Francine Ringold, Editor-in-Chief of Nimrod International Journal
Jendi Reiter conducted this exclusive email interview with Francine Ringold, editor-in-chief of Nimrod International Journal. Founded in 1956 at the University of Tulsa, this well-regarded journal of poetry and prose offers the annual Nimrod/Hardman Literary Awards, a prestigious awards program that marks its 30th anniversary in 2008. The Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction and the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry offer prizes of $2,000 and $1,000 for an unpublished short story, 7,500 words maximum, or 3-10 pages of poetry. The deadline is April 30. Past winners include Natalie Diaz, Ellen Bass, and Diane Glancy in poetry, and Carol Roh-Spaulding, Felicia Ward, and Kate Small in fiction.
Editor of Nimrod for nearly 40 years, Francine Leffler Ringold is the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma, a two-time winner of the Oklahoma Book Award, and the author of six books of poetry and nonfiction, including Making Your Own Mark: A Drawing and Writing Guide for Senior Citizens, and Still Dancing: New & Selected Poems (2004).
Q: Nimrod has had an impressively long lifespan in the precarious world of literary publishing. What do you think accounts for its success?
A: To begin with, a personal note:
Neither ceremony nor financial enticement lured me to my position as editor of Nimrod. In 1966, as a young adjunct instructor in the English Department of the University of Tulsa, I was gently guided by the then-editor of Nimrod, Winston Weathers, to a 5-foot-tall filing cabinet stuffed with manuscripts and asked if I would help. The task seemed formidable: over 100 brown envelopes, unopened and unread, awaiting evaluation and selection. But I was young and energetic and foolish. Little did I know that forty years later I would still be opening envelopes (now numbering 3,000 a year) still searching for the special voice that would awaken my senses.
Historically, literary magazines, or "little magazines" as they are sometimes called, have a brief life span—from one to ten years. And that includes magazines like the Little Review and The Dial, responsible for the discovery of T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, HD, and other fathers and mothers of modern literature.
So it's a particular thrill to be able to celebrate Nimrod's 51st anniversary of continuous publication—surviving and thriving against all odds.
Here's how we did it: A Brief History of Nimrod—since 1956
It's easy to discover Nimrod's reason for being. If you go to the archives and open the first issue, a slim 48-page stapled effort from 1956, you can read the statement of purpose written by the founding editor, University of Tulsa graduate student James Land Jones. The journal was "conceived," he said, "as an organ of expression for the literary ability that is in this area...that is our first responsibility." Just a few paragraphs later, Jones adds, "Nimrod will also seek writing of distinction, both experimental and traditional, from across the nation and from abroad. Discovery is our mission!"
First focused on much-needed search and discovery of new and/or ignored writers from Oklahoma and the four surrounding states, Nimrod published the early work of Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett (who, ironically, later became known as the "New York Poets," a group that clustered around the painter-poet John O'Hara). Yet even in the first ten years, the journal included such out-of-the-area writers as William Stafford, Louis Ginsberg, and Judson Crews; Japanese-American poet John Hideyo Hamamura; and Dutch novelist and playwright Jan de Hartog.
After the first decade of publication, and particularly after 1971 when Nimrod evolved into a more ambitious 92-page, perfect-bound format, the journal crossed further borders in special issues on the Arabic Nations, China, Latin America, the Soviet Union, and India, as well as exploring and presenting American Indian and Oklahoma writers. Nimrod also took on thematic subjects ranging from sports, medicine, and food to science, and, of course, literature—always demonstrating the relationship of poetry and prose to every phase of human knowledge and endeavor—and always searching for the new talent that will become the heritage of the next generation.
Nimrod's mission from the beginning and to this day has been discovery: to give previously unpublished and little known writers and writing a hearing. At the same time—and also from the beginning—Nimrod welcomed established and major writers whose publication with us helped bring attention to the unknowns. Such renowned writers as William Stafford, Stanley Kunitz, Denise Levertov, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz—at the height of their careers—knew the importance of the "little magazine" in the history of American letters and wanted to further our efforts, lending Nimrod the luster of their names to accompany the rising stars.
Let me emphasize, however, that this is also a brief history of tenacity or just plain stubbornness. It is, as always, also a story of politics and personalities. In 1968, Nimrod, having just begun its 13th year of publication, was included as a supplement in the University of Tulsa's alumni magazine, because, as the friendly and sympathetic editor stated, "it appears that the journal will have to cease publication for financial reasons." That slim appendage included a story by S.E. Hinton, entitled "Rumblefish," which later became a novel and then a major film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
By 1971, Nimrod had a new lease on life: $3,000, a vision of perfect binding, at least 92 pages, and a four-color cover.
In 1978, in another turn of fortune, Nimrod was requested, politely, to leave the university. For 17 years after that, we had a home at the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa, where we learned how to write grants, keep records, and find individual underwriters.
In 1996, Nimrod, in order to assure an orderly transition of editors and a healthy future, returned to the University of Tulsa where it had begun. Welcomed now with open arms, Nimrod not only had spent 17 successful years at the Arts Council, but had become known for its broadening scope, elegant design, and awards program.
For also in 1978, and just before the transition to the Council, Ruth G. Hardman had established the Nimrod Awards program: the Pablo Neruda Prize in Poetry, and the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction. She also provided for an awards dinner, and funds to bring the judges and winners to Tulsa. This important contribution has now grown into a day-and-a-half writing conference, staffed by the judges, award winners, and editors of Nimrod. In addition to master classes, over fifty editors are available to work one-on-one with registrants at the annual Nimrod writing conference. The awards program created by Ruth Hardman shares a large part of the credit for increasing our prominence, size, and circulation. The Nimrod/Hardman Awards, the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction and the Pablo Neruda Prize in Poetry, consistently attract 1,300 submissions from every state in the union. Winning or being a finalist in that competition is thus a notable achievement, which opens doors for these writers and draws attention from editors of such annual anthologies as Best American Short Stories and Best American Poetry.
But it is neither one person nor even its staff that makes a magazine and develops it over the years. For Nimrod, it is a passionate vision shared by over thirty unpaid editors, an advisory board of dedicated talented folks and many, many financial supporters.
Moreover, though we are always trying to keep our viewpoint fresh, and thus add new readers and editors yearly in anticipation of the eventual retirement of our generous, hard-working staff and board, the fact that at least 15 editors have stayed on the job for from 20 to 40 years has brought sound judgment and a consistently caring atmosphere to Nimrod that is seldom replicated.
Discovering and promoting the highest quality fiction and poetry is our mission; the abundance of talent awaiting discovery seems limitless. Here are a few of the poets and writers who have become better known since publication in Nimrod:
In 1973, the "Latin American Voices I" issue, we presented Manuel Puig (Argentina) and Isabelle Fraire (Mexico), new writers who were published alongside Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Borges, and others.
In a double issue for 1977, "New Black Writing", we published fiction writers Charles Johnson, recent recipient of many awards, including the National Book Award for his novel The Middle Passage, and James Alan McPherson, who later that year won the Pulitzer Prize for his short story collection, Elbow Room, along with 65 other now-prominent writers.
In 1981's "Arabic Literature: Then & Now", Nimrod presented Mahmoud Darwish, Rana Kabbani and Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize in 1988.
We were among the first to publish Gina Ochsner, who won second and then first prize in fiction in two separate years (2001, 2003), and who then went on to publish two volumes of short fiction and two stories in The New Yorker.
About twelve years ago, we published what turned out to be the first chapter of Sue Monk Kidd's bestseller, The Secret Life of Bees. It was Sue's first publication and she gives Nimrod a large and lovely credit in the preface to the novel, as she did when she visited Tulsa last spring.
Just last year, 2007, Natalie Diaz, raised on the Mojave Reservation in California, and a former semi-professional basketball player, won first prize in Nimrod's Pablo Neruda Poetry Contest. Selected first, from over 600 submissions, by our editorial board to become one of 20 finalists, she was enthusiastically judged first prize winner by final judge John Balaban. Recently, Diaz's poetry was selected for Best New Poets 2008.
John Surowiecki, iconoclastic winner of the 2006 Pablo Neruda Prize, was the inaugural winner of the Verse Drama Prize from the Poetry Foundation. The drama was presented in New York at the AWP Conference and performed by actors under the direction of the former director of La Mama and the Poetry Foundation. Noticeable credit was given to Nimrod for having discovered and awarded John earlier and launched his career.
The word "iconoclastic," which I used to describe Surowiecki, reminds me to emphasize that Nimrod is open to any style and every subject. We are not impressed by an author's credits or beautifully written cover letters (which we read only after having accepted a work). Prize submissions must be entered into the contest with author's name omitted and an identifying cover letter included separate from the manuscript. Each manuscript is read by at least three reader/editors. We respect our writers, our readers, and our process.
Send us your best work; we will treat it with care and sometimes, when we have time and the work seems promising, we will make suggestions for revision that have often resulted in publication elsewhere, if not with us.
Q: What styles and topics have gone in and out of fashion during your three decades of reading contest submissions? Any advice for today's authors hoping to stand out from the pack?
A: I don't believe that any style, unless one might say formal verse that does not bend with the demands of the sense, have gone out of fashion. It is not the "topic" but how it is handled that matters. We respond to a clear voice, a distinctive voice, and that is hard to define. You know it when you hear it. Sincerity is certainly part of it. We gasp at artifice and academic paraphernalia. But, of course, sincerity does not mean sentimentality.
Q: Would you like to see aspiring authors take more risks, in terms of subject matter or style? In what way?
A: Taking risks, finding a story in a mud puddle or a lyric on a football field is always refreshing. Stylistic risks are refreshing, but only if that attempt at "disjunction" or "concrete verse" or "stream-of-consciousness" etc. is dictated by the content and voice.
Q: Based on what you've published in the past, Nimrod seems hospitable to writing that engages with contemporary political issues, such as the war. What impact would you like Nimrod to have on the wider world, and how do you accomplish this?
A: As Shelley said, poets are not hierophants. We do want to read poetry and fiction that has something to say about the life—political, social, environmental, etc.—around us. We don't want didacticism. Yet if a writer feels any subject in his bones, he or she must write about it. We recognize, I hope, that kind of writing—from necessity. Our thematic issues, in particular, often engage political and social issues. For example: "Vietnam Revisited," "The Arabic Nations," "Who We Are." We try not to take sides.
Q: Who screens the entries, and what criteria are they given? For instance, do you use a "point system" or is the evaluation more free-form?
A: All entries are screened, read carefully, by at least two editors (seasoned readers with a masters degree or above). They score the work from 1 to a high of 10 and make brief notes, if they wish. Any work scored above 8 by one reader receives a third reading with a decision to publish or not. For the prize, a work sometimes receives up to 5 or 6 readings as we try to reduce the pile to 20 finalists. It is not unusual, in poetry especially, to end up with 100 (from let's say 650 submissions) that are 8 and above, hence we have a semi-finalist category and one year semi-semi finalist when the distinctions were slight.
Q: How many entries do you receive, on average, and how many are forwarded to the final judges?
A: For the last three years we have received approximately 1,300 submissions for the prize, about evenly divided between poetry and fiction. 20 submissions are submitted as finalists to the judge who makes the decision as to the first place and second place winners. Honorable mentions are sometimes dictated by the judges, sometimes by our wonderful editor/judges.
Q: Are the poems in an entry judged separately or as a suite? If the latter, what considerations should a writer keep in mind when selecting a group of poems to submit (e.g. thematic similarity, consistent style)?
A: It's almost impossible not to select one or two poems as "the best" in most cases. I would caution against sending weak poems just to fill out a packet, but that seems obvious.
Q: How has your own experience as a writer who submits to (and wins) contests affected your thinking as a contest administrator, and vice versa?
A: I have great sympathy for anyone who puts his or her work out there for public scrutiny. That in itself is a risk. We respect that part of the process and each person who works at our demanding art.
Q: Please share your thoughts about some recent winning entries and why they stood out from the rest.
A: Natalie Diaz's raw emotion in a contained almost ritual form struck all the judges immediately. John Surowiecki's iconoclastic and humorous approach to disease was not only a fresh perspective but a linguistic treat. Gretchen Flesher's story "Our Sister Opal," on the other hand, was a gentle first-person narrative that embraced the reader in a wave-like movement enfolding the acceptance of a large family for its singular sister. In short, we embrace any style and subject that fulfills itself in a distinctive way.
Q: Do authors ever send you revised versions of a piece that you've already accepted? Do you generally find that those revisions make the piece better or worse? (This is an issue I often confront as a contest judge.)
A: Yes, often when we make suggestions for revision, they are not fulfilled to our satisfaction. Even when the suggestions are not made by our editorial staff and the writer revises already accepted material, he or she seems to take the heart out of the piece. We accept revisions to accepted material only at our discretion. Usually we take the version we accepted originally, especially for the prize. Only minor revisions are accepted on award-winning material. After all, the original version we received was the version that was accepted and awarded.
Q: Please describe some common reasons why finalist or semifinalist entries fail to make the cut.
A: Sometimes, with at least the top four finalists, there is little difference in quality. Writers have to accept the fact that the judges struggle with their decision and it is often unclear, even to them, why one manuscript turns up at the top of the heap. We cannot deny the element of taste, or a particular memory of the judge, stimulated, etc.
As for the other finalists and semifinalists, I can only say that we struggle with the decisions, often going back and forth between finalists and semifinalists: this one has better character development; that one has a richer plot; this one's images are memorable; that one's formal control is noteworthy. All I can say, again, is that there is an honest effort, based on respect for "tradition and the individual talent," to be fair and imprint our combined knowledge on our choices.