Categories Sapling Archive

Spinning Jenny

Publication Date: Issue #190 — July 19, 2013


For this week’s feature, Sapling talked to C. E. Harrison, Editor of Spinning Jenny journal

Interview conducted by Kit Frick

Sapling: Spinning Jenny is a print journal published by Black Dress Press. You’ve been putting issues out since the fall of 1995, which is quite an impressive run for anBeth Harrison independent journal. Tell us your story—how did Spinning Jenny come to be, and what changes has the journal gone through since its inception?

C. E. Harrison: Spinning Jenny came into existence a couple years after I’d worked for Gordon Lish at The Quarterly. That experience affected me so profoundly that I became daft enough to give literary magazine publishing a go myself. It became apparent rather quickly that mine would be an annual journal, resources (time, money) being what they were, though I have to admit that a Spinning Jenny year is sometimes rather longer than 12 months. That is to say, I should have 18 issues out by now, but I’m only on number 13.

I don’t think there have been major changes in the operation of the magazine during that period. I’ve always been the sole editor, the designer has been with the journal since the second issue, and I’ve accepted email submissions from the beginning (which seemed rather cutting-edge back then). The writers are the ones keeping things fresh on the inside.

External factors have changed quite a bit, however—distribution, for example. When I first started out, I made a list of all the indie bookstores in the country that I hoped would carry the mag and I called each of them myself. About half of them took the journal on consignment, which was thrilling. Eventually we secured a distributor, but then we didn’t have the same personal relationships with the stores, which was a loss. On top of that, we started to receive statements from said distributor that said things like, “copies received from publisher—300; returns received from bookstores—425,” meaning that the bookkeeping was dreadfully suspect, and that we’d never see a check. That particular distributor went out of business, not surprisingly. But sadly, so did many of those bookstores (R.I.P. Karl Pohrt and Shaman Drum).

Then Amazon came knocking several years ago, which was simultaneously flattering and queasy-making. I decided it was ultimately useful as a resource for people who didn’t have live near a bookstore that carried the journal. Amazon recently decided to end our contract, though, hahaha. In reality, we didn’t need them: after discounts and shipping costs, the income was virtually nonexistent, and we’ve always made PDFs of our issues freely available online anyway. We also have an excellent distributor now (Ubiquity), some new independent stores have arrived on the scene, and others stores are even welcoming handselling again. So it feels like we’re silently, satisfyingly flyfishing in the same sweet spot in the same slow stream all these years later, even as the game has supposedly changed around us.

S: What is the first thing that you look for in a submission to Spinning Jenny? Any deal breakers?

CEH: I’m looking for someone to break my heart, to arm-wrestle and tussle with me a little. I’m talking only about Spinning Jenny here, of course.

I have pet peeves, as any editor would. I don’t like a cover letter that says, “I’ve been published in [insert exceedingly large number here] journals.” I don’t think of my authors as numbers so I’d like my magazine not to be thought of that way in return.

Lish used to say that if your writing wasn’t worth your life, then don’t submit it to The Quarterly. (He also told me never to lick the return envelopes and always to use a wet sponge instead, as you never knew what someone might have put on the seal. Also, read cover letters last, if at all.)

S: The most recent issue, Spinning Jenny #12, was honored by the Book Industry Guild in their annual national design awards. Congrats! What goes into the design of your stunning covers?

CEH: I banged out a most unsatisfactory answer to this question before realizing that the designer, the very talented Adam Bohannon, should be the one to answer it. So I popped it over to him. Here’s what we both said, not knowing what the other had written.

Spinning JennyAdam:

many thanks for the kind words! we do take a certain level of pride and care in our design. from the start we’ve tried to do this while still keeping a lid on expenses. early on, this involved sticking to one ink on colored stock. we took a big leap with numbers 5 and 6, printing 4-color; and the next two we dialed that down but splurged a little on metallic inks. a nice thing about sticking around all these years is that 4-color printing has gotten way more affordable. it’s felt right to stick with offset printing, too, though one can certainly get lovely printing from digital printers.

but that’s all “production.” the design part of all this? iterations, riffs, fearlessness, terror, get behind the mule and work the type with that image, appropriate, agitate, ruminate, paginate, unhinge, rehinge, bedazzle, rivet, bolt, ripple in still water, stagger stagger crawl, leather, wrench, complete.

[how’s this? edit as you must. what you should really say is that you always pick the right fucking one.—adam]

Beth (C. E. Harrison):

Thank you! That award was such an honor, and I was thrilled that Adam’s work was recognized in this way. For every issue, Adam gives me 10 or so cover options. I almost instantly hone in on the one I want. And he’ll get a panicky look in his eyes and say, “Noooo! I can’t believe you picked that one! It’s too crazy! Don’t you want to look at these other covers some more? What about this one, or this one, or…?” And I’ll say, “No, I want the crazy one because it’s the best one.” And he’ll say, “Noooo, really?” And I’ll say, “Yes, really.” Eventually, hours or days or weeks later, he’ll say, “You know, you were right.” And that’s pretty much the process from my standpoint: he does all the difficult work and I have the easy job of selecting from a field of (crazy) flowers.

S: What have you found to be a serious challenge of running literary journal? Any silver linings or wisdom you’ve gained from the experience?

CEH: For me, asking for any kind of help is just…ugh. I know that long ago I should have gathered armies of interns and associate editors and readers and social media jockeys, like proper journals do. And yet, incomprehensibly, I do not enlist these people. It’s like I’m the Kim Jong-Il of this here little (banana) Republic of Spinning Jenny, and I don’t want anyone nosing around and thinking that there’s maybe really not as much going on as there should be. It’s selfish and weird and I should probably cut it out if for no other reason than the anxiety about it slows me down.

And yet! Perhaps my slowness in reading submissions and bringing out new issues has a silver lining in that the journal is still alive and that I’m not yet burned out on it. Past authors tell me they appreciate being part of something still extant.

S: Where do you imagine Spinning Jenny to be headed over the next couple years? Are there any changes you foresee taking place in the near future?

CEH: I am going to turn over a new leaf and respond to submissions in a much more timely fashion. Swear to god.

S: What one or two journals (print or online) deserve serious props in the eyes of Spinning Jenny, and why should more people be checking them out?

CEH: One or two?! But there are so many wonderful journals. Half the joy of publishing a magazine is to be in their company. Okay, one or two:

In print, A Public Space is positively impeccable.

Online, Coconut Magazine is sweet, meaty, fresh.

S: Just for fun—if Spinning Jenny transformed into an animal (wild or domestic), what would it be?

CEH: Based on my answers to the previous questions, I suppose Spinning Jenny is most accurately a tortoise. She is long-lived, slow (which should not be confused with sedentary!), sturdy, reclusive. Also, creation is associated with the tortoise and it is believed that the tortoise bears the burden of the whole world on its back, while simultaneously supporting the heavens.


 To check out Spinning Jenny online, visit:


Beth Harrison is the managing director of the Discover Outdoors Foundation, the founding editor of Spinning Jenny, and the former director of the Academy of American Poets.