The Literary Journal as Community Builder

Literature

The world does not need another literary journal.

 

This might seem like an odd statement from someone who started a literary journal eighteen months ago. Perhaps I should add a “just” in that statement. The world does not need just another literary journal. It’s time for the literary journal to be more than just a book on a shelf or digital real estate on the Internet.

 

In 2012, with the help of several other writers, I founded Newtown Literary, a semi-annual literary magazine focused on publishing the work of writers living in Queens, NY. I see the formation of this journal as the last step in a process I started two years earlier—finding a community of other writers. In 2010, as a long-term relationship faltered, I returned to writing after almost a decade away. A year later, after the long-term relationship finally ended and my social circle was decimated, I sought out other writers living in Queens. It was not an easy task; at the time there were no public writing groups, no public readings series, no festivals, nothing. Frustrated but certain that I was not the only writer living in the city’s largest borough, I started a group on meetup.com: “Queens Writers Group.” Several dozen writers signed up for the group, even if only a few actually came to our meetings. But those few were just the right few.    

Slowly, I began to develop a small network of other writers in Queens. I became part of a writing group and participated in the Boundless Tales Reading Series, which had sprung up in Astoria neighborhood at about the same time. I realized that not only were there other writers in the borough, they were good. So there I was, in the spring of 2012, sitting in a friend’s apartment talking about what I was seeing and the idea of a literary journal came up. Truth is, it was an idea I had long harbored in the what-ifs of my mind. Like, “What if I won the lottery?” or “What if I found out I was going to die in a week?” Starting a literary journal, attractive as it seemed, was about as unlikely as any of the other what-ifs bouncing around in my head. But as my friend and I talked, I realized the importance of doing such a thing. I had been struggling with being a regular denizen of the slush pile of literary journals and knew I wasn’t the only one. A new what-if came to mind: “What if there was a literary journal focused just on the borough of Queens? What if the journal helped the emerging writers in the Queens community get some publishing credits and find a path out of the slush pile?”

 

Now convinced of the importance, but unconvinced that I could even make it happen, I realized this would be a group effort. Never one to reach out to others (I am an introverted writer, after all), I veered outside my comfort zone and started to ask the writers in my growing network if they would be interested in helping me out. No one said, “No.” Our work began and progressed, and soon the local Queens media turned their attention to what we were doing; people started to approach me to ask if they could help. After The New York Daily News wrote an article about us and I was invited to appear on NY1, submissions and queries flooded my otherwise barren inbox. My dream of stapling photocopied pages quickly advanced to the reality of placing an order with a local printer for 200 perfect-bound copies of an actual literary journal—not a zine, a journal!—containing 150 pages of writing almost entirely from Queens. In the lead-up to the first issue, we raised more than $700 from friends and family, and we used every cent, plus some of our own, to print that first issue. I spent the 2012 holiday season packing and sending out purchased copies of the journal.

We have recently published the third issue of Newtown Literary, held four public readings featuring some of the emerging writers we’ve published, held a springtime fundraising event in which people gathered at several sites all over Queens to write (just write), formed a nonprofit, held a low-cost workshop on self-publishing e-books, launched a borough-wide writing contest for students in grades 3 through 12, and published nearly 100 works by Queens writers and poets—a quarter of whom are emerging writers.

 

But what we really created, what we really did, was take part in developing a community. In the past two years, articles have appeared in Queens and citywide publications heralding the burgeoning Queens literary scene. They speak of the four reading series in the borough, literary festivals and salons featuring writers of all genres, the opening of two bookstores, and a small literary journal operated out of a studio apartment in Elmhurst. Newtown Literary isn’t responsible for all of these things happening; perhaps it’s responsible for only itself happening.

 

But a local literary journal plays an important role in the literary scene of any community, whether that community is long-standing or just developing. It captures the writing of the moment in a way far more permanent than a reading series or literary festival and it offers the writer’s holy grail—publication. In a borough as spread out as Queens and identified by its separate neighborhoods more than its totality, a literary journal has the power to tie together all the neighborhood events, groups, and activities. Through a careful selection of submissions (we usually receive four times what we can publish), Newtown Literary can reflect the diversity of Queens and bring its writers and poets together in conversation both on the page and in person.

“Diversity” is a hard word to escape in Queens, where a ride on the 7 train takes you through more cultures than a geography textbook. At Newtown Literary, “diversity” doesn’t just refer to skin color or ethnicity, although that is certainly one aspect. “Diversity” also means evolving definitions of gender, sexual orientation, language background, and age. It means that some of the work we publish is from writers who moved to Queens a few months ago, writers who were born and raised here (even living in the same house in which they grew up), writers who grew up here and moved away, and writers who transplanted themselves to the borough years ago. When those writers are published together and when they come to our events and meet, they form networks and friendships, advise each other, and share resources.

 

As the world gets bigger, we look around and seek connections with the tangible, and this is no more true than for writers. Literary journals are plenty, yet opportunities to connect are few (to say nothing of the low odds of getting published in any journal). Literary journals, whether they are based on local communities or virtual, can provide these opportunities for writers to connect, not only with their readers, but also with each other. So, no, the world does not need another literary journal. What the world needs is literary journals that are communities.

 

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Come join Newtown Literary in Queens, NY on the weekend of April 26 and 27, 2014 for Queens Writes Weekend. For more information: newtownliterary.org/qww14.

 

Follow Newtown Literary on Twitter @NewtownLiterary.

 

 

New York City, Queens