Robert B. Gentry & Mary Sue Koeppel Interviewed by Winning Writers

Jendi Reiter of Winning Writers conducted this exclusive email interview with Robert B. Gentry and Mary Sue Koeppel, editors of Writecorner Press. This writers' resource website offers the Writecorner Press Annual Poetry Award ($500 top prize, deadline March 31) for unpublished poems up to 40 lines, and the E.M. Koeppel Short Fiction Award ($1,100 top prize, deadline April 30) for unpublished stories up to 3,000 words. Winners and runners-up are published online. Student entrants to the fiction prize are also eligible for the $500 P.L. Titus Scholarship. Authors published through Writecorner's contests have included Stephen Schaurer, Noah Edelson, Lones Seiber, Gregg Cusick, Sallie Bingham, A. Molotkov, Ellaraine Lockie, Ellen LaFleche and Allison Joseph.

Robert B. Gentry is an award-winning short story writer, an essayist, a memoirist, a book reviewer, and a textbook author. His honors include first place for short fiction in the national First Coast Writing Festival Contest, a prizewinning essay in the University of California/Irvine's Quest for Peace Writing Contest, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. His groundbreaking book A College Tells Its Story: An Oral History of Florida Community College at Jacksonville, an oral history in the style of Studs Terkel, was the first published oral history of a US educational institution in book form. Visit to order his book Tips for Collecting Stories: a Guide to Developing an Oral History.

Mary Sue Koeppel is the author of the poetry collections Between the Bones and In the Library of Silences: Poems of Loss, and the writers' workbook Write Your Life: The Memory Catcher. She has won the Esmee Bradbury National Poetry Award; an Art Ventures Grant; the Frances Buck Sherman Award for her editing of Kalliope, the national literary journal; the prestigious Red Schoolhouse Award for Excellence in Teaching from the State of Florida; and the Faculty Excellence Award as well as many other awards for her poetry and short fiction. She is a Florida Humanities Council Scholar.

Q: Tell me about the history and mission of Writecorner Press. What motivated you to start a literary publishing venture, and why did it take the form it did?

A: We saw many good writers languishing in obscurity because they couldn't get editors or agents to give them a chance. So we developed Writecorner Press for writers, especially emerging ones who through our website could gain a readership and might catch the attention of agents or other influential literary figures. Until her retirement, Mary Sue Koeppel had been a long-time editor of Kalliope, a Journal of Women's Literature & Art, in which she published many fine writers like Colette, Maxine Kumin, Joy Harjo, Marge Piercy, and other established authors as well as several thousand emerging writers. An award-winning writer in fiction and nonfiction, Robert B. Gentry teamed with Koeppel to create Writecorner Press in late 2002. Later, we named our E. M. Koeppel $1,100 Short Fiction Contest after Mary Sue's mother Emma, an educator whose story we tell on our site. The P.L. Titus scholarship we named after a nephew who completed a novel while excelling as an honor student in engineering at the University of Wisconsin. Encouraged by the success of our fiction contest, we initiated the $500 Writecorner Press Poetry Prize in 2007. Other important features of our site are explained below.

Writecorner took the form it did because, like many others in the literary world, we saw the great potential of the internet for writers, readers, and publishers. We wanted to offer this venue to readers and writers interested in high-quality writing. In the beginning our site was limited in scope and technology. Soon, with the helpful advice of people experienced in literature and website development, including Winning Writers, we expanded our press to its present form.

Q: Do you see a trend away from print publishing and toward online distribution of poetry and literary fiction? What would be the pros and cons of such a shift, for writers and publishers?

A: Because of the fluctuating nature of both print and online publishing, we think it is too early to state with certainty a trend away from print to online publishing. In our own experience, however, we see an increasing number of writers with extensive print credentials submitting to our short fiction and poetry contests. Check our site for previous contest winners and you will find writers who have made impressive marks in print publishing. On our Fresh and Ripe page, you will also find writers who have scored high in print publishing and whom we published by invitation.

Pros of online publishing:

* Offers many publishing venues and niches for writers. Writecorner and a number of other e-presses take any fine writing on any theme in any style.

* There are e-presses that regularly get copious hits; thus the potential for large readerships is great. Writecorner gets thousands of hits per month. It is likely that our readership well exceeds the 100-500 subscribers of the average, small, print literary journal.

* Long shelf life for many online publications. Writecorner contest winners, our reviews, published fiction and nonfiction remain on our site permanently. Noted Cormac McCarthy scholar Dianne Luce said that this was a major reason that she submitted her review of McCarthy's play The Sunset Limited to Writecorner.

* Less expensive to develop and maintain than print publishing. However, there are considerable costs in maintaining an e-press. Writecorner's expenses include those for website creation and maintenance, web hosting, tech support, advertising, judging, contest awards, etc.

Cons of online publishing:

* Periodic updating of software and hardware entails considerable cost in money, time and effort. In time, web programs have to be revised or discarded. In the latter case, a site would have to be on hiatus until its operators install and learn a new program—the longer the hiatus, the greater chance the site will lose its publishing edge.

* In many cases, contest fees are necessary to pay for awards and site expenses. (Writecorner accepts no commercial advertising because we believe it detracts from the seriousness of our site.)

* Writecorner editors get no salary or financial remuneration. We suspect this is the situation with many editors of nonprofit e-presses.

* Websites are proliferating and include a number that lack high standards and publish pieces of little value for discerning readers.

Q: Do you think writers (or their university employers) still prefer to see publication in a traditional print journal? What can electronic publishers do to make this option more attractive and prestigious?

A: We both have had years of teaching and administrative experience at the college and university level and suspect that the bias toward print will stay until a new generation of department heads and scholars accepts the e-world of creativity and criticism. But already college and university faculty who obviously are not biased toward print-only publishing enter our short fiction and poetry contests. Also faculty send us reviews to publish on our Review of Books pages. As well, several fine presses send us their books for review on our site. So there is a growing measure of acceptance.

To make the option more attractive and prestigious, we e-publishers should maintain high standards for the works we publish and for the entire content and appearance of the sites. This is the major reason we do not accept advertising on our site, and why we carefully select the sites to which we link. Also, awarding a good deal of money for top prizes helps establish credibility. Publicizing our award winners in a respected journal brings recognition. Moreover, we nominate our outstanding writers for national awards like the Pushcart Prize.

Q: How do you publicize your site and your authors both online and in the community?

A: We pay to advertise our contests in Poets & Writers (print and online), and because our short fiction contest winner receives over $1,000, Poets & Writers highlights our contest for free in their prestigious Awards section as well as their Contest Deadline and Calendar sections. Most years, P&W also publishes a photo of our winning author. For our authors, this is a prestigious recognition.

In addition, we advertise in Winning Writers, a great source for our publicity. And we send information to Small Press Review, The Loft, The Writer, The Write Stuff, numerous directories, and many contest listing sites.

Mary Sue had much experience with media promotion because she originated and then for 12 years managed the $1,000 Sue Saniel Elkind Poetry contest for Kalliope, a Journal of Women's Literature & Art. (Shortly after she retired from Kalliope in 2005, the journal went into hiatus.)

We send flyers to local universities and colleges during literary events, post on bulletin boards and at bookstores, and send notices to college and university student news media. We also make announcements at our literary presentations, e.g., Art in the Gardens at Foxfire in Marshfield, Wisconsin; at the University of Wisconsin School of the Arts in Rhinelander, where Mary Sue teaches summers; at Women of Vision at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Jacksonville, Florida, etc. (Of course, students in our poetry or fiction courses are not eligible to win our awards.) Our Pushcart nominations of our excellent writers are especially good publicity.

Q: How would your describe Writecorner's "voice" or aesthetic sensibility? When you are selecting a prizewinner from a shortlist of publishable manuscripts, what makes a piece seem especially right or wrong for your press?

A: Our voice is one of experience in and sensitivity to the achievements and potentialities of the well written word. By the well written word we mean fiction, nonfiction, and poetry whose form and content not only harmonize but say something profound and enduring about humanity.

We are especially mindful of, and open to, the emerging writer with a significant voice who is in search of an appreciative audience. We look for a piece which has something valuable and universal to say, which is not just an empty form beautifully constructed. We dislike anything preachy, trite, full of truisms or sentimentality.

We look for beauty in short fiction and ask these questions about each submission: Is it interesting? Does it make you want to read on and on, whether or not you identify with the characters? Is it skilled in foreshadowing and use of time? Does it give fresh insight into the human condition? Whatever the nature of the subject matter, is it aesthetically pleasing? Is the plot—complex or simple—consistent with every other element of the story: character, setting, theme, point of view, diction, etc.? Do all of these elements of the story work together and illumine each other?

We appreciate stories and poems that would likely appeal to most discerning readers of the English language and suggest good potential for translation into other languages. We like the well written literary work whether mainstream or experimental, whether simple or complex, whether from an established or a new author.

A piece is wrong for us if it does not meet the criteria just mentioned. At the end of a story or poem we don't want to say, "So what?" We want to be left with energy, or emotion, or a challenge to live or listen deeply to life.

Q: Tell me about the judging process. Are entries read anonymously? Who are the judges? How many entries do you receive, and how many make it to the final judge?

A: Yes, all entries are judged anonymously. We require that all contest entries to be judged have no identification. We get about 500 entries annually. All judges are experienced, published writers who have won national contests themselves. Our first judges wish to remain anonymous, and we have followed in that tradition each year. Final judges receive between two-thirds and one-half of all submissions. The first readers do not send on those works which are poor in basic skills or lack maturity.

Q: Would you like to see your entrants take more risks in terms of subject matter or style? In what way? Are there any particular techniques and topics you feel are over-represented, and conversely, are there any that you'd like to see more often?

A: We look for risky pieces that wake us up at night, pieces whose language, or metaphors, or story, we cannot forget. We look for pieces in which human emotions speak honestly (not over-the-top or phony). We look for poems and stories that penetrate to the underside, the deeper issues of reality where most do not look.

We avoid self-help or therapy. We avoid pretty but empty language, and skilled but empty words. At the end, we do not want to say, "So?" Pure language poems are usually not interesting to us.

In fiction, we would like to see fewer predictable, linear stories about "he/she done me wrong", or abortion, or abuse. These are excellent themes, but we see so many of these stories told the same way. Another problem is the memoir story which offers only a chronological overview or history of a person and events without any techniques or elements of fiction. Sometimes stories have serious problems with a fictional element like point of view.

In poetry, we appreciate experimental verse, lyrics, narratives, and most traditional forms. We find that some poems are too short; they do not plumb far enough into the deeper layers of metaphorical meaning or the unconscious. We search for poems that speak to the human spirit, however the poet gets there. Poems without images or the right words in right places are not winners. We find predictable rhyme jingly, tedious, and obtrusive. When used, rhyme should not distract from the form or content, but rather enhance the music, meaning, or humor of a poem.

We would like to see more experimentation in both fiction and poetry. Experiment with voices, narrators, forms. Develop your insights into characters. Study the sounds of your language. Do the sounds match your meaning? Read your work aloud and if you stumble on a word or phrasing, rewrite until the line reads smoothly. Some narratives would work better in non-linear structures of plot or character development. We certainly do not ask for only experimental pieces. A good traditional work is superior to a mediocre or poor experimental piece. Unquestionably, the approach a writer takes, traditional or experimental, should be consistent with the author's purpose and insights.

Q: What contemporary or classic authors do you particularly admire, and what can prospective entrants learn from them?

A: Check out our Recommended Readings page where we list some excellent authors, briefly annotate their works and suggest reasons for reading them. Some of our favorites are William Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Crane, William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Wilfred Owen, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Carolyn Forche, Joy Harjo, Wislawa Szymborska, Walt Whitman, P.D. James, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Peter Sears, Kathleen Norris, Nadine Gordimer, Milan Kundera, Barbara Kingsolver. This is only a short list. By thoughtfully reading works by Nobel Prize–winning authors you can learn much. We believe anyone serious about writing should read a substantial variety of great writers, American and foreign, to learn how they develop their texts and the meaningful significance of their art. We do caution, however, about imitating another author in ways that limit a writer's own developing voice, style, or insights. There are so many excellent writers that you could fill your life just reading great literature. The pleasure is finding those authors who stretch you to a new level of writing.