"Cave Wall is an Extension of my Heart." Editor Rhett Iseman Trull on Juggling Art, Editing and Family
Rhett Iseman Trull's first book of poetry, The Real Warnings (Anhinga Press, 2009), received several awards, including the 2008 Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry, North Carolina’s Brockman Campbell Book Award, and the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award. Her poems have appeared in 32 Poems, The American Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, and other publications. She received her B.A. from Duke University and her M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where she was a Randall Jarrell Fellow. She and her husband publish Cave Wall in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Interview by Lynn Wagner
Cave Wall is in its seventh year of publication. How has the process of publishing a journal changed for you?
Good question. I like this chance to reflect back. We’ve seen many changes over the years. The amount and quality of submissions has risen, making the narrowing-down process even more difficult. That, of course, is a great problem to have. Watching our subscriber list steadily grow has been the best form of encouragement. I feel like the Cave Wall family, in general, despite getting bigger, keeps getting closer. This includes not only the poets we publish, but also the many who continue to send work our way during open reading periods, as well as the enthusiastic readers who stick with us and let us know what they love about each issue. Our own growing family (Jeff and I had a daughter two years ago) has brought the biggest changes. We don’t have the time to work on Cave Wall that we used to and so have recruited fantastic helpers. Michael Boccardo, our Assistant Editor, has taken on more of the workload and really keeps us running. We have a trusted team of readers, and several interns and other helpers have come and gone over the past 3 years. I have had to learn to share the fun. I guess it takes a village to raise a journal.
One of the things I admire about Cave Wall is that it is edited, meaning the choice, quality and arrangement of poetry in the issue seems intentional. Can you talk a little about that?
Cave Wall is an extension of my heart. “Labor of love” is an understatement. The reason Jeff and I wanted to start a journal was because we fall in love with poems and when we do, we want to share them with the world. I consider each submission that comes to us a little treasure, no matter the quality of writing, no matter whether it speaks to me or just brushes by me. Someone wrote it and is trusting me with it. And I am honored and grateful for that.
And then, as I read through the thousands of poems that come in, magic happens. I’ll read one that just stops me in my tracks, lets me get lost in its world, grabs me and won’t let go. Those are the poems that make it into the issue. Some make it in right away while a lot go into the “maybe” folder because I know there won’t be room for all of them. Once we have a large set in that folder, we narrow it down. Sometimes this means taking 100 poems we love and choosing just 10. It isn’t easy. It breaks my heart to let work I love go, but I get to rejoice again when I come across those poems in other journals in the future. Or when those poets, whom I encourage to send again, give us work we love even more the next time. That happens at least once or twice in every issue.
Then, yes, once the poems are selected, our editorial team spends hours with each. We type them into the issue ourselves to get the feel of them, get closer to them. Then we print up the pages, spread them out on the floor, and figure out the layout. I used to do this all by myself. At first, it took me a week of working 6-9 hours a day to find the right order. Now, I’ve gotten faster, though it still takes hours and hours. On the last two issues, Michael Boccardo has worked with me, which has been an interesting change, bringing two minds to the task, and led to some choices I would not have come up with on my own. We try to think about mood and pacing as we look at the poems and art. How does this one make me feel? Which ones seem to gravitate toward each other? I used to love making mixed tapes when I was younger, and finding the right layout for the issue feels similar. Sometimes two sad songs seem to want to be together. Sometimes a sad song wants to flow right into a happy one. There are visuals to consider, as well. Is a two-page poem broken too abruptly if we have to turn the page to read it? Some lines come across more powerfully with a page-turning pause in between but some fare better on facing pages. It’s a puzzle really. Where do the pieces fit? Thank you for noticing the care that goes into this process. I hope its result is a journal in which the order of the poems and art ends up adding extra layers of meaning and power and beauty to each piece.
Your husband Jeff Trull is listed as an editor. Can you describe your working relationship on Cave Wall?
I couldn’t have started this journal without Jeff. In fact, it was his idea to start it. He had heard me dream of doing it for a long time and one day asked what it would take to start a journal, what that journal would be like. And together we dreamed up Cave Wall. Then we got to watch it grow and surpass our hopes for it. I do most of the day-to-day work of running the journal, but Jeff is my constant sounding board. I read him the poems from the maybe folder and get his opinion, and he often makes the final toughest choices on what to accept. He handles much of the technical part of the layout, website, and printing. He loves poetry and books and print. Also, he knows when and how to pull me away from the work when necessary. Running a journal can be frustrating at times, especially for an obsessive mind like mine, and he sees before I do when I am losing my clarity and need to step away.
Cave Wall’s guidelines state that you read all submissions blind. I’ve read in other interviews of you that writers fail to follow this rule, including their name on poems. Why has blind submissions been so important to Cave Wall?
Expectation, good or bad, influences how a poem reads. I prefer to remove that expectation so that the poem gets to be the one in charge. Not me. To me, the most important trait of a good poetry editor is acting responsibly to the poems. That means I want to give each poem its chance to move me without my own brain interrupting it and getting in the way. That doesn’t mean I don’t bring my own likes and dislikes, desires and frustrations, good and bad moods with me when I read. As readers, we all do that and I think that’s part of each reader’s individual relationship with a poem. But I don’t find it helpful to bring my expectations based on who the poet is or how I feel about his/her cover letter. I don’t like “judging” poems. Strange then that I would become an editor of a poetry journal. Getting rid of that initial expectation (“oh this poet has been published by all the big journals—this is gonna be good!” or “I know this poet’s work—this is gonna rock!” or “wow, that cover letter was full of typos—I doubt this poem will move me”) helps make reading the poems less about “judging” good or bad and more about just letting them wash over me and see what sticks to my heart. As much as I can, I try to make the submission reading process about the poems and the poems alone, not about who wrote them.
How do you go about balancing responsibilities for Cave Wall, your own writing, and general work / life balance between your art and your family?
Well, the truth is, I don’t. Having a baby will throw all into chaos. Before Audrey was born, I was juggling writing, family, and Cave Wall pretty well, dropping one occasionally but able to swoop it right back up. But now, with a little one running around, all the balls keep hitting the ground, again and again. Babies change, week to week. Just when I feel like I’ve figured out how to make it all work, we hit a transition: two naps turns into one, night sleep gets disrupted by teething, morning starts at 5:30 instead of 7:00, bedtime takes two hours instead of thirty minutes, etc. Every time I carve out a chunk of time that I can devote to Cave Wall, life swoops in with more changes and there it goes…away. What an amazing experience for someone like me who, by nature, resists change, whose brain works best when it can tunnel into a task for hours at a time. I am learning to be more spontaneous, to adapt more quickly, and to let go of everything I thought I knew before. Right now, as I answer this final interview question, my cat Charm is dying. With the vet, we decided this morning that this will be Charm’s last week with us. And forgive me, but that’s all I feel like writing about right now. I don’t want to think about Cave Wall at the moment. I don’t want to think about the new house we’ve just bought, a house we will move into in November, new house without my cat. I don’t want to write. I don’t want to go to the grocery store later and cook dinner. I don’t want to explain to my two year old that we have to tell this cat she loves goodbye. But I will. I will do all these things, but in the next moment, not now in this single quiet broken moment. All the balls lie unjuggled. And that’s okay. Cave Wall, like my own writing, is part of my life and therefore does not run steadily on like a machine. Sometimes I falter. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I want to finish an interview and then go work on the layout for the new issue and then make another round of choices on what to include in the issue after this one. But instead, only tears will do. Instead, we wait. We live in this moment, enjoy these last days with one who is about to move on ahead of us. The poetry world can wait. The poetry world, more than any, understands and forgives and sends its lines out toward us where we flounder in the fog, little words of light: old and gray and full of sleep…and I say, nevertheless…my body would break into blossom.
Lynn Wagner is the author of No Blues This Raucous Song, which won the Slapering Hol Chapbook competition. She received an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh, where she won the Academy of American Poets prize. She’s earned fellowships to the Virginia Center of the Creative Arts and Center for Book Arts. Her poems have appeared in Shenandoah, Subtropics, West Branch, Green Mountains Review online and other journals as well as a limited edition chapbook Ebola, by West Chester University, that raises funds for Doctors Without Borders.