46 // Food Writing with Qwerty Editors Christine Wu and McKenna James Boeckner

“Food in itself is its own language and it as a language, whether it’s a love language or a complicated language, can speak across barriers…even if our relationship with food is different, complicated, emotional, whatever it might be, it tends to evoke meaning, emotions, memory.” —Christine Wu

Rachel Thompson speaks with editors Christine Wu and McKenna James Boeckner from Qwerty magazine about sumptuous food writing and, of course, everything you need to know if you want to submit and publish your writing with Qwerty.

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Full Transcript

[00:00:01.055] – Rachel Thompson
Welcome, luminous writers to the Write, Publish, and Shine podcast. I am your host, author and literary magazine editor Rachel Thompson. This podcast explores how to write and share your brilliant writing with the world in each episode, we delve into specifics on how to polish and prepare your writing for publication and the journey from emerging writer to published author.

My guests for this episode are managing editors McKenna James Boeckner and Christine Wu of Qwerty magazine. Qwerty publishes new poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and art and is staffed by graduate students in the University of New Brunswick’s creative writing program. They have a delicious issue on the theme of food coming up, so I didn’t want to miss the chance to talk all about food and writing and food writing with Mckenna James Boeckner and Christine Wu. And I also invited Christine Wu to share some food poetry with us, to give you a taste, as it were, of what they’re looking for in this upcoming issue. Submissions are still open, by the way, as of this recording. But note, this special issue is open only to Two-Spirit, Queer, and Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, BIPOC writers. In my conversation with Christine Wu and MacKenna James Bochner, listen for how surprisingly deep this subject of food goes. At least it was surprising to me. You might already know this. And listen also for highlights into the editorial process and how to publish your writing at Qwerty.

[00:01:40.975] – Rachel Thompson
So welcome to the podcast, McKenna James Bochner and Christine Wu.

[00:01:45.115] – McKenna James Boeckner
Hi!

[00:01:45.865] – Christine Wu
Thank you for having us.

[00:01:47.695] – Rachel Thompson
I’m very excited to talk to you both about food writing, one of my favourite topics. Can you tell me just a little bit about the upcoming issue on food and what you’re looking for?

[00:01:57.895] – Christine Wu
Yeah, so this upcoming issue is a themed issue. It’s on food and identity and it’s open exclusively to Two-Spirit, LGBTQIA and BIPOC folks. We really wanted to earmark a space for artists to explore what food is to them, whether that is how their identity intersects with food.

[00:02:23.575] – McKenna James Boeckner
Yeah, definitely. Food and identity is the theme. And as Christine said, we’re looking for the spaces in which people either articulate or find their identity through the food that they eat or the foods that they make. So, whether it’s what they long for or how they gender-bend recipes that have passed down, just the ways that food evokes identity.

[00:02:46.255] – Rachel Thompson
Yeah, it seems like such a rich subject. Food to me connotes things like home. And like you said belonging and identity. I’m wondering what are some of the things that you love when it comes to writing about food?

[00:02:59.305] – Christine Wu
So I particularly like how food in itself is its own language and it as a language, whether it’s a love language or a complicated language, can speak across barriers. We all have a relationship with food. It’s a universal thing. Even if our relationship with food is different, complicated, emotional, whatever it might be, it tends to evoke meaning, emotions, memory. It’s something that’s literally close to our bodies and can just evoke so much meaning.

[00:03:30.205] – McKenna James Boeckner
Yeah, close to our bodies and also becoming part of our bodies through how we digest food. So I perhaps approach food from a more ecological or ecocritical lens, a mainstay of the theory and the criticism is looking at the land around us and our ecosystems in ways that go beyond seeing it as just mere backdrop for human characters to pass through. If we approach food that way, we give food a certain activity that maybe if it is just mentioned in a story it doesn’t have. So like Christine said, I’m looking at ways in which food is and becomes part of the human body or interacts with the human in ways that go beyond seeing it as mere consumption.

[00:04:16.855] – Rachel Thompson
I love that there’s like a grounding in theory, there’s a grounding in just the foundations of life and happiness and nurturance. And so, I mean, it just feels like such a rich subject that can be explored. In both a really emotional and intellectual way. I’m wondering, when you think about writing on food, are there certain pieces that come to mind that you’ve enjoyed or that speak to both that intellectual side and then that really emotional home side?

[00:04:51.325] – Christine Wu
I have so much favourite writing on food. So in terms of poetry, Li-Young Lee, “Persimmons” as one of my favorite poems of all time. In it, he really explores not just persimmons, but he takes these leaps that explore identity and race and his childhood. Similarly, he has also the poems Eating Alone and Eating Together. Both of those poems are about eating, but they’re actually more than that. They’re about his relationship with his family, in particular his father. And that’s why I am particularly interested in food writing is the way that it bridges a common everyday thing that we need to do with something more than that. I’m also a big fan of Gillian’s Sze, she’s also a poet. She has the poems, “How to Cut a Cabbage” and “Eating Fruit.” And again, in these poems, she explores memory and associations and her relationship with her family. I am also big fan of more traditional food writing, some of my favourites are “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant,” it’s a little bit older, by Jenni Ferrari-Adler. And then, of course, the M.F.K. Fisher. Everything she’s written is fantastic. More contemporary, I really like the column by Noah Cho in Catapult that’s called Bad Kimchi. And here he explores not just Korean foods but his complicated relationship with his Korean-American identity.

[00:06:23.155] – McKenna James Boeckner
I love all those titles you’re mentioning and you should send me a list of your favorites because Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, that just sounds so fun judging by the title. But I’m sure it’s also good in content.

[00:06:35.635] – Christine Wu
It is so good. And it’s an anthology, actually. So there’s whole collection there.

[00:06:40.785] – Rachel Thompson
Nice, I’ll just interject. We’re going to put it in the show notes, too, so people can get a copy if they’d like to, because I definitely am going to seek that one out.

[00:06:48.045] – McKenna James Boeckner
So I guess my favourite food writings emerge from my Master’s thesis, which I just completed last year. My Master’s thesis was a retelling of the fairy tale Pinocchio to examine what it means to be a real boy in contemporary society. So in doing research for that Master’s thesis, I read a bunch of fairy tales, almost all the fairy tales that one could read in a year. And fairy tales have an interesting way of dealing with food. They often become the centre plot of the story, if we’re thinking about Little Red Riding Hood or Snow White. In those tales in particular, they’re also often combined with women characters in some ways that are, perhaps problematic but, it also gives contemporary fairy tale writers a way to use these perhaps problematic associations between women and food in ways that give activity to both the women and the food. I’m thinking particularly of Emily Caroll, who is an amazing Canadian graphic artist who writes a bunch of fairy tales, and she often creates these very monstrous female-presenting figures who are eating together in the absence of a male presence. And their food often resembles the human body, which is an interesting way to re-evoke that image of food in a way that both removes the male from the gaze of consuming both the woman and the food, and perhaps gives a more strong connection between the woman and the foods through their own identity and through their own decisions and choices and the ways that they make their meals and consume their meals.

[00:08:30.615] – Rachel Thompson
Wow. This is like a huge reading list that you’re giving us. So I’m super excited to dive into those as well.And I hadn’t thought of that. But even just thinking of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the role the porridge plays in that story.

[00:08:45.855] – McKenna James Boeckner
Yeah, like even just off the top of my head, the princess and the pea is another one, because that pea is the main point of the story. And Alice in Wonderland often, like, there’s the mushroom that makes her grow and shrink.

[00:08:59.105] – Rachel Thompson
This will be Christine Wu reading two poems about food.

[00:09:02.825] – Christine Wu
OK, so this first poem is called “Ginger Scallion Fish”, and it was originally published in the Malahat Review:

[00:09:09.005] – Christine Wu
Smothered under a tender of ginger and scallion lies a whole steamed fish under the new moon, a glint of silver scale sesame, soy, salt, tears how to explain to the others that have othered me, this New Year is more than rice and noodles. It is also the gleam of a cooked eyeball waiting to be plucked out. And that whole steamed you. An exotic stare returned, knowing its circumstance, still hoping for an auspicious year, still wanting to be wanted, giving up my flesh and letting them pluck my bones clean.

[00:09:48.975] – Christine Wu
And then I have this next poem, which is called My Ramen is Not Your Ramen, and this was originally published in CV2.

[00:09:58.045] – Christine Wu
My ramen is not your ramen, it is the only way my mother knows how to say hello, a warm salt broth under a flickering fluorescent all at midnight. It fills the space between hunger and nourishment, locks and strands in a bath of rehydrated crystals, silver foil sachet packed with the myth of MSG that keeps the white ghosts away. Porcelain soup spoon appropriated away from trendy appetizer vessels chipped blue China on the eve of my youth, curled up on a motel bed during our one and only summer vacation, privileged enough to have a holiday foreign enough to rely on dehydrated noodles.

[00:10:44.575] – Christine Wu
My ramen is a love letter from my mother doctored to fill our bellies as best as she could. Flecks of ham, baby, bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, solemn slurp of sodium. What does it mean that the taste of home is full of artificial flavours? Desire for a place that doesn’t exist, flavouring packet that is trying its hardest to come close to the real thing. Tenuous threads reaching.

[00:11:14.265] – Rachel Thompson
Wow, that’s wonderful. It’s making me hungry in many different senses, the sense of longing and and also just the transfiguration of that food into different things , too it is great. So I’m wondering if we can turn then, you know, you’ve given a great bar for people to meet when they submit to Qwerty. Can you tell me a bit about how Qwerty works or what will happen when people send you those food submissions and what kind of editorial experience they can expect if they’re selected to be published.

[00:11:45.375] – Christine Wu
We have readers who will read everything that is sent in from then our genre editors will select pieces that they think would work really well in the issue and then we will go ahead and communicate with the artist that we’re interested in their work if it’s still available, once it’s accepted, we don’t normally do a whole lot of edits, although sometimes we will suggest edits to the author and then work together towards the final piece. And we always send a proof of what it will look like in the issue before it goes to the printers.

[00:12:25.395] – McKenna James Boeckner
That pretty much sums up the publication process. I guess I would add to that is that our staff is primarily staffed by the graduate students in the University of New Brunswick’s creative writing program. So with that as our basis, many of our staff members also work at other magazines in the push to become marketable in the job world of creativity after school has ended. So we have a wide range of editors on our team with experience in publishing even beyond Qwerty. One of our readers also works at the London Review and other works at Plenitude, and I believe one works at the Malahat Review, but I’m not quite sure on that. But that’s not to say that if you submit to quality, even though we are still somewhat small of a magazine, you should expect a rigorous editorial process with people who really value the creative writing that comes to us.

[00:13:28.215] – Rachel Thompson
What are some of the things you look for in submissions in each genre?

[00:13:32.925] – Christine Wu
So here I can speak more to poetry genre, although both McKenna and I read everything that ends up in the issue. Maybe MacKenna, you can speak more to prose, that’s just kind of where our background is. So in terms of poetry, I look for pieces that are compelling. They need to tell the truth in some way. Whether that’s a personal truth or a universal truth. It does need to be pretty well polished, so no unnecessary words, crisp, surprising images, word choice is very important. Thoughtful line breaks. So I’m just looking for something that can evoke some sort of connection.

[00:14:11.745] – McKenna James Boeckner
I like that. And I think I’d say the same thing about evoking connection in the prose writing my background in writing is both in prose, short stories, as well as in theatre with plays. So with that connection, I also look in prose for scenes primarily. Exposition is necessary, definitely in prose writing. But since I come from a medium where there is little opportunity for exposition, unless you have like a chorus or a character giving a monologue on stage, you have to write within the scene. So I always tend towards the prose pieces that begin within scene, even beginning with dialogue. I find those grasp readers attention more so than if you began with five pages of exposition, which is something that we sometimes get. So that is what I mostly look for in submissions, just rooting us in scene, taking us on a journey.

[00:15:10.035] – Rachel Thompson
Yeah, I love that you’re mentioning that about those five pages of exposition, because I find when I’m teaching too, it’s often the thing that people don’t quite believe. They’re like, no, well, I have to set this up. And so, editor after editor has confirmed for me that, no, indeed, we want you to start in some kind of scene or action or some momentum has to be there at the beginning of the piece.

[00:15:33.625] – McKenna James Boeckner
Yes, we use Submittable and in the Submittable platform we communicate with the other editors in a comment section. And sometimes my comments are like, oh, this has amazing scenes, five pages down the road. But I think the exposition detracts from that. And that’s so unfortunate.

[00:15:52.005] – Rachel Thompson
This episode of the Write, Publish, and Shine podcast is presented by the Massachusetts Review. The Massachusetts Review presents their newest issue, a gathering of Native Voices guest edited by poet Tacey M. Atsitty, Memoirist Toni Jensen and scholar Laura Furlan. Featuring new poetry fiction, essays, and art by emerging and established Indigenous writers, A Gathering offers a deep dive into contemporary Native American literature in response to the 2020 anniversary of the colonization of Plymouth Rock. Check out www.MassReview.Org for more details.

[00:16:35.475] – Rachel Thompson
You talked a bit about the division of labour where you’re dividing a bit between poetry and prose. Can you tell us more about your working relationship and how you make selections and editorial choices? Give us a little peek behind the curtain of what happens at Qwerty.

[00:16:51.765] – Christine Wu
We mostly just run things by each other a lot, and at least for me, like really rely on kind of having someone else to bounce ideas off of. If there’s pieces where I’m unsure of, I’ll ask McKenna what he thinks and vice versa. Right now, obviously we communicate a lot through email and texting. We both came on as managing editors at the same time. And so the learning curve was something we experienced together and as a result like that has kind of established this relationship where we naturally look to the other person before we make a decision on anything.

[00:17:35.085] – McKenna James Boeckner
Yeah, I’m almost tempted to say that I’m almost like hyperactive and Christie needs to calm me down and find out if I really having too many ideas that Christine is like, oh, how about we do this idea first? Maybe that’s just me thinking that because I know we both communicate with each other on everything, but we make it work. Yeah, there is definitely a learning curve that we’re going on together. Both of us came into the position rather abruptly and we even had to finish the production cycle of a magazine that was started by a previous managing editor. So we were really thrown into the thick of it. And I think that although it was stressful at the time, I think it was helpful to help us with the process that comes later on after everything is edited and chosen and put through the formatting machine. I think we work good, Christine.

[00:18:23.935] – Christine Wu
I think so.

[00:18:25.605] – Rachel Thompson
Being in an institution. So, you know, you’re working together and then you’re also working within the structure of UNB. What do you think are the constraints and possibly freedoms of working within a university?

[00:18:38.355] – Christine Wu
So I think the constraints and the freedoms are two sides of the same coin often. So, for instance, something that is really helpful as we do receive some funding from the university. Otherwise, I don’t think we would be able to continue on. On the flipside of that, we also receive budget cuts from the university. Similarly, we carry with us the UNB name of both the bad and the good. And also with that we can all I won’t go too much into it that you carry with you kind of all of the history of a colonial institution. One really great thing that we do experience is support from Sue Sinclair, who’s our faculty advisor. We get to do essentially what we want and we go to her for advice and she’s very helpful with that. Another constraint with UNB is that we have to go through them for various things.

[00:19:33.975] – McKenna James Boeckner
I guess another constraint is that since our staff is volunteer and students at the same time, it means that there’s a limited amount of time that we can dedicate to Qwerty as opposed to dedicating to our schoolwork and a graduate program. We do find the time, but I know at certain points in the editorial process that it becomes difficult to find time where everyone can meet together.

[00:19:57.465] – Rachel Thompson
So the special issue that we’ve been talking about, the food issue, is very specifically calling from voices from the BIPOC community, the LGBTQI2S+plus community. Can you tell me about the community that you’re building and the changes you want to see in the literary community writ large? Just a small question for you, right now.

[00:20:21.555] – Christine Wu
I mean, I think we’re all aware that CanLit has a way to go in terms of growing. Definitely some changes have happened. I’ve seen a lot of shifts even in my few years. But, yeah, that old guard of being really rooted in white male voices is something that the writing community is historically rooted in. And we really want to pivot and refocus on voices that traditionally haven’t been spotlighted, haven’t been heard. We want to see a bigger picture. And a lot of that requires a culture shift beyond just even having more voices that have not been traditionally focused on. If you think about even the reading selection, like all of the editors. Are educated in traditional colonial institutions, and we’ve been taught canon that is very white and male and that affects our perspectives and our implicit biases. And so that’s something we’re trying to unlearn and really see what is out there, what stories haven’t been told.

[00:21:36.415] – McKenna James Boeckner
Yeah, I mean, I definitely agree. When Christine and I both took the lead, our managing editor role, we made sure to do research on how to reduce the implicit bias of the selection process, because we both knew that it was a thing present in editorial selections. So when we were having our first meeting, we did talk with our editors and provided a sheet outlining different practices that we want to have in place in order to leave room for us to be wrong about submissions, whether it’s up-voting it because of certain implicit biases or downvoting it for the same reasons. So I think that is a main thing that we want to highlight with this upcoming issue. The fact that Qwerty is actively trying to perhaps make space for these voices that might be less prevalent in publishing due to implicit biases or for whatever reason.

[00:22:28.375] – Christine Wu
We also wanted to or at least I want to create, quote-unquote, a safe space. However, clichéd that remark, I know me personally. I feel a difference when I’m in a room with all other white cis male authors than I do in a room where everyone is, quote, more diverse. There is more of a safety there where you feel like you can be vulnerable in this space.

[00:22:56.605] – Rachel Thompson
What kind of things have you learned about your own writing through editing?

[00:23:02.125] – Christine Wu
So for me personally, I’ve learned that I almost always have to take the last line of my poem. I have to cut it out completely. That’s just kind of my personal tendency, I think, is to overshare or over-tell in the first draft. And almost always I have to strike that last line if I’m really looking back and editing it.

[00:23:22.795] – McKenna James Boeckner
I guess what I learned is from reading amazing submissions that have come through. I’ve learned that in my prose writing I really need to infuse setting into the scene because coming from a playwriting background, sometimes I forget that we need to see the scene on the page as opposed to on a stage I think I enjoy. When a scene is so delicately laid out in text, which is something I’m learning and something I need to get better at finding the balance between dialogue and exposition, slash, setting, slash anything aside from dialogue is definitely a challenge in writing prose that I’m still working on myself.

[00:24:02.365] – Rachel Thompson
The last question before I move into our quick-lit round, what are some of your favourite foods and what would you like to write about them?

[00:24:11.365] – Christine Wu
So I find myself in terms of thinking about favourite foods, drawn to foods that I don’t have access to any longer. And maybe that’s the thing that’s evoking emotions and longing. But some things that come to mind are sticky rice dumplings. This is something my mom used to buy because it was too much work to make and I can’t buy them here, so I have to figure out how to make them. And that’s something that I’m working on a poem on is this kind of attempt to recreate something in a way that is very imperfect. Another thing that comes to mind are soup dumplings, same thing my mom would buy them because they were too much work to make. And here I haven’t found anywhere where I can buy them, so I’m going to have to figure out how to make them.

[00:25:01.945] – McKenna James Boeckner
My favourite foods are always like Ukrainian foods because my mom and her side of the family are very Ukrainian. I bring that up because my next-door neighbour, who just moved in a few months ago, he is this very elderly Ukrainian-Polish man. And when I first met him, his very abrupt, masculine devora made me uncomfortable. But then he started cooking during this pandemic and started bringing me all these Ukrainian foods that my mom used to make and my grandpa used to make. And it connected us in a way that I didn’t think I could connect with a man that’s so abruptly masculine as he is. So in that sense, I like the way that those foods sort of connect us in a history that seems rooted in, I don’t know, I don’t say our diaspora, but the ways that our history from Ukraine or Poland sort of ties us both together. And I actually have been writing a play that’s based on my neighbour without him knowing. And there are scenes in which I depict him making pirogies or making moonshine with a recipe that’s based off of the year of a Ukrainian war, which is the tale he told me one time when he was giving me food. Yeah, so I guess I am tempted to write about those foods that have cultural meaning to me.

[00:26:20.765] – Rachel Thompson
Yeah, both of those stories are so touching. Thank you for sharing that food stuff. So we will finish with a quick-lit round. I’m going to ask you to finish the following sentences. And the first is being a writer is…

[00:26:35.645] – Christine Wu
Exploring ideas that emerge from living in the world.

[00:26:39.815] – McKenna James Boeckner
That is a much longer sentence than I had. I was just going to say stressful during this pandemic.

[00:26:47.195] – Christine Wu
Very true.

[00:26:48.455]
Just finding the space to write when the world seems like it’s collapsing, it’s stressful.

[00:26:54.545] – Rachel Thompson
Yeah, I relate so much to that. Literary magazines are…

[00:27:00.395] – Christine Wu
Underfunded.

[00:27:01.865] – McKenna James Boeckner
Oh no. I was going to go with fun.

[00:27:05.285] – Rachel Thompson
Editing requires…

[00:27:07.025] – Christine Wu
Patience

[00:27:08.405] – McKenna James Boeckner
Interest.

[00:27:09.815] – Rachel Thompson
Rejection for a writer means…

[00:27:12.335] – Christine Wu
That piece needs another set of eyes, whether that’s your own or another editor or reader

[00:27:19.085] – McKenna James Boeckner
The opposite of what you think it means coming from the the writer’s perspective. So it doesn’t mean that it’s bad.

[00:27:25.865] – Rachel Thompson
And finally, writing community is…

[00:27:28.475] – Christine Wu
Invaluable when you find the right people.

[00:27:31.835] – McKenna James Boeckner
I was thinking touching as in, it connects people.

[00:27:36.705] – Rachel Thompson
Well, thank you both so much for sharing your love of writing your love of writers with me in this conversation, your love of food and your touching stories about food, too. And is there any final thing you want to say about your call for submissions and the kind of submissions that you want to see in terms of food?

[00:27:56.255] – Christine Wu
Just that our call for submissions is still open and we are actively looking for more submissions to this issue and we’re very excited to read everything that comes in.

[00:28:07.145] – McKenna James Boeckner
The only thing I would add is that our 42nd edition is now out. The virtual launch is going to be on our social media at the end of January, and it will still be up there if you’re listening to this after January.

[00:28:19.595] – Rachel Thompson
Wonderful. Thank you.

[00:28:21.035] – Christine Wu
Thank you.

[00:28:21.815] – McKenna James Boeckner
Thanks.

[00:28:24.365] – Rachel Thompson
So that was my interview with Christine Woo and McKenna James Boeckner, are you hungry? All that food talk made me hungry. The special food issue is open for submissions from Two-Spirit, Queer and BIPAC writers until February 14th. You can read all about their upcoming issues, get a sense of their tastes and study their submissions guidelines at qwertyunb.com. All the links are in my show notes, too at rachelthompson.co/podcast. You can find links to everything mentioned in every episode there.

[00:29:01.895] – Rachel Thompson
So, reading the credit guidelines. They say their number one criterion above all else is mastery of craft, and they’re open to publishing both literary and genre fiction that subverts convention, experimental work that inverts tradition in pursuit of innovative storytelling, or images that play on the senses in unusual ways. They do not charge for submissions, and they pay a small honorarium of 10 Canadian dollars, ten whole Canadian dollars. All of this info is as of this recording, of course. So do check out their website for all the details.

[00:29:40.025] – Rachel Thompson
This episode of Write, Publish, and Shine is presented by the Massachusetts Review. The Massachusetts Review presents their newest issue, A Gathering of Native Voices, a deep dive into contemporary Native American literature. Check out massreview.org for more details.

[00:30:02.805] – Rachel Thompson
The Write, Publish, and Shine podcast is brought to you by me, Rachel Thompson, I am the host of a warm membership community called Writerly Love. Registration for this community is currently open as of this recording, and you can check it out at RachelThompson.com/join.

[00:30:22.785] – Rachel Thompson
If this episode encouraged you to let your hunger rumble, to write something about food or to keep working on a project that has some tasty bits in it, then let me know. I always love to hear from you. Tag me on social media. I’m @RachelThompson on Twitter or @RachelThompsonAuthor on Instagram and tell other hungry writers, you know about this episode. You can do this by sending them to the podcast at RachelThompson.co/podcast or tell them to search for Write, Publish, and Shine wherever they get their podcasts.

[00:30:57.075]
You can also write a review on Apple podcast or Stitcher that’s going a little extra. And I’m so grateful for those of you who have written some nice reviews on Apple podcasts and Stitcher, and it really helps to build our warm community of writers. So for that, I’m so grateful.

[00:31:15.405]
So thank you for listening and keep writing about food or whatever gets your juices flowing, writers.

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