In order to celebrate five years and 20 issues of Cleaver Magazine, we are interviewing senior editors to hear their thoughts on their time with the magazine. I had the privilege of interviewing the Editor-in-Chief of Cleaver, Karen Rile.

Karen started Cleaver in 2012. She is the author of the novel  Winter Music and numerous works of fiction and creative nonfiction, such as her recent poetry published in Superstition Review. Her writing has appeared in literary magazines such as The Southern Review, American Writing, Creative Nonfiction, and Apiary. Her work has been listed amongst The Best American Short Stories. Karen writes articles and essays for publications including The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

I sat down to a Skype call with Karen and, after saying hello to her dog, we talked about the editorial mission of Cleaver, the innovative spirit of the magazine, and the political nature inherent in all art.  

Listen to this interview on Cleaver’s On the Edge podcast. 


Ryan Evans: So my first question is: five years and twenty issues…what drew you to creating a literary magazine?

Karen Rile: So for many years my daughter and I had planned to start a literary magazine, from the time she was a really young teenager, actually more like 11 or 12. We talked to a lot of people that we knew who did magazines. We kept evolving the idea for the magazine, and when she was about 14 her idea was to call the magazine “Cleaver” because it means both itself and its opposite. “To cleave” is to stick tight but it is also to fall away, and we thought that was very clever, it was her idea. So we decided that we would call it Cleaver, and she actually at one point began soliciting material for the magazine. But, again, we ran up against the issue of small press distribution and how difficult it would be to actually distribute the magazine.

But in 2012, at the end of the year, it was the winter holiday and we were sitting around and talking and we realized that both of us had the web skills to create a literary magazine that would be completely distributed online. So we came up with the idea of a quarterly, and some of our decisions were, well, not really arbitrary, but they were based on a hunch.

R: When you and your daughter were coming up with the idea of Cleaver and putting it into action, what role did you see it playing in the literary landscape?

K: Our original idea was that it would be a magazine that would just be a steward and promoter of literary works that we felt were valuable.

R: How important is location in the development of a literary magazine, and to build on that, to what extent is Cleaver tied to Philadelphia?

K: We are Philadelphians. We both live in Philadelphia, and my daughter Lauren works in the rare book library at the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve lived here for most of my life, and I feel sort of geographically centered here. For me, being part of Philadelphia is very important, we are supported financially by the Philadelphia Cultural Fund and the University of Pennsylvania gives us a small grant. Also, many of our editors and writers are Philadelphia-based or they live in the very near suburb and they work in the city. That said, our mission is to promote the best literary writing that we are able to come across, and also to have a mix of established and emerging artists and writers. I think that for our purposes, because we do publish a few hundred literary pieces a year, we would very quickly exhaust the possibilities in Philadelphia and we don’t want to continually publish the same people. So of course we are very interested in works that we find that are wonderful and that we want to publish that come from all over the world.

R: So a big theme that you see in reading Cleaver is this striving to be cutting edge which is-

K: It’s a pun…(laughing)

R: -a pun on the title, yeah. But Cleaver does house a lot of special features and a lot of features that you don’t see in a lot of other literary magazines, so I was wondering if you could speak to the development of those features and I was wondering why push further than just simply publishing poetry and prose.

K: I feel that part of our mission is to be open and flexible towards literary writing and that means keeping a very open minds towards different formats. When someone proposes an idea, if it seems like something that is doable and they have the energy to help us see it through, then we are very much open to it.

R: So to talk a little bit about one of the features that we have developed recently: Life as Activism. I was wondering if you could speak on the role of the editor in today’s political and artistic climate.

K: I think that all writing is political, and that in this particular climate that we are living in now where the arts are really under assault by powerful forces in our culture, that it is incumbent upon writers and editors and every person involved in the arts to not only be political but to be very much aware of politics.

R: So something that I think makes Cleaver thrive is the sheer number of people involved in it, so I was wondering if you could speak to why you involve so many people in the process and if that becomes more of a challenge of if you find that it helps the magazine.

K: It can be a challenge to manage a lot of people, and part of the reason I have so many people helping us is because we need help, we do a lot, and I think we do it pretty well. I think that it is great to be able to open these opportunities to people. I find that because we are all volunteers, none of us are paid, sometimes people will work very intensively at Cleaver for a while and then they will sort of begin to fade out partly because maybe their life situation has changed, they don’t have as much free time, or maybe their job situation has changed, but that’s fine because there is always someone to take up the slack, which is really good.

R: As we are looking forward in Cleaver, in what ways do you think Cleaver will have to adapt to the shifting literary world?

K: I think that the most important thing for Cleaver, and for anyone in life, is to be open minded and flexible and to listen to both criticism and to ideas. So if someone comes to us with a great idea for something that we could offer through our platform, I think we need to be open to that. If something is not working, I think we need to be open to the possibility of not doing it anymore. You know, technology will shift so that our material will be hard to access, so we have to always be vigilant. You have to always stay on top of it and adapt the advance because you don’t want to be five steps behind. It can be very hard.

Ryan Evans is a writer from Seattle, Washington. After graduating from Western Washington University with a degree in creative writing, Ryan traveled to both Mongolia and Chile to teach English. He has a passion for nurturing underrepresented voices in literature.

Ryan edits and produces Cleaver’s podcast On The Edge.