Journal Spotlight: Bird’s Thumb
Written by: Katya Cummins

As Niche is gets closer to launching our next issue, and as it is submission season, as it were, we thought we’d jump into the fray with a Journal Spotlight. I am very excited and pleased to invite the co-founder Anitia Dellaria of Bird’s Thumb to Niche Features. I want to take this opportunity to thank her again for taking the time to conduct the following interview.

NICHE: One thing I love about Bird’s Thumb is how welcoming it is to unpublished writers. Your header states that Bird’s Thumb is “dedicated to the discovery and publication of emerging writers.” Why was it important for you and Sahar Mustafah to launch a literary magazine that keeps emerging writers firmly in mind?

ANITA DELLARIA:  Sahar and I are writers and have spent decades (collectively) teaching writing, participating in various writer groups and classes so, having had our share of rejections and successes, we came to this project with a lot of experience knowing there was a ton of great writing out there waiting to be discovered. We felt that because of our experience we could actually be helpful to emerging and new writers not just in providing a venue for publication, but in being editors and working with our contributors when we see promising work. Writers need dedicated editors and editors need dedicated writers. But I do think we were a little surprised at just how thrilling this grassroots venture is. We are not constrained by any institution or the need to be profitable. We donate our work, time, and expertise, and it’s awesome.

NICHE: I know only of a few other literary magazines that take time to work with contributors when they see promising work. Most publications ascribe to the idea that, if a piece of writing needs work, then it shouldn’t have been sent out. How do you personally feel about that opinion, and how much time do you, as editors, devote to working one-on-one with contributors? Could you speak a little more about what that work with contributors entails.

ANITA DELLARIA: First, let me say that most of the work we accept only needs careful copy editing. However, if we think a piece has promise, we’ll offer to work with the writer, and often will go through more than one re-write. I want to stress that we’re not re-writing the piece. We can’t tell the writer what to write; we can only help the writer to make it better. It’s a fine line and we walk it carefully. When we do extend an offer to look at rewrites, we reserve the right not to publish it if we can’t agree with the writer on the final version. With fiction, we might ask for more character development, sometimes a change to an ending, sometimes removing sections, sometimes rearranging things. If a piece has heart and life and is interesting and the writing is alive and engaging but just needs a little (or more than a little) work, we’ll give it a shot. All pieces — fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — get careful word by word and line by line editing. Having said that, we are more likely to reject a poem that isn’t done yet than a work of fiction or nonfiction. We believe it is the job of editors to help writers make their work better.

NICHE: You’ve stated before that you admire writers who take risks, and play with form. Can you speak a little to what taking risks in writing means?

ANITA DELLARIA: This question is harder to answer than I thought. On the one hand, to say you want work that takes risks isn’t really saying anything risky, because who wants writing that doesn’t do that? On the other hand, it’s really hard to define what taking risks means. Sometimes it’s subject matter; sometimes it means playing with form, and, in the case of poetry, actually writing formal verse can be very risky. To write honestly is probably the biggest risk there is.

NICHE: “Keep Evolving” is an interesting phrase.  By this, do you mean that writers should remain open to innovative ways of writing stories audiences may have “seen before?” Or does it merely mean that writers should keep challenging themselves, pushing beyond the boundaries of their own work, whether it’s through language, form, voice, etc….

ANITA DELLARIA: Yes to both meanings you suggest. (I don’t think they’re exclusive of each other.) I think the phrase “keep evolving” together with the image of the bird with the thumb is a better expression of our sensibility. Yes, there’s change, adaptation, evolution, but also there’s also the vestigial feature. We’re not scientists, and we’re not saying that birds do, in fact, have thumbs, but we love the image: four feathers and a thumb. It’s startling, kind of funny, might make you wonder if it’s true, and definitely makes you wonder what it means. Come to think of it, that might be an editorial policy.

NICHE: A lot of the stories and poems published in Bird’s Thumb are those that seem to value clarity of image, coherency, compression, and above all, significant human moments. Is genuine emotion one of the main things you look for when reading submissions?

ANITA DELLARIA: That’s a very perceptive and accurate description of the writing we tend to favor. And yes to “significant human moments.”  I’m not sure we’re necessarily looking for genuine human emotion when we’re reading but we sure notice when it’s missing. I would also add that endings are important, as are a diversity of voices, styles, and subject matter.

NICHE: You’ve written and published work yourself. Has being an editor of a literary magazine taught you anything new about writing or the writing process, and if so, what?

ANITA DELLARIA: Not so much anything new, but it has sure reinforced what I already know. Things like, good writing is re-writing. More than process, editing Bird’s Thumb the journal and running Bird’s Thumb the organization with Sahar has shown me that there are many ways to be part of a writing community.

NICHE: What is next for Bird’s Thumb?

ANITA DELLARIA: We’ve instituted an annual reading series and have recently launched a blog called “Write Here, Write Now” devoted to writing on writing. We are also in the process of planning the first in an annual chapbook series. We’re very excited about the ways we’re expanding.

NICHE: Is there anything else about Bird’s Thumb that you want our readers to know?

ANITA DELLARIA: In addition to being an online and literary publisher, we are also a 501(c)(3) nonprofit which means donations are tax deductible. We depend on donations to keep running, and it takes very little to keep the doors open. So, if our readers are inclined, they can make a donation on our site (birdsthumb.org) or visit our fundraising campaign on Generosity. Also, we love for our readers to stay connected with us. Find us on Twitter, Facebook and join our mailing list to receive our not too frequent newsletter. We can be reached at anita@birdsthumb.org or sahar@birdsthumb.org.

Anita Dellaria is a playwright and the poetry editor at Bird’s Thumb, which she co-founded with Sahar Mustafah in 2014. She lives in Chicago.