“There’s never been a greater need to think about the ways that creative work can help illuminate intersections between environmental and social justice,” says Anna Lena Phillips Bell, editor and art director of Ecotone, the award-winning literary magazine at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Author and creative writing professor David Gessner founded the publication in 2005. An ecotone is a space of transition between two biological communities – the grasslands between a forest and desert, for example, or a marsh between water and land. Likewise, the magazine connects literary prose and poetry with personal reflection on place.
“When people hear our name, which sounds kind of sciency, they sometimes assume we’re running a lot of dry scientific stuff or nature writing of the kind that people are less likely to read,” Phillips Bell explains. “We do really like work that engages with scientific research, but we also want that work to have personal relevance for readers.”
Tone, editorial content of Ecotone
People can grow weary of hearing about environmental issues, Phillips Bell says, and some have the privilege not to have to think about problems such as climate change and pollution and deforestation. “Some of us white folks think about social justice and feel desperate,” she adds. “There’s hopelessness, a feeling that ‘I can only do so much.’” She believes creative writing can help people approach the big, substantive questions that would otherwise feel too big to think about.
“The pieces we publish in Ecotone help to keep environmental and social justice questions in readers’ awareness and help us to act within our values,” she says. “I appreciate literature that talks about those things without beating me over the head.”
She and other Ecotone editors also want to rejuvenate traditional nature writing and feature people whose voices have not historically been included in the canon of place-based writing. “We ask ourselves whose voices are not getting amplified around questions of place and identity and environmental and social justice,” she says. “We ask who’s missing from this conversation because they never felt welcome or because no one wanted to publish their work.”
Issue 28 – “The Love Issue” – includes Silas House’s short story “Jericho,” about a young man in a conservative Christian evangelical community in the south figuring out that he’s gay. “He lets us feel the sadness of the struggle he’s having as he thinks through his desires,” says Phillips Bell. “He pays so much attention to characters along with the protagonist in this story. He has such empathy for them.”
In Spring 2019, editors debuted a department titled “Various Instructions.” It includes Destiny O. Birdsong’s essay titled “Build Back a Body.” (7/2/20) “It’s about living as a Black woman in a compromised body during a pandemic and teaching yourself how to cook,” Phillips Bell explains.
By the end of the essay, Birdsong becomes a proficient and intuitive cook with a powerful sense of how food can sustain her through the pandemic. “I have come to treat my body like the food I prepare: perishable and precious,” she writes.
Ecotone has lately been publishing features on dance. “It’s a vital form, and I’ve been interested to see how choreographers and dancers interpret their work for the page,” Phillips Bell says.
Advice for potential contributors
Potential contributors should read back issues, available for free on the magazine’s website. “We encourage folks from a wide range of perspectives and identities to send work,” Phillips Bell says. Prose editors look for nonfiction informed by sociology, natural history, ecology, and other fields. Fiction submissions should be informed by place and may also intersect with science in some manner.
Poetry editors want to see work that intersects with natural and social sciences, pieces that engage with craft in new ways. “We want work that’s written in an interesting meter or uses form in a way that wasn’t expected,” Phillips Bell says. “We like to see that the poet has thought about craft, whether the poem is written in free verse or not.”
Writers don’t need to travel far from home to write a compelling piece for Ecotone; editors are interested in where they’re writing and what they’re observing right now. “Often, the work we’re most excited about looks closely and carefully at the ecological history of the place where people live, with an awareness of social justice and the ways that history hasn’t always been told accurately,” Phillips Bell concludes.
Ecotone at a glance
“The literary magazine dedicated to reimagining place.”
Length: 3-5 poems; prose to 10,000 words.
Genres: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry.
Submission format: Online via Submittable, or by mail.
Contact: Editor and Art Director Anna Lena Phillips Bell, Department of Creative Writing, University of North Carolina Wilmington,
601 South College Road Wilmington, NC, 28403-5938
[email protected], ecotonemagazine.org
Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). Twitter/Instagram @WildMelissaHart