12 Winters Blog

Interview with John McCarthy: Extinguished Anthology

Posted in October 2014 by Ted Morrissey on October 30, 2014

Last March, Twelve Winters Press released [Ex]tinguished & [Ex]tinct: An Anthology of Things That No Longer [Ex]ist, edited by the Press’s contributing editor John McCarthy. At the time I didn’t have the presence of mind to interview John about the book, but the Press has recently announced its Pushcart Prize nominees from the anthology, so I thought it would be appropriate to post an overdue interview.

Extinct cover - front

John and I have known each other since around 2008 because of our mutual involvement with Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program. I was a founding editor who eventually took a step or two back to prose reader; John was an intern who eventually assumed the role of assistant editor. When I launched Twelve Winters Press in 2012, John was quick to lend his support. Knowing his talents and work ethic I was happy to hand him the reins on an editorial project for the Press. In the winter of 2013 we sat down to a Thai dinner and brainstormed possible themes for an anthology. The ideas were flying fast and furious. I recall that I spitballed the possibility of a collection of literary zombie stories. John was … dubious. Somehow we eventually came up with the general idea of extinction, which was refined to extinguished and extinct–and John, as I knew he would, hit the ground running.

We composed the wording for the call for submissions of poems, prose poems and flash fiction, and posted it on Submittable and here and there. Then I sat back and let John and the Press’s associate editor Pamm Collebrusco do what they do so well. They meticulously read and sifted through the submissions that soon began pouring in, selected their favorites and worked through the editing process. John designed the cover and interior pages. I got involved again at the very end for an additional proofreading and to actually publish the anthology, which ultimately offered the work of 37 contributors from five countries. I couldn’t be more pleased with what John and Pamm had produced.

Here, then, is my interview with John (via email) about his editing the anthology.

John McCarthy photo

John McCarthy

What attracted you to the theme of “extinguished and extinct”? What about it made you think it would yield plenty of interesting material?

Part of good writing–part of its goal–is to craft something timeless, something universal people can relate to. When I started brainstorming themes, I decided the best way to do this was to address something permanent. I thought of a line from Larry Levis’s poem, “My Story in a Late Style of Fire,” when the speaker is lamenting a former lover and explains “even in her late addiction & her bloodstream’s / Hallelujahs, she, too, sang often of some affair, or someone / Gone, & therefore permanent.” And what is more permanent than the total, absolute absence of someone or something? Extinction, death. I didn’t want the anthology to be just about a personal death. There are plenty of grief anthologies out there, but in a sense, all poetry is about longing, grieving, lamenting, or venerating the fleeting. I wanted to expand this idea of the permanence of loss to anything: things that are endangered of becoming extinct; things that are extinct that deserve a modern voice; as well as a traditional elegy for a person or thing. I wanted it to address personal emotions as well as open up dialogues about socially conscious topics such as the importance of eco-preservation as well as race and gender. I didn’t want it to be just an anthology about wooly mammoths or dinosaurs, I wanted writers to redefine or reinterpret the word extinction. I wanted them to apply this word to specific entities and abstract concepts. I wanted to make something permanent by pulling it from permanence. Levis is lamenting this woman because she is lamenting someone she lost before him, so it’s this other absence–her own experience with extinction–that inhibits her ability to be totally present with Levis, so in a way, extinction for me means seeing beyond the duality of things dead and things living. It means appreciating absence, acknowledging it in such a way that it really isn’t absent anymore. Once something is, it is forever. That’s a certain kind of philosophy with a lot of debate to it, but it was the jumping ground to a lot of great work which I received.

How many submissions did you receive (more or less)?  Were you surprised by the response?

I got about 1,500 submissions in total. I wasn’t surprised considering how well the calls for submission was promoted. My surprise was with how much quality writing I received and had to sift through. I was worried that the extinction theme would generate a ridiculous amount of genre stuff dealing with zombies, nuclear fallout, all that apocalyptic stuff, which is fine in its own regard, but it was not what I was looking for with the anthology. I received a couple submissions like that, but not as many as I would have thought. I had to decline a lot of good work, too. I had 37 contributors in total, but if I had unlimited page space, I would have accepted around 50 I think. I got quality submissions dealing with everything from extinct animals, to foreign dialects, to pokemon, to jukeboxes, even rotary phones, libraries, and turn-tables. It was exciting to see so many people interpreting and reimagining these historical contexts in new voices. It was cool to look at things that are “gone, and therefore permanent,” but were given light to everything we lost.

Did ideas for any other themed anthologies come to you while reading through the submissions?

Yes, I want to do an anthology dealing with the opposite of this anthology. “Things not yet existing.” I want to see how imaginative and prophetic writers could get with things that don’t yet exist in the world or how curet existing things might get reimagined in a contemporary context. Obviously, I would worry about receiving too many hard science fiction submissions, but I would open it up to any extrapolation of the idea dealing with things that are existing currently. Like maybe a Latino president would be an awesome prophecy, a new kind of rug that floats around the house, maybe a new way of giving birth, or escalators to the moon. I would really look for inventiveness. I would also like to do an anthology of short stories or formal verse at some point. I always have ideas, always looking for platforms to execute them.

How did reading submissions and editing the anthology impact your own writing?

I love working with the persona poem and the elegy. I think it is fun to piggyback off of other persons or events in time. It helps develop a stronger sense of empathy within the work. It was a good exercise to work and edit other people’s interpretations of their personas and the elegies. There is so much you can do with projection. Memory is the world within the world. Working with this anthology helped me access, explore, and appreciate that inner world.

John McCarthy has had work appear or is forthcoming in RHINO, The Minnesota Review, Salamander, Jabberwock Review, Midwestern Gothic, Oyez Review, and The Pinch among others. He is an MFA candidate at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He lives in Chicago, Illinois, where he is a contributing editor at Poets’ Quarterly and the assistant editor of The Museum of Americana and Quiddity international literary journal and public-radio program. Follow him @jmccarthylit.

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