The Pitkin Interviews – November 2021: Cynthia Sharp

November 2021: Cynthia Sharp, Submissions Editor (Fall 2021)

Pitkin:  Cynthia, thanks so much for joining me today.  What is your literary background?

CS:  I’m a poet, editor and educator who likes to branch into classic and hybrid forms of the arts, both as a writer and a producer. The allure of the publishing world has captivated me since I was high school yearbook editor and went on field trips to see magazines produced.

After graduating from York University in Toronto with creative writing and English degrees, I worked in public affairs as a radio host and programmer, creating numerous documentaries on social justice issues. I also did an independent video documentary on music and social change, interviewing Canadian bands from across the country through SAW Gallery in the Ottawa Arts Court and Video In Studios artist run centre in Vancouver.

My first literary project in Vancouver was Poetic Portions, a Canadian Earth Day reading series and anthology I initiated with new, emerging and established contributors, including provincial poet laureates. For the first few years it ran entirely on donations of poems, recipes and time to raise enough funds to create two youth literary scholarships. The readings are now supported by The Writers’ Union of Canada.

I’ve also worked as a copy and structural editor for independent books like How to Say Cheese,  which won many awards in the digital publishing world.

One of my favourite jobs was the Richmond Writer in Residence position where in conjunction with the City of Richmond, Richmond Cultural Centre and Richmond Public Library, I edited an anthology of flash fiction and poetry from participants in my workshops.

As a Federation of British Columbia Writers Director I organized provincial publishing fairs and oversaw Wordworks magazine. Wordworks has three colour print and online issues a year distributed to our thousand members, as well as to libraries schools, businesses, and other arts and education organizations across British Columbia and the Yukon.It was a team effort to provide opportunities for writers through our province, reaching out especially to First Nations communities in the spirit of Reconciliation, as well as ensuring that our organization met the requirements to continue to qualify for grants, then hiring amazing people and supporting them, much like my experience of being supported in my role at The Pitkin.

Cooperative artistic endeavours, large and small, especially with inclusive grassroots writing draw me in. The Pitkin is a beautiful, professional representation of voices and genres. It was an honour to be of service to our MFA community as the Submissions Editor.

Pitkin:  Where can we find your poetry?

CS:  I’m in previous issues of The Pitkin and other literary journals such as CV2, Subjectiv Journal and Toasted Cheese. My first full length collection Rainforest in Russet is available from Silver Bow Publishing and Amazon.

Pitkin:  How did you find The Pitkin Submissions Editor job?

CS:  I got given the Submissions Editor role just by showing up. If you’re at all interested in being on The Pitkin team, it’s as easy as coming to The Pitkin meeting during your residency, which you can find on the Vermont and Washing SCHED. At the meeting, you’ll see on the Google Doc or an in person sign up sheet that there are large and small jobs available. Like all my experiences with MFA peers, The Pitkin staff is an incredibly supportive, appreciative and welcoming community. I showed up at the start of my G2 semester and since I didn’t have my glasses on to see the easy Google Doc sign up form, I asked an experienced editor to sign me up for whatever needed to be done.

The Pitkin would love any amount of help, large or small. Everyone is welcome. It’s a matter of attending the residency Pitkin meeting if you can, or connecting with the Editor in Chief or one of the regional editors by email, on Discord, in class or on social media. They’re friendly, approachable and supportive. The large jobs such as Editor in Chief and Submissions Editor tend to alternate from Vermont to Washington each semester, so it’s easiest to go to The Pitkin meeting for your campus where the available positions for your state are waiting to be filled. It’s a cooperative effort. I also emailed peers like Maria Burns, now the Spring 2022 Editor in Chief, to ask her about her experience on Pitkin genre editing teams, as well as the impartial structural process of selection of pieces, how much time it took, and if she recommended getting involved. She explained how organized the publication and process are and encouraged me to come on board.

Maria was right. The Pitkin is an impeccably well structured machine with clear scaffolding behind the scenes so that an exciting new product can reach bookstores and readers each semester. In all my years of literary editing and arts management, I’ve rarely seen such a balance of clear, achievable tasks within supportive, respectful community. The job descriptions are well explained and contained within a functional timeline with room for personal flair even in administrative positions.

Pitkin:  What did the Submissions Editor role entail?

CS:  I walked into one of the most professionally well organized literary journals I’ve ever seen in terms of anonymity of submissions, dignity and ethics in the handling of writers’ work, well developed timelines and clear job descriptions with room for personal touches. That all this runs online and over email via a low residency program is even more astonishing. From the moment I was emailed the timelines, forms and precise job descriptions, I was in awe of the way The Pitkin is permanently set up for success. All we had to do was keep it on course and fill it with creative energy. The permanent Pitkin Google Docs break tasks broken down into simple steps with guiding deadlines and suggested numbers of outreach emails with room for flexibility, so creativity has a chance to soar. I saw the spirit and heart of the Goddard community at work and am ever in awe of this dream come true of being among such incredible humans, heart, talent, vision and revision.

The Submissions Editor job requires reaching out by weekly email to encourage submissions in a steady and organized way, opening forms to receive submissions, acknowledging receipt of submissions, checking the formatting of submissions and asking for any changes for pieces that don’t fit the standard guidelines (to ensure that the layout and printing of the journal are without problems), stripping the submissions of identifying information, then sending them in folders to the Editor in Chief who double checks that they’re stripped of author names, then passes them on to the genre editors. It’s busy at the start of the semester and wraps up early. I enjoyed the room for extra outreach helping the social media editor by reposting, as well as a chance to add my gentleness and encouragement in emails. My goal was to help everyone who submitted to have their forms filled out properly and their material meeting standard publication requirements.

Pitkin:  How did you balance the pressure it put you under with your school work?

I’m the kind of person who likes to escape online whenever I feel stuck in my creative work or annotations, so I trick myself into thinking I’m escaping by accomplishing a different necessary task. When I wanted a hit of connection, I checked The Pitkin submissions email. I’m a bit compulsive, which can be a strength as an editor, so I checked The Pitkin email at least once a day during the submissions period. Often the distraction of responding to queries took my mind off of the problem in my script or poem and I returned able to tackle the challenge in my thesis or with renewed focus for annotations and the long critical paper. I find that repetitive tasks like double checking submission entries in Word to ensure that the margins, font and size are correct, then organizing them alphabetically into file folders relaxes the creative parts of the mind, almost like a form of meditation. It uses a different part of the brain. Those types of tasks are also easy to do when creatively exhausted, so it was possible to schedule The Pitkin work in a way that didn’t eat up sacred creative time. Instead of using social media or excessive research as my escape, I had my reading material in library ebooks on my computer and a choice of tasks – submissions email for a hit of connection with amazing people in the program, organizing the submissions for methodical work that lets the creative part of the mind relax and recharge, using that momentum to push through the long critical paper, the reading list at my fingertips instead of social media, or promoting The Pitkin if I couldn’t resist social media. I always start my day with sacred creative time for one to four hours before letting myself go online, so the thesis always gets my first morning energy. I make creative time and exercise the first engagement for the day and if I must escape during that time, it’s to reading material. Being the Submissions Editor helped me become more disciplined and replaced some of my social media time with direction and accomplishment.

Another bonus of joining The Pitkin team was finding a stronger friendship and connection with Quintin Humphrey, the Editor in Chief for the Fall 2022 issue, who gave me his MFA coping strategies such as reading all the plays on his list at once to not be overly influenced by one style. As much as we spoke about scheduling emails and targeting graduating G4s and G5s in our one on one Pitkin Zoom meetings, we also built a support network as Goddard MFA students. I’m in awe of my MFA peers every time I get involved in extra-curricular activities. As much as we donate time, we get incredible returns in friendship, colleagues and community. I loved getting to interact with and build friendships with other staff.

Pitkin:  thank you so much, Cynthia, for that fascinating insight into your background, your work and the role of Submissions Editor for our journal

CS:  Thank you so much for inviting me!  I hope my experience will encourage others to volunteer.