Back to Blog

An Interview with Ecotone editor Anna Lena Phillips Bell

Communications Director Katherine O’Hara sits down with Ecotone editor Anna Lena Phillips Bell to talk about the NCWN sponsored Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Contest (closing for submissions THIS SUNDAY) and to reflect on the Jason Bradford Broadside Series:

Katherine O’Hara: Since 2013, you have served as the editor of Ecotone. The magazine was a 2017 and 2020 finalist for CLMP’s Firecracker Awards and a 2021 finalist for the Whiting Literary Magazine Prize, and won the 2022 AWP Small Press Publisher Award. What would you tell writers who may be learning about Ecotone for the first time? What does it mean to reimagine place?

Anna Lena Phillips Bell: In the pages of Ecotone, we work to build a community of writers who are engaged with place. Whether a writer expresses adoration or ambiguity about a place, and whether they do so overtly or subtly, they can help bring our attention back to the strange, fragile, threatened places we inhabit.  

To bring our attention to place feels ever more urgent as the ravages of climate crisis become clearer. Increasing heat, drought, and severe weather affect places unequally, leaving the vastest burden on marginalized communities. The magazine’s mission of reimagining place was established by David Gessner when he, along with Kimi Faxon Hemingway and Heather Wilson, founded Ecotone. That mission feels important not just for exploring issues like these, but for offering solace and challenge and humor.

One of the most common things I hear from writers unfamiliar with Ecotone is a hesitation over whether their work is engaged enough with place for the magazine. We welcome work from a wide range of voices, including writers historically and currently marginalized in traditional publishing—and we want to hear about a wide range of places, rural, urban, mundane, extraordinary; geographical and cultural, physical and imagined. We want place to be more than just setting; we want nuance and straightforwardness; we want to hear how places and identities intersect; we want engagement with research, and engagement with past thinkers, whether to laud or complicate. We want to hear what we didn’t know, what we didn’t know we needed. 

KOH: Submissions for the Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Competition, sponsored by the NCWN, are now open, closing this Sunday on January 15. The final judge will be Julia Ridley Smith, and the first-place winner will receive $1,000 and potential publication in Ecotone. What are some favorite essays you’ve published recently?

ALPB: For our Climate Issue, Belle Boggs wrote about climate crisis from the perspective of her life along the Haw River, including the question of how to think with her daughter about environmental and social justice. Josina Guess’s essay “Purple Kingsessing” considers the work of finding home, from a historic Philadelphia neighborhood to rural Georgia, and traces the history of an heirloom bean. And in our forthcoming Ocean Issue, an essay from Patricia Ononiwu Kaishian explores the natural and cultural history of the American eel, engaging language, Western scientific classification, gender, and more. I’m fond of these essays for the ways they engage both personal narrative and research—but we also love a lyric essay, a personal essay, an essay in a borrowed form.

KOH: I’m grateful that the creative writing department at UNC WiImington introduced me to Jason Bradford’s legacy when I was a BFA & MFA student there. From our Out of Genre readings through the MFA Reading Series to the Jason Bradford and Shirley Niedermann Broadside Series, I hold Jason’s memory as someone who was dynamic, warm, and an immensely talented writer and Ecotone editor. Can you tell us a bit more about Jason, and about the Bradford-Niedermann series?

ALPB: Ecotone is a teaching magazine, made by faculty and students in UNCW’s MFA program. Jason Bradford served as poetry editor, alongside Stephanie Trott, when he was a student here. His deep engagement with poetry of place, his sense of the weird, and his humor made the magazine a better one. His own poems appear in journals including jubilat, the Dialogist, the Laurel Review, Typo, and the North American Review.

Jason lived with muscular dystrophy, and died of complications from it during his final semester at UNCW. His mother, Shirley Niedermann, accompanied him throughout the program—to our editorial meetings, to the classes he taught as a teaching assistant. We founded the Bradford-Niedermann Broadside Series in honor of his poetry and editing, and in honor of Shirley’s dedication to his work and life. The series features letterpress-printed broadsides of two poems from Ecotone each year, made by a featured printer who visits and shares their work with our students. We’d always intended to include a poem of Jason’s in the series when his debut poetry collection appeared, and, happily, his book Stellaphasia is now available from North American Review Press, thanks to the efforts of editor Jeremy Schraffenberger.

KOH: In November, during UNCW’s annual Writers’ Week, Ecotone launched two new broadsides in the series, including a poem from Lisa Low and a poem from Jason. Ryan Kaune, your featured printer for the year, is a UNCW MFA alum also. What was it like to be in community that night in Lumina Theater?

ALPB: The series celebrates poetry of place and the slow craft of letterpress printing—which, given the extensive, heavy equipment required, is by necessity rooted in place. So it was really special to have Ryan and Lisa with us in person, and to have Shirley, Jeremy, and three of Jason’s friends and fellow UNCW alums join us on screen. One of the few good things to come from the pandemic is the recognition that virtual events, and hybrid ones like this one, are not just possible but necessary—to bring folks together across distances, and to create equity in who is able to attend.

For folks who couldn’t be there, North American Review Press is offering copies of Jason’s broadside; and Ecotone will feature Lisa’s online this spring.

KOH: The craft of these limited-edition broadsides brings to mind your chapbook Smaller Songs, which was hand-sewn and hand-set by St. Brigid Press. Being both a writer and a maker yourself, would you say printing informs your writing and vice versa?

ALPB: I come from a family that values making things, and I’m drawn to work at the intersection of art and craft: time-intensive, requiring practice and skill, and resulting, hopefully, in something that transports the reader or user.

Transports the reader, and grounds the maker: making something in the physical world reminds me that I live in a body, in place. That goes for poems too—we use our bodies, not just our minds, to make them. It’s partly why I’m drawn to formal and procedural constraints in poetry. Meter and rhyme, and constraints like those used by the Oulipo, give me the bodily satisfaction that, say, sewing a book does.

I began the poems in Smaller Songs by transcribing the footnotes of an old book of ballads, edited by Robert Graves. Each of the poems in Smaller Songs is made only from words contained in those footnotes. They have to do with balladlike subjects, as I see them, but rearranged, retold—living in place, farming, the supernatural, the violence of patriarchal systems and gender binaries.

When I found letterpress printing, I realized it too hits that sweet spot for me, involving both art and craft. So it was a pure delight to work with Emily Hancock, at St Brigid Press, who designed, printed, and bound the book.

KOH: We’re honored and excited to have worked with you and Ecotone for many years. You were also a faculty member at this year’s Fall Conference and prior conferences as well. How would you describe your experience with the Network?

ALPB: I went to my first NCWN conference as an undergrad at Guilford College. I remember finding a little packet of Texas Pete tucked into the conference folder—it was in Winston-Salem that year. I think my love for the Network began with that packet of hot sauce.

But it has lasted far longer. We’re incredibly lucky in North Carolina to have such a vibrant and responsive organization for writers. When I’m talking with writers who are moving to the state, I often mention NCWN—its focus on writers across genres, its work on equity and inclusivity within the writing world, and its efforts to offer opportunities through conferences, prizes, resources.

And there’s something else—I don’t know what to call it except cheerfulness—an upbeat tone that is welcoming, not condescending, that seeks to make room for making and for connection. That, of course, is thanks to the people who lead the organization. I’m so thankful for what y’all do.

Anna Lena Phillips Bell is the author of Ornament, winner of the Vassar Miller Poetry Prize, and the chapbook Smaller Songs, from St Brigid Press. Recent work appears in the Southern ReviewSubtropics, Electric Literature, and A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia. She is the recipient of a North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship in literature and the winner of the 2021 Winter Anthology Contest. The editor of Ecotone, she teaches in the creative writing department at UNC Wilmington, and calls ungendered Appalachian square dances in what’s now called North Carolina and beyond.