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Interview: Caroline Bock, fiction editor of This Is What America Looks Like

This Is What America Looks Like, edited by Caroline Bock and Jona Colson, has been the talk of the Washington, D.C., area, with a number of readings and launch events.

The April 21 online event at the Enoch Pratt Library was a fantastic discussion about the creative state of our nation. I’ve even read my poem from the collection with The Inner Loop.

Today, I want to share with you an interview with fiction editor Caroline Bock.

Savvy Verse & Wit: Congratulations on the new anthology, This Is What America Looks Like, published by the Washington Writers’ Publishing House, which is the first one they’ve published in decades. They also published your debut short story collection, Carry Her Home. How did you decide where you wanted the anthology to be published? Were there any other publishers you considered?

Caroline Bock:  I only considered The Washington Writers’ Publishing House – it was established in 1975 as a ‘hippie poetry collective’ (their description, not mine!), and it’s an all-volunteer, cooperative press dedicated to  publishing poetry and literary fiction.

SVW: As the fiction editor for the anthology, how much coordination was there with poetry editor Jona Colson? Did you both have a game plan in mind before submissions started rolling in or were their themes that emerged on their own as submissions were being read?

CB: I originally envisioned this as only a fiction collection until Jona raised his hand in a WWPH meeting and asked: “Could there be room for poetry? I’m happy to volunteer as the poetry editor.” And my reply was, “There’s always room for poetry!”

Now, I knew Jona well – his beautiful poetry collection, “Said Through Glass,” was the 2018 Jean Feldman Poetry award-winner the same year that I won the Fiction Award from WWPH.

I had come up with the general theme based on the Women’s Marches that I attended in DC – a literary response to the chant: what does America look like? However, as the pandemic closed in on us last March alongside an Administration in D.C. that seem to trump up more and more lies designed to divide us, as the Black Lives Matter movement became more urgent, as our racial and economic divides were exposed—the literary response became more critical. We increased the number of writers from 50 to 100.

We reached out to writers of color to ensure as diverse and inclusive anthology as possible. We looked for the political in the personal and deeply felt responses we received to This Is What America Looks Like, and we realized that we didn’t need the political—that the personal told the story.

SVW: How did you view your role as an editor of the anthology? Let us in on what your process was when selecting the fiction pieces. Did you have any criteria you followed specifically from the start? Were there criteria that evolved over the submissions process?

CB: We received over 500 submissions, and I read everyone, sometimes more than once along with Kathleen Wheaton, our publisher.

I love fiction that either dives deeply into a moment and/or takes chances – so “Smaller” by M.M. Bailey, which dives into the anger of the pandemic via a violent cough gripped me. On the other hand, Michelle Brafman’s ‘I Am Your Mask,” from the point of view of a mask, gave me, and I hope gives readers, a different perspective on the pandemic.

I looked for fiction that spoke to the moment that we are in now in America – but then, there were a few stories that so gripped me about the past. This was the case with the opening story by Mary Kay Zuravleff entitled “Myrna, 1934” – it’s set in the Depression, but this story of a struggling family so resonated to this struggling moment, I included it.

SVW: This Is What America Looks Like provides a very broad landscape in how writers could approach the topic, but how would you describe what America looks like? Does America’s description merely entail its mountains and landscapes or is it about the people within it?

CB: Based on this astonishing collection, I have questions and I have hope for the American people.

Here are some of the questions: Do we recognize that the unnamed, code-switching, bilingual narrator in Ofelia Montelongo’s wondrous story “Botones” is as critical to our society as the tough-talking waitress in Danielle Stonehirsch’s story “The Waffle House”? Do we recognize the anger in Amy Freeman’s “Spiralling” about the political moment or Christopher J. Gregg’s inventive “What I Read Between The Line or A Prose Erasure Of ‘Executive Order on Building and Rebuilding Monuments To American Heroes” or in Shelby Settles Harper’s “Colonize These Thighs,” as a sign that we must choose a new path forward? I think so. I am filled with hope after working on this collection. I hope readers will feel that way too!

SVW: Thinking about the writers in the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) region, how would you describe their writing styles and overall view as presented in their stories? Is there something that readers could immediately recognize as fiction from this region?

CB: There’s a heightened awareness of ‘power’ in the writing I saw in the DMV—who has it and who doesn’t.

For example, Gariné Isassi wrote in her sharply-drawn story, “In Lieu of Graduation 2020,” a mother and a daughter stumble on immigration detainees in a field in Montgomery County; her story is essentially about power the government has over these people’s lives. Willie Conley’s “Labels” writes about the power or control the healthcare system can have our very identities. On other hand, the landscape of the Capital becomes a character, exerting power over the narrator in Leslie Pietrzyk’s “Admit This To No One.”

SVW: What has been your fondest memory of your writing journey so far? And what’s next for you?

CB: I always thought I would be a short story writer or a novelist or a screenwriter, or all three. But I took a twenty years detour into corporate America. So, I’m grateful that my ‘second act’ is as a writer—I’m still in the middle of it, so I don’t have a ‘fondest’ memory yet.

This past year, I’ve been working on a new novel, which centers on the power, so perhaps, I am truly a DMV writer these days too. I hope this novel will be my first for adults—so stay tuned!

Thank you, Caroline, for stopping by the blog today to talk about This Is What America Looks Like.

Copies of the anthology, This Is What America Looks Like: Poetry & Fiction from DC, Maryland and Virginia can be purchased at www.washingtonwriters.org or at your favorite etailer.

Also note that the 2022 Washington Writers’ Publishing House prizes in fiction and poetry will open for submissions on July 1-November 15th . More information can also be found at www.washingtonwriters.org

About the Editor:

Caroline Bock writes short stories, novels, and more. She is the author of CARRY HER HOME, winner of the 2018 Fiction Award from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House, and the young adult novels: LIE and BEFORE MY EYES from St. Martin’s Press.

In 2021, she is the fiction editor of THIS IS WHAT AMERICA LOOKS LIKE, poetry and fiction from DC, Maryland and Virginia from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House. She is a graduate of Syracuse University where she studied creative writing with Raymond Carver, and as of 2011, holds an MFA in Fiction from The City College of New York. She lives in Maryland with her family and leads creative writing workshops at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda and at Politics & Prose in Washington, DC. Find her often on twitter @cabockwrites.

Reading: The Inner Loop and This Is What America Looks Like

For those who missed my March 16, 2021, reading with The Inner Loop, watch the recording. I’m at about 14:15, but don’t miss some of these phenomenal writers.

Reading: The Inner Loop Presents This Is What America Looks Like

The Inner Loop is hosting a reading from This Is What America Looks Like, featuring Elizabeth Kadetsky.

Poets include:
Serena Agusto-Cox
Hayes Davis
Kristin Ferragut
Matthew Hohner
Courtney Sexton

Fiction writers include:
Amy Freeman
Melanie Hatter
Len Kruger
Kirsten Porter

I hope you’ll join us at 7:30 p.m. on March 16.

Giveaway & Interview with Jona Colson, poetry editor of This Is What America Looks Like

Full disclosure: I have a poem in this anthology.

Today, we’re talking with poetry editor Jona Colson about the new anthology from the Washington Writers’ Publishing House.

It is their first anthology in a number of decades, and the fiction and poetry included in this collection runs the gamut in terms of what America looks like. Many of these poems and stories were written during the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and so many other traumatic and pivotal events in recent history.

Please give Jona a warm welcome.

Stay to the end of the interview for a special giveaway.

Savvy Verse & Wit: Congratulations on the new anthology, This Is What America Looks Like, published by the Washington Writers’ Publishing House.

This is the second time you’ve worked with them, since they published your first poetry collection, Said Through Glass. How would you describe the publishing process for a debut poetry collection and was that similar or different from working on the anthology?

Jona Colson: It was similar and different. With your own work and developing a manuscript, you see how the poems speak to each other, and I did the same for the anthology. However, the writers were placed reverse alphabetical (Z-A), so I did not have to consider the order of the poems. I still had to create a balance with the poems—the themes, topics, and forms. This was the first time I put on an editor’s hat, and I learned a lot about working with other writers. I also was able to read so many wonderful poems!

SVW: As the poetry editor for the anthology, how much coordination was there with fiction editor Caroline Bock? Did you both have a game plan in mind before submissions started rolling in or were their themes that emerged on their own as submissions were being read?

JC: The submission’s call offered a prompt in many ways, so I was ready to read submissions in response to that. We didn’t share the specific poems and texts that we were reading, but we did discuss the topics and themes we were getting. The majority of submissions came in during the height of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movements. So, many of the topics changed in response to these events, and we had to balance the narratives of the work we accepted.

SVW: How did you view your role as an editor of the anthology? Let us in on what your process was when selecting poems and whether you asked any artists for edits.

JC: I was so pleased with all the submissions we received. Unfortunately, we had a very limited space with the book, so I had to choose what fit the best. There were many poems that I couldn’t take because of space. I asked poets for revisions when I felt that it would improve their poem. I had a few edits—some minor and some major. I found that writers were really responsive to revising their work, and that was wonderful. I love reading poetry, and I have such respect for any artist who attempts to shape experiences into language.

SVW: This Is What America Looks Like provides a very broad landscape in how writers could approach the topic, but how would you describe what America looks like? Does America’s description merely entail its mountains and landscapes or is it about the people within it?

JC: I would say it is all of that. Emotional and physical landscapes. Dreams and visions. The poems in this anthology offer a reflection of America in many different ways. There are many poems that do not directly respond what America looks like, but discuss belonging, childhood, adulthood, expectations. These are all American experiences.

SVW: Thinking about the writers in the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) region, how would you describe their writing styles and overall view as presented in their poems? Is there something that readers could immediately recognize as poetry from this region?

JC: There are many references to locality. Many poems showcase towns in the DMV, or specific streets and locations—Dumbarton Oaks, The Library of Congress, battlefields. In this way, you are immediately placed into a particular part of our country. Some poems are more abstract but suggest places in the area. The poems—and the fiction—solidify the DMV as a literary powerhouse.

SVW: What has been your fondest memory of your poetic journey so far? And what’s next for you?

JC: Getting to know other poets and writers, and being welcomed into the literary community. I got my MFA from American University, and I got to know many writers. However, since I published my book and started working on this anthology, I have met so many more people and the thriving literary community that we have here in the DMV. Discovering more writers and hearing their stories have been the best part of this journey.

Right now, I’m working on poems and some translation projects. Another book may take a while, but as long as I can keep writing, I’m happy.

Giveaway: Leave a comment about what you think America looks like by Feb. 17, 2021.

I will send the winner (age 18+) a copy of Jona’s book, Said Through Glass, and the anthology This Is What America Looks Like.

Please leave a way for me to contact you.