Interview and photography by Erin Slomski-Pritz
I had the pleasure of speaking with Alina Rios, Editor-in Chief/Founder of Bracken and Jed Myers, Poetry Editor. The conversation ranged from Bracken’s place in the literary/fantasy world of publication to magic realism and metaphor, among other topics. In Part I of our conversation, we discussed the editors’ vision for Bracken, and what they look for in submissions. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
Erin: I’m curious about Bracken’s interest in the woods. Is your focus on the literal woods? The metaphorical woods?
Alina: I think it started out as literal woods, and expanded into all nature, the elements. I think that’s part of the reality of it: having a firmer grip on reality by actually being closer to nature.
Jed: It’s very timely. We’re in an era when the natural world, all in all, is in danger, and we are nature. We, our bodily selves, are a part of nature. Living in cities, we forget that, and we wear the colors that we paint our cars and kitchens. We forget that we’re nature. We identify with our machines. And I think Bracken helps us remember what we are, with its emphasis on elements of the natural world.
Erin: And has what you are looking for in submissions also evolved?
Jed: We changed it a little bit in the very beginning, but only very very little. It’s something I know that we’ve both been thinking about, and I’ve had a very specific thought, and whether it flies or not, I don’t know. Surrealism, magic realism, fantasy, genre, all that naturally has its origins in fantasizing away from the sense of reality, which is kind of part of common life, and it’s creative. It’s the engagement of imagination. And I feel, as I think about it, that it becomes art when in some way it refers back to reality in the light of some kind of discovered truth.
Alina: Which is what magic realism is supposed to be. I think when people read 'magic realism,' they’re not as familiar with the concept as you’d imagine, right? There’s a magic and there’s a real. It’s really pretty simple if you think about it, but they immediately see the word 'magic,' and they assume you want, you know, wands.
Jed: But when you read Márquez, he teaches you about real life in a fantastical way—always.
Alina: Or Cortázar. Anyway, it’s just confusing because we are trying to straddle the place in between the fantasy journal and the literary journal.
Jed: That’s correct. I think that’s exactly the truth. The mainstream literary journals more naturally invite work that has that ring of truth, and that’s what its beauty often involves. The fantasy journals, I think, implicitly favor sometimes work that does not refer back to life and the truth. We want it to.
Erin: Would you say that the return to that more grounded place of truth is maybe the most important thing that you look for in a submission?
Alina: Or that it has, in general, roots in reality. That it’s firmly placed in reality, and then there are a few things. They’re very subtle, right? It’s like you see something out of the corner of your eye, and you’re not quite sure if what you’re seeing is the truth, and it seems kind of magical. And I think when people see what we are doing, they [often] think, ‘oh, they want poems about knights and queens and fairy tales and retelling of the myths,’ which if it’s a realistic retelling…
Jed: Realistic or not, if it embodies an emotional truth worth discovering through the story’s experience, great. But if it’s just playing with that other stuff to get away from here, to get away from the truth of life, then it doesn’t resonate; it doesn’t wow us.
Erin: When we’re talking about fantasy, this is very different from, say, science fiction. I’m wondering: what place does science fiction have in the magazine?
Alina: We get quite a bit of science fiction submissions for Bracken, which…
Jed: Is not likely to work for Bracken.
Alina: It’s never…
Jed: Unless it’s a science fiction adventure that’s going to take you to another natural world.
Alina: No, I have read those, and people have tried. You know, there’s a different world, with different plants, and it just doesn’t work because it’s not real enough.
Jed: Now I’m challenged, and I want to write that, you know what I mean? The poem of the planet with the hypnotic flowers, that, anyway, I’m just carrying on.
Erin: Okay, no science fiction.
Jed: Never say never…
Erin: Okay, it’s unlikely.
Erin: We’ve been talking about a kind of shared vision, but I’m curious, how would you say you differ in what you are individually looking for?
Alina: In fiction versus poetry, or on both, because we both also look at poetry [and fiction], right?
Jed: We look a lot together.
Erin: You can answer either way: fiction versus poetry or stylistically—what are some of the differences in how you read submissions?
Jed: Well, in prose, in fiction, I think you want to see the story unfold, feel it unfold. The words are the mechanism whereby you have the experience of the story. In poetry, you want to hear a song, and you want to hear the music of it, and the flourish of a passage, you know, could be beautiful, really beautiful in itself, and it is sort of alright if the sound of the language that tells the poem kind of has its own wings. You know, it’s different in that way…
Alina: I kind of disagree. I definitely look for language in fiction. I want the language to both be the mechanism of telling the story and just to have the music of it. We want lyrical fiction. The closer to poetry I can get in prose, the more I like it.
Jed: And yet, maybe I’m thinking about times when we’ve read [prose] submissions where the language was, I would say, close to poetic, and it got in the way.
Alina: Right, but that was when the mechanism was not right. Like just now, I had to let go of a story, where I liked the language, but the construction of the story was not working. If the language is trying too hard to be striking and shocking, that is not a good kind of construction because it distracts. If it’s just naturally flowing, beautiful, language, and it is carrying a beautifully told story…
Jed: You’re saying it all together just right here. The language does matter. It must be beautiful, but it still must not get in the way of the story. And yet, it’s true with poetry, too, but somehow poetry gets to do something with words and phrases that you can’t so much pull off with prose.
Alina: Right, I know what you’re talking about.
Erin: Even if they [prose and poetry] both need to share beautiful lyrical language, the economy of poetry is so different than the economy of fiction. The language just functions differently.
Alina: And I also think there’s this thing that I look for in poems: that there’s an emotional journey, which I look for in a story too, but sometimes a story can just be carried out by action. Whereas, in poetry, for me, it’s all about the emotional journey, and that’s what I think it’s doing, with the language and the form.
Jed: The language itself is not just depiction but also expression.
Jed: I would say that prose can be musical, but poetry is music.
Erin and Alina: Yeah!
Jed: But in poetry, I can’t stand when the language is too stilted or too lofty or too archaic, unnecessarily, too florid. And legend lingo for its own sake…
Erin: Legend lingo?
Alina: Archaic language.
Jed: And you know talks about knights and maidens…
Alina: My favorite poems are when the language is so straightforward.
Jed: When you are using the economy, saying this in the most honed way imaginable.
Alina: We used to say, send us your most precious things, like things that are close to your heart that are kind of scary to reveal to the outside world. And hopefully, the magic of the magic realism makes it a little easier to reveal those things, but they are still no less true because of that. Talk about the real experiences of whatever that might be, whatever challenges that you have had.
Erin: But I feel like there have been a number of submissions that have not made it in because they have been in the realm of confessional, the diary entry…
Alina: So that gets tricky.
Erin: And they don’t seem quite right, especially because it seems like an underlying thing that’s not overtly expressed in Bracken is that it seeks a kind of optimism, maybe, correct me if I’m wrong.
Jed: I’m thinking of the piece in a previous issue by Kathryn Hunt about kissing the girl in the barn. That was confessional, but it was absolutely beautiful, and—just courageous and beautiful.
Alina: And the two poems 'Devoured' and 'Neverhome' we published in Issue I by Jessica Bixel. They were dark pieces. I don’t think they had a lot of optimism in them…
Jed: But somehow, they provided a kind of company for others who were living with traumatic backgrounds, which is itself redemptive.
Alina: They were dark, but beautifully dark. I think it’s maybe not optimism, I think we’re looking for beauty.
Jed: Some real vulnerability. This affects me, and I confess it, and I show it. And I wish to show you. Great writing is both very much aware of the self, and it is aware of the other, listening to the self. It recognizes the other: someone will be reading these words, hearing these words, saying these words out loud. I recognize you in advance. I honor you, and I welcome you with my words. I connect with you. I’m reaching out.
Alina: I think the reflective piece is what is important. And I feel like the poems or pieces that we don’t take that are dark are maybe the ones where the person has not reflected. They’re just spilling out all those emotions without having passed them through their souls.
We will publish Part II of our conversation in a couple weeks.