When Ted Genoways was accepted to the University of Virginia’s master’s of fine arts program in creative writing in the summer of 1997, he immediately contacted the Virginia Quarterly Review, UVa’s prestigious literary journal, looking for an editorial internship.
He thought he had a reasonable chance of getting some kind of job there, any job. Even at age 25, he had almost 10 years of editorial experience. And his poetry had been widely published, which had helped him get into UVa’s highly competitive MFA program.
At the time, however, the VQR had a strict policy of not hiring students from the creative writing program. So he was turned away.
But now, just six years later, Genoways, 31, has managed to land a post at the VQR: editor-in-chief.
Genoways took the helm as the eighth editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review in July. He replaces Staige Blackford, the journal’s esteemed, 28-year editor who died in a June car accident just one week before he was to retire.
And now Genoways faces the biggest challenge of his editorial career: leading the 78-year-old journal into the 21st century at a time when journal editors are struggling to reverse a potentially crippling trend of declining readership and circulation.
“I don’t think the problem is that there aren’t readers out there,” Genoways said. “The real question we face is, ‘How do we make ourselves significant, and how do we get out to a wider readership?’”
Those associated with the journal say Genoways’ prodigious accomplishments as both an editor and poet, and his fresh approach, may be just what the VQR needs.
“One of the things we had to think about is that the readership has been steadily aging,” said UVa English professor Stephen Cushman, a member of the selection committee that chose Genoways. “If a magazine like this is going to survive, it’s got to survive by appealing to younger readers.”
Genoways got his start in publishing at age 14, as a freshman at Lincoln East High School. He fell in with a group of older students interested in starting a magazine at the school. Together, they started Muse, which Genoways describes as a mix of “general interest, opinion, reviews—a lot like the Virginia Quarterly Review.”
In his junior year, the Columbia School of Journalism named Muse the best high school publication in the country. Accompanied by their faculty adviser, Genoways and the other editors flew to New York to accept the award.
“All I thought was, ‘This is great,’” Genoways said. “I hardly remember getting the award.”
After graduating high school, Genoways went on to attend Nebraska Wesleyan University. He immediately set to work on another school publication, founding the Coyote, a general interest, pop culture magazine named after the school’s mascot, during his freshman year.
Again, his work earned praise within the journalism community. In 1993, his junior year at Nebraska Wesleyan, the Columbia Scholastic Press Association gave the Coyote honorable mention for “overall design.”
Genoways went on to receive his master’s degree at Texas Tech University, while also working as an editorial assistant and project supervisor at the Texas Tech University Press. His other editorial experience includes work at the Minnesota Historical Society Press and the Walt Whitman Hypertext archives at the University of Iowa.
His own poetry has found its way into several literary journals, including the VQR. His work has earned him numerous awards and fellowships, including the 2002 Pushcart Prize, the Natalie Ornish Poetry Award and a John Ciardi fellowship in poetry.
One year into doctoral studies at the University of Iowa, Genoways applied for the editorial position at the VQR after hearing that Blackford was retiring. Members of the selection committee say it was his resounding success in founding Meridian, the literary journal produced by students of UVa’s MFA creative writing program, that earned him the job.
“We were extremely impressed by his experience as an editor of the magazine Meridian,” Cushman said. “He stood out in the amount of energy that he had, the ideas, and the innovation he was able to bring.”
After being turned down for an internship at the Virginia Quarterly Review in 1997, Genoways came to creative writing director Lisa Russ Spaar with his disappointment. Spaar offered him a suggestion.
Although UVa’s creative writing program was ranked among the top five in the country, Spaar pointed out, it was the only program without its own student-run literary journal.
“His eyes lit up,” Spaar said. “Within two weeks he had e-mailed me with this beautiful, elaborate, detailed magazine proposal.”
Spaar helped Genoways garner support for what would become Meridian. The university, with an eye toward the MFA program’s ranking, threw its support behind the upstart journal. By March of the following year, 1998, the first issue of the semi-annual went to print.
Much of Meridian’s prestige follows from its Lost Classics Series, a forum in which Genoways presented lost or undiscovered works by major literary figures.
Rummaging through the bowels of UVa’s Special Collections Library, Genoways discovered two handwritten poems by Robert Frost that ran in the spring 1999 issue of Meridian. The first, “Lure of the West,” appeared in a letter published in a 1963 Frost memoir. The other, “The Road That Lost Its Reason,” is partially incomplete, with a chunk of the third stanza having been carefully torn out by the poet.
Submissions appearing in Meridian during its first year of publication later resurfaced on the pages of Harper’s and Best American Poetry 1999. Pulitzer Prize winners Charles Wright, Rita Dove, Charles Simic and Yusef Komunyakaa have all contributed to the journal, as have authors Russell Banks, Edwidge Danticat, Richard Russo, John Casey and Alberto Rios.
Meridian continues to rank among the top literary journals produced by MFA creative writing programs.
“The test of any project is that it can survive without you,” Spaar said. “He made it happen.”
In spite of being one of the youngest editors in the world of literary quarterlies, Genoways and others at the journal remain optimistic about his potential and the journal’s future.
“He’s a dynamo,” said Paul Barolsky, a UVa art history professor and head of the selection committee that chose Genoways. “He’s himself a very good poet, he’s voracious and he’s extremely well-read and well-connected in the literary world.”
Genoways has several ideas that he hopes will elevate the journal without deviating from its traditional mission of bringing undiscovered essayists, fiction writers and poets into the literary limelight. And readers can already see some changes.
The winter issue, for example, will feature a new cover design and layout, unveiled last week. “We want to make the journal look more like what people are accustomed to,” Genoways said. “To increase the visual appeal.”
The changes are part of the VQR’s efforts to keep up with evolving tastes, a challenge that will be faced by journal editors around the country in coming years.
“The expectations of literary magazines are changing,” said Jenny Brantley, editor of Literary Magazine Review. “They are trying to adapt to a faster pace of living by changing the way you read the print journal. A lot of magazines are now including more art, more photographs, more paintings.”
The VQR, for example, will feature 10 collages by Romare Bearden, now on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, side-by-side with 10 response poems by National Book Award finalist Kevin Young.
And a new Web site launched last week adds a host of features, including the ability to browse and search through back issues.
Genoways also plans to solicit pieces from well-known writers for each issue, with the hope that big names will attract new, first-time readers while drawing attention to the lesser-known artists featured in each issue. That remained Blackford’s foremost commitment throughout his tenure at the VQR, and it’s a mission to which Genoways said he remains committed.
“In the winter and spring issues we have Nobel laureates and National Book Award winners - we’re in contact with people of that stature,” Genoways said. “I think a lot of people think that’s the benefit of this job.”
“But it’s going through that pile of submissions, finding the absolute gem from the person that is just getting their start, and knowing that by giving them your stamp of approval you’re helping them become the new people that will become the next Pulitzer Prize winners and Nobel laureates.”
© 2003 Media General