As Fred Chappell notes in his poem “Origins,” a tribute to Robert Watson, after the writing faculty in UNC Greensboro’s English Department reluctantly installed a formal MFA writing program in 1965, the program faced neglect and disrespect.
A year later, when its first students wanted a publication in which to publish their work, Watson as the program director begged $500 from the chancellor for the project, and The Greensboro Review was founded. Fred Chappell and Peter Taylor served with Watson as faculty editors, with Lawrence Judson Reynolds and Thomas W. Molyneux serving as the student editors. Watson’s wife, Betty, designed the logo for the cover.
The magazine was to be published only once or twice. Printed in the UNCG campus duplicating shop, the first issue was collated and stapled by hand with students and faculty going around and around a table to pick up the sheets.
“For all we knew,” Watson once recalled, “the first issue might be the last, and we never knew from one issue to the next if we would have money for another.” For that reason, he added, the Review was designed as “a no-frills magazine, plain and dignified.” And the first issue looks very much like this our hundredth issue.
Faculty editor Tom Kirby-Smith put in herculean efforts to keep the journal afloat, but it remained so broke that instead of a Tenth Anniversary issue, the Review could publish only a sixteen-page index to its first decade. It did create the Amon Liner Poetry Award, honoring a poet who died soon after finishing the program. Liner, as the Asheville Poetry Review has proclaimed, is one of “10 Great Neglected Poets of The 20th Century.” The award is presented annually to one of the best poems written by a current MFA student, and the first award went to Kathryn Stripling Byer, who became a North Carolina poet laureate.
By the time Lee Zacharias assumed the editorship in 1977, the magazine had increasingly opened itself up to the work of such writers as Joyce Carol Oates and Ezra Pound, and when she became president of AWP in 1981 the Review had become a decidedly national publication, featuring stories by the likes of Madison Smartt Bell, Lewis Nordan, and Julia Alvarez.
Still, the Review prided itself on discovering new voices, often publishing the first work of new writers. The same year I became faculty editor, Robert Watson provided funds to start a Greensboro Review Literary Awards competition, with $500 prizes for both fiction and poetry The first story to win our fiction prize was later selected by Margaret Atwood for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 1989.
When Watson retired, we put together a special issue of the Review dedicated to his work and career. The cover was pumpkin orange in honor of his favorite holiday, Halloween, and it was the fattest issue of the Review ever published.
The winter of 1991 brought our Twenty-Fifth Anniversary issue, and in the summer of 1992 we published a special “Peter Taylor Homecoming Issue,” featuring tributes to Taylor’s work and the publication of one of his shortest stories, “At the Art Theater.” Because of a stroke that severely affected his speech, I copyedited the story by sending him letters with suggested editing and yes and no boxes he could check off, accepting or rejecting the changes.
To work so closely with one of the greatest short story writers ever was a highlight of my career as an editor. Another happened in the fall of 2006, when we published our Fortieth Anniversary issue. In my introductory essay, I got to celebrate the great success of one of our former poetry editors, Claudia Emerson ’91, who had just won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her collection Late Wife.
The joy of discovering new literary voices has been one of the best parts of my thirty-year editorship of the Review. Yet in some ways even more pleasing has been working with fledgling editors, many of whom have gone on to distinguished careers as writers, editors, and teachers.
The Greensboro Review office is actually an editing laboratory, where the editors and editing interns at both the graduate and undergraduate levels learn the finer points of copyediting, proofreading, style, and usage. Our Bible is The Chicago Manual of Style. In conversations with one of our former editors, George Singleton, he never fails to mention how I made him and others of my publishing students memorize the Chicago Manual by chapter and verse.
If I stacked all the books published by Review editors in the last half century, the pile would reach almost two stories high. In addition to tomes of mainstream poetry and fiction, they have produced award-winning children’s literature, a new Little House on the Prairie series, dystopian looks at the future of America, and nonfiction books on everything from candy to the oysters of America and the history of apples.
Even more remarkable than the prolific and diverse nature of their writing is the widespread success of their careers. Our editors have gone on to start dozens of literary journals, and still others have started such celebrated publishing houses as Small Beer Press or become editorial assistants to folks like the president of Harvard University and novelist John Irving. They teach in or direct writing programs at institutions like Florida State University, University of Missouri, Goucher College, and Clemson University. One of our fiction editors now holds the William H.P. Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross.
In the last few years alone, Review editors have won, among others, the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, a Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize, the Brittingham Prize in Poetry, the Agnes Lynch Starret Prize, the Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel, the George Garrett Fiction Prize, and the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Earlier this year, former editor Kelly Link ’97 was one of the finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.
In the ranking of MFA programs based on alumni publications in the prize anthologies, we are consistently in the top ten, with our editors making the pages of such publications as New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, and The O. Henry Prize Stories.
Perhaps most fittingly, in this our 50th anniversary year, UNC Greensboro has awarded two of its highest honors to Greensboro Review alumni. Kelly Link has received the Distinguished Alumni Award, and Kelly Cherry ’67, a member of the first MFA class whose poetry appeared in the first issue of the Review, has received the Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award. Link told The Millions in a recent interview, “My favorite thing [at UNCG] was working on The Greensboro Review. I loved reading the slush, and I loved proofing the stories that we published.”
Not bad for a stepchild program that was once taunted on campus with such sarcastic questions as, “How many Pulitzers have your little crew picked up so far?”
The answer, fifty years later—only one, but we’re just getting started . . .