Tuesday, August 26, 2008

An Interview with Don Wentworth of Lilliput Review

1. When did the glimmer of the idea of putting together a journal come to you, and where were you at in life at the time?

It was so long ago I’m honestly not very sure. I was active in the small press scene as a poet during the 80’s, had a couple of collections of work published and had published in a number of small press mags. Regarding starting my own mag, two mags made a distinct impression on me: Pig in a Pamphlet (a tiny, small poem outlet for the parent magazine, Pig in a Poke) and an occasional tiny mag called This Is Important. When I saw these small mags, with my own predilection for the short poem, I thought this might be a gas to try. Little did I know it would become the primary focus of what I was to do creatively for nearly two decades and counting.

2. How did you decide on the name?

The original title was actually Lilliput Revue. It seemed like a natural, considering the magazine’s physical size. I’m a big fan of Jonathan Swift and it just came to me in a flash. My close friend, Bobo, who served as the house artist for a number of years, illustrated the cover of issue #2 (issue #1 was a test run, using my own poems and no art, to see if the layout “worked”) and spelled the title Lilliput Review and after much deliberation, I decided to stick with that. Sometimes I still regret not going with the original name, for a variety of reasons, but fate intervened.

3. Who helped you make the journal into reality?

Essentially, Lillie is a one person operation. When I was down on cash in the early going, the woman I was dating funded the run of an entire issue, probably about $50 at the time, which was a big help. I eventually married her; that help was certainly emblematic of her many loving qualities. In terms of getting up and going, other small presses distributed tiny fliers for me with their print runs, I listed the mag in Poet’s Market and the Small Press Review and I’ve never looked back. To this day, I will always support new mags just starting as best as I’m able because that kind of camaraderie is what makes the small press a vital institution. Bobo’s artwork was a great lift in giving the mag a certain look and tone.

4. How did you decide on the lines limitation and the design of the journal? (Each journal is very small, you can easily tuck it into a #10 envelope).

Actually, you can comfortably tuck 4 of them in a #10 envelope. In any case, when I started out it was pre-computer, pre-word processing, so I typed everything up on an old Royal manual typewriter and did cut and paste. The easiest most affordable way to go was to print on 8 x 11” paper. Using some of the smaller mags I’ve already mentioned as models, I decided to cut the paper twice horizontally, making for a roughly 3.5 x 5.5” page, for a total of 12 pages. I knew from the first I wanted to use color paper, I just like the visual variety, I guess. About the limit that could fit on that size page was 15 or so lines, so I just arbitrarily picked the 10 line limit. In truth I had, and to some degree still have, a low tolerance for work that goes on and on. I knew from the first that I wanted issues to be able to go out for a single first class stamp (25¢ at the time) and so that, too, was a factor.

5. How many people do you have on staff and how many hours do all of you put in for each issue?

Ha! People on staff! One. That’s it. My life mate, who has been a professional proofreader in her day, proofs all the issues, so she puts in I’d say 3 hours every 3 months, so that would be 12 hours a year. Otherwise, it’s just me. Time-wise, I average an hour to 2 hours every weekday morning (I get up at 5 before work), plus about 12 hours every weekend. I read all the poems, write all the correspondence, do the layout, the mailing list, and print, cut, collate, fold and staple every issue.

Oh, and did I say I love nearly every minute?

6. You have some regular contributors (such as illustrator Wayne Hogan), how many have you gotten to meet in person or over the phone and can you tell us anything about them that you would like us to know about?

I’ve met less than a handful of folks and most of them would be local. Although it is very active, I have minimal contact in the local poetry scene, though that has been changing a bit over the last year or so. I’m not much for poetry readings, I find them intensely painful, usually. I guess I have an even lower tolerance for readings than I do long poems.

7. You make a point to individually address all those who submit poems which I think is a fantastic practice that most editors don’t necessarily have time for. May I ask what possesses you to do so?

Minimally, I try to establish human contact. As someone who has published poetry over the years, I know exactly how it feels to receive a form letter after hopefully waiting for 6 months or more. So it is important to acknowledge the person on the other end. I offer positive criticism only, particularly if a work is close for Lilliput or if I think there is something constructive that the poet can take away from it. My one regret is that my turnaround time for submissions is 90 days. I wish it could be faster, but with one person and nearly 1,000 snail mail submissions a year, it’s the very best I can do.

8. When and why did you decide to create a blog based off of Lilliput Review and has it helped increase the readership of your journal?

The first time I started blogging a few years back was in preparation for a lifelong learning class I was going to teach on poetry appreciation. I started to use the blog, which was strictly for me, as a sort of commonplace book, where I could record poems I was thinking of using and things that struck me as important. I had a Lilliput webpage for many years which had become kind of static. Blogging just seemed to be a kind of natural way to reach out to a different audience and allows me to continue the sort of dialogue with myself, and expand it to an audience, I’d begun with the course blog. And it has worked out well beyond my expectations in both cases. I’ve “met” a lot of people via the blog, done some things that were just not possible via the paper publication, and garnered material for the mag I would never have gotten before. And, yes, it has increased readership.

9. How important is feedback to your journal and how often have you made changes based on feedback?

It is very surprising how little feedback you get when you run a small press poetry magazine. A majority of poets are strictly focused on publication and, though they might sometimes subscribe if their material has been accepted, they generally don’t seem to care about the mag one way or the other. In the minority are people who are regulars, who react and have positive and constructive things to say. Sometimes, I think perhaps it’s not very different than lurkers you get reading a blog. It’s surprising how many people are out there reading and not commenting and that is true with mags also. Obviously, the best relationships you establish are those where there is a give and take between reader and editor and there are a number of those that have been going on for many years that I cherish.

10. What is one question you’ve always wanted to be asked and have never been asked about Lilliput Review? (And please answer the question).

For me, it isn’t so much the one question that I’ve wanted someone to ask as it is something that I’ve done since the very beginning that I’m not sure many people realize and, if they do, they have never commented on. And it is this: if you follow the guidelines for sending work, no matter if it is accepted or not, you will always get a free back issue. Literally, if you send no more than 3 pages of poems (on standard 8.5 x 11” paper) with a SASE for return, you will always receive a free issue with the return envelope. I’ve probably given away over a 1,000 free issues over the years, maybe more, I’ve no way of knowing. And, when I can, I try to make sure I don’t send something someone has previously seen.

Behind this is the fact that when I started out, I thought of Lilliput as a sort of exchange: you send poems, I send poems back (& not just yours!). Beside my interest in the short poem, that was part of the motivating feature behind producing a tiny magazine. It’s also why the price has never changed. It was a dollar in 1989 and it’s a dollar today in 2008, despite the fact that postage in 89 was 25¢ and today it’s 42¢.

11. Do you have time to read poetry outside of editing and who do you enjoy reading?

Yes, not only do I have time, I have to read poetry outside of editing. It is part of my constant education in what poetry is, how it works, and who I am. Poetry, reading, as well as writing, is how I speak to myself. All great poetry deals with the big issues: birth, death, love, loss and the process that is being human. Poetry is as close as I get to the spiritual, so it is life blood for me. It also puts what is published in Lilliput in perspective.

Who do I read? So many I can hardly name them. Whitman, Sexton, Olds, Ginsburg, Mary Oliver, James Wright, Franz Wright, Dickinson, Gerald Stern, Margaret Atwood, Wendell Berry and Charles Simic. I love Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Lawrence, and the Romantic Poets. My favorite poet is Issa and I’m strongly drawn to the Chinese and Japanese classic authors such as Yosano Akiko and Basho and Han-shan. Well, obviously I could go on and on. I am also a big reader of anthologies, which is a great way to discover new poets.

12. What poets inspire you past and present?

Inspire can be interpreted in so many ways. The poets closest to my heart are Issa and Whitman, Mary Oliver, William Wordsworth and James Wright. I find Yeats very inspiring and, oddly, Wallace Stevens. When I read the classic haiku and tanka writers I’m inspired spiritually and creatively to write. I can be very inspired, ironically, by bad poetry. It’s like I want to do the subject justice, I want to say to the poet, no, no, it’s like this. I’m also inspired by poets I intensely disagree with.

13. As a poet and editor who has “the easier job” and could you explain your choice?

I’m probably not the right person to ask this. I do not treat writing poetry as a job; for me, it’s purely inspirational. The business of being a poet is not something I’ve really engaged in much in recent years though I continue to write on a regular basis. I generally only send work out when someone requests it. My opinion, though, would be the poet has the harder job. It is so very hard to be objective about your own work. To send it out to a market that expects exclusivity and then replies 6 months later with a form letter can be devastating. That’s hard. Being an editor is generally hard as in digging-a-ditch hard. The creative part, the putting together an issue part is the closest it comes to pure inspiration and I do get a similar buzz in pulling an issue together as I do when writing a poem. One of the best highs there is … The day to day work can be a bit of a drag, can sometimes be a bit overwhelming, but the ultimate product, the magazine or the chapbooks in the Modest Proposal series, make it worthwhile.

14. I’ve noticed that your issues have related subject matter. Do you go out of your way to find a theme or do the poems that arrive tend to have a general theme in a “great-minds-think-alike” sense?

That is an excellent question because it actually goes right to the heart of why I get so jazzed when I’m putting together an issue. The simple answer is I don’t look for particular poems or themes when reading work. Each poem is judged by the scratch marks on the page, each stands or falls on its own. Very, very infrequently I might read a poem and say, ah, I’ve got something that will go nicely with that. The reason I don’t do that more often is I read so many poems there is no way I remember what I have on hand (generally, I’m working with a one year backlog). The process goes like this: when it’s time to put together the new issues, I sit down with the folder of accepted work. I begin chronologically with the oldest work first and begin to lay out the two issues together. If the first two poems have a similar feel, I’ll put them in the pile for one issue. If not, one for one issue, the other for the second. I then go through poem for poem and here is where the magic begins. Themes, relationships, counterpoint and all manner of connections begin to evince themselves. This has always happened, never fails, which brings us back to the heart of your question – why? Zeitgeist? Unconscious selection on my part? My predilection for particular themes and styles? Probably a subtle blend of all these things is the true answer. And here’s the kicker: when I look back on the issues over the years, in a certain way they represent a kind of lyrical journey of the magazine and its creators (i.e. the poets) and in another way it is something of a creative journal of myself. Sometimes this works marvelously, at others not so well. I do believe, however, the arc over the years has been one of constant improvement so the mag has just gotten better and better. Without that, there certainly is no way that I would be in a 20th year with a deep desire to continue.

15. Any advice for poets who want to publish their poems in general?

The traditional advice you read in all the guides, such as Poet’s Market, is true: get a sample copy, read the mag, follow the guidelines, etc. But the question poets should be asking is: what’s my goal, why am I doing this? Do I want to publish my poems? Do I want a chapbook of my work collected? Do I want large press publication? All of these questions are, of course, fine, yet there is a real danger in getting lost in the business of sending work, having it accepted or rejected, building curriculum vitae for the purpose of further publication. It becomes a goal in and of itself and, in my opinion, is the wrong approach. The answer to what’s my goal should be: be true to the work. To be true to your work, you must be true to yourself.

16. Finally, any advice you have for others who want to become an editor of their own journal or press?

That advice would be the same as for poets – know who you are and what you’re about. It’s all about the journey and not the destination. One thing I can guarantee – if you are really into it, it’ll be the ride of a lifetime.

Thanks so much for allowing me to interview you, Mr. Wentworth. It’s always a pleasure to correspond with you.

Thanks to all of you reading the interview, please be sure to visit Don Wentworth’s blog at:

And see you tomorrow for more Poems Found by Poet Hound…


Charles Gramlich said...

Great interview. I've considered a time or two starting my own magazine and this gave a great look into that. A lot of work, though.

Poet Hound said...

Yes, a lot of hard work, and thanks to Don there are poets of all walks of life and in all stages of career featured in his magazines, and each one is enjoyable to read.

Anonymous said...

Dear Poet Hound:

Thank you for the wonderful interview!


christopher cunningham said...

dandy interview. a true small press soldier, and a champion of the short poem (one of my favorite forms)...

thanks for posting...

H. said...

Great to read Don's thoughts/experiences. A fine piece. He is the consumate professional, his communication is top-notch--in fact, when I crack open a LILLIPUT envelop, I can't wait to find the tiny, folded little letter. It's a treasure. & 20 years--as a small press publication--it is an EXTRAORDINARY MAGAZINE. I hope one day there is a HUGE COLLECTION put out--the UNABRIDGED LILLIPUT REVIEW. Writing a great short poem is one of the hardest things to do as a writer. If you dif into LILLIPUT you'll be amazed at how much fits in such a small space...it's like dark matter.

Also, Don's recent postcard via sunnyoutside is terrific too! & it's a $1. Pull up the couch cushions--you won't be sorry.

d.mm. said...

Good to see Don getting some due recognition. He's a model of consistency and excellence--something for all of us to aspire to--and a generous promoter of others. Thanks for giving us a chance to learn more about him (and Lilliput).

j.b said...

ditto. to all of that.
20 years is the thing that amazed me most. that's a long time to still have the passion for it.

congrats and thanks for the interview. it's so great to hear what others have gone/are going through in the small press.

Poet Hound said...

H., thanks for the heads up for Sunnoutside, I also think the entire collection of Lilliput Review in one spot would be amazing.

d.mm., I agree, he is a great promoter of poets and I hope he continues another 20 years.

j.b, your welcome, and I hope he inspires many to continue their passions in life without fail.

HarryC13 said...

Hey, I'm Harry Calhoun, one of those guys lucky enough to have known Don "in person" when we both lived in Pittsburgh in the '80s and '90s. It is amazing that he has continued to publish such high quality work for so long. My Pig in a Poke stuff overall lasted about seven years. Also great that Don lists Pig as an inspiration -- and ironic because This is Important, the other pamphlet he lists, was MY inspiration for Pig in a Pamphlet. Long story short, I was running short of cash and couldn't afford the big Pig anymore, so I went to the smaller format. But for Don to have done this for so long ... awesome!

Ed Baker said...

one of the better interviews EVER!

especially appreciate both your's and Don's tone & temper... especially-especially ?s #15 and #16

-just like the Sealtest bottles of milk: (eventually) the cream rises to the top

thanks, Kokkie