Kathryn Mockler is the publisher of the online literary and arts journal The Rusty Toque and the Toronto editor of Joyland: a hub for short fiction. A writer, screenwriter and poet, she also teaches creative writing at Western University.
We talked about submitting writing, art, and translations to The Rusty Toque and her experience with submitting work.
You wear many hats at The Rusty Toque. Do you read general submissions?
Yes, depending on my time. I’m usually on the second round. We just brought on another senior literary editor, Jacqueline Valencia, so I’ll be doing more first-reading. One of the reasons I’m interested in lightening up my load to focus on submissions is I’m looking to discover new voices.
Why is publishing new voices important to you and The Rusty Toque?
What people don’t realize is that publishers, particularly those funded by the Canada Council, we’re actually really looking for new writers to support. We really want to be a place where someone gets to publish their first story. So, saying that you haven’t published anything before will actually draw the attention of a publication.
I know sometimes people think they have to bulk up their CVs or their bios to make it sound like they’re more experienced than they are, but actually the mandate of many journals is to bring new voices. That’s one of the exciting things about running a journal, is being able to bring new people into the community.
How much work in each issue is from writers invited to submit?
It really depends on the issue. Often we’ll look at the submissions and see there is a gap and invite more submissions. We’re very interested in diversity of voices and styles. We’re interested in both experimental and traditional story telling. To get that, you have to ask people to submit. But [unsolicited] submissions make up a large part, and an important part of The Rusty Toque.
Do you think emerging writers must publish in literary journals?
I guess it’s up to them, really. One of the benefits is if you want to be a writer who aspires to be recognized in a community, who eventually wants to get a book published and wants to apply for funding, publishing in journals is part of that process. You can certainly self-publish. You can certainly do your own thing. But you can’t apply for grants until you’ve had a certain number of publications. It used to just be print publications, but they’ve changed that now and online journals are accepted.
The Rusty Toque has an option for submissions with a $5 donation. How successful has that been?
It’s actually been a little more successful than I thought. They’re kinda like tip-jar submissions: if you like the journal and you feel like throwing some money in. When we look at the work we don’t know who has donated and who hasn’t, so no one is getting special treatment. But we are a community and we’re working for free, and all the money is going to supporting writers and being part of a community, so if you want to support that, then that’s great.
I strongly, strongly believe that it should be free. People who can’t afford it need to be able to submit their writing. Otherwise it’s a situation where just trust-fund babies are able to be poets. I remember when I was in my early 20s and I had no money, and if I had to spend $3-$5 every time I sent out a submission, I wouldn’t be able to afford to do it. It’s really important to keep it free.
What is the most common problem you find with submissions to The Rusty Toque?
I think it starts with the bio. Because the bio is what frames how someone is going to go into reading your story—and sometimes whether they like you or not. Remember, this is subjective. Just because you get accepted or rejected by us doesn’t mean you’re outstanding or terrible. It just means we responded in some way. But if your bio is off-putting, it’s often very hard to recover. And the work has to work so much harder. I find bios that try to be clever, bios that try to be humorous is really off-putting. Except, someone sent us a bio recently and the bio was actually better than the work. It’s the only time a funny bio has ever worked, but unfortunately the story didn’t live up to the bio.
The best thing to do is to treat it like a business: Tell us who you are. Tell us where you’re from (because we're funded by the Canada Council we do have to know if yours is an international submission since our content has to be at least 50 or 60% Canadian). Tell us the names of the poems or stories you are submitting. Tell us if it's a simultaneous submission. Tell us if you have any experience. It doesn't matter if it’s a lot. And then let the work speak for itself. The less you can draw attention to yourself in the bio, the better it’s going to be when we read your work. I also advise not sending a summary of your story.
Take your time. Find out who you’re addressing the piece to. I want to see my name on there. I want to know you went to the submission page or the masthead and actually looked up who the editors are. It’s not going to make or break it, but all of it kinda frames how we’re going to go into that work and how much time we’re going to spend on it.
If you do anything that makes me somewhat annoyed, I’m not going to pay as much attention to it. Your work is going to get read, we’re committed to that, but if you annoy me at the bio stage, I’m going to think this is an annoying writer to deal with and I don’t want to deal with that.
Who was your first lit mag publisher?
The Antigonish Review in 1995. It was the most thrilling experience in my life at that time. And that was before things were online. You had to mail your submissions and have your self-addressed stamped envelope. It was different process and it took a bit longer. I’ve published with them a couple times since then and I always had a soft spot in my heart for that journal because it was the first journal that recognized my writing.
I started sending out my work much earlier than I should have. I think I took one creative writing class and started sending out my work. The good thing about that was that I knew I could handle the rejection. So much of it is about how well you are able to handle rejection. I had had enough rejection that I realized what a thrill it was to be published.
How do you feel about rejection now that you’re on the other side?
Working on a journal makes me realize how subjective the publishing process is and to not personalize it. It’s not like we're always choosing from a whole bunch of terrible, terrible works. We're actually choosing from works that could all be at the same level, so we're often rejecting excellent pieces by really strong writers. One of the things that we like to do with each issue is have the work speak with each other and against each other while that the same time giving the issue a grab-bag feel. And so, sometimes when we reject a story it's not that the story is bad, it’s just that it’s not fitting with the editorial vision we have for the issue.
It also really makes me realize how important it is to research journals I want to get into. At The Rusty Toque we do publish traditional stories, but we are often interested in experimentation. It’s pretty obvious if someone is not reading the journal or reading the type of fiction or poetry that we publish.
Have you done gender and diversity audits of your journal?
In 2013, I did an informal gender audit [of the reviews section] and we published 18 reviews. 12 were full reviews and 6 were Rusty Recommends. 77% female authored books were reviewed, 23% male authored books were reviewed, 56% were male reviewers, 44% were female reviewers.Our mandate from the beginning has been to publish writers with diverse voices. For reviews, twice a year we put out a list of books that we’d like to see reviewed on the site. These are small press books that cover a range of genres and voices. We encourage women and writers of colour to review for us and so far that system has worked well.
It’s great to hear you have a strategy around this. At Room we also think it is important to reach out to diverse communities...
If a literary journal would like to present the work by writers of diverse backgrounds—in terms of gender, race, culture, region of the country, or literary tradition, then hiring or bringing on editors from those backgrounds is one way to do it. There also needs to be a genuine interest on the part of literary editors and publishers to read the work and actively engage with the communities they say they want to support instead of sitting back and expecting writers of colour, or queer writers, or writers from different parts of the country or from a range of literary traditions to come to their journal and throwing up their hands helplessly when they don’t.
Sometimes you need to solicit to get the work you want and sometimes you get work you don't know that you were looking for in the submissions. When we first started we received several visual poetry submissions. And visual poetry wasn’t something I was looking for, but I could see the work was really good. So for a while, we kept publishing visual poetry in almost every issue. There’s often really great stuff in the submissions and finding it can feel like I'm on a treasure hunt.
Anything else you want to say to our readers about submissions?
Avoid asking for feedback. Everybody is working for free and if they want to give you feedback they would have done so already.
Avoid responding if you’re angry or upset....I still feel like shit when I get a rejection. No matter how much experience you have, it just feels shitty when someone says no, but really avoid lashing out. Especially when you get an email rejection, because it’s really easy. One time we got a letter back saying, “No. I reject you.” Well, no you didn’t, because you actually sent me your work. So, vent to the people around you who love you, but I would say try to avoid lashing out or getting angry or saying mean things online. A rejection could turn into something positive. I remember when I was starting out the Fiddlehead—I kept coming so close with the Fiddlehead...I got three rejections in a row, but the fourth time they actually published me.
When a journal does say, we really would like to see more of your work, they really want to see more of your work. And send it soon so they remember.
Try not to think of the submission process in terms of the editors deciding whether you’re good or not, but rather think of it as you engaging in some kind of a conversation or relationship with a journal you admire. I remember submitting to Joyland for years and always getting rejected and thinking to myself how do all these cool people get into this journal. Well perseverance for one and year later I did get in and then years after that I became one of the fiction editors, a role I still have. And sometimes a no, may mean it’s no, for a long time. I submit to Poetry magazine in the U.S., and I’ve only gotten standard responses, but one time I got what seemed like a really personal response and even that was a thrill.
Rejection can say, maybe that work does have potential. I always look at rejections as information or indirect feedback. If I send something out to ten places and I’ve gotten ten form letters, I need to go back to that work, because this isn’t even sparking any kind of interest.
Sometimes I send out my work too early. You kinda get slapped, and you go back and look at it again. It can inform the editing process. It’s not just about whether you are good or bad.
What literary journals do you read?
You shouldn’t have asked me this question. There’s a lot of journals that I’m excited about!
I was really interested in Lemon Hound run by Sina Queyras, which ended this year. It was such a loss for the community. I’m also really interested in what Electric Literature, an American online journal, is doing. The Puritan: I really like what they’re doing as an online journal. I’ve published in Room before. I think what you guys are doing is great. Geist, I enjoy. I’m also the fiction editor for Joyland (Toronto), and I like to know what the other regions are publishing. Taddle Creek, a Toronto print journal, I really like what they are doing. Roxane Gay edited a site called The Butter, which was really cool and [Pank] both of which have closed this year. I feel kinda sad. All the journals that I like are leaving.
As a publisher forming alliances with different journals is good. The journals in Canada are really great about supporting each other. Even though we’re going after the same pot of money, I feel like there’s a sense of inclusiveness. Sometimes if there’s a problem, I’m able to go to the publishers of other journals and ask them, “What do you do in this situation?” And everyone has been amazing. The community is really supportive. It’s just really nice to support other journals that I really believe in.