In this episode, Rachel Thompson interviews Rebecca Salazar, poetry editor with Plenitude magazine, a publication that aims to promote the growth and development of LGBTTQI literature. She talks about how she’s turning to her peers for mentoring in light of the abusive culture of mentoring unearthed in CanLit (Canadian Literature) in the past few years. And she discusses how two-spirited writers in Canada are having a sort of coming into one’s own and there’s this community that’s springing out of places we neglected to look, with so much power in their words and their writing. (Yes, it’s that fire that editors like Rebecca appreciate in submissions!) She also shares much more love about queer and trans writing. (Spoiler alert: RuPaul’s Drag Race comes up!)
Writing from Plenitude
Rachel Thompson: Welcome to Lit Mag Love, Rebecca Salazar.
Rebecca Salazar: Hi, nice to meet you.
Rachel Thompson: Nice to meet you. I want to start by asking you how you became a writer, your origin story as a writer. Did you know other writers growing up for example?
Rebecca Salazar: I think there was a point when I was about eight years old being a pretty lonely kid in a small city in central Ontario that I just decided I was going to be a writer at eight years old because I didn’t really know what else to do with myself. It was a weird upbringing in that I was a child of immigrants and getting bullied a lot in school, so I think I just kind of centred on books as my escape from and as my way of just finding other people and characters to kind of become friends with in that way. And eventually, I started writing my own short stories and, little things like that. I started actually shopping a “novel” (in scare quotes “novel”) when I was about 12 years old because I got pretty into the idea of writing and publishing. Obviously, that didn’t really go anywhere, because I was a 12-year-old writing kinda terribly, but it gave me a sort of opening to learn about this writing industry and publishing industry. That was…I could tell from a very early age, I could feel living in Northern Ontario that there was a sort of vortex of Toronto where all of the publishing happened and all the writing happened, and all the writers that I was eventually learning about were living and writing, which was difficult because it was a place I didn’t really have access to, and as I grew up and kind of started introducing myself to people as a writer, despite not being published or only really taking it seriously to myself I started meeting other writers. Once I got into university one of my friends Brendan Vidito, and I met up with some other students at the university and started a literary journal because we felt that sort of lack of resources or accessible community for writers and decided that it was something we could do something about. So we built this literary journal called Sulfur we had no idea what we were doing at the time and a few of us have read literary journals, but never really worked for one because there was just nothing in the area. So it was such an improvised thing and we as writers who none of us really at the time had any publications, just started kind of improvising. And, it eventually turned into something we were able to provide. We were able to provide what we had been missing as young writers as emerging writers to other people we ended up meeting in town who really had also felt that same lack. And it was such a great experience actually just getting to see the impact that had on some people who we gave their first publication. And that was a feeling I really held onto, and I later started working more with literary journals have been doing for about ten years now.
Rachel Thompson: So you got the bug early really of that joy of being able to help someone else have their words seen in print.
Rebecca Salazar: Yeah definitely. I think I had that experience before I had the experience of being published myself or maybe around the same time. And it was such an addictive feeling to provide that. That I couldn’t be away from it and I knew that part of my development as a writer was going to have that element to it of also wanting to provide space for other writers to be published as well.
Rachel Thompson: I love that. I also love how much you managed to pick up at 12 I remember submitting to because when I was like in my early teens and just being like okay well I’m terrible, they don’t like my writing. It sucks. They don’t like my writing. And so I’m not going to submit to a journal for a long time. But I didn’t understand the industry at all at the time. So I think it’s fascinating that you picked up something that is quite true that there’s a lot that centres around Toronto and it’s still true today.
Rebecca Salazar: It’s funny. I found my way into that just by going to a local library and picking up a really outdated copy of the Canadian Writers Market. Because I knew that writing happened in the States a lot, I didn’t know much about the Canadian scene and just by picking that up, I started getting a feel for which publishing houses were around, who was publishing what, what some of the journals were at the time. And of course is a little-outdated information, but it kind of gave me that sort of grounding in something I didn’t know how to access at the time, too, I felt like everything I wanted to write, or could think of myself writing didn’t fit the version of CanLit that I saw. Things that I saw in school or in like the bestseller lists and that sort of thing. I knew that CanLit was the sort of nature poetry and novels about like the logging industry, and someone’s tragic marriage. But I didn’t see anything beyond that sort of white, men-centric realism until I started looking into literary journals and then finding out there was so much more going on.
Rachel Thompson: There’s such a more vibrant scene I guess even some time ago, but more so today I would say, that it’s pushing things forward and reacting and pushing up against CanLit, which is super exciting. That’s something that I love about it. Is that what you’re getting at, too?
Rebecca Salazar: Yeah definitely. I think for a long time the idea of CanLit, you can read Northrup Frye and most other people who are agonizing over “Canada doesn’t have its own literature or its own national identity in literature” where most of the people who obsess over that project of having a national literature end up centring it on so many really narrow and exclusive kinds of narratives and voices. So, there’s a lot that doesn’t get included in that that I think most of the writers that are publishing excitingly today are resisting that or have discarded the idea of needing to be part of something cohesive. And I think that willingness to resist narratives in that sort of innovative spirit in the writing that’s happening now is so much more exciting than anyone trying to create a singular CanLit identity.
Rachel Thompson: So thinking back to the eight year old you who decided to be a writer and was reading these works and not seeing yourself or your story and finding a space within CanLit, but also knowing that you had synesthesia if that’s how you say it and how that experience mingled with you becoming a writer.
Rebecca Salazar: Yeah that’s a good question. I had a poem called synesthesia that was published in the Malahat Review. And yeah, it is something that early on, as a child who grew up speaking Spanish, and went into English French immersion schools, sort of noticing that the easiest way for me to learn languages was to let these colour associations form with letters and sounds and concepts and things like that and kind of associate them across languages that way. And it definitely started to inform my poetry early on. A lot of the times that I was writing, I remember deleting entire paragraphs or anything like that if I felt like the letter of the recurring sounds in it were the wrong colour or the wrong feel for a sensation or trying to describe. So, I definitely kind of used that a little bit. And I think because it all came out on this background of not identifying with the literature I was seeing, grounding myself in very concrete details and the physical and the way that evoked abstract concepts like colours to me, I think still it a big part of how I write.
Rachel Thompson: I’m curious about the synaesthesia when you talk about colours being associated with words, and I’m wondering if you even just have an example for our listeners about how exactly that works or how that’s worked in specific poems that you’ve written.
Rebecca Salazar: One thing I find myself obsessing about a lot is like vowel sounds and the colours I associate with them. I tend to think of O sounds as really dark so when I’m writing something with a darker tone that isn’t aggressive I try to use a lot of O sounds, whereas like A sounds and I sounds a really bright or more aggressive than that, so I’ll try to bias it that way.
Rachel Thompson: You also mentioned that your first language is Spanish and that you now are writing in English and that you’re bringing a certain attention to language and we talked about coupling that with synaesthesia… Can you tell me, do you feel like you have readers out there who can understand the hidden layers of your work and have you had that kind of response from readers or that connection with readers and other writers who are experiencing language in that way?
Rebecca Salazar: Yeah, I’ve talked about this with a few other writer friends who are speaking English as their second, third, fourth language—not their first anyway. And there’s always a sort of disjunction between like a sort of translation in some ways. And the way that we understand certain words is based on how we’ve seen them written, or sometimes there’s the issue of, you want to use a word because you’ve seen it written a million times and you know what it means, but then you’ve never heard a pronounced out loud, so you are reading at a poetry reading then you pronounce this word, and everyone tells you how you got it wrong. So that’s a kind of a common experience like pound with other people or the English as not their mother tongue. I do find that a lot of people expect a certain version of Spanishness or Latinness in my writing and I have at times felt like I was forced to perform not in a way that I don’t feel like I can. I’ve written a few poems where I play with Spanish and I throw in a few words or a phrase and often this is when I’m feeling most disconnected from the language because I have lost a lot of the language. I don’t really have a community where I can speak it. Most of my schooling was in the French language systems and now I’m studying English, so I haven’t really especially being in small towns most of my life, gotten really that element of being able to talk to other people and keep my vocabulary in Spanish or just have that musicality around me. And I’ve been asked a few times, where that is or why I don’t write more in Spanish, and it’s because there’s that disconnect in the language and the culture as well. That wee bits of culture that I get from my parents’ background are things that are kind of like outdated and also kind of displaced because I’ve never had a tangible connection to them. And the version that I get through them is not just second-hand but also at a 30- or 40-year remove from the place they left. Way back when.
Rachel Thompson: Can you tell me about the discourse between creative nonfiction and poetry and how you kind of navigate writing those two genres and is your approach different, the material that you draw from is it different?
Rebecca Salazar: Oddly, I came to creative nonfiction by accident. I, a couple of years ago, was doing a studio course as part of my Ph.D. which I’m still in. I had basically just taken too many other courses already and needed to do something else, so I ended up working with Triny Finlay who is a professor here, and one of my supervisors. And she basically had me writing sort of just the prose response in addition to the poetry, to things I was reading or kind of taking in to write the project I was working on at the time, and eventually some of those responses, Triny started telling me that they felt like essays and needed more time and attention. So I started trying to flesh those out, but I was approaching them the same way that I approach poetry. And I think with some of the recent creative nonfiction I’ve written too, and some of the stuff I’m still working on, I still think of it very much in the sense of poetry. It’s all flashes of imagery or sensations that I kind of develop episodically in a sense. I’ll sometimes bring in things I’ve learned from doing academic writing, but then to write them into creative nonfiction piece, I have to take away a lot of that structure, a lot of the logic that goes into academic writing, I feel like I need the freedom of poetic association to get around some of the topics I’m writing about. Because most of them are really emotional and there’s always that kind of play between writing about politics when they’re too personally situated close to you. And I think there’s a lot of room in creative nonfiction to just as there is in poetry to situate yourself really explicitly in relation to the subject matter. There’s always going to be a subject writing in that sort of genre I find, or both genres, and I think that’s sort of situatedness is something I’m really drawn to.
Rachel Thompson: I love that connection you’re making that those are the things that are drawing you to those two genres then that the situating yourself and being able to personally respond to politics, for sure. It is making me think a bit of an interview that I did with Eufemia Fantetti where she says write rhymes with fight for a reason and that is simply that ability to sense and push up against forces that can happen within writing.
Rebecca Salazar: Yeah I do think, having done and read a lot of academic reading, just through my schooling, as I mentioned I’m in aPh.D. program right now, which means I get quite a bit of the academic side of things, and I think one of the things that are generally not always lacking from lots not the kind of reading is. The recognition that. Nothing is ever fully objective. And things like creative nonfiction and poetry I find they strip away any pretension of objectivity by radically situating object in the writer and their personal relationship with the subject matter, which then you can’t you can’t quite dehumanize a subject that you’re writing about. When you’re situating yourself in relationship to it, I think. And that is something that a few academic writers are doing and trying to get around using particular versions of identifying themselves or situating selves with what they study. But it is happening a lot more in creative forms, for sure.
Rachel Thompson: And so is it a bit of like almost a cathartic release for you then, when you’re in the academic world and in the academic reading and writing and then being able to write in these other genres.
Rebecca Salazar: A little bit yeah I think for a long time I had to separate them in myself because I was learning to do the academic thing that you’re required to do where you’re supposed to kind of remove yourself to a critical distance where you don’t acknowledge yourself as the writer. And one of the things I’m working on now, I think I’ve shifted that kind of separation into trying to integrate the two forms and bring some of that recognition of subjectivity into my academic work and also kind of thinking about the fluidity of research as well into the creative form.
Rachel Thompson: I’m going to ask you then about mentoring and how you see that happening within your rider communities and maybe even just how it’s happened over time since you did decide to become a writer.
Rebecca Salazar: I started off with a lot of sort of optimistic faith in the idea of mentoring, which I’ve kind of lost the past two years, especially given a lot of what’s happening in CanLit around abusive forms of mentorship. Basically, scenarios where so-called mentors or gatekeepers use their position of power and advisership to take advantage of young or emerging writers, particularly in sexual manners. And this is something I have gotten closer to than I’d like. Without going too much into detail, I basically just lost a lot of faith in the idea of mentorship as a safe space. The thing that’s really pulling me out of that is the idea of peer mentoring where there isn’t as much of a power imbalance or someone who has the sort of authority to give your work validation, like a singular authority over your work, that sort of thing. Because a lot of a lot of the mentorship that I’ve valued and that’s really taught me a lot of things is people who don’t sit themselves on a pedestal, dictating, but are fellow women or fellow queer women of colour. People who base the entire relationship of mentorship around consent and mutual respect for each other instead of as a top-down structure where they’re there to teach you and validate you as a mentee. People like Alicia Elliot, Canisia Lubrin, Carrianne Leung, these are people that I’ve had the chance to meet during a Banff Residency, which had its own issues, but then the mentorship between the participants really became the treasure that I came out of that experience with.
Rachel Thompson: What was the best problem that you were doing together?
Rebecca Salazar: I think it was the first ever mentorship for only people of colour or racialized people in Canada. It’s called Centering Ourselves or something of that nature.
Rachel Thompson: Yeah, I remember when the call came out and I had known a few the people that you mentioned that were there, but I love what you said about and turning to peers, too, and finding that kind of mentorship where there is a little bit more mutual respect or a lot more mutual respect. I guess thinking about how that that spirit of mutual respect and learning from each other that I think you can you can still have even if you’ve been at it for a lot longer than someone you’re working with and I’m wondering if you had that experience when you’re editing if editing has informed your own writing and how.
Rebecca Salazar: I think a lot of my editing work has been pretty detached in the sense of, I’m an editor or a reader at a journal and I never actually get to meet the writer. For Plenitude, actually, I find it’s really helpful that in every acceptance letter there’s a paragraph about how we like to work with our writers. And we’ll usually exchange some editorial suggestions and just have a discussion about the piece before publishing. It’s a great model because it kind of provides this temporary or small mentorship for generally marginalized people, who won’t really have access. So disproportionately, I know that academia or MFA-type spaces, or paid workshops tend to exclude a lot of lower income and disproportionately queer people, trans people, people of colour. So getting those writers something within the publishing structure to kind of give them a taste of mentorship and like builds up their writing on its own terms is something that I really value about my work there. In terms of other editing I’ve done, I recently had the absolute pleasure of editing a chapbook for Matthew Stefanik. The chapbook is called Relying on That Body. It’s a series of poems based on the eliminated drag queens from the most recent season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. And we kind of just ended up as total strangers fangirling about the show enough online and then getting into just private messages going back and forth and talking about some of the issues on the show, and when I found out that Matthew was writing these and he asked me to edit them, it was this wonderful experience where we just got to delve into the poetry and kind of have this mutual exchange about what goes into queer poetry and the things that aren’t allowed to be said in queer poetry, too, and this is a bit of a tangent, I suppose, to your question, but going back to that idea of peer-mentorship, I definitely didn’t feel like it was one person having more power than the other. And there was this sort-of mutual exchange there, and like a mutual fangirling that kind of equalizes a lot a lot out of the mentorship structure or the editing structure.
Rachel Thompson: One of the things that I like about hearing about that project too, is even What’s considered a literary topic? And I like that it’s about RuPaul’s Drag Race. That’s great.
Rebecca Salazar: There’s a surprising amount of Drag Race poetry. Actually, this is a bit of a spoiler for anyone, or maybe a teaser for anyone who might have a subscription to The Fiddlehead, or might be interested in the summer poetry issue, which is coming out really soon. A couple of Matthew’s poems from that chapbook are in there, as well as I think one or two poems by Joshua Whitehead that are also about RuPaul’s Drag Race, and I was joking with the other editors that it was just a mission to make the new issue as Draggy and queer as possible.
Rachel Thompson: And Plentitude defines queer literature and film as that which is created by LGBTTQI people. What developments in Queer representation do you cherish today in terms of, I guess, thinking of the trajectory of your time being focused on CanLit and what’s happening in literature? And what changes do you wish to see?
Rebecca Salazar: I first saw myself kind of represented or recognized myself in I think two books that I can think of that are on the same shelf where I just keep all the things I will never get rid of. The first book was All Inclusive by Farzana Doctor, which is the first time I ever saw any character representing the woman of colour who is poly or bisexual, who is confused about her queerness and articulating that in a way that she isn’t quite sure about the terminology yet. And that was something I came across that novel at a time when I was really going through the same thing. I was kind of coming into identifying as queer and still working through a lot of cultural and religious baggage that I needed to get through before I stop denying that side of myself. The other book I’m thinking of is Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning, which is the first time I ever saw a Latinx, queer voice, coming into its own and not just writing about one aspect of their existence, but showing how every intersection that you embody suffuses every experience that you have, whether they are difficult experiences or whether they’re joyful or celebratory or erotic, or… So those two books are things that I definitely cherish to this day and will probably try a long time. In terms of what I’m looking forward to is just more of that. I want to see more every kind of queer experience, trans experience two-spirit experience. I know there is a group of two-spirit poets who are coming out quite strongly lately and I’ve been loving everything they produce. People like Joshua Whitehead, Gwen Benaway, Arielle Twist, Billy Ray Belcourt, there’s so much fire in that sort of coming into one’s own, and there’s this community that’s basically springing out of places we neglected to look, and there’s so much power in their words and their writing in the way that they’re innovating on poetry, and other forms, in ways that no one’s ever really seen before. I’m also really excited about seeing more creative nonfiction by queer people of colour, particularly someone also I was in Banff with, Natalie Wee, whose poetry is incredible, and has also recently taking up to have an editor position at Extra Magazine online and everything she’s been soliciting and publishing out there is making so much room for more people of colour, who experience their queerness or transness or whatever their gender or sexual identity is to tell their stories and show basically every aspect of that experience, in ways that it’s just not often enough represented. We need more stories of all kinds, I think. And that sounds a bit cheesy but I do stand by it.
Rachel Thompson: Not cheesy at all. It just sounds, sounds true, and just exciting when I hear you listing those names, and the people coming up the two-spirited writers were really doing amazing stuff.
Rachel Thompson: I’m back with Rebecca Salazar of Plenitude and who also works at The Fiddlehead, an editor at The Fiddlehead. And we’re going to dig into the nitty-gritty about submissions at those journals, so I want to ask you what kind of submissions do you not want in your inbox at Plentitude?
Rebecca Salazar: I think generally the rule is that I stop reading something if I feel like there’s nothing at stake. This is really hard to define, but it’s something that I keep coming back to in having read a lot of slush piles. There are a lot of poems that are very technically accomplished or you can tell that someone’s done the work with the language or the sound or the form, but there’s nothing at stake in the content. And this isn’t to say that content and craft are fully separable because I think they’re very entangled, but a lot of the times when you have just all flash and no fire then there’s really something missing. And I do know that I’ve encountered very many manifestations of this, and it does generally come from people who don’t feel an urgency in their writing but are writing from a comfortable place. And this doesn’t mean that every piece of writing has to be dramatic or about something depressing or violent, it doesn’t mean you can’t write about comfort or joy, but it does mean that those poems no matter what they are about or how they approach the world, have to need to happen. There has to be a need in them to come into the world. There has to be something at stake in them.
Rachel Thompson: You’re bringing to mind and it’s going to be probably a little mini-theme of the of this next batch of episodes, an interview that may or may not have aired by the time we did this, with Lilly Dancyger of Narratively, she said that writers really only have just one or two stories most likely like it depends on the person obviously said there are just a few stories where there is that kind of peril in terms of creative nonfiction, where there is that kind of urgency. And those are the stories that she wants to read.
Rebecca Salazar: This is a bit of a side note, but now I’ve thought about it a little more, another thing I don’t want to see is people appropriating or kind of using any kind of urgency that they see in the world that they don’t have a personal connection to, in order to kind of spice up the poems. I could get into discussions about appropriation and the recent turmoil in CanLit around that, but to avoid kind of going on a bit of a rant. Never treat anything like an object—even objects, basically. I think poetry that has that urgency and I’m talking about really takes the knowingness of whatever the subject is seriously and recognizes that and let it speak for itself while also speaking back in dialogue with it. There are kinds of knowledge that are not ours and our kinds of knowledge that we cannot embody, even if we recognize them and want to speak with them, we have to let them speak for themselves, additionally. Even if we’re having a conversation a lot of that writing in conversation has to be about listening.
Rachel Thompson: So I ask you specifically but your inbox at Plentitude. I would assume that a lot of those apply to The Fiddlehead, too, that you’re looking again for more fire than flash or definitely flash and fire combined. Is there any distinction between the kind of things maybe you’re seeing more it at Fiddlehead versus Plenitude.
Rebecca Salazar: Yeah, I actually do that quite a bit more of flash no fire stuff at The Fiddlehead, and I think it has to do with the demographics a little bit. I do find that this is nothing against The Fiddlehead or its submitter’s at all, but at Plentitude, I already know that all the submissions are coming from people who identify as LGBTQ+, and there’s already some kind of struggle already there that needs to be worked through in the writing. As soon as someone who identifies in a way that isn’t normative, or who has been marginalized in any way begins to struggle through those issues and try to write, that need to write comes a bit from that struggle and that urgency is often there more. Like, more than I’m seeing elsewhere, so I encounter a lot more of that fire, in Plenitude’s submission pile, or at least proportionally. Because a lot of these writers are kind of using writing as a political act of self-declaration, of reclaiming who they are and their identities. And that really does give it a lot of shape in relation to, say some of the more comfortable stuff that does come into The Fiddlehead. And this is something that The Fiddlehead editors and I have discussed quite a bit. Like, how do we get people who don’t feel like they’re reading the comfortable writing that The Fiddlehead is known for to submit, because it is something that the editors want, is to expand and be publishing more experimental voices and more diverse voices. But it’s hard to kind of shift that perception when it’s, well The Fiddlehead is an institution that’s been around for 75 years and has certain things associated to it that are hard to get behind and hard to get through.
Rachel Thompson: Yeah it’s a bit, actually, like the shift that happened at Room, too, and I can see that happening at The Fiddlehead just based on their choices of who’s now sitting at the table, yourself included, that they’re looking to signal and let them more diverse voices speak in their pages. That’s great.
Rebecca Salazar: This weekend, actually, we just had a couple of workshops in Fredericton. We had Alicia Elliott, who is the new Creative Nonfiction Editor, and Rebecca Thomas who is a spoken word performer and poet in Halifax come in to do workshops for the community on creative nonfiction and on poetry for free. So this was a big deal for The Fiddlehead: offering this opportunity to learn from these amazing women of colour writers and showcasing their work through a reading we had that night, but also allowing people to interact and learn from writers who are doing a lot of the new work that’s really changing what CanLit looks like. We also had a bit of a discussion the next day with Alicia just talking about how The Fiddlehead can fix or expand the diversity of its submissions, work on some of our initiatives that are kind of in the works for the 75th year celebration. We have a few things up our sleeve, I think, including a nonfiction issue, actually. Yeah. It’s a place where the work is definitely happening. As with anything, it’s slow work and does often require a lot of awkwardness and uncomfortable conversations. But being willing to go there and talk about one’s flaws as an institution or as individual editors, that’s part of the work that needs to be done. No matter how uncomfortable it gets, it’s worse to just avoid the conversation and keep perpetuating the problem of lack of representation and that sort of thing. Yeah, just facing the issue and doing what you can always matters.
Rachel Thompson: I think that’s great. And it’s a little bit of a roadmap maybe for other lit mag editors who are listening out there who are wondering how to make that kind of institutional change. Uncomfortable conversations definitely I think is the top of the list of what I see happening, and I’m glad to hear you say that, too.
Rebecca Salazar: I think really what matters and in all is just be willing to be wrong, because you’re going to be wrong more than once. And Alicia (Elliott) kind of said this in some of the workshops we did, too. Just be ready to be wrong a few times and move on from it. Keep learning.
Rachel Thompson: What should readers expect when their work is accepted by you? So when they’ve they’ve come in with a submission and they’ve got both flash and fire, do you make developmental suggestions? I know you mentioned already the letter that Plentitude sends out about the relationship that you’re building but, I guess, how much do you roll up your sleeves with your writers?
Rebecca Salazar: For me, in the poems I have accepted so far, and I’m still pretty new at Plenitude, so I haven’t accepted too many yet, but I found that my approach is generally to obsess over the poem so much that I just like get into his head and try to learn it. Learn how it’s thinking, so a lot of the comments I end up returning to writers, when I do return edits to them are things like obsessing over the line breaks and asking them why they’re doing particular things instead of saying, oh you should be doing this. Ask them why they’re doing what the poem is doing. I think that’s one of the important things I try to keep in mind when editing, is I want to approach the poem on its own terms or on the writers on terms and not impose my own thinking or aesthetics on it. A couple of poems I’ve accepted are completely outside my own aesthetics. So, I don’t write anything like them, so I don’t want to impose anything that I would want to do on the writer’s work. So a lot of that has to do with just trying to give a writer my eyes to try on so I’ll show them what I’m noticing and what I’m asking why about. it and then let them answer once they’re able to see that. And a lot of this, too, comes from recognizing my own privilege as an editor, as someone who’s had a lot of academic training and a lot of literary training and a lot of experience as an editor in positions of sort of this weird power like this gatekeeper position, which I feel uncomfortable with sometimes but trying to share that with the writer and giving them agency within that structure, I think is really important to me. So if a writer gets back to me when I’ve given them comment saying, why do you have this word as your line break and not this one? And if to get back to me with a reason, then yeah, I’ve made them, I’ve kinda started this conversation about like line breaks and why we choose certain words to centre in different parts of the page or why we visually put weight on certain words, instead of just telling them, oh, like cut the line here. I think forwarding the education on how to look at poems that I’ve got is the only way that I can use that, because if I’m just keeping it to myself and then imposing it top-down, that feels really wrong, and also unfair to the writers.
Rachel Thompson: I find that so generous what you’re saying. I love that. And I’m with you in terms of trying to meet the poem on its own terms and saying, Okay you’ve got this.
Rebecca Salazar: Yeah, and so many times when I want to get an answer back and someone who tells me, Oh I was doing it for this reason, and this reason, it teaches me something, too, that I’ve never thought of.
Rachel Thompson: Absolutely.
Rebecca Salazar: It teaches me how people kinda think through poetry and how they structure their thinking or imagery, in ways that I might not have encountered before, that I’ve definitely learned a lot from.
Rachel Thompson: Can you describe any works that stand out as important that you’ve published in Plenitude in your time there? So a lot of the work that comes to mind when I think about Plenitude, are before I was an editor I would see a writer whose writing I already had this sort of like poetry crush song come up on the website and be like fangirling in my own little corner about how, OK, this person is queer. We can identify over that. We have something in common, and then I would just like feel a lot closer to their work in that way. In terms of stuff that I have recently accepted for Plenitude since starting there, the first poem I accepted was “All you can eat oyster bar” by Sara Patterson, whose work, think I’d read an essay of hers before, but only realized this was by the same person after her publication. She wrote this kind of hilarious dark poem, that’s like a gory historicized version of a sort of weird sex scene with Elizabeth Stewart and Mary Queen of Scots and it’s got so much in it that I just did not expect. It surprised me in so many ways and that was one of the poems that I was definitely like one hundred percent certain on from the beginning. And getting to work with her on some really minor edits on that was so much fun. It just made me think so much about the way that she was using bodies and histories and there’s a lot of puns actually to craft this poem. Something else that’s forthcoming right now and, full disclosure this is a poem by someone I consider a friend. I have a poem that I recently accepted that isn’t up on the website yet called, White People Think I’m White Like and Eli Tareq Lynch, who is doing something really beautiful in this poem about white-passingness as a person of colour, as a mixed-race person, and how that intersects with queerness and transness in their experience. So, hoping people can look forward to that poem as well.
Rachel Thompson: Do you know what the current acceptance rate of submissions is at Plenitude?
Rebecca Salazar: I’m not sure what it is exactly. I don’t know numbers but I do know that we have a higher acceptance rate for Canadian writers purely based on the proportion of submissions we receive due to Canada Council requirements we have to publish a certain number of Canadian submissions, or Canada-based writers, in comparison to international or American. The problem right now is that a lot of the Americans submitting, well there’s a lot more of them. So we have to be a little bit harder on them and submissions that aren’t coming from Canada, which is sometimes really unfortunate, just because you’ll have really strong work that you just have to hold that a higher bar and that gets frustrating at times just because we have we can’t offer space to those writers as much. But I will say that there is a lot more room for Canada-based or Canadian writers to submit to Plenitude, in particular, I would really love to see more people of colour submitting, more trans people, and more disabled people submitting. Because those are still voices that are underrepresented in our submission pile.
Rachel Thompson: That’s great to hear. And I guess it’s good news for the Americans who make it in to know that they’ve been selected from a larger pool, let’s say, but with a narrower selection. And I appreciate what you’re saying about wanting more writers of colour, and more disabled writers and more trans writers to submit as well. Now, I want to talk a little bit about contests before I let you go.
Rebecca Salazar: Sure.
Rachel Thompson: So, I know you’ve won some writing contests and I’m wondering if you can talk about the importance of contests for emerging writers.
Rebecca Salazar: Yeah, I have some skepticism about contests. And I say this at risk of sounding really ungrateful for contests that have really helped me publish and kind of get my writing out there. I am really grateful for the fact that I’ve won a couple of contests and been shortlisted here and there. And I know how difficult that can be, particularly because it’s so subjective. Like every single judge in every contest is going to choose differently based on their aesthetic, their considerations, what they’re looking for in that particular moment, which might change if they were doing a contest in another place or time. So, I will say that contests are not an objective determinant of your writing and its value. They’re kind of just a flash in the pan and whatever sparks up, sparks up. And I have had the fortune of getting a couple of contest wins that, I think what I valued more than the win itself was getting to hear back from the judges, hearing their feedback. And, I will say that feedback is amazing and it validates you so much more than say the praise or the name being announced on Twitter and that sort of thing. That conversation is really what matters in them. I will say, mostly, I enter contests to get subscriptions to magazines because if you’re going to subscribe to something and be reading it, you may as well throw a poem at them while you’re at it. And while you’re at it and get a bit of a discount which is generally the case.
Rachel Thompson: And support the magazines, too, a lot of the time that’s how they make their money, is on the contests.
Rebecca Salazar: Yeah, definitely. That does support the magazines in a huge way. But one of the things that I become skeptical of then, is the sort of barrier that an entry fee puts up to a lot of marginalized writers, especially, that is going to disproportionately affect younger disabled people of colour, any writer with some kind of financial difficulty, so there’s a lot of exclusion happening right there. And I know that a few journals have started offering a certain number of free submissions to particularly Indigenous People, which is fantastic, but there isn’t enough of that sort of sliding scale of entry fees yet, or that adaptability to be able to invite more voices that are being excluded by the entry fee. And the expense thereof. I do kind of have this competitive, optimist streak, where I think that contests are a great idea. And I love the idea of kind of having someone get the privilege of reading all this poetry, as much as I know this is probably a ton of work. And just seeing what their tastes are like. I’ve definitely seen a lot of writers I admire judge contest recently and I’ve been so interested in what they select and why. So I think reading the contest results is more about that to me, is finding out, like, what are people paying attention to in poetry and why are they doing that? I do know that that can be at times problematic, also, though. I remember this article a few years ago, I think it was by Colin Folton, it was sort of a breakdown of the racial composition of contest of the winners and the judges, and it was overwhelmingly white. And I think a lot of that has to do with the barriers that the entry fee puts up and the sort of intimidating nature of our contest as a sort of competition for eliteness, which automatically is going to discourage anyone has been excluded from eliteness for whatever reason. So I think to a lot of people who hesitate to submit to contest I would say if you can afford it, please do, flood the submission piles with everything that isn’t expected or isn’t represented enough. That said, I also put the onus on all magazines and people who run contests to lower their submission fees or offer a sort of pay-what-you-can model if possible.
Rachel Thompson: And, it’s also, I guess you’re saying and I would agree that it’s like that intimidation of the competition sometimes that becomes a barrier, the price becomes a barrier, but then what you’re talking about, too, in terms of the judges too if all the judges look a certain way in that old CanLit style, then they’re going to automatically deter people who are writing new stuff or reading from different experiences. So can you tell, before I let you go what other projects you are working on right now?
Rebecca Salazar: Right now I’m working on a few different things in very developmental stages to the point of being like drafts I would never show anyone, even, people I workshop with. So, I’m working on a few nonfiction essays, one which has given me especially a lot of trouble, on sexual assault and sort of the context in the CanLit and #MeToo moment that’s happening right now, or maybe failing to happen right now. So that’s the one that can’t really be written at the moment. And that might take a couple of years to actually figure out how to write about. But I am also working on some poetry that is sort of adjacent to that. I had the chance for it now to work with Mallory Tator from Rahila’s Ghost Press. They recently accepted my second chapbook poetry, which is, I’m a little bit worried about it coming out into the world, because I basically just took all the poems that didn’t fit with the rest of my work that felt too angry or too traumatic or too traumatized to fit within my other writing and I put them in a pile and sent them off, and now they’re going to be printed and out in the world. So, I have so much so much love for Rahila’s Ghost and for Mallory (Tater) for taking it on and being willing to give that space.
Rachel Thompson: All that sounds so wonderful, I wish you the best of luck and I would love to read these poems that are the ones that are too angry or too challenging. That sounds like it’s got all that urgency that we’re talking about. What other lit mags do you love that you want to give a shout-out to now?
Rebecca Salazar: That’s a great question. I have to put in a plug for Sulphur the one that I started in Sudbury. They’re still going, and still run by students and it’s kind of a scrappy little thing that keeps going. I love seeing on an equal ground, I love seeing like small student-run or volunteer-run magazines, places like the Impressment Gang or Qwerty, which is based at UNB here, which I have also edited a few times. Qwerty just recently went back into print after being online for a little while, so they’re kind of building up to do bit new things as well. I’ll give a shout-out to Room, for sure, to PRISM. A friend of mine just started working at the Antigonish Review and Patrick O’Reilly he’s trying to really change the way that they accept work and really diversify the sort of vision that people have of the Antigonish Review, which is generally known to be a lot more old-fashioned, but he’s really working at expanding that. And, I love to see what he’s doing. There are really too many others to name, but shout out to any and all volunteer- run journals out there, because it is a hard job to do and particularly when you’re not being paid, or barely getting funding, or using your own out-of-pocket funds to print or publish online or however that’s working.
Rachel Thompson: How can writers follow or connect with you?
Rebecca Salazar: I am relatively active on Twitter, where I either rage post about CanLit, or just post ridiculous puns, but I can also be reached that way to have any kind of conversation. And my handle is @leonrxs.
Rachel Thompson: Thank you so much for being my guest today, Rebecca.
Rebecca Salazar: Thank you for having me.