Cover of Swim Meet Lit Mag Editor Interview

Swim Meet Lit Mag Editor Interview

Svetlana Sterlin, founding editor of Swim Meet Lit Mag, chats about creating a magazine during the pandemic, her editorial process, being part of the small lit community in Australia, and the parallels between swimming and literary publication.

Can you tell us a bit about how swim meet lit mag started? What is the significance behind the name?

A little backstory: I grew up as a competitive swimmer and later followed in my father's footsteps in becoming a coach myself. Swimming has been one of the only constants in my life, and it's a world I want to bring others into. I also saw some parallels between swimming and literary publication: the competitive nature of it, the community each fosters, and the unification of diverse people (though both have a long way to go in becoming more inclusive).

As to how I actually got swim meet lit mag off the ground, I suppose the process began in 2020. During the pandemic, I was looking for creative work I could do from home. I tried to find something in editing, having gained some editing experience through university, so I looked at the literary publications I love to read and found that Split Rock Review was looking for volunteer readers. My time with SRR was very valuable; I learned a lot, and I felt more qualified to start my own publication--swim meet lit mag.

I'd been looking for places to submit my own writing locally--here in Brisbane, Australia--and I realised the options were quite limited. In 2021, I had poems published in Urinal Mag and Blue Bottle Journal, both of which are Brisbane-based indie publishers, but I wished there were more publications like this--approachable, run by emerging writers and editors, and free to submit to. So, it was a case of If not now, when? If not me, who?

What is your vibe/aesthetic/vision?

Very much in line with what I've said above, it's the idea that swim meets bring people together, which is what I want to do with my magazine issues. Undeniably, there's a competitiveness to getting published, but I want to take a little bit of that away, especially for emerging creatives, by making swim meet feel accessible and approachable. It doesn't have to be that serious!

I'm always on the lookout for work that is by swimmers or about swimming in some way, but again, we're not at all exclusive in that sense. We invite work from anyone and everyone, and it doesn't have to be on-theme. However, something I do look for is a sense of vulnerability, something that readers can connect to and understand. I want to invite people into the world I hope swim meet lit mag is creating; the world of swimming, and a world of accessible literature and art.

What does your editorial process look like for new pieces coming in?

The editorial process consists of two main parts; the first is reviewing and shortlisting submissions.

I think of myself as quite an instinctual editor (and writer), so I definitely trust my gut, but I do have a few (for lack of a better word) criteria in mind when making selections.

When I open a submission, the first thing I notice is how it looks--is it clean? Is it neat and organised-looking? If it’s a written piece, does the spelling, grammar, and punctuation look okay? I’m willing to look past minor mistakes and the occasional typo, but when my impression of a piece is that it’s messy or rushed, I’m going to be distracted by these mechanical flaws from the outset.

The second thing I consider is theme. While our themes are flexible, I’m less likely to shortlist a piece that's wildly off-topic. It would also be doing the submitter a disservice if I think there's a better home for the work out there.

Next, there’s the bigger picture level, where I think about the issue as a whole. I look at the most memorable pieces together and consider how they speak to each other. Is there perhaps a common theme, tone, or underlying discourse linking them?

Finally, and I think most importantly, does the piece move me? No matter how clean or on-theme something is, if it falls flat for me as a reader, I probably won’t believe in it enough to take it on. This is where the subjective element of our creative practice comes into play, but it’s also where I consider the audience.

The second part of the editorial process is polishing accepted pieces.

I'm more likely to accept high-quality pieces that are already quite polished because I don't want to suffocate writers with too many edits. The process is always collaborative and usually begins with some questions to make sure we're both on the same page--and that the writer actually wants to hear my suggestions. I also like writers to weigh in with their own suggestions--it's their work, after all.

I use Track Changes to add comments and invite responses to questions. This also makes any actual changes to the piece easy to accept or reject. Nothing is set in stone.

Depending on what a piece requires, we'd typically begin with structural edits (sequencing, plot, character, big-picture stuff), then scale down to line-level edits (sentences, phrases, formatting), and then mechanical copyedits (punctuation, spelling, anything that sticks out). Again, it's collaborative and broken up to avoid overwhelming writers.

Are your issues themed? If so, how does that theme get decided? What are your guidelines or suggestions for how to approach the theme? What is your forthcoming theme?

Our themes are flexible, and we often accept pieces that don't directly respond to the theme, but when paired with other accepted pieces, a common throughline becomes apparent.

In addition to our overarching swimming theme, each issue has a more specific callout. Our upcoming issue is themed FLIP. Issue 1 was unthemed, 2 was DIVE, and 3 was SUBMERGE. I hope everyone can see the pattern and progression there :)

As the editor, what type of work immediately draws you in? What do you look for in a piece of fiction? Or poetry?

To expand on everything I've said above, in fiction I look for a distinct voice, easily identifiable characters, and something surprising--a subversion of expectations or tropes, for example. In poetry, I'm looking for something relatively easy to access for a range of readers--whether that be emotionally, or through vibrant imagery, potent metaphor, or a twist on form.

This is something I've seen a few publications write in their submission guidelines, but I think it's the best way for me to answer this question: I don't always know what I'm looking for until I see it. I like to be surprised!

With such a massive literary community (and having to fight with algorithms), what is swim meet lit mag doing differently? Or what do you plan to do differently as you continue to grow?

The literary community is actually quite small and tight-knit where I live, so I think we draw people in by offering that focus on local, emerging creatives. Our less formal approach to literature and editing aims to invite newer writers into this community and help them feel like they belong.

I would also add that we actually edit pieces; many publications don't touch accepted pieces (and some that do edit aren't very collaborative about it). Especially for emerging writers, publication with swim meet may be their first experience of being edited--I want that to be a positive one.

As a young publication, we're still experimenting with what works and what doesn't. Starting with Issue 4, we're going to switch up our publication process. Instead of a single-drop issue, FLIP will be rolled out, kind of like how artists release singles or EPs before an album. Stay tuned!

Are you a writer? If so, what are you working on?

I am a writer! Currently, I'm working on a feature screenplay through a residency with the Queensland Writers Centre. It's in the revision stage.

I've also been working on a poetry collection for a few years, and I've always got other, smaller pieces in the background--short stories, individual poems, random notes in my phone that I'll need to flesh out at some point in the future.

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"Our mission is to provide an accessible avenue for publication, especially for emerging creatives, but we’re accepting submissions from anyone and everyone, regardless of location (as long as the work is predominantly in English)."
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