Fearlessly Claiming Your Own Experience

Fearlessly Claiming Your Own Experience

A chat with Rebecca Olson, Editor of Calyx

Rebecca Olson is the Senior Editor at CALYX. She joined the journal that publishes art and literature by women in 2008 as an intern. A year later she was hired for the editorial position, armed with a new MFA in Poetry from Oregon State University and deeper understanding of publishing, writing and editing. In the following interview, the St. Paul, Minnesota native discusses her love for the CALYX family, how she balances her creativity with work and why feminist literature is empowering.

Interview by Hadley Catalano

Where did your writing/publishing interests start? How did you gain work experience?

I went to college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where I studied creative writing and Scandinavian Studies. During college I was very interested in publishing and art—I took a lot of writing courses and became the poetry editor of the campus literary publication Illumination. I also started a poetry zine with some friends.

How did you get involved with CALYX? What was your prior experience with editing/writing?

After college, I came out to Corvallis, Oregon and joined a writing group. One of the poets suggested that I might look into volunteering with CALYX; I started as an intern in late 2008 and, right away, it felt like a family. CALYX is charged with this explosive, amazing energy of a large group of committed volunteers—readers, writers, artists—from all ages and backgrounds. Their commitment really inspired me to give as much as I could to the press.

When my internship ended, they couldn’t get rid of me. I continued on as a volunteer, reading submissions and helping with production, until I was hired as an assistant editor in 2009 under a grant from the NEA to expand staffing. During this time, I was also earning my MFA in poetry from Oregon State University, which has certainly helped me understand more about contemporary publishing, writing, and editing.

CALYX is in a really exciting place right now. In January 2011, our director and founder Margarita Donnelly retired; our senior editor Beverly McFarland also retired in June. These two incredible women had been the beating heart of CALYX since, well, before I was born. Since their retirement, the press has transitioned to the new staff members—myself and our current director Kelsey Connell. We were both lucky to work with and learn from Margarita and Beverly during the past year, but we’re different women from them. Both of us are young women in our ‘20s. We’re just as committed to our mission statement as our predecessors, but we’re excited to bring some fresh ideas and new energy to the press; as publishing continues to change over the coming years, CALYX will be there supporting and connecting women through art and writing.

How do you balance your own creativity with your editorial job? Where have you been published?

I feel charged by my work at CALYX when I come back to my own art—sometimes I’ll get ideas or inspiration from things that I read. If I’m working with something that I don’t like or I feel needs a lot of work, that is also generative—I tell myself, “man, I can improve the same stuff in my own writing” and I go home and do that. Being an editor has made me a better writer, and it’s definitely given me more respect for the work done by other independent publishers and literary magazines. This past year, I was focused more on finishing my MFA thesis than sending work out to publishers, but I’ve recently had some poems picked up by Word Riot and PANK.

How has CALYX changed or shaped the mold for publishing female authors and artists?

CALYX was started in 1976 by four women who were deeply disappointed by the lack of women they saw represented in mainstream publishing—all around them, there were amazing female artists that simply weren’t being taken seriously by publishers. They started CALYX as a press that would be specifically committed to giving critical attention to female artists and writers.

Over the past 35 years, CALYX has gained a reputation for discovering many important women writers and artists first or early in their careers. Over the years, CALYX has published Julia Alvarez, Sharon Olds, Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula Le Guin, Wislawa Szymborska, Jane Hirshfield… the list goes on. CALYX was also the first publisher in the United States to print the artwork of Frida Kahlo in color.

CALYX was one of the first publishers to be openly feminist and to be explicitly interested in publishing work that gives voice to underrepresented perspectives. In this way, I think CALYX has created a model for other publishers—whether they’re specifically feminist or not—to be brave in their editorial decisions.

What, in your opinion, is feminist literature?

I believe that feminist literature fearlessly engages with ideas related to identity, equality, and voice. This kind of writing has the power to name an experience or an idea that may not be readily accepted or acknowledged by patriarchal systems. Many times, this is work that deals with personal history and identity; sometimes it’s work that engages with ideas that are undervalued or sensationalized by mainstream publishers—sexual and domestic violence, motherhood, families, sexuality. But in general, no, I don’t believe that there's any particular content that makes something feminist or not—it’s not a strong woman character or work that fits a cookie-cutter discussion of something that’s related to being female that makes something feminist.

It’s not that it’s written by a woman that makes it feminist either—there are some excellent feminists that identify as male, and there are some pieces that I don’t consider feminist that are produced by women. I think that rather than content, it's how the piece is written that makes it feminist. Feminist writing is daring, honest, and bright. It allows the reader to connect with the particular perspective and unique experiences of the writer, and allows the writer to claim her experiences as her own.

CALYX also publishes a good amount of work that deals with ideas not explicitly related to feminism, but which are nevertheless extremely important (or should be) to feminists today--I'm talking about race, class, health, and accessibility, to name a few.

In recent years how have literature submissions changed? What are you finding to be common threads, messages, topics or subject matter?

CALYX has had a pretty committed readership for the past few decades. Many of our writers and readers have been following us since the late ‘70s. As our demographic has aged, it seems that we’ve been getting more work that engages with ideas about aging, families, illness, cancer, and loss. It’s interesting though—many of the same ideas come back to us year after year, regardless of the age or the background of the writer. We always get work that deals with personal identity, gender, sexuality, empowerment—the complicated joy and sorrow and anger and humor that comes from being alive. We also get a lot of great, imaginative work written by women that is in no way related to writing about “women’s experiences,” which we also appreciate.

Why are women's views so underrepresented in literature?

I think you’d have to ask an editor of a magazine that doesn’t publish many women to get a good answer to this. It’s shocking and disappointing to me that in 2011, there are still inequalities in the publishing world for women. If you’d like to see just how uneven it can be, check out the recent statistics put out by VIDA (Women in Literary Arts).

As an editor, what type of literature or art are you looking for?

One of the wonderful things about CALYX is that we make all of our editorial decisions collectively, so (thankfully) one person’s preference doesn’t dominate the selections. But, in saying that, I personally love poetry that experiments with form and perspective—I love daring, imaginative, and sometimes weird writing and art that comes from deep places. I would rather publish a crudely drawn image of a fish vomiting a rainbow than I would publish a well-drawn landscape if it didn’t take any risks. Regardless of genre or form, I want to be surprised and delighted by art and writing.

What advice do you have for aspiring female writers?

Read as much as possible. Read books by women and books by men. Read books of all genres. Read books by authors who have things in common with you and authors who have nothing in common with you. Be fearless in claiming your experiences through writing—because if you don’t say it, it won’t get said.

How does it feel to have helped so many women achieve their professional publishing goals?

Whenever I get stressed out about anything, I just think about what my task list actually means. Send emails to authors means “connect with emerging writers.” Format documents for our desktop publisher means “create a book.” Run an editorial meeting means “discuss poetry with brilliant women.” This is my dream job.

What in your opinion will be the new movement for female authors?

I can’t predict where writing will go, but I’m definitely inspired in the daring honesty and weird imaginations of women writers today. A few authors that I’m really into right now—Aimee Bender, Miranda July, C.D. Wright, Matthea Harvey, Aase Berg, Maggie Nelson.

How many submissions does CALYX receive in a day, week, month? And as a writer trying to get published what is the best way to get noticed at CALYX?

For the past few years, we’ve gotten about 1,000 submissions annually. This year, we’re opening up for electronic submissions and we’re expecting to get much more. We’ve gotten about 400 in the past two weeks. The best way to get noticed at CALYX is to submit something that’s honest, imaginative, and tightly written.

Please tell us one comment from a writer published at CALYX that has been meaningful to you and why?

“The community formed by CALYX is truly wonderful in how many different kinds of people it includes, how far it reaches across the country, how long it has lasted. And how much reward it gives to all who belong to it…CALYX is in fact a huge ongoing contribution to American Literature.” –Ursula K. Le Guin

“Thanks for being there for the little gals who need all the help they can get in getting started.” –J.H., a 19-year-old reader of CALYX Journal.

Hadley Catalano is a writer in Boston.