most in my scholarly and creative work. To that end, I’m finishing one poetry manuscript, in the midst of a new one, honing my critical reviewing skills, reading submissions for Annulet, the literary poetics journal I’ve just started, and applying for jobs, as I’ll be finishing my degree in the summer. It’s a good thing I like my several hats.
WK: That’s a great lead in to my next question! You’re currently a PhD candidate at the University of Denver. What has that experience been like for you? Did you know you were going to pursue this path while you were a Middlebury undergraduate?
AW: Working on a PhD has been precisely what it may seem like: challenging, invigorating in a kind of crazed way, sometimes daunting, and so rewarding. The faculty have been incredible to work with, and it’s such a seismic experience to simultaneously develop your creative and critical thought in conjunction with each other. My program in particular is geared towards creative writers, so there’s been a great deal of flexibility afforded to my studies: I focused on women makers and writers of Black Mountain College (I cited Lisa Mullenneaux’s essay in NER 36.4, “Hilda Morley: Lost on Black Mountain”), the ecopoetics of the US South, and narrative theory for my comprehensive exams. My dissertation is a collection of poetry, and an accompanying critical essay on southeastern ecopoetry and lyric theory that’ll eventually become a monograph (that’s the hope, anyway).
Truth be told: as an undergraduate, I never thought I’d go down this path. I loved creative writing (I took every possible course the department offered), knew that I wanted to somehow be involved with publishing, and spent many long, weird hours in the library basement working through the poetry section. Even though I received truly kind attention from Middlebury faculty, I wasn’t convinced I was “smart enough” to be an academic of any kind. In many ways, I was just squeaking by in my classes—although, I remember, I did split up my thesis into a small poetry collection and a thesis essay, prefiguring my work now, funnily enough. After a foray into the New York publishing world, I realized what sustained me were things like taking poetry classes, going to readings, lurking in bookshops, and volunteering at places like Ugly Duckling Presse. The more I stayed with poetry, especially during my MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I began to realize that poetry was teaching me how to think through and with it, and that what I thought in it and about it might actually be good. I’ve kept an editorial perspective on all my work, which I suspect has been a useful metric for how I want to position availability of meaning and feeling in my writing.
WK: It’s interesting that you mention an editorial perspective influencing your work. Were there any skills you developed at NER that you’ve applied to your pursuit of a PhD?
AW: One important skill, among many, that I picked up during my internship was more a habit of mind: I learned that I could be interested in archival material and literary criticism, that there’s a fortuitousness and felicity to research and varied approaches to the essay, and to see that the transhistorical and cross-disciplinary pieces published in the journal’s different discursive sections complement and complicate each other in a way that makes those connections themselves sparkle. The arrangement captures an intellectual feeling. Perhaps most importantly, that part of the work of editing a literary journal is the work of nurturing and following an active appetite for different modes of writing. That literary disposition I absorbed there has steered me ever since.
WK: How did your time with NER and literary magazines at Middlebury prepare you for your position as Associate Editor for Denver Quarterly? Are there any notable similarities or differences that you can discern between the two publications?
AW: I remember having to seek the blessing of the mastheads of Blackbird and Sweatervest [two Middlebury undergraduate publications] so that I could serve on both of them! There was such joy in poring over the submissions for each, particularly when I served as the editor of Sweatervest, with my friends and peers—seeing what came out of Middlebury’s creative world, reading the work out loud together. The efforts we put into making that issue of Sweatervest are not so different from my efforts now with Denver Quarterly—the masthead is similarly comprised of my friends and colleagues. In that sense, I understood then that collaborative work from the heart is what fuels literary magazine work. With New England Review, I learned about literary sociality and citizenship from its more professional standpoint. I’ve based my own editorial approach on these values and practices. One way to think of it is that a literary journal is ultimately an epistolary object: missives are sent from writers, passed between editors, editors write with good or disappointing news to submitters, edits and payments are likewise sent, future or back issues are mailed. The journal as a made object communicates its own messages between its pieces and to its readers, almost as if they’re letters that make their way to their reader as chance permits.
One difference is that the Denver Quarterly masthead is populated mostly by doctoral students, who move through the masthead as they do their time in the program, so the nature of what kind of work has been published very much reflects a more mercurial and shifting, through related, taste. Denver Quarterly announces itself as being a journal of a kind of experimental bent—its editors are happy to publish pieces that have never met realism or conventional narrative before, or that operate in their own, sui generis universes, particularly in prose. The poetry it has published recently runs contemporary poetry’s aesthetic gamut, which is to say even formally-inflected poems attend to their material nature as much as poems styled “experimentally.” The grip’s a little tighter, and differently exploratory, in a New England Review poem. In terms of method, Denver Quarterly’s table of contents doesn’t distinguish its creative contributors by genre to complicate those distinctions, while New England Review publishes a wider range of texts and forms of criticism and names them as such. Though they may seem very different aesthetically, both journals are homes for rigor, particularly for critical work.
WK: What was your most memorable experience with NER? Are there any pieces or moments that you remember particularly well?
AW: My interview with Carolyn was particularly formative: it was the first time I’d been regarded in a literary-professional way, and was likely the first nonacademic conversation about literature and editing with a professional that I’d ever had. I was practically shaking when I was assigned to copyedit Frank M. Meola’s “Emerson Between Faith and Doubt” (32.3), and I am certain that I had many neurotic queries. In that issue, I also was introduced to Isabella Bird [Bishop]’s writing through proofreading Stephen Donadio’s selection from her one of her travel narratives, Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, which is still out of print (though I’ve since tracked down a copy). My love of writers’ diaries and letters, alongside her work, began then. I remember fondly being pretty impressed by a cover letter in which the writer said they couldn’t with regularity be reached by mail, as they lived on a houseboat.
WK: What do you read for pleasure? Have you read anything good lately? Do you ever have time to read for pleasure?
AW: Right now, for me pleasure in reading comes simultaneously with reading as work. I’m always reading to be impressed, for immersion, to enter into a kind of co-constitutive meditation with a text. But for nonliterary pleasure? I read clothing, or fashion magazines. I’ll confess to some European interior design magazines too, while I’m at it. I still have yet to truly fall back into novels since I worked in publishing—right now I read them pretty sparingly. The last novel I read for a kind of edgy fun was Lucy Ives’s Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet, Or, The Origin of the World. Books I like that I’ve read recently are Panthers and the Museum of Fire by Jen Craig, Juana I by Ana Arzoumanian, translated by Gabriel Amor, Emporium by Aditi Machado, and Time Being by Oni Buchanan. I’m also revisiting Pliny the Elder, who is so great. With regard to time, no, and yet one absolutely has to read for pleasure, if you want to keep reading at all. Pleasure reading only becomes more and more specific, though what’s pleasureful mercifully continues to surprise me.
WK: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some of my questions, Alicia. Best of luck to you as you finish your PhD!