Blackbird was one of the first online-only literary journals associated with a university creative writing program and has since been looked to as a standard for both its content and design. The founding of Blackbird was, in part, a response to what the editors felt was a lack of skill in the delivery of electronic text and media in other online-only literary journals. Blackbird sought to integrate sound and a variety of online media technologies with exciting new voices in the arts and literary community. Blackbird is funded by a combination of public, corporate, and individual donations, including money from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and Virginia Commonwealth University.
Each issue begins with an introduction on the Blackbird homepage and includes a section called the “Gallery,” which features content that does not fit into the standard genre categories of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction (including interviews, photographs, art, plays, and reviews). A section called “Features” displays streaming audio and video content, including readings, interviews, and lectures that are added twice a month. According to the journal’s editorial policy, submissions are judged by the same principle that guides print journals: “That sole principle is excellence.” The editors also write that they look for work that “challenges traditions in profound ways, and is radical insofar as it is aware of its own origins in tradition and seeks to expand the boundaries of the realm of discourse of which it is a part.”
The inaugural issue, which appeared in the spring of 2002, featured poets Philip Levine, Michael Chitwood, and Rachel Hadas, and Marilyn Nelson’s translations of Inge Pederson. Fiction and nonfiction writers included Carrie Brown, George Garrett, and Elizabeth King.
In the autumn of 2006, Blackbird received national attention for featuring a previously unpublished Sylvia Plath sonnet titled “Ennui,” composed while Plath was an undergraduate at Smith College. Perhaps best known for her collection of poems, Ariel, which appeared after her suicide in 1963, Plath published a number of poems during her time at Smith and may have intended to publish this poem as well. “Ennui” is believed to reveal the important influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald on Plath’s writing and was her creative response to Fitzgerald’s novels The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender is the Night (1934). According to Karen V. Kukil, editor of The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (2000): “It is difficult to realize how hard Plath worked to perfect her craft unless you read the poems written before 1956.”