“Typhoon on Ha Long Bay,” Margo Lemieux
Insights from the founding editors of Mud Season Review
Rebecca Starks, Lauren Bender, Danielle Thierry, and Erin Post were involved in shaping Mud Season Review in a variety of ways since its beginning. We honor each for their contributions to the evolution of this publication. As we transition to new editorial leadership, we invite them to share some of Mud Season’s early history, and the lessons learned about launching and growing a literary journal.
“For me the key to the mission was to carry forward the feeling of a Burlington Writers Workshop—to put aside everything in order to focus on the work of a few individuals in that moment.”
Rebecca Starks, Founding Editor
What was your first engagement with Mud Season Review? How did this all begin for you?
Rebecca: After moving to Burlington in 2011, I began looking for other writers, and came across the Burlington Writers Workshop. From the first workshop I attended, I was impressed by how much care and thought members put into reading and commenting on each other’s work. The BWW membership voted to start a literary journal in 2014, and I went to an inchoate organizational meeting. At some point BWW Founder Peter Biello asked if I would be the central email contact, so that he didn’t get so many emails—I didn’t realize that meant I would soon be the editor of the journal, spending up to 20 hours a week working with a staff of 15-20 volunteers responsible for sorting through hundreds of submissions. I had no experience with running a literary journal or editing.
The endeavor was saved from being a disaster by a few key things—Peter’s idea to feature the work of three writers each month, one representing each genre; his choice of Danielle Thierry to work alongside me (she was instrumental in developing the website and the organizational flow, in deciding that we would feature art as well as writing, and in talking through every decision during the foundational first half year, from every word of copy, to choosing artwork that accompanied the writing, to personnel needs); and the incredible passion and dedication of all the volunteers—we never missed a deadline. We learned WordPress, tapped my brother-in-law Robert Cadena for a logo and art, agreed on a mission statement, got a Submittable account and put out calls for submissions—and after that, we were just trying to keep up.
“I had sent out my own submissions, but for the first time, I got to see Submittable and the publication process from the other side.”
Lauren Bender, former Editor-in-Chief
Lauren: I moved to the Burlington area in 2016 after living in Fair Haven, VT (a small town) since late 2009, and I was eager to jump into the local writing community. I volunteered at a Burlington Writers Workshop event, then attended the launch party for the second print volume of Mud Season Review about a week after that. I bought a copy of the volume, loved the work included, and knew I wanted to get involved with the publication right away. I started off as a poetry reader and stayed in that role for several months. That was a nice way of easing in, as I had never worked on a lit mag staff before and didn’t really know what to expect. I loved getting to comb through all the poetry submissions, to see the variety in the work and also in the way people chose to structure their submissions (including cover letters and bios). I had sent out my own submissions, but for the first time, I got to see Submittable and the publication process from the other side. It was thrilling and so valuable for my development as a writer.
Danielle: I’ve always been part of a creative community of some form, whether casual or formal in music or visual arts or writing. So when I moved to Burlington from New Jersey, I was looking for that in my new home. The Burlington Writers Workshop felt like a good fit from the start. I appreciated the balance of being serious and thoughtful about each other’s work, while also being open and free to all who wanted to join.
When the idea of creating a journal from this community came up, I was excited by the potential of how we might carry what made the BWW so amazing into an ongoing collaborative project. It also felt like a good way for me to contribute to the group beyond the workshops, as I had experience in digital content strategy and editorial management. After the first group meeting, I volunteered to help, and Peter invited me to work with him and Rebecca on the initial planning and gather a larger team. I couldn’t have asked for better partners in doing that. We each brought something different to the mix, and each person who joined the team added more. I felt really just grateful to be part of something that other people I came to know well and respect deeply also believed was worth doing.
Erin: I served on the original poetry team when the journal was first founded. I had been attending Burlington Writers Workshop events and loved the community I found. The opportunity to dive into the publication process and work as a team was appealing. After a few years there, I moved on to help out with social media and some website work alongside Lauren, and then became managing editor. With help from Rebecca, Danielle, Lauren, and the entire Mud Season team, we made some changes to the journal’s publication schedule and processes to make the entire enterprise more sustainable. It was part of the evolution of the journal. Thanks to the thoughtfulness of everyone involved, we are still going strong!
Describe your most potent connections with the publication’s purpose and vision.
“The format of publishing and interviewing one writer and artist in each genre per issue has allowed us to get to know the people we publish.”
Danielle Thierry, Founding Editor
Rebecca: For me the key to the mission was to carry forward the feeling of a Burlington Writers Workshop—to put aside everything in order to focus on the work of a few individuals in that moment—and to move beyond our small Vermont community by inviting in voices we would not otherwise hear. Voice can mean so many things—it’s influenced by place, by race, ethnicity, culture, by gender, by neurology, by age, by one’s reading, by what is called “lived experience”. For me I think of one of my favorite quotes, from James Baldwin’s Another Country: “The occurrence of an event is not the same thing as knowing what it is that one has lived through. Most people had not lived—nor could it, for that matter, be said that they had died—through any of their terrible events. They had simply been stunned by the hammer.” The events don’t have to be terrible or even momentous—but for them to be written about well, they have to have been lived through, even when they are imagined. The journal’s format was designed to put this work in relief, by finding illustrative artwork, providing an editor’s introduction, and asking interview questions that show a deep engagement with the work.
Lauren: Though it’s not a goal unique to MSR (thankfully), I was impressed by its stated commitment to inclusivity and excited about playing my own small part in furthering that goal. It’s so important to me that all visions and voices are represented, that all experiences are getting out into the world, being absorbed, being loved, having their powerful (and badly needed) influence on our collective mindset.
More specific to MSR, I loved their structure of highlighting one writer per genre per online issue. That was not something I had encountered a lot when reading other lit mags, and I thought it was a wonderful idea, to get to sit down and read four or five poems by a single poet, to be able to dive deep into their particular aesthetic.
Danielle: For me, it’s a few things. First, the way the journal celebrates the process of creation and what that means to different people. The format of publishing and interviewing one writer and artist in each genre per issue has allowed us to get to know the people we publish. We’re able to give them greater focus, and we also get the gift of spending time learning from them through the editing process and interviews. And then the way the journal grew from our local writing community and moved us beyond ourselves in many ways—from a focus on helping other writers and artists to get their voices heard to building connections with writers, artists, and now even staff members from far beyond Vermont.
And finally, the celebration of the creative process as it plays out through the journal’s evolution. When the publishing schedule has felt too burdensome, the group has found a way to make it manageable. When the poetry editors wanted to highlight more poems without taking away from the featured poet, they found a way to do it that aligns well with the journal’s mission (“The Take”). When roles have felt too heavy, people have figured out how to better divide and share the work. I’ve loved seeing the thoughtful creativity and different approaches of everyone involved.
Erin: I love that Mud Season Review extends the reach of the Burlington Writers Workshop community. Our authors and artists – from all over the world – are now part of our fold. They keep in touch; they share Mud Season work; some have traveled to attend events here in Vermont. Same with our staff – over time we have reached out beyond the borders of Vermont to bring in readers and editors from across the country. One of my fondest memories is a “virtual chat” we had to introduce Mud Season staff members from places near and far to our newest co-editors, Elaine and Grier. It was a lovely discussion and a great reminder of why we all do the work we do – for the love of art and writing.
What were the greatest rewards and the greatest challenges of working as editor of Mud Season Review?
“One of the greatest wonders for me is the strange objective-subjective nature of words that allows us to fiddle, fine-tune, and recognize instances of perfect emotional and descriptive pitch.”
Rebecca Starks, Founding Editor
Rebecca: I think I would say both were interpersonal. The greatest challenge for me was being thrown into a position of leadership without a clear sense of my role or authority. It was the community’s journal, but I was responsible for what it published, and it took time to figure out the right balance of hierarchy and consensus, of efficiency and valuing everyone’s work and input. I think the best decision we made, at Danielle’s urging, was to limit terms, so that everyone had a chance to have more say and more responsibility.
On the reward side, I learned so much, connected meaningfully with other writers and editors, and made lasting friendships. I learned how much I love working on a volunteer project, sharing a common cause, with like-minded people. I learned how much I enjoy editing, as a way of externalizing all the subtle reactions that occur while reading something with full immersion. The process of communicating these reactions to an author or another editor, and hearing their responses, and reading the final, more fully realized version, confirms a shared, interpersonal reality. One of the greatest wonders for me is the strange objective-subjective nature of words that allows us to fiddle, fine-tune, and recognize instances of perfect emotional and descriptive pitch. I need solitude to write, but now I carry with me that experience of shared mind.
Lauren: Oh, wow. It’s an interesting question; they were so intertwined for me. I was challenged from the beginning by the social aspects of the position. I skew about as far introvert as you can get, and I was forced to find ways to draw on more extroverted qualities, to find my way in terms of leadership/guidance of others and being, in a sense, a “spokesperson” for the publication. At the same time, what I learned from having to do that was immeasurably rewarding: the ways in which it made me rethink how I saw myself, lit mags, the publishing biz—everything, really. There has probably not been any other experience in my life that resulted in so much growth.
Also, what could be more rewarding than helping other writers share their work with the world? That was always a high—sending acceptances, working with writers on edits, letting them know when their work had gone live, promoting them online. We published such amazing pieces, and it thrilled me to be able to share them and to form connections with incredibly talented and lovely people.
Danielle: Working with other writers, diving deeper into editing and art, the friendships with people I may never have met were it not for this journal—there are so many rewards.
The greatest challenge for me was in trying to help us create and maintain a framework to live out our stated mission in practice and over the long term. This was true in my role as managing editor of Mud Season as well as in my role as organizer of the Burlington Writers Workshop (which included still working with the journal, but from a broader and more organizational perspective).
The start of something is often driven by the passion and excitement of its founders. But how do you keep it going—especially with an all-volunteer staff and limited budget—in the spirit of its original purpose, while also leaving room for others’ passion and excitement? How do you avoid the trap of having a collective vision, but a small group of volunteers doing the majority of the work to sustain that vision and then inevitably burning out? How do you listen to everyone, even and especially those who don’t voluntarily speak up, and then help the group find ways to continue weaving together everyone’s needs and perspective?
I was constantly asking myself questions like these, and challenging my own perspectives—and working with Rebecca, Lauren, Erin, and others to try to solve the many puzzles. It wasn’t easy, and there were as many failures as successes along the way. But just simply doing the work of it was also my greatest reward. Not long ago when my oldest son turned 13, I gathered letters from family and friends to share their thoughts and advice with him for the years ahead. And as I was writing my own letter to him, I realized just how much of the wisdom I had to share came from my experiences here.
Erin: The biggest challenge for me was the time commitment. Definitely some late nights getting a new issue online. Juggling so many moving pieces was a lesson in making lists – from social media posts to answering questions from submitters to keeping up with the unglamorous “nuts and bolts” work that makes a journal tick. My time as managing editor made me appreciate – so very much – having dedicated people there with me. That extends to Lauren, Danielle and Rebecca, in addition to all of the Mud Season crew. More than once I reached out to the three of them with random questions at odd times of day and night! They always graciously gave of their time to help me out.
So many rewards – but one perhaps unexpected one was how much I enjoyed seeing staff members grow into their roles. It was great to see the discussions unfold about the pieces we received – that’s where the magic happens! The thoughtful, considerate, nuanced back-and-forth makes for a great journal and also makes every person involved a better writer and human being. I also feel like the role helped me to tune into my own “leadership style” a little more, which is honestly not something I had thought much about.
What advice would you offer to all of us at Mud Season Review as we move forward?
“Give yourself the space to dream big. What do you want to try? Where do you want the journal to go? Let the creativity flow.”
Erin Post, longtime Managing Editor
Rebecca: When I started out, I struggled with the burden of choosing work, weighing in on what readers and editors passed up to me. I wasn’t sure I knew what was good, unless it was already in print, and I felt like an imposter. I’m someone who can see the promise in almost any creative effort, but also someone who can easily feel what Marianne Moore expresses in her poem “Poetry”: I too, dislike it. Then someone told me, I wish I remembered who: “You aren’t deciding that a story is good or bad, you are choosing a Mud Season story (a Mud Season set of poems, essay, art)—you are defining what that is.” The idea relieved me of the sense that I was an unqualified judge, and freed me to engage with submissions in a more open, curious way. I will also pass along Peter Biello’s mantra: It should be fun! (This is easy, if fun for you is all-consuming, painstaking work!)
Lauren: It takes a lot of time, effort, and communication to keep the process running, and it can be overwhelming or frustrating at times. You can get stuck in the details of the publication cycle. I would say remember to think about the bigger picture every once in a while: why did you want to get involved, what is important about the work to you, what impact do you think you’re having and what impact do you want to be having, etc. Also, how can you have more fun with it? It should be fun, especially for a publication like MSR that was partially conceived as a learning and development opportunity for those who may never have done this kind of work before. There are many different roles you can try out and countless ways you can add value with your unique skills.
Danielle: Keep in mind that creative projects and communities are at their best when they’re being driven by passion and joy. So look for a role that lets you contribute with openness, curiosity, and dedication—and welcome others around you to do the same. Be clear about your needs and limits so the group can understand and effectively plan. And when you’re ready to or need to move on—whether to a different role or a different part of life entirely—do it freely. Trust that the journal will become whatever it needs to become next and that you’ll always be part of its collective, evolving vision.
Erin: There is strength in numbers! Bring on the volunteers! Also, I think it’s important to have those “big picture” conversation as a group every so often – recommitting to (or tweaking) the mission and vision, asking important questions of each other about diversity, equity and inclusion, perhaps even taking a broader look at the literary journal landscape and connecting with others. Sometimes it’s hard to make time for those things when deadlines are looming (I know I struggled there), but that’s how the journal evolves and grows. Also, give yourself the space to dream big. What do you want to try? Where do you want the journal to go? Let the creativity flow.