Interview with the Judges

By Carly Sutherland, Associate Editor

(Pictured above: three associate editors–author Carly Sutherland at left, Shawna Clark, and Kalee Brunelle–prepping for the issue launch event on April 18, 2013.)

Once we got the results of the contest winners for the Spring 2013 issue of Dogwood, we were excited. Elated. Proud. The pieces were well chosen, and well representative of what Dogwood aims to embody. Our judges, chose the grand prize winner along with a fiction piece and a poem. As an associate editor and journalism student, I couldn’t help but wonder what the judges think when they select a winner. After all, we are proud of each and every piece in the new issue. So we thought it was fitting to conduct a brief interview with each of our three well-schooled, literary genius judges to see what they’re up to, and thought even more fitting to share our findings with all of our Dogwood followers.

First up, Roxane Gay: co-editor of PANK, essay editor of The Rumpus, English professor at Eastern Illinois University.

So you’re a professor, an editor, a blogger, a published writer. How do you find time for each to be successful? 

I find the time because I make the time. I also live in the middle of nowhere and suffer from insomnia, so that helps.

Do you have a process when reading to select prize winners? Did this process work for judging Dogwood?  

I don’t have a set process for reading when I’m judging a contest. I simply look for writing that makes me feel and/or think and that leaves me a little or a lot breathless.

Do you have a favorite genre to edit or judge? 

I love to judge fiction and creative nonfiction because those are the genres with which I am most familiar.

Thoughts on poetry? Is there a different criteria you use? 

Poetry is harder for me to judge because I’m not sure I understand, intellectually, what makes a good poem. That said, I try to read poetry with the same desire–to be made to think or feel.

What projects are you currently working on? Do you have any coming up in the near future? 

I’m currently working on revising two books that will be out in 2014, a novel called An Untamed State and an essay collection called Bad Feminist. I’m also working on essays and a short story or two and two new novel projects. I love working on lots of things at once. —Roxane Gay. 

Well there you have it ladies and gentleman: it turns out that successful, ultimate multi-tasking is in fact possible! Now if only I didn’t love sleep…

Next up, we have Adriana Paramo (Ah-dreea-nah Pah’-ramo, as her website informs us): the Bogota born, Medellin raised, Petroleum Engineer student turned award-winning author.

Is there any easy way to sum up all of your recent travels?

Let’s define recent as “in the last six months.” Ready? Set. Go.  Turkmenistan, Turkey, Russia, Mongolia, Colombia, USA, England, Qatar and Nepal.

What projects are you currently working on? What do you have coming up in the future?

I have a second book coming out this fall. “My Mother’s Funeral” is a nonfiction book set in Colombia; it focuses on what defines being a modern Colombian woman. It is a combination of ethnography, memoir, folklore, cuisine and some lyrical speed bumps here and there.

Right now I am working on a manuscript inspired on my doctoral dissertation which includes the anthropological fieldwork I did among Indian women working and living in Kuwait. For years its working title has been Desert Butterflies, but I’m leaning towards Between Wealth and Squalor, or something like that.

Did you have a criteria or specific process that you used when judging pieces for Dogwood?

Judging a contest is like having a blind date. You are filled with anticipation, you wonder: will my date show me a good time? Will I want to see him/her again? Will I cry, laugh, reflect? Etc. The point is, you want the piece to move you. You want the piece to talk to you, to persuade you to read it again and again. You expect your date to be memorable, to make your evening special, to connect and resonate with you. When a story does that to me, I melt into my chair.

As a non-fiction writer, what in winner Sarah Hollenbeck’s “Goldmine” worked for you?

“Goldmine” is honest, gutsy, and devoid of self-pity. It transmits, quite effectively, an arduous and private journey using unpretentious language, heavy with nothing but humanity. The simplicity and straightforwardness of the narrative are what make “Goldmine” a subversive piece. It subverts the stereotypical notion of disability, the notion that things are the way they appear, and that a person with a disability is alone in a landlocked world. The strength of Sarah’s story lies in its capacity to arouse empathy, to establish a connection with the reader and let it translate into action beyond the text. – Adriana Paramo

Adriana’s responses left me speechless and awe-struck. 9 countries in 6 months? I don’t even have high hopes of visiting nine countries in my entire life! Not to mention, the hilarious analogy that judging a contest is like a blind date. Not that I’ve been on a blind date, but next time I read something, I’m going to judge it based on this criteria. Just for fun.

And last but most certainly not least (ignoring that this statement is wildly cliche), we have Adrian Matejka, the swoon-worthy German-born, California and Indiana raised poet, whose work has won him numerous noteworthy awards.

So you primarily write poetry, is that correct? Do your Creative Writing classes reflect this? 

You got it. Poetry is the best way I’ve found to express what’s on my mind. I love the rhythms in poetry and the breadth of possibility the art form offers. I hear things in line breaks and have never been much of a writer of prose. I do read fiction and nonfiction all of the time, though, and I’ve been working on some essays. Those bad boys are struggling for air right now. Which is all to say I teach whatever works best in the moment—nonfiction, graphic novels, albums, whatever. We’re wrapping up the spring semester in my workshops with three poetry collections: Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Apocalyptic Swing, Oliver de la Paz’s Names Above Houses, and Sean Singer’s Discography.

Do you have a process or criteria you use when judging pieces?  Did this work when judging Dogwood? 

I’ve been lucky enough to work as an editor for most of my writing career—first for Crab Orchard Review, then for Callaloo and Sou’wester. I try to apply the same criteria to judging as I do to selecting work for a magazine. I look for a poem that is so necessary, it makes me want to show it someone else. Once I’ve been engaged by the work in that way, I get down to the business of questioning the poem’s intent and craft. It was a pleasure reading the work submitted for Dogwood this year. So many of the poems felt necessary.

What was it about Geffrey Davis’s winning poem, “What We Set in”, that worked for you? 

I keep using the word “necessary” but it’s appropriate for Mr. Davis’s piece. It’s a very sophisticated poem, one that finds a balance of vulnerability and masculinity in a way few poems are able to. Just as importantly, the poem tackles childbirth from the perspective of the father and that’s very rare. The poem is the right combination of empathy and helplessness. And boxing. I love that.

Do you have a favorite genre to judge? 

Honestly, I don’t feel very comfortable in the position as judge, regardless of the genre. Some of it is the action of “judging,” but mainly it’s because there is so much amazing work out there. I wish I could pick it all. Poets need writing space and a capacious imaginary, but they also need coffee, pens, and bread. Being selected for a prize can be very beneficial to the circumstances of a poet’s work.

What projects are you currently working on? Do you have any coming up in the near future?  

Yusef Komunyakka is one of my poetic models and he always works on multiple projects. In my quest to be like him, I’m working on a couple of things right now. I just finished a book called The Big Smoke about the boxer Jack Johnson. It will be published at the end of May 2013. While I was finishing that, I started a project that’s simultaneously about astronomy, growing up in HUD housing, and artistic mashups. I’m sure where it’s going yet. It might be poems. It might be something longer. We’ll see. –Adrian Matejka

A few minutes after receiving Adrian’s response, he followed up with this:

“I just realized I left out a link to Callaloo. You’ll probably want to add the link below to the interview for consistency.”

So I did… Don’t you love someone who is thorough and aware and consistent? I sure do. And I loved the sense of voice I got from Adrian, even over e-mail.

Well there you have it, fellow Dogwood enthusiasts. Three amazing people, writers, poets, editors, professors, what have you, that we were fortunate enough to have judge our also amazing contest entrants. I thank them for their time to get back to me, and for having such wonderful answers.

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