Ross White is a poet and teacher living in Durham, NC. With Matthew Olzmann, he edited Another & Another: An Anthology from the Grind Daily Writing Series. He was the 2012 winner of the James Larkin Pearson Prize and the Gladys Owings Hughes Prize. His poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2012, Poetry Daily, New England Review, The Southern Review, and others. He is a four-time recipient of work-study and administrative scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and currently teaches poetry writing and grammar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.
How has your definition of success changed since becoming an active member of the publishing world?
Becoming a publisher helped me redefine success in my own writing life. When I was starting out, editors were such mysterious creatures. I would invest a great deal of time in thinking about a journal and what its aesthetic is, agonizing over which of several poems would be the best ones to send in. I would take each rejection as a small failure– and, of course, let those failures pile up. Success seemed so far away.
Oddly enough, now that I’m an editor, I’ve come to understand that a rejection is still a success.
When reading through manuscripts– whether they’re chapbook-length collections for Bull City Press or a set of five poems for Four Way Review– I’m keenly aware of my own fallibility. There’s a lot of incredible poetry out there, far more than any one journal or press could ever print. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to turn away work that I thought was excellent, because it just didn’t fit with what we were hoping to do next. At Four Way Review, it might have something to do with a poem’s fit (or lack thereof) with a set of poems we’ve already accepted. At Bull City Press, we might pass on a great book because it’s too close to a project we’ve recently completed.
Editors, like writers, want to improve throughout their whole careers. So my strategy of obsessing over exactly which poems to send to a journal was foolhardy– I was sending poems to where I thought the editor was, rather than where they wanted to be next. And that’s impossible to predict. So now, I read the journal to get a rough sense of the aesthetic, but I don’t worry too hard about which particular poems I send, as long as I feel those poems demonstrate the craftsmanship that the journal will require and are in the ballpark of subject matter and aesthetic.
Maybe it’s not as painful as receiving the rejection, but I do feel disappointment each time I pass on work that I admire. So, on the writing side, I now view each rejection as a kind of success– I’m celebrating the fact that I keep sending work out, knowing that the road to publication is difficult. The more I have relaxed, the more pieces I have had accepted for publication in journals I adore. Dream journals.
When reading already established literature, one feels it is the reader’s duty to decipher meaning from the text. When reading submissions from un-established authors, do you feel the impetus is placed upon them to impress you, and, if so, how does that affect your reading of literary works?
I don’t think I read much differently when reading submissions. They’re really just books or poems or stories that aren’t yet published, but some– a lot of them, really– will be. I’ve read a number of chapbooks from my favorite presses over the last few years and thought, “Oh, we had the chance to consider this at Bull City Press. I liked this a lot.” The sad fact is that we routinely turn away great work. I mean, great work. If I had no shortage of time or money, we’d probably publish a ton of books.
So, yeah, I guess, when I open a submission, I work from the assumption that the work deserves publication. I’m just trying to figure out whether I’ll have a hand in that publication, whether I believe it fits with what our audience hungers for, whether it fills a space in our catalog or magazine that nothing else could possibly fill, whether it does so with a tenacity and exactitude that stuns me. When I first started editing, my litmus test was, “Do I think I’ll still love this so fiercely in ten years that I’d publish it again?” Now, a decade in, I’m feeling like the younger me made some pretty good decisions.
Certainly, I feel the responsibility to impress me rests with the book– whether Simon & Schuster just published it or it comes to us through one of our reading periods. I think the onus is always on the writer to present the information in the most compelling form appropriate to the material. And I think the onus is always on the reader to participate, to bring the requisite imagination needed to transform words on the page into a populated, textured world in which to live for a while. The transformation simply must be initiated by the words at hand, and while I may or may not reliably make the meaning the author intends (and may or may not make meanings that the author did not intend but are indeed both reasonable and quite satisfying), the richness of the transformation that the words instigate determines the success or failure of the piece.
How much truth do you believe the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” still holds? And with that said, what are some criteria you consider when choosing cover art?
I don’t know that it holds any truth at all. There are some lovely covers on bad books, and bad covers on lovely books. Sure. But I absolutely want Bull City Press books to be judged by their covers. From our earliest days, Philip McFee at Flying Hand Studio has been an indispensible partner in the creative process. He is exact in his attention to the manuscripts we’ve accepted, and his designs are often stitched together from various images. A few times, he’s presented a cover, and I’ve asked, “Hey, that photo is terrific… where did you get it?” And he’ll reply, “That’s eighteen different photos composited together.” He combs each manuscript looking for its relevant imagistic systems, but when it comes time to create the final art, he often steps just to the side of a literal representation of those images. So the covers almost always evoke, in some sly way, specific things you’ll find in the book, but they never give any part of the experience away. Philip has designed all but two of our books, and is even redesigning our re-releases of some Origami Zoo Press titles.