Friday, September 23, 2016

Six Questions for Lucy Johnson McDowall, Executive Editor, The Quarterday Review

"Quarterday is international literary magazine committed to promoting and preserving prosody in classical, metrical, and other traditional forms, including long and epic poetry, welcoming submissions from both emerging and established poets. We seek to publish the best English language poetry from around the world." Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

Lucy Johnson McDowall: I can only say that my desire to start Quarterday came from a deep-seated sense of emotional masochism.

To expand: Quarterday began as a project in my writer's community in response to the classical poets — the formalists — complaining there were hardly any markets for classical verse and particularly long and rare-form poetry. Most literary publications didn't have the editorial skill to judge a good formal poem from a bad one, and in a good many places, writing a sonnet or a villanelle or a pantoum was considered a kind of parlor trick by clever scholars rather than real literary art.  Additionally, songwriters — lyricists — were being universally ignored or even dismissed as poets completely with no or scant mention of their contribution to prosody.

Secondly, after a century of free verse dominating poetry, it's becoming clear that poets are not writing classical verse. Poets are also not writing epic or long poetry because publishers wanted shorter pieces.  The long narrative poem is dying as an art form the vital force of metrical poetry is becoming lost to history.  Compounding the issue is the fact that the few classical publications that exist have restricted subject matter.  The scarcity and restrictive nature of the existing markets means that the pulsing blood beat of the English language that makes real poetry — transgression, truth, beauty, love, money, power, crime, sex, politics, religion, violence, social commentary, blood, tears, rants, freedom, restraint, darkness and light — is being carefully sanitised out of the body of metrical poetry.  What remains is an editorial preference somewhat anemic, technically skillful execution of words without any of the soul that makes real poetry. What Quarterday tries to do is to take the primal emotion we associate with free verse and place it under metrical restraint: the idea is that when you place the flow of words under some pressure of form the result is a greater emotional force.

Thirdly, the QDR sprung from the idea that language, poetry, and prosody, in general, should be a rejoicing of language. We should be clever in its use. We should delight in it. There's a disturbing school of thought that lays down rules that you can't place an adjective after a noun, that you can't use Middle English or arcane diction (why ever not? It's fun, dammit, like everything else, you just have to do it well). There's also widespread, and erroneous belief that the Poet's 'voice' rather than the narrative is all. Balderdash and poppycock. Overfocus on the 'voice' leads to a kind of literary narcissism. The rules of narrative poetry are the same for narrative fiction, even if the speaker is a real person or even the Poet themselves. Quarterday is your antidote to all that — a bubbling witchy caldron of antidote. Or poison. After all, we've carried everything transgressive stanzas about a man's Pygmalion-like obsession with a sex doll, to a sonnet from a dominatrix about flogging her sexual submissive, to a tortured, violent pantoum about two men locked in an unhealthy relationship. We've also featured the sublime translations of the 19th Century German romantics, light verse about Godwin's Law, and haiku featuring burned sausages, and a ghazal about censorship.  Quarterday began, and still is, a journal which seeks to nurture a real creative environment in which poets can preserve, and experiment with, classicism.

Finally, because myth and narrative, the tale, the story, is everything in a good poem. The journey, in fact, hence the subtitle to our journal, The Poetry of Mythic Journeys. Quarterday takes a lot of modernist formalism, but we also have a sizable body of poets who revel in their gothic and Romantic sides. We showcase writers who explore the mythologies of the cultures from which they come, poets whose realism is magical and whose magical is real, poets who revel in the earth conscious, indigenous, and mythic subject matter, poets who write fantasy fibs and sci-fi sonnets.  We take the fantastic as well as the sober; we take the arcane alongside the mundane, and I think there's room for this in any healthy classical poetry scene.  For this reason, our issues are themed around the four ancient Celtic quarter days, but as those festivals typically celebrated a vast range of human experience and seasonal change, we can usually find a poem will find in one or other. For example, May (Beltane) celebrates positive themes of sex and sexuality, love and marriage — but it also carries other meanings, such as pastoral farming. So your pet or animal poems would go in the May issue.  Samhain is the best known of the Celtic festivals as the commercial holiday of Halloween, but as the Celtic and Aztec Day of the Dead, the issue also comes at a time when we remember the military and civilian dead. And so alongside ghost story poetic narratives, we also have pages dedicated to war poetry. We've grouped these seasonal themes in our submission, and the idea is that humanity is still linked to the world we live in by the natural world and the turn of the seasons.

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


1. It is the tale, not he/she who tells it. The Narrative is everything. The poem must tell a story, offer insight, reveal a character, demonstrate a turn of thought.

2. Does the form chosen follow function?  If you are writing about an obsession or futility, the villanelle or sestina might lend itself to those themes. But why would you choose the free verse to write about a bondage session with your — sorry, the narrator's — lover? Choose iambics for that, or a form which has liquid freedom but has poetic handcuffs slapped on it.  Writing about a horse? Consider the galloping meter of dactylic tetrameter. Narrating a heroic journey where the hero ends up back home? Consider the heroic sonnet crown as a fitting form for your story (and good luck, they're very tricky).

3. A perfect marriage of passion and form, emotion and restraint. This means the poet has to maintain a great deal of discipline in their writing. If you understand how this passage from Kahlil Gibran's novel The Prophet pertains to classical poetry, then we want to read your verse:
"Your reason and your passions are your rudder and sails of your seafaring soul, if either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas. For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own in reason and move in passion."

SQF: What most often turns you off to a submission?

LJM: Ah. The sh*t list. Okay. You asked for it.

Number one on this list is the poet failing to read the submission guidance and failing the submissions form to submit.  We have a style guide and a submissions form that we really need poets to follow, all for back-end editorial reasons, and a submissions form, all set out so that you can get your poems into our house style with a few minutes extra work (which saves hours of our time when we assemble the magazine). The other reason why we ask you to use the submissions form is that unlike specialist magazines, we take every classical form in existence, and it's impossible to be experts on all of them. Asking the poet to identify the form and place notes on any variations allows us a starting point for classical assessment, and it also allows us to run the work by experts if the poetry form chosen is exceptionally rare. There are very sound editorial reasons for our submission process being the way it is, and most of them come back to "the editor is a very busy woman and has almost no money to do this, so don't make it hard for her".

Number two is the poet not reading the publication. It's not as if we're asking you to buy it. It's free, free I tell you.  In your cover letter, we ask you to tell us what you like or don't like about the publication. We want to see evidence that you've read it (that's why we ask you to tell us what you liked or didn't like about the journal in your cover letter). If you just write 'I really like your mag and read it all the time' I'm going to suspect you're just bullshitting me. If you write "I've enjoyed some of the modernist sonnets by Poet X but the arcane language in those awful gothic sonnet crowns in the Imbolc issue really wigs me out..." it's a sign you've engaged with us and are not just publication-credit chasing. A cover letter showing how you’re engaging with our publication — even one which offers constructive critique — makes us feel less alone in the universe and creates a sense of excitement about reading your work.

Number three is sending us a free verse poem and trying to pretend it's a variation on a classical form. I love free verse. I read it, occasionally I might be caught writing it, some of my favorite poets are free-versers. Folks, we’re trying to kick start a classical revival.  A five-line free verse thingy instead of a tanka, a three-word 'haiku', three paragraphs of prose poetry and calling it a 'sonnet.' No. Don't do that. If you want to send us free verse, place it in your six poem limit, and send us five classical and one free verse. We have taken exceptional free verse before, and we'll do it again. Please don't send a free verse to a classical journal under the pretense of a classical poem. Just don't.

Number four — rigid adherence to form with no real passion. Just as inattention to form will get your work rejected, so too will lack of everything that makes a poem a poem rather than a technical performance in meter or syllable counting. I want to listen to the finished symphony, not your musical scales.

Number five — do we really need to say it? Sexism, racism, trans or homophobia, and hate speech (including taking a potshot at someone’s religion or political opinion), obscenity or graphic violence with no narrative purpose.   And no, that does not mean we will not accept transgressive poetry where the narrator is a hateful, hate-filled person. That does not mean we won’t publish political or religious satire of literary merit. That does not mean we won’t publish a smutty comedy or moving piece of erotica. The question you should ask always is ‘what’s the story, here?’

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

LJM: Quarterday works a little bit differently from other literary publications. Each poem is read and discussed by an editorial board, and we don't have 'screeners.'  This means I, as the executive editor, read every poem that comes in.  After the last issue, it became clear that our poets were partners in preserving rare and ancient forms of poetry, and we were all working together to try and restore these forms to fresh English usage. Not fossils, but living breathing lizards and birds. Think of us as a hideous poetic Jurassic Park, an island of living myth and monsters. We realized that to help our poets reach levels of competence in their chosen forms we needed to start giving constructive technical feedback. We have no money. Almost no time. So where we can, we give the feedback.

At this stage, our staff is small that the degree of feedback received depends on how early the poet submits.  We accept and typeset each issue as we go.  If you get your work in early in a reading period (again, listed on the submissions page) we'll be able to provide detailed feedback where we reject, and you may be asked to revise it and resubmit it.  Usually right before the end of the reading period, we get a stack of submissions which means all we're doing is voting with scant comment — that's when we send out the form rejections. So the key is to work with us, we're only human with many calls on our time. In late January, April, July, and October, we're just too busy trying to get the journal together and edited to give the feedback you need.  However, if you submit your Halloween poetry in, say, late August or early September we’ll be in a better position to offer feedback on your work.

SQF: What advice can you offer poets wanting to be published in Quarterday for the first time?

LJM: We've published people with doctorates in poetry, we’ve published professors of creative writing and English Literature, we’ve published award-winning poets with dozens of collections to their name and hundreds of publication credits ...  and we've published people who've sent us the very first poem they've ever written. We don’t care. Your poem must be a real poem, full of emotional force and satisfy the requirements of your chosen form. You have to start submitting your classical poetry somewhere, and we think you should start with us.

Know your forms. Study masters of the form in the English language. Join a critique group.  Practice, practice practice. Have a friend scan the meter, read it aloud. If coming to us with East Asian forms, make sure that you understand what the classical requirements of Asian forms are (don't send us a 13 syllable haiku, or a tanka with four lines).

A lot of free-verse poets gravitate towards us with Asian-form poetry, which is syllabic and not constrained by meter and rhyme. Good routes in for a free-verse poet are haibun and prose poetry. Please note these forms are not flash fiction by another name. If sending us a haibun (strongly preferred) the haiku at the end must be a classical 5-7-5 haiku that satisfies all the elements of a haiku. Some also come to us with blank verse, another good route in.

Everyone's going to more well-known forms like sonnets and villanelles these days.  Quarterday likes to carry a variety of forms, so try something that will surprise us. We've recently had poets send us rare Welsh syllabic forms, which was wonderful because it means poets, knowing there is a market for them, are starting to write in them again. Find that rare form and make sure it fits what you’re writing about, or try using rarely-seen versions of a form, such as a sonnet crown. The submissions form allows you to add notes to the form you've chosen, and we do go and research the forms we've never seen before and place editorial notes. The idea is that Quarterday becomes a showcase for these forms, and encourages poets to try writing in them.

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

LJM: Do we review poetry collections, journals, and primers?

Yes, we do, and there are lots of reasons why you should send us an Advance Review Copy (ARC) of your chapbook, collection, poetry writing how-to or your literary journal. Book reviews are placed on our website and featured reviews are also published in the print edition. We review both classical and free verse poetry, and our reviewers are ranked among Amazon Top Reviewers, and are experienced critics.

We don’t (nor will we ever) charge a fee for submitting a poem to the Quarterday Review, but we do charge a reasonable reading fee for our review service (roughly a tenth of the cost a review service like Kirkus). You will receive a genuine review with both positive and critical comment, and your money goes straight to covering the costs of Quarterday, and eventually to paying our contributors — a long term goal of ours is to be a professional rate paying market and that money must come from somewhere. We will consider reducing or waiving the reading fee in the case of self-published poets who can evidence very low or no incomes.  We review randomly-purchased poetry as well, and there’s no way of telling (our reviewers work blind) which reviews are unsolicited and not paid for, or solicited with a reading fee. Everyone gets treated the same.

We never publish reviews of poetry we cannot recommend. This means that if we don’t like your poetry, you’ll get private feedback and not a public gutting. We craft our reviews so that you have quotable sections for your website and front cover of your book. For solicited reviews we give the publisher a final veto on the review before we go to press. The fee also pays for our reviewers’ time in case the publisher exercises their veto.

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

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