"Room for Rewarding Discoveries." A Chat With Heather Cox, Editor of Ghost Ocean
“Visiting Ghost Ocean Magazine is like transporting oneself into an alternate reality dreamscape,” writes Susan L. Lin in Eleven Eleven. Ghost Ocean, publishing since 2010, also publishes print chapbooks through Tree Light Books.
Interview by Joseph Dante
Ghost Ocean is a visually striking magazine with an interest in poetry and very short prose. Describe to us an example of the ideal submission. What kind of writing do you wish to see more of?
Thank you! It’s always been a priority (and a challenge) to create a space that lives up to the quality of work we publish.
When it comes to my personal tastes as a reader, I’m full of contradictions, but I think that’s a testament to the quality of work being published today. If I think I’m only interested in writing that’s distilled and airtight, along comes the perfect chatty and unruly poem to upend my skepticism or bias. Falling in love with something you’ve geared yourself to be uninterested in is an incredible feeling, and after time, you can sort of re-gear yourself to be interested in—or at least open to—most everything. So it’s difficult to adequately describe the ideal submission, but I will say that I enjoy writing that doesn’t pigeonhole itself, that delights in subverting expectations and brings together varying styles, tools, moves, syntax, etc., in a way that feels both surprising and symphonic.
In terms of what’s lacking in the submission pile for Ghost Ocean, it’d be nice to see more flash prose that didn’t seem like excerpts from longer work in disguise. We’re asking for a slider and getting a bite of a half-pound burger instead.
What is an easy way to get rejected? Any pet peeves that may not be so obvious to readers or those looking to submit their writing?
Honestly, it’s all about the quality of work. We’ve accepted submissions that were mistakenly addressed to other literary magazines, which some editors would take personal offense to, but to me that feels like a penalty disconnected from the experience of submitting work. Everyone on our staff is also a writer submitting to literary markets, so we understand how daunting it can be and do our best to be compassionate editors. Pet peeves? We’re volunteers, so our response time can occasionally lag; if you’re querying, try to curb the sass.
Where did the idea for Ghost Ocean come from? What about the name for the magazine?
There’s a great interview at Real Pants with the editors of the now-defunct alice blue review, where Sarah Gallien says, “Everyone should start a journal when they’re twenty-three.” Well, that’s what happened. I was 23, I had just finished working on Oyez Review, the literary magazine published by the MFA program at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and I was itching for more, so I started Ghost Ocean.
When I first moved to Chicago, I kept fumbling and calling Lake Michigan “the ocean.” It was the ocean that wasn’t. Out of that, and after a long list of almost-names were crossed off, Ghost Ocean was born. Plus, it just sounds good, doesn’t it?
Tell us a little bit about yourself as both a writer and editor.
As a writer—specifically, a poet—I find that it’s best to accept that there will be both lulls and moments of incredible spark and productivity. Sitting in front of a blank page, trying to will a poem into existence has never worked for me, and I think my poems are better served by me not being heavy-handed with them in that way. My poems just feel better when, to paraphrase Ross Gay, I let go the reins and listen to the tongue’s half-wit brilliance. I also try to allow myself room to pursue a type of poetry that might not be a natural progression from whatever project I’ve just completed. I have three chapbooks coming out this year, and they’re wildly different—Mole People: narrative poems set in London that follow the revolt-hungry, underground creatures; Magnificent Desolation: narrative poems that follow a couple disillusioned with our planet, who then flee to the Moon; Echolocation: a set of more restrained and sound-driven poems that explore loss, don’t follow a linear progression like the other two. It’s invigorating to grant yourself permission to be more dynamic and curious as a writer, instead of trying to relive and recreate past successes.
As an editor, I try to be humble, passionate, thorough, and open to new ideas. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty and tinker, alongside the author, with a piece of writing until it feels fully realized and polished, but it’s important to take that first step back and allow writers to occupy a space and approach a text much differently than you would. Editing a magazine and a press is time-consuming, challenging work, but I’m a sharper writer for it, and it brings me a great deal of joy.
How are submissions reviewed? What does the typical week look like while working on Ghost Ocean?
Like most journals, we use Submittable. Each submission is read and voted on by most of the staff, and we use the comment feature within Submittable to communicate and make decisions when it’s more complicated than an obvious No. When I lived in Chicago, our Fiction Editor Timothy Moore and I would meet up every few weeks to read and discuss submissions IRL. I think discussing in person helped us be more generous as readers and editors and maybe even more vulnerable to persuasion from one another. Last summer, I moved to Colorado and sadly Tim is stepping away from his role at Ghost Ocean, so our over-caffeinated and bagel-binging editorial sessions are a thing of the past. If we bring on other editors who happen to be from my neck of the woods, I hope to resurrect those offline sessions. Though maybe we’ll swap bagels and coffee for pizza and beer.
As an editor, I try to be humble, passionate, thorough, and open to new ideas.
Most writing in your issues includes audio of writers reading their work. While reading submissions, is lyricism and cadence of language of importance to you? How do you think your background as a poet influences the magazine?
Absolutely. Across genres, if a piece of writing doesn’t come alive when read aloud then we’re probably not going to publish it. Poets like the BreakBeats shatter my expectations for how much sound gymnastics one poem can hold, and I’m always hoping to be blown away in that sense.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how being a poet influences the magazine, other than the fact that we publish more poetry than we do work in other genres. Even if I weren’t a poet—I started out writing stories when I was young and didn’t really commit to either camp until it was time to apply for grad school—I’d still be a writer with similar sensibilities, tastes, pet peeves, and obsessions. What I look for in poetry I think I look for in all writing to some extent.
Your magazine has had several pieces of writing reprinted in well-respected annual anthologies. It seems as if you nominate writers often so they get another chance to be read and recognized. Do you have any particular nomination process?
It’s important to me that we support and promote our contributors past their initial publication in the magazine. For nominations, we tend to have our favorite pieces from each issue (secret’s out!) from the outset. Typically, I’ll send an email a few months in advance of a nominating deadline with my top picks and a few alternates, and ask for the rest of the staff’s picks. We’re generally on the same page, but everyone now and then someone wants to fight for a piece that didn’t seem to have the same continued resonance for the rest of us. We talk it out, we make concessions, and it’s good-spirited and democratic. It’s always interesting to see how well certain pieces age, and I love being prompted to dig back in the archives and fall in love with earlier issues all over again.
How has Ghost Ocean evolved over the years?
At the time of our first issue, our website was a pretty basic (read: unattractive) Google Site, and thankfully that didn’t last. We’ve continued to update our design as the need and want arose, and I’m sure what you see now won’t be the final iteration. In terms of content, I think early on, when most of us then were still in grad school, our tastes kept getting redefined, which translated to the work we published changing quite a bit. Dark and creepy stuff at first that just really doesn’t fit with our aesthetic anymore but that I can still appreciate because the writing was good, and those are the writers who trusted us when absolutely no one knew who we were. Now we’re a bit more eclectic and more thoughtful when it comes to cultivating issues that showcase a variety of perspectives, demographics, and styles.
In addition to serving as editor of Ghost Ocean, you also manage Tree Light Books, a press that publishes beautifully handmade chapbooks. Although submissions are currently closed, what does the submission process typically involve? As of now, you state that you are only accepting queries from LGBTQ and POC writers. Is this in order to more directly address the diversity problem in publishing?
Thank you! The submission process, when we’re open, is pretty typical. We do a yearly-ish contest with a cash prize, typically in summer, where we charge a modest contest fee, and just dive into reading. The first time around we read manuscripts of up to 35 pages, but we’ve cut that down quite a bit; it makes the reading processes more feasible and lowers printing costs—35 manuscript pages could easily turn into 60 when it comes to tiny chapbooks.
Last year, we started accepting queries from LGBTQ and POC writers for a couple of reasons. One was definitely to correct our own biases head on. The chapbook submissions we received in our first contest were also overwhelmingly straight and white and male, and that’s not indicative of the work we publish at Ghost Ocean or the work I read outside of the magazine and press, so it felt necessary to take extra steps to draw in the work we feel deserves to be published and captivates us most.
What do you see in the magazine’s future? Any special projects on the horizon?
More of the same, I hope. As you mentioned earlier, we’ve had our work recognized in The Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, Wigleaf, and others, so we must be doing something right. And plenty of the work we’ve had re-printed has been from writers I hadn’t read before I came across their work in the Ghost Ocean “slush pile.” Ting Gou’s “The Fig Wasp” is one of my favorite poems we’ve published; it was re-printed in Best of the Net, was a “slush pile” poem, and was Ting’s first-ever publication. I want to continue publishing issues of Ghost Ocean that don’t rely heavily on solicitations, because it means we’re leaving room for these kind of rewarding discoveries.
Joseph Dante lives in South Florida. His work has appeared in Permafrost, The Rumpus, Best Gay Stories 2015, PANK, Corium, and elsewhere.