Talking Politics, Poetry, and Protest with Stevie Edwards, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Muzzle Magazine

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Stevie Edwards is the founder and editor-in-chief of Muzzle Magazine and senior editor in book development at YesYes Books. Her first book, Good Grief (Write Bloody, 2012), received the Independent Publisher Book Awards Bronze in Poetry and the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Her second book, Humanly, was released in 2015 by Small Doggies Press. She has an M.F.A. degree in poetry from Cornell University and is a Ph.D. candidate in creative at University of North Texas. Her writing is published and forthcoming in Indiana Review, The Offing, Ploughshares Blog, Nano Fiction, Redivider, Yemassee Journal, Baltimore Review, The Journal, Rattle, Verse Daily, Nashville Review, and elsewhere.


TQ: So, my first question is, how did Muzzle happen?

SE: Actually, Muzzle was born in Chicago. I was part of a writing residency program in Chicago. There was a group of poets who lived in a communal situation. And to live in the house you had to do a community project. Everyone else was doing shows. We had this one show—it’s not running anymore, but it ran for about four or five years—called Real Talk Live. It mostly ran in Logan Square. But a lot of people started shows. I was super shy. I had really bad stage fright, so I decided to start a literary magazine.

TQ: (laughing) I can be shy as well. I think all poets are shy. So it started here in Chicago, in a communal apartment in Logan Square?

SE: It was actually originally in a house in Albany Park.

TQ: So how did you go about starting your magazine?

SE: The first thing I did was teach myself how to make a website. I played around with a couple of platforms. I chose the one I thought was the easiest at the time—Weebly, which is what we still use. If I had to do it again, I would use Squarespace. Weebly is all right. It has its quirks. I think that all the websites do. But, anyway, I taught myself how to do that. At first, it was just me running it. I was getting a lot of submissions, so I got some friends involved. Yeah, it started with just me and some close friends of mine.

TQ: I’m a poet of color. I write a lot about police brutality, especially in Chicago. And I loved your magazine because it does focus so much on women’s rights, feminism, revolution. So I have a lot of questions on that slant: on diversity. I was looking at all the bios of your editors, and the group is so diverse. How did you achieve and maintain that diversity? It’s a breath of fresh air to see new journals that are run by women. What are some of the challenges you face running a journal as a woman?

SE: Well, I’m going to answer that question by going back to the beginning of Muzzle. Part of the formation of it and something that blended it toward having more diverse content was that I had a lot of friends at the time who were very involved in the slam poetry scene in Chicago. I’ve always been on the periphery of that, but one of the things I wanted to do was to create a space where poets who were well-known within the slam community could be on the same page as people who were well-known within the more academic poetry community. But I think those are terms that are slowly blurring, which I’m happy about. At the time, there were fewer people from the slam community publishing a lot, so that was one of the goals of Muzzle. And most of our issues still usually have a number of people from the slam community and our masthead has always included people with roots in the slam community. We aim to showcase how various  voices and people are making art. Some of our early issues may have a more narrative slant, but our recent ones have a mixing of aesthetics. That’s something I’ve really been interested in.

TQ: That explains why your magazine is so diverse. But have you had issues with running a journal as a woman?

SE: I’ve certainly had issues as a writer, as a woman. After the recent presidential election, I had almost ten poems accepted for publication almost immediately, and I think people were like, “Oh yeah, we should care about women’s bodies.” I think I and many women, certainly even more so for women of color, face barriers within the publishing community. I don’t know if I think running a lit mag as a woman has been challenging for me, because it has always been a vast network of people I know and respect. There’s nobody on staff whose work I’m not excited about. I mean, I  suppose I could have a staff who would disrespect me (laughing), but I have had a good experience running Muzzle, largely because I have made the staffing decisions.  I feel pretty lucky with all the staff members we have. They are very intellectually challenging and visionary people.

TQ: Why poetry? Yours is one of very few journals that focuses solely on poetry and poetry reviews, which I love, so I’m curious about why you chose poetry and not poetry and fiction or poetry and creative nonfiction.

SE: In a way, I feel completely unqualified to lead a staff making editorial decisions on fiction and creative nonfiction. (Laughing) I could probably do it. I focus on poetry because that’s what I mostly write. I love writing and reading poetry, and one of my goals was to map some of the edges of the genre, in a way. A lot of times when you hear about the avant-garde—things that are outside the box—you hear about someone pissing into a milk jug and calling it art.  Actually, the poet Franny Choi told me a story about watching that happen in an interview I did with her recently for Ploughshares. And I think pissing in a milk jug could maybe be art, or at least interesting to someone, but I am most interested in poems that are radical in the truths that they are willing to show us about the world. I am interested in bravery and vision. I believe all poetry is experimental in nature. And ultimately, I started a poetry magazine because I am a poet.

TQ: I would like to hear your process not just as an editor, but also as a poet. In your bio, in the last line you write that you are “a poet by night.”

SE: I need to update that bio. Right now, I’m actually a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Texas. They have a program where you can do a creative dissertation. So I started that in August.

TQ: I thought you were on the East Coast, in South Carolina.

SE: I was in South Carolina. I had a job for a very heartless nonfiction publisher. Making terrible books. I was working on local nonfiction titles, by which I mean, if you go to the Barnes & Noble and there’s a book on Evanston, we probably made that.

TQ: So that flows into my next question. I’m a struggling artist, too. I’m an attorney, and I gave it all up to go to school full time. And I’ve never been happier. Can you tell me how you manage your passion for writing and for this journal, and how you navigate just being a human who needs to eat?

SE: It’s an interesting process in that I left my best-paying job to do my M.F.A. I worked for a nonprofit in Chicago, which I very much enjoyed. When I applied to the M.F.A.  program at Cornell, I had thought there was zero chance I would get in, to be honest. But I did. I think I’ve always had a belief that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I took the opportunity. Right now, I’m a little scattered. I’m teaching two sections of composition, and I am taking three classes this semester and running Muzzle. I’m also an editor for YesYes Books, which is only a few hours a week, and with that I get to make really beautiful poetry books. And then I try to write things. I guess my answer is that I don’t have a lot of spare time, and I don’t sleep a lot. I have trouble imagining myself being happy doing something else, and I’m just chugging along until I make more money. I have goals of making more money, and I think that it will happen, but you don’t get into poetry because you want to be rich. I think there are, like, two poets out there who are rich. I fully believe artists have a right to be paid, but none of us are likely to be rich.

TQ: Let’s turn now to the political side, postelection.


TQ: I know, I know. But your masthead is about revolution! I have to ask: postelection, what steps have you taken individually, as a woman, as an editor, and as a writer, to combat everything that has been going on in recent months?

SE: One of the biggest things for me is to continue to put out work that challenges. Tonight, I’m finishing the final edits on the next issue of Muzzle, which comes out tomorrow. On one hand, a lot of the poems were already selected before the election. They were very relevant, and they still are. A lot of them were about reproductive rights, immigration, police brutality. Now it’s, like, “Oh, we always thought this mattered, but maybe now more people will see it.” And I’m also teaching freshman writing in Texas right now, and close to the election, I had a male student who said he didn’t need to take an assigned reading seriously because the author was a feminist poet and in his view, she couldn’t be an expert, and that gender studies was clearly a made-up field to promote a feminist agenda. Dealing with that kind of stuff. I mean, I have plenty of students who are wonderful people, and maybe that person is wonderful in ways, but dealing with those things was a little bit challenging for me right around election time. Going on teaching, going on putting out the journal, and other smaller things . . . Around the time of the election, I kept hearing a voice saying, “document”—not an actual voice—but I felt the need to record things, so I just started writing a lot. I’ve been overwhelmed with work. There are some places actually doing cool projects. Heavy Feather Review has a “Not My President” series that I have some poems in. I thought about doing something like that with Muzzle, but it would just be the same poems we publish anyway. I guess for me it’s just continuing to publish voices of dissent and to encourage those conversations within classrooms, and also to write my own work.

TQ: You’ve inspired me, and now I won’t give up. After the election, I felt very defeated. Like, what did my entire life then matter? But I was talking to another poet today—Reginald Gibbons—and I asked him, “Well, what are we going to do?” And he said, “Everything we can.”

SE: That’s how I feel. There’s a poet, Franny Choi, who is organizing an online book fair, and she’s auctioning them off to a Chicago charity called Asatta’s Daughters. The project is called the “Brew & Forge Book Fair.” And all the money goes to Asatta. I feel that if there’s anything that I can actually do, I say yes. I am still trying to figure out how I can be useful.

TQ: I had no idea you were in the South when all of this happened. I’m from Memphis, and I love the South. But Texas is a different beast entirely.

SE: It’s strange. I’m still getting used to it. I’ve been really grateful for the program I’m in. If there weren’t really kind and thoughtful people in my program to commiserate with over the election, I think it would’ve been a miserable time. I still have some faith in the possibility of community.