Polly Buckingham is the editor of StringTown, a Northwest magazine of creative writing, and of StringTown Press, publishing new Northwest authors (http://stringtownpress.org/).
She teaches creative writing and literature at Eastern Washington University. In addition to teaching, she has worked as an editor, independent bookseller, transcriptionist, ghost writer, abridger, fisher person and deckhand. Her fiction and poetry appear in national literary magazines. Her work appears in The Literary Review, The New Orleans Review, The North American Review, The Tampa Review(Pushcart nomination), Exquisite Corpse, Kalliope, Hubbub, The Chattahoochee Review and elsewhere. Her books have been finalists or semifinalists for the following awards: Flannery O‚Connor Award (twice), Bakeless Prize, Blue Lynx Prize, Whidbey Island Emerging Writers Contest, the Snake Nation Review Contest, and the Spokane Prize (twice). Polly teaches all of EWU’s online creative writing courses: intro. to creative writing, advanced short story writing, and advanced poetry. For more information, follow this link: http://outreach.ewu.edu/online/courses/course-list.html
Jan: Thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to talk about your work as a writer and editor. As a founding editor of String Town in Washington State, what was the impetus in 1998 to establish an annual literary journal?
Polly: I’d worked on a number of literary journals and loved the process. The idea of coupling a contribution to the community of writers with something I loved doing was really appealing. I love reading the work and finding pieces that might otherwise go unnoticed, and I love design and layout—the cover, the art work, the ordering of the work, even detail-oriented technical stuff engages me.
I was living in Astoria, Oregon when I decided I would start a journal of my own. I’d written encyclopedia articles for Salem Press (in my mid-twenties) on 101 famous women, and many of them had been publishers, and publishers of multiple journals and newsletters and political publications. I was awed by the role publication played in enacting change. All these women were famous for their contributions, and these publications were part of that. At the time, I was editing a newsletter for the local community radio station for pay, and soon after, as a political activist, spearheaded a newsletter called Out of the Coast as part of a movement against the anti-gay initiatives in Oregon (mid 1990’s). StringTown just seemed like a no-brainer.
Jan: Describe your involvement in the start-up process and your role now?
Polly: I actually started the journal (before the press) in Seattle where I’d have a larger audience to draw on. It wasn’t something I debated. It just seemed like what I should do, and what I wanted to do. I did it all pretty much on my own. I didn’t do a lot of research; I learned by doing, which is generally how I operate. I printed up postcards calling for submissions and put them in bookstores and coffee shops.
Every year for the first ten years, I drove up and down the coast of Oregon and Washington and sold the magazine to independent bookstores. I’d been a bookseller for eight years before returning to college (grad school) and later teaching in college, so I felt real allegiance to these stores. I camped and walked the beaches with whatever dog I had at the time and always bought way too many books.
I left submission postcards all along the way. I noticed that distributors mostly stuck to the cities; rural areas didn’t have literary magazines—it wasn’t worth anybody’s money to go out there and sell them. But I didn’t much care about money. I wanted the magazine to represent those areas. I have had co-editors now and then–mostly they read submissions and go through the selection process with me, and I do the rest. I’ve always done 75% of the work or more. Volunteers come and go. They get good experience, and I get a little help now and then.
Jan: What kinds of work are you looking for when you, and your volunteer staff, sift though the stories, poems, essays, and art submissions?
Polly: Authenticity, emotional integrity, resonance. I used to say and still say, if it makes me cry, I take it. I read an article once on editing a journal that said sometimes there’s only a very fine line between the best stuff and the worst stuff, and the best editors know that line. I like that. I like work that takes risks, risks that other editors and readers might really balk at, but I see something in it. I don’t like to compromise on these things. I don’t like journals with big editorial boards where the best stuff gets weeded out for the bland stuff everyone agrees on. People don’t agree on great literature. Much of it got panned in its time. That’s actually one of my favorite parts—finding those thrilling pieces no one else notices. I think I’m good at that.
Jan: In your opinion, what is essential for beginning writers to know about publishing today?
Polly: A friend quoted me in the beginning of her book saying, “you can’t get published if you don’t submit.” That’s really it. Rejections are good because you’ll have to rack up 50 or 100 of them before you’ll get an acceptance. People think I’m crazy when I say I have 100 things in the mail. But that’s what it takes, and almost no one escapes that. Don’t take it personally. It’s not you. It’s the crazy world that doesn’t value this stuff enough. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.
Jan: What can you say about publishing and self-publishing from both an editor’s and a writer’s perspective? What factors do you think are helping to establish the legitimacy of self-publishing?
Polly: I’m in academia where self-publishing is forbidden, but as a young person, I put together a couple books of poetry and gave them to my friends. It was fun. I liked the process. But I don’t take them seriously, not now and not then. I think the process of finding an editor, a journal, a publisher, ideally (key word here), is a marvelous one: we get better because our peers assess our work, not because we said it was good and goddammit someone should read it.
Literature gets better, keeps its quality, improves, because we offer each other a critical eye, because we create honest publication space for new schools of thought that help prevent literature from stagnating. The relationship between an editor and writer is perhaps as sacred, and as important, as the relationship between a writer and the work. And I don’t think it’s a step you want to leave out. It’s too crucial to your development as a writer: preparing a manuscript for the right audience and getting the approval of your peers. (That absolutely does not mean thinking about audience while you’re creating.) Self publishing is a one way street. It can lead to lazy writing and to an unwillingness to improve, an unwillingness to see yourself as part of a community dedicated to quality literary work that really moves people. I’m not saying we need gatekeepers. I’m saying we need each other.
Jan: What are the benefits and problems associated with social media for writers? In your opinion, which of the social media venues gives the biggest bang for the time and effort?
Polly: None. I really can’t quite engage in social media. It makes me itchy. And I have tried. I just get disengaged pretty quickly. You know, I suppose an internet presence is a good thing for a writer and I do look at author websites a lot. But there are so many different venues and so much stuff out there that isn’t vetted in any way. I find it impossible to weed through, and my time is important: I don’t want to spend it online. It’s never going to replace the process of publication. It’s always going to come down to the work: at least that’s the way it should be, to my mind, and I like to operate out of that ideal. I love sites that contribute to discussions on writing, that post live readings, interviews, that kind of thing. But I find promoting myself through social media sites really difficult and unpleasant and antithetical in many ways to what I do and love.
Jan: What do you see as the future role of agents? Do you think agents will become obsolete?
Polly: I struggle with agents. As John Keeble, my greatest fiction mentor, said to me, if you don’t have a connection with one, it’s like spitting into the wind. For me, it began to feel like a waste of time. I have an unpublished novel, and it’s gotten really positive feedback and I’ve had some chapters published in journals, but I am definitely discouraged by the limited availability of places to reasonably submit it.
Small presses focus on story collections and poetry collections, not novels. And large presses are closed without an agent. Because novels actually sell, it can feel nearly impossible to get them published. Damn the role money plays in all this. That’s what I love about poetry: no poet ever expected it would pay.
Jan: Congratulations on your impressive list of published poetry and fiction. In your opinion who is more likely to find a literary journal to publish work in today’s literary climate: poets or short fiction writers?
Polly: Both are really tough, but definitely I’ve had more poems published than short stories, proportionally and otherwise—and I pretty sure I’m a far better fiction writer than poet. Again, fiction pays more, on all sorts of levels, so it’s more competitive, and it takes up more space in a journal, so fewer pieces are accepted. Money really does corrupt the process.
Fiction writers are often taken more seriously, which baffles me since poets know the language better than any other type of writer. But I suppose people think, “oh, that’s only a few lines—that’s easy.” And then, so much of the public has no idea what the hell poetry is. But everyone knows a good story. So poetry exists in this wonderful little bubble. The downside is – you never quite get treated well.
The upside is you’re more likely to get published and you can ignore the rat race that publishing fiction can feel like. Poets, for example, don’t get “three book deals” or $50,000 advances. They don’t get much, actually. “Just” the respect and awe of a small audience. And yet, they are our greatest visionaries.
Jan: Tell me about your favorite published poem and short story that you have written? What was the spark that helped each burn into a powerful finished work?
Polly: That’s hard. My favorite works haven’t been published. But…my favorite published poem would have to be “The Crone.” This was recently published in The Chattahoochee Review. I wrote it after my sister’s death. It has a lot of dream imagery in it and brings me back into the experience of grieving. That space isn’t a bad space. It’s a necessary space, a respite, and seeing this poem on the page, published eight years after I wrote it, reminds me of that.
The story would have to be “My Doppelganger’s Arms” published in The North American Review. This is a story that had been around over ten years before it got picked up. It is one of my stranger stories, also based on a dream, and when I brought it to workshops people used to say, “You can’t do that.” Well, I did. This week I had another strange, strange story (“The Apology”), also about my sister’s death, accepted by a new journal called The Moth in Ireland. The thing that really struck me was that they accepted it in seven days. And when I commented on how quick it was, the editor, Rebecca O’Connor, wrote, “It’s beautiful, Polly. I’m not normally that fast!” The story is really experimental, something difficult to place. I feel really good when a piece is so clearly appreciated, when it seems to have found a very welcome home. I will send them more work.
Jan: If a great poem tells a story, which of yours provides the richest narrative?
Polly: The last lines of “Sacred Window” are below. I chose them because they tell the story about the sacred relationship of writer to publisher that I’ve been discussing. This is what it is when it works: you’ve found your audience. They are the ones (and maybe only a few) willing to go out in the rain and listen. You have to listen to that, even if the audience is a small one. This is the think that poets understand more than fiction writers, I think.
…Why shouldn’t I
choose my audience, those willing
to travel this far, willing to sit by the river
in a veil of May rain and listen,
each gift unwrapped in a tumble of words.
Jan: Yes. I see what you’re saying and it is represented in this poem. So what are you working on now?
Polly: I finished a new collection of poems (my second) this summer, though I don’t feel secure enough with it to submit it as a whole yet, and I’m rewriting the last three stories in a new collection of stories called What the Dead Know. It’s my third collection. I’m really proud of it and am in the stage of loving it more than I love anything.
I have a four-day writing retreat coming up in a few weeks to finish up, and then I’ll start submitting it when I return.
Jan: What have you recently read that you loved and would recommend to readers and writers?
Polly: Oh gosh—so much: Jose Saramago (Blindness, The Stone Raft, The Cave—all stunning). Kevin McIlvoy—I’ve read three recently—his most recent The Complete History of New Mexico, but Little Peg and A Waltz are both stunningly weird and transcendent also.
I read and reread this summer the Collected Stories of John Cheever and fell in love with him all over again. I reread Joy Williams’ Taking Care, one of my favorite story collections. I reread all of William Stafford’s work last spring. Others: Neruda’s Selected Poems—with various translators; Christopher Howell’s Gaze; Tomas Transformer’s Selected Poems(edited by Robert Haas); Antonya Nelson’s novel Bound and her collection Nothing Right; I’m working on Albert Goldbarth’s Everyday People (poems) and Ramona Ausubel’s No One is Here Except All of Us—first novel. These are all stunning. You see a lot of rereading because I’m teaching some of these authors to my own writing students.
Jan: What is the advice about writing that you have chosen to ignore?
“You can’t do that”
“Get rid of the dream”
“Tell us more about the mother”
Jan: What is the best advice anyone ever gave you and that you would like to pass on to other writers?
Polly: For me the best advice has more to do with living, since writing was never the problem: taking care of myself and living well was.
Here’s this from a William Stafford poem:
For it is important that awake people be awake,
Or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
The signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
Should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
This applies communication, love, and also writing.
And this from a recent interview with Christopher Howell:
“He believes having a good attitude is very important for writing poetry, and the worst attitudes to have while writing are envy and anger. Howell believes a poem should be something that encourages people.”
Jan: Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Polly. What advice would you share with aspiring writers about nurturing the creative process?
Polly: Write a lot. Trust yourself. Take care of yourself. Be generous. Forget about an audience while you’re writing. Forget about externalities. Writing is intrinsic. It needs to be yours. And you need to do it because, well, you need to do it, not because you have expectations about how it will be received. It should be like love: that good, that hard, that risky, and that important. Nothing bad can come of it.
Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2011 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Glimmer Train nominated a story as an Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Award for New Writers. Her stories have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, two O’Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. A story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. Her nonfiction work appears in Pen-in-Hand and Trajectory. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers, editors and publishers. Learn more at: