Writers on Writing #24: Justin Daugherty
Why Start a Lit Journal?
A woman stuffs ketchup and mustard packets in her bag. She pours in sugar packets and Sweet-n-Low. She piles in plastic knives, forks, spoons, straws. The deli workers tell her to get out, but until one walks over, she just keeps going. This is Chicago, March, Michigan Avenue, AWP, 2012. This is two graduate students watching this go down, eating their sandwiches, biting lips, looking around like wha?
The woman leaves. This is context, nothing more. I say to my friend Zarah, I want to start a lit mag. I tell her I have wanted this for a long time. She says something like, yeah, that’d be cool, in the typically-cool way Zarah says anything. I think she asks me what it’s about and this is where I really start soul-searching, you know, looking at the thing I really want to know: what is this thing going to be about? I’d been thinking, I told her, about this thing called a sundog, this atmospheric phenomenon that causes rings of light to appear next to the sun, often blazing as a halo in the sky. I had been thinking, I want something like that, a dual-sun thing, a mag that operates on two levels: serious literature, but lit that really moves, where things happen, where everything is always kind of on the verge. You know?
So, that’s the impetus, right. That’s where it begins. Months later, Sundog Lit is up and running. We’re building content, we’re taking pieces for publication. We’re getting an ISSN, which is sort of an incredibly sexy thing.
But, still, why do this thing? There is a glut of lit mags out there. Duotrope.com lists over 4,300 markets accepting fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in all their various forms. Why not just be content writing and publishing? Why not just get a dog? Why not travel more, test out vegetarianism, take up painting?
So, the thing is that you’ve got to offer a different flavor, something no one’s doing, something, dare I say, new. We have this thing: literature that scorches the earth. We tell submitters – through Twitter posts and Facebook updates – to burn our retinas. That’s our thing. Active, razing, toiling, verging-on-the-edge-of-destruction literature. We want lives in turmoil. We want broken-down. We want barn-imploding. We want rust and coagulated blood and scarred knuckles. In one meeting to discuss the mag with Brian, one of our editors, I said I wanted nothing to do with navel-gazing, with suburban malaise. Too many folks are doing that and some are doing it well and we’re just not that kind of magazine.
The only way to avoid being just another literary magazine is to try to do that new thing. To really try for a specific vision of the world. A theory of humanity, of sorts, as seen through the people we publish. People talk of aesthetics. If you want to know if your work is right for us, journals often say, read the magazine. We want words to be incendiary, revolutionary. We do not want quiet. We are not quiet. We do not write quiet.
And, I’m not talking just about the work I want to publish.
Make your words burn, make them sweat and bleed and raze. Maybe that’s what makes readers take notice. Maybe that’s what makes editors take notice. Maybe, if you write words that scorch the earth, that will be what makes the world take notice.
Why do this thing? Because we can. Because we think there’s a gap to be filled, a niche, something new to be offered. Because we want words to kick us in the gut, to crunch bones, to leave fat lips, to make the heart skip a beat just for a moment, shocked, fluttering, blood swirling in chaos.
Justin Daugherty is a recent graduate of Northern Michigan University's MFA program and former fiction editor at Passages North. Visit Sundog Lit here.