Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Six Questions for J. Scott Bugher, Founder & Head Editor, Split Lip Magazine

Split Lip Magazine, a pop culture journal for the arts, publishes literary, mainstream and experimental fiction, face-melting poetry, memoir, interviews, and reviews. Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

JSB: I was reading submissions for Bull: Fiction for Men in early 2012 and fell in love with the editorial process, the hunt for a golden nugget within a slush pile of stories that had either been told before or tried too hard to set themselves apart. It's really about finding a gray area between both extremes. When I would find a story that was fresh and pushed convention in a tasteful manner, it felt like winning a slot machine. This exciting part of the editorial process led to the launch of Split Lip

I had a vision for a literary venue that catered to pop culture instead of academia, something like Paste Magazine, a publication that focused mostly on music, but included other sects of the arts. That's why we include musical guests, fine artists and filmmakers, though our primary focus is on literature. All in all, I feel the vision has come to fruition and am very proud of Split Lip

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


Opening Sentence: You sure as hell better open prose up with a mighty first sentence, one that will give me a detail or two about what the story is going to be about. Begin with a character in motion, doing something that pertains to the situation of the story instead of telling me what the sky looked like. In our November 2012 issue, Keith Rebec opens his story, "Looking out for the Dead," with: "Eugene shifted the flatbed Chevy into third and crawled up Sawmill Ridge." We've got a character, an action, and a setting. This sentence leads straight to the first situation of the story, an animal control officer arriving at the scene of a car crash with a fawn. Kurt Vonnegut advises writers to begin a story as close to the ending as possible, which is exactly how Rebec approaches his fiction. So I look for stories that do just that because those are the type of stories I'm willing to invest my time into, and I feel that's the same for most readers.  

Make a Familiar Story New. Sure, we want some familiarity like we do when we see a movie – the hero's journey: the birth, the calling, the mentor, the battle, the victory, etc. However, the familiar needs to be seasoned with something fresh because readers don't want to be bored with the same old formula. Let's take a boy/girl story. There needs to be tension between the sexes so writers often include jealousy, which is totally fine, but it's all about how that jealousy is presented. Take "Behold I Come as a Thief" by Jared Yates Sexton from Split Lip's January 2013 issue. At a surface level, it's about a couple that spends a weekend having sex. Between sessions, they eat leftovers, watch a televised newscast of an earthquake and talk about aftershocks. The woman's ex comes up in conversation, and she reflects on a pleasant moment with him, but that doesn't lead to a jealous argument. Instead the source of jealousy, or tension, is found in the man's character. When she tells the story of her ex, the man feels jealous, but the author doesn't present his jealousy in action or dialogue, but rather, he allows the reader to discern it through metaphor. Think about it. They're eating leftovers and talking about aftershocks – two things that represent "second place." The man is feeling secondary, and the manner the author presents that gives a familiar story a fresh twist.

For Poet's: Author Nicholson Baker says, "Most poets are good essayists who write very short essays." I look for poetry that carries a narrative, a short story written in verse with attention to sound, rhythm, imagery and metaphor. I favor this style over experimental free verse, language poetry and postmodern word folly. As a poet, I want to publish poems people will react to, poems that will cultivate a new generation of poetry fans. I feel that can be achieved through narrative poetry. A good example comes from Split Lip's July 2013 featured poet Michael Meyerhofer. In his poem, "At Sixteen," he opens with "Come spring, if we wanted it, there was work / at any one of those farms scattered like lawn darts beyond the blacktop." Notice the poetics of these lines. The rhythm and dynamic of the first line kills me – hard and jagged single-syllabled words with a softer tone in the middle. Beautiful. Then, in line two, the poet incorporates masterful imagery and simile while using simple language. He blends the ordinary with the surreal. We see scattered farms, and then we see scattered lawn darts. Lawn darts! Remember those? See? I love poetry that is relatable, understandable. 

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


Prose: Writing that forsakes word economics. I don't want unnecessary details or wasted words. Here's how I would edit the following: "The man was sitting inside steadily tapping his foot against the carpeted floor to the beat of a Benny Goodman tune when he looked outside the window and noticed his neighbor mowing his grass without a shirt on." Or, instead of line edits, I would trim the content to: "The man was tapping his foot to jazz on the radio when he noticed his shirtless neighbor mowing his lawn."

Poetry: Abstract nouns, cliched language, lack of imagery, overly complex language, and nouns left without motion all turn me off. I had a poem once that went something like: "Contrast, saturation, degree, hue, shadow, light. / And all that's left: yellow, magenta and people." I'm not trying to sound like a dick, and I am open to a variety of poetry, but I see nothing going on here, so I made a suggestion. I recommended adding an action after "people," like "people feeding quarters to a parking meter." Does it mean anything? No, not really, but does it make the poem do something. I believe so, though she begged to differ. 

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

JSB: If I see a great deal of potential in a piece, I add commentary, but more often than not, I don't have time. I once had a submission I wanted so badly to publish, but there was a subplot getting in the way of the story's primary plot. I asked the writer to omit a few characters and situations. He was willing to do so, but turned into me having him rewrite the story four times. However, it ultimately got to the point I was happy to publish it.

SQF: Based on your experience as an editor, what have you learned about writing?

JSB: Wow. Good question. With regard to prose, I'm going to narrow it down to word economy. That's a flaw I notice in a lot of submissions: too many words. The more I notice it in works by other writers, the more I notice it in my own work, meaning my eyes are more astute toward sentence structure. I feel I build better sentences when I'm paying attention to my choice of words. Hell, by now you know I'm a chatterbox based on my overkill answers to your questions! I really need to exercise better word economy. 

With regard to poetry, I've learned quite a lot because there is such a diverse array of poetic voices out there. I've learned how to get the most torque out of my words by reading Split Lip poems from David Tomaloff and Kristina Marie Darling. I've learned lessons in sound from the poetry of Elysia Smith and Lianuska Gutierrez. I've learned lessons in narrative from Michael Meyerhofer and Mary Biddinger. I mean, I benefit from the poetry from all of Split Lip's contributors. 

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

JSB: I wish I were asked about the journals that inspire me to do what I do. I would say that PANK, Atticus Review, Monkey Bicycle, Hobart, SudDog Lit, Superstition Review and the Baltimore Review inspire me to keep moving forward with Split Lip. I must admit though, there is a trace of bias in that list since I have been published by two of them, but I only submit to journals I want to appear in and they've been favorites prior to my publications. 

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

Anytime! This is a great project you've got going on, and I hope my stubborn opinions might benefit a few writers out there.

NEXT POST: 1/24--Six Questions for Loran Smith & Leesa Cross-Smith, Editors, WhiskeyPaper

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