Meet the Staff: J.L. Torres
By Njeri Wright, SR Spring 2016 Editorial Assistant
J.L. Torres, co-founder and Executive Editor of the Saranac Review, author of The Family Terrorist and Other Stories, the novel, The Accidental Native, and a poetry collection, Boricua Passport, has published stories and poems in numerous journals and magazines. He is a Fulbright recipient, and he teaches US Literature, Latina/o Literature and creative writing at SUNY Plattsburgh. He will be a panelist at From the Inside: Writers of Color on Editing and Diversity at AWP Conference 2016.
On campus, specifically in the English department, we all know the name ‘Dr. Torres.’ You are a personable man, a literature and writing professor, and co-founder/Executive Editor of Saranac Review— just to name a smidgen of the things you oversee and are a part of. You are frequently in contact with the art of writing. Who would you say Dr. Torres is as a writer? What is your personal process for writing?
I take my responsibility as a writer seriously because I’m a member of a marginalized group, a colonized people that for centuries has been struggling for freedom and self-determination. I don’t pretend to be the voice of my people, but I’d like to think I am a voice and that sobering realization shapes and informs my perspective on writing. The political nature of writing, of producing discourse, doesn’t escape me so easily. I cannot avoid it even if I tried—but I also love craft. I love the aesthetics of the writing itself, so my overarching objective is to produce engaging, beautifully written prose and poetry that also kicks some ass.
As for process, I strive to be disciplined—although I don’t always succeed—to follow the very same advice I give my students about making time to write. It is hard today with all the distractions surrounding you, but for that reason discipline is that more important. I like getting a strong cup of coffee and working in the morning, at a set time, to get into that groove so necessary to keep the work flowing. I drive to put down a foundation, the early rough draft; then I begin the process of layering, one layer at a time, layering over what has been written. With every layer you find yourself going deeper into the story or poem; you find yourself investing more of your own self into the narrative, the characters.
What style or genre of literature do you enjoy reading and teaching the most? Also as editor of SR, what genre of submissions do you engage with the most?
I’m a devoted student of the short story, so I love reading short stories, from flash to the longer pieces. I also read a lot of literature that comes from a place of difference, and that is a type of literature that I enjoy teaching. As Executive Editor of SR, I read rarely these days, or at least I’m supposed to read minimally. If a piece comes to me, it may be any genre.
I would like to know, as an SR intern, how did the literary magazine come to fruition? Why make it an international journal? Was it difficult to garner an international journal with works from American and Canadian writers?
Four of us working in the English Department, all writers and teachers, thought that the department needed an outlet for literary expression, so we pursued the idea and twelve years later, here we are. The international label came naturally once we started actively soliciting Canadian writers. But as SR grew, we began receiving manuscripts from Australia, India, and Europe. I feel it’s an appropriate label, one that we have earned and which makes us proud.
How do you think an international/Canadian perspective has enhanced the Saranac Review?
Our university is so close to Canada that soliciting and partnering with writers up north seem a natural fit. I honestly wish we received more submissions. I love the pieces we receive from Canada. For unfortunate reasons our southern border receives so much attention that for most Americans, Canada seems like an after-thought. But it is a vibrant nation with a fascinating history, so much more civilized than their southern neighbor that I’m happy we publish material that opens up a window to Canada.
You, too, bring an international perspective, as Puerto Rican, to the Plattsburgh community. How does your native background affect your writing and teaching style as a professor?
Well, my opening remarks speak to the writing. In my teaching, I bring nuances and a point of view to what I teach that students would not otherwise receive from your mainstream professor. That’s what diversity does, doesn’t it?
How does SR differ from other literary magazines?
The Canadian-American slant surely puts us in a unique niche. Generally, SR is a beautifully designed—thanks to our Art Director, David Powell—so it is visually appealing as it is editorially engaging. Other magazines and literary journals sometimes do one or the other, rarely does a magazine do both. I’d like to think that we are not afraid to tackle taboo subjects, nor are we afraid to publish a piece that might not strike the intellectual and literary snob as worthy of publication because it is humorous or quirky or trying something different.
I can tell you one way the Saranac Review differs from some other literary magazines. It featured a future Pulitzer Prize winner. How excited were you to see that one of the writers published in SR, Gregory Pardlo, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry last year? It is another great association to have to the SR. Do you see yourself and your staff as editors with a keen eye for talent?
Our list of contributors is quite impressive, actually. In Greg’s case, I met him when we both worked on the Retreat for Writers of Color. He read during that week and as I often do when I like someone’s work, I asked him outright that he needed to submit something to us. He had not even published his first book yet. But I knew he had enormous potential, an intelligence and craft that were undeniably superior. Our editors are excellent writers; we’re all teachers, devoted to craft and the art of writing and editing. We know our stuff and it shows in the fabulous writers we showcase in every edition of SR.
Getting to some more literary fun, how exciting was it to host the very first open mic event for Saranac Review and your Spoken Word Poetry class? This is the first time a spoken word course has been offered at Plattsburgh State. Why is this course important? How may English majors and non-English majors alike benefit from a course like this?
I really enjoyed the slam. It was indeed a first—and the students were fantastic. Our Writing Arts program needed more poetry courses and Spoken Word seemed a natural addition. What can I say about the importance of Spoken Word? It has revitalized and democratized poetry in America; it has freed poetry from the self-serving elitist circle that (Dana) Gioia wrote about. The course blends aspects of performance and poetry that would benefit a range of students in developing various communicative abilities and skills.