Kirstin Hotelling Zona, Editor of SRPR (Spoon River Poetry Review)
Jendi Reiter conducted this exclusive email interview with Kirstin Hotelling Zona, editor of SRPR (Spoon River Poetry Review). This twice-yearly literary journal, now in its fourth decade of continuous publication, features contemporary poetry from around the world. Each issue includes a chapbook-length selection of work by a poet with an Illinois connection, followed by a substantial interview. Each issue also includes a long review essay of new books of contemporary poetry. Their annual Editors' Prize Contest awards $1,000 for one unpublished poem, $100 each for two runners-up, and five honorable mentions. All winning poems, in addition to several finalists, are published. The current deadline is April 15.
Kirstin Hotelling Zona assumed the editorship of SRPR (Spoon River Poetry Review) in 2010. Her poems have appeared in a variety of journals, including, most recently, Columbia, the Cincinnati Review, Southwest Review, Georgetown Review, Mississippi Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Poet Lore. Finishing Line Press published a collection of her poetry, Drift, in November 2011. Kirstin is also the author of a book of criticism, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and May Swenson: The Feminist Poetics of Self-Restraint, and has published numerous essays on contemporary poets and poetics in journals such as Modernism/Modernity, Twentieth Century Literature, and ISLE. She lives with her husband and two children in Maine and Illinois where she teaches poetry and creative writing as well as ecocriticism and theories for sustainable cultures at Illinois State University. She is the co-host, with Bill Morgan, of Poetry Radio on WGLT, the local NPR affiliate station.
Q: SRPR has been publishing for over 35 years, during which time many literary journals have been born and died, and new media distractions have multiplied. What's the key to your longevity? How have you stayed relevant to the current literary scene?
A: Given that SRPR is, as you note, a long-standing journal, the best way to answer your question is to share a brief overview of our history. SRPR began in 1976 as a regional venue when David Pichaske, the founder of The Spoon River Quarterly, named his magazine after the Spoon River in central Illinois. That river was itself purportedly named for the palm-sized freshwater mussels to which it was home, bivalves whose shells were used by the region's Native Americans and early white colonists in preparing and serving food—as spoons. Energetic and community-minded, Pichaske garnered a strong regional following for the magazine. The Spoon River Quarterly moved to Illinois State University in 1986, where it is still produced, when Lucia Getsi took over as editor. Lucia renamed the magazine The Spoon River Poetry Review and, in 1993, changed the magazine to a biannual. Lucia would serve as SRPR's indefatigable editor for 20 years, broadening substantially both the scope and reach of the magazine while maintaining SRPR's dedication to Illinois poets. In addition to establishing our annual Editors' Prize, Lucia also instituted The Spoon River Review Poets-in-the-Schools Program and worked in schools throughout the state teaching kids poetry and holding readings for youth. As the result of Lucia's work, the magazine earned a strong international reputation, and is now highly competitive, publishing less than 2% of the poems submitted.
Upon Lucia's retirement in 2006, Bruce Guernsey, from Eastern Illinois State University, took over as editor, with the understanding that editorship would eventually return to an ISU faculty member. During his tenure as editor, Bruce built upon the journal's strengths in a number of ways, adding, for instance, the “Poets on Teaching” essay, a regular feature in the magazine from 2006-2010.
As this brief overview suggests, SRPR has always maintained a strong dedication to “place” just as it has engaged a range of poetics that, more and more frequently, complicate conventional notions of regionalism. When I took over the editorship of SRPR two years ago, I did so largely because I was drawn to this particular tension at the core of the magazine's history, one I see as especially relevant in today's increasingly globalized, stratified world. I'd say, then, that SRPR's longevity is due in large part to the fact that its original vision was flexible enough for future editors to simultaneously sustain and reinvent. This quality is key, as it provides editors with both an inheritance and an opportunity. It's telling that in nearly forty years SRPR has had only four editors.
Q: As new editor of SRPR, what directions do you propose for the future? How are you negotiating the tension you mention above between “sustaining” and “reinventing” the magazine?
A: One of the challenges I find most exciting as editor of SRPR is how to make explicit not only my revision of place-based poetics (of which I'll say more in a moment) vis-à-vis the magazine's history and its relationship to contemporary poetics, but to make this revision compelling to a sophisticated, diverse readership for whom “place” is often analogous to “regionalism” or “local color”. One of my primary jobs these days is, then, finding ways (such as this interview) to broadcast my conviction that SRPR's recuperation of place-based poetics is hardly provincial. On the contrary, I'm less interested in regionalism's attention to realism, and more interested in writing that leads us to the limits of our comfort zones, so that these zones (what we might think of as aesthetic ecotones) are first of all exposed—made palpable and felt—so that we might experience the borders of our own known worlds as permeable, as sites of connection instead of sites of uncontestable difference.
In this way, SRPR's current dedication to “place” may be better understood as an interest in emplacement—that is, the many ways we are situated in and through language, the earth, and each other; in and through our histories and our blind spots; in and through our protests and complicities. As such, a poetics of emplacement is interested in borders and thus borderlands; beings and ways of being that are often overlooked. To say, then, that the “new” SRPR is especially interested in a “poetics of emplacement” is one way of saying that I approach the literary journal as site for community-building—not the creation of clique or a club, but of a capacious, diverse, and committed community wherein readers and contributors feel at once safe and surprised.
With this conceptual approach in mind, I've made both small and substantial changes to the magazine. On the smaller scale, I added contributor's notes for the first time in the magazine's history, as I view these individually scripted bios as a kind of grass-roots cartography of literary publishing, something that's especially useful for emerging poets. On a larger scale, I remain committed to SRPR's tradition of featuring, in every issue, a chapbook-length selection of poems written by a poet with an Illinois connection. At the same time, I seek out poems from all over the world that toy with and sometimes cut the moorings by which we feel most tethered to the known.
In an effort to illustrate my conviction that it's by digging into the so-called “local” (which can be done, of course, in myriad ways) that we reach furthest beyond and thus transform the known, I've also expanded SRPR's “conversation” with the featured poet into a longer (10-15 pages), heavily researched interview. These interviews, which I conduct, build upon the poems they follow via direct discussion of the writing, the poetics they are in dialogue with and also have yet to name, the cultural contexts and histories most pertinent to the work, and the relationship between the new poems and the poet's previous work and his/her primary influences.
Along these lines, I also added “The SRPR Review Essay” to each issue, a substantial analytical essay (15-25 pages) that blurs the line between the short, opinion-driven review and the academic article. Each review essay is written by an established poet-critic who discusses 3-5 new books of contemporary poetry, at least half of which are published by small presses. Together, “The SRPR Interview” and “The SRPR Review Essay” have helped to increase the magazine's visibility and relevance in a fairly short amount of time by bridging a variety of communities. SRPR is, for instance, now indexed in the Modern Language Association's [MLA's] database.
And what are my plans for SRPR's future? Lots of things! At the top of my list, though, is building a new website that will be both visually dynamic and interactive. We'd also like to increase our connection with readers and contributors via social networking sites. We now have a Facebook page, as of this past year; you can read about SRPR news and events and Like us at this link.
I brought on two Contributing Editors this year, Arielle Greenberg and Andrew Schelling, and plan to invite at least three more this year. As I continue to build our editorial staff, I hope to free up some of my time for event planning, among other things. I'm especially excited to continue hosting an offsite AWP reading each year (our recent reading in Chicago was a great success), and would like to host other readings and collaborative events as well.
Q: Do you look for stylistic innovation in your contest winners? What did that mean in past decades, and what does it mean today? What's fresh and what's played-out?
A: I certainly hope for stylistic innovation in our contest winners, by which I mean simply an attentive and ambitious inhabiting of language in its myriad dimensions, but I want to make it clear that I have no contact with the submissions until after our judge, a well-established poet of international repute, has chosen the winners. But more to your point: “what's fresh and what's played out?” I have to say that I try to avoid terms like “innovative” and (especially) “experimental” as much as possible when referring to poetry; there are so many ways to be innovative that I don't find the word terribly useful. But I don't want to dodge your question, either. In order to be truly innovative—or “fresh”—one must read regularly and widely, with a spirit of curiosity and care. One must also cultivate an ability to read one's own work with the same spirit, so that one remains open to the possibility of surprising oneself and liking that surprise, not running from it out of fear or discomfort. “Freshness”, then, may appear in syntactically navigable couplets or tercets or in uncapitalized linguistic fragments that stutter or careen down the page. Freshness may be quiet and spare, or raucous and confrontational. It may be lyric, narrative, confessionalistic (to borrow Rachel Zucker's excellent term), disjunctive, associative, surreal, mimetic, deflective, ironic, sincere, elegiac, hilarious…
Towards this end I do a few things to ensure a truly robust variety of submissions. First of all, I continually send out word via numerous channels that I'm interested in publishing a wide variety of poems that, when placed side by side, might strike a reader as not only stylistically, but aesthetically (which often means politically) at odds. I do this without apology or qualification, in an effort to help shape a capacious reader, one who doesn't feel the need to choose between ostensibly competing aesthetics. At the same time, I want to help cultivate a discriminating reader, which means an informed reader, which is why I think publishing prose about poetry alongside the poems is so important. And second, with regard to the Editors' Prize Contest in particular, I select judges who have demonstrated, in their own writing and affiliated endeavors, a generous intensity (or intense generosity); a restlessness, a desire to flesh out fully the possibilities of a given project and then to question that project in subsequent work, to engage it and thus change the conversation they've helped to initiate. I'm not looking for a particular aesthetic or socio-political leaning, but for judges who are confident enough as writers and curious enough as artists such that they won't select winners who merely share their aesthetics or parrot their sensibilities. The two poets I've invited so far to judge SRPR's Editors' Prize Contest, Jeanne Marie Beaumont and C. S. Giscombe, fit this description beautifully, although their poems and registers are very different. Other recent SRPR judges have included Claudia Emerson and Gabriel Gudding. This year's judge is phenomenal, but I can't tell you who it is for another few months!
Q: Are you named after Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology? How does that heritage inform your editorial choices?
A: I'm so glad you asked this question! Though I've answered it in part in my overview of the magazine's history, let me reiterate: despite the nearly ubiquitous association in readers' minds between the Spoon River Poetry Review and Edgar Lee Masters' 1916 Spoon River Anthology, SRPR in fact has nothing to do with the anthology other than our shared namesake. It is, moreover, largely because of this association that I decided to change the magazine's logo and redesign both our cover look and our promotional image (all of which you can check out on our Facebook page). Our new logo, SRPR, which was designed collaboratively by Tara Reeser and Jordan Cox at our Publications Unit, is a tracking, a kind of map. It is also a non-word, a letter-montage, an invitation to look and look again as we re-read. In this way our new logo insists on the interconnectedness of language and place, of knowing intimately one's surround because such knowing erodes not only one's sense of self as disconnected but, just as importantly, upends one's conception of place as equivalent to “environment,” that paltry misnomer that occludes the enmeshment of all vibrant matter and thus preserves anthropocentric ways of thinking and acting in the very name of “saving the earth”, let alone each other.
Q: In this age of virtual communication and globalization, SRPR still appears to care about the local community, the terroir that gives a poem its unique flavor. Who are some of your favorite authors (from Illinois or elsewhere) whose work conveys “a sense of place”? What makes their work interesting and effective?
A: Oh goodness, how much space do I have!? First, I need to qualify my naming of specific poets here in a couple of ways: 1) I'm always reading—submissions for SRPR and books of poems and other literary journals—which is to say that the poets most on my mind right now may not be the poets most on my mind by the time this interview appears. 2) To me, “place” is not synonymous with the local, or with “the environment”. While the immediate geography, culture, climate, etc. of one's surround inevitably shapes any poem worth reading, it's also true that one of poetry's great pleasures is how it reveals the often surprising ways in which the “local” or familiar not only abuts but streams right through the strange, the frightening, the forgotten, the erased, the silenced, the marginalized, the other.
Austin Smith, a young rising star from Illinois, whose poetry I featured in the Winter/Spring 2010 issue of SRPR, is an excellent example of a poet whose writing torques this intersection between the familiar and the strange. His largely narrative poems are deeply contoured by his upbringing on his family's dairy farm in Freeport, Illinois, but his speakers foray into interrogative terrains that are almost dizzyingly unforgiving; he is a keen observer and thus a relentless quester.
Joanne Diaz, another of SRPR's feature poets, enacts a poetics of emplacement by weaving/revealing an astonishing range of connections between the working class culture of her childhood, American pop culture, race, sexuality, contemporary literary theory, media, and art. She is wildly funny and whip smart. Arielle Greenberg, also a recent feature poet, writes poems that are at once markedly embodied (that is, poems whose language is highly conscious of itself as a sensory medium) and yet also strangely and wonderfully dis-located—at once sincere and smart-assed, elegiac and acerbic, compassionate and critical. Some other poets who are currently informing my thinking about “place” include Bernadette Mayer, C.D. Wright, Cecil Giscombe, Fanny Howe, Jorie Graham, Pablo Neruda, Alice Notley, Hoa Nguyen, Rachel Zucker, Robert Duncan, Kimiko Hahn, and Walt Whitman. There are lots of others. And, as always, Bishop. And Dickinson. And keep your ear tuned for a poet named Jamaal May, who's about to rip into the poetry world like an asteroid blazing. He's amazing. You can find his work in the Winter/Spring 2011 issue of SRPR.
Q: Tell us about some of your recent contest winners. What made them stand out? In what way was their poetry a good fit for the SRPR aesthetic?
A: Again, I don't choose the winners, and I select judges from year to year who, en masse, span a wide range of styles and aesthetics. That said, I've loved all the winning poems I've published, and have been honored to print them. Some of the winners, such as Nancy K. Pearson, are on a streak, picking up prizes left and right, while others, such as last year's first place winner, Jennie Ray, are young poets just starting to amass a list of publications. I think the best way to demonstrate the strength of SRPR's winning poems is to let people read them. I can't quote them in full here (they're pretty long; we are not partial to long poems but neither do we shy away from them), so here's the opening section of Ray's poem, “Chapter VII: When You Stand in Front of the Coffeed Moths,” selected by C. S. Giscombe for the Summer/Fall 2011 issue:
faded.. .moth .. or .Gram you have come to me as if charading to me your color .muted .. . as an antiqued moth .. . . ..in crystallizing . .. velouring . .. patterns. .. of powdery .. .of arenose .. . dust-cinders that getting all together had landed all together on you on the sill and the sill you .that composition . is all so just ….. .still.. .. still. it makes a speech less ..diaphanous ..
And here are the first several couplets from Nancy K. Pearson's 2010 winning poem, “Abrams Creek,” selected by Jeanne Marie Beaumont:
My father spreads his seeds across the table—
Start Indoors. Plant April.
Look at me with my pills. A handful of gravel. An hour mows
its shadow over the field
rippling near Abrams Creek. I've come home
to come down. The woman on the other side
of the Good Samaritan Hotline said
there's no shame in that.
Coming here is like walking through the corn
when the corn is high. Something departs
like hair in a sink. Still, I count my pills.
There's a system to coming off.
I keep crushing trying to cut in half.
The bathroom counter turns granular,
geographic like a tongue.
Near my childhood home is a place called Cades Cove.
There's Hannah Mountain, Abrams Falls, Gregory Bald,
white names for the Cherokees who first blazed the paths
for pioneers carting camphor and sugar. There's a meadow
and in the meadow a gravestone.
Nestled between bluets and stargrass,
the small headstone reads:
Alea & Alea
Feb 12, 1839
I trace the name that death had named again.
Who needs one name for suffering?
Q: Who screens the contest entries and what are their credentials or backgrounds? Are entries read anonymously? Why or why not?
A: One reader first reads all submissions, without any identifying information. The reader is usually an advanced graduate student with whom I've worked closely in a variety of capacities and who knows the magazine well. I invite a different student to screen each year, and pay him or her well for the work. All first readers must be published poets, excellent writers, theoretically informed scholars of poetry working at the intersection of various fields (Illinois State is home to an English Studies department rather than a standard English [Literature] or Creative Writing program), and grounded, generous people. While it's a lot to ask one reader to tend carefully to every single submission, I think it's important that each poem is given the same chance of becoming a finalist. And yes, all submissions are read anonymously, at every stage. This is, in my view, the only ethical approach to judging contest submissions. The first reader sends me the finalists, which I immediately mail to the final judge. When the final judge sends me the titles of the winning poems, I look them up and announce the names of the winners. At this point I read, for the first time, through the remaining finalists and select a number of them for publication. Out of last year's finalists, I published 16 poems in addition to the 8 winning pieces (First Place, two Runners-Up, five Honorable Mentions).
Q: How many entries do you receive a year, and how many make it to the final judge? Have you seen any dramatic increases or decreases in the volume of entries, as the economy fluctuates?
A: In my two years as editor we've received about 350 submissions per contest (that's about 1,150 poems). Last year the numbers were up slightly, but overall the numbers are, so I'm told, down a bit from previous years when we tended to receive closer to 400 submissions per year (1,200 poems). I've worked hard to make SRPR's contest as fair and rewarding for those who submit as possible: the $20 entry fee buys you a careful reading, a year-long subscription, a good chance at publication should you become a finalist, and, if chosen as winner, a substantive 1-2 page introduction by the judge who selected your poem.
Q: Do you expect to allow online entries anytime soon? Why or why not?
A: Yes! As soon as our new website is up (I'm aiming for this fall), we will accept online entries to the Editors' Prize Contest. This is important for a variety of reasons: online submissions save paper, which saves trees and also curbs attendant pollutants from air planes and diesel trucks; online submissions allow those who may not be able to get to the post office easily an alternate way to enter the contest; and online submissions will draw more younger poets into the mix. We will continue to allow submissions via postal mail as well, as I do not want to prohibit those who may not have easy access to online technologies, or those who are not comfortable with such technologies, from entering.