Work experience on VCU online literary journal Blackbird gives student editors the confidence to launch themselves into the world of publishing
By Caitlin Hanbury
Since 2002, Blackbird, an online journal of literature and the arts published by the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of English and nonprofit literary arts organization New Virginia Review, has showcased poetry, short stories, excerpts from novels, essays, plays, visual art, new media and the occasional video essay. It accepts submissions from potential contributors from all over the world and is read by VCU students and lovers of the literary arts everywhere.
The journal’s title is a nod to its dynamic editorial spirit – an amalgam of those blackbirds featured in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Wallace Stevens and the Beatles – and that same spirit is demonstrated in the collaborative approach taken to produce the journal.
Led by faculty members and an editorial staff of undergraduate and graduate students primarily from the English department in the College of Humanities and Sciences, in conjunction with local arts curators, alumni and community volunteers, Blackbird has given hundreds of VCU students invaluable publishing experience over the years.
Mary Flinn, a senior editor of the journal with a lifelong dedication to the literary arts, provides annual unrestricted support for Blackbird. The director of New Virginia Review since 1985, she oversaw the co-launch with VCU of Blackbird in 2002 and has worked on it with many students.
Her gifts in support of Blackbird empower the editorial staff to maintain the ideals set forth in the journal’s editorial policy, chiefly that authors and artists selected for publication are paid for their contributions. This serves as a sign of respect for the author’s or artist’s accomplishment and has strengthened the quality of the journal’s content and, as a result, its following. Her gift can also provide financial support to students enrolled at VCU and working on Blackbird as well as general operational support of the journal.
Flinn has seen firsthand the impact of her gifts on those students and the students’ effect on the growth and growing prestige of the publication.
“We have always been fortunate in the quality of work that we are able to publish, but over time we have been able to develop useful systems in our production process that help to focus both editorial time and student internships,” Flinn says. “These systems emphasize the collaborative nature of the enterprise, and the senior editors – Gregory Donovan, Michael Keller, Randy Marshall and I – all feel that creating a community of shared effort not only helps us down the road to meeting our deadlines but also enables editors and graduate and undergraduate students to enjoy creating an issue of the journal.
“And,” she adds jokingly, “we have M&Ms.”
Flinn knows the benefits students gain from the experiential learning associated with Blackbird. As an accomplished member of literary arts circles, she has appeared on numerous editors’ panels, has served as a judge for literature fellowships from various arts councils, has been a review panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts and has been recognized for her contributions to the arts.
“Recent studies note that many of the abilities that are often fostered by studying literature – clear writing, reading with intelligent comprehension, parsing a text, empathy for characters and situations outside your personal experience – contribute to the kind of flexibility with changing systems and the capability to articulate new ideas that employers are recognizing as critical for success in this brave new world of devices, platforms and ever-shifting technology,” Flinn says. “So, good skills and reading stories and poems – how is there a better way to spend your time?”
The journal has also grown to become a critical component of the English department, providing hard-to-get editorial and publishing experience for students and the chance to learn those skills in a scholarly setting. “The growth of Blackbird’s prominence and its longevity as an online journal is a tribute to the vivacity of collaborations between faculty, creative writing students and community members,” says David E. Latané, a professor in the Department of English. “It’s central now to the department.”
Students who have worked on Blackbird describe how it gave them newfound confidence in their aspirations for a career in publishing or in publishing their own work. Through managing the process of submissions vetting and production, students gain an understanding of the scrutiny that submissions are subject to and an insight into the kind of editorial discussions involved in publishing.
Volunteer copy editor and fiction M.F.A. student Annie Laura Persons says her involvement with the journal has encouraged her to examine her work with the same critical eye that Blackbird submissions receive.
“Interning for Blackbird strengthened my ability to identify smart, effective literature and verbally articulate my thoughts and opinions about those pieces,” she says. “Working as a copy editor for Blackbird increased the level of care and intentionality with which I approach my own craft, as I regularly had to study the minutiae of the pieces I copy edited.”
Joining the editorial staff also presents valuable and practical leadership training for students. From organizing submissions and running editorial meetings to coordinating authors and production schedules, students develop critical skills and insights.
“My current career aspirations are to work in the editing and publishing industry,” says Ume Farwa, a student editor and undergraduate English major. “Working with a journal such as Blackbird has helped me not only add experience on my resume that would make me a competitive candidate, but it has also given me valuable information on the intricacies of editing and publishing.”
Without the support of donors like Flinn, the journal could not enjoy the same reputation for quality and provide a superior student experience as a result.
“While the university is incredibly generous to Blackbird in providing staff and computers, housing the website and contributing toward the writers’ payment, I am happy to be able to enhance these capabilities a bit, and I will continue to do so,” Flinn says. “That way we can provide a slightly better stipend to the lead associate editor, support participation at conferences, commission essays and reviews and aim toward a long-range plan that will see Blackbird into a foreseeable future.”
For Caitlin Etherton, former lead audio editor, the journal provided more than an opportunity to develop skills: It’s building community. “As an M.F.A. student studying poetry and nonfiction writing, working at Blackbird has had a direct impact on the breadth and scope of my writing and work experience here at VCU,” Etherton says. “But also, writers can be a little introverted; working at Blackbird with fellow M.F.A. students helped me to foster social relationships in an atmosphere that was simultaneously academic, professional and community-driven.”
To learn more about the College of Humanities and Sciences, contact Bethanie Constant, senior director of advancement, at (804) 828-4543 or firstname.lastname@example.org.