Eleni (Helen) Zisimatos is Editor-in-Chief of Vallum Magazine, along with Joshua Auerbach. She has been nominated for a National Magazine Award in poetry, and was short-listed for the Robert Kroetsch Award, the Irving Layton Awards in both poetry and fiction, and the Santa Fe Writers’ Awards. Room collective member and Managing Editor Rachel Thompson spoke with her by phone, then email, all about submitting to Vallum, the Montreal-based bi-annual poetry journal.
(Photo by Mikhael Auerbach.)
How many submissions do you read for Vallum? What happens after your first reading?
Vallum does not have an editorial board. Submissions are processed by the Managing Editor and handed over to me for reading. We receive around 350 submissions per issue (twice a year), with approximately 5 poems per submission. Joshua Auerbach and I are the only readers and selectors of poetry submitted. I do the first reading, which means I have a lot of poems to read. I narrow it down to 60-80 poems from the pile and pass these to Joshua, who then selects the 30 best poems to go in the print issue. Sometimes we choose some additional poems as extra-content for our digital issue.
What is the most interesting format a poem has come to you in and did you publish it?
Most poems we receive are typed, on standard white paper, neat, with a cover letter. In the past, we’ve had some interesting formats from people in prison, poem-collages, coloured-paper-with flowers, post-it notes and so forth. While many of these hand-written poems are interesting, most are rejected. Although in the past we published poetry from a poet who was mentally ill and whose format was not standard at all. It was a great poem, so we overlooked the raggy condition of his submission. And some poets who submit do not have a computer or email access, which is fine as long as the poetry is legible and good.
Why do you prefer paper submissions? And what concerns do you have about switching to digital?
I’m pretty much old-school and prefer paper to digital. Despite the fact that I’m surrounded by technology, I try to limit my exposure to digital screens and cell phones. We are currently trying to untangle our digital/print dilemma at Vallum. Many are rooting for digital only. There are some drawbacks to this. While it is easy for a submitter to send material online, it’s not easy for us to print the hundreds of submissions that we would receive. Ink costs a fortune, and so does paper, and it’s the sad truth that subscriptions are not flooding in, not even, sadly, from the contributors we accept. Of course, it is argued that I could read the submissions on the screen, but I don’t like doing this. I think my headspace is interfered with and my eyes get tired after reading so many poems. So it is inevitable that we would print out everything. Maybe a reading fee is in order, but I hate to resort to this. Alternatively, we keep the regular mail submissions, which seems to work just fine. But all this is under debate.
If you could give advice to poets before they submit, what would you say?
Most often poets submit poetry they’ve just written the day before. My best advice is to let your material sit a few, days, weeks, and then read it again with fresh eyes. You will probably see errors or faulty structures that you missed the first time around. Usually, it’s not that someone isn’t a good poet; mostly it’s because they aren’t an experienced poet yet. Of course, some people aren’t poets but fiction writers.
Why do you think it is important for emerging writers to submit to literary journals?
Literary journals are, for the most part, the best place to gain recognition from the literary community. Without these forums, how would an emerging writer get noticed? Doing poetry readings is another way to promote oneself.
You are also an award-winning poet. How do you feel about submissions and rejection now that you're on the other side?
It really breaks my heart to have to reject poets. Everyone feels their work is of high calibre and deserving of publication. But there is just so much room in each issue, and even some good poets have to be rejected, especially since we work with themes. Sometimes we receive poetry that is unrelated to what we are looking for and we have to reject it, through no fault of the poem.
Who was your first publisher? How did you react when it happened?
My first tiny publication was at Naropa, in Boulder, Colorado, where I was attending a summer program. But I consider my first real publication to have been Matrix Magazine, at Concordia, when the great Rob Allen was my thesis advisor and editor, who encouraged me to submit. I was thrilled, and delighted to receive $50 for my work, and I remember being greatly stunned by the honourarium.
And related to this, what is your own experience with rejection in writing?
I can’t say that I have had many rejections, but I also have not been submitting anywhere for a long time.
You're taking a bit of a break from your own writing now. What are you doing instead? How is it going?
Right now, I’m re-reading Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, and thinking about writing in the future. I may not do it, of course, but reading Kerouac is a big inspiration and perhaps motivator to take my writing practice seriously. But I find I’m mostly caught up in living in the moment, and forget the past very easily and can’t think about the future. I am, thus, hindered by the limitations of not being able to plan very well. Thank God for Leigh Kotsilidis, our Managing Editor, who is a master at organization and planning ahead!
You said in another interview "Some poems of mine that have been accepted by magazines, a few times were revised by editors. I didn't mind the edits. I am flexible about my writing. It can morph into different things, kind of like the passage of time and life. It's an organic process, not fixed by ego.” Do you also enjoy working with poets on their poems?
I like helping young poets with their work, and have edited many poems for people. Helping others with their craft can be rewarding, and, if I have the time, am willing to listen and talk about poetry.
How do you consider gender/diversity when selecting content?
Gender equality and cultural diversity are very important to Vallum. We’ve published many poems by “minority” writers, and even devoted a whole issue to Pakistani poets. Our selection criterion is first and foremost relegated to the quality of the poem.
What other literary journals do you read?
I used to be a big fan of Descant, and am sad they are no more. Of course I read Room, Poetry, Maisonneuve, Matrix, and usually whatever literary journal crosses my desk. It is sad that literary journals are not being read as often, and that many print publications are being forced to shut down because print has become so expensive. There is nothing like holding a fresh book of poems in your hands, smelling the paper and reading poetry. Poetry belongs on the printed page, or, alternatively, within oral traditions like Spoken Word. I wonder what digital poetry will turn into, and how it will affect us. Time will tell.