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Prairie Schooner editor: Keep a well-manicured front lawn

Editor-in-chief Kwame Dawes discusses his role as an editor at Prairie Schooner and how contributions shape the magazine.

By: Jenna Jaynes                                                                                                           University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Prairie Schooner Magazine is more than just an 86-year-old, 200-page quarterly journal. It’s an e-zine, a blog, a podcast, a network, a Twitter, a Facebook, a book prize, an app and a review.

And Kwame Dawes oversees it all. If that isn’t enough, he’s also an editor for 16 different anthologies and a publishing company in the U.K., and a series editor at the University of South Carolina Press and the University of Nebraska Press.

“I keep track of it all in my head,” said Dawes, the editor-in-chief of Prairie Schooner.

And what’s not in his head is in his email. Dawes’ day is filled with messages ranging from concerns from readers to new submissions. He credits the overflow of his inbox to the Schooner’s website.

Dawes graduated from the University of the West Indies in Jamaica and eventually earned his Ph.D. in English at the University of New Brunswick. He joined Prairie Schooner in the fall of 2011.

“Before I took over we had a website that was modest and less dynamic,” Dawes said. “We’ve exploded that and tried to make it energetic.”

He’s right. The website now has over nine different platforms of content, including partnerships with other nations and a podcast. As editor-in-chief, he decides the content and builds the relationships the website now has. Dawes says it’s the key to the Schooner’s success.

“The website these days, it’s your front lawn. It’s what people see first,” he said. “And I want people to feel that they can come into that through the front lawn sit around have some drinks and so on and so forth before they go into the living room or the kitchen. And the kitchen of course is the journal itself. But they should feel comfortable in that space. And so we’ve really worked hard on that.”

And people are coming into the kitchen. The readership of the Schooner is staying strong. Dawes credits the popularity to the work of all of his editors and their skills. He says editing for the Web has the same principles as editing for the journal,  although Web work gets a fewer reviews from editors.

“You can fix a website if you make a mistake and put the wrong thing in, you can take it out,” he said. “This is harder to do when it’s bound and published.”

Dawes also said his biggest pet peeve when editing is writers who are pompous and pretentious; the writer’s job is to make it clear for the reader and the editor’s job is to help find the right language to do just that. He says his editing job is all about enhancing the experience for the reader.

“The thing must work for the project,” he said. “That’s my basic principle.”

And one of the ways he’s enhancing the experience is by finding new, younger authors. With submissions online, Dawes says the opportunities for authors are growing. He says these writers need to look at what the publication produces and then see if their work fits in. The key process is to be aware of who else is publishing.

“At least pretend to care about the work by other people that appears there,” he advised. “Even if you don’t mean it. But at least pretend that way.”

And pretending he does, or as he likes to call it “tricking himself.” Dawes, also a poet, has seen his fair share of rejections and has also given out many. His advice when dealing with rejection is to keep pushing forward.

“On one hand you should be very annoyed and think they’re idiots,” he said. “That’s a useful kind of protection. But on the other hand you should sort of pull back and say maybe let me see what they might be saying and what I might be missing to see if you can learn from that process.”

For Dawes, every day is a learning experience because of his wide range of responsibilities. But he says there’s one goal that trumps all his other duties.

“My first priority task is to not let it end at 86 years,” he said. “I’m not going to be the guy to mess it up at this point.”

If you would like to see the full interview click here.

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