Phoebe’s first issue, published in 1972, opens with a poem by Mary Anna Dunn titled, “Firstborn, or the Table,” which stamps the page with the birth, on said table, of “a child’s bloody ass.” Gory, but fitting. I tried to find Dunn online, to reach out, to talk about not only this piece but also her work as the journal’s first associate editor. I thought I struck gold on Facebook, a poet by the same name, but she replied, “No, not me. You are mistaken.” When I thought I found our first managing editor, he said he didn’t remember anything called phoebe. He asked for me to send proof his name appeared on the masthead.
From our founders, I had expected nostalgia, more reminiscing than I had time for, but the silence from the past swung me right back around to the present, to phoebe today, mature and vibrant, very much real and still breathing. Phoebe 1.1 ends with a poem from Richard Shannon, “Leopard,” and the ultimate visual of “the souls midwife” who, “with velvet fingers in / perfect stillness prepares the golden thread.” Again, fitting. The midwife sets the string of our legacy, and on it we hang up phoebe 50.1, excited to share great work from a new body of storytellers.
According to managing editor Timothy Johnson, the 50th year for phoebe has “manifested in a sense that we’re not just publishing another issue of a literary journal; we’re investigating ways to do more and to make it special.” We’re trying to memorialize this time while also attempting to set the journal “on a trajectory that will ensure another 50 years of publishing.” 50.1, he calls an ‘artifact,’ an object of human workmanship, of a particular period and culture, of historical interest.
Poetry editor Millie Tullis says it’s exciting to be a part of the legacy. “Many writers,” she reminds us, “have passed through the journal as readers, editors, and contributors, and that net will only continue to grow.” All the work put in all those years—it emphasizes a certain forward momentum we strive to uphold. Assistant fiction editor Kevin Binder agrees. “With each issue,” he says, “we’re continuing the tradition that’s been set by our past editors and contributors, some of whom have gone on to do amazing things in their careers. So, we want to make sure that we’re upholding their example and finding new ways to push our boundaries.”
So what would a 50th anniversary artifact that upholds the promise of all those who’ve come before have to offer? Dare I say Greatness? I say Greatness.
All bravado aside, the journal is the journal is the journal. We have a rotating staff of editors, housed in the MFA program at George Mason University, and with that, you could say phoebe has evolving taste. We’ve grown, we’ve pushed, but each year we still read to find what connects. As Timothy says, “what remains in spite of our revolving staff door is a desire for writing that moves us but also challenges convention.” And with the 50th anniversary, “There was a lot more pressure at first, especially before the initial submissions started to come in,” says fiction editor Zachary Barnes. “When we started reading the material, I think we got a lot more comfortable and confident. Our submissions are generally high quality, which is one of the best things about this job.”
And Zachary isn’t the only one handing out gold medals. Assistant nonfiction editor Lena Crown concurs that the magic of the 50th issue infiltrated the submissions pool. “This past cycle was special simply for the quality of the work we received,” she says. “Every time I sat down to read, I was awed. And in the context of the isolation we’re all experiencing, it felt extra special to connect immediately to other people through their art.”
Lena and her nonfiction crew label the essays in 50.1 as ‘dynamic, probing, self-aware.” The fiction people tag their stories with terms like ‘cerebral, introspective, unlikely, and gritty.’
And as poetry goes, Timothy Johnson reports that even though we “chose fewer pieces than usual,” he was “surprised by how complete they feel in concert.” He adds that, through our visual art, “we investigated some darker corners with truly haunting imagery while curating galleries with strong, cohesive aesthetics that still present a wide range of form and media.”
In 50.1’s “Thin Apocalypse,” Olivia Treynor gives fictionalized witness to a young girl’s medieval attempt of atonement in the effort to heal the world of Covid-19. Jeff Ewing’s essay “The Lost Coast,” ruminates on the loss of a friend within the convergence of geography and history, fog and manifest humanity. In Matthew Tuckner’s poem, “A Bird Called Prozac,” the speaker perches and breaks and carves and bursts as a bird renamed the ‘me-in-me.’
These works, they sit with you. They sit with you as only an artifact can, as something beautiful, pulled from the darkness, new to you but ancient and human and true.
We want that in literature, right? Beauty out of the darkness, new to us but still primal enough to feel like the skin we have lived within for always. I think so, and I hope that is what phoebe 50.1 has for you. I hope that through our fifty years we’ve produced Greatness in our body of work, and as the journal continues to grow into its skin through the decades to come, I hope that all who work to keep it alive help it age with grace and wisdom, gaining further reason to celebrate at 100 years old.
So with a thank you to all our editors, readers, contributors, and fans—past and present and future, I say happy birthday, phoebe. Let’s eat cake.
P.S. And if you do remember your name on the masthead, please reach out, share your thoughts and memories of phoebe then and now.