Monday, January 21, 2019

Q&A with Billy Lombardo and Cate Pitterle

Billy Lombardo is the co-founder and managing editor of Polyphony Lit, a student-run publication that compiles high school writing from around the world. He also is a high school teacher and author, and his books include The Logic of a Rose and How to Hold a Woman. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Cicada and Other Voices. Cate Pitterle is one of the student editors of Polyphony Lit.

Q (for Billy Lombardo): How did Polyphony Lit come into being, and how long has it been in existence?

A: A high school student brought me the idea to start a magazine. We decided we wanted to showcase some of the best creative writing in the country.

But in the spring of 2004, when our small staff of eight editors met to make the final calls on the pieces that would comprise the first issue, we looked at a submission of a short story that had been graded by a teacher.

The entirety of the teacher’s comments were these: Lovely 20pts. All of the work that student had put into the story, and this was all the teacher could muster? It was then that we made a decision to provide feedback to every submission, regardless of its readiness for publication. That began our deep commitment to editing.

Q (for Billy Lombardo): How are the selections in each volume chosen, and do you see themes that run through this latest volume?

A: Our student editorial board is now comprised of 200 high school students from all over the world. Any high school student can apply to be on our staff. The application involves reading our editorial guidelines and doing a sample submission. We currently have almost 200 active editors.

Each submission goes through the editorial pipeline that includes at least three readers/editors: a First Reader, a Second Reader and a Genre Editor. At each step of the process, the readers and editors recommend the piece be accepted or declined. An Executive Editor gets involved with tricky pieces and to make final decision about acceptance. 

The magic happens when we send the young authors/poets not only a letter about acceptance/rejection but also in-depth commentary from the three or four readers/editors.

Billy Lombardo
My favorite emails to receive are from authors and poets who send thank you notes to me for the commentary we provide. Even the ones who are rejected are often incredibly grateful for our attention to their work.

We had one poet whose work was rejected 32 times before she had a piece accepted. When they return to us like that, I am reminded of the value of supporting young writers.

Q (for Billy Lombardo): Since 2004, have you seen changes in the topics that high school writers choose to focus on?

Oh, I think we’ll always receive love poems and breakup poems and poems that ask the questions I suspect young people have asked of the world since the beginning of time. And I have to say that we constantly remind each other of the importance of valuing them all. 

Wallace Stevens called poetry “the cry of the occasion,” and I impress upon our editors to think of every submission, in every genre, as a testament to Stevens’ statement.

Our authors pay attention to the world and so we get stories and poems that hint at their lenses and worldviews. The occasions of the young are as varied as the occasions of grownups, and the submissions reflect that diversity.

Q (for Billy Lombardo): Who do you see as the primary audience for these volumes?

A: We make the claim that the annual magazine represents the best high school writing from around the globe. We think high school students, teachers, and librarians want to know what that looks like. The quality of the work, though, makes me also hope that the audience will one day be comprised of everyone who believes in the power and beauty of language and of the human voice.

Q (for Cate Pitterle): How did you learn about Polyphony Lit and how did you become one of the editors?

A: I found Polyphony through an internet search. I'd seen that many literary magazines employed high school students on their staffs, and I knew I wanted to edit for a magazine.

Cate Pitterle
When I saw Polyphony's website, everything clicked into place--it had a huge community, which I loved because it would allow me to learn from others, and the work they published was incredible. I emailed billy asking to join the staff, and he sent me the First Reader Files and application. I’ve been editing for Polyphony ever since!

Q (for Cate Pitterle): What do you think the publication offers for high school writers and readers?

A: Polyphony is so different for any other literary magazine I’ve encountered. Forget the generic, often-callous form letter; Polyphony’s purpose, unlike that of an ordinary lit mag, is to help every author improve— regardless of whether we end up publishing their piece.

We spend countless hours each year writing editorial comments for submissions, and submissions are seen and commented on by at least three editors and readers before they’re finally accepted or rejected.

We’re dedicated to politeness, too. Most of us are writers ourselves, and consequently most of us are used to getting rejection letters and know how much they can hurt.

Therefore, when we comment on a piece, we try to be as polite and constructive as possible—we work by the motto that every piece has beautiful moments, sparks of brilliance, strokes of genius within it. It’s a great pretense to work under, and I've learned so much about storytelling from the pieces I’ve read and edited.

We also don’t just provide feedback to authors; we provide it to each other. Readers all receive commentary on their work from upper-level editors, and just like we do for authors, we try to be as constructive and polite as possible in that commentary.

The commentary I’ve received has made me into a better editor, too—there are so many brilliant people on staff at Polyphony that there’s always something to learn from each other.

Q: What are you working on now?

BL: We never cease to be astounded by the number of teens online seeking literary engagement. So, we are working hard to provide more engaging content. I think the editor blog, “Voices,” will delight any teen who wants to geek out about writing and editing.

And our students are about to release an interview series with “real writers.” No kidding, the first writer they talk to is Pulitzer Prize Winner Jennifer Egan. We are dazzled by her attention to us, and realize that most of us are eager to work with young lit talent looking to gain wisdom.

Finally, we will be releasing an online workshop, “How to Be a Literary Editor,” to support teens who wish to grow into leadership roles in literary organizations or media.

And of course we’re always working on the next issue. So far this editorial season, we have had submissions from 21 countries. Delights us to think about an editor from Pakistan working on a submission from Nigeria.  

CP: I actually have a submission due tonight! I’m writing commentary for an edgy, bold poem about adolescence and rebellion, centered around a nighttime romp to a grain silo. It utilizes some really cool poetic techniques, too.

Q: Anything else we should know?

BL: We are on a mission to support literary teens everywhere. Education is a great equalizer, so we are especially glad to reach teens everywhere and especially in under-resourced areas. It is free to submit to us and free to become an editor.

Some of our students have told us, “you were my entire writing education.”  We think we might just be the best thing happening on the Internet!

CP: Polyphony also has a really cool blog called Voices. I’ve loved reading the articles on there— it has everything from editing tips to how-tos on getting through writer’s block to a very witty, very thorough investigative satire on why our managing editor, billy lombardo, only types in lowercase. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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