Sundress Publications announces the first two episodes of a new podcast, Shitty First Drafts. A podcast made for and by writers, the show playfully investigates the creative processes of different artists to determine how a finished draft gets its polish.
In the podcast’s first episode, Stephanie Phillips and Brynn Martin are joined by writer Jeremy Michael Reed. Currently living in Knoxville and having finished up his Ph.D. in poetry in early May, Jeremy shares that he didn’t always plan on being a writer or even to study it in school. Of the two poems he shares during the episode, one an early piece of writing from his undergraduate years and the other a more polished piece from graduate school, both touch on Jeremy’s childhood in Michigan, his family, and memory.
In the second episode of Shitty First Drafts, Samantha Edmonds joins Stephanie Phillips and Brynn Martin to talk about her process as a fiction writer. After finishing up her MFA in fiction this spring, Sam is headed to pursue her Ph.D. in the fall at the University of Missouri. While on the podcast, Sam discusses her broad range of publications from essays and short stories to Buzzfeed listicles. The pieces she shares during the episode are two versions of the same flash fiction story about a man who falls in love with the moon with such intensity that he decides he wants to pull it down from the sky.
Jeremy Michael Reed holds a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from the University of Tennessee. His poems and essays are published in Oxidant|Engine, Still: The Journal, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and elsewhere, including the anthology Bright Bones: Contemporary Montana Writing. He’s an associate editor for Sundress Publications, and he will join the faculty of Westminster College in Fulton, MO in fall 2019. You can find more of his work at jeremymichaelreed.com
Samantha Edmonds is the author of the fiction chapbook Pretty to Think So, forthcoming from Selcouth Station Press in 2019. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in such journals as The Rumpus, Mississippi Review, Black Warrior Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, LitHub, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others. She serves as the Fiction Editor for Doubleback Review and the Community Outreach Director for Sundress Academy for the Arts. She currently lives in Knoxville, where earned her MFA from the University of Tennessee. She’ll be starting a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at the University of Missouri in the fall. Visit her online at www.samanthaedmonds.com
Jackie Vega: How did you come to be involved with Pretty Owl Poetry?
Kelly Andrews:Pretty Owl Poetry was founded in 2013 by myself, Gordon Buchan, and B. Rose (Huber) Kelly. At that time, I was just starting my MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh and was involved with the program’s online literary journal, Hot Metal Bridge, as a reader, but I wanted more experience as an editor. I reached out to Gordon, with whom I had taken creative writing classes as an undergraduate at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), and Rose, who I had befriended while she still lived in Pittsburgh (she’s now in New Jersey). I had relationships with both in terms of sharing work and giving/receiving feedback, either via e-mail (w/Gordon) or through a low-key workshop setting (w/Rose). Though we were all IUP alums, Gordon and Rose didn’t know each other before Pretty Owl, and Rose and I met post-graduation through a mutual friend. All of that to say, they both were people who I trusted as writers and editors, whose taste in literature was similar to my own, and who had different skill sets than I do. From conception of the journal, we’ve worked collaboratively in all that we do when it comes to Pretty Owl, including decisions about how best to move the journal forward in the literary world. I feel incredibly lucky that I get to work with Gordon and Rose on a journal we started from the ground up—they’re both such talented friends.
JV: How would you describe your poetry aesthetic, and how do you bring that to the publication?
KA: I’m mostly drawn to gritty poems with substance. Ones where the emotional motivation of the speaker is believable, though the poems needn’t be set in reality or be realistic, if that makes sense. Gage Ledbetter’s “Fully Drawn, Steady Breaths” from Issue 9 is one of my favorite examples of this. The imaginative space in which the speaker exists with their mother and the canyon is exquisite: “Your mother taught the canyon how to shoot a bow, being a champion, herself. The canyon felled entire flocks of birds and you ate well and, after, the canyon taught your mother how to reply the day you told her you have layers of colored sediment and fields of corn right next to one another but no gender.” I love that the speaker is grappling with gender identity in a surreal world. And that there are so many unexpected moves in that poem (“And your mother and the canyon were accused of being lesbians, like a lot.”)
I also love poetry that is inventive and creative in its use of language. One poem that comes to mind is Ryan Downum’s “Painfeel” from Issue 7. That poem has so many beautifully created words like “fieldbloom,” “nightmouth,” and “bloodloom.” I remember how excited I felt when reading that submission because it was like nothing I had read before. That feeling is rare as an editor and overwhelming in the best possible way. And I love poetry that is fraught with complicated emotion. Mostly, I want to feel things when I read poetry. I love when a poem (or any art form) can make me cry—or even better, cry and laugh in the same space.
JV: What do you value the most in poetry?
KA: There’s so much that poetry can do for people. Writing poetry completely changed my life course—after graduating high school I was working multiple jobs and partying nonstop, with no real plan in place for what I wanted to do with my life. But then I joined a poetry workshop, and the encouragement I received from my mentors, Susanna Fry and Jessica Lauffer, really pushed me to apply to college. My future before taking that workshop was very uncertain and bleak. I can’t imagine what my life would look like now if it weren’t for their belief in me as a writer, if I hadn’t fallen in love with writing poetry.
More broadly, I value how poetry can affect people—it can be comforting in times of grief or pain; it can be an expression of love; it can evoke empathy; the list is endless of the things that poetry can do for people.
JV: What are some of the challenges of being an editor for an online publication? On the flip side, what are some benefits?
KA: One of the biggest challenges for us as an online journal is making sure our website is easily readable both online and on mobile devices. And because technology changes so often, nearly every year Gordon has revamped the look of the website in some way. Initially we started off with the work embedded into a web page, then moved to having it in a PDF. There is talk of maybe moving to a different platform like Issuu in the future, but that is probably quite a ways off.
The benefit of being an online journal is that we can reinvent our look/platform fairly often. Also, we can push our deadlines back if need be, whereas if we were a print journal, we’d have a much stricter printing schedule. And of course, the general cost of running an online publication is quite low. Since switching to Submittable, we’ve given readers the option to make a small donation with their submission if they’d like, but this is not required. The money is used to cover costs like our domain name/website and food/drink for our Spotlight Reading Series in Pittsburgh. I love that we can share work with the world without having to charge readers a subscription fee.
JV: What can we look forward to from Pretty Owl Poetry in the next year?
KA: We have a great lineup already for our winter 2016 issue that will be released in early January, and we’re still reading submissions for that issue right now. Gordon just finished another revamp of the website’s homepage. I’m hoping to get some readers lined up for our Spotlight Reading Series in Pittsburgh, with the possibility of some out-of-town contributors making an appearance. And hopefully, lots more great poems, art, and fiction!
Kelly Lorraine Andrews is an assistant managing editor for the American Economic Association and a recent MFA graduate from the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of the chapbooks The Fear Archives (Two of Cups Press, forthcoming), My Body Is a Poem I Can’t Stop Writing (Porkbelly Press, forthcoming), I Want To Eat So Many Kinds of Cake With You and Mule Skinner (both out from Dancing Girl Press). Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in [PANK], Prick of the Spindle, Weave Magazine, and elsewhere. You can read more about her past and future publications and look at a slideshow of her cats at her website.
Jackie Vega is a recent graduate of Grand Valley State University’s Writing program currently residing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. During her time at GVSU, she served as Editor-in-Chief for fishladder, their literature and arts journal. Her poetry has been featured in Brainchildand on WYCE’s Electric Poetry radio program. She intends to pursue an MFA in (you guessed it) poetry.
Sending rejection letters is one of the most difficult parts of editing a literary magazine. As co-fiction editor of Willow Springs Magazine, along with Andrew Moreno, I’ll agonize over sending a rejection. I know that you, as a writer, have lovingly crafted every word, every image in your story, and I know that a rejection letter can sometimes hurt and feel incredibly personal. At Willow Springs, we stick to the basics. “Thank you for submitting “[Title]” to Willow Springs for consideration. We have decided against publishing your submission, but we wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere,” reads our standard rejection letter. It is short and sweet, without platitudes or frills. We subtly note that the onus is on us, as editors, for rejecting the piece—it’s not the quality of your writing (we have so many amazing pieces to consider)—and we encourage you to keep sending the submission to other journals. While I hope that our rejection letter doesn’t break hearts or hurt feelings, I still hate sending them out.
Although we at Willow Springs keep our rejection letters short and simple, there are other journals that attempt to soften the blow. Literary Orphans tells submitters to “never take rejection personally, at this level it becomes very subjective.” After Happy Hour Review notes that, “As writers, we’ve received many rejections ourselves; we know it’s never easy,” in their rejection letter. Cease, Cows writes “we’re writers, too, and we hate rejection.” It’s a lot easier to take a rejection when the journal notes that they don’t like the process any more than the writer does.
Most writers are happy to receive these reminders; these empathetic rejection letters show writers that editors understand a writer’s mind. These are good rejections to receive—a writer is often encouraged with the news that the piece sent to a journal is not sub-par, that there are other factors at play in choosing pieces to publish. These are the types of rejection letters journals should strive to write, but often, letters can miss the mark entirely. So, fellow journal editors, what makes a good literary rejection? What separates a good rejection letter from a bad one?
First, the bad. If an editor encourages a writer who was just rejected to subscribe to their journal in a rejection letter—that’s a major misstep on the part of the editor. It’s insensitive; it says, “We don’t want your writing, but we’ll definitely take your money.” Also, rejection letters that begin “Dear Writer,” and do not address a person by name are letters that persuade writers to turn their backs on a journal. Or, worse, a “Your status has changed on Submittable,” note tells the writer never to bother with the journal again. If the editor hadn’t taken the time to send a simple rejection, why should the writer spend her time sending to the journal again?
One of the worst things an editor can do is send a rejection that patronizes the writer. A journal (that will remain unnamed) writes “we encourage all of our contributors to utilize peer workshops and local writing groups to expand on their work. You may wish to submit again after working with one of these groups, and we look forward to seeing what you have to offer in the future,” in its rejection letters. The level of condescension in the rejection letter is entirely uncalled for; this letter stings like a wasp. Luckily, these rejection letters are few and far between.
Writers prefer rejection letters that are clear, crisp, and encouraging at the same time. Letters that state clearly whether a journal would like more work from the writer are often those that help, rather than hurt, a writer when he or she decides whether or not to send to a journal again. Katie Manning, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Whale Road Review makes it a priority to thank writers for their submissions. “My journal couldn’t function if writers didn’t trust us enough to send work in the first place. It’s an honor that anyone sends us writing at all,” she says about sending rejection letters. A good literary journal is good because they are excited to share the writing they have found with the world. A good rejection letter strives to respect a writer as an individual and a human being.
A simple litmus test: “Is this letter respectful?” separates the good rejection letters from the bad ones. When a writer is treated like a contributor, even in a rejection letter, a journal is helping the literary community at large.
Katherine Bell is a second-year MFA candidate at Eastern Washington University’s Inland Northwest Center for Writers where she serves as a fiction editor for Willow Springs Magazine. Her fiction can be found in The Blue Lyra Review, Welter Literary Journal, and The Fem.