Welter on Quarantine

“Are you identifying any themes?” I asked the Welter fiction-editing team about our accepted submissions.

“Other than food?” asked Allyson Waldon, fiction editor and MFA student majoring in fiction writing. “We’ve got stories called ‘Radishes,’ ‘Zucchini,’ ‘Apples,’ and ‘Lemonader.’”

“You’re making me hungry.”

“Right?” she said.

I checked with the remaining genre crews (poetry and creative nonfiction) who’d set up shop at other corners of our large classroom, but our magnificent written content wasn’t suggesting a unified theme. No bother. A journal edition doesn’t have to present an organizing concept beyond excellence to strike a chord. After working strategically to spread the word about Welter’s 55th-anniversary volume, we’d received many more good entries and images than we could publish.

A couple of weeks later, the global pandemic gave us a theme for our daily lives: isolation. No more festive, nighttime classroom work sessions for us—we’d have to make all final changes, including proofreading, by Zoom, email, and the occasional phone call. While this was a letdown to me, the classroom advisor, I felt quite lucky we’d already had the time to solicit and select stories, poems, essays, and artwork we could all agree upon.

Like many of the best literary journals out there, Welter is produced on a university campus. The twist with this magazine—founded in 1965—is that, each school year, a new University of Baltimore editorial team, earning course credit, edits and lays out the new pages. In recent years, grad students in the MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts, which I direct, have produced this celebrated pub. This Spring, grads are working alongside undergrads to create a 22-member supergroup.

I learn so much working with my students in this editorial office setting, but I also enjoy their fresh energy. I look forward to being around them. It’s a beautiful thing to see everyone claim their new roles as art directors, poetry editors, and so forth, to see them make difficult creative decisions and beam when the finished book arrives from Spencer Printing. Once we all made the switch from in-person conversations to abbreviated Zoom dialogue, our work continued to go well, even though I felt sorry to see my class less often, to see them shrunk down to the size of a coaster or postage stamp, depending upon whether I’d accessed my laptop or phone screen, respectively.

For this blog entry, I asked my students what the remote journal production has been like for them. (Was I hoping they’d say they missed me? No comment.)

“Working on Welter during quarantine has me thankful that we moved so quickly when we were meeting as a group,” said Emely Rodriguez, poetry editor and MFA candidate in poetry. “Now it feels like it’s a strictly online magazine or something, though it’s much more.”

“Working on a lit journal during quarantine makes me appreciate the days when we were able to go on campus,” noted undergrad Carleen Mcleod, who assisted both the nonfiction editors and the visual arts crew. (Thanks, Carleen—I, too, miss our campus meetings.)

Then MFA student Rasha Alkhateeb—a poet who serves as co-art director alongside memoirist and MFA student Ana Hart— reminded me that the whole point of a journal is to connect outside the classroom and around the globe. We can connect, truly, from our desks, when we concentrate—and when our internet connectivity is tight.

“As students, it’s easy to stay within UB’s creative frame, but Welter gave us the opportunity to meet creatives outside of the UB community, Baltimore, and the United States,” Alkhateeb said. “Through Welter’s call for submissions, we interacted with contributors from all around the world, widening our creative lenses in the process.”

One obstacle: Our poetry category received far and away the most submissions. The editors had to play catch-up on finalizing their acceptances even after quarantine hit.

“Anxiety of unstable internet connections has led to less procrastination of major and minor tasks,” said Tim Huber, an undergrad and assistant editor in poetry. “The poetry group was forced to adapt and utilize taken-for-granted technology and push it to its limits, performing nearly all of the evaluation and editing entirely online.”

Stevie Sanchez, an undergraduate and assistant editor in poetry, found that working remotely has ultimately given her a clearer voice.

“Working on a lit journal during quarantine stretched my abilities in communication. Being understood with the varying levels of engagement that one can achieve outside of a classroom was a lesson we all learned,” she said.

While I didn’t get any sorrowful replies from students desperate to hang out and drink coffee with me, I am pleased that everyone was able to rise to this work-at-home occasion.

“Working on a literary journal in the midst of quarantine is, a bit surprisingly, not all that different from working on a literary journal not in quarantine,” quipped Kim Uslin, nonfiction editor and MFA candidate in memoir.

Chris Hart agreed.

“I’m not sure this opinion is shared by many, but I don’t find any important distinctions between working on the journal in-person vs. online/isolated,” said Hart, assistant poetry editor and MFA candidate in fiction. “The goal is the same—and that’s the profound part: We’re sending our voices, and the voices of people we may never meet, out into the unknown. We’ve pieced together something that we believe is good and has merit—and we’re hoping someone shares in that point of view. But, probably, we’ll never know. And in my experience, that’s the way it is for every writer, every artist. Every one of us.”

As we moved from our in-person review, edit, and design process to something that was limited to virtual meetings and files traded over email, the essence of journal making was right there in front of us: Yes, share. Yes, decide what we like and don’t like. Yes, make the 2020 issue a great example of Welter‘s long and storied history. But, at its end, we see our work for what it is: Hey, we’re calling out from Baltimore. Anybody listening?”

You’re listening, yes? Still stuck at home? I miss you—did I type that? Comment below!

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