Friday, August 13, 2010

Six Questions for Rick Marlatt, Poetry Editor, The Coachella Review

From the website:

"The Coachella Review is the student-run online literary journal for the University of California, Riverside Palm Desert Graduate Center's MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts program. We accept work that is well-constructed. Thoughtful. Even experimental. But always from the gut. Doesn’t matter to us if you tell it or film it. We want nothing less than your truth in the form of fiction, narrative nonfiction, poetry and film shorts." Read the complete guidelines here.

From Rick:

The Coachella Review seeks to publish only the best work out there. During my time as editor, we have published poets from all stages of their career, from former U.S. Poet Laureates, to beginning writers just starting out. It's all about the writing. Check us out, and send us your best.

SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a poem/story and why?

RM: The first major thing I look for in any piece of writing is quality. I look for poems that are true to their compositions of language, images, and form; poems that from opening to close are consistent, rhythmic, and fresh. I start with basic interpretation: what is happening in this poem, what's going on with the language, are the images clear, do the combination of lines make sense? From there, I look for beats in the poem, transitions that keep the poem fresh and fluid to its conclusion. Finally, I love poems that start in a certain place or with a particular moment or image, and end up at a new realization regarding the initial trigger subject.

I love writing that is cathartic, makes me stare into the page or screen after I read the last line. The best poems, in my opinion, capture, sustain, and share a moment in time. When you read a great poem, it can stay with you long after, just hovering in your head. It can alter your thinking patterns, even if just for a moment. My job is to share great poems with people.

SQF: What are the top three reasons a poem/story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question one and why?

RM: One of the major reasons a piece of writing is rejected is that it doesn't really fit with the rest of the issue as it is shaping up. While we don't have themed issues, each issue is a kind of compilation. So I try to be clear in rejections of this nature. And I often ask particular pieces to be resubmitted based on their individual merit. If a piece is truly fantastic, I do everything I can to get it, if not now, in a future issue.

Another common reason a poem is rejected is too much reliance on cliche. It's hard for me to publish writing that is full of cliche in its language and images. This isn't to say that writers can't use or work with cliches; in fact, I know many good poems which are successful at examining cliches and turning them inside out on the way toward bigger revelations in their poems. But to include a cliche just to fill out a line can appear lazy and can portray the piece as not serious. Poems are about discovery.

Many poems are rejected because they try to be so original that their use or misuse of space, form, and punctuation can become distracting. The best poems aren't trying to be cute or flashy, the best poems are true to themselves.

SQF: What other mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a poem/story?

RM: I am often turned off by mistakes in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. One of the first lessons I think writers should learn before they submit is to only send your best work, work that you will still be proud of years from now. A great teacher of mine once told me, "just because you're a creative writer doesn't give you license to be ungrammatical." I try to keep those words in mind even as poetry continues to evolve and expand along with language.

I am also turned away by mistakes of assumption. Often times, certain metaphors or allusions are unclear because the poet either assumed a universal understanding of whatever he or she was going for, or worse, the writer was trying to be clever just for cleverness sake.

I think being mysterious and strange can be very strong for a poem, but a poem fails for me when it is too confusing or equivocal. Poems of the latter nature tend to open poetry up for criticism from people who say they can't understand poetry, so it isn't worth their time. This, of course, isn't a good thing. Another great teacher of mine said that poets, by nature, know many words, and there is nothing wrong with stating directly exactly what it is you mean.

Many editors have particular dislikes that turn them off such as rhyming, formal poetry, or light verse. I might have certain preferences, however, again, I'm looking for the best writing I can find regardless of sub-genre.

SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a poem/story?

RM: I always try to provide positive feedback when I reject a piece of writing. We're all trying to improve as readers and writers, and I feel that it is good practice to point out what works well in a piece, so that the writer can build on the positives, and also have a better idea on what to send next time.

We receive anywhere from 600 to 800 submissions for one issue, and we can only publish less than 5% of the submissions. Still, I try to be as specific as I can in terms of why a piece was rejected. I want writers to trust me with their submissions, and I want to be as honest as I possibly can with their material.

SQF: I read a comment by one editor who said she keeps a blacklist of authors who respond to a rejection in a less than professional manner. I'm sure you know what I mean. What do you want authors to know about the poem/stories you reject and how authors should respond? Along this same idea, do you mind if authors reply with polite questions about the comments they receive?

RM: In my experience, by providing detailed feedback whenever possible, there are rarely secrets as to why a piece was rejected or accepted. So I guess there is a pragmatic sense to being detailed--not only are you encouraging the writer to keep working and submitting, but you are validating your editorial response. That being said, many writers still become frustrated by being rejected. There are far more people writing and submitting than there are people publishing, so rejections just have to be accepted as part of the process.

For me it's all about the quality of writing and publishing the best work I possibly can, so I try to pay as little attention to the authors' names as possible. However, we're all human, and the way you treat people matters greatly. And people tend to remember how others treat them.

SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't, and how would you answer it?

RM: One question that you might have asked is about bios and introductions. As I said before, I try to be as blind as possible in terms of who I'm reading, where they've been published before, etc. However, I do know editors who really pay attention to the bios, and poor bios can have a tendency to really turn an editor off to the submission. Some areas I think writers ought to be cautious of are listing an outrageous amount of publications, delivering the synopsis of an entire life story, and trying to be overly humorous or clever. Again, it's about the writing you are submitting. That is the most important thing.

Thank you, Rick. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.

NEXT POST: 8/16--Six Questions for Jennifer Walkup, Fiction Editor, The Meadowland Review

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