Prioritizing Language, Voice, and Authenticity: An Interview with James McNulty and Jerrod Schwarz, Editors of Driftwood Press

Prioritizing Language, Voice, and Authenticity: An Interview with James McNulty and Jerrod Schwarz, Editors of Driftwood Press

Interview with James McNulty and Jerrod Schwarz—Editors of Driftwood Press

Driftwood Press is a bi-annual literary magazine founded in Tampa, FL in 2013. The editors search for "artists who care about doing it right, or better." The magazine publishes fiction, poetry, photography, graphic narrative, and interviews, but the editors are also open to experimental and hybrid forms. James McNulty is the fiction editor; Jerrod Schwarz is the poetry editor.

Interview by Sanjeev Sethi

Driftwood Press is entering its sixth year of publication. What has it taught you?

James McNulty, fiction editor: Running Driftwood has taught me a range of topics, from running a small business to publishing to writing to giving me a better understanding of the literary community. One of our editors, Felicia Krol, once told me that she learned more reading fifty Driftwood submissions in a month than she learned in her whole undergraduate education. This is because you learn more from others' mistakes than you do from reading the literary canon's successes (though a thorough reading in both are necessary, of course); she was able to learn the contemporary preoccupations, mistakes, and errors of our generation of writers by being exposed to them on a larger scale—shown those mistakes over and over until she learned what not to do in her own writing. Certainly, myself and other editors have had the same experience, though diminishing returns take effect at a certain point. I consistently tell unpublished writers to read for magazines. Not only is it a good way to give back to our financially unstable community, but it's also a damn good learning experience.

Jerrod Schwarz, poetry editor: Much of the same as James, with an added emphasis on how crucial Driftwood Press has been in my role as an educator. I teach creative writing at the University of Tampa, and I can say, without a doubt, that Driftwood Press has equipped me to teach a wide range of students with varying levels of poetry and fiction exposure. James and I read hundreds (if not thousands) of pages of writing for Driftwood each year and have worked with hundreds of writers over our magazine's lifespan, and all of those moments absolutely inform my decisions in the classroom.

For someone who isn't familiar with the journal, how would you draw them in?

JM: I'd hand them the book. Most magazines say to read what they've published to get the best idea of whether the submitter's work will be a good fit. I'd agree with that approach, but I know it can be difficult to read a few stories from every magazine you'd like to submit to; and even then it can be tricky because no one piece represents the breadth of all of Driftwood's editors' sensibilities. We're open to anything, but there's one thing I'd argue all of our stories share: their focus on language. That is, the compelling sentence structures and the gripping lyricism are always on-point. Faulkner once called himself a failed poet; I'd echo that and say the fiction writers we're looking for are most likely to be failed poets. Outside of that, anything's game and we're tied to no subject matter whatsoever. Many of our readers have told me that Driftwood stories also prioritize voice and authenticity.

JS: The biggest draw of Driftwood's poetry is a focus on narrative and openness. We love poems that leave everything on the table, that do not shy away from the painful, harrowing, spectacular, and unexpected moments in the poet's life. I would also tell people to check out the comics we publish. We pride ourselves on being a magazine that prioritizes graphic narrative, and we are always honored to publish some truly beautiful, complex comics.

Driftwood Press began as a quarterly journal but transitioned to a bi-annual journal. What prompted this decision?

JM: On my end, I wanted to give even more attention to the work we publish, and that's much easier to do over a longer period of time. My hope is that we'll continue to publish just as much fiction per year as before, but the quality of the fiction will be even higher—and the interviews will be far more personalized and delve deeper into the craft of each piece. If we're publishing as much—or nearly as much—work per year as before, this format takes off some of the production responsibilities of quarterly publication, which frees our time to focus on expanding the press in other ways: through, for instance, our new seminar series, our open call for full-length graphic novels, our upcoming chapbooks, and our editing services.

Have you ever regretted rejecting a piece? What must a submission have to get your editorial approval?

JM: Not yet, but don't jinx me. If we're having a hard time deciding on something, we sleep on it. If it's still an issue, I have additional editors read it and vote; the numbers take over from there. For a piece to be published, it needs at least two "yes" votes from our fiction editors. For a piece to be rejected, it needs two "no" votes; if there's a stalemate of some sort, I'll either call in additional editors or request the current editors change their "maybe" votes. We try to be egalitarian over here; it all comes down to the numbers.

JS: I know that this can come off as a cop-out answer, but I will never feel that a rejection is a lost opportunity on either side of the submission process. Rejections are tangible signs to grow and strengthen your work, so as an editor, I do not feel any regret in this part of the process. So many of the wonderful poets we've published are previous submitters whose work we rejected.

How do you see the next three years panning out for the magazine?

JM: We've been expanding rapidly over the past two, so I expect that to continue. We just held our first online seminar, this one on erasure poetry. We're looking into the prospects of having more in the future, one on writing Southern literature and another on revising your work with an editor's eye.

JS: This year, we are publishing our first two chapbooks, hell of birds and Questions About Circulation. We will be running this chapbook contest yearly and could not be more excited to publish more poetry in this format! Driftwood Press is also finally in a place where we pay every writer/artist who appears in our magazine, and ideally we will see this payment grow too.

Editing is a time-consuming endeavor. Has it impacted your own writing?

JM: My own writing is often long-form: the novel and screenplay. I often wonder if my preference for writing long-form is a direct result of editing short stories for so many years. That is to say, I think editing may satisfy that need for me; I'm never too interested in editing long-form or writing short-form.

What I will say is that editing is writing—or a form of it, anyway; they draw from the same well. Editing gives you a far greater eye for detail and allows you to shift that analytical eye toward your own writing. As I suggested earlier in this interview, being a good editor certainly can't harm your writing. The only downside I can think of is the one you've alluded to: that it takes up time. But that's just a question of balance; you could argue any hobbies or tasks in your life take up time—at least with editing you're learning and growing as a writer as you sacrifice that time.

JS: Editing has been one of the greatest motivators in my own life to always be writing. I cannot tell you how many times I have sat down after reading a wonderful submission and thought Damn, that poem just hit me like semitruck. I need to go write a poem that hits like a semitruck.

To pay or not to pay for submissions is a contentious issue. Votaries on both ends have strong views. What are yours?

JM: Not to be contrary, but I'm not sure I've ever met anyone who was adamant about not paying writers/contributors. The issue is where you get the money to pay them. It might surprise readers to learn that many literary magazines operate at a loss; either they're funded by kind donors or universities (and often the university will run their lit mag at a loss to make their respective MFA/MA/BA programs look more prestigious).

Luckily, Driftwood Press does not operate at a loss, and we're able to pay our contributors a small amount despite no financial backing. Currently, fictioneers are given $75 per piece we publish, though contest winners earn substantially more. I expect these numbers only to rise in the future.

Which are your favorite journals? Why?

JS: Where to even begin? Some of my absolute favorites are Paper Darts, five:2:one, and Winter Tangerine. Paper Darts is one of the most well-designed and forward-thinking journals out there; five:2:one hurtles itself at the weird or bizarre writing that stuffier journals scoff at; and Winter Tangerine is publishing some of the most poignant and important poetry of the 21st century.

Do you think literary criticism helps the output?

JM: A mind has never benefitted from lack of use, though I prefer craft essays; a craft essay's aim is to teach a writer, rather than a reader.

JS: I hold to the often-said statement that a poem is never done. If literary criticism helps to chip away at the rough edges of a poem, then chip away!

As a society, what can be done to harness the literary climate?

JM: Harness? There's no harnessing a community. Those who try are bound for trouble.

JS: I think the optimistic answer is to say that if we focus on writing and work to give every person the opportunity to write creatively, any community problems will dissolve naturally, but we all know that this is a tough and tall order. There will always be another AWP scandal to fracture our collective gathering, another Junot Diaz to make us question our literary heroes. I think I will divert to the infinitely-wiser Adrienne Rich and let her answer this question of how to live in literature and the literary world: "Because you still listen, because in times like these / to have you listen at all, it's necessary / to talk about trees."

You give every published author the opportunity to be interviewed. What does this add to the included pieces?

JM: For fiction, I try to steer the conversation toward craft-related subjects, though of course each piece demands different topics. My goal with the pieces isn't just for our readers to learn more about the story and the writer in question, but for them to learn from an in-depth talk about the craft of said story. I'd love to publish writers who have been reading—and learning from—our interviews for years.

JS: Sometimes, publishing a poem can feel like throwing a semi-precious stone into an ocean. It shines, shimmies, and dances along its arc, but how can we not feel a little bittersweet that the world only gets a glimpse of our creative writing? Offering interviews allows writers to expand on those glistening moments with advice, insight, and opportunities to connect.

Where do you see Driftwood Press going in the future?

JM: I'm working on getting into B&N—on the physical shelves rather than just their online cart. They have a small selection of literary magazines on their magazine shelf. Hopefully, we'll be there soon.

Any last words?

JM: I'm looking forward to the next few years. The joy of co-running this press is working with so many brilliant writers. Every piece we publish has been run through several rounds of edits (often with me specifically, sometimes with our other editors Dan Leach, Felicia Krol, and Rick Krizman), and there's nothing more gratifying than working with a writer to make their great piece exceptional.

JS: I just want to say a resounding thank you to everyone who has submitted to Driftwood Press over the past six years. We are writers, and we know how hard it can be to step out onto the ledge with a piece of writing and offer it up to magazines and publishers. Thank you for trusting us with your poems, stories, and art!

Sanjeev Sethi is the author of three books of poetry. His most recent collection is This Summer and That Summer (Bloomsbury, 2015). He has been published in more than 25 countries. Some credits: Poydras Review, Miller's Pond, Litbreak, Red Savina Review, The Best of Mad Swirl: v2017!, Persian Sugar in English Tea Vol 111, Poetry Super Highway, The Five-Two, 48th Street Press, Formercactus, Amethyst Review, Terror House Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives in Mumbai, India.