Editors Talk: Taylor Byas, Assistant Features Editor of The Rumpus
As a platform for emerging poets, our mission is to provide practical help for serious writers. The community lifts itself up together or not at all. In that light, we’ve been asking some great editors from around the literary community for their frank thoughts on why poems may get accepted/rejected from their own slush pile of submissions, and what poets can do to better their chances. Today we’re speaking with Taylor Byas, Assistant Features Editor of The Rumpus.
How did you first join The Rumpus as the Assistant Features Editor?
I was first brought on as a reader for the features section. I’ve always had an interest in multiple genres, both writing and editing, so I jumped at the opportunity to spend more time with essays. After being on the reading team for a little bit, Marisa Siegel reached out and asked if I wanted to be promoted to an assistant features editor position. When I heard that I would have the opportunity to work one-on-one with authors, I was pretty sold. I love being a reader and love rating essays and providing feedback, but there is something about that collaborative process that really pours life into me. It’s so rewarding helping writers push a piece closer to their vision for it. So as an Assistant Features Editor, I had more consistent reading responsibilities, and then I started working with authors we accepted for publication. Not only were those experiences rewarding, but they were confidence boosters for me. Helping others increases my own confidence in my ability to truly hear and see the work in front of me.
Can you talk about the work and writers you publish—any consistent themes, forms, aesthetic qualities, you look for? Feel free to shout out some writers you’ve published here.
I definitely tend to lean more towards lyric essays, probably because my main genre is poetry. I tend to be drawn to strong narrative threads. I love things that are striving to master or play with traditional forms. Braided essays are a particular weakness of mine. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on the essays “Wash” by Karine Hack and “Fat Ghost” by Lu Chekowsky, both of which were these gorgeous braided essays. They were both a dream to work with, and the essays were such strong examples of what I love about essays; the fluidity of them, their strong emotional centers. I came out of both of those pieces feeling like I’d become friends with a stranger. To me, strong essays demonstrate intimacy and are invitations to take a step closer to someone. A good essay promotes connection and understanding. Those are the things I want to feel when I read for The Rumpus.
What advice do you have for new poets who are submitting work?
Don’t be afraid to do a little bit of research before you submit. Make sure you’re familiar with the submission guides first and foremost, but it also doesn’t hurt to familiarize yourself with some of the things that have been published with that particular mag. Sometimes taking a look at the masthead or who will actually be reading your work is helpful too! Take a look at where some of your favorite writers or writers you connect with are publishing and maybe give those places a try. Over the years, I’ve become much more strategic about submitting, and as a result I feel like I’ve been much more successful with acceptances and placing my work with wonderful publications. I think it’s okay and even helpful to be discerning. But outside of that, just make sure you’re putting your best foot forward. The work has to be something that you’re proud of. If you don’t believe in it, how can you expect others to do the same?
From a craft standpoint, what typically causes you to accept a poem? What causes you to turn the page and move on to the next submission?
This applies to both poetry and essays, but what really gets me is surprise. I am really taken with pieces that go in an unexpected direction or that beg me to see something familiar anew. If I finish it and want to immediately read it again, there’s a high chance it will be accepted. I also get really excited when I can tell the author is truly having fun with language (which I think can happen even in serious pieces). One of the biggest things that tends to pull me out of submissions is an overuse of ornate language, which to me often signals a lack of mastery in other areas. I’ll likely pass if a submission is largely confusing or if I’m having a hard time parsing through the logistics of a piece. Inconsistent uses of pronouns or tenses (when it’s clear these inconsistencies aren’t intentional) often make it hard for me to stay grounded in a piece, and might encourage me to pass.
What have you learned as an Assistant Features Editor and writer from working on The Rumpus? Where do you see the magazine in five years?
With every new editorial experience, I find myself settling deeper into how necessary it is to have more editors of color. That is always what I am learning and learning again. Every time I see something in a writer of color’s work that might have been otherwise missed, every time I edit with a writer of color and hear how easy the process was or how much relief they felt, it motivates me to keep going. And it motivates me to stay dedicated to my own stories, which also need to be heard. The Rumpus is constantly changing and evolving, and in five years, I hope there is an increase in diverse voices being published, and more diverse editors and readers behind the scenes. We have such a huge platform, which means we have a big voice and a lot of influence. I hope we continue to use it to platform more voices and narratives that are “too risky” or “unconventional.” I want people to look at The Rumpus and what we publish and say “Yeah, they helped change the status quo.”
Taylor Byas is a Black Chicago native currently living in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she is now a PhD candidate and Yates scholar at the University of Cincinnati, an Associate Editor for The Cincinnati Review, and an Assistant Features Editor for The Rumpus. She is the 1st place winner of the 2020 Poetry Super Highway, the 2020 Frontier Poetry Award for New Poets Contest, and the 2021 Adrienne Rich Poetry Prize, and a finalist for the 2020 Frontier OPEN Prize. She is the author of the chapbook Bloodwarm from Variant Lit, a second chapbook, Shutter, from Madhouse Press, and her debut full-length, I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times, forthcoming from Soft Skull Press in August of 2023. She is also a co-editor of The Southern Poetry Anthology, Vol X: Alabama, forthcoming from Texas Review Press. She is represented by Rena Rossner of the Deborah Harris Agency.