A Venue For New Voices
Shanna McNair is the founder and editor of The New Guard, an annual literary review, which features, in the current issue, the previously unpublished Ralph Ellison story, “A Storm of Blizzard Proportions” (1944). McNair is a represented author and writes fiction, poetry, scripts, and the occasional article. She is an award-winning journalist with a background in the visual and performing arts. Recent publications include Maine Magazine and Naugatuck River Review, among others. She lives in Knightville, Maine.
Interview by Priyatam Mudivarti
Your website states The New Guard will "stand up and put on the gloves for those good stories and poems." How, in this time of publishing crisis, can TNG accomplish such a humble feat?
Every enterprise like The New Guard is a gamble. Especially those journals like mine, which have no funding and sort of run on fumes and goodwill. When I started TNG, the economy was sharply declining. Still, I was determined to see the review succeed, and I was committed to the furthering of new voices I just knew we’d find through our contests in fiction and poetry. Creating this review has always been more about the newcomers for me, even though my aim as editor and publisher is to support all writers. I had this sense, starting out, that I could unearth underdogs and help new artists. So I put my head down and went at it. I’ve kept at it ever since. As a writer myself, I know that publishing opportunities are scarce, especially for writers who are just starting out. I know it is exasperating for fellow writers to work hard at the craft and have only scant publication credit to show for all the careful tending and love that’s required to create good stories and poems. So, the proverbial gloves have been on from the very beginning of TNG. The gloves are also all of us at TNG: the lion’s share of us are writers, fighting the good fight. Hence the moniker, “Writers for writers’ sake.”
In order to flourish, our journal had to offer things that other journals don’t. Like many other journals, I wanted to create a venue whereby new writers’ work is printed alongside established writers’ work, but I found a new way to achieve this. I have a section of themed letters in each issue--the forthcoming volume contains “Love Letters” and I’m happy to say married poets Stephen Dunn and Barbara Hurd will be creating new love poems for the section--written to each other, we are so excited! We also feature a poet and a fiction writer each issue; we do craft-centric interviews and we also aim to feature a celebrity writer in each volume, on the level of Ralph Ellison, who appeared in our last issue. (We printed a previously unpublished story, “A Storm of Blizzard Proportions” (1942) alongside the Photostats of the story from Library of Congress and an interview with Mr. Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan.) More differences include the fact that our contests are international, TNG is print-only--deluxe trade paperbacks, and we publish many debut writers from all over the world (40+ in our last issue).
It’s very important to me that new writers will always be able to point to a volume of TNG in which they appeared and say—hey, I was in a book alongside Ralph Ellison, or Sharon Olds, or Maxine Kumin. Or, I placed in a contest judged by Charles Simic, Donald Hall or Rick Bass. The notoriety of the established writers involved in a journal is key for a new writer, I think, and I’ve worked hard to get a large variety of well-knowns in each issue. Too, the established writers who’ve teamed up with TNG were willing to try my mix of experiment and traditional narrative in poetry and fiction. This has proved to be a tremendous juxtaposition and I really do think a new dialogue has been created in TNG. I believe this new dialogue is an interesting backdrop, or stage, for all of the writers we include.
Could you share your process for selecting the best fiction and poetry from the slushpile?
The writing must be clean and readable, especially keeping an eye on mixed metaphors, which are the absolute death of a piece. In terms of stories, the first pages must to be extremely tight and well-crafted. There should be a building of tension, a progressing arc of plot, and a clear beginning, middle and end. (Experiment pieces have distinguishable parts as well.) Form is form and most of the time its building blocks cannot be altered—i.e., imagine building a house—the house needs a foundation, etc. So I’d also say be careful with the form.
Poetry is much the same, but really in a poem no word can be out of place, although line breaks are far more subjective. One faulty word choice in a poem can break the entire poem apart. All writers I think need to read their pieces aloud, not just once but several times. This practice helps immeasurably.
Also: watch out for repeated words. All writers have “crutch” words (not just overuses of the more typical but, could, would, that, just, etc.). It’s the writer’s job to figure out what is getting repeated and why. Since most of us write on computers it is easy to figure out how many times a word has been used. When going over a piece and axing the 30th use of “because,” a writer will find that the tone changes, and the work reads as though it has its own confidence. I firmly believe that good writing is ultimately good editing.
Would journals benefit from limiting contest themes to the ones that embody the spirit and the work of the contest judge? Since Rick Bass exemplifies environmentalism and nature in his literary writing, I'd imagine that contestants with his sensibilities would be a better target for contests. Thoughts?
For the first issue, we were going to introduce a theme, but I quickly realized that imposing this limit was going to prove difficult for our entrants. What we wanted was the best work a writer cared to send us, and making it fit some concept we’d contrived—well it seemed unfair, and impractical.
Instead I made an overall thematic taste for the review, the juxtaposition of experimental forms and traditional forms. I kept this definition loose on purpose because while there are a whole host of experimental and traditional forms, I do think in the end our idea is meant to be: send us your best experiment and/or narrative. What is the freshest thing you can come up with, in other words. We’ve gotten all kinds of interesting responses. I think that genrefication can be limiting as well. We’ve gotten concrete poems, ekphastic poems, stories written like plays, all kinds of things. It’s wonderful.
I also think it’s wonderful to have a judge like Charles Simic, who was part of the early Paris Review, judging work that comes from experiment—folks don’t think of him as an experimenter particularly but of course he is and was. As was Donald Hall; both were US Poet Laureates who were involved with The Paris Review. I got a big kick out of having these two men in particular judging our Knightville Poetry Contest. Of course they would simply find the best poem—they know what they are doing. Same with Rick Bass—he’s a master of the short story, and just because he has been known to write certain kinds of work doesn’t mean that he can’t pick a story outside of his own style. Who knows who Rick Bass’s favorite writer is! It’s a funny assumption.
What is your advice to young writers who seek out the truth in fiction and poetry in this contact-less, Facebook world?
I am of the opinion that good stories and beautiful poems are extraordinarily rare. I am also a person who does not participate in the social media/Facebook universe. I’d rather have the contact with the real world, I suppose. Books not blogs, for me. My advice to young writers: get off of Facebook and write, or read. Social media will not help anyone write. Get to work on your writing, I’d say, because truth tends to unfold and show itself when there is no distraction.
You're "committed to the furthering of new voices." How would you identify this new voice? In terms of technical aspects -- is it a new prose style, or simply a voice that cannot be categorized?
A voice that cannot be categorized by technical description. Quite simply, a new voice.
You mentioned that you "just knew we’d find new voices through our contests in fiction and poetry." There are people out there with stories. Real heartbreaking stories. They don't know much about literary magazines and contests but follow the Oprah Book club and participate in local independent bookstore readings. How would you propose we find them, publish their stories?
I run a contest, so that’s my best contribution in terms of finding those writers. Beyond that I have no idea. I will say that good stories are always found, one way or another. We've gotten some of them, and we’re proud of that. There is probably no great undiscovered writing genius out there, or at least there is not an undiscovered genius out there for long. Show the work to an editor or an agent, etc., or submit to contests and if the work is good, it will eventually be published. As an aside, I have to say that I do not like the reference to Oprah, etc.--it's a class distinction (maybe more than that) --reminds me of my old boss in journalism who referred to the general public as "Joe and Sally six pack."
It's hard to keep up with reading good books, leave alone subscribe to the 300+ literary magazines available on the internet-connected world today. How would other writers discover new stories outside of anthologies like Best American, Pushcart, and O. Henry Short Stories?
We keep our work between two covers. Nothing gets published on the Internet. I was also dismayed by general popular taste (I still am) and I felt that perhaps better work could be found and published, but I’d guess that most people starting up a journal feel that way—otherwise, why would they go through all of the trouble? Just like all the other new journals, I believe mine is special. We chose to keep our work offline mainly because we are not particularly interested in Internet culture or e-books, and would rather devote our hard work and effort to physical books. We love books! And it is hard to protect a writer’s work once it is up online, as it can be accessed easily.
I’d say there are many reasons why literary reviews are not often archived online—but perhaps the biggest reason is that literary reviews are usually, if not always, works of philanthropy. They are gifts of time and money and care. Basically, we depend on interest and support from our readers, and we hope people will get subscriptions because it helps us. There is an interesting article in the May/June Poets & Writers Magazine about writing contests and how grants and private funding are necessary to keep the wheels turning for those running literary reviews.
Why not support literary reviews and and/or discover new writers by buying a copy of a review or two that resonate with you? Making any art costs money, maybe it would help to try and think of these journals, or books in general, as part of any working artist's trove of supplies: paints and brushes, Capezio shoes and leotards, film and flashes; typewriter, paper, computer, ink. Study of form is important. Too, reading begets writing. It’s important to read and read a lot. Of course, you can always visit a library and find a review that way. Best American is there at the library, too, as are tons of great new titles. Then, do the reading, start making connections between different writers and editors, and keep widening out your reading taste and knowledge of writers. You never know when you’ll discover a heartbreaking story in our review or another review that makes you want to write, write hard, find truth, and share your precious human experience.
Priyatam Mudivarti writes fiction at late nights, writes complex software code during the day as a freelance software engineer, and documents people's lives taking time-off as a traveling documentary photographer. He has earned his bachelors in Computer Science Engineering and is currently pursuing an MFA from Pacific University. He is working on a collection of interlinked short stories and a novella, Yuti, set in India. He lives in Cambridge.