It’s exciting times for feminism in Canadian literature! Room magazine, Canada’s oldest literary journal by and about women, is celebrating its 40th anniversary and we thought this we be a great opportunity to chat with them about the future of feminism, literature, and art. This interview with Room Managing Editor Chelene Knight is the second in what we hope will be a long-running series of interviews with feminist editors and publishers in the Canadian poetry community. Find our first interview, with Robin Richardson of Minola Review, here.
First and foremost: congratulations on your exciting plans for Room’s 40th anniversary! We’ve checked out your crowdfunding campaign and absolutely can’t wait for the anthology. What has been the most exciting part of preparing for this milestone?
Thank you! We are all super thrilled that this is official and that we are very close to holding this lovely work in our hands. For me, the most exciting part was hashing out what pieces were to be in the Anthology. A few of our board members got together in a cabin and really dug into these pieces from our shortlist, over an entire weekend. Imagine looking back at 40 years of writing from some of Canada’s best writers … I still get covered in goosebumps every time I think about it.
How long have you been with the magazine? How (and why) did you first get involved?
I joined the Room collective in 2014. I published a prose poem in issue 37.4 before deciding that I wanted to be a part of this amazing group of women. I worked my way to poetry submissions coordinator, and now managing editor. At the time, my friend and fellow writer Jennifer Zilm was the creative non-fiction submissions coordinator at Room and she encouraged me to apply and referred me.
Room is Canada’s oldest literary journal by and about women, but lately we’re seeing lots of new feminist publications popping up both in print and online. It’s exciting times for feminist literature! If you could give these new publications and teams any advice, what would you say? Any dos or do-nots you’ve learned along the way?
I would say be open to publishing ALL types of writing. Break the norm, read deep, and think not only about what would be good for your magazine, but what would be good for Canlit in general. Another big piece of advice I would give is to figure out what your definition of diversity is, and then infuse that into everything you do. We all say we are trying to be more “diverse” and more “inclusive” but really, what does this even mean? I can pretty much guarantee you it means something different to everyone. Hone in on what your definition is, then own it.
How would you encourage men and women interested in feminism to engage with feminist publications and presses, as well as with the more general literary community?
Share your thoughts, support the community, and of course read the publications. Figure out what it is you can do to “lift us up.” A big part of any community, not just feminist publications, is that we all need to recognize each other’s successes and share them. Promote the good things that we are all doing. It shouldn’t be a competition. For example, when Room sees that one of our fellow literary magazines have done something amazing, we take notice by tweeting and sharing the love. It’s really all bout sharing the love!
In your opinion, what do you think the next big step is for feminism in the Canadian literary community?
The next big step is breaking down the categorizing of genres. Who’s to really say what “literary” work is nowadays? We are seeing hybrid forms and it is so damn exciting! But I guess that is more for the literary community in general, not specifically feminist literary communities. If we want to get specific, I would say the next big step for feminism in the Canadian literary community is that we will finally start blurring the lines that divide us all. We have always wanted a place for women (and those who identify as women) to have that place and space to share their voice, and we have and are doing that, but how do we take it to the next level, and is it even possible? I say yes yes yes, and watch out because Room is doing just that! Think about our upcoming Anthology and how the mere definition of feminism has been shifted and shaped over the past 40 years. Things are changing and in a very good way.
What is the most rewarding part of being involved with such a pillar of Canadian literature and feminism?
Getting to read writing from amazing women all over the world still humbles me. It is a complete honour to be able to read the words of such amazing women. When I get to say “yes” to publishing someone’s work and for the first time, this is priceless to me, just priceless. I remember emailing a submitter personally to tell her what I loved about her work and that I wanted to publish it. She was not only astounded that I took the time to email her personally vs just sending the default template acceptance letter, but that she was so happy she was doing cartwheels in the snow!
What presents the most challenges?
The realization that I cannot “do it all.” I see so many great ways to increase and embrace diversity within our pages, our board, and in every thing we do, but then I realize that I can not make these changes overnight; in reality this is a gradual walk toward change. Being managing editor, I see many ways we can improve and I want to jump on these ideas but I have to remember to pace myself, and this is sometimes difficult.
What does feminism mean to Room?
One of the reasons we decided to put together this Anthology is to document just that. Feminism to us has changed, evolved, and morphed over the course of 40 years. When I look at what Room was doing 40 years ago compared to what we are doing now, I can easily say we’ve definitely grown but the core has stayed the same: a platform for women to speak and use whatever voice they see fit to tell their story.
What does feminism in literature mean to you? Who are some people, or what are some organizations, doing a great job of bringing feminism to the forefront of Canadian—or international—literature?
To me feminism in literature is the uninhibited voice of women, and those who identify as women. The awesome thing is that it’s not only feminist organizations or magazines working to bring feminism to the forefront of Canadian literature anymore, it’s now so inclusive and global. Many literary magazines and organizers of literary festivals are putting in work to make sure these voices are heard. I would definitely give a shout out to Jael Richardson and the organizers at the FOLD (Festival of Literary Diversity) for doing just that. There are too many to name but the folks that I have spoken with or worked with are BookThug, Caitlin Press, and the good folks at WORD Vancouver. We are all working to elevate that feminist voice, and the exciting thing is that folks are listening.
And finally, although you discuss your submission guidelines and expectations on your website, would you be able to tell us a bit about what makes a submission really stand out to Room? And I’d love to hear about two or three recently published poems that had a significant impact on you.
At Room, we have a rotating editorship, meaning each issue is edited by a different “Roomie.” Now, although style and voice may vary between editors, we are open to many genres, forms, and even hybrid forms. What stands out are those super polished submissions where we can connect immediately. When I read submissions it is very easy for me to know when a piece has hooked me, I’ll feel it right away. It’s hard because we get so many amazing submissions but we have to narrow it down to not only the best stuff (in our opinion) but we have to make sure the voice is a fit with Room’s mandate.
So many pieces stand out to me that I do not feel I can really pick! Most recently I received a submission from Kate Balfour and her work blew me away. I decided to publish her poems “Inn,” and “Castle” because I’ve never read poetry that solid and fierce in a long time. She has that type of writing where you say to yourself “Damn, I wish I could write like that,” and that is a very powerful thing for poetry to do to a reader. You can look forward to Kate’s pieces in 39.4, “This Body’s Map,” Room’s December issue!