Friday, November 11, 2016

Six Questions for Erin O’Neill Armendarez, Editor-in-Chief, Aji Magazine

Aji magazine is an online literary magazine publishing poetry, short fiction, essays, art, photography and graphic design. Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

Erin O’Neill Armendarez: Aji magazine was started as a commercial free space where writers and artists from around the world could publish their work, and our editorial and graphic design staff could enjoy the creative energy of selecting the most appropriate stories, poems, essays and images for each issue.  We are not affiliated with any institution, profit or not-for-profit, so we can publish whatever we want.  The freedom is exhilarating.  We hope to publish issues that are relevant and stimulating for educated lay readers, not just those coming from MFA programs, although we certainly believe that those programs do tremendous work in fostering excellence in writing and in supporting writers and artists in the U.S.

Our editorial staff is made up of reviewers with advanced degrees, most in English, writing, and literature.  We are not a group of dilettantes seeking to market ourselves, nor are we a vanity publication.  We are a group of professionals who are working to create a high quality creative space online.  We have learned a great deal, all of us, from our work on the magazine.  As long as it’s fun, we’ll keep doing it.

SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a submission and why?

EOA: Our staff reviewers prioritize different things, but as Editor in Chief, I make final selections, so let me cut to the chase and articulate as best I can here what I look for.  First, I look for a story that has no implied bias against any particular group (surprisingly, many do).  It doesn’t have to be “politically correct,” but it should show some understanding and respect for humanity by creating characters that are complex and carefully drawn.  Some writers do not know the difference between a character driven story and a plot driven story; others do not know the difference between a short story and a novel or novella.  Genres may blend, but in general the story should focus in on a conflict within or between one or two characters and that conflict should be skillfully developed toward the writer’s purpose, and it shouldn’t be overtly didactic.  That said, a writer is free to break those rules so long as he or she writes something that engages readers from beginning to end.

In a poem, I first have to be convinced that a writer knows what he or she is up to, precisely—this varies widely with writers, but there should be some element of some sort of consistency and control.  Poems should be careful and nuanced.  We get many poems and stories that are heavy with cliché.  They are heartfelt, but that’s not what we choose to publish.

Aji doesn’t publish stories or poems that are written for niche groups, while on occasion we do appreciate them.  If a story doesn’t seem a good fit for our magazine, then we look for something else that does.

Finally, I look for writing that is well-edited.  Many writers send unedited work to the magazine.  Our reviewers are all volunteers, and we don’t do free copy editing for anyone except the occasional international author writing in a second language. Writers should strive to send us their final, edited versions.  What we will accept is what we will publish, and we don’t want to publish unedited work.

SQF: What most often turns you off to a submission?

EOA: As Editor in Chief, the thing that turns me off the most is the gratuitous portrayal of human suffering for shock value.  I am also annoyed—we all are—by writers who ignore submission guidelines, refuse to send bios, etc.  Those who have not studied their craft, haven’t read much, and have little appreciation for the value of editor and reviewer time, try our patience.  We love to publish the sincere novice, even when he or she breaks the standard conventions unknowingly.  I personally send a message to each person who submits, and do my best to show respect for each writer or artist.  I expect to be approached with the same respect. Most writers are amazingly gracious. Those who are not really stand out because they are the exception, not the rule.  

SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a submission?

EOA: As a general rule, no.  However, there have been times when I felt strongly that a writer or an artist might truly benefit from a suggestion as well as some positive commentary.  In those cases, I have taken a bit of extra time to share my thinking.  If a writer asks for criticism, to the degree that time allows, I will always offer it.

SQF: What magazines/zines do you read on a regular basis?

EOA: I read very eclectically whatever I can find, what’s on the shelf in Hastings or Barnes and Nobles.  I read The Best in American Poetry and The Best American Short Stories every year—I read Blognostics (I have a good friend who publishes there), Agni, Red Rock Review, North American Poetry Review.  I browse NewPages listings here and there, as well as art blogs and pages and the poetry sites maintained by the nation’s most respected foundations and organizations.  I am a poet, so my main interest lies in reading poetry.  As I have a full-time teaching job at a community college, my time is limited much of the year, so at this point, reading is a luxury.  I’d love to read more.  I read batches of new poems sent to me by colleagues and friends, and those are my favorite things to read.

SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?

EOA: You didn’t ask about factors that impact selection beyond the quality of work.  We do have a limited number of pages we can get out, so sometimes, all else being equal, I have to go for diversity in terms of the writers and artists we include as well as in the genre, style and approach to balance the magazine.  This means the work that didn’t make it into one issue might make it into another.  I honestly appreciate in our hectic time that anyone is out there writing, painting, taking photos, etc. and hopefully offering his or her work for our consideration.  There is merit in everything we review and read.  Rejection doesn’t necessarily mean “not good” in our opinion.  It sometimes means “not right right now.”

Thank you, Erin. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.

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