Julia Aizuss (such a cool last name) needs no introduction. Just a little secret to prove that… I didn’t even edit out a single word in her wonderfully long answers. After reading what she has to say I’m sure you will love her expressive, witty, and fun “writerly” personality just as much as I did.
What do you love most about Polyphony?
I’m on the staff of another literary magazine, The Adroit Journal, which is run entirely by high school students and college undergraduates but accepts work from high schoolers and Pulitzer Prize finalists and everybody in between. Besides the quirk of its editing body, it’s more of a traditional litmag, dry rejections with the spare sentences and so on; in its reading process, though commentary is preferred, one can select ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘maybe’ without even a few sentences explaining one’s opinion of the submission. It wasn’t until I began reading for Adroit that I realized how submerged I had become in the Polyphony ethos—my comments on submissions went way beyond two or three sentences as I ached to poke about at specific sentences and certain details and, most of all, make sure the author knew what he or she was doing wrong and doing right. It’s terribly difficult to grow as a writer without the help in whatever fashion of others, and Polyphony offers such communal help in spades, making all of us stubborn young writers the better for it. I might be reluctant to fulfill the more traditional forms of community service required by my school but at Polyphony I know that what I’m doing will—at least, I hope, not to be arrogant—serve teenagers’ writing for the better, and in such a way that it helps both sides of the divide, both writers and editors (who are usually themselves writers—so maybe not even a divide). To state it outright: I love that. The opportunity to have the first look at the future literary talent—current talent, really—of our woebegone generation doesn’t hurt either.
What motivates you about being an editor?
Not to repeat myself, but the knowledge that what I think and say and advise really matters to somebody serious enough about their writing to submit it to a magazine does produce a certain drive. It keeps me feeling useful in a way that much of what I do as a myopic teenager doesn’t. Here my opinion has a real effect on somebody in the way that expressing an opinion in English class doesn’t (or at least, not always). The more I edit, the better equipped I am to be of use to another piece, and the more I’m exposed to wildly varying types of writing in both finished and unfinished form, all of it enlightening. That last bit is an especial privilege that I’m possibly a little too greedy to let go of. Having the opportunity to see the way teenagers from all over are thinking and writing is a definite pleasure, and I love the sense of community it gives me; editing their work gives me an active role in this far-flung fragile group.
What’s your editing process?
I’ll read a submission forwarded to me the same day it lands in my inbox, and then I’ll usually let it, erm, languish for far too long. A kinder, more euphemistic way of putting this would be that I let the piece simmer in my thoughts for a while. Then I’ll come to my senses eventually, read the piece over again, this time with a more critical mindset, trying to figure out what general themes the piece needs help on, and the last time I’ll write out my comments as I read. Based on the specific comments I write, I’m able to decide what to focus on in my general critique. For example, a poem that’s stubbornly clutching an inhibiting rhyme scheme might need more time devoted to why it’s okay to go the free verse route, and less about the importance of imagery. A badly written story with a cliché abusive relationship plot will probably need more commentary focusing on realistic characterization than on the inherent unoriginality of the setup. And so on. I find it essential to figure out what area the writer probably needs the most help in to further develop his or her writing. And most overarching, of course, is whether I can even see anyone with the magazine open in his or her hands, flipping the pages and seeing the submitted piece there in black print with the author’s name underneath. All this has given me, I think, a much more discerning eye in regard to my own writing, and it’s served to make myself a little more detached. It’s a little easier for me now to, as the saying goes, murder my darlings, as I read over my writing with a more objective eye. Even the hapless languishing each piece forwarded to me undergoes has helped; I now realize how importance it is to let the exciting heat of something newly written and newly read cool before it can be read without bias—that goes with the objective bit.
What genre of writing do you enjoy the most and why?
Oof. This one will elicit a lengthy non-answer. Well, I used to be one of those great weighty novel types, a participant in National Novel Writing Month and all that. After that came a new appreciation for the realm of short story and its masters (I maintain that Salinger is worthy of more than a nostalgic, thirteen-year-old sort of love). And only recently have I begun to properly like and love poetry. So here you have me trying to rank, say, the mind-blowing weight (figurative and physical) of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the clipped but complete horror of JD Salinger’s A Perfect Day for Bananafish (or Lorrie Moore’s How to Be an Other Woman, or Miranda July’s Something That Needs Nothing…), or the absolute awe felt upon reading certain poems (I’m not even going to try to list a few examples here, but a recent few include Jack Gilbert’s Guilty and Stephen Dunn’s, well, anything, or—well, I’ll restrain myself). For my own writerly purposes, the short story reigns king, but nothing beats that certain fuzzy time between night and morning, 12 a.m. at the earliest, where you read an excellent poem and want to cry.
What is the most important thing you have taken away from working with Polyphony?
In an attempt to be succinct, the knowledge that even if I lack the time to write (not that time or lack thereof is an excuse), there’s always a way to be intimate with writing. That’s regarding myself. Perhaps also the fact that all those years I’ve spent reading well and badly and writing well and mostly badly come in handy to all my peers reading and writing well and badly. That it’s all for something, after all. Or, if we’re talking ‘thing’ in a non-abstract manner, the copy of Polyphony HS vol. VII perched on a bookcase a few feet away from me, which contains so many brilliant pieces of writing that I’ve paged through so often when feeling schlumpy, that for some reason give me so much more hope than any old novel or, say, The Paris Review might. The act of sometimes stumbling upon my own story in that issue, which was in many ways a product of the insightful advice I received from the PHS editors, and which was the product of all the clear, insightful commentary I’d received on the pieces Polyphony had rejected, but also showed me through its publication what I was capable of. Reading all that commentary on my pieces for the first time took me aback; I was deeply impressed by what the teenage editors were capable of and I wished to possess even a sliver of the skill they did. Hopefully I’m getting there.
And, do you think it is beneficial to young writers?
Unlike more traditional literary magazines, submitting to Polyphony is a more communal sort of experience, a back-and-forth based in correspondence rather than a back-and-forth of sending something forth and receiving a brief acceptance or rejection back. Polyphony seems to me the first exposure teenagers get to a writing community, and that this community is composed of fellow young writers with the same trials and tribulations is especially cool. A teenage writer is a wholly different beast compared to someone in their turbulent twenties or someone who is a proper Writer, an Author, capitalization and all. Different beasts require different, er, diets? (Bear with me on this comparison.) I think the interaction and give-and-take Polyphony offers is significant, maybe even necessary, to the burgeoning writer. We don’t need to be artistically alone just yet.
When did you get interested in writing?
I don’t think there was one defining moment or year. As early as second grade I lent my purple composition notebook filled with scrawled strange poetry (of the type only a seven-year-old can conjure) to my language arts teacher, but that doesn’t feel like the first time I became interested in writing. It’s always been intertwined with my reading, I think. I still own several notebooks from first through fifth grade whose first twenty pages are filled with abandoned fantasies or pale imitations of the books I loved. Around fourth or fifth grade, I think, was when I doomed myself by defining myself, rather precociously, as a writer.
What are your other interests and activities?
Of course I spend a mind-boggling amount of time reading, but you knew that, didn’t you? It goes inextricably hand-in-hand with writing. Not just literature, of course—essays, newspapers, magazines. I’m quite fond of journalism; I’m News Section Head of my school’s newspaper. Linguistics and language fascinate me, so naturally I’m a Latin nerd, a member of my school’s Junior Classical League. Bemoaning the United States’ current sociopolitical climate is always fun, but one must try to overcome the pessimism, so I’m a feminist and a member of my school’s chapter of Girls Learn International. I love art, both the history of and the doing of (I especially like to draw people, those perennially fascinating things, and collage). I’m particularly interested in mastering the art of witty banter, a cause I take up often when spending time with family and friends, preferably in art museums or flea markets.
Do you want to pursue your interest in writing further?
Ah, this question. As a rising junior, I’m now a victim of that terrifying onslaught of questions about college prospects, and because one thing always leads to another, about a future career, and whether or not I want to be a capital-w Writer. Answering this always discomforts me somewhat. I’m sixteen; why should I be able to or want to set in stone such decisions now? I try to be realistic—how many people, after all, make it as a writer? Regardless, I would of course like to develop whatever skill I have as deeply as possible, though that’s a kind of wishy-washy goal. I came to the realization a few months ago that whether or not I want to try my hand at being a writer, I do want to be deeply involved with literature in some form or another, that literature in whatever shape is what I want to do with my life. Take out of that raw sentiment what you will.
“ In contradiction with my answer regarding my own writing habits, here is a rough poem I’ve just begun working on these past couple days, because attempting to pick a short story excerpt is a good way to induce anxiety.”
Caught between the pink suburban sky
and the desiccated snails, a sidewalk
littered with crushed pottery in miniature,
I compromise and brush against the unblooming
nubs of those narrow purple flowers whose name I
never remember, revert and ask my mother, stutter.
“Agapanthus,” she says.
Instead of the crow feather impaled in a lawn sucked
pallid by summer, glossy as the olive green dumpsters
across the pavement, I ask about the tiny, star-sharp flowers
whose smell my sister never liked.
“Society garlic,” she says.
Its rotting bunches are curdled mosquitoes
reaching at slick angles for the smog.
The two-year-old shoes I’m wearing are still
big, my feet still narrow and small, thanks to
relativity. I can pretend I’m young and not a youth. And
how about those that were my favorite, three-petaled, spring-pink?
“I can’t remember,” she says.
“It’s on the tip of my tongue,” she says,
and I think about how the tongue’s taste buds
die as one ages, if maybe my mom just can’t sense the sweetness
of the words jostling for attention in her mouth. A gum wrapper
had also lain pasted on the pavement near the crow feather,
but I hadn’t mentioned that, had I, or the time I’d watched
a mosquito clamber, spindly and sure, between
the shoulder blades of my mom and said nothing, the words
disappearing at the tip of my tongue. Or this morning,
when she took deep mouth-breaths while she drove
our beat-up ’99 Honda Accord and said, “Does it smell like
gas exhaust to you, too?” How she had rolled
the windows down so we wouldn’t asphyxiate
to death, or, to use a more relative term,
so that we could breathe.