AQR @35 | A National Beacon, by Elizabeth Bradfield


I first submitted poems to Alaska Quarterly Review in August, 2001 – almost exactly a year before I moved from Cape Cod to Anchorage to begin the MFA program there. Amazingly, editor Ron Spatz took “The Oarfish.”  It was one of the first five poems I’d had accepted for publication in a national literary magazine.  I was thrilled beyond belief.  I had no idea how lucky I was.

My story is not unique. The beautiful truth is that AQR seeks new voices to publish alongside exciting work by lauded names.  Many other writers have had their start in its pages.  Take, for example, what Ron says in an interview in The Review Review, “in 2000 we were the very first to publish the work of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. This past June she was featured in The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” fiction issue.”  Writer after writer has been given early encouragement by inclusion in the pages of AQR.  It leaves a lasting impression.  A loyalty.  And that energy radiates outward through the lives of writers and through the literary community.

An aspirational journal that actively nurtures emerging writers is an antidote to the dragging sense that the best publications out there are looking not to find new poets and storytellers, but to pick up and publish writers who have already been found. More of hot writer x or y.  We, as writers, need to know that nepotism and cronyism, “who-you-know” winning out over good work, is not the rule everywhere.  In this culture of social media wildfire, in particular, journals like AQR are a beacon.

As a graduate student, I spent a semester working for AQR as a reader. Piles of submissions.  Work from all over the country, all over the world.  The responsibility was humbling—and, luckily, the safety net that Ron Spatz had cast made sure that I didn’t have the power to reject the new, the unfinished, the so-much-potential that could be coaxed further with a bit of editorial conversation.  Over the years, my relationship with AQR deepened.  Like many of the best journals, AQR nourishes long-term relationships with the writers it publishes.  It welcomes an ongoing conversation with the resonant voices that come to its pages.  This, too, is part of the journal’s great success.  It’s not a stopoff, but a home. A place to try out new, daring work as it emerges.

Recently, as a Contributing Editor for AQR, I had the opportunity to reach out and solicit poems for consideration from writers I admire.  Their responses, across the board, reflect the respect and power of AQR’s history.  “I admire AQR and would be delighted to be considered there,” wrote one poet.  “I love AQR,” wrote several others.  Another said she’d been trying for years to find a home for poems at AQR.  These are poets from across the country—emerging writers and poets with several award-winning collections.

Sherman Alexie has called AQR “one of the top ten literary magazines in the country.” AQR is one of the “Top 50 Literary Magazines” listed by Every Writer – and while those lists often provoke a raised eyebrow, this one uses data to back its findings: longevity, number of national anthology selections (like the O. Henry, The Best American seriesand Pushcart anthologies), and other non-partisan criteria.

There are a number of things that contribute to this astounding legacy built over the past thirty-five years. First, the way that the magazine is simultaneously fiercely local, as evidenced by the launch celebrations and events in Anchorage; the special features like Alaska Native Writers, Storytellers & Orators—and how it is also, at the same time, clearly national in its voice with writers like Grace Paley, Jane Hirshfield, Peggy Shumaker, and MacArthur Fellow Stuart Dybek serving as Contributing Editors.

AQR has always been Alaskan in the broadest, most generous sense:  independent, story-minded, daring, vast in its vision.  The regular “Special Features” in its pages are a significant part of that.  These have included photo-essays (the current issue’s on Papua New Guinea by Carol E. Mayer and the 2013 “Afghan Americans: Diptychs,” part of which was picked up and published by The New Yorker), novellas and interviews (William H Gass in 1997, to name one), long sequences of poems (Joan Naviyuk Kane in 2014).  These features, which are central to the publication, allow artists and writers to develop larger questions and conversations than many literary journals allow.

Because the journal is known to Alaskan residents, it attracts many submissions from the many excellent writers in the state, thus serving as a de-facto gathering ground of quality Alaskan writing.  It allows writers from “Outside” to get a sense of how the local literary landscape is in conversation with literature elsewhere.

I’d also argue that Alaska is a wonderful state to hold up to the nation at large for consideration in these increasingly polarized times—the diversity of Anchorage’s public schools is, at this point, well known:  As of 2015, they held students speaking 100 languages in a city of only 298,000-some souls.  The chance of having a meaningful interaction with someone from a different culture in Alaska is great.  We need to get out of our “silos” of identity and information. We need to listen, understand, and imagine both our differences and connections.  The work published in AQR helps us do just that.

As Ron writes in the introduction to the current issue, “Alaska Quarterly Review has been and is of Alaska but not Alaskan.”  That balance, that rootedness in both locality and in larger conversations, is the source of the journal’s strength.  It offers Alaskans and non-Alaskans alike a window into a wilder, more generous territory where difference can be encountered and considered fully, a window into how experiences—of joy, beauty, prejudice, strangeness—are both common and utterly unique to us all. I am honored to be a part of it.

Elizabeth Bradfield is the author of the poetry collections Once Removed, Approaching Ice, and Interpretive Work. Her poems and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, West Branch, Orion and has been awarded a Stegner Fellowship and the Audre Lorde Prize. Founder and editor-in-chief of Broadsided Press and a contributing editor for Alaska Quarterly Review, she lives on Cape Cod, works as a naturalist locally as well as on expedition ships, and teaches creative writing at Brandeis University.


This post is the second in a series of four celebrating the 35th Anniversary Edition of Alaska Quarterly Review


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