20th Anniversary Editorial Roundtable

BLR Editorial Board

In honor of Bellevue Literary Review’s 20th anniversary, we’ve invited editors past and present, plus our founding publisher, to offer reflections on the BLR’s founding and its evolution over two decades of publishing.

Martin J. Blaser, Founding Publisher

The practice of medicine is art wearing scientific clothing. In 1999, I agreed to return to NYU School of Medicine, a place I’d last seen as a medical student. Now, as Chair of the Department of Medicine, I faced the daunting task—among the scores of other competing responsibilities—of directing the education of the next generation of physicians. 

Through conducting the science and art of medicine we become participants in a broad range of human experiences and emotions. As our lives modernize, so too does medicine, giving rise to an inherent tension between the traditional and the new. Alarmed by the brutality of the modern, with its relentless and reckless progress across the landscape, I wanted to achieve a balance by creating a buffer, to help the medicine go down. Bellevue Literary Review began as an idea—to emphasize the human values of medicine through writing.

A most worthy goal, but how to get it done? Here we got lucky (although Louis Pasteur did note that chance favors the prepared mind). Within NYU, within the Department of Medicine and its neighbors, were a few dedicated souls who understood the imperative for narrative. Danielle Ofri, Jerome Lowenstein, and Ronna Wineberg became the three original editors of our new enterprise. We called it, without hesitation, Bellevue Literary Review, for Bellevue, the oldest public hospital in the US, has a grand tradition, embodied succinctly in the phrase “and no one was turned away.” These three editors took the ball and ran with it! 

What was and remains important is that BLR is devoted to the stories of medicine, loss,  and healing—through poetry and prose—focusing on the feelings we all share. Illness creates a web of stress, which we must understand if we each, in our own way, can find some peace in our life and our profession. We read to comprehend, to feel, and to connect. Creating a spot for this to happen was our original goal for BLR.

Shortly after, Stacy Bodziak joined us as the managing editor, and became the glue behind the enterprise. All four of these pioneers carried BLR over these two decades. From those roots, BLR grew to include a cast of hundreds, including interns, editors, writers, reviewers, donors, and thousands of readers and participants in the twice-annual readings. Now twenty years later, Bellevue Literary Review has taken firm root.

The average tenure of a Medicine Chair is about five years—I lasted nearly thirteen, until my political capital was depleted, and there were greener pastures to pursue. During that time, I did my best to make a difference for the students, trainees, staff, and faculty, but BLR remains the icing on the cake.  I thank my talented colleagues for their inspiration and sweat in bringing BLR to life and leading its growth. The persistence of BLR tells me that we were not wrong twenty years ago in identifying the importance of narrative in the mystery of the healing process, and that humanity and medicine are inseparable. 

Jerome Lowenstein, Founding Nonfiction Editor

When Martin Blaser suggested that I should serve as an editor of the newly created Bellevue Literary Review, he explained that he’d admired the program I’d created to have every medical student, on completion of their Internal Medicine rotation, submit a personal essay. These essays were not edited, but I valued the many different voices of our students. With this as my background, I saw my role as editor of BLR as preserving the different voices of writers who submitted their work. 

I recall defending the voice of several authors whose primary language was not English and others whose English style reflected regional or ethnic differences. At the extreme, I once attempted to edit 80 pages of disjointed handwritten pages on a yellow legal pad submitted from a psychiatric facility. Over the twenty years that I served as nonfiction  editor of BLR, I never lost my passion for preserving the voice of our authors.

Donna Baier Stein, Founding Poetry Editor

Launching Bellevue Literary Review was incredibly exciting and a welcome act of grace at a difficult time in our country. I will always be grateful to fiction editor Ronna Wineberg for inviting me to join the amazing team that had gathered to start this first-of-its-kind literary journal. It was always a pleasure to work with such wonderful writers and editors: Danielle Ofri, Stacy Bodziak, Ronna Wineberg, Jerome Lowenstein, Roxy Font AliagaI remain grateful for Danielle’s excellent leadership and Stacy’s magical and generous efficiency. 

Two memories of unexpected slush pile finds stand out: A poem by Renee Ashley and another by Virginia Chase Sutton, both of whom are now multi-book authors but unknown to me at the time. Their poems’ authenticity and arresting imagery absolutely leapt off the page. That’s one of the true joys of editing—finding a voice that makes you stop, listen, appreciate. BLR is now so well-known and so well-respected; it’s an honor to have been part of its beginnings.

Roxanna Font Aliaga, Founding Poetry Editor

I’m so grateful and proud to have been part of BLR in the early years. In 2001, I was editing the NYU literary journal Washington Square, and Danielle Ofri reached out to learn more about the ins and outs of the publication process. I was blown away by this physician, mother, and writer who was somehow also finding time to edit BLR! It may have been twenty years ago, but I can still conjure up my time with her and the founding team of publisher Marty, managing editor Stacy, and editors Jerry, Ronna, and my wonderful poetry co-editor Donna. 

I can remember that meeting room in the hospital, our day-long sessions discussing submissions, championing the full-hearted words of so many dynamic conversations. The human condition is always wrought with emotion, even without the backdrop of tragic events. But when we discussed the pieces for a section devoted to 9/11 in our third issue, that meeting room was heavy with our own witnessing. It connected us to each other, and that shared experience is at the heart of what’s in the BLR—that the words offer refuge and release, not only to the writer but to every reader too.

Ronna Wineberg, Founding Fiction Editor

Since becoming fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review twenty years ago, I’ve learned that editing is a sacred trust, a collaboration between editor and writer. A story seeks its own perfection. My goal is to help the writer and story achieve this. During the editing process, the writer allows me to enter his or her imagination and vision for a story, something that’s usually private. I rarely meet the writers whose work I edit. We communicate by email, revise using track changes, and send drafts electronically. However, I’ve found there is a kind of intimacy between editor and writer, a kinship and respect. The language of that intimacy are the words on the page. 

When I edit, I read a story closely both for pleasure and to see how the story works. Sometimes edits involve tightening or adding sections, tweaking characters, voice, dialogue, or an ending, anchoring a story in time or place, finding the right word or image. There is no template for what a story needs; each story is unique. 

I try not to be prescriptive. I ask questions, make suggestions; the author finds solutions and makes the final decision about the edits to include. I am always amazed by how a story takes shape during editing, the ways an author deepens his or her work.

When my own fiction has been edited, I’ve found that the editor often unlocks something in my mind. I’m able to see a story then—and my writing in general—in a new way. Writers whose stories I’ve edited for the BLR have said this has happened for them, too, during our work together. I’m grateful. That’s what I hope to accomplish. 

Jason Schneiderman, Poetry Editor

I was thrilled about joining a mission-driven publication and had been an admirer of BLR long before I became its poetry editor. Initially, I was surprised at how narrowly some poets understood our mission. When I began explaining that I was looking for poems that engaged “bodies in crisis,” that phrasing seemed to give writers a clearer sense of the range of poetry I was looking for. Our contributors trusted us in a way that I think is unique because of the journal’s ken, and I took that trust very seriously. When I look back on the poems we chose for BLR, I’m incredibly proud of the work we presented, and I’m amazed at how that worked touched on so many aspects of human experience. After some years, I realized that the journal might benefit from someone with a more personal connection to narrative medicine and the medical humanities and so passed the baton to Jen Hyde.  A brilliant poet and editor, Jen also brought a unique personal perspective as an ambassador for fellow heart-valve patients. Taking part in the redesign of the journal in 2018 was a true highlight of my time at BLR. Every time an issue arrives in the mail, it gives me a little jolt of pride to see myself in its legacy. 

Suzanne McConnell, Fiction Editor

In my book Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style, I suggest becoming a reader for a literary magazine as a practice for writers.  My own experiences reading and editing fiction for BLR have taught me so much as a writer.  BLR’s focus on health and healing often elicit familiar subjects, so again and again, I learned that what makes an arresting story is how it’s told—the angle, structure, the twist, the voice.  Again and again, I encountered similar faults in craft and witnessed the editor’s eye, in partnership with the author’s, deliver a finer final story to publication.  

I gained perspective on the publishing process.  A story may be rejected for many reasons and is not necessarily a comment on whether a story is worthwhile.  So I’d been told, and would tell myself, when rejections of my own work came.  But my own involvement in the selection process verified and internalized that truth.   

My sense of self as a writer expanded.  I gained agency and responsibility, but there’s pain in responsibility.  I empathize with writers. Turning down stories is tough; offering feedback cushions that difficulty.  We at BLR strive to encourage writers whose work we decline by providing that.

But toughen up.  A writer must.  And so must an editor.  My job is to select the best work for that particular issue of the magazine.  My second job is to edit the stories chosen for publication, and in collaboration with the writer, deliver the story for publication in its best incarnation.   

That toughness and goal transferred to my own work.  Editorial questions slipped firmly into my unconscious:  Is this piece as fine as I can make it?  Have I considered the reader, as well as satisfying myself?  Heard feedback?  Been courageous, facing what needs to be faced, from content to punctuation?  

Editing for BLR has been humbling, empowering, and communal.  It has kept me in touch with what’s on writers’ minds, the collective societal mind. It’s been a means to serve on behalf of the tradition and history of the human striving to speak, express, create.  To make sense of, to heal, to howl, to shine light in the darkness.  

Fran Richey, Poetry Editor

What a wonderful experience it was to be part of the BLR editorial team from 2004 to 2008. From the day I started to the day I left, I enjoyed every minute of my tenure as a BLR poetry editor. I loved working with Corie Feiner as co-editors. When we got together to go through the poems for final selections, it always felt like a combination treasure hunt and celebration of poetry itself. I am indebted to Donna for inviting me to interview for the position, to Danielle, for keeping us all on the path, and deep gratitude to Stacy, miracle worker, who was my rock and confessor. Jerry, Ronna, Suzanne. Talk about a dream team, and a warm and creative working environment. 

It was especially enlightening to read all those submissions, and realize only now that some images will stay with me for as long as my memory is in working condition. I have never forgotten a poem we published that had the image of a woman in an ancient city who wore on a necklace a small vial containing her tears. (And I realized, then and now, I never want to see “tectonic plates” in a poem ever again!) Thank you, all, for allowing me to contribute to BLR, such a stellar publication, and for giving me those enchanted four years.

Kate Falvey, Associate Editor

Over twenty years ago, Danielle got in touch with me to get my take on the nuts and bolts of running a college-supported literary magazine. At the time, I had been running, along with my energetic NYU lit and writing students, a beautiful print journal called Icarus. Soon after, I moved on to City Tech at CUNY, where I co-founded the print annual, 2 Bridges Review

I love to tell the story of being tapped by Danielle for my expertise, when her talents as an editor, fundraiser, and all-around promoter of our “journal of humanity and human experience” have long and far outstripped any fuzzy suggestions I may have made at the outset.

As an early board member without deep pockets, I often contributed in other material ways: writing book reviews and study guides, working with interns, and, later, after my role shifted to associate editor, finding books and reviewers for each issue. 

I’ve learned more from Danielle about how to run a magazine, how to spin gold from skimpy budgets, and how to maneuver triumphantly around seemingly arbitrary bureaucratic stumbling blocks than I ever did, and got to watch her in action.

I’ve also learned a thing or two about my own writing from Danielle’s sharp-eyed editing. My writing for BLR has always been strengthened after she’d ask me to knock out the roadblocks of multiple adjectives or to streamline overblown sentences. I’d fight her sometimes, and she’d be graciously accommodating, but I mostly always slept on it and conceded to her better ear. That’s what a good line-editor can do: make you think the changes were your very own idea.

Barbara Daddino, Associate Fiction Editor

When I was between four and nine years of age, my family lived in an apartment on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn. It was upstairs from Lee’s Chinese Laundry, and so, almost daily, I played with the Lee children, Sammy and Faye, under the peach tree in the backyard, where every day Mrs. Lee would come out with chopsticks and custard cups filled with noodles in brown sauce which looked very strange to me. However, the scent of Chinese cooking, the sound of Chinese music, the rising steam of the laundry were constant and ordinary aspects of my  childhood. But since I was a second-generation American child, these experiences made up only one color of the kaleidoscope of ethnicities common to Brooklyn in the 1950s. The culture, as diverse as it was, was basically native to me, a smorgasbord I could freely dip into. 

Until I read (and edited) “Ching Chong Ping Pong” by Jake Weber, a story about a Chinese brother and sister adopted by a white American family, I had never thought about the challenges faced by children of cultures very different from mine. True, as we played, there was sometimes a pause, and I would notice a faraway look in their eyes of perhaps fear, perhaps uncertainty, but I dismissed it, never considering  how bewildering, how difficult life in America must have seemed to my friends. Jake’s story brought back so much of that time in my life when, unknowingly, I may have been a bridge for our families, but it also left me me missing my friends and wishing I could have kept up our friendship. Then one day, I received an email from Jake: 

… for no particular reason, here is a photo of the five of us kids maybe just a few days after my brother and sister joined us from Hong Kong. I just came across it the other day while cleaning up. Lap Kee is the one in the middle. I’m the one in the Pirates hat.

The photo shows the newly blended family of five children standing in line, the boys in their bright American sneakers and Lap Kee’s sister in her pretty white dress. Gazing now at Lap Kee and his sister’s faces, one proud and uncertain, the other smiling broadly, it seems my friends have come back to me, except now, I see, somewhat more clearly, what had been held in their eyes. 

Stacy Bodziak, Managing Editor

One of the joys of being managing editor is that I’m often the main point of contact for authors as they navigate the process from our initial acceptance of their work to having the final issue in hand. I’m humbled by how many talented people I’ve had the good fortune to connect with over the years.  

One particular memory—which I hadn’t even mentioned to our editor-in-chief until this roundtable—is that I can still recite Samuel Menashe’s “Strategy” in my head on demand.  We published this poem twice, in an early issue and again in our Best of the Bellevue Literary Review anthology.  When Samuel, who received the first-ever Neglected Masters Award from the Poetry Foundation in 2006, used to call the BLR office, he would—without fail—recite this poem to me.  It seared the poem into my brain, and more importantly, did so with the poet’s inflections, which meant everything to absorbing it correctly.  It’s a little life-lesson nugget that I was fortunate to get directly from the source. 

The strategy
Of crook and cranny
Is to persist
The tottering granny
May outlive
A man riveted
To his task —
We are given
What we did not ask

(Samuel Menashe, “Strategy”)