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"That Muscle of Language." A Chat with Colleen Abel, Editor of Bluestem
Editor of online lit mag takes us behind the scenes
Another editor interview is in the books!
Today I had a blast chatting with Colleen Abel, Editor of Bluestem. This online magazine, based out of Eastern Illinois University, has been around since 1966, with issues appearing online since 2010. They publish fiction, nonfiction, poetry and are adding a new comics section.
In our conversation, Colleen took us through the magazine’s history, which originated with a distinctly counter-culture feel. The original editors insisted that while the magazine could be housed at the university, it needed to retain independence and full editorial freedom.
The magazine’s original name was Karamu, a Swahili word for a type of public gathering. In the early 2010’s, writer Roxane Gay took over as Editor of the magazine for a short period. She suggested the magazine, based in Illinois and with no specific ties to Africa, be renamed. Thus Bluestem came into being.
What kind of work does this magazine look for now? Colleen described editorial preferences for writing that is edgy, weird and dark. She also loves work set in the Midwest. Admittedly, “edgy and dark” are not the first words that come to mind when most people think of Illinois. Nonetheless, Colleen has a soft spot for writing with a “weird Midwest vibe.”
That said, the work can be set anywhere. Bluestem publishes writing from all over the world and has featured authors from India, Nigeria, Ireland and more. What is most important is the quality of the writing.
Her editor’s note for the latest issue describes a poem as reminding the reader of “the athletic possibilities of language.” I love this phrase and just had to learn more about what Colleen had in mind. She said she loves to see precision and beauty, writing with “no slack sentences” and where “every word [does] a lot of work.”
Colleen took over as editor in 2019. There were a lot of changes to the magazine at this time, with several editors retiring or moving on all at once. For a while, Colleen was the sole editor reading all submissions.
She’s also a mom of two. So naturally I asked her, with two kids at home during that turbulent year, and all the stresses of the pandemic not to mention daily life, what kept her running the magazine? What compelled her to stay with it? Why not quit?
Among other reasons was what Colleen felt to be a strong “responsibility to her writers.” With thousands of submissions in the queue, she knew she owed it to the writers to keep running the magazine, and to respond to their work in a timely way. She loves, she said, reading and learning from all the submissions she reads.
Since then, the magazine has brought on new editors, so she is no longer the sole reader. They are also always interested in volunteers, and Colleen strongly recommends that writers read for a lit mag to get a feel for the work that gets sent in. If you’re interested in getting involved, they would love to hear from you.
Bluestem is open for submissions for nonfiction and comics up until November 15th. If you have work in this genre, that deadline is tomorrow, friends! Otherwise, they will re-open for all genres in February.
To everyone who came out today to watch the interview (all one of you, hi Colette, you’re the best), thank you!
And, of course, huge thank you to Colleen for taking the time to peel back the curtain behind another lovely little magazine.
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