Approaching the Ordinary in Extraordinary Ways: Four Editors on Seeking Writing That Risks
Rivet: The Journal of Writing That Risks is brought to you by Red Bridge Press, an innovative, independent publisher of literature in books and online.
Here four editors discuss the magazine's editorial process.
As a poet, it is challenging to figure out what editors want and where your work will fit in. About and Submission pages tell you to “read what we publish.” But sometimes, after you read through several issues, you still can’t get a feel for style, form, or tone preference. Or, what about when you get that two-line “thanks, but sorry” rejection that gives you no insight into the editorial personalities behind the masthead?
As the poetry editors at Rivet: The Journal of Writing That Risks read through and discuss hundreds of rolling submissions, their conversations often turn to these questions: What if we could talk to some of these poets? What would we tell them if we could? What would we say that might give them insight about our journal, about us, about their work?
Recently, Rivet’s lead poetry editor Seth Amos and his editorial team, Katelyn Delvaux, Michelle Lee, and Maw Shein Win, got together virtually and let those questions fly, in hopes of opening the doors to new work and inviting conversation with other writers.
Rivet: The Journal of Writing That Risks is based in San Francisco and is moving into its fourth issue. Rivet wants poetry, fiction, and non-fiction that is mindful of craft, but is experimental in spirit. Rivet looks for work that questions genre boundaries, blurs convention, and approaches ordinary subjects in extraordinary ways. For guidelines, see the website: http://rivetjournal.com/guidelines/.
Let’s talk a bit about how we all came to Rivet.Katelyn: Rivet caught me a month out of grad school. I had just completed my MFA in Poetry at Wichita State under Albert Goldbarth and was desperately looking for something to keep my roots firm. I adore teaching college students, but it’s easy to lose sight of that writing world when you’re knee deep in Comp. II papers. I happened to see Rivet’s call for team members (I was Poetry Editor for two magazines previously) and jumped at the chance to join a group of self-proclaimed risk-lovers. It has been a year now since the Red Bridge family took me on, and I know this was the right decision for me.
I like the words themselves to shake me up.
Michelle: I worked with Liana Holmberg and Deborah Steinberg when Red Bridge Press published my poem, “The Myth of the Mother and Child, in Volumes” (and graciously nominated me for a Pushcart Prize) in the anthology, Writing That Risks. When they put out a call for editors for their new journal, I volunteered because they were fantastic to work with - and when good, talented people begin creative ventures you have to jump in! I came to Rivet as an associate professor of comp and creative writing, but I’d also been a freelance editor and writer for years. I’ve also published in various journals and anthologies and like experiencing both sides of the fence.
Maw: I found out about Red Bridge Press through Jenny Bitner who was published in the anthology Writing That Risks. Later when I saw the call for editors, I applied and was delighted to be signed on as part of the Rivet team. I learned a lot about editing and publishing after Kathleen Munnelly and I co-founded a Bay Area arts and literary journal called Comet in 1999. I’m also a college instructor and, like Michelle, enjoy “experiencing both sides of the fence” as an editor and writer.
I like a poem with a nice smirk.
Seth: While I was still relatively new to the city in 2013, I reached out to a friend of mine named Ethel Rohan about getting involved in the city’s literary scene. I had served in various capacities at another journal/press called Dark Sky Books. It folded in 2012. Ethel put me in touch with Liana Holmberg and Deborah Steinberg.I joined the Red Bridge Press team when Liana and Deborah were in the second half of production on Writing That Risks. Once the anthology was completed, we realized that we had a lot of good work left over from anthology and book-length submissions. We decided what we needed to do was give our take on risky writing another, more regular outlet. Thus, Rivet came into the world.
How would we all describe Rivet? How would we interpret its experimental mission, its overall “feel”?
Katelyn: I’m sure my cohorts are tired of reading this from me in comments on submissions, but Rivet should be electrifying. It should be a jolt, a shot, all those things terrible gum commercials promise but never deliver. Each submission should give you a little shiver.
Michelle: Similar to Katelyn, I like to think of the quintessential Rivet issue as being a terrific surprise. Something that makes you gasp; something that makes you go, “How did they think of that?”; something that makes you say to yourself, “I love this and I can’t explain why.”
Maw: I agree. A terrific surprise. And to add to that, readers will hopefully find the work in Rivet compelling and engaging enough to read the next issue.
Seth: I like a poem with a nice smirk. To me, Rivet’s mission is to promote good writing that takes justifiable risks. That’s the perfect storm. When I read a poem and the chosen risks contribute in some way to the cadence (or lack thereof) or the use of the page, well, then I, in turn smirk.
Experimental writing is so hard to pin down. For some editors and readers, lists and columns may be innovative and exciting, while others look for risk in prosody or subject matter. How would we define “experimental” when it comes to poetry?
Katelyn: A nice use of the page is always welcome, but for me it’s all about content and sound. I like the words themselves to shake me up.
I’d like to read a poem and think about the genius of eclectic pairings, ragged spaces, soft sounds made hard.
Michelle: Fresh use of imagery on a collision course with purposeful line breaks. A risk that takes into account content, meaning, and form. Not simply experiment for experiment’s sake. I’d like to read a poem and think about the genius of eclectic pairings, ragged spaces, soft sounds made hard.
Maw: I agree that “experimental writing” is somewhat of a nebulous term. In the end, I like poems that take risks in language, sound, and subject matter in skillful and imaginative ways.
Seth: My first focus is good writing. A poem can dance all over the page and cover “experimental” subjects, but if the writing is bad, everything in the poem is undone. Experimentation is subjective. In my opinion, Rivet looks to publish poetry where abstract concepts complement a form, or use a classic form to new ends. If someone wrote a pantoum on the life of a gnat, demonstrating the insect’s brevity of life and it’s repetitive behavior, I would love to read it. That is, of course, just one example.
Related to that, when we read a poetry submission for Rivet, what makes us swoon? What qualities do we all value? What things make us want to re-read a poem even before we reach the end?
Katelyn: I adore a playful take on poetry--that’s what poetry should be! It’s this thrilling, cheeky look at words and the world, and any submission that highlights the odd or takes me to an unexpected place is going to make me take note. I love feeling envious of another writer’s words.
Michelle: I have to say, I love Katelyn’s idea of the cheeky thrill. I also love poems that know how to balance simplicity with the unpredictable, in form, sound, imagery. I love poems that are honest, that tell stories in unusual ways. I love poems that have a sense of experience to them.
I like poems that take risks in language, sound, and subject matter in skillful and imaginative ways.
Maw: I fall for the poems with images that compel at the right moment, striking and inventive language, and odd juxtapositions that work.
Seth: I fear I answered this in the previous question. I will add that I love when a poem possesses urgency. I love reading a poem and thinking, “Yes, this poet had to sit down and write this. I would hate to think what consequences awaited them if it was kept inside.” If a poet can convey this while accomplishing what I’ve laid out in earlier questions, they will have my vote.
On the opposite side, what types of things turn us off? What are our particular pet peeves when it comes to imagery, prosody, subject matter, form?
Katelyn: I have to admit, I am a bit persnickety about certain submission faux pas and the occasional stylistic choice: please do not include images with your poetry, repetition has to mean something, and I’m more likely to fall in love with a well wrought slant rhyme than anything right on the nose.
Michelle: Poems that promise so much in the first few lines and then miss beautiful opportunities. Poems that traffic-jam each line with fifty-dollar vocabulary words. Poems that are abstract, obtuse, pretentious.
Maw: Overly didactic poems of any sort make my eyes glaze. Predictable metaphors and endings.
Seth: A poem that could have been written by anybody. I am turned off by lazy poems and obvious topics that are so shallow you can’t even fully dip your toe in them. Unless you have a new way to express your sex life or your party lifestyle, I would prefer not to read it. Also, please don’t make shapes with your poems. A sailboat may be beautiful in water, but a poem in the same shape founders quickly when it comes voting time.
It might be helpful for poets to know what our favorite poems are. Maybe also our favorite poets. Things that excite us every time.
Katelyn: You know, Gregory Orr has yet to disappoint me. I think it’s because I subscribe to that Wordsworth school of thought that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” I want to feel a poem in my bones, and you can tell he feels his.
Michelle: I studied with Michael Collier at the University of Maryland when I was younger and had no clue about anything except love and poetry. I love his work. But I must admit, I read my dear friend Elisabeth McKetta’s work religiously. She has developed a wonderful on-going project - Poetry for Strangers - and each week, after asking a stranger for a single word, she writes a poem inspired by that word. The poems are smart, accessible, lovely treats that I immediately connect with. I never know how whimsical, dark, pensive, philosophical, or to-the-gut they will be.
Maw: Presently I am reading two remarkable chapbooks by my friend Miriam Bird Greenberg, Pact-Blood, Fever Grass and All night in the new country. Each poem takes me down a mysterious trail. Also, I love that she uses words like mouse-ear and ember-spat.
Seth: “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” by Ezra Pound gets me every time. If you haven’t read it or dedicated time to it, I recommend doing so. It’s a perfect poem for today. I recite the first five parts as I am getting ready every morning. There’s some translating required (I recommend John Espey’s Ezra Pound’s Mauberley as a guide). It’s not particularly experimental; it’s just dead-on true. It’s his predecessor to the Cantos and it paints a sinister portrait of the United States in the 1920s. Pound was facing (and foresaw) many of the problems poets face today. I learn something from it every time I read or recite it.
Some folks might think it’s a “dart board” process in editorial offices - or maybe they think editors are just looking for that recent MFA grad with that certain tell-tale style. Or better yet, people might think we’re calling up our talented friends and reserving page spots. What can we tell them about our review process? How do we choose work for publication?
Katelyn: I like to do an initial run through, read five to ten submissions, make little notes, and then come back the next day and reread. I try to never make a snap judgement on a submission because there are so many factors that can color a reader’s perspective. And even with this process, I’ve still said no to pieces that weeks later when we have the final round of decisions, I finally appreciate and have been convinced to keep.
Michelle: I hate to say that the first read is usually instinct - but I can get a feel for what might fit Rivet with an initial impression. If that initial impression makes me pause, laugh, say wow, or gape with awe, then I usually give a poem a few more reads, sit with it, come back to it after a day or so. Like Katelyn, I realize that my tastes and assessments can change depending on the moment, so I try to put many submissions in the “maybe” pile - for further and deeper consideration.
Maw: Like Katelyn, I do a first read through, take notes, and return later to make decisions. It’s been helpful to read everyone’s comments on pieces that I’ve been on the fence about. We occasionally have Skype meetings to discuss individual poems.
Seth: Like Michelle, instinct usually plays a big part in my first pass. There are some that I know are incompatible with Rivet, so those get voted down. However, my decisions are not typically so rash. I like to let a poem sink in. I like to see what residual properties a poem possesses. I think the poetry team goes about reading submissions in a very similar way. This is good because, while we all have varying tastes, we can approach these variations from similar perspectives.
What might be our best pieces of advice for a poet trying his/her hand at experimental work?
Katelyn: Don’t be afraid to get weird with it. And don’t take rejection to heart.
Michelle: Always have a sense of purpose and meaning to your experiment. Always ground your risks in something - you don’t want everything to be mind-blowing or your reader won’t know what to think.
Maw: Keep the editing/judging voices at bay in the beginning. I agree with Katelyn, don’t fear the weird.
Seth: Don’t self-edit too harshly while you are in your initial experimentations. Just write it out and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I follow Tom Waits’ advice here. He was once asked what he does with his songs that don’t quite cut it, he answered “Chop ‘em up and use them for bait.”
As poets ourselves, let’s talk a bit about what inspires us.
Katelyn: Movement, television, folk heroes, medical terminology, terrible beauty, and fear.
Michelle: Narratives, myths, pop culture. Messy relationships. Beautiful relationships. I love the impossible when it clashes with the real. I love a small spark of magic thrown in with the wash. I love the moment when I am reading one of my poems and someone nods as if to say, “I really get that.”
Maw: The body, film scores, fragments and phrases from lectures, paintings, and animals.
Seth: Mythology. Public transportation. Overthinking. Silence. A room’s negative space. Pen and ink.
Okay, poets out there. We’ve let you peek into our inner circle. Time to send your work to us!