A semi-regular series in which contributing editor William James sits down (metaphorically speaking) with the editors from some really dope indie lit journal, who – not unlike ourselves – are hard at work trying to bring the baddest-ass of literature for your eyes to feast upon. In this installment, we talk shop with Emily O’Neill, who is not only a Choir member, but also the poetry editor for Wyvern Lit.
WJ: Wyvern was already established for short fiction and prose before adding a poetry section. What (if any) challenges did you find in the process of adding a new element to an already existing journal?
EO: My main concern was that people wouldn’t know we were suddenly going to be accepting poems and that the pool of submissions would be shallow. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised there. I spend a fair amount of time on Twitter crowing about all kind of things and I think having a strong online presence personally, and in addition to Wyvern’s Twitter reach, that really helped to get a strong crop of poems to choose from for our first issue featuring poetry. I’m so proud to have been able to publish the writers I did in that first issue, and I don’t think that could’ve happened without Twitter.
WJ: As of this interview, the only poetry issue that has dropped has been the Spring 2015 issue (Summer 2015 forthcoming at this time) – have you found your aesthetic vision for Wyvern Poetry yet, or is that still a work in progress? Do you have any particular goal for Wyvern, beyond simply offering another home for poetry to exist in?
EO: My aesthetic for the poetry side of Wyvern isn’t quite established yet, but I can say with confidence that I’m really dedicated to publishing poems in conversation with each other. The thing that makes Wyvern special is our focus on storytelling across the board. The prose we’ve published has been phenomenal and I feel really strongly about maintaining that dedication to story with the poems we publish to. The work that I’m most excited to publish isn’t necessarily narrative, but it does have this driving forward motion and consistent internal logic that makes it difficult to stop mid-poem to consider what you’re absorbing.
Urgency is really important to me as an editor (a poem needs a reason to exist, however small), and on top of urgency I want each poem’s reason to bleed into more than one poem. That’s why we publish suites. I want to showcase writers thinking through what concerns them for more than a single page, exploring complex feelings and experiences from many sides, letting conflicting perspectives live alongside one another.
WJ: Wyvern had already published five issues when you came on as poetry editor. I imagine Brent Rydin (editor in chief) and Frederick Pelzer (fiction editor) had already curated the journal to their own artistic tastes; how did you go about curating a poetry section according to your own vision as an editor? Did you try to match the aesthetic already set, or try to forge a new path entirely – or maybe it was a mix of both?
EO: Brent basically gave me free reign to do whatever I wanted, and the poetry section is definitely my baby, but in our early brainstorming sessions we decided that it would be interesting to see what sustained stories people were telling across multiple poems. I know so many people writing chapbooks and full length collections that contain themed work or at least sequences that share a common thread, and I don’t know of many places publishing more than two or three poems by each contributor at a time. Nailed Magazine publishes suites of poems by their contributors, and when they published some work of mine I really liked that a reader was getting a more complete picture of what my writing brain is like by reading five poems instead of one or two. With a suite there’s a greater opportunity for the reader to learn a writer’s cadences and vocabulary of images and enter a tiny world of that writer’s making for more than just a moment. I really want to publish tiny world made of poems by each of our contributors, and so far I think that’s been my guiding principle.
WJ: I see your work all over these days; it seems you’re playing on both teams content-wise, as an editor/curator AND a creator – what challenges has that presented? Has working as an editor given you any insight into the process that is helpful as someone who regularly sends work out elsewhere? Has being a submitter helped you in your role as an editor?
EO: As I’m sure you know, balancing the hours for journal business with the hours I need for personal business can be a little difficult. I think it helps that when I log in to Submittable the first page it shows me is the Wyvern subs, as if to say, “These people deserve some answers, Emily.” I think being back on the editorial side of things has given me a lot more patience as far as sending out my own work. I’m also a lot more generous with myself if a journal I really admire rejects my work, because I know how specific my own editorial process is and can see how somebody might love a poem I send them but also have nowhere to put that poem in their magazine or be about to publish one on a similar topic or containing a similar turn of phrase or any other reason you could think of to justify not taking something. I’ve read plenty of work that’s strong but doesn’t make the cut because the suite sent has one or two gems and the rest of the poems feel like they’re not quite ready yet; I’ve also had to reject work because people simply did not pay close enough attention to our guidelines and sent a single poem or a batch of poems I can’t find any connective tissue between. As someone who sends out submissions about once a week, I know submitting takes an exhausting amount of reading and administration, but also that if you pay close attention to where you’re sending your work and what they’ve asked you for, that will tip the odds in your favor.
WJ: It seems that every day, a new journal is starting, and another is closing its doors. How do you intend to make Wyvern stand out in such a large field, and what do you think is going to be the key to sticking around for a while?
EO: I think the fact that we publish only linked work is something that’s not necessarily new but certainly different than what a lot of online lit mags are doing. We also really take our time putting together our issues (we publish seasonally) which allows us to be picky about what we accept and to collaborate a little more with our authors. Because I want to publish 3-6 poems by each of my contributors, I sometimes accept one or two poems from a submission and then ask to see additional poems that could be part of the suite but were not included in the original submission. That gives me an opportunity to tell a writer what strings I’ve noticed sewing their poems into a larger picture and to see what larger context these poems live in for them. The suite format also lends itself to thinking about manuscripts, and maybe encourages readers in a slightly stronger way to check out the book-length work of our contributors if they like what they’ve read at Wyvern, which can’t be a bad thing for our community.
WJ: My last question is always the same: what’s your process look like for putting together an issue? Let’s pretend I’m a poem about to be sent out – what does my journey look like, from the time my author hits the send button to the time I get either accepted or declined? Any last-second suggestions for submitters before they send that .doc file?
EO: I read submissions in batches, giving thumbs up marks on Submittable to ones I’m excited about on the first read-through and making notes of the strongest poems for when I return later. I try to send rejections immediately if I know something isn’t right for us for whatever reason, as I know how disappointing it is to have your work sitting In Progress in a queue for months only to receive a form rejection. Then I winnow the “thumbs up” group until I have five or six writers with suites I feel strongly about. I send Brent an email with my list of potential contributors, pending their agreement to publish with us of course, and then the acceptance letters go out. I want to encourage potential Wyvern submitters to send more work instead of less; we get a lot of submissions of only three poems, and sometimes fewer than three poems. Our guidelines ask for 3-6 poems per submission, and I would much rather someone send me six poems to choose from than send only three. Poets! I want to get to know you! I know it seems like the whole submission process is speed dating oriented, but I need like, several dinners before I can make up my mind about anything. We need to talk about the wine list. We need to discuss when and why you became a vegetarian. I want to know your stripper name (childhood pet + first street) and PacMan high score and favorite spot to go dancing by the time I’m done reading what you’ve sent me, and maybe a secret or two on top of that. Metaphorically of course. I guess what I mean is, I really WANT to spend time with your work, and to ask Wyvern readers to do the same. Do me the favor of trusting me with a few more stanzas than you’d normally feel comfortable sending out in a single document. I promise to be gentle.
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Emily O’Neill is a writer, artist, and proud Jersey girl. Her recent poems and stories can be found in inter|rupture, Powder Keg, and Tinderbox, among others. Her debut collection, Pelican, is the inaugural winner of Yes Yes Books’ Pamet River Prize. She teaches writing at the Boston Center for Adult Education and edits poetry for Wyvern Lit.
William James is a poet, punk rocker, and train enthusiast from Manchester, NH. His poems can be found in various journals, anthologies, and punk zines, but are most easily accessible at williamjamespoetry.com. Catch up with him on Twitter @thebilljim