Dana Curtis, Editor-in-Chief of Elixir Press
Jendi Reiter conducted this exclusive email interview with Dana Curtis, editor-in-chief of Elixir Press. Founded in 2000, this independent press based in Denver, CO has published poetry collections by Sarah Kennedy, Robert Randolph, Jake Adam York, Jim McGarrah, Jane Satterfield and others. Elixir Press offers an annual open poetry manuscript contest, the Elixir Poetry Book Awards (deadline October 31), with prizes of $2,500 and $1,500 plus publication. In addition, the Elixir Press Fiction Award of $2,500 for unpublished novels and short story collections is offered; the deadline is May 31.
Dana Curtis's first full-length collection of poetry, The Body's Response to Famine, won the Pavement Saw Press Transcontinental Poetry Prize. Her chapbook Pyromythology is available from Finishing Line Press. Read samples of her work at Verse Daily.
Q: Tell me about the history and mission of Elixir Press. Why was it started, and how has it evolved?
A: The original impetus for Elixir was my health. I have MS and it had progressed to the point where I really didn't feel I could teach any more. I thought that a small press would be a way I could stay connected to the poetry world other than through my own work. I thought that with a small press, I'd be able to take a nap whenever I needed one or even a day off. That pretty much turned out to be true.
It began with the literary magazine and the poetry contest. I was living in Minneapolis at the time—now, I'm in Denver. I saw the literary magazine as a way to publish more people—I would often contact people and ask for specific poems from the manuscript they'd entered in the contest. However, it's definitely not a money-making proposition. I sustained it as long as I could, but have now been forced to put it on hiatus. I hope that, one day, I can begin publishing Elixir again. But for now, I just don't see it. Both time and money are issues.
However, the poetry contest continues. For the inaugural contest, two well-known poets served as judges—at that time, there were two contests: one for poets who had not published a book and one for poets who had. Now, there is one contest open to everyone, and former winners of the contest serve as judges. I've tried various ways for reading full-length fiction. There's been an open reading period and two contests, one of which is happening right now. R.T. Smith is running the fiction contest this year.
Once I began publishing, I realized just how important it was to me. I feel this huge responsibility to the people I've published and the people who submit to the contest. I genuinely want to promote the writing of others. And I am enormously frustrated by the fact that I can publish so little.
Basically, when Elixir began, it was about me. Now, it's about everyone else.
Q: Is there a distinctive literary sensibility associated with Colorado or the Northwest region? How (if at all) is Elixir's mission shaped by local concerns or community institutions?
A: If there is, I'm not really aware of it. I'm sure there are lots of people out there who will disagree with me loudly and indignantly. Regardless, a writer's address is completely irrelevant when submitting to Elixir Press. I've lived in seven other states besides Colorado. Elixir has published one person from Colorado and he is originally from the South. I'm not saying that a local sensibility in poetry is not important; I'm just saying it's not important to me.
Q: Do you see Elixir's titles as having a consistent "voice", either in terms of style or subject matter? What makes a book right for Elixir Press as opposed to some other publisher?
A: Definitely not. In fact, I would have to say that originality is what is most important to me. I see a lot of manuscripts that were obviously submitted based on what Elixir has published in the past. For example, after Elixir published Monster Zero by Jay Snodgrass, I saw just about every monster-themed manuscript out there: Frankenstein, Dracula, you name it, and someone out there has written a manuscript about it and thought Elixir would be the perfect publisher. Actually, the opposite is true. Precedents mean nothing. I'm not saying that I would never consider another manuscript using that kind of imagery or theme. I am saying that it's not necessarily what I'm looking for. Reading books already published by Elixir Press is definitely a good idea, but try not to be so literal about it. If they teach you anything, it should be that I, and the people who have served as final judge, are interested in a lot of things.
I'm always looking for something that surprises me, something new, something that grabs me by the throat and shakes me. I try to approach each contest with no preconceptions. I never have anything specific in mind.
Q: What have you learned, as a prizewinning published author, that would be helpful to entrants seeking to publish their poetry books through your contest?
A: I'm not certain I've learned anything. It's interesting to be able to look at contests from both sides, but it certainly hasn't taught me how to win. My position as an editor of a small press has not put me into a better position as a poet. I'm still entering the contests and struggling to get published just like everyone else. There is no secret. Or if there is, no one's let me in on it.
Q: What literary trends would you like to see more of, or less of, and why? Any pet peeves, or wish lists, for styles and themes you would like to see in contest entries?
A: I have no interest in trends. I want to see people bucking the trends. In past contests, I have often seen what I can only call an alarming sameness among many manuscripts. I don't know what causes it, but I do know that standing above it is absolutely essential. I get a lot of manuscripts that are technically proficient—even brilliant—but seem to have no human component. I would like to see work that is obviously written by people who have, at some point their lives, felt some sort of an emotion. There seem to be a lot of people out there who are editing the humanity out of their work. I say editing because I don't believe that people start out being so flat. Perhaps they're trying to avoid poetry/fiction as therapy. It's a good thing to avoid, but let's not go overboard.
I will say that a pet peeve of mine is when an author writes an essay introducing his/her own work. Never assume your work is so complicated that no one can understand it. It's very arrogant. Basically, you're talking down to your reader. Have faith in your words with no explanation.
Q: How do you overcome the difficulties of comparing works in different genres for your chapbook contest? What makes a mixed-genre manuscript succeed or fail?
A: I don't think I do overcome it. Usually, I try to avoid the issue by publishing one chapbook in each genre. Sometimes, there's a manuscript of either genre that is so good that it is clearly the winner.
Multi-genre manuscripts need to work as a cohesive whole. I don't want someone tossing a couple of poems into a short story collection then calling it multi-genre—or the other way around. Also, a collection of prose poems is not multi-genre any more than a collection of sonnets would be. They're both well-established poetic forms. Again, I'm looking for something new, something I've never seen before. Multi-genre work should allow an author the opportunity to really extend himself/herself. I want to see more of that.
Q: What factors make the difference between a collection of good poems/stories and a coherent, prizewinning manuscript? Any advice for entrants with respect to selecting and arranging their work into the best possible book?
A: That's an impossible question to answer. Most of these questions can be summed up as one: "How do I get published?" I just can't tell you. The whole process is entirely subjective. All I can say is that I want the best manuscripts, the most original, the most passionate. The winning manuscripts are always the ones that impressed me, thrilled me, with their ideas and language. That's easy enough to say, but what does that mean? It means something different to everyone. I'm not going to make some silly list: 10 Easy Ways to Get Published by Elixir.
Q: Please share your thoughts about some recent winning entries and why they stood out from the rest.
A: All the obvious things of course: sharp imagery, stunning and original language use, an obvious love for language and what can be done with it. In The Halo Rule, Teresa Leo uses a lot of imagery related to sports. I have absolutely no interest in sports. I love that she could write it so well that my indifference to the images' source ceased to matter. Of course, that's not the only thing I like about the book.
There is an entirely ephemeral thing which is what makes poetry poetry, good writing into great writing. I can't define it—no one can. People are always trying of course. There have been many well-meaning attempts to define the indefinable. I'm not going to go there. I love the mystery of how it all works, the garden we only discover when we're standing in the middle of it. That's where I'd like to stay.
Of course, that has nothing to do with the practicalities of publishing. The literary publisher moves between the ephemeral and the physical. Has anyone ever reconciled the two? Everyone wants to know why I like the things I like. I wish I could tell you.
Q: What authors do you especially admire, and why?
A: Like most women writers of a certain age, my most important influence is Sylvia Plath. I first read her work when I was 13 years old. It's been a covert, if not overt, influence ever since. I've always been a big fan of Frank Bidart's—I love his last book. Other poets who are important to me are Rilke, Octavio Paz, Sor Juana, Ann Lauterbach, Ai, and Li-Young Lee to name a few. I'd have to say that my favorite fiction writer is Thomas Pynchon. I'm also a big fan of Steve Erickson, Jincy Willett, Rupert Thomson, and Connie Willis. Right now, I'm reading Exiles by Ron Hansen. I'll probably be rereading Hopkins soon because of it. I'm entirely devoted to the work of E.M. Cioran; technically, he's a philosopher or in his words, anti-philosopher.