Spy in the Slushpile #1: Pithead Chapel

Psssst! Over here! 
Notebooking Daily snuck agents into the offices of your favorite literary magazines to bring you—the potential submitter—the sweet low down, the inside track, the full two scoops of raisins. Everything you need to know to make as successful of a submission as possible will be here, but remember that the number one rule to putting your best foot forward is to take the time to read the journal you're submitting to and FOLLOW THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. This is vital to show the editors that you respect their time and effort, and because some journals will reject submissions that don't extend the simple courtesy of following guidelines, without even reading it—and no one wants that.

Today we check in with our spy who was sent to the offices of the literary magazine Pithead Chapel.

Our spy's dossier: 
Pithead Chapel (pronounced pit-head) is a monthly online literary journal that publishes art, fiction, nonfiction, and prose poetry (under 4000 words for prose, 1-3 pieces for prose poetry). They read no-fee submissions all year round on Submittable. They also hold The Larry Brown Short Story Award (for prose under 4000 words) which has a $10 entry fee, $500 First Prize and October 31st deadline.

Their editorial statement is as follows "At Pithead Chapel, we’re looking for engaging art, fiction, nonfiction, and prose poetry. Most of all, we want your work to make us feel something. We want to reach the last word and immediately crave more. We want your work to leave a brilliant bruise. Send us your polished work and we’ll do our best to help your voice get heard."

Although it's from 2013, their interview at the wonderful blog Six Questions For is insightful as well.

Current issue of Pithead Chapel, October 2020

When our spy saw their chance, they pounced on Editor-in-Chief Kim Magowan and were able to secure the answers to their assigned six questions. The transcript follows.

1) I always recommend that potential submitters read the most recent issue of a journal before submitting there (at least the genre which they're submitting), but if you could recommend, say three or so pieces (or however many) that you feel especially exemplify for one reason or another, what you're looking for, or that you are especially proud to have published and think everyone, whether they plan on submitting or not, should read? 
TL;DR Pieces that exemplify the journal. 
 One story I particularly love that we published is Dan Brotzel’s “Active and Passive Voice” (Volume 8, Issue 9), a brilliant, funny, sad piece which uses the structure of a grammar lesson to tell the story—or really, two stories: a story about a deteriorating relationship in which the narrator has allowed herself to be dominated by a selfish partner; and a story about her reclaiming agency, the agency to kick him out and to become, once again, an active participant in her life. I always tell my students that grammar is political, and one issue with passive voice (one reason teachers typically hate passive voice) is that it denies accountability—there is no subject performing the action. Brotzel shows what is fraught, cowardly, and unsustainable about passive voice in rich and textured ways here. I love experimental forms, but for me, the form needs to be essential to the story, needs to be the best (perhaps only) way this particular story gets told: it’s can’t just be a clever device.

2) Is there any genre, topic, theme or stylistic that you are surprised you don't see more of, or that you would like to see more of? For instance prose poems, stories about organized sports (or one in particular), non-conventional family narratives, non-standard typography, alternate history, high sci-fi, hybrid pieces utilizing white space... 
TL;DR I wouldn't kick these submissions out of bed for eating crackers. (updateable, if the interview results in an unwanted flux of submissions)

We would love to see more underrepresented voices telling their stories. We would also love to see more uncanny, surrealist fiction, more oddball mysteries, along the lines of Kyra Kondis’s “The Day the Birds Came,” where “we,” the first person plural narrators, enviously watch their classmate Patricia get mysteriously stalked by birds. This story is delightful yet menacing, depicting a world that is both familiar and strange. Caroljean Gavin’s “Once a Fisherman” represents a similarly uncanny world, where beached girls slowly transform into fish, and it’s unclear to the reader whether the fisherman who “saves” and cares for them is indeed their savior, or something more menacing and predatory, a captor. I want more bizarre worlds.

3) Hard sells—and not just the standard (though very important) "don't send hateful, misogynist, racist etc" work. Is there a plot, trope, character, motif, idiom or even phrase you would like people to think twice about before using? One that you see a ton, or that stick out when you're reading, in a negative way for whatever reason.
TL;DR Hard sells.
We don't publish standard verse poetry, instead focusing on the prose poem as an individual form. However, it is a blurry line that differentiates the two, and we often receive pieces that make us rethink our expectations. For example, the / is often used as a pretty obvious substitute for the traditional line break, carrying the same rhythmic feel and beat, which is a hard sell for us. But then a piece like “Allowable, Sure, But Potentially Doomed” by Janet Frishberg (February 2019 issue) comes into the queue, and uses the / in a wonderful and unexpected way. 

4) If you could pick 2-3 pieces of writing that you just love that are already out in the world and somehow have the ability to have discovered it in your slushpile, itching for you to publish them, what would they be? 
TL;DR Wish I could've published that!

Three of my all-time favorite flashes are Gwen Kirby’s “Shit CassandraSaw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because At That Point Fuck Them Anyway,” Alex McElroy’s “The Death of Your Son: A Flow Chart,” and K.B. Carle’s“Vagabond Mannequin.” McElroy’s and Carle’s are perfect examples of what I was describing above: the experimental form must not just be a tacked on device. It needs to be the only way to tell this particular story. For instance, McElroy’s flow chart captures the way the father is stymied by grief and struggling for purchase, and also the callous, corporate way his company handles his grief: to them, it’s an obstacle that thwarts a worker’s efficiency. Their sympathy is phony, purely performative; the story ends with their compelling him to move on, as if moving on is even feasible. For CNF, Katherine Gehan particularly loves Monet Thomas' “To the Pharmacist on Phutong WestStreet” in The Off Assignment. It's the perfect marriage of epistolary writing and travelogue. Thomas reveals just enough of herself and the culture to make us want to know much more about both.

5) To your tastes, how would you describe the sort of "experimental" writing you seek? The idea of categorizing experimental or avant-garde writing is very slippery, as it means different things to different people, and it can even change over time from the same person's perspective. So in this moment, allowing that tomorrow you may feel differently and we won't hold you to it, what are you looking for in experimental writing? Is there a 'soft line' where it begins to lose meaning or goes too far (say, where you think the author/artist's intentions are subverted or hurt by the radical level of experimentation—of course allowing exceptions, we're not issuing challenges here) 
TL;DR The journal's place on the spectrum of 'experimental'.

To invoke the famous Supreme Court ruling about how to identify obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” Again, the experimental form needs, for me, to serve the piece. It needs to be both surprising and inevitable: the only way that particular story can be told. An example of this (and another story I would have killed to publish) is Kathy Fish’s superb, lacerating “Collective Nouns for Humans in theWild,” where what seems initially like a witty and delightful mode of categorization (“a group of short story writers is a Flannery”) veers suddenly into horror and galvanizing protest (“a group of school children is a target”). As the tone shifts and the story’s true subject clicks into place, we as readers consider what is defective, or even violent, about the process of categorization.

6) If you could speak directly to a potential submitter as a voice in their head, like their 'submission conscience', neither angel nor devil but bookish nerd that wants the person to have the best chance with their submission as possible, what would you want them to be sure to do or consider when submitting? 
TL;DR Please consider this when submitting.

This is advice that everyone knows already, but read our journal first; get a sense of what kind of work we love and want to share. Read our guidelines. The only kind of poetry we publish is prose poetry, for instance, yet we get quite a few line poems. We're honored to receive many CNF submissions by authors who share various types of trauma, loss, addiction, and important relationships. For us, stand-out pieces elevate these human experiences to art by offering new perspectives, and playing with form or language. For example, Taylor Kirby bypasses common eulogy or the father/daughter dynamic in “All the Things We Never Found" by focusing on the specific experience of searching for treasures in a lake bed. In “MikeTyson Retrospective,” Matthew Sumpter delves into his boyhood, childhood illness, celebrity, violence, and nostalgia in an incredibly short space with a tight focus. Naturally, CNF is important to the writer--but will it feel as urgent and necessary to the reader?

(at this point the editor hadn't yet called for security, so our spy continued the interrogation)

7) What do you think differentiates prose poetry from flash fiction (or micro fiction), with the caveat that of course there will be exceptions to all 'rules' in writing, so it's something of a soft 'line' by nature.
Ha! As the Fiction Editor, I often read a beautiful piece that seems to be more of a prose poem, and Matthew Smart, our Poetry Editor, has the same experience with his queue, of reading something that seems more like flash. This is of course idiosyncratic and hard to define—my friend Grant Faulkner, EIC of 100Word Story, will insist there is no relevant difference between flash fiction and prose poetry. But for me (Kim), flash fiction needs to have narrative; it needs to tell a story, however compressed. Whereas Matthew notes a great piece of Prose Poetry needs to have a mysteriousness to it, like the movement of a large beast underneath the surface of a smooth lake—something more alluded to than described outright.

8) What other journals do you really enjoy reading, or do you feel especially akin to?

Among my favorites are the Usual Suspects: Smokelong and Wigleaf continue to publish consistently superb flash. I also love JMWW, Okay Donkey, Cleaver, Forge, Atticus Review, Split Lip Magazine, and Jellyfish Review. Those journals feel akin to us, in terms of their sensibility.

Ms. Magowan was actually a delightful host, so perhaps the subterfuge and breaking and entering was unnecessary, but not every journal will be quite so accommodating—because of that we'll keep reporting back from the various assignments of our Spy in the Slushpile.