Breaking the Illusion of the Ivory Tower in Literary Magazines with John Emil Vincent
By Santiago Eastman Herrera
John Emil Vincent is a part-time professor at Concordia University. He’s published multiple poetry books, including Excitement Tax, Ganymede’s Dog, and (his most recent book) The Decline and Fall of the Chatty Empire. He’s also worked for multiple literary journals in the United States and Canada, like The Massachusetts Review and Swink. I wanted to interview him to talk about his experiences on editorial boards and with writing poetry and prose.
First and foremost, let's start with the basics. What made you want to become a poet?
Oh, I don't know if I ever became a poet, to be honest. I think it was something that I had always imagined myself as. As a queer little kid, I would write crappy poems about Jack Frost, for example. Best left unexplored. Then when I was in high school, I wrote a lot of freeform - sort of acid trips. I mean, they weren't actually acid trips, because I hadn't tried acid yet. But I tried to imagine what acid was like, and then I would just write these stories.
Maybe it was in college. I really started writing poems there, per se. I got a chance to work with Louise Glück, so it was really great. She was sort of my mentor. But, against reason, poetry has sort of always been my first love. I mean, to be honest, I could never read formal poetry until recently, so it was always more of a contemporary free verse kind of poet I imagined myself as from a pup.
But I'm not even sure if today I identify as a poet. I mean, I write poetry, but it's a hard question. When I really felt like the craft took was when I did my MFA. Louise used to teach in the Warren Wilson program, which was a low-residency program out of Asheville, North Carolina. You'd go there for two weeks in January and two weeks in July, and then the rest of the time, you would write letters back and forth to your mentor-teacher. When I was doing that, I worked with some amazing people, like Larry Levis and Heather McHugh. That's when I first felt like a poet actually, when I was kind of on my own, out of classes. We did workshops and stuff, but a lot of the year was kind of independent. And a lot of reading. So when I started reading poetry - like solid, for months and months and months - that's when I started to feel like a poet.
What was the first official magazine or journal you were part of?
Basically, my high school literary journal named so absolutely originally: TAPESTRY. But in terms of making stuff, in college, I was the editor of the Williams Literary Review, which was a cool place to make things with poets, artists, photographers - stuff that we could actually have in our hands, as a material object. Then I was involved in the Mass Review from about 2005 forward. Then I got involved in two other things. One was called Swink, which was an online journal that kind of disappeared. And that was like, 2012 to 2015, or so. And then this little journal that one of my friends, Dylan Tweney, started - tinywords.com, which is an online journal of Haiku. It's still around.
tinywords was very particular. Dylan is very tech-oriented and very haiku-oriented. One of the things he would use is a kind of Submittable form to rate things, and I'd never done that before. I'd never used technology to rate different submissions. So for instance, at the Mass Review, we didn't even say like, Good, Bad, Indifferent, or whatever. You didn't put it on a scale of one to 10, or anything. Instead, we’d just do it squishily, human-wise. Whereas with tinywords, suddenly there were six radio buttons to rate submissions with.
But actually, flat as it sounds, it worked pretty well. If you have a board of five, it gives you a kind of eyeball view of what your board thinks of a submission. It's really helpful. And then you can have a clearing house at the end of doing all that. And you can say, 'Of all the pure Ones, we're just going to take those and print those or put them on the website. And then the Twos, we can talk about and decide and have arguments about. And the Threes, we can talk about later after we see whether we have room. And then the Fours, we can just ignore, or whatever.' I mean, not ignore, but you know what I mean.
Then sometimes, people will be passionate about one and they bring up one that they rated highly, and other people didn't. It was all done online and at a distance – I never met my fellow editors, which was a very different thing for me.
But anyway, I loved being part of the Mass Review. I got to do some things. I made this “Especially Queer Issue” in 2008. And then in 2014, I edited an issue marking the 50th anniversary of the UMass Amherst program for writers and poets, which was amazingly fun to do. Those two projects, those special issues, were my favorite, favorite, favorite thing. But I used to love those kinds of meetings with and gatherings with my fellows. We also used to give the Anne Halley prize: we'd have a poet come and read in Amherst, generally. And then we'd have a dinner. There were lots of fun moments around the people.
There's this image of an editorial board like a court. So judges sit down, decide what it is, and then leave and go do something else. It's nice to hear there's actually a lot of camaraderie around it.
Oh, absolutely. No, I mean, actually, I don't understand why journals exist if they don't produce camaraderie. I don't know how they could. There's got to be some kind of personal glue to hold you to the project. And for me, the personal glue of Mass Review was the people.
What is the first book you published?
First book I published was a chapbook, which was Chesherization. That chapbook was sort of swallowed up by Excitement Tax, a series of completely wigged-out prose poems, but the idea of doing a chapbook before you do a first book is a great thing.
Oh my God, it's just the best. A chapbook is a way of fixing your and your reader's attention on your project. And once you do that and make it, you imagine, 'who is the reader and what am I fixing their attention to?' It's one of the best kinds of learning experiences I've had with poetry, like, 'oh, wow, I need to think about not just how these poems link in a sequence, but also what these poems don't do, or what these poems might do, or what this project actually actively repels.'
There's something to that. Also, I liked the actual materiality of the print on the page and the way they looked. Like the way these prose poems look on the page. I was trying to think about 'how does it work visually? How does it work logically? How does it work - sort of emotively?' Because no matter what, like a sonnet, it's always going to turn at the end. And this turn is a very fast, very abrupt, very tight pivot for that final delivery.
How much control do you have in a chapbook versus in an actual book? Is there a noticeable difference between a chapbook and anything else?
Well, a chapbook is smaller; it turns on a tighter pivot. But also, oftentimes some people, some poets approach chapbooks as... not first drafts, but like earlier versions, such that they'll put out a chapbook since it's often saddle-stapled. [Gestures to Chesherization] Like, this is just… I don't even know how many sheets of paper and stock paper. This is inexpensive to make. It's pretty easy to make. And this could be done at a Kinko's or a copy shop.
People are willing to invest in it because it's cheaper, it's easier, and it takes fewer hands to make. That means that people are also willing to go with things that are slightly... not necessarily rougher, but possibly more experimental, test some edges of things that are different from full-length books. Or you can try stuff out that you might or might not follow up on in books.
Yeah, no, chapbooks are really, really important. I think now in the digital age, the other thing that people have to struggle with now is: do you want to publish online? Because a chapbook is a signal event in that question for me. I love picking this up. This has nine poems in it, nine pages of poetry, but it's a real thing you pick up, you sit with, and you have to open it. You're not just clicking through. It's in order, and it's on pages. And it's there intentionally. It's not just accidentally in WordPress, or whatever the blog software is. It's actually a thing. And so it has that level of intention. It has that level of non-ephemerality. It's in place, it's in space. I think that that's one of the big benefits and pleasures.
What was your experience, then, not with a chapbook, but with an actual book?
Oh, Excitement Tax was great. I mean, DC books was my publisher in the first book, and that was in 2017. I was in my later 40s by the time I published my first book. I feel like I was kind of a late bloomer, book-wise. I've always been interested in writing. I've always been publishing in journals, but it's just never... For some reason, I had put together manuscripts before, in various configurations that have come back and I've revisited and so forth, but they never really took for me. I was enthusiastic to have a book for most of my career. But I wasn't ready to have a book. I mean, I knew that I had really good poems. I didn't necessarily know that I had a really good book in me until my later 40s.
I don't know. I really don't know. I mean, maybe in part, it's where my talent was. Like, I think that I wasn't necessarily having extended conversations through poetry. I was having shorter, one poem, one series, one small group of poems kinds of conversations with the art. And then that changed when I moved to Montreal in around 2010.
Actually, in some ways, maybe one thing that did change was that I started writing prose poems. I'd done some of it before. But it really became the thing I was doing for about seven or eight years before the first book. And that was so much fun. It was like swimming in a swimming pool with flippers. And it was also tonal in a way. Like I'm a poet that's all about tone - I'm all about tone. So the prose allows you to disguise, shift, and morph tone in a way that you cannot do with lines, I don't think.
Lines make it look like you're trying to do something with tone - which is true, you are trying to do something with tone, you're trying to guide the voice, right? But with prose, it's when you have sentences and paragraphs, or paragraphs that are also stanzas, you have a whole different kind of palette. It's a whole different canvas. And tonally, you can turn on a dime... I love it.
Where do your poems come from? Where's the inspiration? When you sit down, are you like, 'Okay, I'm gonna write about this,’ or how does that come about?
So this is probably a glib answer to that. But mostly, I think the technology of my most recent poems is the notebook. I have a notebook by my bed, I have a notebook on my desk, I have notebooks everywhere. Whenever something strikes me, I write it down. And then I have this record of thoughts that I've had over the last decade or so. I look through that. Generally, my practice is to think about what I've been thinking about and use writing as a device of memory to remind me of things and spur me.
For me, writing is really a kind of improvisational riffing. But it requires a lot of preparation and a lot of research before you actually do the riffing. It's both the information that's in it - like, I do a lot of infotainment stuff with my poems. Things that focus on stuff Foucault might call 'subjugated knowledges'... Things that you might not know, but that are kind of right there waiting for you. Then following up on stuff, finding out more about, like, different characters and different stories that people told, different myths, their origins, their multi forms, the things that they changed into over time. Basically, for me, writing is about falling into rabbit holes.
Whatever you're fascinated by?
Yeah. But it's not really about research, it's just about fun. Wherever the fun truck goes, you know?
And then sometimes you get run over by the fun truck, which is too bad.
How is the process of creating content?
I'm always making stuff or trying to make stuff, but I don't always have the patience or the time to sit down and make things that are bigger. So you know, you can write in an evening, you can sit down a couple hours and write a poem, or start looking into something or start unraveling something. But generally, for me, the more important, bigger projects are also things that entail duration.
That's another thing I wanted to mention. It's not just duration of the short-term in terms of what time you have to write, but actually duration in terms of decades. Filtration is a big part of poetry. Not just what makes it through the rock layer into the pure water layer, but that you have the patience to let things sit. You do a lot of work when you're not working, subconsciously or unconsciously. There's a lot of work that's happening at all times, and it's just a question of when you have the time to build stuff.
Last question before we wrap up. Do you have any words of wisdom or hope for anyone reading this article?
Well, I wish I had wisdom. I don't, but I do have hope! I mean, the greatest thing about literature and its place in the Academy right now (which is peculiar, I'll grant it that) is that it's creating communities. They're not the communities that necessarily we would expect it to create. But it is creating these places. That's one pitch I want to make for these journals, and for places where people gather and think about writing. These are ways of attaching you to your own projects and attaching you to other people. If you don't imagine that there are people that you love, who will read this stuff, there's no reason to write it.
So you have to. You might be a poet who writes for one person, and that's fine. But you might also be a poet who wants a coterie or a group of people who reads what you write, or thinks about what you write, or hates what you write, or whatever. You might be a person who just imagines large theatres full of adoring fans, who will love whatever you say. Whatever it is, you need other people. And so you have to assemble those people, somehow. And that's, I think, happening on a grand scale.
Community is in the making of things. And art is a way of focusing, both as a lens for a community, but it's also a way of doing things together that is constructive and requires love of other people. As opposed to art as something that's isolating and makes some horrible cold genius, who's an idiot and horrible and we hate them. Art is not about one person, it can never be about one person. I don't know if that's wisdom, certainly, but it's some kind of hope.
That's a much nicer way of looking at it than the modernist single genius alone all the time in their ivory tower. I think a big part of that is people are a lot more cynical about things today, in that they don't feel like they can enjoy art or poetry or stuff like that, because the world is falling apart.
Absolutely. Like, 'You must pay attention to this right now. Art is not important.' If everybody thought that, there'd be no art. And the fact is that everybody doesn't have to pay attention to what other people think they need to pay attention to just right now. I think that that's a really serious problem that we have. 'You need to pay attention to what I say you need to pay attention to' is not a good way of approaching cognition, or an artistic practice, or any kind of active, human, living soul. It's not the way we communicate. It's not the way we convince people of things. And it's definitely not the way we enjoy the world.
The amazing thing about all this is that - I mean, the good thing, and the bad thing about this is that it's all volunteer. It's a lot of effort that you're going to have to want to put in. And I think that's important. It's all made of people. When you eat it, it's people. But since it's all made of people, you can join in because you're people.
That's true of a lot more things than just art, but it's definitely true of this process of making, especially journals. Journals really don't just come from the sky. And the good thing is even if they're not free, you're actually paying for the continuation of an art form.