A dialogue between Overland’s fiction and poetry editors about the art and practice of editing.
Jen: First up, I’m interested in how you select poetry for Overland. What kind of criteria do you use? Do you know what you’re looking for, or do you know it when you see it?
Toby: I don’t have any strict criteria for choosing poems to publish in Overland.
Being too judgmental (the Greek kritērion translates to ‘means of judging’) might limit the scope of what a poem could potentially do linguistically, politically, artistically, and is antithetical to one of poetry’s essential gambits: finding the language to distil the ineffable. That said, some judgment is necessary, and so I like to think I know what I’m looking for, and that I’ll see it when it’s in front of me (I have a dozen or more voluntary readers – all poets – who also contribute to my decisions – shout out to them!).
Anyway, to get to the point, I’m particularly interested in poetry that is able to say many things at once – poems that are multiple in some way, whether that be in their voice, their subjectivity, their subject matter, their linguistic play, their complex of emotions, or in the associations they make. All the more powerful if a poem can do all these things without crumbling. Poems are made things and readers make meaning from them (poesis = ‘to make’) and so I look for poems that organically find their own form – something that is not easy to do but is the sign of a poet at work. That doesn’t rule out strict or traditional forms, like sonnets or whatever. It actually enables them to be rediscovered in new ways.
Jen: Yes, a big shout out to the amazing volunteer fiction readers who make my job possible!
It’s interesting that you bring up form as something that is discovered in the process of writing – I like that sense of investigation. This is very resonant with fiction for me, and something I think many writers neglect to consider deeply: what shape is your story, and why is it made this way? I often reread Ursula Le Guin’s essay, ‘The carrier bag theory of fiction’, which talks about the issue of narrative form as a radical project – and the idea of using the story as a container for something. She argues that old forms – myths, stories, heroic conquests, etc – are loaded with certain kinds of power, but rather than making them poisonous, this makes them wonderfully able to be subverted.
You can see the work in a good story as much as you can in a poem. It isn’t about cleverness; it’s more about craft. If a story’s a carrier bag, you might admire the fine seams, the embroidery, but you still need it to hold the weight of whatever’s in it.
So I’m not looking for specific qualities either. I tend to go by energy, whether that comes from narrative tension, confidence in the language, or imaginative reach – ideally I’m looking for all three, but they can appear in any style, genre, or form. Then there is a question of content. I am definitely looking for stories with heft. A story needs to be about something more than just the people in it and their feelings, however evocative. The best stories often have a sense of something more going on beneath their surfaces.
Toby: Energy is really important to poems too, and is unquantifiable. It could be a colour, mood, rhythm, voice, tone, angle – whatever – but it’s usually married with form and content and, as you say, imaginative reach.
I’m also looking for a political inflection in poems – because I’m personally interested in that, and because that’s Overland’s MO as a journal of the left, and of radical thinking. I should qualify that I think, as many do, that all poems are political. You don’t really make money when you write poems; and, depending on how you situate yourself (as in, presuming that you don’t capitulate to market tendencies – to advertise and deify your celebrity or status or privilege), you’re going against the market because it literally takes time away from other money-making pursuits. Under neoliberal capitalism, your poem is a free space for language that you choose to occupy. It can become a deeply subversive expression, whether individual or multiple or collective. As Kathleen Ossip writes (in the article I’ve just linked to): ‘Any act where freedom is urgently at issue is a political act, and any space that makes us aware of our innate freedom is a radically political space.’ So, a personal, realist poem that explores minor affects can be just as powerful in its politics as a surrealist, punning satire on the language of parliament. What’s less interesting to me, as an editor, is poetry that’s too didactic or too one-dimensional in its politics. And we receive a lot of those kinds of poems, as I’m sure most venues do.
Jen: I agree – when I talk about political substance, I’m not talking about big themes, necessarily. I want to get a sense of the world, a sense of the story taking place in a complex moral universe (this is one reason most writers get better with age – if you pay attention, that moral universe deepens in complexity). I don’t think a short story can get away with being polemical the way some poems can, but it can give you an experience of another life, another way of being. That moment where we recognise the personhood of a fictional character is always alchemical. If we see them as a person, then we have to test our own characters against theirs, in whatever situations they end up in. This can make us squirm, or cackle, or feel braver, or remember our flaws, or imagine a better world. Reading fiction deepens our moral universe, just as life does.
Telling stories is always political – whose stories get told and how and by whom matters. All the recent revelations around sexual assault have reminded me how telling a story is an act of justice. For many disempowered people, it’s the only viable way to seek justice. It’s important to understand that’s what you’re entering into when you write. Stories are what help us survive in the world. They make demands on us. They are powerful.
Toby: I think the same goes for poems and the stories they can tell, the voices they represent, and the pictures they present of the world, however direct or obscure, rousing or absurd.
How do you balance your story choices, in terms of publishing a diverse spectrum of stories and authors? It’s fairly impossible, right, given you’ve got maybe 3 stories per issue? For poetry, I have a bit more scope, I suppose, because I can publish more voices in less space, even if it’s only 8–9 pages per issue. Being representative of the various kinds of poets, their varying backgrounds and approaches, and the communities of poetry in Australia is still an impossible balancing act, but I do make conscious choices as to who and what to represent. That’s one aspect of being an editor that isn’t discussed very often, I don’t think, perhaps because of the fairly loud voices out there decrying identity politics. I’d rather be transparent and say that I receive so many good poems that it’s an embarrassment of riches, really, and that my choices for publication don’t simply come down to the ‘best’ poems – my choices come down to a combination of aesthetic and political diversity, if that makes sense. One person’s best is another’s worst, in any event, so it’s a case of thinking beyond my own subjective desires as an editor.
More specifically, Overland has looked to encourage and publish a broad range of new and emerging poets and their work, as well as more marginal and radical work, politically and aesthetically speaking. That’s not to say that we don’t publish well-established poets – we do! – we just publish them alongside more new and emerging poets than most other journals do. It’s also not to say that we don’t publish traditional or generalist approaches to poetry either – we do! – we just publish those alongside some more radical and experimental works.
Jen: Only having space for about twelve stories a year certainly does limit how representative I can be with the fiction. I often self-audit, checking my decisions against gender/sexuality/ethnic identity/geography – if we don’t do this, we end up reiterating existing biases. It has to be good, but sometimes it’s a question of choosing a story that needs a little more editorial work, rather than something that’s already very polished. Those choices are political for me; even when it’s light, the exchange of editing can feel like teaching or mentoring, and it’s important to consider where that energy is going to, where writers are coming from, what are the other resources they can access. I think about whether a submission might easily find a home in another, less radical journal. In some ways the legacy of Overland makes these choices easier – it’s not just my personal taste, but a curatorial role that has a sixty-year history behind it.
One of the best things about being a reader now is the slow but successful push for more diversity in publishing. We’re seeing much more interesting work as a result. Everyone’s having to lift their game, including us. I think it’s a lifelong struggle, and I regularly have conversations with our editor, Jacinda Woodhead, about how we can do better. For example, a while ago we were all talking about needing to encourage more submissions from women of colour, and we ended up putting a callout on the website – that seems to have worked across fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Having specific competitions like the Nakata Brophy is really great too. It motivates writers to send something in. (But we want to see your work all the time!)
Aesthetic diversity is something I want to encourage, too. I would love to see more weirdness, more experimentation, more playing with genre and structure. I read that WG Sebald told his students, ‘By all means be experimental, but let the reader be part of the experiment’, and I try to remember that. I want to see work that takes risks and justifies its own shape. I seem to have returned to the question of form!
What sort of work would you like to see more of?
Toby: I’d love to see more poetry that challenges structural inequalities. For instance, poems that upset or overturn the canon – works of sabotage – as well as works of collage that simultaneously appropriate and critique public language. I’d like to see consistently innovative uses of form. Surrealism gave us stream of consciousness, but what about ‘the feed’ as a form? Most of us in this post-digital age read and contribute to multiple feeds dozens of times a day. How can poets create forms to represent and subvert our online consumption, our inter-webbed lives? Enjambment comes to mind as a technique that is rarely exploited enough in a poem’s construction or deconstruction – in how a poem un-scrolls down the page or screen. But also, what variety of cultural ephemera will you choose to place in your feed? Ads? Trolls? Cutesy imagery? Ugly emotions? Confessional tweets? Rallying cries? This is already occurring in younger generations of poets but I’d like to see some more rigorous, outlandish and playful examples of it submitted to Overland. I’d also like to see more genderqueer work, especially from trans-identifying poets. I honestly believe that the breaking down of socially constructed gender binaries is one of the most revolutionary things occurring in writing and culture at present.
Overall, I’d like to see poets’ most challenging work.
Jen: Absolutely want more queer work in all senses of the word – as we take that gender binary apart, we see our potential to dismantle all the other power structures that operate around and between and inside us. I heartily endorse that call for more sabotage.