Literary Citizenship: An Interview with Michael Schmeltzer
Inequality and lack of diversity in the literary world are not new problems, but questions of how to address them have taken on new urgency. Seattle poet and RWW alumnus Michael Schmeltzer (2007) is actively engaged in this cultural conversation, and has taken some creative steps to champion the writers whose voices we most need to hear right now.
Michael Schmeltzer was born in Yokosuka, Japan, and eventually moved to the United States. He is the author of Elegy/Elk River, which won the 2015 Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award, and Blood Song (Two Sylvias Press, 2016), which was longlisted for the Julie Suk Award. A debut nonfiction book, A Single Throat Opens (a lyric exploration of addiction, written collaboratively with Meghan McClure, RWW class of 2013), is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press. His honors include numerous Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations, the Gulf Stream Award for Poetry, and the Blue Earth Review’s Flash Fiction Prize. His work has been published in Black Warrior Review, PANK, Rattle, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, The Journal, Natural Bridge, Mid-American Review, Water~Stone Review, and New York Quarterly, among others. He recently accepted an editorial position at Floating Bridge Press.
Soundings Editor Lisa Morin Carcia interviewed Schmeltzer via e-mail in early February 2017.
Lisa Morin Carcia: Back in 2015, after Elegy/Elk River won the Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award, you announced that you would pay the Floating Bridge chapbook contest submission fee for a writer from a traditionally underrepresented background, as well as critique the manuscript prior to submission. How did you first get the idea to make that offer? What was the result?
Michael Schmeltzer: Literary citizenship is a very integral part of my identity as a reader, writer, and editor. I want to be of service to the writing world, and I try to move forward with that in mind. I want to act with as much care as I write. I decided to use whatever increased visibility I had from winning the prize to help another Washington State poet. I thought by reaching out in this manner I could not only help Floating Bridge Press with increased submissions, but also encourage local, emerging talents while advocating for diversity in literature. I wanted to do more than just pay a fee; I wanted to build a relationship. Now more than ever it seems these relationships are of the utmost importance.
I had the pleasure of working with three wonderful poets, one of whom ended up being a semifinalist. It was heartening to have mutual friends reach out to me and recommend a poet I should work with, to see people helping each other. I had a great time reading these new (to me) voices, and I hope I was able to give them a worthwhile experience. Now as an editor for Floating Bridge Press (I was asked to join last May), I won’t be able to offer the same experience for a poet, but I will do everything I can to encourage emerging, diverse voices from the inside.
LMC: How do you incorporate social justice work into your editing and teaching work? Are there things other editors and teachers are doing that you think are effecting positive change in the literary space?
MS: Writing is simultaneously devalued and feared by certain authorities because it has the power to multiply and amplify ideas, to unite people. It can create empathy and movement and progress. I’ve been thinking about the proposed cuts to the NEA and the arts recently. I think about how my mother, an Okinawan native, grew up being told not to use her native tongue in school; she was told to speak Japanese only. Now her language (Okinawan) is going extinct, and with that goes not just words but culture, stories, art. I think about the food she makes for us, the songs she sang to me as a child. These are the ways we pass down things of intimate and artistic value. When we symbolically lose an important part of the community like the NEA, it isn’t about the financial support; it’s about losing another way of passing down a culture. Art is not only what we create but also what we inherit. When a government speaks of cutting funds to the arts, when people and politicians devalue the arts, they are finding ways to cut people off from their culture and cut others off from experiencing and engaging those cultures. Through art and writing we can find the humanity and dignity within all of us. So as cliché as it sounds, read widely and diversely. If you do so, empathy, understanding, compassion, all those things will fall into place a little easier. Then, if you behave and react with those things in mind first, social justice becomes something you enact in your very being.
Writers and teachers like Kaveh Akbar inspire me. He not only runs the literary interview site Divedapper (which is its own joyful, positive thing), but he also recently shared poems by poets from recently banned Muslim countries, which I thought was a brilliant and loving way to protest. We have editors like Kelly Davio, Joe Ponepinto, and Yi Shun Lai (all from Tahoma Literary Review) who questioned the standard submission model and created this transparent, writer-centered journal that successfully pays their contributors and creates more equity within the editor/writer dynamic. Other editors, like Amanda Miska of Split Lip Press, Anthony Frame of Glass Poetry Press, Justin Daugherty and Matt Fogarty of Jellyfish Highway, and Leah Angstman of Alternating Current, all have used their platforms to help raise funds for organizations like the ACLU. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Two Sylvias Press (editors Kelli Russell Agodon [RWW class of 2007] & Annette Spaulding-Convy) and Black Lawrence Press (executive editor Diane Goettel) on my own books, and they are also lovely advocates/allies on all levels.
LMC: For your December 2016 fundraising effort in which you donated the proceeds of your book sales, how did you choose which organizations to support? Do you think more people decided to buy books because you were donating the profits?
MS: I know a couple people who meant to buy my book earlier said they were prompted to action because of my offer to donate to SafeBAE (an organization raising awareness about sexual assault in middle and high schools) and Southern Poverty Law Center (an organization dedicated to fighting bigotry, hate, and injustice through litigation, education, and advocacy). Both organizations are doing important work, but SafeBAE (which I learned about via the documentary “Audrie & Daisy”) hits especially close to home. When someone like Brock Turner gets three months in jail, when you see the way the public reacts to women who come forward, when you think about Steubenville, when you think about young women who commit suicide because of the assault/cyberbullying they endure (like in the case of Audrie Pott), when the country elects a man who boasts about this type of behavior, it makes you furious. I can think of no better way to fight back against this damaged thinking than to educate the next generation.
LMC: Is there anything else you’re doing along these lines that you’d like Soundings readers to know about? Anything other writers or editors are doing that you’d like to share with/suggest to our readers?
MS: Roxane Gay recently pulled her book from Simon & Schuster because an imprint of theirs was also publishing a book by Milo Yiannopoulos. An editor I know stepped down from her position because the press she worked for is publishing a person who holds racist views. I find this absolutely heroic. There is so much good work being done by so many writers, editors, journals, and presses that I find it very difficult to bother with ones that refuse to take a stand or even acknowledge any problems within the industry or the country. I need more from them. And if you’re a person who belongs to a marginalized group, saying “I need more” becomes an act of resistance; it becomes political. So whoever you may be that reads this, go ahead, be political; demand what you deserve.
LMC: What changes would you like to see happen in the literary world?
MS: I would like to see more cross-pollination between the academic world and the nonacademic world, more panels outside of AWP and inside more libraries. I would like to see more emphasis and encouragement given to those just starting out in their writing paths, whether they are teenagers or octogenarians. I would like to see people I’ve been rooting for find success so we can celebrate properly. And most definitely I’d like to see more dance parties where we can all be our most ridiculous, luminous selves.