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Jessa CrispinBack to OpinionJessa Crispin

A ‘Little Star’ is born

In the past decade, the literary world has seen a rebirth of the small magazine. From Tin House and Noon to Black Clock and Fence, there are dozens of these small magazines. They are labors of love, personally curated and dedicated to discovering new talent, celebrating the written word and contradicting the lie that is the “death of print.”

None of these magazines caught my eye the way the brand new Little Star did. Birthed in 2010 by Ann Kjellberg, an editor at the New York Review of Books and Joseph Brodsky’s literary executor, it’s a sophisticated, wise and fierce little magazine. Filled with works in translation, painfully underrated writers like the brilliant Kathryn Davis and lovingly put together, I was impressed with it from start to finish. I talked to Kjellberg to figure out what exactly separates this magazine from all of the others, and what we can anticipate from Little Star in the future, after two simply perfect issues.

So my first question isn’t why you would launch a new journal during the era of the so-called “death of print,” but why launch a new journal during what seems to be a renaissance of little literary journals? There are so many small literary magazines — what about the selection led you to believe there was a niche you needed to fill?

I would love to say that XYZ about the zeitgeist called Little Star into being, but the honest answer is that I have a passion for doing this, and it has always been my dream and something I have been turning over in my mind for a lifetime of editing. I think it is very interesting and wonderful that we are in the midst of this renaissance of the small magazine: to me it reflects the opportunities offered by technology, but also the fact that this very venerable form, whose visual and intellectual traditions many of the small journals recall, is so enduring. It’s an indication to me of the ways in which serious reading will persist in the electronic future. I guess what I bring to this is a personal history rooted in the editorial past and a hunger to recast it for the editorial future.

The two issues I’ve seen seem so perfectly curated — what is your selection process like? How much do you solicit from writers and translators you already know, versus going through the submissions slush pile?

Thank you! The first issue of course was all solicited. I went to writers I’ve loved for years and begged them to send me something. I was frankly amazed at how many responded. Poets are used to publishing all over the place, but I think serious writers of fiction are hungering for places where they can venture into challenging styles and command a reader’s attention for more than a few pages. General interest print magazines are under such pressure now. I think the writers perhaps also liked the idea of being read by each other. For No. 2, I took a lot of unsolicited work. I love reading unsolicited manuscripts and being surprised by new things, and I don’t want to turn that job over to others. The hard thing is that there just isn’t time in the day to respond properly; I’m already deluged.

Ah, yes, responding to submissions always, always turns into a controversy. You can never respond fast enough, and it’s so easy to fall behind. Can you talk a little about your work with New York Review of Books, and how you balance this new project with the work with literature you’re already doing?

My work at the Review is in criticism (identifying new books for review and reviewers for them, working on pieces), which I don’t do in Little Star. For many years I’ve missed working more directly with the primary stuff. Being connected to the Review does give me a terrific overview of what’s out there and what’s ahead, which dovetails wonderfully with Little Star. I also owe a tremendous amount to the education I got from Bob Silvers and Barbara Epstein.

I wanted to talk to you a bit about Eastern European and Russian literature. Obviously, as Joseph Brodsky’s literary executor you have some personal love for it, but the concentration on work in translation from that region is surprising. Where does your own affection for the region’s literature come from?

Joseph was a person of intense admirations, and working with him opened the door for me on a lot of work from around the world I would never otherwise have known, and also introduced me to people who multiplied the effect. Adam Zagajewski for instance is a writer I adore: he was one of the first writers I went to for Little Star, and his translator Clare Cavanagh brought me the new Szymborska and Krynicki poems. Then I saw that new Anna Swir translations were in process: I probably would have gone for them anyway, but it seemed very resonant to have them together with the other Poles, especially considering their intimate relationship to Polish history. I love thinking about how the pieces in the issue play off each other. The Lipavsky conversations were serendipitous: I knew Eugene Ostashevsky through Joseph connections, and saw him at some Slavic event or other at the Russian Samovar in New York, where so many of these things happen, and he told me what he was working on; it sounded fantastic. So I think No. 2 may have a particularly strong concentration of writing from the East for circumstantial reasons — but I did publish Durs Grunbein, at length in No. 1 — he never knew Joseph so far as I know, but when I first read his work when it came out in Michael Hofmann’s translations I was astounded by its live continuities with this tradition. I do think I was particularly influenced by the really lively world of Polish expats around Czeslaw Milosz a decade or so ago; it was like a salon. It’s luck, for me, I think; my good luck.

Can you tell us a little bit about future plans for Little Star? Your website mentions events, and there’s issue No. 3 to fill…

Well, I’m still recovering from No. 2! The one active plan I have for No. 3 is a feature with Glyn Maxwell on verse drama. For most of history, poetry and drama have been entwined: I’m fascinated by poets who are drawn to drama and what poetry does for drama. We’re hoping to line up some contemporary practitioners. Beyond that, there are lots of writers I still dream of publishing: I plan to spend the next year courting them. I do have my first poems for No. 3: a group from Rosanna Warren, whom I’d been after for a while.

And I’m very busy with the website, where I try to gather up for my readers things that are on the horizon that I think they will like. I have what I call a blog, faute de mieux, but I think of it less as an occasion for opining (by me or anyone else) than a kind of real-time commonplace book of what is unfolding in the literature of the moment. I’m anxious, for instance, to get back to a series I began last fall of new translations into English from the Muslim world. I had a gorgeous story in November by an Iranian writer named Goli Taraghi, and I have lots of other great stuff coming up. The website naturally is able to track literary life as it happens more closely than an annual magazine; I like the way the two weave in and out of each other, and I also like to use Facebook and Twitter to link the site with real time and individual readers.  I see these forums as a kind of outer periphery of the magazine’s curatorial field … how this sensibility engages in the world as it happens.

One of my writers from No. 2, Daniel Pritchard, is planning a Little Star reading in Boston as part of a series he runs there, and a few of the New York writers have also talked about it — which is good because I tend to hide behind the desk a bit. But I also try to tell readers on the site and on Facebook about appearances by Little Star authors and others I admire and related goings on. One of the wonders to me of the way reading is evolving is that one can have one foot in the very private, individual experience of reading, which is in some ways outside of time, and another in this very expansive, contemporaneous, polyphonous experience of literature in the world, through technology. So I try to use the electronic side to engage with things going on out in the world, where the readers are.

Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of Bookslut.