“Emotional Resonance”: An Interview with Guest Editor Clare MacQueen

by Tara Laskowski See all Guest Readers
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You founded and edit the flash fiction journal KYSO Flash. KYSO stands for “knock your socks off.” What is it about a piece of flash that knocks your socks off?

What knocks my socks off? Emotional resonance. I’m a sucker for flash that makes me cry and laugh, especially at the same time. So I’m primed for works with a strong emotional core: Where’s the pain and the passion, the joy and the faith?

Plus, I enjoy quirky, unconventional flash that manages also to thread the perfect line between the personal and the universal. Flash that includes fresh language and imagery, a unique voice, skillful use of metaphor and irony. Flash with arresting ideas, compelling narratives, exquisite lyrics.

By the way, “flash” for me also includes hybrid forms like prose poems, haibun stories, and tanka tales. I’m fond of lyrical and rhythmic writing, prose that’s artistic rather than merely functional. As visual arts illustrate the artist’s particular way of seeing, artistic prose reveals the author’s unique observations about the world.

In flash, of course, there’s little room for over-descriptive “purple prose,” yet I believe that even minimalist works, to be most effective, benefit from at least one memorable phrase or image.

And finally, I adore flash writing that hooks me with an awesome or unforgettable title, or with an intriguing first line, and then haunts me with the last line. A tiny sample of current favorites:

James Claffey: “The Third Time My Father Tried to Kill Me”

Michael Czyzniejewski: “Pregnant With Peanut Butter”

Kika Dorsey: “Silhouettes”

Misty Shipman Ellingburg: “Chicken Dance”

Valerie Vogrin: “Before the Shot”

What’s your favorite part of editing fiction, and what’s the most challenging?

Creating our print anthologies, that’s the coolest! The content-selection, design, and lay-out process satisfies the creative impulses of the artist and the editor-geek within me. If only my mother could hold these collections of art and literature in her hands. She passed away in 2003, and her most precious legacies to me include an appreciation of art and reading, a deep respect for books, and a priceless work ethic: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.”

Next favorite: When evaluating submissions and editing content, how wonderful to lose myself in stories where I can find nothing to suggest correcting or refining.

As a meticulous editor, I enjoy tinkering with text, particularly my own, but I prefer to read submissions that have been polished with care. They’re more likely the most prize-worthy. And among my favorite editorial perks is this: nominating strong works for the Pushcart, Best Small Fictions, and Best of the Net awards. I love supporting authors this way.

Which brings me to the first of two editing challenges: Articulating for myself the weaknesses in otherwise promising pieces, and then gently offering the author feedback—for instance, about continuity and changed premises—without actually rewriting them myself.

I firmly believe in preserving a writer’s style and voice and vision. Yet it’s also my responsibility to fix errors in grammar and mechanics in the works we accept for publication.

The second, and most pressing, editing challenge: Disciplining myself to reply briefly to emails, since I tend to be a “full service” responder.

I’m deeply honored that KYSO Flash (KF) is among Duotrope’s “Most Personable Markets for Poetry,” but providing personalized customer service to authors has become insanely time-consuming.

As editor-in-chief of a micro-press funded primarily from my own threadbare pockets, I wear many hats, including webmaster, publisher, and executive assistant—the latter of which involves reading and writing a mountain of letters. (Incredibly, I received more than 1200 emails for the KF-6 reading period, but to my distress only managed to write 800 in return.)

Not surprisingly, there’s rarely time and energy for my own writing. And our volume of email grows with each issue! Then again, all editors of lit journals should be so blessed, right? ;-)

I’m thoroughly impressed with your personal response rate. I wish we could write more personal rejections at SLQ. When you are reading through that long queue, what topics or themes do you feel are under-represented in flash that you’d like to see more of?

Gosh, SmokeLong Quarterly explores such a range of ideas and experiences that the question doesn’t seem to apply. After all, authors write about their own lives, and life is more dramatic than thematic.

Still, I’ve discovered it’s marvelous fun to see the remarkable ways an assignment can be interpreted. For example, our Triple-F Writing Contest challenged artists to use “fierce, flicker, and fool” as seamlessly as possible in micro-works of 500 words max. We were surprised and gratified with the quality of entries and how they differed from each other—perfection squared, given our commitment to publishing a variety of voices and styles.

So many worthy works to savor still, and yet so little time!

Because I’ve read nowhere near all the flash ever written, I don’t know which themes are actually under-represented. But I think that “Platelets” by Sonja Johanson is a poignant example of one I don’t recall seeing much: the tendency among practitioners of Western medicine to disregard the wisdom and boundaries of the person they’re treating.

In my experience, the older the patient, the more pronounced the condescension, when I believe the situation should be the opposite. A person who’s lived in a body for six, seven, eight decades, and sometimes mindfully so, knows more about its unique and miraculous idiosyncrasies than do highly trained nurses and physicians. Yet our popular and medical cultures dread uncertainty, aging, and death, and their phobic fears strip our elders of their dignity.

I would love to see more flash addressing social/spiritual themes like these. Our current reading period is open through January (hint hint).

About the Reader:

Clare MacQueen is editor-in-chief and publisher of KYSO Flash, and was recently named to the General Advisory Board of The Best Small Fictions 2017 (Braddock Avenue Books), to consult on haibun stories and tanka tales. She served as assistant editor, domestic for The Best Small Fictions 2016 (Queen’s Ferry Press). She has also served as copy editor and webmaster for Serving House Journal since its inception in 2010, and she is co-editor of Steve Kowit: This Unspeakably Marvelous Life (Serving House Books, 2015). Her short fiction and essays appear in Firstdraft, Bricolage, and Serving House Journal, and her essays appear in the anthologies Best New Writing 2007 and Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging. Her nonfiction won an Eric Hoffer Best New Writing Editor’s Choice Award and was nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize.

About the Interviewer:

Tara Laskowski has been editor at SmokeLong Quarterly since 2010. Her short story collection Bystanders was hailed by Jennifer Egan as "a bold, riveting mash-up of Hitchcockian suspense and campfire-tale chills." She is also the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, tales of dark etiquette. Her fiction has been published in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, and numerous other journals, magazines, and anthologies. Tara lives and works in a suburb of Washington, D.C.