“A startling prescience”: Portland Review editors reflect on labor and lit mags in 2020

At the time of writing, we as a planet are still soundly in the uncertain time of COVID-19, and especially now there is no shortage of things vying for our collective attention. Every day feels unprecedented, and in such an abnormal state it can be difficult to create art, and even more difficult, perhaps, to pull within ourselves the motivation to deploy it into a world so unlike anything we are used to.

And yet, in 2020 alone, Portland Review is slated to have published 39 authors from around the world creating unique poetry and prose. These works are included in our unexpectedly poignant anthology on labor and our forthcoming month of work based on the theme of borders. It’s heartening to see people, undeterred by the unknown, so willing to allow us to share their work.

Below, our 2019-20 Portland Review editorial staff reflect on their year of publishing, especially with regards to our recent Labor Anthology, and talk about what it means to make room for creative writing in an era fraught with distraction.

Lee Ware | Nonfiction Editor
How surreal to be working on a literary journal themed around labor during a time that has radically impacted how we work—if we even can—and how we have come to define what work is essential. Even before this shift, the conversations we had around what labor is valued and why, as well as the labor that goes unnoticed or unappreciated, were particularly important to me and seemed to unearth symptoms of institutionalized capitalism as well as ingrained conflicts of class, race, and gender. Conversations like these are more relevant than ever. A highlight for me this year was getting to correspond with several of our contributors about how their work has been impacted by COVID-19 and how views around labor are or should be adapting to what is being revealed because of it.

Devan Pride | Fiction Co-Editor
When labor was first chosen as the journal’s theme in late 2019, we had little idea of how important the word would become in the following months. With the advent of COVID-19, many were forced to reconsider their definition of labor. Portland Review contributes directly to such conversation, as our collection of works captures diverse aspects of labor, some of which are unknown and perhaps even overlooked. When I thumb through the pages, I am reminded of how vital the work we do is, both as writers and editors. My time with Portland Review has left me humbled and inspired, solidifying what I’ve really known all along: the literary journal is alive, thriving, and still very necessary.

Karina Briski | Co-Editor-in-Chief
The university literary journal presents an interesting model for work. Because the editorial influence changes year by year, it often feels like you’re working in a sandbox—whatever you build can be toppled over by the next editor who looks at your careful work and thinks only of what they’ll do differently. I thought a lot this year about what kind of journal Portland Review has been and what it might become, not based so much on what I or any of the other editors prefer, but what the audience wants and needs. Our audience, by the way, consists of 16-year-olds seeking to publish their first essay or short story, to 86-year-olds who’ve been reading the journal since it began. The new writers want a place where their work can reach an audience; established writers need outlets where they can share work that’s new and small, maybe still in development. And readers, I think, want journals that feel good to open and exciting, whether that’s a website or a book they hold in their hands. Even though we’re housed in a university, we run on a very limited budget. But I’d also like to think we’re accountable to our audience. There are enough journals out there to do the gatekeeping and boring homogenization that characterizes so much of published work. My hope is that we’ve done our best to offer something that’s not that, something of value. That we’ve left our own little sandboxes and started down a path together.

August Amoroso | Fiction Co-Editor
“Remember, this is a democracy,” was the common catch-all to rationalize those hilariously tense moments during editorial meetings while trying to make a decision about an awkwardly provocative work. If a poem makes you laugh, that might not make it a good poem, nor appropriate for the theme. It might just mean that you’ve got a juvenile sense of humor. Being a bit of a sad-sack, I always want to get behind what will make me laugh. I need the respite. Don’t we all? I wonder: is this serious? How serious does it need to be? Who are we to take ourselves so seriously? The text should always be respected. Who am I to judge?

Jacob Roberts | Book Reviews Editor/Assistant Editor
When I was applying to colleges in the mid-2000s, panicking that my GPA was too low and churning through so many SAT practice tests that I ran out, my dad gave me a book. It was written by a former admissions officer who described his experience admitting and rejecting kids just like me from a couple of the world’s most elite schools. The person reading your application, he wrote, will most likely be “bleary” and “haggard.” They will reject countless perfectly qualified candidates simply because they didn’t have their morning coffee. The book didn’t exactly make me any feel better, but it did help me realize that I wouldn’t be handing my college application to a thoughtful human so much as throwing it into a bingo dispenser. I vowed that if I ever had that power, I wouldn’t perpetuate the cycle of neglect. After working on the Portland Review, I’ve read many of this year’s 1,700+ submissions. We accepted 39 of them. That’s about 2 percent, even lower than Harvard’s 5 percent undergraduate admission rate. If you got in, you should feel proud. But as anyone who’s been on the other side of a college application or a literary magazine understands, as I now do, you also shouldn’t feel bad if you didn’t. The people who read your work are juggling jobs, classes, and other life responsibilities. Some incredible submissions might have made it in if they were read on a different day, a day when my dog didn’t get stung while trying to eat a bee and have to go to the emergency veterinarian. So my message to anyone who has faced rejection is this: don’t despair. The process is subjective. Keep tossing your work into as many bingo dispensers as you can—chances are your number will come up eventually.

Katie Mitchell | Marketing Editor
Thinking back to last fall, reading our Labor issue submissions, and then discussing them in person as a group, feels eerie. Eerie in that way of well-done foreshadowing: we were clueless, like most of the world, about what was to come. What’s more is that the work we discussed engaged with the questions so many of us are engaged with now: What labor is essential, and what labor is not? And who gets to decide? When we read submissions, I remember we talked a lot about invisible labor; were drawn to pieces that explored unconventional aspects of labor. I miss being in a room of writers, talking about writing. But I am proud to have been part of the group that produced this journal, to feature work that questions notions of labor, that engages with the world as it is, and imagines how it might be in some unknown future.

Rosanna Henderson | Web Editor
Here I am, in the middle of lockdown, and yet every day I can connect with contributors and readers from around the world. Building an online home for our contributors’ poems and stories has been one of the bright spots of my lockdown life. The pandemic arrived in between our reading period and publication, and our themes, Labor and Borders, took on meanings we hadn’t guessed before. Now there are six-foot borders around me; now most of my labor is childcare and hauling groceries for my elders. And yet our contributors’ work is so imaginative—spanning centuries, climates, continents, genres—that it speaks to the current moment. A startling prescience.



Image: Tulip and Lily by William Morris (1834-1896), rawpixel