This week Sapling talks with Jennifer Colville and Susan Goslee at PromptPress.
Sapling: What should people know who may not be familiar with PromptPress?
Jennifer Colville: At PromptPress we’re fascinated by the cross pollination of visual art and writing. Once a year we showcase the work of an up-and-coming, or established visual artist, and offer this work as a prompt, trigger, or opening to writers. Writers may respond in multiple ways to the work; they may use it as a new point of entry into an ongoing obsession, they might respond to a single formal aspect of the work, to the artist’s process, to an emotion or mood the work evokes, or they may simply respond to a narrative the images suggest. It’s super fun to see the variety of response elicited by the visual art we post. The end result is this wild web of disparate pieces, connected through the central node of the art work. We publish the art and the responses both online and in an artist book. Each book is designed and hand bound by a different artist. As such the art books work as both container and content – the book design itself is a response to the original prompt. We’ve been really lucky to get into some fabulous book art collections, including Special Collections at the SFMOMA.
Sapling: How did your name come about?
Jennifer Colville: We wanted to draw attention to the fact that we operate a little differently than other presses. We have a “call and response,” fill- in-the blank approach. The word “prompt” fit the bill. I also think writers are warming up to the idea of prompts. There is something in the air – whereas, before, “prompt” might have carried a writing-exercise-for-beginners connotation. I think writers today understand that writing doesn’t come out of the ether or from the isolated self -- that this is a perhaps a romantic notion. We’re always borrowing from someone and always in conversation with other texts, be they visual or written. The conversation is the fun part of creation!
Sapling: What do you pay close attention to when reading submissions? Any deal breakers?
Jennifer Colville: We accept very short prose pieces (nothing over five pages) and poetry. As fiction editor, I look for pieces that have a sustained central thread, but I’m really a formalist. I notice language. How the sentences and individual words butt up against each other in interesting or surprising ways. I like formal experimentation, and hybrid pieces. I should also say that we read to make sure a piece is both in conversation with the prompt and stands on its own. Sometimes we get beautiful work that clearly hasn’t been written from the prompt. On the flip side, we don’t want work that’s only derivative of the prompt – that overly explains, describes or interprets. We hope that writers will use the work as a new aperture or opening into their ongoing preoccupations, or aesthetics.
For poetry, I will take the words directly from poetry editor Susan Goslee’s mouth: “I'm interested in sound and images, and the meanings or impressions a poem builds between these two. I also appreciate poems that reward multiple readings. The only real deal-breaker for me are poems that were pretty clearly not written in response to our visual prompt. It is so exciting to see how the strongest pieces spring off of the visual prompt in unexpected ways or make me re-visit the visual trigger that I'm not willing to give up that requirement.”
Sapling: Where do you imagine PromptPress to be headed over the next couple years? What’s on the horizon?
Jennifer Colville: For now we want to keep doing what we’re doing – to continue to build a collection of playful, inventive and top-notch writing and visual art. I haven’t mentioned this yet, (because I’m thinking thinking of Sapling’s audience as made up of writers) but the second and equally important half of what we do is offer written prompts for visual artists. We publish online and in book form as many visual artists as writers. Chris Colville and Amanda Hunter Johnson, both real experts in the field, curate the visual end of the project. We think of ourselves as a both an online gallery and a literary journal – an online salon. We hope to keep building our reputation as a place where both visual artists and writers come for cross genre inspiration and to read and witness some of the most exciting work in both areas.
Sapling: As an editor, what is the hardest part of your job? The best part?
Jennifer Colville: My favorite thing as an editor is publishing newish writers and seeing them go on to get more publications and awards. In our first book we published Bethany Shultz Hurst, who is now up for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. I also love to publish writers who are hard to categorize – who work between poetry, fiction, and essay, like Michael Martone, Melanie Rae Thon, Karen Brennan, Patrick Lawler, and Francesca Abbate. I like to think we’re creating another space for writers who experiment with form.
The hardest thing as an editor is saying no to a piece we like that’s not quite right for the issue we’re putting together. Now when I get rejection letters saying “we liked this but it doesn’t fit our needs,” I actually believe them.
Sapling: If you were stranded on a desert island for a week with only three books, what books would you want to have with you?
Jennifer Colville: I like writers who use collage as a form, writers like Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, or Jenny Offill. But if I were stranded on a desert island I might want more escape from my circumstances. I’d take my current juicy reads: Muriel Barberry’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Daughter, and Joy William’s The Visiting Privilege. I’ve actually finished the Ferrante, but it’s so good I’m going to pretend I haven’t.
Susan Goslee: Being stranded on a desert island with time to read sounds great! I would take a combo of books I've just gotten and haven't read yet and poetry that I keep re-reading. How about—Cathy Park Hong's Engine Empire; Marianne Boruch's Cadaver, Speak; Robin Coste Lewis's Voyage of the Sable Venus; and Richard Siken's War of the Foxes. That's four, but poetry books are easy to pack.
Sapling: Just for fun (because we like fun and the number three), if PromptPress was a person, what three things would it be thinking about obsessively?
PromptPress: Getrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein. Just kidding! I don’t want to use up my three obsessions. Right now we’re developing writing exercises around Stein’s Word Portraits. Prompt offers an Image+Word summer camp for teens in Iowa City. Teens are really receptive to learning writing strategies through visual art models. Gertrude Stein’s wonderful prosy poems were sparked in part by her friend Picasso’s early experiments with cubism. It’s fascinating to see how Stein translates Picasso’s visual experiments with time, movement and perception into writing.
Prompt wants to learn more about the creative relationship between the sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. Vanessa Bell was a serious painter. My favorite book in the world is To The Lighthouse. It reads like a lush three paneled painting. My question: could Virginia have done it without Vanessa?
Prompt is obsessed with collage, any kind of collage. It’s a hard form to pull off – all the disparate pieces have to be balanced. But I’m drawn to collage’s inclusiveness – to works like Theresa Cha’s Dictee that include personal narrative, historical documents, and photography; or Lynda Barry’s What it Is, an art journal diary full of found items and meditations on what it means to make art. I love Joseph Cornell via Charles Simic. T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” as collage. Film as collage. Isn’t everything good collage?
Prompts from our next featured artist, a very prominent and interesting landscape photographer Mark Klett, will be available at AWP in Los Angeles. Come by and pick one up from our table, or check them out online on April 15th!
Jennifer Colville is the founding editor of PromptPress. She holds an MFA from Syracuse University and a P.h.D. in English and Creative Writing from the University of Utah. Her first collection of short stories, "Elegies for Uncanny Girls," is forthcoming from Indiana University Press. She lives in Iowa City with her husband and two children.
Susan Goslee, Poetry Editor at PromptPress received her MFA from the University of Alabama and her PhD from the University of Utah. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Salamander, and The Cimarron Review. She is an assistant professor at Idaho State University.