I co-founded, in 2009, and from 2010-12 served as editor of Route 9, the online journal of the University of Massachusetts Amherst MFA Program for Poets & Writers. Each of the three issues I edited featured debut writing alongside new work by established writers. Matthew Zapruder contributed a poem to the launch issue. Issue 2 included an advance excerpt of The Memory Palace, Mira Bartók’s memoir that went on to win a National Book Critics’ Circle Award.
The project began as a revival. Publication of a previous print journal had faltered, its editors graduated, its blog in limbo. Another magazine with the same name was active at another university. No one wanted a defunct publication linked to from the department website. No one wanted to declare the old journal’s end. No one was proposing a successor. I made a WordPress demo using a free magazine-style template, showed the demo to faculty and students, and incorporated their feedback, refining prototypes around collectively identified goals:
- To showcase the MFA program and its writers, with prospective applicants particularly in mind. The journal would include solely UMass writers, as its predecessor had. This was strongly and generally desired.
- To provide UMass writers with opportunities for editorial experience.
- To foster community through collaboration within and outside the program, across academic disciplines and literary genres.
- To publicize program news and events.
- To provide a home for work previously published in small-run print journals and chapbooks not available online.
Naming the journal was an opportunity to invite everyone enrolled in the MFA program to participate by contributing and voting on suggestions. Route 9, the traffic-prone state highway that UMass students traverse between Amherst and Northampton, narrowly won the vote. I circulated a proposed launch schedule and organizational structure among faculty (the journal had no faculty advisor and would be student-run, but faculty support was vital for the journal to take root). All replies were positive. I registered the domain name route9litmag.com and sent out a call for submissions.
As editor, I sought to create varied opportunities for involvement. I invited MFA writers to serve as fiction and poetry editors, copy and production editors, art director, book reviewers and interviewers. UMass alum and Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Harding was interviewed in our first issue, MFA alum Jedediah Berry in the second issue and Juniper Literary Festival guest poet Abraham Smith in the third. Invitations to graduate and undergraduate artists to submit work yielded a bounty of visuals to accompany written pieces.
Planning the third issue and my last two semesters as editor, I saw the magazine approach a juncture. The original staff would be graduating or had graduated. To writers entering the program, the dilemmas that the journal had been founded to address would be old news about people they didn’t know. Social media, publishing in print and online were changing. Would writers choosing among many ways to use their MFA time be drawn to Route 9 and take it as their own? Would doing so make sense for them? The journal was externally hosted (campus hosting offered only a few basic WordPress themes). Funding had to be reapplied for yearly, deadlines couldn’t be missed, forms needed signatures or the journal would go dark, or survive supported outside the university’s funding system, with an uncertain path back in. I decided that this potential failure point was longer unavoidable. By then Tumblr was sufficiently robust in uptime and features to host a journal of Route 9’s scale. By publishing directly into Tumblr’s ecosystem, Route 9 could give each piece a start on far-flung travel through likes and reblogs.
In Route 9’s first summer on Tumblr, a story excerpted from a then-forthcoming novel led to blurbs and interviews for its author in the New York City media world. Poems featured by Tumblr were reblogged into tangential overlapping literary circles. In subsequent years the journal was added to Tumblr’s list of featured literary sites. A third generation of editors refreshed the journal’s look and produced a special issue commemorating the MFA Program’s 50th anniversary. By the time of its (as of now) final issue, six years after its founding, Route 9 had 12,000 followers and had published ten issues (nine regular, one commemorative) with work by over a hundred writers, artists, photographers, and videographers — work which, thanks to WordPress’s purchase of Tumblr, remains online ten years after the journal’s founding.