A Hunger for Words: An Interview with Peter Campion

Peter CampionIn the wake of Great River Review's first issue published through the University of Minnesota's English Department, editor Peter Campion talks about the past, present, and future of the journal. 

This is the first issue of Great River Review published through the University of Minnesota’s English Department. How did the department come to take over Great River Review? How did you come to be its editor?

We were fortunate to be offered the stewardship of Great River Review by its previous editor, Robert Hedin, a marvelous poet who, until his recent retirement, directed the Anderson Center in Red Wing. He wanted the journal to continue, and we were grateful for the gift.

I’d been, for five years, the editor of another journal, Literary Imagination, and was eager to share my knowledge with graduate students here at the U. Periodicals are a vital element of literary culture, so it makes sense for our students to have experience working on them. For my part, it’s also a lot of fun to be in a place where everybody’s getting their hands dirty producing something.

Now that GRR is in a new location, what changes do you anticipate making to its aesthetic, if any? What kind of work do you envision publishing in the future? 

Something I admire about the way Robert edited the journal—he didn’t seem to have “an aesthetic” as such. He simply published work that he considered first rate. I hope to do the same. I just want to support the best poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. As a reader, I’m eager to be astonished by superb new writing, regardless of any affiliation. 

Something I’m dedicated to publishing more of is good criticism. Book reviewing is a great way for emerging writers—any writer, in fact—to get involved in the larger conversation. Since so many newspaper book sections have gone the way of the Tasmanian tiger, it falls to the little magazines to keep that conversation going. And I’ve found that readers appreciate this.

Great River Review is published in conjunction with a graduate-level course offered by the English Department. What do you want students to take away from the experience of talking about literary magazines and creating one?

Not only does this course offer a chance to gain experience in editing and producing a journal, it also gets students to explore the rich history and present of periodical publication in America. When we research the great modernist poets, for example—Pound, Eliot, Williams, Moore, et al—we need to learn about magazines such as BLAST, Contact, The Dial. And similarly important moments in literary history, such as the Beat movement or the Black Arts Movement had magazines such as Evergreen Review and Freedomways. In such venues, various art forms, as well as personalities, ideas, and styles rub up against one another. Every student in the course researches one such moment in literary history by examining a publication of their choice. And we dedicate the same level of attention to journals being published right now. 

What’s more, we meet with professionals in the literary publishing world of the Twin Cities, in order to glean some of their wisdom. So, I want students to take away some important skills, but also to develop a well-rounded sense of how art, for all of its formal autonomy, also grows from the energy within various, overlapping communities.

Speaking of community, the Twin Cities has a dynamic literary scene. What do you hope GRR adds to it? 

I want the magazine to capture some of the energy of that scene, in all its variety, and present that to the world at large. At the same time, since we’re not a regional magazine as such—we publish authors from all over—I want to bring great writing from all over the world into the fold of the Twin Cities community. 

What do you hope will distinguish Great River Review within the world of literary magazines?

There are so many literary magazines I admire—AGNI, Threepenny Review, Raritan, North Ohio Review, just to name a few—so my ambition’s not competitive. I simply want the magazine to be really good. But there’s one characteristic all my favorite magazines share: I mean their utter disregard for borders between scholarship and creative writing. My favorite magazines are neither cloistered by professionalism nor hampered by anti-intellectualism. In fact, their editors seem to share a wholesome distaste for isms in general. After all, no one goes to a bookstore or a library thinking, “gee, I really want to read some good creative writing,” or “I’m looking for some fantastic literary scholarship.” 

Those aren’t idiomatic sentences, and for good reason. People want to read stories, poems, and essays, or delve into a certain subject, or track down everything by a favorite author. A reader’s desire is appetitive. Reading is feasting. That’s something I’m so heartened by as I see the graduate students at UMN, students in both the creative writing and the literature programs, working together: they’re hungry for such experience. And that truly excites me.  

You're invited to Great River Review's launch party on Tuesday, Oct. 17, from 6–8 p.m. at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis. The event will feature readings from fiction writer Michael Walsh, nonfiction writers Erica Berry and Jordan Thomas, and poet Gretchen Marquette, as well as music from members of Black Market Brass, a Minneapolis-based Afrobeat band, beginning at 6 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.