Monday, April 18, 2016

District Lit: An Online Literary Publication Seeking to Transcend Borders

by Sarah Katz

As part of a new initiative to spotlight DC-based literary magazines and presses, The Writer's Center interviewed the editors of District Lit, an online literary magazine.

In 2011, Diana Bolton was teaching at a community college in a small town in southern Texas and feeling cut off from the larger writing community. So what did she do? She took to the Internet and founded District Lit, an online literary magazine—a decision that has given her, her fellow editors, and writers submitting for publication certain liberties in the publishing environment.

When she founded the publication, Bolton wanted District Lit to not only be an intimate community of writers and readers, but also to “play off of three possibilities: the District of Columbia, a city I have always loved and where I hoped to live one day; the image of a bright (well-"lit") city district bustling with people; and the mental gymnastics that people can do to separate poetry from other forms of writing into a no man's land district of its own,” she says in an email. Since, Ms. Bolton has moved to the DC metro area and continued to add new features while building the readership.

“[S]he’s done an incredible job of keeping the lit mag going for five years,” says Marlena Chertock, who joined the staff as a poetry editor at District Lit in the spring of 2015. “That’s no small feat. She’s cultivated a community of writers and artists, promoted their work, encouraged people to submit to somewhere that was a fledgling magazine—until somewhere along the line, it became a successful, growing space for strong, moving work.” Alongside founding editor Bolton and poetry editor Chertock, fiction editor Tyrese Coleman handles fiction submissions.

The current editors look for work that allows readers “to take a short trip away from where they are,” says Coleman, who joined the staff in late 2015. “I look for strong compelling short fiction where you want to sit and digest every bit of it in one sitting. The online platform provides flexibility in readability and allows for people to turn to District Lit during a Metro ride or while sitting at their desk.”

Because of the online platform, the editors have been able to experiment with special issues, contests, and feature sections without fear of seeing reader engagement fall off. “As a print publication,” says Bolton, “I would be nervous about trying a serialized nonfiction column; what if the readers didn't respond to it? As an online journal, we are enjoying this form through "My Time, Your Place," our column which publishes a new flash nonfiction essay by Jen Maidenberg [who lives in Israel] every other month.”

The editors of District Lit feel they can also be more relaxed than a print publication with the content they publish, conducting any necessary damage control in real-time. “As an example, I once published a writer whose poem didn't seem to be connecting with readers, and it just wasn't getting the response that we wanted,” says Bolton. “When I was able to edit the webpage and include more context and framing around the poem, it took off. If I had just printed the poem in a print journal and sent it out into the world, I would not have had the opportunity to reframe the discussion on the original source.”

Furthermore, as a “lean” team, District Lit editors can respond faster to writers regarding their submissions than can print publications, says Coleman. “In my experience as a writer and editor, online magazines take a lot less time to respond to writers regarding their submissions. There is more flexibility with the material, more “space” to publish good stories because you are not limited to the restrictions of a print layout and time frame.”

Social media also allows District Lit editors to give their readers as much exposure to writers and their work as possible. 2016 marks the second year of the Annual Readers' Choice Award contest which gives readers the opportunity to vote for their favorite poet or fiction writer published in the previous year; the editors report that it was a successful campaign.

“[O]ur contributors gleefully share the survey poll,” says Bolton. “It creates a lot of excitement about previously published pieces, and it is a true pleasure for me to see the writers connecting with their fans on social media to promote the award. The winners are printed in a hand-tied chapbook that is distributed at conferences and panels that our editors attend, and we make sure to give the winners many copies and brag about them loudly.” This year's Reader's Choice winners included Leeya Mehta (poetry) and Julia Mascioli (fiction), and their work was distributed at the 2016 Split This Rock festival over this past weekend.

As Bolton points out, District Lit doesn’t limit itself to its “online” borders. Last year was the first year of the District Lit Poetry Prize, and Sarah Vap (whose latest book is End of the Sentimental Journey, Noemi Books, 2013) selected the winning poem for publication on a postcard with imagery specially designed to match the poem (viewable here). These postcards were also handed out at this past weekend's Split This Rock Festival and will be handed out at AWP 2017 as well.

Publishing work in print form allows District Lit to “honor what we view as a significant contribution to our journal,” says Bolton. “There's something very gratifying and "official" about holding your printed work in your hands,” she added. “With the proliferation of online publications (let's face it, some of them don't stick around for long), having your work up as pixels can frankly feel ephemeral at best. So when a writer contributes something particularly meaningful to our publication, we want to give them a tangible piece of that contribution.”

Although District Lit’s editors currently live in DC, writers from all over submit to the publication. “We do tend to have a focus on DC/VA/MD writers, but I think that's just through getting into the community,” Ms. Bolton says. “We work closely with local events like Split This Rock, The Inner Loop Reading Series, the Georgetown Neighborhood Library Series, and next year's AWP presence in DC. We love local writers, and as an editor, nothing is better than meeting a contributor and shaking his/her hand.”

District Lit recently published its April issue. Now, the editors are working hard to organize its DC-based and inspired issue which will debut in August. Consider submitting!

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