Words of Honor

UAB literary journals spotlight the best contemporary writing for a national audience
By Laura Jane Crocker
Photo of closed notebook atop open notebook full of writing; headline: Words of Honor
UAB literary journals spotlight the best contemporary writing for a national audience
By Laura Jane Crocker
Every Wednesday, several undergraduate and graduate students, plus a few volunteers, fold themselves into the office of Adam Vines, associate professor of English. It’s a tight fit because Vines’s office is already packed with paper: precarious piles of envelopes, towering stacks of journals, and an assortment of unruly bookshelves and bulletin boards.
Photo of old and new Birmingham Poetry Review issues
This group is the staff of Birmingham Poetry Review (BPR), one of the literary journals housed in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences Department of English. And they have gathered to look at more paper—thousands of poems, translations, and reviews sent in by hopeful writers. Snail mail is the only way that Vines will consider submissions. The method encourages writers to focus on quality, he says. “When someone writes Birmingham Poetry Review on the envelope, they have to consider whom they’re sending it to, and they’re thinking about how their poems might suit my sensibility for the journal,” he explains.
Meanwhile, down the hall, the staff of NELLE is putting together another issue under the guidance of Lauren Goodwin Slaughter, editor and assistant professor of English. Unlike BPR, this journal accepts submissions online. But there’s another key difference: All of the hopeful writers are women. Literary work by women “has historically been unrepresented or underrepresented,” Slaughter says. NELLE’s role is to make room for writers who identify as women, she explains, by publishing innovative, original poetry, fiction, and nonfiction that celebrate their diverse voices and experiences.

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Slaughter and Vines both take their work seriously. After all, both are award-winning, published writers themselves—Vines and Slaughter are poets; Slaughter also writes essays and fiction. And the UAB journals they oversee have a history of introducing works that make an impression on the literary world.
A poem first published in NELLE received an honorable mention for the Pushcart Prize, one of the highest honors for works in small publications, just four years after the journal was founded in 2001 as poemmemoirstory. (The new name, which debuted in 2017, honors legendary Alabama novelist Nelle Harper Lee.) Other submissions have later appeared in prestigious compilations including Best American Essays, New Stories from the South, and Best American Poetry. Poems from BPR, founded in 1987, have been reprinted in Best American Poetry in 2014 and 2016. BPR's 2018 issue was extra special: Two of its poems went on to win Pushcart Prizes, and another two were selected for Best American Poetry. "Having four poems from one issue chosen for the nation's top two annual anthologies is extremely rare," Vines says.
Photo of recent issues of NELLE

Perspectives on publishing

With the opportunity to help staff two successful journals in one department, UAB students gain a unique perspective into the world of literary publishing. Students play an active role in reviewing the work of elite writers—among them Collins Prize winner Shara Lessley, Robert Frost Medal winner Sonia Sanchez, and Pulitzer Prize winner and former United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey—and determining which pieces make the cut. For BPR, “we get submissions from all over the country and internationally, probably between 6,500 and 8,500 a year—but we only choose less than 1 percent,” Vines says. Members of the NELLE staff, which includes undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty, first read each submission individually. Slaughter gathers them together several times each semester to debate which poems and short stories to include.
Kristin Entler, a graduate student in English from Pell City, Alabama, has served on the BPR and NELLE staffs for several years. As BPR’s poetry reader, she has attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, met authors, and played a role in the publishing process. All of these experiences have helped her become a better writer, she says. “I have become more careful,” she explains. “I go through the revision process more deeply, choose my words more carefully, and think about what I’m getting across.”
Taylor Byas agrees. The graduate student in English from Olympia Fields, Illinois, notes that working with NELLE has offered a new perspective on submitting to journals. “Submitting work is sometimes luck of the draw,” Byas says. “It’s helped me realize that sometimes it’s not my writing—it’s just what they need at the time.”
The mentorship and growth that come from putting the journals together translate into practical career skills, Vines says. Students “are forced to work on their feet and consider, aesthetically, what they believe in. I question them about what they value in a poem.”
Together, NELLE and BPR have created a niche community on campus designed to foster writing talent, both in their pages and among their student staffs. “These publications have done a lot for me personally,” Entler says. “I’ve found my people."

Recommended reading

Read Birmingham Poetry Review and NELLE online, subscribe, or find them in select stores.

UAB students also produce several other journals:
Memorandum, focusing on the field of professional writing, is created by students in the Department of English professional writing program.
Vulcan Historical Review includes articles, reviews, essays, oral histories, and more. Chi Omicron Chapter of Phi Alpha Theta honor society in the Department of History publishes it annually.
Aura Literary Arts Review, produced by UAB Student Media, showcases art and photography, fiction and nonfiction, poetry, and other creative works.
Inquiro is an annual journal publishing undergraduate research.

Published May 2019