Seeking Variety, From Around the World
Marianne Kunkel is Managing Editor at Prairie Schooner and a third-year Ph.D. student in poetry at the University of Nebraska, with a specialization in women’s and gender studies. Her poems have appeared in Columbia Poetry Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poet Lore, Rattle, River Styx, and elsewhere, and her chapbook, The Laughing Game, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.
Interview by Katherine Hunt
How would you describe Prairie Schooner's aesthetic? Can you think of a recent example of something you've published that comes close to embodying it?
The tradition of the journal is to be pretty cagey about this, I fear. Our logic is that once we start throwing around the word “experimental,” “narrative,” or another label, we’ll narrow the variety of people interested in submitting to Prairie Schooner, which is the last thing we want. Our pool of graduate student readers for the journal reflects diverse interests and creative styles, and with the arrival last fall of a new editor-in-chief, Kwame Dawes, our curiosity about all kinds of creative aesthetics is broadening to an international realm.
Can you say a bit more about what new perspectives Kwame Dawes has brought to the journal? Where do you think you’re headed under his leadership?
Around here we call Kwame a citizen of the world. He was born in
What sorts of submissions do you get excited about—any particular qualities of the writing, or subject matter, etc.?
Myself, I value those short but weighty words like risk and surprise. A lot of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction submissions that come through our electronic and hard-copy submission systems are fine-tuned to the point of being overworked (or overworkshopped) and thus their merit can be muted. When an author gets the nuts and bolts of a piece just right, and then makes some noise and has fun on top of that, I get excited. I aim for strong endings in my poems, so I admire this kind of bold move in all genres; in Danielle Sellers’s poem “Peach Tree, Late Summer,” for example, which appears in our Spring 2012 issue, Sellers waits until the final line to mention a fruit other than the peach--changing the poem’s direction ever so slightly, startlingly, and strangely: “a peach will never taste clean like apple.”
What makes something seem “overworkshopped” to you?
It's usually a matter of voice, or personality, gone wrong. When I read a submission and can see glimpses of unique diction or strange imagery, but the general piece consists of easy-to-read and palatable sentences, I detect that a lot of writers have weighed in. More dangerously, I detect that the author listened, or overlistened, to these writers. I hear a lot of criticism of creative workshops, and much of it I don't agree with. But I do believe that to succeed in a workshop environment you have to be willing to disagree with others about certain points of creative identity or preference. You have to be brave enough to make a few smart, nonconformist choices so that your work is something special.
As someone who has participated in many a workshop, sometimes I feel like it’s tough to avoid internalizing a workshop-y critique of my own writing, in which I anticipate what other writers would object to and end up with something really bland. How do you keep yourself writing things that you find exciting and interesting, while also paying attention to the valuable insights you’ve gotten out of writing workshops?
As a PhD student, I've been through so many workshops, there's no one aesthetic bird sitting on my shoulder when I write, fortunately! I'm inspired to write when I think of a topic I've never read about in a poem. When I read a great poem, I love and envy it not usually for its topic but execution—line arrangement, turns of phrase, imagery, etc. Rarely do I think of workshops when I write, but sometimes an instructional phrase will come to mind. The other day I remembered Michael Hofmann, a former professor, saying that sometimes lines function simply to move a poem from point A to point B, meaning that not every word or line has to be equally charming. I don't know where else I would have learned that but in a workshop.
Prairie Schooner accepts both online and hard-copy submissions. Do the editors prefer to get them in one form or the other? Do you have a personal preference?
We just introduced electronic submissions in January, and our staff has responded with gusto. When I scan the names of electronic submitters, I’m delighted that I don’t recognize many of them from our hard-copy submission records; this tells me many new authors are taking interest in and submitting to Prairie Schooner. That said, I have a fondness for the hard-copy submission process. It’s how I began reading submissions for the journal and it’s a process we’ve kept alive throughout our more than 85 years of continuous publication. We’ll keep it going as long as people continue to mail us their creative work.
About how many submissions do you get during a reading period? How does the staff get through them all—who helps?
We receive as many as 600 submissions a month, and they all need sorting. Our office wouldn’t run without interns! They’re wonderful. We staff about five or six undergraduate interns each semester, and they’re in charge of assigning every hard-copy submission a tracking number in our computer system. As of January, they also sort electronic submissions before they’re marked “live” and ready for our graduate student readers to read, vote, and comment on. We have more than 40 invaluable graduate students who read voluntarily or for course credit for Prairie Schooner. Last but never least, our MVPs are our senior readers (two in poetry, two in fiction, and one in non-fiction) who read every voted-on submission before rejecting it or passing it on to Editor-in-Chief Kwame Dawes.
Prairie Schooner has been around for many years, and has published many venerable writers. What has it been like to join that tradition? Also, have you had much time to poke around in the archives? Any particularly exciting finds?
My job is a dream. It’s overwhelming in the best I’m-exhausted-but-wouldn’t-trade-this-work-for-the-world kind of way. I’m reminded what a well-respected journal Prairie Schooner is every time we publish a famous author and she/he thanks us for the honor of appearing in the journal.
You know, our archives are interesting. I like to think of them as a big piece of antique furniture in our office; some days Kwame and I wonder, what should we do with them? Other days, they’re thrilling, suspenseful, educational. Just this morning, an intern found a poem called “Journeyman Tinker” that Prairie Schooner published in 1928 by an E. Cummings, and we spent half an hour researching if the author was in fact a young E. E. Cummings. The verdict is still out…
Our new website features a section called “From the Vaults” that we update bimonthly, and here we show off poems, stories, and essays from past decades. Kwame recently created a column on our website called The Alberta Clipper that features not only an archived poem but also information about the weather in
Tell me a little about the "Fusion" project, which, according to the Prairie Schooner website, "features collaborations between Prairie Schooner and interesting, innovative online literary entities from around the world that seek to create dynamic fusions in literature and art." How did this idea come about? What shape will these collaborations take?
Our quarterly Fusion collaborations are another exciting way that we’re displaying the Prairie Schooner archives. The first Fusion project, which debuted on our website February 1, features previously published, work-themed poems alongside work-themed poetry from the Australian journal Cordite Poetry Review, plus work-themed artwork by two artists, one from Australia and the other from Omaha. Fusion is one of Kwame’s many terrific ideas for putting Prairie Schooner in touch with other national and international literary journals as well as creating a conversation about worldly, provocative topics; the second Fusion will address creative writing in prisons.
How has working as a journal editor shaped your approach to submitting your own poetry?
I’ve always liked reading contemporary writers, but now I feel especially aware of up-and-coming and heavy-hitting writers of my generation. It’s a wonderful community and now I not only get to read their published work in other journals but also read the new work they submit to Prairie Schooner and converse with them over email, phone, or face-to-face at writing events. I’ve always been a patient and polite submitter, but I’m definitely more considerate of other journals’ editors and staff now. Lately, I find that I read so much poetry, I’m concentrating on being innovative with my own work so that it stands out. For example, I just wrote a poem about the musician Courtney Love as a young girl for my book manuscript about girlhood; that’s pretty unique, I hope.
You're completing your PhD poetry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Is that a creative or a scholarly program? I know that lots of MFA grads are thinking about pursuing creative PhDs in their genres these days. Any thoughts about that, based on your graduate experience?
Our university offers both scholarly and creative PhDs in English. I’m on the creative track, so my dissertation will be a full-length book manuscript of poetry. I recommend the creative writing PhD if, as a graduating MFA, you’re looking to market yourself as a well-rounded scholar who can teach many topics, or if you feel that as a writer you could grow from more instruction. I was only 23 when I graduated with my MFA in poetry from the University of Florida, so it made sense to me to continue learning at another institution rather than entering the job market right away.
Katherine Hunt is a reader, writer, and editor in Somerville, Massachusetts. Her writing has appeared in Cranky, Red Mountain Review, Fringe, and Blood Lotus. A writing workshop she ran as a volunteer at 826 Boston is featured in the 2011 book Don't Forget to Write, published by 826 National.