Listening At The Table: Arc Poetry-Editor Handover Conversation Between Rhonda Douglas (Outgoing) and Doyali Islam (Incoming)

Doyali Islam: What are some of the highlights or best memories from your time as Arc Poetry Editor?

Rhonda Douglas: I loved our Poem of the Year (POTY) meetings where we meet to review the finalists and make a final call on which poet will get $5K for one poem. The conversation was often hilarious and it was just such great fun to be talking about what makes for good poetry with people who love it as much as I do. (People should be aware that if you get the facts wrong in a poem, Evan Thornton will catch you out. Especially bird facts.)

Ben Ladouceur and I had some great fun thinking of ways to connect poetry and prose a little more – his upcoming feature on John Barton is a product of that collaboration, as was the prior feature we did on Jan Zwicky.

Doyali, wish you had been at the launch for the “Art in the End Times” issue last year – that’s an issue I’m very proud of, but also: KARAOKE!

DI: Karaoke?! Amazing!

RD: Best launch party I can remember for sure.

What else? This wasn’t my decision but I’m proud of the work Arc’s doing to bring Spoken Word into the magazine. The Spoken Word issue we did, Guest Edited by Tanya Evanson (I bow down) was a highlight for me, and I’m excited that Arc now has a Spoken Word Editor, in the person of Rusty Priske.

DI: How do you feel the landscape of Canadian poetry has shifted or remain the same over the course of your editorship?

RD: I would say that over the time I’ve been on the Arc Editorial Board – almost a decade – there was a definite shift in the value placed on ensuring diverse voices in CanLit generally, and certainly in literary magazines. I was keen to do that “voice audit” project we did when I first came on as Poetry Editor, where we mapped out who had been published in the magazine in what capacity over 5 years. It was really illuminating. For example, we published more reviews of poetry published by Brick Books than any other publisher. Some of that is due, of course, to the magic of Kitty Lewis, who makes sure we get the books early and every single time, but still there needs to be more balance: what are we missing if we’re just repeatedly publishing our favourites? How are we failing readers? I think that concern has been felt elsewhere and a lot of lit journals are doing good work now to ensure their pages aren’t quite so white. Every lit mag approaches it a bit differently but that element of the Canadian poetry landscape has definitely shifted. I hope it doesn’t result in a kind of “diversity ghetto,” with a few special issues while the gatekeepers and the primary content just remains the same. The shift does seem promising though, especially for readers.

And please can we be over the purely “clever” poem soon? We all like to be entertained but over the past decade if there’s been a trend in what we’ve received at Arc (other than the “looking out a kitchen window” poems, and the Canadian roadkill poems), it’s been these tight, witty little vessels for the intellect, short on spirit and often with a fairly cold sensibility. We’ve published a few, of course – craft still matters, and some of those poets are a whiz with a line – but I have grown increasingly tired of them as a reader. Good thing I’m saying that as I’m leaving, eh?

DI: What are the qualities of a skilled/brilliant poetry editor? Give me your kernels of wisdom!

RD: Oh friend, what a request! Not sure there’s wisdom as such, and you have plenty of your own. Listening to others around the editorial table matters, because all you bring is your own narrow aesthetic but if you listen closely then you access all the others as well. (See? Just told you what you already know.) Definitely I’ll miss that part. I also loved when we’d read the poems aloud to make a final decision – so many things changed based on that careful reading. The eye, the ear, the spirit – essential tools of the editor’s trade.

Other than that, it’s hard work and staying constantly engaged, lots of reading and sniffing out new work – but you know all that. Arc’s at a stage now where we can only publish a small fraction of what we receive and good poems fall off the table all the time for want of space. If you can find a way to push the space boundaries and get more great poems to Arc readers, that would be great!

RD: Speaking of qualities, what do you think are your best traits as a poet and editor that you’ll bring to the role?

DI: I’ll split up my answer in terms of poetry selection and other editorial duties.

In terms of reading poetry submissions, I think one of my strengths is that I am receptive to a variety of literary aesthetics. I want Arc to keep doing what it’s doing in terms of showcasing a wide range of artistic sensibilities. Sylvia Legris became an early mentor-figure to me after I submitted poems to Grain during her editorship, and we once had a telephone conversation about her openness to various poetic styles, without sacrificing quality. (Clearly, I owe Sylvia a great debt both as a poet and now as an editor.)

Since I have this receptivity, I especially love what you said about “listen[ing] closely” at the editorial table. It’s important to me, too. And can I just say that I was so impressed – as in, ‘moved deeply’ or ‘imprinted upon’ – by your facilitation of the August 2017 Arc editorial meeting? You vocalized your appreciation of everyone, and you listened and took in multiple perspectives. I sensed that everyone felt respected and valued. I hope I can do the same!

Hm, I also have the ability to be vulnerable, which is often perceived and portrayed negatively in our society, but which true ‘reading’/’listening’ requires. Furthermore – and this quality might sound silly – I have body awareness: the ability to be mindful of my limits so that I’m not reading submissions when tired, such that every piece receives equal attention and consideration.

In terms of being part of an editorial team, I think that I have the ability to learn from others and from the past, and to recalibrate as necessary, in terms of editorial process and vision. I also have a desire to keep pace with the times, or to be ahead of the times. I feel that Arc is leading the way in Canada, by bringing Rusty Priske on board as Spoken-word Editor. I love and respect Arc’s entire team, and I am so happy to be a part of it!

Above all else, I value community-building, which first became important to me during my time as Curator and Host of North Bay’s Conspiracy of 3 Literary Reading Series. I hope that this core value permeates my actions, gestures, and breath more and more with each passing day.

RD: What are you currently reading?

DI: Right now I’m re-reading a particular poem in Soraya Peerbaye’s masterful collection, Tell: Poems for a Girlhood (Pedlar Press) and enjoying a twenty-year-old American anthology, Introspections: American Poets on One of Their Own Poems (Middlebury). Ignoring the word ‘currently:’ I want to read the 2016 Measures of Astonishment (University of Regina Press) and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s This Accident of Being Lost (House of Anansi Press) – because of the strengths of her 2015 Arc POTY Editors’ Choice poem, “how to steal a canoe,” and because I heard her read/speak alongside Gwen Benaway and Gregory Scofield at an Innis Town Hall event on ‘decolonial love.’ However, I’ll soon be reading, for both enjoyment and review purposes, two debuts: Canisia Lubrin’s Voodoo Hypothesis (Wolsak & Wynn) and Mercedes Eng’s Prison Industrial Complex Explodes (Talonbooks). In the coming months, I’ll also be reading Lynn Crosbie’s The Corpses of the Future (House of Anansi Press) as well as chapbooks by Natalie Hanna, Jasmine Gui, Rasiqra Revulva, and Teresa Yang. Oh, and I recently picked up Julia Cooper’s The Last Word (Coach House Books) at Word on the Street. Living in Toronto has its advantages, even if it’s sometimes dangerous for the pocketbook!

RD: Speaking of Toronto, this is the first time Arc has had a Poetry Editor from outside of Ottawa. Obviously, we think it’s a good thing! What are your thoughts about how you’ll manage both the Ottawa history and connection with the national mandate of the magazine?

DI: I reckon this strategy will evolve over time, as needs arise. However, I plan to maintain and extend my connections with Ottawa writers and literary journals, and to do the best that I can to keep up to date with Ottawa/National Capital Region initiatives. Some of my closest poet-friends live in Ottawa, and the rest are respected colleagues. I love the city! My first publisher was even from Ottawa – BuschekBooks. (Many of us are sad that John’s press ceased operations this past September.)

I plan to be ‘on the ground’ as much as possible for launches. I’ll be in town for the October 22nd 2017 launch of issue 84, which I’m extremely excited to host. Logistically, for day-to-day and week-to-week issues, I’ll be Skyping, telephone, and e-mailing the board and/or executive as necessary.

Of course, Rhonda, you know that much of the work is actually done behind individual screens. And even though you lived in Ottawa during your time as Poetry Editor, you had to travel to distant places for work. You had your own share of corresponding, and the magazine thrived! So my goal is to keep it thriving.

That being said, I love connecting with new people! If someone is reading this conversation and wants to say ‘hello,’ please drop me a line! Better yet, introduce yourself in the flesh when we’re at an event! (I’ll likely be wearing my favourite cat-print dress.)

RD: Can you give people a sense of what you’re looking to see in order to say “Yes!” to a poem?

DI: Fresh and precise language, with something at stake. First lines are crucial, as are sonic properties. I don’t prefer musical or metred poems over prose- or free-verse poems, but a poem should work both on the page and through the breath, with attention to line breaks. Truthfully, a poet should be attentive to everything. Every element, mark, or space on the page should have a function and assist the poem in some way; otherwise, it is extraneous.

I would prefer that you – yes, you, o poet and keen potential submitter – send a smaller amount of well-curated and finely-honed work over a larger volume of random and mediocre poems. That statement might seem unnecessary, but I sense that some beginner writers think, “Oh, I’ll just send her everything and let her decide if there’s a gem.” That’s probably the worst strategy ever when it comes to literary submissions – and, you know, life. Be discriminate. Know the value of your own work, and how individual pieces cohere! Also, if one needs extensive footnotes or endnotes to ‘explain’ a poem, it’s generally a sign that the poem isn’t effective or affective on its own.

Remember that it’s not solely my decision. Arc has an editorial board. If your submission reaches me, and then makes it to the table for discussion at the final editorial meeting, it has already survived two rounds of tough cuts at the hands of discerning contributing editors and an even-tougher third round with the Associate Poetry Editor(s) – currently, the amazing Frances Boyle. If your work doesn’t make it through the final round, don’t lose hope. Review your work and decide whether the board declined it because it wasn’t quite strong enough or if it was just not a tight fit for the magazine.

I read bios last – mainly out of curiosity, and only if the poetry itself is strong. I welcome submissions from seasoned and emerging poets alike. Just send Arc well-crafted and urgent work!

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