Celebrating more than two decades of Blackbird: an online journal of literature and the artsApril 12, 2023
Blackbird: an online journal of literature and the arts changed the way people think of online literary journals after publishing its inaugural issue in April 2002 featuring two Pulitzer Prize winners, a future U.S. Poet Laureate, a future National Book Award winner and a PEN/Faulkner finalist.
Now 21 years and 22 volumes later, Blackbird is one of the top literary journals in the world with readers across the globe. It has published everything from poems and fiction to essays with embedded “illustrations that talk” and audio recordings of plays performed by professional actors.
Since its inception, it has set the standard for university online journals.
As the journal undergoes a transition — new staff, new web design and new publishing schedule — in advance of its December 2023 relaunch, VCU Libraries and the MFA in creative writing program are devoting two days — April 13 and 14 — to celebrate its achievements by featuring a select group of Blackbird alumni, including both past contributors and former student editors, in a series of readings and panels.
A successful partnership
The journal’s roots date back to 2001 when it was established as a joint partnership between the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University and New Virginia Review Inc., a Richmond-based not-for-profit literary arts organization that had published the New Virginia Review, a print literary journal.
“MFA students had already been coming to New Virginia Review, which I led, for some years to help with reading manuscripts. [Based on] that connection, New Virginia Review entered into an agreement with the English department to found a new journal that would, as its name states, live completely online,” said the journal’s current founding editor Mary Flinn, who served as one of the first literary editors of the journal along with poet Gregory Donovan, Ph.D., and novelist William Tester, both creative writing faculty members at VCU.
“Blackbird was a serious publishing enterprise, aiming to set a new standard for quality in online literary publication,” said Donovan, adding the journal’s title stands as a nod to poet and author Edgar Allan Poe and his talking raven as well as the Beatles’ song,“ Blackbird.”
“Perhaps most significantly, in the end, the journal’s name is also an allusion to Wallace Stevens and his ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,’” Donovan said.
The journal’s first issue included poems by poets such as Philip Levine, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; a play for four voices by renowned New York playwright Romulus Linney; an essay about automatons by sculptor Elizabeth King with in-motion illustrations; and a memoir by well-known essayist and journalist Hal Crowther.
“I've been very pleased to appear in Blackbird because I know and admire the founding editors, and because I think it's a wonderful idea to get graduate and undergraduate students involved with serious writing and writers,” said Crowther, whose wife, best-selling novelist Lee Smith, also contributed to the journal.
“I owe a huge debt to my home state, especially the mountains of southwest Virginia where so many of my stories come from ... so I love to publish in Blackbird, which has been Virginia's very best literary journal ever,” Smith said.
Many of the well-known writers in the journal had never considered publishing anything online before, Donovan said.
“It was a testament to the faith they had in the journal’s editors that they entertained the idea at all,” he said.
From its beginning, Blackbird paid contributors a small honorarium.
“We did that as a note of honor and respect for the authors who contributed their work,” Donovan said. “That’s one thing that distinguished us from many other online journals.”
When the announcement of the journal’s first issue went out, Donovan and his fellow editors were surprised and impressed to learn that its first subscriber was from the Czech Republic.
“Until that moment, we hadn’t fully realized the international scope of this publishing effort,” he said.
A valuable experience for graduate and undergraduate students
In 2006, Blackbird made international news when it featured a previously unpublished poem by poet Sylvia Plath, along with the story of her sonnet’s composition in response to her reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Anna Journey, contributing editor of Blackbird at the time and a student in the MFA in creative writing program at VCU, discovered the unpublished status of the poem, “Ennui,” during research in the archives at Indiana University's Lilly Library. Journey, the author of four books and an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, is among the scheduled readers at this week’s events.
“We not only made history for the journal, but we also helped establish a new level of legitimacy for all online literary publishing enterprises,” Donovan said. “The news item about that publication ran in newspapers all over the world, from New York to New Delhi, and was covered by many other major news outlets, such as CNN, ABC, BBC — on and on, around the globe.”
The journal had another first in its spring 2012 issue. Shortly before Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize, Blackbird featured Patty Crane’s new translation of Tranströmer’s 1996 book “Sorgegondolen” (Sorrow Gondola), along with the poems in the original Swedish, an essay by David Wojahn, a letter to Tranströmer by poet Jean Valentine and contextual influences of Franz Liszt, including a video of the Liszt piano piece also named ‘Sorrow Gondola’ (or Funeral Gondola), no. 2.
One of the journal’s biggest accomplishments is to “have provided a unique and valuable workplace experience in literary publishing to graduate and undergraduate interns for more than 20 years,” said Michael Keller, current online editor for Blackbird.
“I’m very proud of the training and experience our student staff had as interns or TAs,” he said. “We know many of our alums have gone on to success in fields where their Blackbird experience continues to pay off.”
Tarfia Faizullah served as associate editor of the journal from 2007 to 2008 while she was getting her MFA in creative writing and poetry at VCU.
She wanted to be part of Blackbird because she sees literary magazines as an important way to highlight the work of authors and promote new works.
“It was on the cutting edge of what was going on. It was a great way to put creative writing in conversation with the visual arts,” she said. “I wanted to be part of that community in a different way than I had been before.”
A professor — she starts as a tenure-track professor at the University of North Texas in the fall —and performer, Faizullah is now working on her third book of poetry. Being an associate editor on Blackbird was the beginning of her career, she said.
“It showed me behind the scenes of how a literary magazine is put together. It helped me clarify my goals,” said Faizullah whose writing has appeared in publications such as The New Republic, HuffPost and the Hindu Business Line.
“It made me see myself as a serious writer, and I went on to become a very serious writer.”
Relaunch features a new web design
Jessica Hendry Nelson and Kathleen Graber, faculty in VCU’s MFA Program in Creative Writing and the Department of English, will take over as the new faculty editors next fall. They have been working on the journal’s December 2023 relaunch, Blackbird 2.0, for more than a year.
“The biggest, most visible difference is that there will be a completely new web design thanks to the fabulous local creative and brand agency Red Orange Studio,” Nelson said. “It will be beautiful.”
Another change: Rather than release two very large issues a year, the journal will publish six smaller issues called “Flights.”
“They will feature about 10 to 12 pieces of creative work — fiction, poetry, nonfiction and visual art — in each issue,” Nelson said. “We will continue to run special features such as interviews with authors, book reviews and craft essays.”
The process has been fun and daunting at the same time, she said.
“We want to honor all of the work that has preceded us,” she said. “It’s also fun thinking about new ways we can evolve the journal and how students can be involved in that process. We always want Blackbird to be on the forefront of innovation in literary publishing, which is part of its legacy.”
Working on Blackbird over the years has been very fulfilling for Flinn, who says she will miss being a part of the journal.
“Primarily because of the quite brilliant VCU students who have shuffled through time on the journal's staff — and also because of the work we have published,” she said. “The work has been my job and my love.”
“We made a genuine contribution to American literary history in the journal,” said Donovan.
By Joan Tupponce