Hearing Voices: Women Versing Life presents Liz Kay & Jen Lambert, founding editors of burntdistrict & Spark Wheel Press

When Versedaily posted Benjamin Sutton’s, “three poems from Refutations by Memory,” originally published at burntdistrict, founding editors Jen Lambert and Liz Kay saw a marketing opportunity— one that also created conversation around Sutton’s poems— and offered a lottery for a free subscription to anyone who posted a comment about Sutton’s work.

Impressed by the contest’s creativity, and fascinated by the initiative of these poets-cum-publishers, I thought a conversation with Lambert and Kay was the perfect way to end a series about women versing life. With the ink still wet on the first issue of burntdistrict the friends, who met during graduate school at the University of Nebraska, decided to publish five books per year under their new imprint, Spark Wheel Press.

After graduating, “the journal began as our lifeline to [the literary community] we feared losing,” Lambert said. According to the website, the new editors were so enthralled by the quality of the work submitted at burntdistrict and frustrated by the limited space for publishing, they started SWP.

They were kind enough to take time away from teaching, parenting, writing, and editing to answer a few questions for me:

PC: In your experience is the literary world different for women than it is for men?

Liz: The world is different for women in that we are always marked (in a sociological/anthropological sense). The experience of maleness is the experience of normal, such that when a man writes about how he experiences the world, he simply writes about how the world is experienced; a woman writes about how she experiences the world as a woman. The perception is that his work is interesting to everyone, while hers is interesting to other women. On the other hand, there is the advantage that when one is on the outside, one feels no pressure to conform to majority expectations.

Jen: I feel lucky because I was raised to not consider ideas like this. I never once thought the world would be different for me because I am a woman, never felt my opportunities in writing or beyond would be minimized. I have been exposed to the effects of gender bias, but I’ve always felt lucky to be part of the tribe. It’s true that many issues women write about are geared toward other women, but so what? All writing has its audience and we aren’t limited to write only about woman-centered themes. If anything, being a woman gives us an additional well of material to draw from.

PC: What are your thoughts on the VIDA statistics?

Liz: It’s discouraging to look at the numbers, but the fact that someone is finally counting? It’s a huge step forward. We were very proud of the fact that our first issue featured an equal number of men and women poets. It’s not something we think of consciously when selecting work, but as we started laying out the issue, we absolutely cared that women were given equal space. We’re obviously a journal edited by two women, and we are drawn to those voices, so we don’t have to coax ourselves to look for strong women poets the way a more heavily male editorial team might.  At the same time, I think this may be one reason why we do see an even split in submissions. I don’t know if we see more women poets because we seem like a woman-friendly market? On the other hand, I will say that we regularly see re-submissions by men we’ve declined, and we almost never see women re-submit.

PC: How is it being on each side of the literary equation?

Liz: I’m a diligent submitter, and I don’t take rejection personally. I try to be conscious that not all submitters are as tough-skinned, so we are careful in our responses. I wish more journals were interested in building a community of writers. I’ve definitely published in journals with which I’ve had no exchange beyond the acceptance letter and the contributor copies. I know many journals experience high staff turnover, but for us, the acceptance is just the beginning. We want to know our writers, we want them to read for us at AWP, we want to chat with them on Twitter. We are building relationships with quite a few writers, and it makes us inclined to help them when we have the opportunity.

PC: I read that you want to avoid charging exorbitant submission fees.

Jen: More and more, there’s been a shift to publishing exclusively through contests or even charging reading fees for open submissions. This poses problems: We’re weeding out an entire economic class of writers who can’t pay the fees. I spoke with an editor of a fairly prestigious indie press who said, “Well, it’s just 25 dollars!” and I said, “For your contest, but [writers are] probably paying nine others in the same submission cycle.”

Also, first books in particular are selected not by editors but by celebrity judges.  When I think of presses I admire, I think of editors I admire. I want to read what they pick, and when I’m shopping blind, I tend to purchase books that are part of the regular catalog, not the contest-winners.

PC: Do you have spare time?

Liz: I am, by nature, deeply lazy and distractible. Even in my “spare time,” I try to keep busy with projects or I’m likely to lose a good nine hours looking up vegetarian recipes that I’ll probably never cook.

Jen:  I’m trying to spend much of my spare time with my children. Right now I am so aware of how fast they are growing and becoming their own people, and that both terrifies and delights me.

PC: Do you have time to write?

Liz: For most of my writing career I have had three small people underfoot. I have always written in the spare moments between snack time and skinned knees.  I do a lot of my initial writing in my head, playing with an image or line, and so when I sit down to actually write, the drafting process tends to be relatively quick. I am an obsessive reviser, though, so it can take me weeks or months to finish a piece. But I find that revision can take more interruption.

Jen: Absolutely not. Or maybe I do, but the rest of my life seems to engulf that tiny spot of time. I’m in the weeds right now, wading through work and family obligations, and this is a hard space to find down time. I’m a high maintenance writer. I need plenty of quiet and breathing and order and thinking when I create. The bad news is that real life doesn’t allow for that. I hope to carve out more time this fall.
PC: Could you each name a favorite lesser-known female poet?

Liz: I heard Nickole Brown read at AWP, and I was blown away by her poem, “One Hundred and Five Times,” which uses fracturing and cyclical repetition to bring us into this raw emotional state. I had to have this book (Sister, Red Hen Press), and when I found a copy, I turned to that poem first. Brown’s use of white space deepens the reader’s experience of what is not being said, this argument they’ve gone over 105 times. It demonstrates what is possible for a writer who combines that sort of heightened craft with deep emotionality. You can see in the lines the struggle between control and loss of control, and it is a work of absolute genius. I had that moment of discovery, of falling head-over-heels in love with a poem, and who wouldn’t be a fan after that?

Jen: Francesca Bell, a poet from our first issue. A friend recommended her website and when I pulled up a few of her poems, they immediately took my breath away. Bell writes about difficult subjects with emotionally raw imagery, but handles it all with an ease that comforts the reader. She maintains a concise form even with intense and expansive themes, and every word is intentional; there is no excess. The poems start like an earnest offering, but they open up wide, giving space to look around. They weave and dance, carrying the reader along with their gorgeous narrative. I never once doubt the voice; it’s heart breaking, but gutturally honest, incredibly admirable.



Jen Lambert is a founding editor of burntdistrict and Spark Wheel Press. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Nebraska, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of anthologies and journals including most recently, the Los Angeles Review, the Raleigh Review, and Boxcar Poetry Review.

Liz Kay is a founding editor of Spark Wheel Press and the journal burntdistrict. Her poems have appeared in, or are forthcoming from, such journals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Nimrod, Sugar House Review, and The New York Quarterly. Her chapbook Something to Help Me Sleep was published by {dancing girl press} in January of 2012. She holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska.

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