Shanna McNair, Editor of The New Guard
Jendi Reiter conducted this exclusive email interview with Shanna McNair, editor of The New Guard literary review. Founded in 2009, this Maine-based journal offers two annual contests with prizes of $1,000 each: the Machigonne Fiction Contest for literary or experimental fiction, and the Knightville Poetry Contest for narrative or experimental poetry. This year's submissions are accepted May 1-September 1, by mail or online.
Shanna McNair is the founder and editor-in-chief of The New Guard, Maine's only indie multi-genre lit review. Her recent publications include Maine Magazine, Naugatuck River Review, and Fact-Simile. She was a Summer Literary Seminar 2010 fellowship recipient for work in both poetry and fiction. She is represented by Zero Gravity Management for her original screenplays. McNair has a working background in journalism, holds BFAs in both Art and Creative Writing, and is a 2011 MFA candidate in Creative Writing at University of Southern Maine/Stonecoast.
(Photo credit: Nathan Eldridge)
Q: The name of your journal immediately invites the questions: Who are the "Old Guard?" And in what ways do you hope to advance beyond them?
A: Ultimately, a name is a name is a name. That said, I came up with the name "The New Guard" one very late night. The name galvanized me and adrenalized me, and here's why. Maine is steeped in literary tradition, and we have a rich history here. That's good—in fact, that's something to be proud of. It's wonderful and it's lucky. Some of the greatest writers in English come from this state, including Edna St. Vincent Millay and Longfellow. This is true anywhere in the United States; each state has its writers. The idea that today's writing, experiment or not, comes out of thin air—well, that makes no sense at all. There's already a choir, if you will, and new writers add their voices to it. Art happens in addition and progress is social.
I don't think of TNG as particularly advancing beyond, but more as maybe a next logical step in a continued progression. I want to honor the "Old Guard" while bringing in the "New Guard". Too, there's a postmodern edge to this concept because—what is "new"? How long is something truly new? Once you declare something "new", basically the moment the word is uttered, the newness dissolves. Newness, as a concept, exists less as a real thing and more as a transitive, as a sort of revolving door.
Q: On your website, your mission statement says, "In a time of publishing crisis The New Guard will stand up and put on the gloves for those good stories and poems." A worthy goal! What types of writing are being unfairly squeezed out of the marketplace, in your opinion, and how can we create an audience and a venue for them to be heard?
A: All I can do is create one venue, and that's what I've done. I'll do my best with The New Guard in hopes it will make a difference in the marketplace and more importantly to writers and readers. As far as the audience—I believe the readers are there, otherwise I wouldn't have created the venue.
About the writing...I feel that there is a certain kind of academic taste permeating the publishing industry right now, which I believe stems from the Great Advent of the Graduate School Writing Program. I mean, I'm one to talk—I'm in an MFA myself. Legibility, however, doesn't seem to be as important as style these days. I'll put it like this: I have a background in journalism—and my first editor advised me to write to the general population as though they were readers on the seventh grade level. I think the populace is smarter than seventh grade, for crying out loud. Anyway I'd say write to an audience for legibility, but write to the smartest people and the seventh graders at the same time. Let's not sell anybody short.
Q: For purposes of the contest, what, in your mind, makes fiction "experimental" or "literary"—what characteristics are you seeking, and what are you trying to exclude by this definition? If it's easier to explain by example than by theory, please suggest some authors that fall into this category for you, and what it is about their work that seems "experimental" or "literary."
A: There are loads of different kinds of literary experimentation. We could talk forever about Postmodernism and Conceptualism, language, concrete, visual and found poetry...Arguments and semantics will ensue, because the real question will finally arise: "what is true experiment?" I'm leaving that answer up to the writer.
Asking for entries that are experimental or literary actually casts a massive net. Our submissions call is broad on purpose; I've kept definitions loose so that contest entrants might discover their own conceits about experiment, thereby finding a fresh, personal approach. What we've found is that submissions swing more one way or the other, and are often a combination of both—which adds up to a real try at something bold while the manuscript maintains ground in the literary genre. Because we accept traditional work (whatever that means to the entrant) and experimental work (again, whatever that means to the entrant) there really is no exclusion. We aren't looking for science fiction or fantasy, but basically everything else is fair game.
I will say that in my opinion, structure isn't as important as content; this is what creates flat experiments. I'm not negating the good work of countless visionaries but I'm saying let's get on with it. We have the luxury of being able to look back over history and check out all of the wonderful things that people have inventively produced in experimental writing. Marriages of words to artwork. Writers who've come up with hilarious and daring hoaxes such as the Ern Malley affair out of Australia. Absurdity meets Modernism. Dada dances a polka. Look, there are literary cross-pollinations galore. Intuitive definitions are what I'm looking for, rather than academic ones.
Q: How would you define "experimental" poetry? Again, feel free to cite both examples and theory.
A: TNG welcomes blank verse and formalism, concrete poems and straight narrative poems. The magic, to me, is in the juxtaposition. And I have to say I enjoyed sending less traditional poems to Donald Hall to be judged, given his recognition as a more traditional poet. But Hall edited poetry for The Paris Review, as did former US Poet Laureate Charles Simic, our 2011 judge. Having these poets involved in this way perhaps levels the field somehow and, just maybe, has writers—at least momentarily—rethinking these basic definitions and concepts.
There are two big components in play when a writer confronts a blank page. First of all, a writer draws upon her own foundation in reading, her personal perception of a greater canon of work in the world. The second component is words on the page; her best try to find a new perspective, one that is as unique to her as possible. Poetry is meant to show the world in a new way. A poem that achieves this aim is a good poem.
Q: Since the journal's founding, how have you been promoting The New Guard and bringing it into dialogue with other literary communities?
A: I've gotten some great promotion going through entities such as liveworkportland.org, Lily Magazine, and New Pages. I took TNG on the road to AWP in D.C. this February 2011 with a few TNG team-members, Brandi Neal, a 2010 Fiction Editor, and Sherry Whittemore, one of our Copyeditors. The girls and I set up a table and showed off our first issue. Through this event I was able to promote TNG in a video interview taken by an instructor from Columbia College. At AWP I gave out over 200 copies of the review to other heads of lit reviews from all over the country.
In the coming issue of Bomb Magazine, look for our 2011 Fiction Editor Scott Wolven's article. He's mentioning TNG and talking about his genius idea of having a letters section. His first idea was "Writers to Writers: Fan Letters to the Dead", a feature that I've taken on as a TNG tradition. The letters section has piqued some interest, and garnered interviews in obitmag.com (by 2011 Fiction Editor Suzanne Strempek Shea) and even an interview with ABC live radio Australia. I don't know of another lit review that has a letters section, and we are incredibly proud of it.
Q: Tell me about the contest judging process. How many entries were received last year? Who screens the entries, and how many make it to the final judge?
A: We got a tremendous response last year! More than we'd expected—tons of entries.
There isn't really a "screening" process—we give entrants a real look-see and manuscripts are all read by actual TNG editors. Our aim is to respect writers and give them the very fairest shake, so all writing is carefully considered. Once the editors have communicated on the entries and come to a final round of manuscripts, we send that work to our judges, who pick the winners in both contests. All finalists' work is read by the judges, in other words. Last year we had eight fiction pieces and fourteen poems—and I expect these numbers will vary. Judges read those finalist manuscripts blind.
Q: Who are the final judges for this year's poetry and fiction prizes? What is it about their aesthetic that made you choose them to represent The New Guard?
A: Charles Simic will judge the Knightville Poetry Contest, and David Plante will judge the Machigonne Fiction Contest. I wanted to cultivate well-known judges for these positions because they give the new writer extra clout! If I can facilitate this for new writers, I'm doing my job as editor/middleman. TNG is all about its writers. We'll do all we can to support them. I tell you what, it was a by-God joy to send out those two $1,000 checks last year to our two contest winners. Writers are almost always underpaid and undervalued. What a thrill to be working for writers and giving them something substantial for their efforts. Go, writers!
Q: Please share your impressions of last year's winners and what made them stand out.
A: Payne Ratner won the Machigonne Fiction Contest with his entry "Fish Story". I thought his piece exemplified what we were looking for exactly. A fresh, clean story, his piece blended a bunch of styles effortlessly—from magic realism to dirty realism to the great absurd. I thought of Charles Bukowski and of the tone of some of Borges' work. A smart, gut-wrenching, funny and direct piece. I loved it and was happy that our judge Debra Spark selected it. That said, all of our fiction was tremendous.
William Derge won the Knightville Poetry Contest with his entry "A Red Chair". The poem was chosen by Donald Hall. Hall was truly excited about the poem, and about the poems he read, praise that is known to be rare. Derge's poem, an ekphrastic poem, had very nice, long clean lines and spot-on enjambments. As is normally the case with this form, Derge deconstructed a painting and the society from which it was drawn, but he broadened this out into a cyclical thought, including everything from philosophy to Chekhovian simplicity. A phenomenal piece of writing. Both were—bravo. But all the pieces in the review are stand-up-and-put-on-the-gloves-worthy.
Q: Other than the writer's convenience, are there any advantages/disadvantages to postal versus online submissions? Do you find that your initial reaction to a work is subtly different if you encounter it first on the screen rather than on paper?
A: Honestly, I find that there is no difference between the two. If there were a difference I suppose bias would be created, which would be a problem! That said we are much fonder of getting online submissions because they are much easier to handle on our end. It seems best to offer both options to writers; some writers prefer handing in a hard copy and some enjoy zapping the work via our online manager. As someone who submits to contests herself, I am always happiest submitting online so I wanted to be sure we had an online system.
Q: Have you considered putting sample content from The New Guard on the website to give potential entrants a better understanding of your tastes? Why or why not?
A: We won't be publishing online in the foreseeable future. I'm not a Luddite or Kindle-phobic but I find that there is some real value in having TNG be a book-only publication. We'll be putting out a book once a year; putting out the best book we can. There is a lot of magic in books. The shape, the perfect technology, the intimacy of you and the book sharing space. The feel of the pages between your fingertips. The smell, even. The fact that you can write notes or dog-ear a book and tote it with you. It's you and the book, and that's that. The book becomes a moment in time, a symbol, an enduring presence. I love books. They're probably not long for this world—I can't help but love them just the same.
Q: Are there particular techniques, topics, or perspectives that you feel are over-represented in your submissions pool (or in literary journals generally), and conversely, are there others that you'd like to see more often?
A: Legibility and clean lines...these are the basic things I'd like to see. Beyond that, I don't want to gum up the works too much with suggestions on style and form. Writers should feel free to write how they want to and submit what they feel is their best work.
One story I'll mention is one of my faves: John Cheever's "The Swimmer", which really does crack the short story form in its use of time; however, there is a clear baseline of logic. Because of this logic the story can operate in all of its wildness. "The Swimmer" is kind of an impossibility—yet it works, and it works magnificently. That's the kind of thing we're looking for at TNG.
Q: What are you reading right now? (No highbrow pretensions required. Comic books, Vogue, John Grisham...we don't judge.)
A: Ah...I have a great big book of Hayden Carruth on my desk. And I've re-read "He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded" by Alden Nowlan about three times this week. Oh, it's a good one. I'm looking at Junot Diaz' The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao again because I'm working on a novel manuscript and it's helping me out form-wise. What a crazy wonderful narrator Diaz has in that book. Wondrous, you might say. And I've been reading a fair amount of new work by friends in the past little while. Keeping a reading relationship with a couple of people has been an inspiration and guide for me over the years.