Kelly Morse on Having Thirty Submissions Out at Once and Stereotypes in Writing About Vietnam

Interview by 
Yolande House

Kelly Morse is primarily a poet with a poet’s facility with structure and lyricism. Morse writes in “The Saigon Kiss” about her experience as a foreigner in Vietnam, where she interrogates identity and language while refusing to shy away from her own privilege. “Ritual” is a stunning piece about maternity. In “Open the Door and Here,” a flash essay forthcoming from Quarter After Eight, she again portrays the complicated nature of whiteness and privilege in neocolonial Southeastern Asia.

Yolanda House: Was "The Saigon Kiss" your first time submitting to Brevity? 

Kelly Morse: Yes, it was the first time submitting to Brevity. However, I submitted it six times as a poem before that (I subscribe to Duotrope to track all of my submissions.) I originally wrote it as a poem but couldn't get enough of the nuance I wanted into it, so [I] kept working at it. I sent it to a poet friend because I couldn't figure out what wasn't working and she wrote back that she thought I needed to tinker with the form, which is how it became a nonfiction prose essay. So preceding the acceptance are other rejections, which is generally what happens with my work. 

YH: What was it like working with the editors of the journal? Did they change anything in your piece? Did they do any promotions for it?

KM: The Brevity editors were cordial and hands-off, which I liked. They requested clarification on one line but otherwise printed the piece as I had submitted it. When it was published, they posted links to it on Twitter and their other social media platforms. They also asked if I wanted to write the craft essay for them, which I think they ask most of their writers. Later they solicited another essay for the blog, so I wrote about Claudia Rankine's Citizen. They also promoted that piece on their social media.

YH: Do you have any advice about submitting to this journal? Did you do anything differently with this submission after any past submission mistakes?

KM: [My] [b]iggest piece of advice [for] submitting to Brevity: don't get discouraged if you're rejected. They receive over a thousand submissions a year. However, if they think your work has potential you can build a kind of relationship [with] them by continuing to submit because there will be notes about your previous subs to them on Submittable. I repeatedly submit to all of the journals that I think would be a good fit for my work. This was the first flash nonfiction piece that I'd written and [it] was a departure from poetry, so it was my first time submitting nonfiction. There are some journals I submit to every year, year after year, because if I was published in them I'd be really proud (plus it would be good for my CV.)  

Also, I know that Brevity will occasionally work with a writer who they feel has come close but needs some polishing; however, this is pretty rare, and they have to be invested in the story contained in the piece, along with the voice. Voice is really important to them.

YH: How long did it take for you to hear back from them after you submitted your work?

Looking at Submittable, I sent it on 3/22/2013, and they sent the acceptance email on 7/1/2013. They try to respond back within 45 days to people, so when that date passed and they still hadn't rejected me I knew it was a good sign. When journals hold on to your work, it usually means it's gotten past the first round of rejection.

KM: However, then there is the opposite problem. I've had journals hold a piece more than six months because they like my work, but it doesn't quite fit with the upcoming issue, or it's not quite strong enough, but they don't want to let go of it. The waiting window is a tricky one. 

YH: How many journals did you submit to this year? Do you have any other writing coming out soon (in journals or elsewhere)? 

KM: According to Duotrope, I've submitted 46 times in the last twelve months, but that's not quite correct because it counts each poem when really I've been sending out packets of three to five poems at a time to each journal. This last year I had a baby, which slowed everything way down, so I'm just getting back into submitting in a serious way. I have a backlog of poems that need to be polished before I can submit them, which is driving me crazy.

In 2015 I focused on sending out my book manuscript to prizes and did the same in 2016. It's been rejected 32 times so far according to Duotrope (how great to have someone tracking all this.) The manuscript has been a finalist about four times so I'm still submitting it, but it is discouraging. It's about Vietnam and is a multi-genre book, so I think that it might be too odd for the prize circuit. I'm going to start sending it to presses I respect during their open reading periods this year. 

In 2014 I made a new year's resolution to have thirty submissions out at all times for a year to see what would happen. I'd been told for years that submitting was a numbers game, but I'd always resisted that approach and only submitted a handful of times a year to carefully selected journals. I had some acceptances but not a lot.

I decided to try the opposite extreme, and I'm glad I did. Maintaining thirty subs out meant that I couldn't obsess about one or two journals, because my brain couldn't keep track of all the subs (again, thank goodness for Duotrope.) I was also forced to branch out and look at new journals and submit to journals I wasn't brave enough to submit to before because now I had to meet my quota. I got some high-tier acceptances, which surprised me and made me realize I had a shot with important journals. I'd been underestimating my work's possible reach. Submitting became less personal and more of a strategic waiting-and-polishing game.

I don't do thirty anymore—I ran out of work to submit and haven't been able to polish the new work I've since produced because of my kids (although that's slowly changing)—but personally I prefer to have a minimum of fifteen packets or pieces out to places at a time. I still research the magazines, and I'm still bummed by rejections, but as long as there are multiple subs in the hopper it doesn't feel so terrible. Having my manuscript rejected over and over, now that's been hard. 

I have pieces forthcoming in Literary Mama and Bramble, but that's it for now. For 2017 I've been focusing on residency applications and submitting my chapbook for awards since I don't have polished new work to send out. I like to have a mix of subs going at a time - nonfiction, poetry, manuscript, residencies, prizes. My chapbook won two prizes this year, and I'm going on a residency on a fellowship this fall, so I'm starting to come out from the baby-enforced slowdown. 

YH: How do you revise your writing?

KM: I usually write a piece, work on it for a few days until it seems I can't get any further with it, then set it aside for a while. Cheryl Strayed calls this "seasoning a piece", like one does with a log destined to be firewood. Sometimes I leave it for a few weeks but lately more like a few months. Occasionally I lose my way back into a piece, but generally the wait helps me feel more analytical, less emotionally attached to a piece, which is a good place to revise from. 

I start sending out work when I feel it's about 80 percent done as a way to push me to continue working on it as the rejections come back. I look at the work with a more detached eye once I start sending it out, which generally is good. However, sometimes I burn myself with this method. [I send] my mostly-polished work to the places where I most want it published and then it's rejected; I should have started with journals that are lower on my list but also desirable to be published in and only sent to the highest tier when it's been through the final revision process. I'm trying to find another way to get myself to get into the headspace needed for ultimate revisions, but this is the technique that's working right now. It's not a great one, but it pushes me into a final revision stage (and into submitting) that I haven't otherwise been able to make myself do.

YH: I like what you said in your Rappahannock Review interview about feeling a responsibility to portray the "real" Vietnam beyond the Western stereotype. Do you have any tips for new writers to consider when writing about experiences abroad? What do you wish you had known when you started writing about Vietnam?

KM: Hoo boy, this is a big, important question. I recently saw an amazing art video by the Propeller Group about Vietnamese funerals and the liminal space they provide for transgender performers to be accepted in a culture that otherwise vehemently rejects gender variation. In a corresponding essay, the group wrote about how they didn't want to exoticize the funeral traditions and so tried to do a lot of their shots from the point of view of being of the group instead of spectators outside watching the group (and therefore othering it). I think considering the gaze is very important when writing about a culture that isn't one's own. I struggle with this myself. Vietnam was/is exotic to me, and that's okay. But when I present it on the page, am I presenting it as a kind of bauble for other Westerners to gawk at, or am I presenting it with the complexity and nuance of someone who is not an insider but who nevertheless has been a local? There's some subjects that feel easier to write about—food, for example—because I can describe a dish and the rituals around eating it with authority, which I can't do in other arenas of Vietnamese life.

Another question I ask myself is: Who is your audience? When I first started writing about Vietnam, I wrestled with the idea of audience for two years because it seemed that English readers found my work somewhat difficult and were in a roundabout way asking me to dumb it down for them. Eventually, I realized that my writings didn't mirror their worldview back at them (Laurence Venuti writes about this mirroring,) and so they resisted it. I was focusing on the wrong audience.

Over time I've found that expats and first-generation Americans (and hopefully Canadians!) are my best readers, because they can identify with the work in a way that the typical North American white person can't due to being from the majority and not knowing what it's like to balance cultures, to be othered. My readers have to do work to enter my pieces, and I'm okay with that.  

I'd encourage Western writers to read Edward Said's Orientalism, which documents the history of the Western literary gaze on the Middle East. A lot of the problems he brings up are similar to how Asia is represented by Westerners, and it gave me a better grasp of what I'm trying not to do when I write about Vietnam. I try to foreground the voices and experiences of my Vietnamese friends so that the story isn't centered around me all the time. I'm still feeling out what is appropriate to write about and publish versus what should stay in draft form. I've also found that there's a much narrower journal market for global, complex stories (and for flash nonfiction in general). I've started looking at British and Australian journals because some of them are more savvy/concerned about the types of global subjects that I like to write about.  

I hope you find these answers helpful. As for submitting your work, a few years ago author Erika Dreifus made up a list of magazines/journals that regularly accept flash nonfiction. I think more journals are starting to accept flash nonfiction but only on a case-by-case basis. I don't know why there's resistance against it—I guess because it's new? Here's the link.

You'll notice that almost everything I've published that's flash is in one of these journals, which is because I basically went through the list and submitted to the ones I liked best. I've also had flash published in Mid-American Review. I've heard that Gulf Coast's online editors (they have a print journal and have started an online section) will look at flash, so I've got a submission out there, too. You should send wherever you think your work would be a good fit. 

Yolande House teaches elementary children English in Tongyeong, South Korea. Her writing has been featured in art exhibits in her hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, as well as in several journals and anthologies, including Paragon, Re: Myth, and Double Lives, Reinvention, and Those We Leave Behind. Her first travel essay is forthcoming in Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel.

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