Ten Questions for Poetry Editors – Nicolette Bethel

What goes on inside poetry editors’ heads? is a burning question for publishing and wannabe-publishing poets everywhere. With this third Ten Questions series, we are showcasing weekly answers from a diverse group of poetry editors to Ten Questions for Poetry Editors. Each editor’s responses will appear as a separate blog post and all posts will be linked back to the series’ standing page.

Our responder this week is Nicolette Bethel, editor of Tongues of the Ocean.

1. What drew you to editorial work in the first place?

Three thoughts: 1) that the internet revolution has changed the way in which we write, read and think about literature, whether we know it or not; 2) the literary situation in my country (The Bahamas) could be part of that revolution in a good way; and 3) the literary situation in my country is divided into two parts, the spoken and the written word, and it’d be great to have a place where they could both meet. So tongues of the ocean was born.

2. Describe your editorial trajectory – when/where did it start, how long have you been at it, where is it now? What are your editorial ambitions?

I did some editing of poetry a long time ago, for an anthology of poetry published after a conference was held in Nassau. I sat on the editorial board of an academic publication and of an academic journal more recently, and I’ve worked on yearbooks, newspapers and very small annual journals throughout my career, but the closest thing to current experience that I have in poetry editing is moderating a large poetry forum. So let’s say I’ve been at it for six months (= one 28-piece issue) now.

I rather like the experience. My editorial ambitions are: to get tongues of the ocean up and running, establish the standard I want to establish, and then to find fellow editors to share the workload.

3. Apart from following submissions guidelines, what should a poet sending work do (or refrain from doing) to stay on your good side?

Not become abusive. It’s the quickest way to get shunted to the junk mail folder. Argumentative is OK — if I’m in a good mood I’ll justify my position, but I won’t take abuse. I’ll laugh at you behind your back.

4. Do you co-edit or edit on your own? Talk about this choice – what are the pros and cons of both options, in your view?

I edit on my own. I have worked with committees for far longer than I care to admit, and this is by no means a committee deal. I’m editor in chief of the journal. However, I don’t know anywhere near enough about spoken word poetry to feel comfortable editing it, so I have a co-editor (Nadine Thomas-Brown) who deals with that side of the issue.

The pros about editing alone are, well, you’re editing alone. You can determine what it is the journal is about, and you don’t have to negotiate for what you want. BIG plus. The cons are that all the work comes to you and you do it all yourself.

No – there aren’t any cons.

5. What gets you most excited when you read a submission? How frequently do you get “exciting” submissions?

I don’t know what gets me most excited – it’s a feeling, it’s a moment, and I’m resisting analyzing what it is. I tend towards the cerebral in almost everything, and so I tend to analyze reactions, situations – every last little thing. tongues of the ocean was set up with the idea that the poems that get published are poems that move me. (All these years of analyzing and overanalyzing have led me, ironically, to decide to start trusting my gut.) So now, I don’t ask why. I just wait till I get the feeling and then I pick.

How frequently do I get “exciting” submissions? More frequently than I thought I would. I get excited when I find a new form, like the ourobouric form that drives Nicholas Laughlin’s Clues. I get excited when something moves me. I get excited when some thing really works better than I think it should.

6. Describe how you sort through and narrow down submissions and finally select pieces for publication.

I read (or listen) until I get 28 pieces that move me. A lot of the time I pray. More often than I expect I rejoice.

7. Is your publication online, print or hybrid? Share your thoughts on the differences between these formats from an editorial point of view. Does your publication accept both snail mail and email submissions? Explain your policy in this regard.

So far, the publication is online only. It’s cheaper that way – the only cost is my time. Email submissions only. You know – trees, stamps, the fact that I live in a small weird country outside of which people are unlikely to have stamps, the lack of space and a good shredder, paper cuts – you know.

It’s also the only way we can stay true to the original idea of creating a dialogue between spoken and written word work.

8. Talk about the challenges and opportunities involved in accepting or rejecting work submitted for publication by poets you know personally.

It’s harder to reject their submissions. I simply have to stay true to the work. So far, so good, but it’s early days yet.

9. If you are a publishing poet, how does being an editor affect your performance/behavior as a poet? Do you ever publish your own work? If so, why? If not, why not?

I have become a little more communicative with other editors, and I hope they will forgive me for that. Other than that, I don’t know that it’s changed all that much yet – but I’ve been at it only a few months so far.

Regarding my own work, my fellow editor and I (Nadine Thomas-Brown co-edits the spoken word part of tongues with me) decided last issue that we wouldn’t publish our own work. But we live in a country that is new to the whole idea of juried selection of work for publications – that doesn’t really have a tradition of submission and rejection of work in the literary arts, whose artists generally work on the principle of who-you-know rather than inclusion-by-merit. We also have an idea that editors are people who do their jobs because they can’t write, and who’re on a power trip as a result, and so for this issue I toyed with the idea of publishing one poem by each of us so that we could prove our credentials, as it were. I’m still toying. I have selected the poems (mine will be a reprint, already accepted by and published in another journal) but am still not sure I will put them up.

The why not is simple – there are lots of other avenues for our work (though Nadine is more limited than me, being a spoken word poet), and so we’d rather feature others’ poetry. But the option is open for now.

10. Describe how you conceptualize what you are trying to achieve with each edition – e.g. do you see each edition of your magazine as a big poem, or as something else? How do you get feedback on the quality of your publication?

Oh, jeez, I don’t know. Here we go with the overanalysis again – that kind of question kicks that part of my brain over and I’m standing there in my brain going “Down, boy! Down!!”) All I’m trying to achieve is a feeling. I don’t know how to put the feeling in words, but the first issue’s photo does it better. I want to capture all those things that make up life in the Caribbean, to collect in one place a bunch of poems written by people who are here or connected in some (no matter how tortuous) way, and find the dialogue that surely exists. Kamau Brathwaite once wrote of our region that “the unity is submarine”. OK, then, I’m diving, and each issue is an archipelago of islands in an ocean of poetry, and the unity is submarine.

We use WordPress as the platform for the issue, and I’ve turned the comment feature on, so we get feedback through the comment forms attached to each poem and to each page. And we have a Facebook presence (the tongues of the ocean group) and an embryonic, often shrivelled, Twitter identity (oceantongues) too. Most of the feedback comes by email, though, and word of mouth from people I meet in Starbucks.


Previous Ten Questions for Poetry Editors responses:

Steve Schroeder, Anti-
Helen Losse, Dead Mule
Susan Culver, Lily and Poetry Friends
Justin Evans, editor of Hobble Creek Review
Paul Stevens, editor of the Shit Creek Review, The Chimaera and The Flea.

Coming up next (once a week on Tuesdays):

James Midgley, editor of Mimesis
Reb Livingston, editor of No Tell Motel
Kate Bernadette Benedict, editor of Umbrella
Christine Klocek-Lim, editor of Autumn Sky Poetry
Lindsay Walker, poetry editor of Juked
Mary Biddinger, editor of Barn Owl Review
Edward Byrne, editor of Valparaiso Poetry Review

This series’ standing page: click here.


Previous Ten Questions series:

1. Ten Questions on Poetry
2. Ten Questions on Publication

Published by

Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

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