An Interview with Emily Mohn-Slate

Emily Mohn-Slate’s poems and essays can be found in At Length, New Ohio Review, RackedCrab Orchard ReviewMuzzle MagazineTupelo QuarterlyThe Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. Her manuscript, The Falls, has been named a finalist and semifinalist for many prizes, including the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize offered by University of Pittsburgh Press, the Wisconsin Poetry Series’ Brittingham and Pollak Prizes, and the 2017 Blue Light Books Prize offered by Indiana Review/Indiana University Press. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, the Best of the Net Anthology, and highly commended in the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize competition (Ireland). She’s a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars (MFA), Boston University (MA), and Colgate University (BA). She teaches creative writing at Chatham University and lives in Pittsburgh, PA, where she’s been part of the Madwomen in the Attic writing workshops at Carlow University since 2010.

She can be found at emilymohnslate.com.

Emily Mohn-Slate is a prevalent member of the literary community on Chatham’s campus. As she has taught many of the undergraduate creative writing courses here at Chatham, she was one of The Minor Bird’s first picks for an interview. Throughout the course of our chat with her, Professor Mohn-Slate gave us relevant advice about her poetry and its influence, the submission process and their fees, her book recommendations, and what writers can be doing in their academic careers to better their craft.

We first asked Professor Mohn-Slate about her journey as a poet. Similar to many writers’ experiences, she explains that she was always drawn to writing and creating, even as a child. She talks of the moment in which she realized writing was something she could do as a career, when she won a writing contest called “a Book is a Friend” in middle school. As she states, “That external affirmation, I think, made me feel like ‘oh wow, maybe I can write poems.’”

“I think it [writing] is a place where all the strange things in the world that I notice can matter and make sense.”

Beyond her successful writing career as a prominent poet in the Pittsburgh community, Professor Mohn-Slate teaches at Chatham University. When asked about how her teaching has influenced her work, she references a “borrowing process” in a creative field, where a particular image or word from a student can spur another idea, and so on. Mohn-Slate also works with other organizations in the Pittsburgh area that promote writing, such as  Girls Write Pittsburgh. Through these teaching experiences, Mohn-Slate states, “That’s one of the best things about teaching, I get to just be with other people who are curious and want to learn things.”

In many of our conversations in the Minor Bird Lab course, we discussed the use of submission fees in a literary journal. As Professor Mohn-Slate has been published in journals that require a submission fee and those that do not, we asked her what her views were on this practice. Referencing Rachel Mennies’ article on the value of writing, Mohn-Slate states, “That’s what Rachel starts her essay with thing we need: money. We live in a world where there are certain things that we need money for. I guess I feel like writing is something that I’m personally gonna do and submitting is something that I’m gonna do even if it costs money.” In addition to submitting to contests, she notes the difference of submitting long-form work and shorter works, like poetry. For this reason, she states, it is important to be submitting to many places if you can. In this way, she explains that submitting is a numbers game – and submission fees are a risk you take for more chances in getting published.

With so many literary journals around, we asked Mohn-Slate for some recommendations on where she finds places to publish. Being a professor, she mentions that she gets many of her ideas from students. In what she states is always a good practice, she checks the bios of writers she enjoys to see where they are getting published. Mohn-Slate also attends AWP, the Association of Writers Conference each year. Here, she says, is where she networks with other writers, literary journals, and editors.

“It’s helpful on the other end once you’re home and you’re all alone in your room and you’re submitting again because you remember that you’re sending this thing to an actual person, rather than feeling like it’s this faceless force that exists to reject you.”

For Emily Mohn-Slate’s own work, we first asked for some reading recommendations. She mentioned Jesmyn Ward, Pittsburgh poet Jan Beatty, Aracelis Girmay, Dorianne Laux, and Mary Oliver. When asked about her own poetry, she talked about the ways in which the poem that she normally does not think is her best work normally goes first. In a competitive publishing market, we can again see the ways in which the submission numbers game can be more of a game of luck rather than a calculated practice.

One of Mohn-Slate’s most popular poems is titled “So Easy,” published by The Adroit Journal. She states, “That one really matters to me, something happened when I was writing that just felt really significant, and people have connected to that one.” Many of Mohn-Slate’s works deal with her experiences as a mother, and one of her latest poems, “I’m Trying to Write a Joyful Poem”, was published in a print journal in New Ohio Review. She also has recently published an essay talking about postpartum depression, the body, and identity, found online at Bustle.com. As she says, “That piece also is something that I’m proud of, it was hard for me to write. I think I’m most proud of the things that were really hard for me to write.”

“It’s almost like I don’t care what people think about those ones because I know that I did a good thing. I feel good about it.”

What can you expect from Mohn-Slate in the future? She’s currently been working on a poem-a-day for National Poetry Month, and plans to write more over the summer.

With parting advice, Mohn-Slate talks about what she believes is best for students to do in their writing careers: “I think the most valuable thing right now where you all are is writing, just writing a lot and reading a lot. I’m definitely in that camp, I think there are many writers who would say the same thing because you have time. That said, I think it’s good to dip your toe in as much as you can and as much as you feel comfortable with starting to send work… But the act of submitting is an act of hope and faith in your work and I think that’s a really powerful thing to start practicing, saying “this thing might not be perfect, but I have taken this as far as I can and I’m going to let it fly, I’m going to see what happens.” I think that’s a really powerful thing to start getting in the habit of. It’s also a way that you start to join a larger literary community.”

Full transcript of the interview can be found below.

 

 

Q: What made you want to start writing? Why did you decide to become a poet?

Mohn-Slate: Good Question, that’s such a strange one to think about. I think there were a lot of things that made me want to start writing. I think the biggest was probably that I was the middle kid in a family that was pretty loud and crazy and I was the quieter one. I was just kind of always in my own head a lot. I feel like I started writing because the page was a place where I could make my voice heard, I could make my voice what I wanted it to be. I think that’s why I started writing poems but I don’t really remember when.

When I was little I always wanted to be a writer. You know I’m one of those annoying people who always knew what I wanted to do, I always knew as a kid I’m kind of good at this thing and I really love this thing, this is what I’m gonna do. But I didn’t really read poetry growing up because there wasn’t really poetry in my house. So I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction and then Harriet the spy, I really identified with Harriet the spy because I loved people watching, I still love people watching. So it was always fiction that I was drawn to. Then I think it was fifth or sixth grade, we started writing poetry and there was a contest and my little poem won this contest. It was called a Book is a Friend. So I was very cool obviously 🙂 That external affirmation, I think, made me feel like “oh wow, maybe I can write poems.”

So I always kind of liked writing poems more than anything else growing up and I think it was just a place where all the, I mean it still is this for me even at my age now I feel like poetry and actually other forms too, I write non-fiction and some very bad fiction that I’ve never even published. I think it’s a place where all the strange things in the world that I notice can matter and make sense. So I think that’s why I started doing because I realized this is a place where I can put all of that and people aren’t going to look at me funny because it’s a socially acceptable way to be strange.

 

Q: How has teaching influenced your work?

Mohn-Slate: It’s influenced my work a great deal. So my first teaching job was actually middle school teaching like a year or two out of college. I taught middle school English for three years and that was really intense. I loved my kids, I loved my students because they weren’t cynical yet but they knew a lot and they were really smart and really creative. And they were bouncing off the walls. It wasn’t that problem of them falling asleep, it was kind of the opposite problem. But it was very hard to write when I was teaching at that level because you just go, you just go go go the entire day and by the end of the day if you’re even mildly an introvert, and I’m like a pretty strong introvert kind of secretly I like pass as an extrovert but I’m actually an introvert, so I would just get home and be a shell of a human and have nothing left. So teaching at that level was very hard for me. But I learned a lot from it in the sense of I’m always kind of getting ideas from my students, even from all of you whom I’ve taught and I’ve worked with. I’ll get just an interesting word or an image, it’s that kind of borrowing that happens among people, creative people. I think I’ve also gained a lot of humility. Even my middle schoolers and especially my college students, I also do some teaching in the community too which is really important to me. I work with Girls Write Pittsburgh and I’ve done some work with other groups, I still work with high schoolers and middle schoolers sometimes. I learned that writing is really hard and that it doesn’t actually matter how old you are or what degrees you have in terms of how good of a writer you are. So I would have a middle schooler write this incredible line and I would be so jealous and kind of pissed off, like how did you do that? And it would just kind of remind me that it’s an art and it is a skill set, but at the root it’s an art and anyone can do it. And so I’m always reminded of that. I learn a lot from my students. This semester I’m teaching Creative Writing Ⅰ and a bunch of you are in that class. And in this particular group there are a lot of fantasy writers and readers, so I have this syllabus for myself for the summer. Since I was a kid I really haven’t read fantasy, that was the first thing I loved and then I just haven’t really read it. So I have learned a lot about who I have to read, I have to read Ursula K. Le Guin, I have to read Neil Gaiman. I have this list and I feel like for me that’s one of the best things about teaching, I get to just be with other people who are curious and want to learn things. I could go on, but I’ll stop.

 

Q: Has your reason or inspiration for writing poetry changed since you began your professional career?

Mohn-Slate: No, I don’t think the reason that I write it has changed. I think what I’m inspired by has changed and everything has changed; the forms of my poems are changing, what I’m writing about, the content has changed a lot. But I think the reason that I write it is still the same as when I was a fifth grader, and feeling lonely, and weird, and like the world didn’t make sense and I was trying to make sense of it with language. I think that’s what I’m still trying to do. I’m 39, well I’ll be 39 on Saturday and I’m still trying to make sence of the world. And you can’t make sense of the world, I mean that’s just not possible but we want, to I mean I want to. So mean I think the reason has stayed the same but I think all the other stuff has kind of shifted around it.

 

Q: What do you think about submission fees? Do they hinder your decision to submit to a journal?

Mohn-Slate: So this is a very rich heated conversation that has been happening for a while now in the writing world. I think how i feel about them… I feel ambivalent about them. I guess I can see the need for them. I’ve worked on journals and I know a lot of people who are editors who work on journals and especially if it’s a print journal and even if it’s an online journal, you need money. That’s what Rachel starts her essay with thing we need: money. We live in a world where there are certain things that we need money for. I guess I feel like writing is something that I’m personally gonna do and submitting is something that I’m gonna do even if it costs money, even if I can’t afford it I’m gonna find ways to afford it or make choices not to submit sometimes if I can’t. I’m gonna keep writing but then there’s the publishing piece. I think journals have to charge, many journals have to charge submission fees to survive. Especially ones that are just starting up who don’t have a lot of donations and I think we need a lot of those journals. I think there are a lot of new journals that are publishing diverse voices in ways that haven’t happened before, a lot of emerging writers, young writers. I think people need to eat and have even very small amounts of money for the vast amount of work that they’re doing. I mean you are all working, you have been working on a journal and you’re not getting paid. In my own experience, right now I’m submitting individual poems and essays and those submission fees tend to be like three dollars, I would say that’s the usual submission fee. I’m also submitting a full length poetry manuscript right now and those submission fees tend to be like 25 or 30 dollars, and that adds up very quickly. Submitting is in some ways a game of luck and in some ways a numbers game. If I only submit my book to one place I only have one chance of being published, and I really want it to become a book in the world so I will submit to as many places as I can afford. But I think there are many people for whom it is not possible. Actually a very go friend of mine, I won’t say her name, she can’t afford to submit her book to many contests. And her book is amazing! You would all love this book, it’s an incredible book! But she can only submit to like 3 or 4 of those manuscript contests a year. So her boo will take a much longer time to come out. I do wish that there were more ways that we could find around that. There is a group on Facebook for people who want to submit and people who will sponsor them, I forget the exact name. So it’s kind of like an underground group where writers can go in and say I want to submit this manuscript to a couple contests and I can’t afford it, here is the amount that I would need. And someone who has a little more money or just wants to help someone pay it forward, can connect with them and help pay for their submission. I think things like that are really important and I know people who have used that. I think it’s a really tricky situation and I think, as you all know, publishing is changing a lot. I will say one other thing too, poetry is a little bit different from publishing nonfiction and fiction. We’ve talked about this in my classes too. I have friends who write fiction and nonfiction and who can support themselves from the money that they make on their books which is mind-boggling to me because as a poet you really can’t, at least for a long time unless you become very well established and you put a lot of time into touring and building an audience, it’s very hard to support yourself through publication. It’s particularly painful for poets because you pay a lot of money to publish and you really don’t get it back. Whereas for fiction and nonfiction writers, they might not get it back but they still might, there are possibilities.

 

Q: Do you think it’s more reasonable to charge a submission fee if it’s a contest?

Mohn-Slate: Yes, I do. But I’m not in the camp of people who think there should be no submission fees. Because I think journals also need money to be able to operate. So I’m kind of in the middle, I’m very ambivalent and I’m still figuring out how I feel about this question, it’s kind of tricky. But I do think it makes more sense to pay a little money. I’ll submit to maybe one or two contests a year, those tend to be maybe 20 dollars to submit. More similar to what I’m paying for the book contest that I’m submitting to, because you might get that return on your money. I think it does make more sense, but again a lot of people don’t because there’s usually only one person that gets the award money. It’s tricky but I think it is more logical and less maddening to put that money out.

 

Q: How do you decide where to submit your work?

Mohn-Slate: Often I get ideas from all of you actually, from my students when we talk about submitting. I mostly get it from reading writer’s bios or seeing where friends published. So if I have a friend is published in a journal I’ve never heard of, I’ll make a note to myself to go check it out. The way I kind of started out was looking at my favorite books by other writers to see where they published, especially first books. I looked to see where Jan Batey published. It’s really just following other writers bread crumb trails. I also hear about things online, so I follow a lot of writers and journals on Twitter. I’ll hear about open submission calls and sometimes I see something that interests me even if its something as simple as the name or the way they portray themselves so I might look at their website. It’s not systematic, it’s kind of whatever goes across the screen in front of me.

 

Q: Do you have any bad experiences with a particular journal?

Mohn-Slate: I haven’t had any really bad experiences. The most close to being a difficult experience was when I’ve gone back and forth with an editor maybe once or twice and they wanted to make changes and I didn’t, and I’m very stubborn. I appreciate edits and working with a good editor can really take a piece where it needs to go, it can really help it along. But I’ve definitely had a few experiences of locking horns and digging in my heels a little bit. Mostly my experiences have been really good. I’ve had the opposite side of that where editors pointed things out that make me realize “wow, I’ve always hated that line but I didn’t know what to do with it” and then somebody just kind of gives you the language or tells you what if you reorder it this way. And that’s just kind of magical when that happens, when an editor of a journal (someone that you don’t know, that you’ve never met in person) ends up being a good reader for you, it’s pretty cool when that happens. I guess one thing that’s happened for me is that… when you have a piece accepted when you usually hear from a particular person, so you’ll hear from the managing editor or maybe a genre editor. Then you usually go back and forth with them and you get to know them and so I’m friends now with some of those people who have accepted my work. When I go to AWP, which is a big writers conference every year, I have a list every year because it’s a little overwhelming. You should all go at some point. The list helps me going into the book fair because it’s just a huge convention-center room, like an airplane hanger, and it’s all just tables of journals and at every little table there’s a different journal or press. What I always do is go and just meet the people who took my piece and say thank you and get to know them. It’s helpful on the other end once you’re home and you’re all alone in your room and you’re submitting again because you remember that you’re sending this thing to an actual person, rather than feeling like it’s this faceless force that exists to reject you. For me it makes it feel a little bit better.

 

Q: What is a book that you think everyone should read?

Mohn-Slate: Can I say a couple? I think everybody should read Jan Beatty’s new and selected poems, if you’ve been in my class you’ve read her work. Everybody should read Aracelis Girmay, she’s a poet who is incredible. Her most recent book is the Black Maria but my favorite of her books is called Kingdom Animalia, it’s so good! It’s incredible! Dorianne Laux is another favorite poet of mine, you could read any of her books but especially her first few. There’s too many books. Has everybody read Jesmyn Ward? I just taught her book in the fall. Men We Reaped is a memoir and Salvage the Bones is a novel. She’s one of the best writers out there at work right now. She’s very prolific and she also writes a lot of good essay that are published online in various places. Anne Lamott’s is still my favorite, Bird By Bird because it’s true and it’s also really funny. She’s very self-deprecating, very easy to read, you just feel like it’s a friend talking to you. I also really love Mary Oliver’s writing on writing, it’s a little bit about the writing life but it’s more about craft. My favorite is a Poetry Handbook and then there’s another book that’s more technical if you’re a poet and you’re interested in poetry craft, it’s called Rules of the Dance, it’s really good. There’s one more that I can’t think of write now. You should really all read Anne Lamott’s book. She talks a lot about procrastination, the power of writing a shitty first draft, she articulates really well how to quiet the negative voices in your head, and she just talks a lot about process. She’s a fiction writer mostly, but she has a lot to say about plot and character, so if you write fiction you should read it.

 

Q: Which of your poems do you think it your best or most powerful work?

Mohn-Slate: I have no idea. I know the ones that feel most powerful for me, the ones that changed me or that were really intense with the process of writing them. I do reading and stuff, a lot of the times people will respond to the poems that I like and I know I worked hard on and I’m proud of them but ones that I don’t think are my most powerful and that will be what hits someone. It’s also another weird thing that happens, I don’t know if any of you have had this experience, when you’re submitting you’ll submit a batch of 3-5 poems at a time. When I submit I always think this is my best and I’ll put it on top and someone will take it really fast, because you should always put your best work first. But then it’s the last one in the pile that someone takes right away. Like really? I think one of the ones that still matters a lot and was really intense for me in the writing of it is called So Easy, it’s online. It was published by The Adroit Journal. That one really matters to me, something happened when I was writing that just felt really significant, and people have connected to that one. Another recent one that people have written me about, and this doesn’t happen that much for a poet especially a poet without a book. It was called I’m Trying to Write a Joyful Poem, it was published in a print journal in New Ohio Review which is a great journal. I’ve had an amazing experience with them, you should all read them and submit to them poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. But that poem for some reason struck a cord, people wrote to me about it and if I read someone always comes up to me and says thank you. But the thing that has connected most actually is an essay that I wrote about postpartum. So I have to young kids and I wrote this essay, I thought it was going to be a poem and I realized it was a horrible poem and it actually needed to be an essay so I went with it. And it was about postpartum depression and the body and identity. That was the thing that people have connected to. That piece also is something that I’m proud of, it was hard for me to write. I think I’m most proud of the things that were really hard for me to write. Do you feel that way? It’s almost like I don’t care what people think about those ones because I know that I did a good thing. I feel good about it.

 

Q: Are you working on anything right now? Any big projects?

Mohn-Slate: Yes, in two weeks I’ll be working much harder because right now things are really crazy with the end of the semester. So what I’m doing right now is for the first time in my life I’m doing a poem-a-day for National poetry month, poem/prose-a-day because I’m also working on some essays. Are any of you doing this right now? It’s nuts, it’s bonkers, I don’t know why I said I would do it. But I’m also really glad that I did because I have written.. So I haven’t done every day because life gets in the way. But I’ve written 5 or 6 drafts of poems that I would not have written in April, like no way, if I hadn’t had this accountability machine. So Nancy Reddy who is a really great poet who you should all check out, her book is amazing. She’s a Pittsburgh native but teaches in New Jersey, her book is called Double Jinx. She asked me and a bunch other poets that she knows to do this thing and so every morning whoever writes the first poem or prose expert (like 500 words a day), they send it in an email chain to the group and then you don’t have to read, you’re not even supposed to read, you don’t comment, it’s just for accountability. It’s awesome, I would recommend that. So I’m writing horrible poems but feeling good about writing horrible poems. My poems have been a lot about technology, I’ve been starting to become obsessed with thinking about technology and what its doing to us. I have two very young children and so that tends to creep into my poems a lot too so it’s almost about motherhood and technology. So that I would say is my next poetry book that want to slowly write over time. I’m also working on a couple different essays, one is about the madwoman in the attic. I know some of you know about it, a group of women writers here in Pittsburgh who run creative workshops that are open to the public, it’s only for women so sorry men, if you are at all interested talk to me after. But I’m writing an essay about the madwoman which is basically trying to answer the question of why does it change people’s lives? Because everybody I know who’s gone through it for any period of time says that it changed their life in some way, so I’m just really interested in that. This idea that writing can change your life and that art can change your life. And then a couple other essays about motherhood stuff like the body, it’s all kind of about the body and identity basically and how those things connect.

 

Q: What do you think is most important for students to be doing right now? Do you think it’s more valuable to really be honing your craft and working on pieces or start getting out there in that community or a mixture of both?

Mohn-Slate: I think the most valuable thing right now where you all are is writing, just writing a lot and reading a lot. I’m definitely in that camp, I think there are many writers who would say the same thing because you have time. That said, I think it’s good to dip your toe in as much as you can and as much as you feel comfortable with starting to send work. So I do require my students to send one thing out because I want you to have the experience of that and I think it’s important for you to think about having other eyes on your work, and having other people read it, even have that feeling of publication. Which I think many of you will probably have with the Minor Bird issue thats coming out or have had already in other journals. It feels really good, doesn’t it? To have your work in print or online and be able to share it in that way. I think it’s a really powerful thing. But I would say given that life is full and that you have a lot of demands on your time as students, when you get some time I would read and I would write. I think it’s good to dip back into people like Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Jack Gilbert (one of my favorite poets from Pittsburgh) people who are not hear any more but who are masters who we can learn so much from. But the act of submitting is an act of hope and faith in your work and I think that’s a really powerful thing to start practicing, saying “this thing might not be perfect, but I have taken this as far as I can and I’m going to let it fly, I’m going to see what happens.” I think that’s a really powerful thing to start getting in the habit of. It’s also a way that you start to join a larger literary community. When you publish in a journal, you might go to the launch party for that journal, you meet other writers. You might meet someone who recommends a writer that you end up really loving or recommends you should apply to aa fellowship or you should do this mentoring thing, so you never know where it can take you.

 

Q: What are three journals you think we should submit to based on what genre someone would write in? So like a poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.

Mohn-Slate: Some of it depends so I can tell you just some of my favorite journals but some of it will depend on what you write or what your aesthetic is or sometimes what the call for the journal is as you know. A couple of my favorite poetry journals are Tinderbox poetry journal is one of my favorite that is poetry specific, they take work that looks like a typical poem, they also take a lot of hybrid stuff. So if you have work that is like a lyric essay or you’re writing a frankenstein piece that’s part poetry part essay, they’ll take that. So that one thing I really love about them and their work is always so good, they’re an online journal. I really love the The Adroit Journal, they are getting harder and harder to get into but they’re excellent, I love everything they do. Agni is one of my favorite journals, that’s my dream journal. I’ve been consistently rejected by them for the last six years, encouraging rejections most of them but I always tell my partner if I’m hit by a bus, just keep sending poems to Agni because I have to get a poem in that journal. They are one of my absolute favorite journals and they publish all genres. Nonfiction people, you should all be sending to Creative Nonfiction and following them and what they do. They’re based out of Pitt, they’re absolutely excellent kind of like the pinnacle of the stanted for nonfiction. There’s so many other good ones, for short nonfiction there’s Brevity. They’re a really good online journal for flash nonfiction or short nonfiction pieces. I don’t submit fiction so I know less but New Higher Review, they’re really good. Any of the standard fiction long-standing magazines are going to have really good fiction and you should shoot for that. In terms of online places, there’s one called the fiction not that’s a really good one. It also depends on what kind of fiction, so there’s a lot more breakdown in terms of genre. So if you’re writing fantasy and si-fi focus, if you wright flash, some will depend on length. And fiction can be a little harder to get published because of space, so in a way it’s easier to get a poem into a journal because they can accept maybe 20 since they tend to be smaller, so you have to keep at it. Museum of Americanah is another one my fiction friends have published in and I absolutely love their work.

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