What’s up, Room’s Short Forms Contest Winners?

Interview by 
Kayi Wong
growing room 2018

Photo credit: Melanie Evelyn

When the Room collective decided to launch a Short Forms Contest a few years ago, we wanted to create an avenue for writers who write flash fiction, non-fiction, and/or prose poems—and perhaps writers who experiment with blending and bending genres—to submit their work. (Contest entrants are not required to clarify which genre they are writing in.) The contest itself was kind of an experiment, but two contests and more than 450 submissions later, we are now running the third contest*, judged by Hiromi Goto and open until November 1. Send us your best work!

We took this opportunity and checked in with our past four winners to learn more about their writing process and where they find inspiration for shorter forms of writing—and hopefully, more readers and writers will be as charmed by the form as we are.

 

Hajer Mirwali is the winner of Room’s 2017 Short Forms Contest as judged by Jen Sookfong Lee. Her submission “Hamza” was published in Room 40.4 Let’s Make Contact. She is a Palestinian and Iraqi writer living in Richmond Hill, Ontario and an MFA candidate at the University of Guelph. Since winning the Room’s Short Forms Contest, the multi-genre writer subsequently published a short story in The Puritan and an essay in Joyland.

ROOM: Do you submit to writing contests or literary magazines often?

HM: I don’t submit often because I find the process to be pretty emotionally taxing. It also just takes really long. I’ve found the best way to do it is, rather than submit a few things throughout the year, submit my best work once or twice a year.
 
ROOM: What is your biggest takeaway from the submission process?

HM: Most journals take so long to get back to you that by the time you get a rejection email, you’ll have forgotten you even sent anything and it will soften the blow a bit.
 
ROOM: What was your inspiration for “Hamza”?

HM: My aunt told me a story about a man she knew in Iraq who committed suicide by lighting himself on fire. I couldn’t get it out of my head, partly because it’s a horrific way to die, but also because fire is one of my biggest fears.

ROOM: What are some of your favourite short fiction/non-fiction or prose poetry that you’ve read?
 
HM: Adania Shibli, a writer from Gaza, has a collection of vignettes called Touch. I don’t know if it’s my favourite piece, but it bends genre in a very subtle way. There’s not much narrative—it’s really attentive to the world surrounding this character. The reason I’m choosing it is because in the first vignette, the girl is peeing on herself and Shibli says “the double stream” makes its way down her leg. I read the book months ago and still think about that line. A line about pee!
 

Cover of Room Magazine 40.4, featuring cover art (done with ink and pencil crayon)by benjamin lee hicks

Andrea MacPherson is also the winner of our 2017 contest. Her submission, “Crushed Candy,” was published in Room 40.4 Let’s Make Contact. She is an associate professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Fraser Valley and the chair for the Fraser Valley Literary Festival. MacPherson is the author of six books, and since winning Room’s Short Forms Contest, she published her newest novel, What We Once Believed (Caitlin Press, 2017), which was shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize this year.

ROOM: Do you submit to writing contests or literary magazines often?

AM: I do; I think lit mags are an essential part of our literary culture.

ROOM: What is your biggest takeaway from the submission process?

AM: To be patient. Sending work out is never a speedy process.

ROOM: What was your inspiration for “Crushed Candy”?

AM: I grew up in Langley during the years of John Horace Oughton’s (“The Paper Bag Rapist”) assaults on young girls.  It is a formative time in my childhood, and it keeps filtering into my writing.

ROOM: What are some of your favourite short fiction/non-fiction or prose poetry that you’ve read?

AM: “Confirmation Names” by Mariette Lippo.  It does so much in so little—her prose is graceful and heartbreaking.

 

Katie McGarry is the winner of this year’s contest as judged by Jane Eaton Hamilton. Her winning submission, “A Good Molar is Hard to Find” will be published in Room 41.4 later this year. She holds an M.Sc. in mathematics and is a recent graduate of The Writer’s Studio Online through SFU. Since winning our Short Forms Contest, the writer proceeded to win the Editor’s Choice in CV2’s 2-Day Poem Contest earlier this year with “Self Portrait with Snacks.” She has also recently been published in GUSH: Menstrual Manifestos for Our Times (Frontenac House, 2018), The Humber Literary Review, filling Station, emerge 18, and online at Funicular Magazine. To learn more about the writer, you can listen to the interview she did for the Bookish Radio last month. She lives in Waterloo and is currently working on her first full-length poetry manuscript.

ROOM: Do you submit to writing contests or literary magazines often?

KM: Yes, for the past few years I’ve been submitting fairly consistently. Submitting to contests is expensive, so I tend to stick to contests that offer a subscription with the entry fee, and contests with judges whose writing I admire.

ROOM: What is your biggest takeaway from the submission process?

KM: The most important lesson I’ve learned is to trust my instincts and not overthink my submissions. I agree that it's important to be familiar with a magazine before submitting (and it's crucial to follow submission guidelines!), but sometimes trying to decide if a piece is a “good fit” feels like an impossible task. It’s very easy for me to get overwhelmed and confused trying to pick which pieces to send where, which can result in me not sending out anything! I try to go with my gut and submit the work I’m most excited about, to magazines I feel drawn to—even if I can’t articulate why.

ROOM: What are some of your favourite short fiction/non-fiction or prose poetry that you’ve read?

KM: One of my favourite essays is Eufemia Fantetti's “Alphabet Autobiografica,” which was a winner in Event's 2009 Creative Non-Fiction Contest. (It has since been published online at Redux Literary Journal). The form of the essay enhances the subject matter in a really magical way. While re-reading Fantetti's essay, I was also reminded of a prose poem published in Room 41.2: Ashley Hynd's “Diction (a glossary of terms).” This poem also uses a list of words for structure. In both pieces, difficult themes are contained and explored within a somewhat restrictive form.

ROOM: What was your inspiration for “A Good Molar is Hard to Find”?

KM: My inspiration was this photo, originally from an old dentistry lab manual. I was browsing public photo archives for writing ideas, and I found this picture utterly compelling (and slightly creepy).


Cara Waterfall is the other first place winner in this year’s Short Forms Contest with “Sissi Barra: the way of smoke”, which will be published in the forthcoming Room 41.4. She is an Ottawa-born and Costa Rica-based writer, and her work has been featured in Event, The Fiddlehead, and the latest issue of The Maynard. For two years in a row, the writer was shortlisted for PULP Literature’s The Magpie Award for Poetry in 2017 and 2018. She has a diploma in Poetry & Lyric Discourse from The Writer’s Studio at SFU.

ROOM: Do you submit to writing contests or literary magazines often?

CW: I try to submit two to five poems monthly. The deadline and incentives force me to complete poems that I might otherwise procrastinate on.
 
ROOM: What is your biggest takeaway from the submission process?

CW: What I have learned is that in poetry, you have to play the long game or it’s easy to get discouraged. I try to send out two to four poems every month to contests and/or publications with the goal of completing the poems and the incentive of getting published or getting recognized. With such long wait times, I know that I will have some sort of news every month and a half, because I already have poems in rotation. And even rejections pay dividends, because I can review them and then re-send them to other publications—and I learn about which publications may not be a good fit for my work.

I also have three children, who are five and under, so it can be easy to choose sleep over writing. Adhering to a monthly quota of submissions forces me to stick to my post-bedtime ritual of writing and editing, whether it’s thirty minutes of three hours. Last but not least, I’m fortunate that my poetry mentor at The Writer’s Studio, Fiona Tinwei Lam, is very good about sending me calls for submissions and contests. Her rallying cry during our workshops—and afterwards—has always been to send out our work, even if we don’t think it’s polished enough. As long as one set of eyes other than mine has seen my work, I’m good with sending them out!
 
ROOM: What was your inspiration for “Sissi Barra: the way of smoke”?

CW: I was fortunate to live in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire a few years ago. I received a grant to write two long-form features on Abidjan post-election crisis, one of which focused on how women were handling the aftermath. The interviews I conducted planted the seed for a series of poems I have been working on about how women (re)build their lives using Côte d’Ivoire’s natural resources. When I saw Abidjan-based photographer Joana Choumali’s recent series on the women who make charcoal in San Pédro, it greatly inspired me and the content fit in well with the poems I was working on.

When I first started writing poems about Ivorian women, I wondered if any of these stories were mine to tell [ . . . ] I also try to write with compassion, which is as much a means of inhabiting my own body as it is a means of identifying with those lives we imagine to be vastly different from our own. This poem and the others I have written about the women in Côte d’Ivoire are my way of trying to collapse the distance between the women in the poems and ourselves. They are also love letters to a country whose people left an indelible mark on me.
 
ROOM: What are some of your favourite short fiction/non-fiction or prose poetry that you’ve read?

CW: “The Sloth” by Jill Christman is a beautiful and accurate evocation of grief. And Lia Purpura writes extraordinary essays. “On coming back as a buzzard” treats an unlikely creature with such tenderness and reverence: “As a buzzard, I’d know the end of a thing is precisely not that. Things go on, in their way. My presence making the end a beginning, reinterpreting the idea of abundance, allowing for the ever-giving nature of Nature . . .”



*Due to the changes to our contest calendar, we are holding two Short Forms contests in 2018. The second Short Forms Contest is now open and will close on November 1, 2018.
 

Kayi Wong has been an editorial member at Room since 2013. After living in Hong Kong and Singapore for many years, she settled on the traditional territory of the Musqueam, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, and is currently writing copy and doing online marketing for bookish folks, including Room.

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