Melissa L. Lamberton Interviews Terrain.org Editor-in-Chief Simmons B. Buntin
Melissa L. Lamberton: What’s the history of Terrain.org? Where did the idea come from and when did it get started?
Simmons B. Buntin: Terrain.org was founded as Terrain: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments by Todd Ziebarth and me in 1997. We had both recently graduated with our master of urban and regional planning (MURP) degrees from the University of Colorado at Denver, and wanted to start a magazine that focused in large part on land-use issues but also included literary work. Our models were magazines such as Orion, Audubon, and Planning, and we were both influenced by the “New Urbanism” architectural movement, which presented to me at least a kind of poetry of place. When we quickly realized we had neither the experience nor the funding to publish a print magazine, however, we decided to create an online journal.
I had a little web development experience, and that was pretty much all one needed back then to begin an online publication. Our original website address was www.bod.net/terrain but we quickly picked up www.terrain.org. We changed our name a couple years later to lessen confusion between our online journal and the print magazine titled Terrain, published by the Ecology Center in Berkeley. We didn’t know when we founded Terrain.org that there was another environmental magazine of the same name. We selected the title “Terrain” based on an A.R. Ammons poem of the same name. I’ve long been a big Ammons fan; required reading I’d say!
Since our first issue in summer 1998, we’ve published on average two issues per year, and we’ve expanded in scope and size, as well. Initially we included the main content areas of editorials (or columns), poetry, essays, fiction, articles, the UnSprawl case study, and the ARTerrain gallery. Since then we’ve added reviews, an interview, and — with the launch of the current issue — To Know a Place, which features a story, essay, or poem(s) selected by the editors that demonstrates an eloquent intimacy between the author and the author’s place. We’ve also expanded to include a blog, Facebook page, Twitter site, issues in PDF format, and events section. We tried a discussion forum for a while but had to moderate it too closely due to spammers and ultimately gave up. Now, though, we have the capacity to accommodate comments on our contributions and that’s a real plus, as it expands the conversation of the piece well beyond issue launch.
As we’ve grown our editorial board and editorial staff have grown, as well. I’ve always served as the editor-in-chief, web producer, and publisher, while Todd (like myself) was a columnist and reviewer. In the last two years I’ve brought genre editors on board in fiction, nonfiction, and reviews (Patrick Burns, Joshua Foster, Jennifer McStotts, and Stephanie Eve Boone, respectively), and we now also have an assistant editor (Rafael Otto) who primarily maintains our blog. I’ve expanded the role of editors both because our submissions have increased substantially over the last several years and because it doesn’t make sense for a journal that is as established as Terrain.org to rely solely on one person. My hope would be that if the proverbial bus was to run over me tomorrow, Terrain.org could live on. We still need more of a self-automated process (or a backup web producer, perhaps) for that to be guaranteed, but with genre editors, at least the lineage is in place.
The editorial board serves really as an advisory board, though several of our board members — David Rothenberg, Deborah Fries, and Lauret Savoy — also write regular columns. Todd wrote a column for several years but a couple years ago decided to withdraw so is now only an editorial board member. The same is true for Catherine Cunningham, who joined our editorial team primarily as a columnist in 1999 and now serves on the editorial board. The board itself is expanding, as well — something I see continuing with the expanding Terrain.org network.
MLL: What do you mean by “built and natural environments?” What are the types of themes Terrain.org authors tend to explore?
SBB: The term “built & natural environments” is intended to be provocative; that is, we want readers to think about the context of the built to the natural environments. Are they the same? Are they different? “Environment” is such a general word that we wanted to pull it apart a bit. So we say:
Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments is a twice yearly online journal searching for that interface—the integration—among the built and natural environments, that might be called the soul of place. It is not definitely about urban form, nor solely about natural landscapes. It is not precisely about human culture, nor necessarily about ecology. It is, rather, a celebration of the symbiosis between the built and natural environments where it exists, and an examination and discourse where it does not.
“Examination and discourse” is at the heart of what we’re about, in any genre, because aren’t we as readers, as artists, as humans always impacting and being impacted by place? How, and why — and why does that matter?
Each issue of Terrain.org is theme-based, and these themes are one contextual way to explore the above questions. The current theme, for example, is “The Signal in the Noise,” and upcoming themes include “Entropy,” “Image,” and “Migration.” All of the issues, in the context of their themes, are archived indefinitely at www.terrain.org/archives. Our first theme was “The Urban Neighborhood.” Some of my favorite themes through the years have been “The City Wild,” “The Dark and the Light,” “Understory / Overgrowth,” “Islands & Archipelagos,” and “Symbiosis.” Oh, who am I kidding? I love all the themes because Terrain.org is ultimately about context — the relationship of human to nonhuman environment, the relationship of contribution to contribution within each issue.
It’s not possible to further define the specific themes that authors and other contributors tend to explore because that varies so much based on issue theme, genre, and the piece itself. I can say, however, that for a while and perhaps still, I suppose, we received a lot of submissions about how bad suburbs are, and alienation in suburban settings. That’s a true theme in America, too, though for our journal the submission had better approach that in a truly unique, surprising, and compelling way because otherwise it feels cliched by now.
MLL: What are the unique challenges and/or benefits of having an entirely online journal? I notice you really take advantage of technology with audio poetry, images, etc. Could you talk a bit about the rationale for this, and perhaps what you think about the future of online journals in general?
SBB: I believe the benefits far outweigh the challenges when it comes to online publications. Major benefits include low cost of publication (web hosting is about $160 per year), high visibility (we receive more than 100,000 visits per issue with an achievable goal of multiplying that number by ten in the next few years; most literary print journals are lucky to receive 4,000 or 5,000 “views”), indefinite archiving, easy and real-time accessibility, and the opportunity to include interactive multimedia that print generally doesn’t accommodate.
The challenges include a stigma that online publications still aren’t as high-quality as print publications, competition for readers from other websites (not just journals, but the crazy and I think exciting mix of environmental and cultural sites out there that may cover some of the same topics, literary and otherwise), and the need to constantly accommodate and plan for technology evolution. But with these challenges come good opportunities: more and more online publications are landing contributions in the Pushcart Prize anthology, for example; less and less is “online” a qualifier for publication quality. With linking and especially social networking — Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, etc. — so-called competition can actually benefit all of the websites as they share site visitors and create, potentially, a discourse that goes beyond any single journal, spanning several websites. And with rapid changes in technology we find that the website becomes easier to maintain and share, that we can draw more visitors to the site by offering more dynamic features, and that visitors can access the site in multiple ways (traditional computer, smart phone, Kindle, etc.).
To me it seems a shame not to take advantage of multimedia in an online publication. Little disappoints me as much as going to a new online journal only to discover it’s simply a PDF prepared for print that’s served up online. Big deal. Okay, it may have fantastic literary content, true. But what else? So with Terrain.org, our goal is to include as much (reasonable and elegantly presented) interactive multimedia as possible: audio with poetry and lyrical essays and short stories, video essays and interviews, interactive photo essays and narrative slideshows, commenting on contributions, searchable contributor index, image galleries, and more. That is truly what brings an online journal beyond the realm of the print — and is pretty standard now on most informational websites, anyway. The opportunity, then, isn’t so much having that interactive content, but presenting it to readers in such a way that it really pulls them in.
I am biased, of course, but that’s one of the ways I believe that Terrain.org excels: design. There are some online journals with very good poetry and the like, but the work is presented in such a way as to be almost painful to look at or browse through. When people come to Terrain.org, my hope is that one of the first things they do is say, “Wow! What a beautifully presented journal with fantastic content.” I often hear what great images we have, and that’s not accidental: it all ties in. Simply, our goal is to be the most functionally beautiful environmental journal, if not journal overall, online. I’m not saying that we are there now, but we continue to strive.
I think the future of online journals is tied directly to devices we’ll use to access “the web” in the future. I’ve mentioned smart phones and Kindle — digital readers. The latter poses the most interesting challenge for a traditionally HTML journal like Terrain.org, because the digital readers are not HTML and so (right now) cannot accommodate the interactive features. I can’t imagine that won’t change in some capacity, though. Think about the newspaper subscriber who reads the “traditional” newspaper on her Kindle but wants more information, say audio and an image gallery, housed on the newspaper’s website. Perhaps these digital readers already do support that linkage, but if not it must just be a matter of time before the Kindle tool links to additional online content and has the capacity to eloquently serve that content. From a production perspective, however, digital editions for Kindle follow in style and actual assembly from a PDF based on a publication designed for print. We go back and convert our HTML to print for our PDF edition, but that’s not adequate for getting it onto Kindle. And then there’s the additional challenge (and cost?) of actually getting Terrain.org picked up by Kindle. We don’t charge for access, there’s no subscription rate and I don’t ever intend there to be. So if Kindle charges a fee to “host” issues of Terrain.org, could we afford to do that? Not right now…
Though I don’t have a lot of capacity to convert Terrain.org to all of these platforms, I think about how the journal can fit — what’s coming up next — all the time. And the challenge is as exciting as it is daunting.
MLL: What’s going on behind the scenes? Who are your slush readers, how many do you have, and how do you keep the website up and running?
SBB: As the editor-in-chief, I’m responsible for final say on all contributions, and serve as the genre editor for poetry. I also solicit (and/or respond to and often write) interview, ARTerrain, UnSprawl, and other contributions and sections of the site. We have dedicated editors for fiction, nonfiction (one editor each for essays and articles), and reviews, and they work through the slush pile (which is easy to manage thanks to our online submission manager, which many print and online journals use now for the submission process) and forward their recommendations to me. Terrain.org is an on-the-side love affair for all of us, so we get to contributions and other editorial matters as we can, from our own locales, and do not have editorial meetings. Our editors are in Tucson, San Francisco, and Buffalo. So location isn’t as important as, say, dedication.
I’ll often review work on a Sunday afternoon, or on an evening that isn’t too late. If I like it right away we’ll accept it right away, but more often we want to live with it for a while and then will accept it. We may lightly or sometimes heavily edit pieces we accept (this is especially the case for nonfiction and articles), or suggest completely new ways to approach a piece, especially if it’s multimedia. That can get pretty exciting. A recent example is Aisha Sloan’s wonderful photo essay on Los Angeles, “How to Draw a Glass Mountain: Los Angeles and the Architecture of Segregation” (https://www.terrain.org/essays/25/sloan.htm) which she submitted as a fairly different essay with a couple photograph possibilities. I met with her (turns out she’s in Tucson) after reviewing the piece and we reconstructed it together before she went back and really overhauled it, much to the piece’s benefit. There was no guarantee we would accept it, but I felt like with the new structure it had a great chance of really working, and it does. Now that level of collaboration and editing is not standard, but we will work closely with the author if we think that will do the trick.
I maintain the website — it helps that I’ve been a professional website developer and designer. Building out the site takes a very long time; I often have to take several days from my full-time job plus work on it hours every night for a month and a half before issue launch to get it ready for contributor review. That’s just the web component, on top of all the work in reviewing and editing. As I like to say, besides my babies (I have two daughters), Terrain.org is my baby.
MLL: How do you measure “circulation” — number of web hits? Twitter followers?
SBB: We use Google Analytics to track traffic. The most important statistic is website visits: dedicated time on the site by single visitors. Page views and percentage of new versus returning visitors are also important. Then we have the capability of tracking search terms that bring visitors to the site, visitor paths through the site, primary entrance and exit pages, time on site, browser and platforms, and the like. We also track visits to the blog, using the same tool.
While I look at Twitter followers and Facebook “likes” or fans, I’m less concerned about those numbers, though always want to help increase them because they’re good tools for getting announcements and other information out there. We also send the Terrain.org e-News to an email distribution list we’ve been accumulating since we started; I’d really like to grow that list, as well.
The challenge that I haven’t mentioned earlier, but which relates to growing the email list and increasing site traffic, is marketing, and the funding for said marketing. We’re nonprofit but not legally so; therefore, we cannot receive tax-free donations. That’s something we plan to address over the next eighteen months, but until then Terrain.org is a wholly self-funded endeavor. Paying for web hosting and such isn’t too bad, but marketing in magazines like Poets & Writers, and then exhibiting at conferences such as AWP and ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and Environment) isn’t cheap, though essential. Additionally, at some point down the road I’d like to be able to pay for contributions, especially articles. We’ll need a revenue source in one capacity or another for that, and it seems to me that incorporating as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit is about the only way to open ourselves up to large and regular funding sources; it’s certainly the only way to be eligible for the majority of organizational grants and fellowships. That leads to the challenge and resource constraints of grant writing, but we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it, as they say…
MLL: Any thoughts you have on where you’d like to see Terrain.org go in the future, or the role it plays in making a space to talk about environmental issues?
SBB: This is a good and loaded question, one I feel like I’m constantly considering. Of course I’d like to see Terrain.org expand in quantity and quality: more readers, more submitters, more outstanding contributions, more visibility, more discussion sparked by the contributions, more awards and recognition, more changing the world for the better.
Specifically, though, I’d like to secure enough funding to spend more of my time on the journal and move it from a twice-yearly to a quarterly format. I think we have enough submissions to do that at this point, at least in the creative genres. But I don’t have the capacity — even with the addition of genre editors — to put the issue together four times a year, to write the UnSprawl case studies and conduct the interviews four times a year as I often do. I would need more than extracurricular time to make that jump (and perhaps the genre editors would, as well), but it is a goal.
Additionally, I want to continue to build networks and collaborations with other journals and organizations. It may sound strange, since I used the c-word before (competition), but there can be real synergies between even similar journals that make them both better. For example, the editor of Unity College’s beautiful print journal Hawk & Handsaw: The Journal of Creative Sustainability, Kathryn Miles, is on our editorial board. Beyond that, though, we haven’t collaborated and yet we have the opportunity to do just that. Where Terrain.org has formed expanding partnerships, though, is with book publishers such as Milkweed Editions and Trinity University Press, in which we include excerpts from new books. That ensures we get good content (we review and select or decline as with any submission) and the publisher gets more exposure. One of Terrain.org’s first partnerships was with the now-defunct journal Terra Nova: Nature & Culture, published in the 1990s by MIT Press. David Rothenberg was the editor and is on our editorial board. He also writes a regular column for Terrain.org. The cornerstone of the partnership, though, is that Terrain.org includes contributions from Terra Nova in the journal on occasion, extending the life of that essay, story, or poem. Who knows what other partnerships and collaborations are out there, but I’m certain there are many more opportunities.
Indeed, opportunities would appear to be the optimal word — for technology, for collaborative efforts, for making a space to talk about environmental issues. And opportunities for considering the context of the built and natural environments in literary and technical mediums are what I hope we present in a lovely and important online format.
Melissa L. Lamberton is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. A native Tucsonan, she worked as a science writer for the Water Resources Research Center and the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, and her articles have appeared in the Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Citizen.