Poetdelphia: How would you describe your fiction and nonfiction projects? What was the subject of your last finished work?
Karen Rile: I’m working on several projects now, including both fiction and nonfiction. One that I’m excited about is a series of nonfiction essays about my accidental odyssey in the world of classical music, tentatively titled Music Lessons. You can read an excerpt here: http://www.rilesmith.com/music-lessons-part-i-the-pokemon-kid/
Poetdelphia: You’ve written for The Philadelphia Inquirer for a while now. How would you describe the differences or similarities in your approach to writing for a mass audience versus a literary audience?
Karen Rile: Writing for a general audience keeps you honest! No hiding behind complicated prose and self-indulgent literary devices–you need to be clear and engaging. When you write for a mass audience and publish your personal email address, you get a lot of instant feedback. Whether they agree or disagree with what you write, your readers don’t hesitate to let you know what they think. I love that feeling of connection- and I try to answer every email personally, even it it is just to thank them for taking the time to write.
Poetdelphia: What is the origin story and overall aesthetic of Cleaver, the new literary journal you recently started?
Karen Rile: Cleaver (www.cleavermagazine.com) is an online journal of literary and visual arts. It’s a shared venture with my daughter Lauren Rile Smith, a poet. We’ve had the project on our agenda for a long time, and decided to launch at the beginning of 2013, now that we have the tools and software skills necessary for the production end of the project. We sent out our first call for submissions a few days after the New Year, and were gratified to receive a strong response, both from the writers we personally solicited and those who sent us material over the transom.
Our mission is to present a mix of work by emerging and established writers and artists in a beautiful, clean, readable format that is free for the reader, and accessible by internet on any device. Our visual art will be accompanied by prose– essays on form or philosophy by the artist or a collaborative writer. Our dramatic writing will allow readers a glimpse into the heart of a play script.
We’ll publish quarterly, but just to give everyone a small taste of what is coming, we recently launched a preview “all flash” issue with micro fiction, short-short essays, tiny poems, and an essay about Instagram photography by the talented young writer/photographer Blake Martin. It’s live on the website as of February 1.
A poet recently asked Lauren what Cleaver is seeking, and she responded, “We don’t have a specific aesthetic or idea in mind. We always look for strong images, sensory details, wordplay, and implication.” We published five poets in our mini-edition: Frances Brent, a highly established poet with multiple publications and awards; Katherine Fallon, a young MFA grad; Samuel Thompson, an award-winning concert violinist– his first poetry publication. It’s also a first poetry publication for Anna Strong, a college senior. The fifth, John Grey, a poet with many publication credits, was a submission that came in through our listing in DuoTrope. I encourage Poetdelphia members and readers to take a look and to consider sending us some work though our submissions portal.
I talk about Cleaver in more depth here on my blog: http://www.rilesmith.com/introducing-cleaver-magazine/.
Poetdelphia: As a teacher, do you find any themes particularly on the minds of student writers these days, and if so, what advice do you give those young writers?
Karen Rile: I have been teaching fiction and creative nonfiction at Penn for a long time; over the years I’ve noticed a trend for students becoming more attuned to the world outside of their immediate sphere. So I am seeing fewer short stories about teenage breakups and roommate trauma, and more about life outside the Penn bubble. I encourage them to really know their characters, both by developing a detailed backstory, and by working on their capacity for empathy. It helps, of course, to know themselves and those around them before they attempt to write about worlds that are yet unknown to them. Students often come to me writing, at least at first, what reads like treatments for plots of TV dramas. It’s all surface and no depth. I try to teach them to strive for authenticity in everything they write.
On a practical level, we work a lot on technique. For example, last week’s homework exercise was to write a descriptive scene from three very different points of view. That is, descriptive language only: no plot, and no reference to the character who is viewing the scene. The point was to experiment with coloring the scene through the emotional state of the 3rd person protagonist. It’s quite a difficult assignment, much more so than it looks to be at first glance. They all came back on Monday kind of worn out, and feeling disappointed by what they had produced. But they learned a lot, both about technique and about empathy, through the exercise, and their efforts will serve them going forward.
I find that most students have not had much exposure to contemporary fiction– even those who are highly interested in literature and writing. They have all read George Elliot, and maybe a little Hemingway, but not much contemporary writing, aside from YA blockbusters like The Hunger Games. So it is with great pleasure that I introduce them to an eclectic mix of contemporary literary short fiction, mostly mid-century to current publications. The best advice I can give them is to open theirs minds and read–and to read like a writer, not a literary critic.
Poetdelphia: Poetdelphia is all about creating community, and we’re always interested in knowing how writers create a supportive community around themselves. Who or what do you turn to when you need that extra help or support?
Karen Rile: I have many wonderful writer-friends, some circles more loosely organized than others. I suppose my go-to community at Penn would be Kelly Writers House. KWH has done so much in the past 15 years to grow and nurture the writing community at Penn, and for the Philadelphia region, as a whole. They are inclusive and community-focused, and have been extremely supportive of outreach programs I’ve worked on over the years. #Pdel