AGNI's online Submission Manager, what I call "the sluice," shuts down for the summer each June 1st. The reading period extends from the start of September to the end of May. Closing the sluice never fails to deliver a bit of a body-shock and then, almost right after, a growing sense of psychological well-being. This is not because I haven't enjoyed the daily screening of new work - which I see as one of the core pleasures of the job - but rather because for a fixed period of days I know I'll be free of the remorse of saying no to hard-working writers.
People looking in from the outside, picking up an issue of AGNI and perusing the table of contents, likely have no idea of the process whereby these few poems, stories, and essays have been brought together, and no inkling of the nonstop decision-making the process requires.
I hate statistics, but let me start with one. Since 2008, which is when we introduced our online system, AGNI has received upward of 129,000 submissions in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction combined. Very rough math makes that about 14,000 a year. Factor in that it's a nine-month cycle and the picture clarifies further, though we need to remember that these are only the online submissions. My point, again: that a significant part of my job involves reading and saying no. Saying, "Alas, sorry, try us again, this was not quite right for the mix, not a fit, you might send elsewhere, we did enjoy but..."
Using these words and phrases, whichever ones, is not gratifying. It takes a toll. I can't presume to speak for other editors, but for me this has much to do with my own writing life. The many years of Xeroxing, stamping, sending, and waiting left a permanent mark. To this day I can't reject a piece of writing without thinking of the person who sent and flashing back on what I know of the emotions that go along with the whole business: the pride of completion, the anxious intake of breath on hitting send (it used to be the dull clank of the postbox lid), and then the silence that so quickly fills with doubts and second thoughts.
Of course I don't live the whole cycle vividly each time, but it is an ever-present awareness, one undeniably tinged with guilt. Though I'm not quite a repo man, I do know that I am, hundreds of times a week, someone's bad news bearer, their bummer.
With June 1st, then, comes the merciful lifting of that burden, and I have a chance to do my penance and also reflect a bit more calmly on the enterprise - not just what it means to say no ... and yes - but also to try to answer that most FA of FAQs: what is it that AGNI is looking for?
I tire of many things in my life, but - surprisingly - I don't tire of trying to answer this one inquiry. It gets me thinking about first principles and brings me in close to origins and inspirations, which is always good.
"Me"... Let me stop and clarify something here. Though I use the first-person "I" - the essayist's reflexive default - I am also talking about everyone in my decision-making cohort, meaning my senior editor and comrade-in-arms Bill Pierce and our fantastic reader-editors: Mary O'Donoghue and William Giraldi in fiction, Lynne Potts, Sumita Chakraborty, and Brian Burt in poetry, and Jen Drew in both prose genres. They may not be the ones who deliver the news to the writer, but they are generous and incisive in responding to the work I send their way. So when I try to say what it is that AGNI is looking to publish, I am not so much laying out my personal preferences as trying to summarize a collective sensibility.
I don't want to suggest that we all think alike or respond in unison, not a bit. I do believe, however, that we have over the years marked out a kind of field within which we negotiate our passions and preferences. And we have at the same time evolved a style for voicing, testing, and contesting our reactions to work. I'd argue that through this process we keep teaching each other to read better - expanding tolerances, sharpening questions, forcing a higher articulation about what it is we are liking or disliking. These interactions are often one-on-one, but they have a collective effect. For we are not so much saying, "This is what I like as a reader" - though of course that is part of it - but "This is what I like for AGNI. This has our feel, our aesthetic."
Saying this rejuvenates the question. What are we looking for? What is that "feel," that "aesthetic"? Tempting as it is to hide behind a phrase like "it depends," or to deploy descriptors like "provocative" or "challenging" or "stylish," I do think I can be a bit more specific. So far as I can tell, all of us who read for AGNI are looking for writers thinking things through from the ground up, using language that is free of the innumerable standard conformities (including, of course, the nonconformist conformity); we want stories that find ways to map our pressurized psychological inwardness and that show in their tone an awareness of the bedeviled state of the world; poems that unsettle and quicken, and that feel like they're passing the fire from line to line; essays that do what the word-root promises, that venture; work that carries some resonance of tradition, but also - or else - throws off the angled light of otherness, sharpening our sense of both American and non-American worldviews, persuasively inhabited points of view.
I'm sure I've contradicted myself somewhere in that impromptu list, and sure, too, that I've left out crucially defining qualities. Sensibilities, individual as well as collective, are notoriously hard to characterize.
I also want to clarify that none of us ever reads a submission with any such criteria consciously in place. Those can be deduced later, and if they are, it's only ever approximately. When any one of us sits and reads, there is just the language and whatever it sets in motion. Later, naturally, we look for ways to express it. "I really liked her way of ___________..."
If these observations shed any light on our preferences, I'm glad. But they don't change much. Having said these things does not help a writer know which of her finished stories might be the one we'll find "right for AGNI," and doesn't, for me, make it the least bit easier to let a writer know that the product of his private struggle was not suited to the magazine. The pain of that remains. I will add, though, that it is somewhat counterbalanced by the far more occasional pleasure of saying yes.