Friday, April 26, 2019

Six Questions for Dom Fonce and N.P. Stokes, Co-Founders/Editors, Volney Road Review

Volney Road Review publishes poetry, fiction to 3,500 words, and art. Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

N.P. Stokes (prose editor): I got involved with Volney Road because I felt that the literary scene in Youngstown had a lot to offer. That feeling grew, and got bigger as we marched onward. I discovered there was something important, or even magical, when authors and stories capture the feeling of place and time. Every one of us builds our mind through reference frames. Every experience we have tells us how to understand and communicate our other experiences, that is why Star Trek still feels like the nineteen sixties, despite being about the final frontier and all. By making moments of their lives tangible, through both fiction and non-fiction, writers who capture their schema, the essence of their world, honor those moments by immortalizing them in ways that documentaries, news reports, and history books cant.  I envisioned myself and Dom creating a magazine centered around works that have a strong sense of that, artists capturing snapshots of their little slice of the infinite, and transforming the unknowable individual into a universal experience through their art.

Dom Fonce (poetry editor):
I wanted to help create a Youngstown-based lit mag that wasn’t owned or operated by Youngstown State University. I also felt morally obligated to create a publication that paid its contributors (although, for now, it’s not much.)

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

NPS: Working with prose, the number one thing I look for is that the story starts in the first two paragraphs. The writer must quickly establish a voice that draws the reader in. It does not have to be an action scene, or anything dramatic, though it can be.  The dialog, events, or narrator's voice has to feel real. A story that immediately captures that lightning of intention usually does everything else right as well.

Second, the story needs to feel important, not that all stories aren't important, but the story has to feel that way. It’s a difficult thing to quantify, but if the narration gets side tracked or spends too long talking about events or objects that are not central to the plot, it suffers from slowdown, and usually tends to lose that sense of voice.  Urgency and importance drives a short story. The whole thing can take place in the backseat of a taxi cab, two people arguing through text. But what is important is that what happens has real weight, real meaning to someone, somewhere.

Third is word economy. When phrases or idioms become over-used they lose meaning. They also get distracting. In dialog characters might, and often should, conform to specific speech patterns, but in narration I look for signs that a writer sees their sentences as art. What I mean by art is that the words themselves are interesting apart from the story. Artists experiment and explore conveying ideas and images in as varied arrays that technical writing, or every day writing does not.  You can tell with a single paragraph when a writer has moved beyond using written words to tell a story, and into transforming the act of writing the words themselves into a matter of importance.

As I continue to write myself, I find that I must also work to follow the advice I’m about to give. With regards to poetry, I’ve been using the term “hitting the mark” recently. A poem either hits or misses its mark.

Every poem wants to be profound. However, every aspect of the poem—the word choice, the central and subsequent images and metaphors, the word music, the focus, and the meaning—must align to create profundity. A poem must go beyond personal journaling and confessionalism. Likewise it must go beyond zany and outrageous imagery. A profound poem has to speak to many people—for this to occur, the language must be approachable enough and the message must be about the universal human experience.

For issue 1.2, we received over 750 poems and chose only 5 to publish. That may seem rough for submitters, but I believe it should be difficult to publish poetry.

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

NPS: If a piece begins with a long string of exposition, it’s usually a non-starter. Another let down are stories that seem to either lose focus, or lack focus. This is actually a challenge I find happens in my own writing. As a writer I want my story to do everything. But as a reader, as an editor, I realize that if a story is trying to do everything, capture everything, then it isn't doing anything, or capturing any one thing well. It's a little bit different with books, but with short stories the story needs to hone in on something, capture that one thing, and deliver as much of it to the reader, as succinctly, as possible.

DF: When a poem feels too much like a personal journal/diary entry.

SQF: Is reading the guidelines really necessary? Many are long and boring.

NPS: Editors receive hundreds, even thousands, of pieces to review. If your piece is not formatted correctly, it takes that much more time to review it. Multiply those five minutes it takes to fix the formatting by several hundred and you have a serious time sink. Pieces that are not formatted correctly are rejected outright. Also, beyond the practicality, there is a level of respect involved. Our editors and staff are taking time and really putting in effort to read every single piece—so long as it’s formatted correctly—and give it a fair evaluation. That is because we respect all of our contributors and prospective contributors as writers and artists. Not taking the time to read the guidelines and submit in the correct format, that isn't just showing that you don't respect us. It’s also showing that you respect your submission less than we do.

DF: I understand that sometimes submitting to magazines can feel like number and odds game—especially if you are an academic and publishing is part of your job.

After managing the submissions for issue 1.2, I found that the majority of submission errors came from individuals who were obviously mass-submitting their work to dozens of magazines. While I don’t support this practice, I understand the volatility of the publishing world and the need to find homes for pieces.

However, for us, if you do not follow the guidelines, your work will be rejected outright.

SQF: Many editors list erotica, or sex for sex sake, as hard sells. What are hard sells for your publication?

I'd be in agreement. If its sex for the sake of sex, or violence and gore just for the sake of violence and gore, or anything generally considered vulgar, really, it needs to be there only if it adds something of value. If it does not serve a deeper purpose, usually the writer is using sensational imagery to make up for something missing in their story. Better to find what the story is trying to say, and spend time saying it. Having said that, however, if the event is critical to the story and captures something real, or adds to a character—if it does that job of making the personal universal—then anything goes.

DF: It’s unlikely that we’d publish anything that showed overt hatred to people based on their immutable characteristics. That’s not to say that characters cannot be hateful as part of their character or that hatred could not be used to prove a broader point. So far in the small life of VRR, however, submissions of real hatred have been very rare.

Essentially, as N.P. stated above, anything can go as long as it’s done in good faith.

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

NPS: Why write? Why submit?

Usually when you ask a writer why they write, their answer will be something along the lines of "because I have to." I respect that, and I feel that way too. But, I've come to learn that it’s not enough. Writing because you have to, that is why people keep journals, or create terrible and amazing fan-fictions. I'm not looking down on those as forms of expression mind you, but the writers I have been around who are the most successful go further than that. They write not just because they have to, they write because they have an audience that they want to make a connection with. Do that. Write what you need to write, but when you are writing, imagine your audience, the person or people you are sending your signals to. Then when you submit, you'll have a better chance of knowing which magazines you should submit to. They'll be the ones that you feel like your readers will already be reading. When you are writing for yourself, your having fun, and you are creating art, I won’t deny that. But when you are writing for an audience—an audience you plan on trying to reach—that is when you know that what you are writing is important, by knowing who it is important to.

What separates VRR from other lit mags?

We are comprised of a young, thoughtful staff that dares to pay its contributors. We are based in the Rust Belt which, to me, is among the most interesting, diverse, and tough regions in America.

The majority of our staff are university seniors. I, for example, have been accepted in Temple University’s MFA program in Philadelphia. As our staff moves on to graduate school or the workforce, each member will take a piece of VRR with them, opening new and exciting opportunities to VRR and its contributors.

Thank you, N.P. and Dom. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.

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