Matthew Pitt Interviewed by Sapling from Black Lawrence Press

Editor’s Note: We reprint the below interview with kind permission from our friends at Sapling (#570), a publication of Black Lawrence Press.

This week Sapling speaks with Matthew Pitt editor @ descant.


Sapling: What should people know who may not be familiar with descant?

Matthew Pitt: We are an annual journal, and have published continuously for almost 60 years (with Issue 59 out in late fall). Previous volumes have included work from luminaries like Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Penn Warren, Clyde Edgerton, and Denise Levertov. More recent issues have included powerful, newer voices: I’m thinking here of the poetry of Ada Limón, Adam Clay, and Nicky Beer, as well as Ana Menéndez, Bryn Chancellor, and Zach Powers, on the fiction side.

Sapling: How did the name for descant come about?

MP: Our name spirals out of lines from a William Butler Yeats poem, “Speech After Long Silence.” As an author who needs to write to a soundtrack, I think a lot about the musical term descant: the notion of a higher melody playing out, sound that does not simply echo another piece, or double it, but is a separate invention, inspired by the original line. It reminds me of an ineffable quality of beautiful art—that it’s born in part to answer art that comes before and, hopefully, inspires new art to come.

Sapling: What do you pay close attention to when reading submissions? Any deal breakers?

MP: Whether fiction or poetry, a submission that feels arresting and urgent from its opening line—thanks to fresh language, a surprising voice, a unique perspective, among other attributes—is always a thrill to come across. Is the writer taking risks? There’s a rush when we come across those pieces, too. On the flip side, a deal breaker can include work given over to gimmicks (rather than risk). Other issues range from technical (a manuscript filled with sloppy typos) to procedural (work submitted via e-mail, work sent outside submission periods). Having said that, I certainly don’t have all the answers for what makes a manuscript outstanding. That’s why we keep searching, and savor the surprises.

Sapling: Where do you imagine descant to be headed over the next couple years? What’s on the horizon?

MP: When I first took the helm, one area I wanted to augment was including visual art in issues. We’d like to keep that up and perhaps expand into other art forms—music would be a great fit. We’ve also augmented our web and social media presence. My terrific colleagues Alex Lemon and Curt Rode have spearheaded that effort, adding reviews, interviews, and criticism to the web. Since we are an annual, and focused on poetry and fiction, this gives us a way to put out additional (and varied) original content on a regular basis.

Sapling: As an editor, what is the hardest part of your job? The best part?

MP: “No” is hardest. Without question, full stop. Hardest word to say and the word we most often have to deliver to writers.

Two best parts: one is the community of contributors we keep in touch with who go on to win prizes for their poetry or relay that a story first published with us is about to be part of a new book. How great to get to be in on those inspiring, creative journeys. A second one, related: once the issue is finalized, we give the content (anonymously) to a guest judge. This celebrated author—this year, it’s Heather Harpham, writer of the powerful and poignant memoir, Happiness—chooses two outstanding poems and two stories for prizes. I love letting winning contributors know. It’s a little lagniappe, in addition to publication.

Sapling: If you were stranded on a desert island for a week with only three books, what books would you want to have with you?

MP: I’m glad you said a week! Three books would probably just be enough! I’d probably choose one new, eagerly-anticipated book: The Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet. Then, one I know I love and want to re-read: If I Had Two Wings by the late, brilliant Randall Kenan. Finally, I’d go with a book that’s been “stranded” on my shelf for a long spell: There There by Tommy Orange. Now, if you mean stranded without food or water, I’d probably pack up: How to Survive on a Desert Island.

Sapling: Just for fun (because we like fun and the number three), if descant was a person, what three things would it be thinking about obsessively?

MP: 1) The comeback of vinyl records and whether the comeback of CD jewel cases can be far behind. 2) Premium unleaded gasoline. Can it truly change your life? 3) Pumpkin-flavored beverages (and not in a good way).