Thursday, December 15, 2011

Six Questions for Stephen M. Wilson, Poetry Editor, Abyss and Apex

Abyss & Apex Magazine of Speculative Fiction publishes speculative fiction and poetry. As for poetry, the editor "likes to see strong, emotionally resonant, literary-quality poetry with a clear speculative element, as well as scifaiku and what some call 'science poetry' or 'astronomy poetry.' Both traditional and modern or nontraditional formats are encouraged, and we have no length restrictions for poetry. Wow us with a sestina, or stun us in free verse. We admire poetry that exceeds our expectations in scansion, imagery, emotional impact and creative wordplay. We love language, and we like to see it worked for all it’s worth. Our love of poetry exceeds the space and funds we have to publish it, so we accept only the very best; amaze us!" Read the complete guidelines here.

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

SW: First, I’d like to point out that I just took over as Poetry Editor for Abyss & Apex in June 2011, so I didn’t write the poetry guidelines above and at some point I might write my own version of them. With that said, I agree with them which is probably why Editor-In-Chief Wendy S. Delmater chose me for the job—I understand the aesthetics of what A&A is looking for from its poetry contributors.

As to the question, I think a poem should pack an emotional punch be it melancholy, romantic, humorous or even angry, which, in my mind is the point of poetry. Those emotions need to be relevant to people’s lives in some way, especially when dealing with speculative genres such as SF and fantasy where too much focus on world building, setting and description can distract from the human side of a piece.

Layers are important. Where an amateur can be ambiguous in a way that is confusing, a skilled poet can use ambiguity as an advantage. At the opposite end of that, there are many words in the English language that are synonymous to each other, but finding that one word which perfectly encapsulates what the writer intends to convey can make all the difference between a good poem and an amazing one. I respect the classics and am a big fan of allusions when done with subtly and deftness.

Whether in concept or style, uniqueness is important. I’m a sucker for surrealism and odd structures. I also like writing that pushes boundaries. Of course, without the aspects of emotions and layers mentioned above, uniqueness alone is not enough.

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

SW: Well the most obvious reason is that they are just not good. This may seem to be a subjective thing, but I’ve been doing this for several years—I currently edit three separate publications—and with that kind of experience and exposure to so much of what is being written and submitted, it’s not hard to discern between quality and crap. I’m a hands-on editor, though, and, if I see something with potential, I’m not afraid to offer editorial suggestions and work with a poet to help improve a piece to make it more publishable.

Another is not following the guidelines. Personally, I’m a big fan of horror, but A&A is specifically a SF and fantasy venue and implicitly states in the guidelines that they do not publish horror. Along the same lines, people submit poetry that is not speculative in nature.

Another reason, and the saddest one, is sheer numbers. Abyss & Apex is listed first alphabetically in many market listings and I could easily receive a hundred plus submissions, with 2 or 3 poems in each, per quarterly reading period with slots for only maybe 3-12 poems max in each of the quarterly issues.

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

SW: Wordiness. I don’t mean length, but excessive descriptors—what a poet leaves out of a poem, and therefore to the imagination of the reader, is just as important as what they decide to included. The “show don’t tell” rule applies to poetry just as much as, if not more than, it does to fiction.

Something that is prevalent in speculative genres, especially fantasy, is the reinterpretation of myths and fairy tales. There is a long history of this in both fiction and poetry with works such as Anne Sexton’s Transformations, many of the short stories of Angela Carter, and a whole series of anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling as modern examples. I enjoy these when they are done well (and have done some of this in my own writing), but it seems that in the last several years, there is a new crop of writers and several journals that write and publish these sort of pieces exclusively. I wouldn’t call it a “mistake” per say, but what can affect my take on a poem of this particular ilk is if I’ve seen better versions of whatever is trending at the time. And they do trend in cycles whether it is a retelling of the Tam Lin story from a feminist perspective or a contemporary version of Medusa. So, as an editor, it is not uncommon to see several versions of whatever the flavor-of-the-month is during one reading period. If there is one really good, really unique version, it is going to make the rest uninteresting. This “trending” is not endemic to fantasy, SF does it also—one year everyone writes about the moon, the next everyone writes about Mars or DNA or … And with horror, vampires and zombies have both become cliché (but there are still good poems written about both).

I’m not as easily bothered as some editors are by such things as spelling errors or typos. I believe that just because someone uses “your” instead of “you’re” or “it’s” instead of “its” that that doesn’t mean they can’t be brilliant writers—maybe English is not their first language, or they might be dyslexic or have come to trust the spellchecker too much (as many of us do in this day-and-age). If a piece is otherwise interesting, these are easy corrections to make with a good proof reading.

SQF: What is the best part of being an editor?

SW: There are both technical and creative skills involved with editing that fulfill left and right brain functions. I like the sense of collaboration and community involved with editing. Many editors are also readers and writers of whatever genres that they are working in. As a reader, I love to share things that I’ve enjoyed reading with other readers. As a writer, I constantly learn new ideas and techniques to use in my own writing.

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 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?

SW: As a writer, I don’t understand the need to respond to a rejection. But, as an editor, I guess I wouldn’t mind a response, as long as it wasn’t an attack. When I first started editing poetry, which was back in 2005 for Doorways Magazine, I had the luxury of writing to people whose writing I liked and asking them if they would submit something. That worked for the first few issues and I was able to avoid sending out rejections, which was something, as a writer, I was a little uncomfortable doing. Then the magazine’s editor asked me to have an open reading period. At first, I was very uncomfortable with the idea that I would have to reject other writers. It ended up being a blessing in disguise because I was exposed to some great writers that I otherwise would’ve never had the opportunity to read or accept for publication.

I still have qualms about the rejection process, especially because the spec poetry community is relatively small and I know many of the poets who submit, but it is part of the job. With Abyss & Apex, we have a standard rejection form, which does make it easier, and I have three assistant editors to help me with sending these out, both of which makes it feel less personal to me.

As far as blacklisting, I believe a good editor knows how to be objective and separate the artist from the art and their personal feelings from their professional ones. I am passionately against blacklisting or any other form of censorship based on someone’s personality or politics or religion or sexual persuasions or whatever. I would only blacklist someone if I perceived them as an actual threat or they were a serial killer or a pedophile or something. I know that there are a handful of editors who will never publish me, even if I sent them a masterpiece, because we have butted-heads in social outlets such as LiveJournal or Facebook. I find that to be ridiculous and unprofessional, but that’s their right, and knowing this, I wouldn’t waste my time submitting to them.

What would I like poets to know about poems I reject? I would like them to read my answers to questions 1-3 carefully.

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

SW: Maybe, who are some of my favorite poets? That answer can change from day to day, but there are a handful of poets that are always on that list. Some of my favorite living poets include: W. S. Merwin, Ray Bradbury, Jane Yolen, Ursula K. Le Guin, Linda D. Addison, Mike Arnzen, and John Edward Lawson. As for the classics, I’m a fan of Yates, Byron, Shelley, Blake, Milton, Goethe, Poe, Frost, and the highly underappreciated Gerard Manley Hopkins. This is, of course, hardly a comprehensive list.

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

NEXT POST: 12/19--Six Questions for Patrick Trotti, Editor, (Short) Fiction Collective

1 comment:

  1. I only met Stephen once, but he made a big impression on me. He was a very nice, charismatic guy who wrote excellent poetry. He will very much be missed.