In the small press, journals start and fail all the time.   That’s especially true in the niche market that is genre publishing.   There are only a handful of publications that publish poetry that would actively sport a “horror,” “science fiction,” or “fantasy” label.  Logic and conventional wisdom dictates that, the longer these publications have been around, the greater the possibility that these editorial survival stories could offer practical advice to would be poets.   In that regard, I recently caught up with Mike Allen, the editor of Mythic Delirium, which is coming up on a 10 year anniversary.  Allen is not only an editor, but as a poet, he has also won the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s Rhysling Award three times.

If you could sum up Mythic Delirium’s mission statement in a sentence, what would it be?

I’ll give it to you in a phrase: Showcasing quality poetry with a genre flavor.

How receptive are you to work with horrific content?

Every issue contains poems that could be said to have a horror tint. But I do have some limits. I find that horror of the purely psychological kind, the I’m-a-psycho-waiting-for-my-moment kind, rarely interests me. Nor does the sort of gore-fest I loved as a teen excite me as an editor. And, definitely don’t try your run-of-the-mill vampire stuff here. But all sorts of other things — ghost stories, classic M.R. James-style horror, cosmic horror, WEIRD TALES blends of horror and magic — suit me just fine. And there’s any number of possibilities that aren’t even that easy to categorize. Theodora Goss’ “Octavia is Lost in the Hall of Masks” from my 8th issue — the first poem from our pages to win the Rhysling Award — has the setting and decor of a fantasy story but it’s really a stark study in psychological horror, with all the supernatural elements perhaps unfolding only inside poor Octavia’s disintegrating mind.

What tends to be the biggest difference between horrific content and science fiction content, in terms of the poetry you select?

A curious question. Horror need not be bound to any specific milieu — it can be SF, fantasy or neither. Science fiction has certain types of settings or concepts attached to it that tend to make you recognize it when you see it, even if some of those concepts, such as traveling through time or founding galactic empires, have as little to do with the current scientific reality as revenents and Elder Gods. In terms of science fiction, I find that bright little poems about the Possibilities Out There in the Stars just don’t do it for me anymore. Perhaps I’ve lost my faith.

What’s the first thing you look for when reading slush?

I do like to see some sign that the submitter is paying attention and has some knowledge of the rules. I’ll look at the poems anyway, but often I can tell from someone’s cover letter that their submission is likely a no-go: for example, if they attempt to summarize the poems for me and tell me how great they are, if they include press releases about their self-published books with their poems, etc. I don’t put a hard limit on how many poems I’ll consider at once, but if someone includes more than six I can usually be sure they didn’t read the guidelines. And of course, if the poems have no hint of strangeness or otherworldliness whatsoever (aside from the personality of their author) then they’re not in the running.

How do you approach issues of form?  (Rhyme, Sonnets, Free Verse, Etc?)

I love formal poetry when it’s done right. That said, I’m extremely picky when choosing them. To the discerning poetry reader sing-song rhyme is as painful to read as it is painful to listen to. Good rhyme doesn’t call attention to itself; it’s not forced, and it flows naturally from the language and subject of the poem it’s a part of. Some poets, such as Ann K. Schwader or Constance Cooper, seems to have an inborn talent for it. Many others, not so much. If I receive a long poem in sing-song rhyme as a submission I likely won’t even finish reading it.

What’s more important, the form of a poem, or its content?

If you mean in terms of what I’ll publish, content trumps form. If you mean in terms of crafting a poem, it’s all important.

Other journals start and fail all the time.  What has helped Mythic Delirium reach it’s 10 year milestone?

It does seem inevitable, doesn’t it, when somebody announces a new market with top pro pay rates, that missed schedules and apologetic shutdowns are sure to follow?

A number of things in combination have kept Mythic Delirium alive for so long. It helps that I’m generally a determined and reliable editor.  It also helps that Mythic Delirium is fairly low maintenance in terms of the cost and effort involved in keeping it going — or maybe it’s just that I’ve been doing it so long it’s almost automatic to me now. It also helps that I have a small cadre of loyal subscribers who support my zine just enough that it pays for itself without me having to dig deep into my own pockets. And it helps too that I get such wonderful submissions from writers at all levels who don’t mind that I can’t pay much.

Mythic Delirium nearly didn’t make it past its first year. I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Warren Lapine of DNA Publications for asking me to revive the zine for him after Ellen Datlow reviewed my first issue kindly in her year’s best anthology. For five years I had all my publishing expenses covered, which I suspect is a pretty unique experience in the genre poetry world. I should acknowledge, Warren too, for honoring all his commitments to me and letting me set out on my own with the zine when the time was right to do so.  Subscription-wise, a combination of dedicated supporters and new recruits have kept the zine alive since then. If anything, I get more submissions than I used to, and I think the issues I put together are stronger, more consistent in their texture and level of quality, now that I’m doing it all solo.

Of course, I don’t want to go stale, so I’m getting ready to test that loyalty by changing things up. The 20th issue, the 10th anniversary issue, is going to be a gobstopper, 40 pages of eccentric verse with an extremely special guest appearance by Neil Gaiman. The first issue of the second decade of Mythic Delirium is going to be an invitation-only themed issue based on the concept of tricksters. The next one after that will be guest edited by Amal El-Mohtar and Jessica Wick of GOBLIN FRUIT (and I in turn will guest edit one of their editions.) After that things will return to normal, if normal everreally applies.

How is soliciting poetry different than reading slush?

Actively soliciting poetry is kind of the next level of editing, isn’t it? Something that I think some speculative poets and poetry editors don’t think about or maybe even on some level don’t want to acknowledge is that no matter how good your product is, if no one’s paying attention to it, you’re really not doing yourself or the people you are publishing any favors. There are some writers who’ve achieved such stature that they can draw positive attention to a small press zine simply by choosing to appear there, so it’s worth your time and money if you’re an editor to make it happen.

But you don’t want to do it haphazardly. You need to identify who writes the sort of thing that would fit well in your publication, who might be of the temperament to occasionally let their work venture off the beaten trail, and when you approach them you need to be a professional at all times. Don’t get upset if an established writer you’ve tapped can’t or won’t play. And you should be willing to be a little creative. When Ursula K. Le Guin’s agent informed me that she regretfully couldn’t write an original poem for us, Anita (my wife, who often helps me with these things) and I went to one of Ursula’s older poetry collections, read through it specifically looking for strong work that would fit Mythic Delirium, and then we went back with an offer to reprint three poems, which was accepted. Having Le Guin in Issues 11 and 12, just before we made the transition to publishing on our own, gave us a much-needed high profile during a fairly delicate time.

Patience, also, doesn’t hurt. I’ve been sending Neil Gaiman friendly and polite reminders for years, letting him know we’d love to publish a new poem from him when he has something appropriate. I confess that the weekend of the release of CORALINE in 3-D, falling right on the heels of the announcement of the Newbery Medal for THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, was not the weekend I expected a brand spanking new poem from Neil to land in my Inbox. But it happened, and I’m proud as punch to present the piece in our 10th anniversary issue.

If you could suggest one book of poems to a potential contributor, what would it be?

You mean besides one of my own books (he asked, tongue-in-cheek)? If I have to settle on one, it would have to be THE ALCHEMY OF STARS: Rhysling Award Winners Showcase. I can’t think of a better way to get an up-to-date handle on what’s been done and what can be done with speculative poetry. I could however, recommend probably a good shelf’s worth of books to the curious. The first titles that come to my mind as supplements to the above include Bruce Boston’s COMPLETE ACCURSED WIVES and Catherynne M. Valente’s ORACLES, two rich poetry cycles that to my mind show where genre poetry has come from and where it’s headed.

Worst poem ever sent to you?

I would rather not discuss specifics for the safety of everyone involved. It never ceases to astound me, however, how often male writers mistake clumsy, comical and crudely frank discussions of disgusting or disturbing sexual behavior for something that someone else would actually want to read.

What are the most consistent cliches you find in your slush pile?

I already mentioned that I’ve grown tired of We’re Off to the Stars, Hooray! Not so into vampires or psycho killers, either. On the mythic side, poems about Persephone are so ludicrously common that my eyes roll as soon as I realize that’s what the poem is about. Did I mention how I hate forced rhyme? I think I did. I all too often get sent long heroic fantasy tales encumbered with horrendous rhyme. Beyond that, I have to say, the breadth and depth of what I get to sift through is often wonderfully intriguing. The field of speculative poetry is not at all starving for talented practitioners.

Further information regarding Mythic Delirium, as well as the journal’s submission guidelines, can be found at http://www.mythicdelirium.com/.

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