Friday, May 31, 2013

Six Questions for Renee K. Nicholson and Keegan Lester, Editors, Souvenir: a Journal

Souvenir publishes literary fiction (we also publish nonfiction) and poetry and art. Read the complete guidelines here.

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

RKN: Top three? That’s tough, because what I look for is maybe more organic than what could be in a list. I read and edit the prose section, including fiction and nonfiction, and I suppose what I most looking for in the stories, whether true or invented, are a strong sense of character, a sense of wonder or surprise, and something so intensely human I can’t help but be pulled in. I’m not sure there’s an order to those, but rather there’s something magical in the mix of them.

KML: Handling the poetry duties, I’m most often searching for poems whose journey is not merely from point a to point b—that is to say that from the first line, the poem is not necessarily spelling out its destination. I’m not looking for surprise or off putting for the sake of surprise, but something human that is well thought out, whose rationale makes me feel something, even if it is off putting. I’m looking for poetry that uses language not in an attempt to impress me or the reader with language, but for the purpose of creating the world that the poem lives in. 

SQF: What common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a submission?

RKN: Writers who are too clever—clever at the expense of being real—are definitely a turn off. I like a piece that has clearly been revised, but not to death. There should be something of that original spark that comes through. Sometimes I get really excited to read a piece, where I can tell the writer is having fun with her writing. I know there are a lot of complaints about overly workshopped pieces, but they do tend to have the sense of fun, play, wonder, etc. knocked right out of them. Not every piece needs to be lighthearted, but a well executed piece of this kind can be a rare find. I also love it when a piece devastates me with a raw sadness that can’t be faked. Anything faked or that feels unearned or inauthentic really turns me from a piece. Also, make sure you are following guidelines. Don’t, for instance, send poems to the prose editor. It’s never good to be sloppy.

KML: Follow guidelines! Proof read your work! Would your passive aggressive archenemy be jealous of this submission? If you can’t make your archenemy jealous, it’s probably not ready to go out.   

SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a submission?

RKN: I hope to provide more comments—even if it’s just to say, hey, try us again. Because I’m not going to say that unless I really do want to see more from an author. Time becomes a restriction, but I also know a small encouragement or piece of feedback can go a long way. And honestly, I’m just one reader/editor. I know what I want for my publication, but that doesn’t make me the arbiter of taste. I also will say that I really want to find great work. I get really excited about finding it in my list of to-dos.

KML: Until our volume gets to the point where I become a hermit, (more of a hermit than I am now) I will probably provide comments. I hate going to wiki rejections and trying to parse between upper tier rejections and personal and standard. Sometimes I just want someone to say: “Hey. Don’t ever let somebody tell you, you can’t do something. Not even me. All right? You got a dream? You gotta protect it. People can’t do something themselves, they want to tell you you can’t do it. You want something? Go get it! Period!”-----That may be our new form rejection. I’m going to go post that to Souvenir’s wiki rejection right this second. 

SQF: Will you publish a submission an author posted on a personal blog? 

RKN: I keep a blog, and I write with that blog in mind, not sending those pieces to other publications. So, I don’t mind asking people who submit to Souvenir to do the same thing. It’s not that I’m anti-blog, just that it’s a separation I think is healthy and a standard which I also follow.

Of course, include a link to your blog in your bio, so that if we do take your piece, our readers know where to go to read more of your work. That's a GREAT function of a blog.

KML: It depends on the blog. For instance, if that blog is called: “Mark Strand, Richard Siken, John Ashbery, Josh Bell and friends, sharing previously unpublished poems on a Friday night before submitting to Souvenir” then I might consider.  Otherwise, no I do not publish work that is already traceable via the web or that has a paper trail of any sort.  You’re poets---write more!

SQF: What do you want authors to know about the submissions 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?

RKN: Being reasonable and polite goes a long way. I know my name is just another in a long line of editors writing yes or no or try again to writers, but it’s good for writers to remember that I do have a whole life outside reading and editing for Souvenir—a husband, a dog, my wonderful friends, my own writing, my “day job” teaching ballet (I am also a former ballet dancer, and so I split time between writing and dance), avid book reviewing, my book podcast SummerBooks, etc. Of course I love and am deeply committed to Souvenir as well, and so authors that respect how busy and complicated life can get are much appreciated. There are some definite reasons to reply to me. If, say, I tell an author I’d be interested in reading more of her work, and that author wants to know an appropriate time frame—sure, absolutely. If an author doesn’t understand a comment I’ve made, sure, I’m happy to clarify. If an author responds with a thank you for a comment, that’s always nice to hear. I think it’s all about intent and respect. Just like if I responded to someone’s story or essay with “This is terrible, don’t ever darken our doorstep again” would be unprofessional, rude and disrespectful as an editor (and would alienate readers of our publication!), writers should think about what they’re saying, the way they’re saying it, and why they’re saying it.

Also, if a piece is accepted elsewhere, please do let us know right away. We’ll be thrilled for you, and letting us know keeps us on a good professional footing.

KML: On the response: please do not hurt me. I’m a poet too. I break easily. I think I speak for both Renee and I when I say: we deal with rejection on a daily basis, too. Lit journals, potential dancing partners—hugs from my dad—but we’ve learned to deal. I’ve heard horror stories about people who get rejected, arguing via email and then later in bars at AWP and finally in some boxing ring in Reno on Pay Per View. I don’t mind polite questions about comments. But like I said earlier, that all hinges on the volume of submissions we are getting in. Right now it’s manageable. The writer in me wants to be as accommodating to other writers as possible. But once you cross that polite line, I may take it to my personal blog where I publish poems before sending them out, to vent in a most public and didactic way.     

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

RKN: Many writers find it extremely validating to be published. I know I felt that way when I was first published, and I still do, of course. But no one editor, in my opinion, is going to make or break you. So, I guess my question would be “How should a writer handle a rejection?” I know this is basically what this project is all about, and I think it’s good we’re talking about it. As I mentioned above, I was a ballet dancer, and as such I auditioned a lot. Like writing, there were more well-trained dance artists than positions in companies or shows, and the difference between those who got the position or part and those who didn’t became the finest of fine lines. I think often this happens in writing, too, but because the process is different—a dance audition is very present, and you usually hear back much quicker, and sometimes right at the audition—writers might not see that the difference between an accepted piece and a close piece is a similar fine line. So keep sending out. I have writing friends who think sending to five journals is a lot. It’s barely scratching the surface. When you get out and read the journals and get a sense of them, you’ll see there are so many wonderful venues for your work. No one journal is the end-all be-all.

I used to tell a joke about the difference between ballet rejection and writing rejection, in which I said no one ever rejected a story or essay with the caveat that it would be great if I were ten pounds lighter. In writing, the rejections are usually carefully worded and very professional, where sometimes in dance the feedback was very stinging and personal. And really, in either case, I don’t think the point is to hurt anyone’s feelings. In the case of writers, I think we’re all pretty polite about it, too.

When submitting, it’s good to remember that the process of writing your pieces is just as important as the result. No, it's more important! To be a writer means you’re writing, and if you get satisfaction in the process of writing and revising, that’s most important. It keeps you focused. When I published my first piece, I thought it would be world-changing. The next day I had to sit and write again, just the same as always. It was a good lesson.

So, the best way to deal with rejection is to not give up, and keep writing.

KML: A good question for next time: What is the reasoning behind the aesthetic of your journal/website?

Thanks so much for asking.  I don’t get asked very often about this, so I’m glad I get to talk about it here. 

Renee and I, while neither of us were born in West Virginia, we consider West Virginia home.  Most of my family is from there and it is where I went to undergrad. I spent most of my summers and holiday breaks there when I was growing up. So the aesthetic is partially made up of some of the things we most love about the state, which is hard to gather from organizations such as: MTV, CNN, Fox and pretty much most media outlets. Part of it, the souvenir part, is the idea that we could gather people across great distances with writing. That in some way their writing or art would be a way to describe where they’ve been and maybe inspire someone to go there as well, which is to say that human emotion and storytelling is a viable reason to gather people.

Our first artist/photographer had pictures from a mine in China. I met her one night in a darkroom when I was at Columbia University. We were both working on prints. I had to do a couple double takes to make sure that her prints were in fact not a coal mine in West Virginia.  The people living in these pictures resembled the stories that my grandmother used to tell me about growing up in a coal company town called Cassidy, and that stuck with me. To see Cassidy exist in China of all places, I felt made a pretty huge argument for the human spirit and connectivity in general.  I hope to show someone that the human condition exists in someone else’s home too.    

I’ve had the fortune to travel quite a bit, so most of the pictures on the site are my own. But we are trying to get people from around the country and world to submit their pictures too. The really neat picture of the bed was part of one my three tours of the east coast I made this past winter, while interviewing and trying to gather work for the journal. I was staying in my friend’s dorm, (he’s in medical school at Temple) and he had an extra mattress from what looked to be part of a bunk bed at one point. That night we went out into Philly, and had a heck of a time.  On the trip I made stops in Morgantown, Boston, Providence, NYC and actually bussed through Connecticut the day of the Sandy Hook shooting. Philly was my last stop before heading back to California. It was in Philly, while taking the most terrible shot ever (called a fire bomb) that I decided this thing—this Souvenir thing, would be for real. Temple also beat #3 Syracuse in basketball one of the nights I was in Philadelphia. I took that as a sign that Souvenir was written in the stars. 

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

NEXT POST: 6/4--Six Questions for Leah Horlick, Outgoing Poetry Editor, and Zach Matteson, Incoming Poetry Editor, PRISM international

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