Eastern European edge Avant-garde literary journal gives voice to emerging writers

Danielle Jatlow is hardly a revolutionary. But the 27-year-old founder and publisher of Watchword Press believes that, given the corporate consolidation in the publishing world, simply putting out her independent literary journal, Watchword, is a revolutionary act.

She should know. By day, Jatlow judges the commercial merits of new works as a literary agent in the corporate world, working for Waterside Productions in San Francisco. By night, she gathers with her editorial team to argue the merits of poems, short stories and essays that tell tales spun from love, sweat and tears.

Jatlow, who is Jewish, hopes that a book series will follow. It too will share Watchword's focus on a melange of work from an emerging group of creative writers, with key selections from Eastern European writers.

It's the Eastern European angle that makes Watchword so different. Few journals in America share such a focus. Nor do most bring the edgy dynamism of Watchword's crew of editors — Jatlow, Amanda Green and Liz Lisle — all in their 20s.

The pieces selected for publication are diverse, frequently dark, often difficult and always literate.

"I started Watchword as a reaction against commercial publishing," said Jatlow. "In America four or five people own 80 or 90 percent of the media industry. Huge advances are going to just a few people. And it really does come out of the pocket of people who have new ideas and new philosophies."

While Watchword's commitment to publishing emerging American writers is ever-present, the journal has drawn its loudest raves for its interest in finding and translating the works of Eastern European writers and recent European emigres.

"When I started the press, I really wanted to make sure we were helping to bring pieces from other languages and other cultures into English for our readership," she said. "Naturally, Eastern Europe, which is my own background, appealed to me."

Several members of Watchword's small staff are Jewish. And while Yiddishkeit isn't a stated goal, careful readers might place Watchword within the long-established tradition of Jewish American literary publishing.

Jatlow grew up in a Reform household in Gaithersburg, Md., near Washington, D.C., and her mother works for the United Jewish Appeal. She and her twin sister became bat mitzvah on the mountaintop at Israel's Masada. Today Jatlow classifies herself as "culturally Jewish" but otherwise unaffiliated.

Publishing the journal itself has led to a process of self-identification — especially with her family's roots in Russia and Poland.

"The weird thing is that growing up I don't remember even talking about it," she says. "I had never even been there when I made this decision to focus on Eastern Europe, and I don't speak any of the languages. And still I'm attached to it somehow."

Jatlow moved to San Francisco in 1998, working first for the Chronicle's Book section and later with University of California Press, where she became intrigued with the business model of nonprofit publishing and its emphasis on grassroots and foundation fund-raising.

It's a good model for literary publishing, she says. "It's a small market to begin with, and you need all the support you can get. As a nonprofit you can really focus on the quality and you can provide a forum for emerging writers."

In the last year Watchword has featured Romanian poets Saviana Stanescu and Radu Andriescu, Lithuanian poet Eujenijus Alisanka, Czech writer Vit Kremlicka and a selection from a novel by Vishnya Sharavanya — who writes in Serbo-Croat, a language that no longer officially exists.

Watchword has also worked hard to raise the profile of talented emigres such as Sam Tsitrin, a Russian-born poet and avant-garde musician now living in