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Editor Interview: Tinderbox Poetry Journal

Q: Describe what you publish in 25 characters or less.

A: Poems that steal breath.

Q: What other current publications (or publishers) do you admire most?

A: [Majda:] I admire journals that center writers in all stages of their careers, journals that don’t place a value on awards or residencies, journals that go to bat for their writers and take chances.
[Levi:] I really appreciate Muzzle, Winter Tangerine, BOAAT, Nat Brut, Adroit Journal, The Offing, and wildness. I feel like those publications line up with Tinderbox’s values and aesthetics.

Q: If you publish writing, who are your favorite writers? If you publish art, who are your favorite artists?

A: [Levi:] Questions like this are difficult because there are so many people who have informed my approach to poetry that I don’t want to accidentally leave out. The people whose work introduced me to what poetry could accomplish are Jamila Woods, José Olivarez, Fatimah Asghar, Nate Marshall, Franny Choi, Danez Smith, Aziza Barnes, and Ross Gay. Those poets stand out to me as poets who I was introduced to first.
[Majda:] I mostly read contemporary poets, a few that have expanded my world this year include: Ruth Padel, Natalie Diaz, Rachel McKibbens, Jeanann Verlee, Carlina Duan, and Tiana Clark. Personally favorites: everything from classical Arabic poetry in translation to Louise Gluck to Western folklore/folkways and the lyrics of Nick Cave.

Q: What sets your publication apart from others that publish similar material?

A: [Levi:] What I admire about Tinderbox is the variety of styles we publish. If you go through our issues, you’ll find experimental works, Shakespearean sonnets, prose poems, lyric essays, three-line poems, and a lot more. I think what we seek above all is poems with people at the forefront, meaning poems that invite everyone in and ask you to look outward at who’s around you.
[Majda:] Tinderbox is as much about the well-lived as the well-crafted, we really do strive to be a safe harbor for myriad voices, ages, and aesthetics in a formulaic world. Expect the unexpected with Tinderbox.

Q: What is the best advice you can give people who are considering submitting work to your publication?

A: [Majda:] Keep your subs simple, you can tell us more about yourself within submittable but in the actual submission please only use Microsoft Word and follow our guidelines. We are only human and we want everything to go right with your submission.
[Levi:] First the obvious: Readreadread. Volunteer to read for other publications. Read other publications. Read your peers. Read your not-peers. By listening to the community around you, you’ll gain a better understanding of where your poems contribute, and where others can teach you. I also implore poets to ask of their poems: why now? why me? Some poems we read are delightful, but there’s just not urgency in them. As editors, we’re looking for poems that we think the rest of the world needs to read.

Q: Describe the ideal submission.

A: [Majda:] Be yourself, that is surprising. And please use Microsoft Word!
[Levi:] I don’t think I want to be able to predict what our ideal submission would look like. I seek poems that surprise me: poems that use language in ways I hadn’t previously imagined, poems that make turns I hadn’t expected, poems that drive us to learn or do something new. The submissions that blow us away make us reconsider what we thought poetry capable of, without being so unfamiliar that the reader does not feel welcomed in.

Q: What do submitters most often get wrong about your submissions process?

A: [Levi:] Folks usually do a pretty good job of following our guidelines, but I think some submissions catch my attention when they’re clearly not familiar with Tinderbox’s values. It’s very clear to us when submitters have or have not read our previous issues, such as when we get poems that objectify women or make light of marginalized folks' experiences.
[Majda:] Multiple subs are not accepted, it’s happened a few times. Other than that, submitters who want to goad or troll our readers and editors with misogynistic or racist, bigoted, and transphobic work. I can’t stand animal cruelty either, or its use in poetry to show character development.

Q: How much do you want to know about the person submitting to you?

A: [Levi:] A cover letter, unless expressly offensive, is not going to make or break a submission for me. The submission process can be incredibly impersonal, and the cover letter to me is an opportunity to introduce yourself, but not the poems. I think the poems should speak for themselves. We will sometimes reference cover letters to confirm the authenticity of a poem--if a poet is speaking from the perspective of a community, we want to make sure they actually belong to that community. I think cover letters are also an opportunity to demonstrate your connection to the journal--if you’ve submitted before, we like to know that, and if you’ve recently read our issues, it’s nice to indicate which poems you admired and made you want to submit.
[Majda:] I agree completely with Levi and I do use bios to provide context of clarity if I need it. If you don’t have any publication credits (which is NOT a deal breaker for Tinderbox!) we also admire community building work you might do, and that can be included to give a little insight into your writing life. The poem are read and appreciated as poem and don’t need a CV to make them worth our while.

Q: If you publish writing, how much of a piece do you read before making the decision to reject it?

A: [Majda:] We have a lot of internal communication about the poems we read and keep under consideration. Some months this is a fast process, some months it isn’t, but we do always strive to respond within 3 months, often sooner.
[Levi:] With some submissions I can just tell within a couple lines of the poem that it's simply not our style or it's not ready to be published. I'd say about a quarter or a third of the submissions we get don't get forwarded to our readers because we can tell it's not something we would publish. The rest are deliberated on by several readers.

Q: What additional evaluations, if any, does a piece go through before it is accepted?

A: [Levi:] I can’t think of anything, other than to confirm the poem has not been published elsewhere.
[Majda:] I actually Google the poet, but it’s not an official Tinderbox rule. I need to know that we are publishing the person behind the poem.

Q: What is a day in the life of an editor like for you?

A: [Levi:] Oof. I’m usually on Submittable any chance I get, reading submissions on my lunch break or in the evening. I spend about 1-2 hours a day reading work and forwarding onto our readers. Other days I’m reformatting our new website, providing feedback on donation submissions, and transferring work from our old archives to our new ones. The editors are also in communication with each other about new issue logistics, our plans for the future of the journal, and who we want to solicit. It’s a lot of work, and you get it done where you can.
[Majda:] Levi is very hands on with the current revamp of the journal, I try to stay out of his way and assist where I can. On top of the reading in our Submittable queue I log into our Twitter feed several times a day to see if any questions need answering, or if I can amplify the poets we’ve published as well as the poets in our most current issue. I read journals every day to get new ideas and find poets I might want to solicit for the journal. Soon I’ll be one of two editors uploading our December issue to Wordpress, a process that involves lots of late nights and emails between us and the poets in our forthcoming issue.

Q: How important do you feel it is for publishers to embrace modern technologies?

A: [Majda:] Electronic submissions are enormously helpful, and being an online journal if we didn’t embrace social media or technology we’d simply disappear in the net. I want our readers to have more options for finding our journal (and our poets) not less. We publish mp3 files along with the poems, which gives our poets the chance to add another layer to their work. However, our layout is very reminiscent of a white page so one is never really distant from the “feeling” of physical poetry.
[Levi:] I think it’s critical to find a balance between modern and traditional approaches. We’re an online journal, so we by nature have to stay updated on website design, social media, and Submittable. I think that the (relative) democracy of the internet has made poetry more accessible to communities that it previously wasn’t reaching. I think poetry also compels us to step away from technology, though. That’s why we seek a very simplistic design with our website that’s not so overwhelming sensorily, and why we only publish quarterly (rather than weekly or monthly).

Q: How much do you edit an accepted piece prior to publication?

A: [Levi:] This is something I think Tinderbox is still considering and evaluating. We believe poets are the experts of their own work, so we haven’t frequently asked for edits in the past. However, there are some submissions that I want to take a chance on but aren’t quite ready, and sometimes that means working with the author to hone a piece before it’s published.
[Majda:] I think this is why we’ve recently added the option of feedback subs to the journal. If poets welcome the option of a deep editorial relationship we can do that. We don’t typically ask the poet to make major changes in their work, We’ve suggested a title change before and it turns out the poet had only recently changed the title so a return to the original was the way to go.

Q: Do you nominate work you've published for any national or international awards?

A: Yes, the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Bettering American Poetry!