Interview with Poetry Editors Shelley Wong and Jenna Kilic

In preparation for the staff’s imminent departure to Seattle for AWP, Associate Poetry Editor David Winter sat down with Poetry Editors Shelley Wong and Jenna Kilic. Shelley and Jenna are both third-year students in The Ohio State University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, and they have both published widely in literary journals. They discuss their editorial philosophies, their own writing, and Mariah Carey below.

David Winter: Thank you both so much for doing this interview. Where do you see The Journal heading in the next year? What do you hope to accomplish as Poetry Editors?

Jenna Kilic: I think we’re going to continue with something that [former Poetry Editor] Michael Marberry emphasized with us last year and that’s publishing established poets who we love alongside new, young poets whose work thrills us.

I want every issue of The Journal to strive toward publishing the most eclectic work possible and not just in terms of form. I’m talking about different voices; different cultural ideas and concepts; poems that risk being fierce, emotional, disturbing, etc. Unsafe poems. I want to publish poems that trouble me throughout the day and when I go to sleep, poems that make me want to write. On the whole, I want the poems in any particular issue to be in some sort of conversation and/or argument with one another and to establish that through eclecticism.

Shelley Wong: It’s a ridiculous honor to be a poetry editor for The Journal and have the opportunity to read the work of so many fine poets. I’m excited to work with Jenna and the entire Journal staff in the upcoming year.

Now, onto the questions! I concur with Jenna that diversity is important. I’m interested in the different ways a poem can create and craft meaning and I too am looking for poems that surprise me, that talk about unexpected subjects or talk about familiar subjects unexpectedly. Poetry is an auditory form as well as a visual one and how a poem uses music or white space in relation to its content fascinates me.

In addition to aesthetic diversity, I also champion gender equality and diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, and education. Poetry is about many voices, histories, interpretations, and representations.

The Journal has a wonderful tradition of publishing established and emerging writers, and we look forward to continuing that legacy and spotlighting some terrific poets through our print and web issues and online presence. During Michael’s tenure, he included several translations in each issue, and that is something Jenna and I are happy to continue. It’s a great honor to receive so many terrific submissions from poets around the world and expand our knowledge of poets who may be little known in the United States.

DW: I am so excited to be on staff here, too, and especially to work with the two of you. You make editing sound like a pretty great gig, but it’s also a rather eclectic pursuit, to borrow Jenna’s terminology. Is editing a lit mag something you’ve wanted to do for years? How did you get interested in this work?

JK: I became interested in the possibility of editing a literary magazine while applying to MFA programs. I wasn’t even aware that was a possibility for me until I was applying, and I wasn’t even sending my work out then. OSU having a well-established literary magazine was one of the reasons I decided to come here. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the publishing world, and working on a literary magazine seemed like a great way to do that.

SW: Being an editor is such fun! It’s much easier than writing. I was a poetry editor for my undergraduate literary journal Ibid at UC Berkeley and was very keen on getting involved with the graduate literary journal while pursuing my MFA. Writing can be a lonely art and literary journals are a terrific way to build community. As an editor, it’s such a thrill to find good work and support emerging writers. It’s also a surreally awesome experience to correspond with poets who you’ve admired for many years. As a student, I’ve come across so many new favorite poets through The Journal (a handful of names: Traci Brimhall, Marcus Wicker, Sally Wen Mao, Christina Veladota). Former poetry editors and poets extraordinaire Tory Adkisson and Michael Marberry both did an exceptional job of bringing in established writers alongside newer writers and I want to continue their legacy of helping great poets find their readers. Editing is really about building a home for poems and making love matches between readers and poets and poets with other poets. I hope we can make that happen.

DW: What are a few of your favorite literary magazines, and why? Where are you sending your own poems?

JK: Whenever I read Birmingham Poetry Review or 32 Poems, I feel the urge to write. When I get that feeling, then I know a magazine is one of my favorites. I also like the Boston Review, which recently published our own reviews editor, Raena Shirali, in the “Discovery” poetry contest. Those editors are interested in publishing serious poems and serious articles. I find their magazine incredibly engaging. Ninth Letter is like a shiny new toy I can’t wait to rip open. Other journals: Arcadia, Salamander, Kenyon ReviewKartika ReviewDamazine, The Portland ReviewPleiadesPoetry, The Dark HorseMeasure, The Sewanee Review, and Subtropics, among several others. I’ve sent my poems to all of these places. You win some; you lose some.

SW: As to journal favorites and my own poetry submissions, I’m a fan of Indiana ReviewColorado ReviewHayden’s Ferry Review, ShampooSycamore Review, and jubilat. These journals publish great work that often lingers in my mind. I love finding poems that cause me to rethink what I know about poetry or teach me how to see beauty or an image differently. The Internet is providing a platform for so many new poetic voices that it’s hard to keep up! It’s a great time for poetry.

DW: You’ve each been involved in the editorial process for a couple of years now. Has editing led you to new insights about your own writing?

JK: The editorial process has taught me one major thing about writing poems: don’t be boring! Boredom is my greatest fear when I write. It’s hard to imagine that any poet would find their own poems boring, but whenever I sit down to write, I try to imagine a trollish reader over my shoulder whispering into my ear, “Seriously, that’s the best you’ve got?” Or, a lot of times, they’re just snoring. That’s not to say you should write for any particular audience or editor, but that you should keep an audience’s potential perceptions in mind.

The editorial process has also made me consider line breaks a lot more. I try to look at each line I write isolated from the rest of the poem and see whether or not it’s strong enough to stand alone. Ideally, each line should strive to be its own little argument.

Lastly, the editorial process has exposed me to writers doing a lot of fun things with their forms, and then I think, “I should be that fun!” Michael Marberry is an exceptionally fun poet, and I think having been exposed to him and other writers has made me start to experiment with fun.

SW: As a reader for The Journal for the past two years, I have become more sensitive to the kinetics of a poem. I think of the William Carlos Williams’ quote, “A poem is a machine made out of words.” That metaphor is a bit soulless, but I agree that there needs to be electricity, a sense of moving parts working together in a poem, even if the poem is about stasis.

We receive wonderful work so the bar continues to rise as I go back to the page in my own writing. Reading slush has taught me to be more rigorous when using familiar poetic images or settings. (I’m from southern California and living in Ohio has brought out the ocean poet in me!) I’m also more of a lyric poet so it has been useful to read more narrative poetry and work with a very strong narrative poet (Jenna!) to assess such work.

DW: I’ve always loved that Williams’ quote. And Jenna, I might need to borrow your troll to check on a couple of my own poems. Speaking of which, could you each say a few words about your own writing projects? What have you got in the works?

JK: I have a mixed bag in the works, and I’d like to make it more mixed. Right now I’m working on my thesis and trying to figure out how all these poems “fit together” on some thematic level, but I also don’t want them to fit too well. I’m working toward a good mix of formal and free verse poems as well as personal and non-personal poems. I have difficulty talking about my own work, so I think that’s all I’ll say about that.

SW: As a third-year, it’s thesis time, so I plan to sift through and revise some of the fifty poems I’ve written in the past two years while drafting new work (fingers crossed). Several themes have emerged—love poems, California poems, play poems, women, silence, spectacle. Right now, it’s very experimental in terms of its organization and focus, so I plan to play around with order and sequence in the coming months. It’s exciting to put together a poetry manuscript, and I’m eager to revisit and rework what I’ve done so far.

DW: Editing is a lot of work, and I know how many hours you both put into The Journal. But what do you do when you’re not reading submissions, or wrestling with your own poems? How do you recharge before your next encounter with “Literature?”

JK: Always before I write, I like to read the news and then read poets who I find inspiring. There is a lot of great material in the news from which to make a poem. (Our own [former Managing Editor] Alex Fabrizio does it like a boss!) I might write off of something I read that day; I might not. Sometimes I’ll read something, and a fact here or there will turn up a year later in a poem. Sometimes, I feel the need to write a poem about a story immediately after it’s happened, which is a dangerous thing to do. I won’t write about stuff that gets too much play in the news. Reading the news always gets me to think, so it’s not a waste of creative time.

In the fall, I watch football, football, and more football. When football season is over, I cry and then read about football and watch bits of old, memorable games here and there. I’ll never watch a full re-run game—I can’t be that person—unless it’s the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl of the 2006-07 season in which the underdog Boise St. beat Oklahoma in the best multiple overtime series I’ve ever seen. Since I was four years old, I’ve watched football obsessively, and I don’t understand people who don’t understand football. Watch that Fiesta Bowl game, and you’ll understand why this sport is the best sport ever. I like cooking now—nothing too intense, but it’s a step up from the microwave. Going to the gym every day has become my new love-hate relationship. Exercising is hard, but it’s brought more balance to my life and writing.

SW: Good question! Self-care is important. I do yoga for exercise and meditation. When I’m faced with the competing needs of teaching, writing, editing, and downtime, I’m a big fan of the reward system, and the easiest reward is a music break. It’s such an instinctual thing to love a song. Songs change us; they can tap into serious emotion or coax us to sing or dance. A great song is like a great poem—I want to put it on repeat like I want to dive back into the poem’s first line. Music can also be an entertaining departure from thinking. I love poetry, but sometimes only Mariah will do.

David Winter wrote the chapbook Safe House (Thrush Press, 2013). His poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Atlanta Review, Meridian, Four Way Review, Union Station, and Forklift, Ohio. He is an MFA student at The Ohio State University, where he teaches creative writing and composition, and serves as a poetry editor for The Journal. You can visit him at davidwinter (dot) net.