national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2011

Ghost Proposal: An Interview with the Editors

On a crisp Vermont afternoon in fall 2011,  plain china nonfiction editor Naomi Washer sent her first email to writer Zachary Green, at Columbia College Chicago. Her intention was to solicit his piece, “I Will Send You This,” for plain china 2011. Written in letter form and later chosen as an honorable mention by 2011 nonfiction judge Jonathan Lethem, Zachary’s piece sparked another, entirely unexpected exchange of letters. Naomi and Zachary’s ensuing epistolary friendship led to the creation of Ghost Proposal, an online literary journal featuring poetry and creative nonfiction from emerging and established writers. Just in time for the launch of their second issue, we (virtually) sat down with Ghost Proposal editors-in-chief Naomi and Zachary as they discussed everything from the rise of creative nonfiction, love, and the unshakable haunt of a ghost proposal.



Can you describe the inception of Ghost Proposal?

Zachary Green: Naomi and I first started talking when she published a piece of mine in plain china. Through several e-mail exchanges I took a liking to her thorough editing approach. But for some reason I thought she was 35, with a career, and that we would never have the opportunity to meet. I must admit I found her on Facebook and much to my surprise saw she was the same age, in the same place in her life as I was in mine. We met up a few times and decided that we were both pretty stylish and should start a journal. That’s how these things happen; over pizza and fashionable garb.

Naomi Washer: There was the day Zach asked me if I wanted to start a journal someday, and the subsequent conversations about our literary ethics. There were the New England towns in which we sat on porches and mused over possible journal titles. There was the summer afternoon Zach went for a bike ride and the name “ghost proposal” just came to him. There was the message “ghost proposal” I received from him that day, to which I replied and agreed. And there was Greg Frye, our designer, who made it happen in a matter of weeks. So it was a series of ghost-like proposals, as each piece of our idea found footing.


The authors you’ve published in the first issue run the gamut—from recently graduated undergrads to well-known essayists—how did you acquire the pieces in your inaugural issue?

NW: Having decided to solicit for the first issue, I considered which writers had made an impact on my work and my beliefs about nonfiction as a genre. I have been equally impressed by the work of established writers, emerging writers, and my peers. I wanted our first issue to illustrate that good writing speaks for itself, regardless of age or experience. But I also think that our dedication and publishing experience helped people see Ghost Proposal as a venue that’s going to be important, and it made them want to get involved. I’m humbled and excited about that.

ZG: Both of us we really wanted to enter the publishing arena in a strong way. We knew we had to reach further than was realistic, and we both developed some notable contacts to that end. We’re also just starting out in our writing careers, so it made sense to invite writers who reflect our demographic as well.


Can you describe the submission process? How do you and Zachary plan on compiling future issues of Ghost Proposal? How often will you publish?

ZG: We are using Submittable, which has been blowing our minds, and we have a listing at Duotrope. We also plan to solicit writers in order to keep the caliber of writing high. For now we are looking at being a quarterly magazine.

NW: I am seriously blown away by the reach we’ve achieved in so little time. You can anticipate quarterly issues for now, but we hope to turn this into a small press someday. We hoped for a first issue “someday” only about six months ago, so who knows: Stay tuned.


Why creative nonfiction and poetry? As writers, how do you define the current relationship between these genres?

ZG: The simple answer is that Naomi writes creative nonfiction and I write poetry; this is where we are comfortable and excel. Personally, I find that both genres possess a lyrical quality and are always approaching truth, but sometimes have a hard time getting it right. It’s kind of like my love life, but most of the time I’m not getting it right.

NW: Genre was the first aspect of the journal that we knew would set us apart from others. So many journals are poetry and fiction, or poetry and “prose,” so we knew that having poetry and nonfiction would be a defining factor. As a writer, I don’t feel entirely uncomfortable labeling my work under any genre. But essays are what I live inside of, because of the way they circle or spiral around something, using every avenue—imagination, line breaks, other poetic strategies, whichever form fits the content—to get there. There’s a current push in the essay form to break genre and use more poetic tendencies, but when you go back far enough, you find that there were similarities all along.


And finally, on your “About” page you write: “…we write as an act of presenting and offering. However, we cannot always claim to know where the inclination to do so comes from.” Can you talk further about the nature of a “ghost proposal”?

NW: When I critique essays or work with my students, my biggest question is always, What are you trying to uncover? We write to find clarity and truth, not because we’ve already found it. It’s like this D’Agata quote I like very much: “Sometimes the essay is where we end up when everything that we know must change.” I think the name “ghost proposal” implies this letting go of assumed control of where ideas come from. The most exciting pieces of work feel as though they’ve come from a wider place than any one brain, seeking larger understanding. The act of bringing ideas and questions to the page without knowing the answer is scary. I revel in that fear.

ZG: I believe in some sort of organic process where the writing is coming from the subconscious (but we all know Breton beat me to that notion). In essence, this is the ghost; the loose embodiment of that other life inside of you that feels and receives the world intensely but doesn’t always communicate that process directly. Instead it comes through a third voice—and ideas are in words, right? Ideas are proposals, so naturally we must explore them.



Issue Two of Ghost Proposal will come out on March 1st, 2013.

In the meantime, check out Issue One of Ghost Proposal, keeping your eyes peeled for work from former plain china contributors Lauren Bailey (read her own epistolary piece here  and her prize-winning nonfiction here), Joanna Vogel (read her nonfiction here), and former plain china editor-in-chief Crystal Barrick (read her poetry here). You can read Zachary Green’s nonfiction piece, “I Will Send You This,” in Issue Two of plain china 2011, and his poem, “A Solar Storm in the Cockpit,” in Issue Two of plain china 2010. Naomi Washer’s poetry and prose has been published in Bennington College’s The Silo—check out her pieces here.

Eager for a real haunting? Naomi and Zachary will be at the 2013 AWP Conference in Boston—look out for the Ghost Proposal team at the Bookfair in Boston, March 7-9.

Announcing: 2012 Judges

As our reading process comes to a close here in Vermont,  we’re thrilled to announce the Bennington Writing Prize judges for plain china 2012.

Best-selling novelist Sue Miller will judge for fiction. Miller is the author of ten novels (two of which have been adapted for major motion pictures) and a memoir, and served in 2003 as guest editor for the Best American Short Stories anthology. Here’s a video of Miller discussing her latest novel, The Lake Shore Limited. Also, read this comprehensive biography and interview with the author, in which she discusses her favorite books, music, the path to becoming a writer, and tips for aspiring authors.

Journalist Susan Orlean will judge for nonfiction. Author of eight books, Orlean has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992, and has contributed to Rolling StoneVogue, and Esquire, among other magazines. She served as guest editor for the 2005 Best American Essays and for Best American Travel Writing 2007.  See the original article Orlean wrote for The New Yorker that later became her nonfiction book, The Orchid Thief, which was adapted for the Spike Jonze film, Adaptation. And check out this video of Orlean selecting books she would want with her on a deserted island.

Tracy K. Smith, 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for her book, Life on Mars, will judge for poetry. Her two previous collections also received national recognition: Duende won the James Laughlin Award and the Essence Literary Award, and The Body’s Question won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. See the Academy of American Poets bio of Smith, listen to her read her poem “Duende,” and hear  her guest-read the news on NPR.

Back at the Drawing Board

With fall setting in, the plain china 2012 editorial team is busy already. We’ve begun the selection process for our 2012 anthology with a boost from the student reviewers at FUSE, the Forum for Undergraduate Student Editors. Of our 2010 anthology, FUSE had this to say:

“This journal demands a reading for the quality of its content and clean presentation, but what may be most admirable about Plain China is its unspoken commentary on the sometimes-underappreciated community of undergraduate writers…The professionalism of the work in Plain China validates undergraduate journals and students alike. The journal gives us a glimpse at the voices of today’s young writers, and together they make a whole that is mature, thoughtful, and on par with many post-college journals in circulation.”

FUSE has been a great boon in navigating the undergraduate literary journal circuit, and their name says it all—undergraduate editors, readers, and writers would do well to check out their discussion forums, reviews of journals around the country, and helpful links to interviews, journals, contests, and conferences.

Read the full review of plain china 2011 here, or re-visit Nathalie Trepagnier’s “powerful and controlled” poem, “Watermarked,” here.

Keeping Up With Safiya

Former plain china editor-in-chief Safiya Sinclair has perfected the recipe for success: prolific and meaningful writing. Since leaving our staff in 2010, she has had poetry published in various magazines and journals, and her first chapbook of poetry and prose has recently been published. Catacombs, available from Argos Books, has been praised by poets Mark Wunderlich as “a narrative haunted by figments of the seen and unseen,” and Eddie Baugh has called Safiya “an arresting new voice.”

Safiya has had recent poetry published in Fawlt Magazine, among other journals, which you can read online. Check out my favorite, “Kingdom-come,” here.

We’ll be highlighting other plain china alumni accomplishments in upcoming blogs. If you have news to share, let us know.

“The Year of the Dead Dog”

The title says it all: fiction editor Michiel Considine reflects on his poignantly grotesque experiences reading and editing fiction selections for plain china 2011, below.


    The Year of the Dead Dog

My family hit a rough patch in my childhood when it came to dead pets. Hamsters were wrapped in napkins and dropped in trash bins. Our cats made meals of our frogs. We flushed the toilet once a week to say farewell to a speckled minnow or some other tropical fish that couldn’t handle the brackish New England cocktail we offered as a passable substitute for the Caribbean Sea. Luckily, we never partook of extensive backyard pet cemeteries, or the relics would have surely overrun the lawn furniture.

As a writer, I’ve yet to wrangle the courage to tackle this early trauma, choosing, instead, to save such a sensitive topic for an older and wiser version of myself—someone who can demonstrate keeping his cat alive for more than four years (and still going strong!). But while reading through this year’s selection of journals for plain china, our fiction committee discovered early on that other young writers had no qualms about plastering their dead darlings to the page.

In the few months of reading, we encountered: numerous dead dogs, victims of shootings, poisonings, and domestic disputes; a skinned horse; an eastern mole stuffed and mounted; earthworms hacked in two; a litter of kittens with their necks rung; a malnourished chick smothered by hand; and a whitetail deer drowned beneath the solar cover of a swimming pool.

The sheer cornucopia of dying pets was somehow enthralling. For whatever reason, we kept choosing these inhumane pieces to be included in the anthology! It was a disease, a sickness; we were bad people. But after it became a running theme in our fiction meetings—that we had chosen, yet again, a cruel piece of fiction—we had to ask ourselves the serious question: What exactly was it that we saw in these pieces?

As the cruel-hearted gatekeepers that we are, selecting what gets into plain china and what does not, we have to defend why we feel something is worthy of inclusion. Ultimately, we believe the two pieces chose do a great deal more than just off the family pet under dubious circumstances.

In each of these stories are characters who, while capable of at least imagining such brutality, are still imbued with that human struggle we see in ourselves—that dichotomy between right and wrong and how it exists, more often than not, in a murky middle ground. We read these pieces and marveled at how believable these characters were, how darkly funny and lifelike their conundra, and how astounding these young writers were for making them so. We empathized with the suburban dad who just wanted a decent night’s sleep, and we could understand how a strained sisterly dynamic could push a character to the point of murdering her mother’s pet. It was cruel, in a way, but it was never cruelty for cruelty’s sake; there was value in the writer’s willingness to challenge us to relate to people acting in frightening ways. Isn’t that part of what good fiction is all about: taking us one step farther than we might imagine ourselves being capable of?

As a fiction committee, we thought so. And that’s why you can read them here in our final issue of the 2011 anthology, because we think they exemplify some of this year’s best undergraduate writing.


To read the pieces Michiel and the rest of the fiction crew so thoughtfully selected, check out “Those Dogs,” by Cassandra Hartt of Dartmouth College, and “Projecting,” by Vincent Scarpa of Emerson College. Both pieces involve dead dogs, and can be found in Issue 3 of plain china 2011.

Cultural Memory and “Gauche Chemistry”

The third and final issue of plain china 2011 launches today, featuring the work of promising undergraduate writers and artists from LSU, Emerson, Dartmouth, Prescott College, the University of Miami, Bennington, and Harvard, to name a few. We’ve saved the prize-winning nonfiction piece, “Gauche Chemistry,” for dessert, and rightly so. The essay is a raucous narrative of observations of the Chicago bar scene, written with unassuming hilarity. Nonfiction judge Jonathan Lethem praises it as “a piece that sizzles in the reader’s hands, bursting with fresh detail, breakneck swerves in the voice, and kinetic syntax…”

The detailed observations in “Gauche Chemistry” stand out as especially pertinent to both the author, Frank Schweihs, and to the reader, as a cultural onlooker. This mode of observation is how many writers work, including this year’s poetry judge Eleanor Wilner, who has identified herself as a poet who works from “cultural memory” rather than a personal one. Her work attempts to “rescue the human person, to revision the human figure obscured in the myth, the historical event, the inherited tradition,” according to Rebecca Seiferle of The Drunken Boat. Check out Seiferle’s extensive interview with Wilner here. Wilner is the author of eight books of poetry, and the recipient of numerous prizes and awards, including the MacArthur “genius grant.” You can watch her reading at Villanova University here.

We leave you with a wish for a happy Monday morning’s reading. Video from our launch party is forthcoming, so check back soon. We’re also currently accepting journals to review for plain china 2012; please be in touch if you would like to send us your school’s journal.

“Party Boy” of the Paris Review

With the launch of Issue One under our belts, we’re gearing up for Issue Two—look for it on Monday, April 16th—which will feature work from UVM, UC Berkeley, Louisiana State University, UGA, Princeton, and more. We’ll also announce the fiction prize winner, chosen by the Paris Review’s editor, Lorin Stein.

Stein has been turning heads since taking on editorship of the Paris Review, only the third to hold the position in the Review’s history. He’s known in the New York City literary scene for his charming ways and Madmen-esque style. The New York Times describes him as a “proud throwback,” saying, “his desk has an old-fashioned Rolodex, a vintage Lucky Strike case and a neat bowl of paper clips. A small, cream-colored saucer doubled as an ashtray for his Marlboro Reds. A martini glass, mostly drained of Tanqueray, rested near a typed manuscript.”

Of the plain china fiction finalists, Stein said: “These fourteen stories range in setting from rural Colombia to a Manila slum, from Port au Prince to Aurora, Illinois. Stylistically, the writers come from equally distant places. You find urban grit next to hushed lyricism next to essayistic fragments next to wry first-person family drama—a fair sample of the American short story today. As a group, these finalists impress me, above all, with their ambition. It takes chutzpah for a college student to tell the story of a divorce, or of a mother’s disappointment in her son, from the older adults’ points of view. It takes chutzpah—and shows a brave desire to go where the action is.”

We agree with Stein, and can’t wait to let you all devour his favorite of the fiction group, of which Stein says “the author makes good prose look easy, makes it look like fun, and the fun is contagious.” For more juicy reading on Stein, check out this New York Times article and this interview with Jerry Barca.


March Madness

Welcome to the third annual plain china anthology! After another busy fall full of reading and editing, we’re ready to crack the windows and air out some new plain china material. Issue One, which launches on Monday, March 26th, will feature work  from schools such as LSU, University of Georgia, Princeton University, Bard College, Harvard University, and UC-Berkeley, Northwestern, and Stanford University. We think this year’s group of contributing authors is fantastic, as does nonfiction judge Jonathan Lethem, who had this to say: “Overall this was a thrilling group of finalists to consider, each one worthy of a salute, and speaking great things about the state of undergraduate writing.”

Essayist, novelist, and short-story writer Lethem has received a National Book Critics Circle Award for his novel, Motherless Brooklyn, among other achievements. Check out this interview of Lethem by plain china’s own 2011 fiction judge, Lorin Stein of The Paris Review, to learn more.

In other news, for those of you in the Bennington area, don’t forget to swing by the plain china launch party at 7pm on Monday, the 26th. There will be live music, food, and editors reading excerpts from this year’s  award-winning pieces. For those of you reading from afar, we’ll be posting videos and photos from the reading to the editors’ blog later this week.