Submission Spotlight: Blackbird

Okay, so the bad news is that a lot of literary magazines have closed their doors until fall. The good news? You’ve got a few months to pull up that piece you’d given up on, dust it off, and see what you can make of it. If it fluffs up into something pretty tasty, Blackbird might be the literary magazine for you.

Since 2001 (or 2002—different places on their website name different founding years), Blackbird has published fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction. Mary Flinn, M.A. Keller, and Gregory Donovan founded the journal as a joint venture of the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of English and the New Virginia Review, Inc. Almost everyone on staff is white. All the editors and associate editors are MFA students at the Virginia Commonwealth University, and most of the interns are undergrads. They pay contributors but do not state their rates.

The lack of diversity is startling, but the all-student staff can be a plus. I find that student-run journals are sometimes more willing to take risks. Personally, I think students tend to be more fluid, daring, and curious than faculty, who risk getting too comfortable with their particular definition of “good” literature.

Possibly as a result, the publication’s current offering includes more diversity than many other university-run journals. When I read its issue back in December/January, its slate of authors included two nonbinary writers, nine women, six authors of color (out of 22), and a wide age range.

But don’t be fooled: Classism rides high here, too. In all of the author bios I read, MFAs and other advanced degrees figured prominently as well as faculty positions in higher education and even poet laureate titles. Yes, my people, this magazine may be student-run, online-only, and a paying market, but it still looks pretty closed to writers outside academia.

The stories themselves are straight-shooting and satisfying, while playing it a bit safe. My favorite example is “People Like Us” by Patricia García Luján, a story about a hard-up woman in her mid-thirties considering work as a surrogate. It moves along swiftly, drawing us closer and closer to the moment where she must decide between money and impoverished independence. The decision occurs off-the-page, and the author decides to show only the aftermath. It’s an effective technique that leaves us feeling her transition from one social class to another has been abrupt, implying a return to poverty might be just as abrupt.

García Luján also shows the newfound respectability achieved through this decision, and how this allows her to pass as middle-class when she runs into an ex. It feels emotionally truthful, its pacing kept me reading, and the suspense over what our protagonist will decide was deftly handled. So you’ve got to be on your A-game for this publication—all cylinders firing with plot, character, dialogue, and pacing. Good stuff.

However, like I said, some of the pieces play it safe, and this story also exemplifies this. Given the extremely vulnerable situation this woman is in and the troubling pressures from the couple who want to “rent her womb,” it feels by the end as if the story tiptoes back from the real risks of surrogacy: abuse, predation, exploitation, and poverty, the kind where your groceries come from the food bank and dentists treat you like shit because you’re on Medicaid, not the can’t-afford-yoga-classes kind.

Instead of delving into the experience of actual poverty, the story centers typical Hollywood fare: longing for an ex, grieving a dead mother, and frustration with the monotony of low-wage work. It’s all very familiar to American readers.

So all around, the magazine is packed with strong stories by writers who know what they’re doing. It’s just that most pieces never go anywhere the magazine’s readers might feel unsettled by. There are a lot of first-person narrators, couples in turmoil, and people with ambivalence about work. Some of the stories, like “People Like Us,” are page-turners. If you think this might be the place for your fiction, give it a shot.

As with many publications these days, you’ll need a Submittable account to submit your work. Keep your fiction under 8,000 words, ensure you haven’t published it anywhere before—even your blog—and prepare to pay about $3 (since the magazine is closed for now, it’s hard to say where submission fees will land in the fall). It’s a respectable, solid publication that personally I think is publishing more interesting work—and more interesting authors—than a lot of journals from the academic world.

Photo by Brett Sayles

Published by M.C. Easton

Novelist and teacher.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: