PP: It’s lovely to talk with you, Karen. I’m writing from Doha, Qatar. The heat is finally relenting a bit, and we’re just a few days away from Eid. I’m looking forward to both the cooler temperatures, and a week off from school!
I was a student in the MFA program at Virginia Commonwealth when VCU established a branch campus here. VCUQatar arrived in 1998, and was the first American university established in Doha. It has since been joined by Weill Cornell, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M, and Carnegie Mellon. I was interested in coming here because I wanted to know more about this region, and I have always been interested in travel. After high school, I joined the marine corps, in part, to travel, but sadly, went from boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina, to the School of Music in Norfolk, Virginia, and was then stationed in Quantico, Virginia. I didn’t manage to get very far from my hometown of Vernon, New Jersey. In 2005, I had been out of the MFA program for a few years, and was teaching at VCU in Richmond when a position opened up in the English program at VCUQatar. I jumped at it, and was fortunate to get hired. This is my 10th year here. I’ve been here much longer than I thought I would be, but VCUQ continues to be a place that offers enormous opportunities for personal and professional growth, and I can see myself staying another 10. It’s quite a momentous time to be in Qatar. The country is growing rapidly, and it’s especially interesting to observe the bristling dynamic between tradition and ambition.
KS: diode poetry journal came into being sometime during your 10 years at VCUQatar?
I arrived in Doha in 2005, and in 2007, started diode. When I was in the MFA program at VCU, I had the good fortune to intern at Blackbird the year before it went live. Blackbird was one of the first journals to go online, and in my humble opinion, it continues to be one of the very best journals, online or otherwise, in existence. My time with Blackbird piqued my interest in starting an online journal, and this was further fueled by feeling somewhat isolated from the poetry community. Jeff Lodge, one of the founding editors of Blackbird, came to teach at VCUQ in 2007, and he was instrumental in helping me get diode up and running. He’s wholly responsible for the design of the journal, and even though he’s now back in the US, we continue to create the journal together. Diode has far exceeded my initial hopes. I’ve had the opportunity to publish emerging poets, and poets I’ve admired for years, including teachers and mentors.
One of the most gratifying experiences I’ve had as an editor is this one, which I wrote about in the preface to 3.3:
“When I started diode, I hoped to create a community of writers, something I missed in my own life having moved to Doha, Qatar, in 2005. I missed being a part of a community of poets, and I hoped diode could create such a community. I enlisted Jeff Lodge to serve as co-editor, and in the fall of 2007 diode was launched. Diode has come to exceed our hopes in every way. We have connected with so many amazing, generous poets, and thoughtful, passionate readers. It has been an honor to be a part of this community.
Even after three years, diode continues to create connections we couldn’t imagine in 2007. Like this one: When I was sixteen, a sophomore at Vernon Township High School in Vernon, New Jersey, a teacher read a poem about finding a dead mouse in a cupboard. I had almost no experience with poetry. I had a vague remembrance of having read “Jabberwocky” in grade school, and an even more opaque recollection of a Frost (?) poem with an image of mountain peaks that the teacher pointed out resembled a saw blade. This “mouse poem,” as my memory filed it, slapped me awake to poetry, and began my own attempts at writing. The imagery was striking, and tangible. I could see the poem in my mind and it stuck there. For thirty years. Then came Facebook. A few months ago I found Therese Mattil, an English teacher from my high school, on Facebook and we began corresponding. I paraphrased a few lines from the “mouse poem” and asked her if she remembered it. Not only did she remember the poem I had heard back in 1980, she is its author. I’m delighted to be able to present this poem, and one other, by Therese Mattil, in this issue.”
KS: I have so much respect for diode. I love its spare aesthetic, and the poems I’ve read are arresting and well wrought. By now, we know the presence that online journals have in the writing landscape, but it must have seemed like a leap at the time.
Diode Editions, your press, opened with the chapbook A Concordance of Leaves by Phil Metres, and has published a chapbook by Traci Brimhall and Brynn Saito, as well as full-length collections by T.R. Hummer and Joshua Poteat. As an editor, what did you want to do with a press that you couldn’t do with a journal?
Thank you so much for your kind words about diode. Jeff Lodge designed the site, and is responsible for its clean aesthetic. When we started diode it did feel a bit like a leap, but we hoped that we could produce a journal that published exciting, eclectic, and engaging work, and that diode would have a long life. Now, approaching our 8th year, diode has wildly exceeded our hopes. There was a point when I wasn’t sure if I would be able to continue diode. My husband passed away 15 months ago, and in the aftermath, I deeply doubted that I was up to the task of keeping diode going. But, when I dove into the submissions, I found such hope, solace and inspiration. I always knew that diode was an important constant in my life, and I am deeply grateful that it has also become an essential part of my healing process.
Diode Editions has allowed me to present a larger offering of the work of poets I very much love and admire. It has also afforded me the opportunity to make actual, tactile, objects. I work at a college of art and design, and over the years have grown more interested in the visual arts, particularly in book making and cover design. Making chapbooks has allowed me to converge my interests, and my teaching, with art, design and book making. For example, I used Philip Metre’s lovely chapbook A Concordance of Leaves as the basis of a class project in a creative writing class I taught. Before the book was published, the students read and discussed it very closely, and Phil was kind enough to work with my students as they engaged with his chapbook. It inspired their own writing, and through their close reading, taught them a great deal about poetry. Since my students are heading into the design fields, I asked them to create cover designs for the book. With Phil’s help, we selected the cover. It gives me great joy that VCUQ students designed the cover of A Concordance of Leaves. I’ve also been able to work with VCUQ graduates on the layout of the books.
KS: Tell me why you were drawn to Phil Metres’s manuscript. Is there a Diode Editions aesthetic? Were you conscious of looking for work that your Arabic students would seize? On one level I’m asking if you think of poetry as a bridge between cultures, but also asking if you see your press as working to build that bridge.
I do think that poetry has the power to bridge cultures, and I hope that diode and Diode Editions has created even a single plank in that bridge. I think poetry can help us understand and appreciate the differences among us as we gain a greater sense of, and appreciation for, all that unites us. The potential to bridge cultures did draw me to Phil’s manuscript, but what enamored and excited me, was the stunning beauty of the work, and the careful, thoughtful and often breathtaking way he negotiated, and internalized his experience of attending a wedding in Palestine, an experience that was simultaneously de-stabilizing and deeply enriching. The single, long poem of Concordance is a deep and meaningful exploration of borders, of place, and of love, and he transports the reader across these borders through skillful indexing, and beautiful imagery. The fact that Concordance is deeply relevant to my students, and this region, was a wonderful bonus.
I think this passage from Concordance illustrates what moved me about the book, and compelled me to publish it:
the last time you rose from the bed
of this parched ocean, its dried swells
now hills & swales, sister you left
your new love at Tel Aviv / his history
holding him at passport control / he passed
an olive tree necklace to you saying
a country is more important than one person
you’d carry it ten years around
your shoulders / & now this country draws you
the way olive roots draw invisible water
sister soon you will be written
alongside your future
husband in the book of books
& though our father’s passport held aloft
will not stop the Sabra tank
from blocking the road
you will find another way
back & soon new sisters will inscribe
your body with henna
ink your feet & open your hands
I try to not have any definable aesthetic for diode, to keep my particular biases out of the editorial process. I’ve found the process of selecting poems for diode, or books for Diode Editions, to be an ineffable, almost alchemical process. Because of the volume of submissions I receive, I have to read through them fairly quickly. When a poem, or manuscript creates a pause, stops me in my tracks, so to speak, my attention is stilled and piqued. It’s a sensation more than something I can articulate—a feeling of being startled, snapped awake, sometimes like being pushed or slapped, sometimes nudged or caressed. Whatever the sensation, what soon accompanies the sensation is an urgency to share the work with others.
KS: What is your submission schedule for diode and Diode Editions?
I read all year, and we publish three issues a year.
KS: You were one of several editors for Gathering the Tide, a wonderful collection of Arabian Gulf poetry translated into English. I used it in my classroom and it was phenomenal to teach. My students were moved by the range of subjects, styles and emotional tenor, and the book lent itself well to all kinds of wider discussion. Congratulations on this incredible publication. How has the anthology been received?
Thank you so much for using Gathering the Tide! It’s lovely to hear that your students were moved by the poems. The anthology has been well received, and it is finding a place in classrooms all over the world. It’s the only anthology that presents contemporary poetry in translation from the Arabian Gulf, and I think it offers a unique glimpse into this region at a time of great change, and at the poets working in this context. It also powerfully demonstrates, I believe, the deep commonalities that connect us.
KS: Would you like to speak to The Donkey Lady and Other Tales from the Arabian Gulf? It is beautifully illustrated.
Like many of the projects that I’ve been involved in at VCUQ, The Donkey Lady was inspired by my students. I taught a topics course on folk and fairy tales, and asked my students to collect folk tales from their parents, or grandparents. The stories that came in were fascinating in their similarity to, and differences from, the stories I had grown up hearing. The subtle differences in the regional versions of familiar stories I received were richly culturally nuanced. For example, in the regional version of Cinderella, called “Hamda and the Fairy Fish”, the description of traditional dress and customs were much different than the Cinderella stories I had experienced. There were also several stories that are unique to this region, such as “The Legend of Mai and Ghaillan,” a pour quoi tale that describes how the dhow (a fishing vessel) came to have a sail.
As a component of story collecting, I asked the students to illustrate their stories, and it was immediately apparent that there was an opportunity to present illustrated stories from the Gulf region in book form. I worked with Michael Hersrud, a graphic design professor, Don Earley, a professor in art foundation and fashion, and Jesse Ulmer, an English professor. We also collaborated with Dr. Sara Al Mohannadi, an English professor from Qatar University. Her students also collected stories in Arabic, and then translated them into English. We assembled a large team of current, and former, student artists and designers, and over the course of two years created The Donkey Lady and Other Tales from the Arabian Gulf.
For a sense of the stories and illustrations, one can see and hear a story here:
KS: Thanks very much for taking the time to tell us about Diode Editions and the other work you're engaged in. We look forward to seeing you at AWP.
Thank you! The pleasure has been all mine.
Karen Schubert is the author of three poetry chapbooks, most recently I Left My Wings on a Chair, a Wick Poetry Center Winner (Kent State Press 2014). Her work appears or is forthcoming in Extract(s) anthology, Traveling Stanzas, Poets’ Quarterly, and Common Threads. Awards include a 2013 residency at Headlands Center for the Arts and 2014 Pushcart Prize nomination. Read David Hassler's Meet the Press interview with Karen Schubert here.
Patty Paine is the author of Grief & Other Animals (Accents Publishing), The Sounding Machine (Accents Publishing), Feral (Imaginary Friend Press), Elegy & Collapse (Finishing Line Press), co-editor of Gathering the Tide: An Anthology of Contemporary Arabian Gulf Poetry (Garnet Publishing & Ithaca Press) and The Donkey Lady and Other Tales from the Arabian Gulf (Berkshire Academic Press). Her poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Blackbird, Verse Daily, The Atlanta Review, Gulf Stream, The Journal and other publications. She is the founding editor of diode poetry journal and Diode Editions. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar where she teaches writing and literature.