"We Line our Nests Through Literature and Art"
Chris Martin is the Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination. Chris started Flycatcher in July 2011 with the first publication coming in January 2012 titled “Where Nothing Dies Long” (mostly about death) and the second issue published in January 2013 titled "To Understand This Dance" (mostly about water). He states that the inclination to “start a literary journal about place, nativity, and imagination” came to him while taking a graduate course on Thomas Merton and his discovering the magazine Monks Pond.
Chris is also the author of the poetry chapbook A Conference of Birds and his poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in several other publications. Thrush Press published his poem "Marcescence" in October 2012 and nominated it for a Pushcart Prize. Chris is a contributing editor at New Southerner and is pursuing a Master of Arts in Professional Writing at Kennesaw State University. His full length poetry collection, Starting from Kennesaw (unpublished), was recently named a finalist in the 2012 Texas Review Press Breakthrough Prize. Chris is married with two young children. Flycatcher is published along with Senior Editor Kathleen Brewin Lewis and several assistant editors.
Interview by Stanley Trice
You explain how people need “to become native rather than to turn away from the native.” Also, “native” is part of Flycatcher’s subtitle. Could you explain in a few words what you mean by being native? Is it to become less complicated in today’s living?
It’s funny that you bring up the subtitle, A Journal of Native Imagination, because I’m actually in the process of transitioning away from it—trying to weed it out, I guess. It still appears in the “about” page of our website, and it’ll probably always follow Flycatcher around in one way or another, but I’m trying not to use it as a subtitle anymore. It just seems to overshadow our primary title, Flycatcher, which is a title I really like. I want to let that title work on its own, without the subtitle crutch (which lately has struck me as a little esoteric, anyway), and see what happens.
But as far as what I mean by being native: I suppose I’m using the phrase “become native” synonymously with “belong.” Rather than turning away from the native—rather than acting like we don’t belong here, however that might manifest itself—we’ve got to see ourselves as being part of our places and, in some sense, as being part of each other. And if we feel like we don’t belong (which is how I feel a good bit of the time), we’ve got to be able to look without shame into that sense of disconnection.
To answer your question about lessening complication in day-to-day living, I don’t think “becoming native”—or even thinking about it—is equivalent to making one’s life any less complicated. Wendell Berry talked about this somewhere before—I can’t remember exactly which essay. To try to belong to a place, to try to live creatively and restoratively and reverently in it, is to make one’s life more complicated, not less. This is true whether you’re a rural Kentucky farmer or a suburban stay-at-home father or whatever else.
How did you come about with the name Flycatcher?
I can’t remember exactly at what point in starting the journal I settled on that name, but, as with the formation of the journal itself, I had to have been carrying it around subconsciously for a while. The name found me, in a sense, and not the other way around.
I guess the two specific things that led to the name were a conversation I had with my grandfather about a flycatcher that usually nested in a box at the edge of his yard but that had not shown up yet that season, and a passage I read in Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander a few months later.
My grandfather spoke of the flycatcher enigmatically, like it was some sort of spirit bird he was expecting, though part of him knew better than to expect a wild bird that sometimes uses but doesn’t rely on boxes. It was one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had with my grandfather, about something so simple and seemingly insignificant. But it deepened my nascent appreciation for birds, and led to a particular obsession with great-crested flycatchers.
That bird fascinates me on many levels, but one—and perhaps the most pertinent to the eventual name of the journal—is that great-crested flycatchers tend to line their nests with snakeskins and, in the absence of snakeskins, they’ll resort to plastic wrappers. Going back to the “native” question, no one would ever try to argue that flycatchers are not native birds because they’ll sometimes use artificial materials to line their nests if snakeskins aren’t available. So I suppose, when naming the journal, I was thinking about ways we line our nests through literature and art, and it struck me that in the present time—especially here in suburban Atlanta—plastic wrappers are often, literally and metaphorically, the bulk of what we have to work with.
There are other things about the bird, too, that made it seem an appropriate namesake for the journal, but I will leave it with the snakeskins and plastic wrappers for now, except to say that I wrote a poem about that conversation with my grandfather called “Parable of the Flycatcher,” which Still: The Journal recently published, and it might give more insight to the name’s connotations.
As to the flycatcher reference in Merton’s Conjectures, I talk about that near the end of my editor’s letter for Flycatcher’s first issue. To give a full account of the way it relates to the name of the journal would lead to a pretty long answer, so the best thing I could do would be to point anyone interested in the direction of that letter.
Merton’s passage, though, is “Flycatchers, shaking their wings after the rain.” Conjectures is a fragmented book of sorts—essentially a book of rearranged journal entries that do not so much form a linear narrative as offer various “personal reflections, insights, metaphors, observations, judgments on readings and events” that “add up to a personal version of the world in the 1960s,” to use Merton’s words. Often, these passages are about the troubles of the world, or are deeply philosophical or theological in content. But some, slipped in at just the right times, are about the simplest of things. The flycatcher passage is one of those.
Based on your previous editorials and interviews, the area of Kennesaw Mountain seems to influence your writing and the publication of Flycatcher. You wrote how it was the meaning of “Kennesaw” that helped you connect with one of your professors. What exactly draws you to be influenced by Kennesaw Mountain that the Cherokees called “Burial Ground”?
The short answer is the ghosts, “stirring in the ground,” to use David King’s phrase from one of his Gahneesah poems we published in the first issue. (And I’m quoting him here because he’s the professor you bring up.)
To speak of ghosts is a risk, as it implies cliché and maybe even melodrama, but there’s no doubt that the Kennesaw landscape is charged. “These spirits shook / Off the dust of their own bones, / Saw the Trail of Tears turn interstate, / Heard cannon boom become construction blast. // Now in Gahneesah, the dead place, they / Urge toward sunlight…” are some other lines from David’s poem that are pertinent here. I suppose those few moments when the ghosts reveal themselves (though never too much), when they “urge toward sunlight” from beneath the interstate or what have you, is what draws me to the landscape on the level I’ve been drawn to it.
Byron Herbert Reece just about perfectly captures this same feeling in his poem “The Ghostly Host,” especially in the last couple stanzas:
Where clear the sun swings like a lamp
To drive the darkness deep
Beneath the spears of light, a ramp
Descends.and downward sweep
The dead once known, a ghostly host,
To crowd my spirit’s rooms;
Then silence in a sound is lost,
Time startles and resumes.
I guess I like to think of the ghosts “stirring in the ground” and “urging toward sunlight” rather than descending from the sky as Reece has them doing here, but that fleeting contact is what I’m talking about and what Reece describes so well. (It’s germane to add that he was captivated by another profoundly charged landscape—Blood Mountain, in the Appalachians of north Georgia.)
Anyway, I do want to be careful to add that these “ghosts” (no matter the form they take) and the landscape of Kennesaw Mountain are not my subject matter, in that I don’t see myself as using them for influence. They’re not in service to me or anybody else. I suppose I’m just trying to have a conversation, a genuine interaction, with the ghosts and with the place, and poetry seems to be the best way I know of doing that, though it’s certainly not the only way. I’m just trying to acknowledge what’s really here, beneath and within and beyond all the artifice.
Along those same lines, I want to be careful to say that I’m not a historian or scholar on Cherokee culture, and the very last thing I want to do is appropriate a piece of Cherokee heritage that at the end of the day I really know nothing about. I’ve only encountered the Anglicized form of the Cherokee name for Kennesaw Mountain, and I don’t know why they called it what they did. But it’s a name that certainly holds some imaginative and creative significance for me, and I’ll likely be tracing the roots of that significance my entire life.
A final (and practical) word in relation to Kennesaw Mountain and Flycatcher, going back to one of the references from your introduction: Kennesaw Mountain is located in Cobb County between the towns of Marietta and Kennesaw, about fifteen miles north of Atlanta, which puts it squarely in suburbia. Suburbia, conventionally, is rarely associated with any sort of literary or artistic flourishing—and I’ve even heard folks say (sometimes truthfully) that the suburbs can stifle creative instincts. So I guess I wanted Flycatcher to be one of the antidotes—and there are many of them, though rarely acknowledged—to this notion, however correct it might appear on the surface, that suburban places tend to be literary dead zones.
I hate to keep referencing other publications, but since this is all online, I’d point anyone interested to my recent feature at Town Creek Poetry in which Kennesaw Mountain and some of my poems in response to its landscape figure prominently, because I could ramble on for a long time about all this.
In your first two issues, many of the poems and stories focused on a theme of death and water respectively. Was this purposeful or did the themes come about by the material submitted? Also, will future issues have a theme?
I might say it was synchronous, but not purposeful. As far as the first issue, I was thinking a lot about Gahneesah—Burial Ground—at the time, so that probably influenced the kind of work we accepted and published. But the issue wasn’t themed. The same is more or less true with the second issue—it had no purposeful theme—but Kathleen was thinking a lot about rivers. She handles our reviews, and decided to focus most of them on “river books.” And we talked about doing a themed river issue, but decided not to.
It’s funny, though, that even without bringing any of this up publicly, many of the best submissions we got for this issue were about water—rivers and creeks, specifically. Take Christine Swint’s poem “Learning to Pray in Spanish,” which is a poem from the Chattahoochee River: This beautiful poem was one of the last ones we accepted, only a few days before we published, and I don’t think Christine had any idea the role that rivers would play in the forthcoming issue when she sent it to us. That’s what I mean by all this being synchronous. I’m a big believer in synchronicity—it happens all the time in the strangest of ways.
We’re never going to have a themed issue because, as suggested, I think it’s much more interesting and fun to follow the pieces we get and see what stories they tell together. Nothing against journals that put out themed issues—I actually like a good theme as a writer and reader—and nothing against journals that don’t seek common threads at all, that treat pieces more or less as individuals sharing the space of a given issue. It’s just that my editing style leads me to seek commonality in seemingly disparate works of art. No themes, but plenty more synchronicity, I’d imagine. I mean, one of the smaller threads in the current issue that runs near the end is poems—very diverse poems—about clotheslines. I don’t think it’s often that you see clothesline poems playing off of and responding to each other, but they do in this issue.
That said, for our upcoming issue, due out this fall, I’m going to be posting a call for writing and art related in any way—and it can be a stretch—to Thomas Merton, because there is going to be something special about the third issue that I can’t quite divulge yet (mostly because it’s still a hope at this point and not a certainty). Still, though, it won’t be themed in the purist sense; I won’t, in other words, be rejecting a given piece of work outright simply because it has nothing at all to do with Merton, and I’ll be soliciting some folks for work that isn’t necessarily Merton-related. I don’t have any more information at this point, but would invite anyone interested to check in with us from time to time—and the easiest way to do that is probably to follow us over atFacebook.
Do you look for poetry written in the style of your favorite poets, in particular Wendell Berry?
No. Obviously, my preferences are influenced by the various styles of my favorite poets, and to put it broadly, I’m a bit prejudiced toward lyric narratives. But the last thing I’d want for Flycatcher is to have a bunch of poems coming in written in the styles of poets I like. I wouldn’t grow that way—as an editor or a reader—and the journal would suffer for it, too.
It’s funny you mention Wendell Berry—a poet I greatly admire—because over the last couple years, I’ve actually passed on a few poems (and prose pieces, too) that sounded a bit too much like him in one way or another. I’d love to see us get more city and suburb poems, which would never happen if I was only interested in Berry’s more or less pastoral style. And Berry writes in formal meter, if I’m wording that correctly, and you’re not going to find me doing any scansion while reading submissions. As I say this, though, I don’t want the opposite to happen: I don’t want to discourage folks from sending work just because it might sound like or be written in a similar style as someone else. No writing exists in a vacuum. The short answer to your question, though, is that I just look for good poems that somehow relate to Flycatcher’s focus—and that focus is a wide one, hopefully containing multitudes.
You stated in an interview that fiction submissions go to Kathleen or one of the other editors and that at least two editors read each submission. Do you make the final decision on what goes into Flycatcher or is a consensus reached? In other words, how are the final materials decided upon to be a part of Flycatcher?
That’s more or less how it still goes, but not religiously so. Our approach is casual and we have no formula. I do normally rely on Kathleen or another editor to screen the longer prose submissions—whether fiction or nonfiction—but we have no genre editors as it were.
While I do make the final decisions about what goes into Flycatcher, and while there have been times that I’ve accepted or passed on given pieces without input or outright agreement from another editor, there’s generally a consensus in what we publish—though, again, such a consensus tends to be more conversational than formulaic. We have no voting or rating system or anything like that. And we don’t believe in “blind reading,” except in the obvious case of contests, which we don’t have yet and might not ever.
We’re making some changes to the submissions-handling process so that Kathleen will be able to see submissions right when we get them, without having to wait on me to forward them to her, and so that other editors will have more immediate access to submissions, as well. But that’s more or less internal minutiae that won’t really impact folks who are sending us work—except that it will make our response times shorter, which is a good thing.
In a previous interview, you wrote how there seemed to be a correlation between someone’s submission and their cover letter. Would you rather not receive a cover letter or do you prefer that one accompany the submission to give you more insight into the writer?
Well, not only do we prefer cover letters, we require them. I think that’s pretty standard. On a practical level, since we take our submissions online, cover letters show that the e-mail in question is not spam or the carrier of a virus or what have you. On a personal level, though—and this is more important—cover letters offer, as you say, the first insight we have into the writer, and I’m not just talking about previous publications (which we care about because they show engagement with a literary community, though they don’t bear on what we do or do not accept).
Take something even so simple as the greeting: If it says “Dear Sirs” (which is surprisingly still in use), then it’s evident the writer didn’t look at our masthead, given that most of our editors are women. If it says “Dear Editor,” then it seems—whether I’m correct in the assumption or not—that the writer didn’t look at our masthead, either, and that there’s not much interest in a personal connection. But if it says “Dear Flycatcher Editors” or “Dear Flycatcher” or something along those lines—or if it names a specific editor or editors—then that lays the groundwork for personal connection. It’s pretty simple stuff I’m talking about here: The greeting alone, just two or three words, says so much.
Greeting aside, I guess you could say it’s just important to us that the humanness of our editors is acknowledged and the humanness of the sender is conveyed somehow through the letter. We’re not looking for anything long or fancy; at the most basic level, we simply want to know that you’re not a robot, and that you don’t presume us to be robots. One of the things I take the most pride in about Flycatcher is our long-term investment in contributors and the sense of literary community that surrounds us. The roots of these things reach all the way back to cover letters. Again, we’re not looking for anybody to pour their hearts out in these letters—save that for the submissions themselves. We’re just looking for something personable.
The correlation between a successful submission and a personable cover letter, I think, is simply a result of the submission not being a shot in the dark, the sender having some basic interest in being a part of Flycatcher, and the sender knowing something about us and valuing what we’re doing. Now, for all this rambling, I’m not saying that cover letters are the determinants for the submissions we accept, and we don’t have any kind of cover letter template we’d recommend. But they are important.
What is your long term goal with Flycatcher? Do you envision a print version one day or do you feel that it is not necessary?
The first question here is a tough one. I just want to keep putting out good issues, really, that hopefully create a sense of community, whether we’re online or not. I don’t have any grand schemes in mind, though—and that’s really what enables me to do this. I’m following Flycatcher; it’s not following me. In deference to Monks Pond, I’ll consider Flycatcher a success if we put out four good issues—though I do hope for a longer run. Four, ten, twenty, a hundred, who knows…
As to print, yeah, I’d love to have a print issue or anthology or something in the future. Even if we create an imprint and do broadsides and chapbooks but keep the journal itself online—like Thrush does—that would be awesome. I think print is important. But if we make it there, we won’t do so by jettisoning our online publication, and by no means do we aspire to “make it big.” But for now and the foreseeable future, we’re all online, as we should be.
In previous interviews, you mentioned that you started reading poems seriously in 2003. Also, you write essays and are not primarily a reader of fiction. Do you plan on branching out and writing in other mediums such as short stories?
I gravitate toward nonfiction and poetry, as a reader and a writer, though most of my recent reading has probably been fiction and poetry. But this question is geared toward me as a writer, which is interesting. I can’t say anyone’s ever asked me that. The temptation is to say something self-deprecating or nebulous, but I’ll answer your question directly: I started writing a novel called The Protestant maybe two weeks ago. And I’ve got a children’s novel called To the Waters and the Wild that I started writing several years ago and need to get back to, which is always on my mind though it’s been a couple years since I’ve added to it. I’m just trying to follow art wherever it leads, I guess. My main personal projects now, though, are a couple collections of poetry and a collection of essays.
Any significance to the harmonica being held upside down in the current issue? And, how did the picture of a moth on the home page by Lana Stowers get selected?
On the harmonica: I love that question and don’t know the answer. I guess you’d have to ask Richard Jones or Beate Sass, or both. I thought about writing Beate when I saw your question, but decided not to—I kind of like that cloud of unknowing. Odds are it was coincidental, but I don’t know for sure.
On the moth: I knew Lana well before I started Flycatcher, and practically from the start I’ve known she was a wonderful photographer. When the idea came to start Flycatcher, I piddled with the idea to use an actual flycatcher for our “image” (we still don’t have a “logo”), but thankfully something told me not to be so literal. When I realized I wanted something a bit more dynamic than a rehashing of our name for an image, Lana was the first person I thought to ask, and indeed the only person I asked. She essentially gave me access to all of her photographs, and I chose the moth after considering a few, though the choice really wasn’t difficult.
It’s a gripping photograph—you don’t quite know if the moth is doing alright or if it’s being burned alive (by an “eco-friendly” light bulb, as it would happen). The contrast between the dark blue and the yellow, the rain and the light, and all of that somehow gathering in the body of the moth and showing through its flayed wings, is haunting and gorgeous at the same time. And I’m convinced there is no better photograph that could appear with the Merton quote that’s also on our homepage—synchronicity at play again. I guess we’re the moth—drawn to by circumstance but ever trying to free ourselves from “the abstract, formal routine of exercises under an official fluorescent light.”
More than a dozen of Stanley Trice's short stories have been published in national and international literary journals. He is a member of the Riverside Writers, the Virginia Writers' Club, and the North Carolina Writers' Network. You can find him listed in Poet and Writers’ “Directory for Writers.” He grew up on a dairy farm in Spotsylvania, VA and has lived most of his life in the Fredericksburg, VA area where he currently commutes by train to work on budgets and legislative issues in Northern Virginia. He is presently looking for publication of his novel where a lonely, unemployed chemist has too much time on his hands.