OVER THE LAST few years, the annual local literary journal Big Big Wednesday has become for many in the literary arts community one of those much-anticipated Portland summer traditions. In each issue’s 100-plus pages, the multi-genre, multi-medium journal mixes new work from internationally-recognized authors like short fiction icon Lydia Davis and poet Mary Ruefle, local favorites including memoirist/novelist Kevin Sampsell and artist Aidan Koch, and a wealth of writers and artists who are just beginning to publish.
I sat down with editors Molly Schaeffer and Paul Cavanagh (the journal’s third editor, Liza Birnbaum, currently lives in Massachusetts) at P’s & Q’s in Northeast Portland to discuss the journal’s past, present, and future.
BIG BIG WEDNESDAY began when the three—all friends from college—ended up in Portland at the same time and decided to bring their long-discussed idea to life. “The decision was like, ‘Well, let’s just start doing it,’” Cavanagh says. “No one’s going to give us money if it isn’t an actual thing, so we just have to make it an actual thing and figure out how to pay for it.”
While there’s no shortage of literary journals, the trio couldn’t find a preexisting outlet that fit their vision—an aesthetically inclined, print-only publication that would juxtapose work from well-respected authors and artists with relative unknowns. “[Bigger literary journals] are definitely not excited about publishing a name that nobody’s ever heard before. That’s not the point. But for us that’s very much the point,” Cavanagh says.
Contacting friends, former professors, and writers they admired, the three editors gathered submissions for the first issue while fundraising through Kickstarter. In the process, they found out the true speed of the project. “We thought it would be biannual,” Schaeffer says, “and we were like, ‘Cool, we can do a subscription!’ Then we put the first issue out and we were like, ‘Wow, that took a year.’”
The editors like to think of Big Big Wednesday as the beginning of a conversation that goes beyond their local community—connecting readers with new writers, smaller artists with bigger artists, audiences with artists at release parties, and beyond. “We started with the theme of correspondence,” Cavanagh says, “and I feel like that’s really carried forward, as far as the project being something that connects people on so many different levels.”
Each issue typically draws 150-200 submissions and accommodates around 25 pieces, so the process of selecting and arranging work for Big Big Wednesday requires a lot of effort and discussion. Because Birnbaum moved away from Portland after the first issue and Cavanagh has lived here off and on, the editors hold many long-distance meetings over speakerphone and Skype. The goal is for each to have equal input on the direction of every issue, as well as an even workload split. “It’s inherently a very collaborative process,” Cavanagh says.
For the current issue, they received more submissions—and more submissions they loved—than ever before, and they also needed to make a more compact issue due to limited finances. While they look at the curatorial process as an enjoyable and creative act in itself, rejecting work is all of the editors’ least favorite part. “We all, in our lives, worry about feelings a lot—[especially] other people’s feelings,” Schaeffer says. “We’re all pretty sensitive people.”
While selecting pieces for the journal, they consider a range of factors—how to represent a wide variety of styles and approaches while working within the issue’s theme, which submissions all three editors can agree on, what’s within their budget, and which pieces go together best to form a whole. “I think in some ways it’s probably helped all of us deal with our own rejections,” Cavanagh says. “Being [able to be] like, ‘Well, we know how it is.’”
The new issue features work from acclaimed novelist and poet Ben Lerner (Leaving the Atocha Station, The Hatred of Poetry), and more writers being published for the first time (as well as more Portland-based writers and artists) than appeared in previous issues.
The journal’s Portland release party will take place on September 9 at Mother Foucault’s Bookshop with three Portland writers and a musical act. There will also be a New York City release party on October 16 featuring three East Coast writers and music from Frankie Cosmos and Mega Bog.
What the future holds for Big Big Wednesday depends largely on finances. “Because so far funding has been issue to issue, we’ve almost had to—by necessity—think of it that way,” Cavanagh says. The journal’s Kickstarter campaign funded the first issue, a Regional Arts & Culture Council grant funded the second, and a Literary Arts grant funded last year’s installment. Since the trio was unable to obtain a grant for this year’s issue, the funding had to come entirely from sales of previous issues.
To make their future more certain, the editors are considering becoming a nonprofit or a business and potentially publishing individual author chapbooks in addition to the journal. But for the time being they just hope, as Schaeffer says, “to make a beautiful object”—and to keep the correspondence going.