33 // Evoke Place with Mary Leauna Christensen of The Swamp Literary Magazine

The Swamp publishes work that evokes a sense of place, which, for The Swamp, is broadly defined. “We look forward to reading work that we can inhabit, no matter its geography. We do give preference to the southern gothic, to poems and stories wrapped in a heavy coat of humidity. With that said, we seek to publish all work that surprises us with new territory, with characters and landscapes we don’t get the chance often enough to read about.” It is an annual print magazine that welcomes art, poetry, essay, and short fiction submissions. Send them place-based work that grounds them and with something to say that moves them.

Mary Leauna Christensen has lived in Southwest deserts, in kudzo-infested Appalachia, and currently lives in the Pacific Northwest. She received her MFA  from Eastern Washington University and in fall 2019 she will begin her PhD in Creative Writing at The University of Southern Mississippi. Mary is Managing Editor of The Swamp Literary Magazine. Her work can be found in Permafrost, Driftwood Press, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Sugar House Review, among others. 

Full Episode Transcript

[00:00:29.660] – Rachel Thompson
Hi writers! Before we launch into this episode, I have a question for you. Has anything you learned while listening to Lit Mag Love helped you submit or publish your writing? Maybe you found a journal you hadn’t heard of before. Maybe you made some edits to your submission based on what editors said on the podcast. Or maybe you just got the confidence to submit your work somewhere because you realized the editor on the other side of that submission is friendly and cares deeply about writing and writers. And maybe you didn’t publish yet, but you just got more confidence to rack up these rejections, which is a big part of writing and worth a round of self-applause because you’re out there taking chances with your work and growing as a writer.

[00:01:20.800] – Rachel Thompson
If any of this is true and you have learned something from the podcast, I’d love to hear what that was and about your submission stories. You can find me @rachelthompson on Twitter, or just use the hashtag Lit Mag Love anywhere and I will find you.

[00:01:38.860] – Rachel Thompson
Our Lit Mag Love guest today is Mary Leauna Christensen. She is the Managing Editor at The Swamp and The Swamp, publishes work that evokes a sense of place which for The Swamp is broadly defined. They look forward to reading work that they can inhabit no matter its geography, and they give preference to the Southern Gothic, to poems and stories wrapped in a heavy coat of humidity; but with that said, they seek to publish all work that surprises us with new territory, with characters and landscapes who we don’t get the chance often to read about.

[00:02:20.170] – Rachel Thompson
So welcome to the Lit Mag Love podcast, Mary Leauna Christensen. So I know The Swamp looks for submissions that are place-based, work that grounds us and with something to say that moves us. And I’m wondering, what do you like about work that is so grounded in place?

[00:02:37.840] – Mary Leauna Christensen
I like being able to imagine myself in the writing, be that a poem that is set in a specific town or a poem that feels very settled into an emotion or even like a strange liminal space. I want to be able to inhabit that piece. But for me, “place-based” doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s from like Asheville, North Carolina, June 5th, 1997, or something like that.

[00:03:01.950] – Rachel Thompson
I think that’s so important to stress because maybe some people get thrown off, that it has to have a very specific time and place-based setting. But that’s not exactly what you’re looking for or it’s not, that’s not, the limit of what you’re looking for. I’m wondering, can you tell me a bit about any pieces that do kind of explore that liminal space or explore a space that in a novel way, I guess, the things that we wouldn’t expect from a place-based journal?

[00:03:29.610] – Mary Leauna Christensen
Makes me think of a piece in our latest issue, Issue Four “Nantucket Nectars Fact of The Day” by Sage; it’s a more experimental piece and kind of like how Snapple has these facts underneath their lid, that’s what these Nantucket Nectars do. And Sage just did a great job of bringing us into this place, a hidden force in Nantucket, while also explaining this ghostlike mother apparition that happens. So you have, there’s a setting, but it’s not straight up telling us what that setting is, which I think is interesting. Even on the page, the structure of the poem gives us almost like a place to be in. It’s hard to explain, but there is a lot of use of white space, which I think is interesting.

[00:04:22.970] – Rachel Thompson
It’s like you can almost move into the poem?

[00:04:25.920] – Mary Leauna Christensen
Yeah, it already gives us a kind of setting in itself. So we are always excited to see, like, poems that play with white space. That’s not necessary of course, we welcome experimental form, classic forms like sonnets, we like to see a little bit of everything.

[00:04:43.310] – Rachel Thompson
I wanted to ask you about the work that you do love to publish in the journal. Can you tell us a little bit more about the qualities of the work that you enjoy publishing, or even illustrate with a few more examples from the journal?

[00:04:56.110] – Mary Leauna Christensen
We just we like to see…personally, like I always love like a good, swampy poem that feels very, you know it’s South-based and you can feel that, but it’d also be interesting to see pieces that have different locations besides like the swamp or the South. We get a lot of Louisiana/Mississippi-type poems, which I love seeing, but I’d also like to see something about the desert or another country.

[00:05:25.880] – Mary Leauna Christensen
Or even something that’s more folklore because I feel like folklore has a lot to do with location and culture; and I feel like location and culture talk to each other and play into each other. And so we like, I like seeing all those things. It’s easier really when I’m reading a poem to tell what doesn’t fit with what we’re looking for or we don’t feel like it’s quite publishable yet, but there’s been times I’ve been really surprised by a piece and I want to publish them and I advocate for them. And the other editors do that as well. So, yeah, once in a while there might be a poem in The Swamp that might not be what readers are gonna expect from a magazine called The Swamp.

[00:06:13.730] – Mary Leauna Christensen
We’re very proud of all the work that we publish, and we all think that it fits with what we’re looking for, like a poem that – or a poem or a piece of writing – that we can have it.

[00:06:25.100] – Rachel Thompson
Now, reading up about you, I found out that you’re a horror movie fan, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you like about the genre; and then linking it to writing, i’m wondering are there lessons about writing that you take from this form?

[00:06:39.630] – Mary Leauna Christensen
That is a really interesting question. I had never really thought about like me liking horror movies and how that plays into writing. What I like about horror as a genre is that it has a lot of range. Horror films can be more than just scary or entertaining. They can be social commentaries. They can be psychological and thought-provoking, or they can just be like ridiculously like off the wall and just hilarious. In regards to my own writing, I do like to throw in some strange stuff. Lately I’ve been on a kick where I write about bodily transformations like the body turning into things or be that an animal or monster, or even just strange things happening to the body. I think transformations give you a space or a distance to work through things like trauma or heartbreak or even societal constraints that are placed on certain bodies. And maybe some horror movies do that too. They take something and show it to us in this new way. And maybe we don’t even notice the topic or the social commentary right away. I think it’s a thing that we can take to writing.

[00:07:49.970] – Rachel Thompson
Totally. And I know, also reading about your own writing, in your words, deals with the liminal space that comes with being multiracial, the feeling of otherness, of not perfectly fitting certain aspects of a race or culture (though your grandmother or first cousin might). And I think that’s really fitting. What you’re saying too, it seems to fit that in terms of the body transfiguration writing that you’re doing as well too. So I’m wondering, how does this liminal space reverberate in your editorial work, in your approach to the work with The Swamp?

[00:08:21.650] – Mary Leauna Christensen
I never really thought about this either before you sent me this question. I mean, I like to see work that does handle liminal space well. I think it’s a very interesting concept because you can talk about so many perspectives. And I want to see the magazine have diverse work and showcase that anyone can write poetry. That’s just not just for a specific type of person, it’s for anyone. I feel like liminal space does give – liminal space is a good space for those voices, is what I was trying to say.

[00:08:55.330] – Rachel Thompson
Yeah and you mentioned the panel that you did at AWP, and it sounds to me also like you’re giving space to those kind of voices too, the panel was titled “Living Liminal Multi-racial Women Writers in American Poetics”. And you discussed, among other things, the place and importance of women of color in the American poetry scene. And I’m saying this as someone who unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend AWP this year, so can you tell those of us who weren’t able to be there what was the best part for you, of that panel discussion?

[00:09:25.250] – Mary Leauna Christensen
I mean it was great to be able to create the panel with the other four panelists, and getting to meet them. I only knew one of them prior to being at AWP in person. But my favorite part was actually after the panel, when people came up to us and they said things like, “I’m so happy there’s other people like me out there.” And that really meant a lot to me. It meant a lot to me that this panel is able to connect folks; like being mixed race and that mixed race feeling of otherness can be hard to explain to people that maybe don’t feel that. And it could feel lonely.

[00:10:01.600] – Rachel Thompson
Thinking about your writing, is that something that brings you to writing? That idea of being able to connect and say, you know, is there anyone else out there? And maybe does it even come from a place of not having a lot of books that you read in your early life, that you wish to write now, that you didn’t have back then? Does that resonate?

[00:10:23.840] – Mary Leauna Christensen
Yeah, I was always looking for representation when I was younger. I never really knew where to find that because I am very white passing but I didn’t feel like I connected with maybe those characters in cartoons or even like having a blonde Barbie, because I was raised by the non-white side of my family. And it’s interesting about how you brought up the books I read. Like, in my early life, growing up, books were really expensive for us so I didn’t really get new books. It was like a treat if I ever got a book. I was lucky enough that my grandmother would take me to the public library a lot when I was very small, and that helped. That, like, gave me this love of reading and later morphed into my love of writing. I do wish that I was exposed more to contemporary poetry as a poet. I wasn’t really exposed to that until I was in undergrad. And the first poet I was introduced to was Natasha Trethewey, who is biracial and is a narrative poet and at the time I was trying to play with narrative poetry. Her book, Native Guard, is what got me really into the writing style that helped me get into my MFA program, and to really find my foothold. And even though my poetry has changed a lot over the years, that book and being introduced to her voice, just like I wouldn’t be here today speaking to you if it wasn’t for being introduced to her.

[00:11:52.300] – Mary Leauna Christensen
And I wish high schools would introduce more contemporary poetry in the curriculum. Very little poetry is worked into high school curriculums and usually the poetry that is, is written by long-dead white men, which is a very narrow scope of poetry. And I feel like it can make poetry seem difficult or even inaccessible to a lot of people. So I would have loved to have read more contemporary poetry as a young adult.

[00:12:23.890] – Rachel Thompson
I love what you say about the role libraries played in connecting you with books, and yeah I can’t agree emphatically enough about how we should be reading more contemporary poetry earlier on. And there’s just so much joyful and relatable and amazing work out there. And then we’re reading kind of dry stuff that’s so remote from us. I mean, there’s some of the old guys that I like too, but yeah.

[00:12:50.870] – Mary Leauna Christensen
Exactly.

[00:12:51.340] – Rachel Thompson
Yeah, there’s nothing like reading something that just feels really on the edge of something real that’s happening right now, too. It’s like butting up against our contemporary lives. So, I wanted to turn back to the submissions that you get in the journal and can you tell me a bit about how you approach editing? Do you work quite a bit on the piece with the writers, or do you have more of a light hand? How does that work at The Swamp?

[00:13:19.420] – Mary Leauna Christensen
Most of the time we do take a piece that is “as is.” Sometimes we do suggest edits, edits we believe will make the piece stronger, and those are typically very small, light-handed edits. If we do send a writer a more of a conditional acceptance, so one with more edits, it’s because we really believe in the piece and we’re putting in time to make this piece shine. Of course, we want to make sure the writer still feels like the work is theirs and we will work with them on that. It’s like, we’re writers. We know that edits can be hard to take sometimes. We just really want the piece to feel like it’s still true to the writer’s voice.

[00:13:58.360] – Rachel Thompson
And we talked a bit about your own experience and how that’s informed your writing and how your writing and your poetry has changed over the years too. How does place currently figure into your own writing and is that the change that you’re talking about over time?

[00:14:12.500] – Mary Leauna Christensen
Yeah, a little bit. So my MFA thesis was very place-based. I was living in Appalachia, physically in west-North Carolina, about forty five minutes from the reservation my grandmother grew up in. Which meant I was forty five minutes from the tribe I’m also enrolled in and I was able to experience all this culture that I wasn’t able to bring up across the country in a very urban environment. So yeah, so I wrote a lot about Appalachia and place and a lot of that felt connected to me writing about being mixed-race and Indigenous. And that was a lot of my thesis; very place-based and liminal space-based. But my current work feels a lot different. It’s not really locational or geographical anymore. It’s more so, writing from and about that weird, unsettled space that you can find yourself in when a major unexpected life change happens. So kind of like when the rug is pulled out from underneath you. So I guess it’s a liminal space but a very different, liminal space. So I’ve found my work has gotten much stranger and slightly less narrative.

[00:15:25.870] – Rachel Thompson
Yeah, it’s almost like a psychic liminal space? Is that…?

[00:15:28.750] – Mary Leauna Christensen
Kind of, like I still work in some more environmental aspects that I think was in my more place-based stuff, but it’s very much more…I still feel like there’s a place but it’s not a solid, locational place, kind of like what you mentioned earlier, how place can be emotional. And I think that’s where I’m writing from right now.

[00:15:51.700] – Rachel Thompson
So before I let you go, and thank you so much for sharing your Lit Mag Love with us today, what is one thing that writers should definitely know but maybe don’t quite know yet – or, you know, you’re basing this on submissions that you get to The Swamp – before they send their work to the journal?

[00:16:09.370] – Mary Leauna Christensen
I mean, everyone at The Swamp is either an MFA or PhD student or a college instructor or they were recently. So we are very busy at The Swamp and The Swamp really is a product of love. And despite our busy schedules, we really believe in creative writing and sharing it. So I think it is important for submitters to know that we do spend time with a piece, with whatever they submit to us, and sometimes we have quick turnarounds and sometimes they take a little bit longer than what we like. But we are spending time with the pieces and we’re invested in sharing work. I can’t speak for all of us at The Swamp, but a few of us did grow up without easy access to arts education or to art in general. So we really do want to share that and share creative writing, and hopefully make it accessible. I feel that’s important for submitters to know.

[00:17:06.370] – Rachel Thompson
So you would welcome submissions from people who’ve maybe never published before and don’t have a formal education in writing?

[00:17:13.350] – Mary Leauna Christensen
Always, yeah. I actually get excited when I see that stuff come through Submittable.

[00:17:18.670] – Rachel Thompson
That’s so great that you say that because I think that’s one of the myths that I’m hoping to dispel, because, I think, it seems to me that a lot of publications and I mean, you’re talking specifically about how excited you feel about seeing that, but it’s always exciting, I think, to discover a new voice that maybe hasn’t had anybody pick up their work yet.

[00:17:37.690] – Mary Leauna Christensen
Yeah and like I have said before, we publish some bigger names and we’ve also published a lot of emerging names. I love when we accept someone and they’re like, “this is the first place that has ever accepted a piece,” because I do think writing is for everyone. It’s not just for a specific person that was lucky enough to come from a well-read family or had access to a great education or is able to pick up writing at a very young age. I think writing is for everyone and anyone, and that’s what we want to share.

[00:18:13.680] – Rachel Thompson
Lovely, thank you for sharing with us today.

[00:18:16.260] – Mary Leauna Christensen
Yeah. Thank you for having me.

[00:18:18.630] – Rachel Thompson
There’s so many gems that we can glean from my conversation with Mary Leauna Christensen. One that I feel is really universal, is something I hear a lot from editors is, although The Swamp doesn’t often make large editing suggestions (they make small light-handed ones typically) but if they do send edits, it is because they really believe in your piece and they’re putting in time to make it shine. As writers themselves, which most editors are, they know that edits can be hard and they want the piece to be true to your voice. So there’s a dialogue that you can have with editors too, to make sure that your voice is maintained in the edits. And the best editors, like the ones at The Swamp, are the ones who are going to be open to that conversation.

[00:19:02.500] – Rachel Thompson
For The Swamp, although they’re a place-based journal, the place doesn’t have to be attached to a space. The structure of a poem, she talked about, gave us a place as a reader to “be inside” and that’s a really interesting notion and something that could be fun to explore in writing and know that you don’t have to limit yourself to the geographic sense of place. Now another thing she said, I don’t know if you picked that up, that everyone at The Swamp is either a PhD student or an MFA student, and so that means they’re very busy. It also might feel a little bit intimidating for writers, but I also want to underscore that she’s talked about the few of them who grew up without access to art education, and the ethos of all the editors there that they want to share creative writing, make it accessible, and they get excited when they see stuff from emerging writers. So don’t let those credentials, if you don’t have them yourself, intimidate you from submitting.

[00:19:54.070] – Rachel Thompson
If you want to give us some love in the form of a review wherever you get your podcast, we would love that and it really helps other writers discover the podcast. You can find us online at litmaglovepodcast.com, or on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @LitMagLove. Thanks for writing and reading literature and thanks for listening to Lit Mag Love.

 

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