Ripple Map: Alysse McCanna

This summer marks the tenth anniversary of Tinderbox Poetry Journal. To commemorate the collective effort of contributors, editors, readers and staff throughout the years, we’re launching an interview series called “Ripple Map.” In this series  we connect with past contributors about where they are and what they’ve written since publication in Tinderbox. The idea is to trace the ripples, the effect, this little digital journal with a ten-year history and significant contributor archive has had on readers and writers all over the world. 

Cover of the poetry collection FishWife by Alysse Kathleen McCanna, featuring a painting in reds and oranges of a woman standing in a boat, holding a large fish.

Take us back to your acceptance email, what was that like? At that point, how long had you been submitting work?

If acceptances are a drug, I was going through withdrawal when the email from Tinderbox appeared (like magic!) in my inbox. What a delight, and the encouragement I needed in that moment. The email was kind and specific, and I felt certain this tender poem ended up in the right place. I’d published a handful of poems before Tinderbox, but I’d only been seriously submitting work for a year or so.

This acceptance was especially important because it was the first queer love poem I felt ready to share. Inspired by Marie Howe’s “Practicing,” it explores early sexual experiences, war, and violence against women. At the time of publication, I did not feel confident claiming my queer identity—I still struggle to find the right words to describe my sexuality and experiences—and seeing this poem so lovingly handled and presented was the assurance I needed to continue writing about beautiful, difficult things.

How, if at all, has your posture toward the publication process changed since then?

I was writing and submitting work consistently throughout my MFA and PhD programs, which helped affirm my choice to seriously pursue poetry writing. Now I’ve taken a step back from publishing and am focusing on new projects that need significant time and space to develop. I think I’ve reached a point where my confidence in my work allows me to take a breath and reorient myself into the writing, without worrying too much whether it will be published soon. Getting those early publications went a long way in building this confidence! I’m grateful to the journals that featured my work, and also to those that sent me encouraging rejections—that positive feedback makes a difference.

Trace the path from that poem then, to your writing now. What’s different, what’s consistent?

A mentor once told me that my poetry spoke to his “fish brain,” reaching to an ancestral, prehistoric intelligence in his spine, and asking him to travel in unexpected directions to arrive at a poem’s meaning. I suppose I approach writing in a similar way—it’s somehow engrained, somewhat involuntary, hard to define, but necessary, satiating, and affirming.

I still use poetry as a place to explore memory and make sense of my perception and experience; as such, my writing is still largely inspired by my own life. But while my debut full-length collection contains some elements of fiction and fantasy, my current projects lean much more heavily into invention and myth.

In terms of the writing process, I’m still grappling with how to create a ritual and routine to stay on track with next book aspirations. I teach full-time, which provides a lot of inspiration and spontaneity, but I’m still in the midst of finding a firm balance between teaching and the writing life. I’m also trying to be more playful and less prescriptive in my approach to writing, which is helped by reading—something I always seem to find time for!

What would you say to encourage emerging writers?

Writing is a kind of magic. Writing communities are opportunities to peek behind the curtain, to learn a few tricks, and to commune with other magicians who understand this art and obsession we’re gifted to grapple with. Apply to residencies, fellowships, and conferences to meet new folks and focus on your writing in environments specifically curated for such work. Most of all, find a workshop group—it’s easier to navigate the ups and downs of writing and publishing within a community of trusted friends.

Publishing is important…but the writing comes first! And before that, reading widely. The acknowledgments section at the back of a book you love is a treasure trove. You can see who an author’s influences and peers are, as well as where they published before their book got picked up—a great resource for finding new journals to add to your submissions list.

Invest in resources like Emily Stoddard’s Poetry Bulletin—she pulls back the curtain on publishing, highlights journals and presses that are doing great work, and also reveals entities with questionable ethics and practices. There are other resources out there for finding fee-free journals and contests, as well as paying markets. You can easily spend a lot of money submitting your work, so having a healthy amount of skepticism for journals that charge a lot to submit or to enter contests will save you time & money in the long run.

That said, don’t be afraid to submit widely and rack up rejections—high numbers are a source of pride for many writers. A positive rejection from a publication you admire is sometimes as lovely and encouraging as an acceptance. If a journal asks you to submit again, do it. They mean it! Even if you get a standard rejection, some journals cycle through readers and editors on a regular basis; this means your work will be met with fresh eyes each time, so don’t be afraid to resubmit. Finally, keep in mind that most journals are labors of love—the readers and editors are usually unpaid or underpaid, so be kind in your correspondence, and patient—they’re human, too.

Alysse Kathleen McCanna, a white woman in a green dress, sitting on a porch beneath overgrown grape vines.

Alysse Kathleen McCanna is the author of FishWife, forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in March 2024. Her poetry has appeared in North American Review, The Rumpus, Poet Lore, TriQuarterly, and other journals. Alysse holds a PhD in English from Oklahoma State University, an MFA from Bennington College, and serves as Associate Editor of Pilgrimage Magazine. She is an Associate Professor of English at Colorado Mountain College in the Vail Valley.

Lauren K. Carlson, a white woman with blonde hair wearing a hat, neutral expression

Lauren K. Carlson (she/her) is the author of Animals I Have Killed (Comstock Review Chapbook Prize 2018). A poet and spiritual director, her work has appeared in Waxwing, Salamander Magazine, Pleiades and others. In 2022 she was awarded the Levis Stipend for her work in progress. She lives with her family in Michigan.