And we’re all waiting to see what’s next for our audacious editor. Shovan spent years — from 2011 to 2015 — as the editor of the review, years that were crucial to LPR’s development. Shovan helped boost its reputation, its submissions, and its quality into the national sphere. We are slavishly grateful, and excited about her new projects, including promoting her first novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, which was published April 12, 2016, and writing a second novel.
Shovan, who moved to Maryland in the mid-2000s, published a few poems in LPR but was surprised when publisher Mike Clark called her in 2011 to ask if she’d like to edit the journal, she says. She accepted, then jumped in with both feet.
She pulled in guest editors, new staff, and contributors, a new approach to the website. She brainstormed interesting themes, expanded the readings, pioneered a middle school writing camp and answered probably a million emails. And finally, she recruited Steven Leyva to act as editor after she became poetry editor in 2014. Laura Shovan, who spent her last days as an ink-stained wretch with us on the issue published in January 2015.
I met her at Barnes & Noble’s coffee bar, where we had talked many times about books, projects, poetry and our lives.
Susan Thornton Hobby: What changes did you see in your tenure as editor?
Laura Shovan: One of the things was that the previous editor was publishing people from a limited number of states. I thought to grow nationally, we needed to open it up. It was a big step. We still take about 60 to 70% of submissions from the mid-Atlantic region. But we saw two things. First, we went to Submittable [LPR’s on-line submission processor], and we opened it up nationally. When you’re getting submissions nationally, you can be choosier, and the quality is better. The journal pretty quickly started to grow, we were contributing to national anthologies and Poetry Daily. We were just putting ourselves out there. We were, necessarily, before that, in an insular growth period. We just wanted to go from being introverted to being extroverted. The journal was ready for it at that point.
STH: Can you talk about some of your initiatives at the review, the middle school writing festival, the Concerning Craft posts?
LS: I loved the middle school writing festival. And we visited several high schools; Emily Rich did an annual reading at Prince Georges Community College. We really started to have additional readings besides the launch readings. One of the things that sets us apart is that once you’re a contributor, we’re going to support your work. We really liked inviting contributors to do small essays for the on-line site, I really supported the Concerning Craft series.
STH:What did serving as the editor do for you?
LS:It taught me how to put together a book — it’s not a straight narrative, but there still has to be a through-line. We’re not one of those reviews that publishes alphabetically. I love that idea that it should really be like a little book, it should read of a piece. And I really enjoyed the editorial [dimension]. We’re one of the few journals that works by making revisions. I had to learn to be a problem-solver. Because everyone is a volunteer, they’re protective of their time. And so it’s important in solving problems to be logical. I had to downplay any heated emotions. The editor is the one who has to be that way. You need to have the staff feel they are being recognized for their work, that somebody’s looking at the big picture. I sometimes felt like a Mama Bear.
STH:Your blog is full of poetic challenges, to kids and to teachers. Why?
LS: I started blogging in 2008, as part of the children’s lit project. I started with National Poetry Month. And then my birthday is 2/22, and on the year I was turning 44, it was my magic birthday, I wanted to do something. I had vintage postcards as prompts and wrote 44 poems, well more than 44 because I really liked it. Then I opened it up. It grew so big, I can’t have it on my blog anymore. I need a bigger platform. It’s all about having a daily writing practice. When you are sharing virtually as you’re writing, you can’t be connected to the idea of perfectionism. You have good days and bad days. It’s about creating a community around practice. One of my favorite things is that looking at a prompt for a day, some of the work is wildly different or there’s a thread running through people’s work. I feel like people enjoy it. I’m a community-minded person and I like doing things like that.
[The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary] grows out of my interest in community. When I taught high school — I taught for five years at the beginning of my adult working life — one year I taught Literature of Society and used the Spoon River Anthology. When you’re a reader of that book, you’re putting things together. It’s not a mystery, but you’re connecting clues. It puts a lot of the work of the story on the reader. In my work for the state arts council, I worked in the lower grades. Spoon River is a snapshot of a community at the turn of the century. And in the schools, each classroom is its own little community. The first draft stuck close to the model book. I thought I would tell the story of a classroom, with 30 students each having their own poem. But in the children’s lit world, in critiques, nobody knew what it was. It didn’t work for the readership. I was interested in how children and a teacher in a class form their own community.
STH: What has reading so many other people’s work, as an editor, influenced in your own work?
LS: It made me think about the places people trip up. In beginnings, people write on-ramps — I do that. And with endings, you’re either wrapping it up with a bow, which I look for in my own work. Or there’s often a door in the poem. The author is showing the reader the door, but they’re not walking through it, they didn’t go far enough. They seem like opposite things, but a poem is about striking that balance.
And as editor, I had to be aware of my own preferences. I had to make choices against myself sometimes. When I came in, we added a staff of readers. If they were all liking a poem, it makes me go back and think, what kind of prejudices was I bringing to that work? So I looked at the Best American anthologies. I pushed myself to read more widely so I could be a better editor.
STH: Talk about the “open door” note you write on some poems.
LS: In your own work, you’re not recognizing it. sometimes I can put something away for a while — a few months. Like this children’s book, I’m asking readers to make some leaps. You have to strike a balance in the poem, between the urge to tell everything and the urge to hide everything. The poem is somewhere in the middle.
STH: What are you working on now?
LS: A middle-grade novel about middle-schoolers who are wrestlers, a boy and a girl. Wrestling is at such an interesting period right now. My editor is asking me to stretch and do prose. I’m always up for a stretch.
Online Editor’s Note: Join Laura Shovan on Saturday, April 23, 2016, at The Ivy Bookshop (6-7:30 pm) for a special launch reading of The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. Stay abreast of other events or follow her award-winning poetry blog at www.laurashovan.com.
- Kirkus Review says of Shovan’s first novel, “This novel in verse is a remarkable feat of mimicry. The poems sound exactly like they were written by real fifth-graders.”
- Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “This entertaining debut novel in verse follows the fifth graders at Emerson Elementary as they attempt to save their “run-down” school, which is in danger of closing. In an ethnically diverse class… characters …will inspire readers.”