I co-founded, in 2009, and from 2010-12 managed 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 (now New York Times Poetry Editor) 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. Five years on, the journal had 12,000 Tumblr followers and had published ten issues (nine regular, one commemorative) with work by over a hundred writers, artists, photographers, and videographers.
The journal began as a revival. Publication of a print journal had faltered, its editors gone, 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 believed a good prototype could help to inspire and focus discussion. I made a WordPress demo using a free magazine-style template, showed the demo to faculty and students, and incorporated feedback into further prototypes. A journal representing an institution couldn’t thrive on one person’s vision. Collectively, we 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 Program 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.
- 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 in the MFA Program to participate. I asked for suggestions, compiled responses and called for a vote. Route 9, the traffic-prone state highway that MFA students traverse between Amherst and Northampton, narrowly won. The journal had no faculty advisor and would be student-run, but faculty blessing was important for funding approval and continuity. I circulated a proposed launch schedule and organizational structure. All the replies I received were positive. I registered route9litmag.com and sent out a call for submissions.
As Editor I sought to create varied opportunities for involvement. I invited MFA writers to be Fiction and Poetry Editors, art directors, copy and production editors, 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 issues, and Juniper Festival guest poet Abraham Smith in the third. An invitation to UMass graduate and undergraduate artists yielded a bounty of visuals to work in concert with written pieces. I made sure that submissions, art selection, rights approval, and copy changes happened on schedule. I checked pages across platforms and browsers. The editorial team (as many as ten, some semesters) published issues in a huddle of laptops.
Planning the third issue and my last two semesters as Editor, I saw the magazine approaching a juncture. The original staff would be graduating or had already graduated. To writers entering the Program, the problem that the journal had been founded to address would be old news about people they didn’t know. Would writers choosing among many ways to use their MFA time be drawn to Route 9 and take it as their own? 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 and forms needed signatures or else the journal would go dark, or an editor would be out a year’s web hosting fees with no means of reimbursement. I decided that that this potential failure point was longer unavoidable. By then Tumblr had become sufficiently robust in uptime and features to host a journal of Route 9’s scale. And, publishing directly into the Tumblr ecosystem, Route 9 gave each piece a start on traveling widely 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. Poems tagged as ‘featured’ by Tumblr staff were reblogged far beyond UMass circles. In subsequent years the journal was added to Tumblr’s list of featured literary sites. The third generation of editors refreshed the journal’s look and produced a special issue commemorating the MFA Program’s 50th Anniversary. As of this writing the journal has been extant over twice as long without me as it had been when I handed over its password.