Q&A with Jona Colson and Caroline Bock

New Presidents of The Washington Writers’ Publishing House, a DMV Literary Institution

The Washington Writers’ Publishing House (WWPH) is a forty-seven-year-old cooperative, nonprofit, small press based in DC with a mission to celebrate and publish writers from DC, Maryland, and Virginia. On June 1, poet Jona Colson and fiction writer Caroline Bock became co-presidents. They first met one another in 2018, when Jona won the Jean Feldman Poetry Prize from WWPH for Said Through Glass, and Caroline won the Fiction Award for Carry Her Home. They worked together on the 2021 WWPH anthology This Is What America Looks Like: Poetry & Fiction from DC, Maryland, and Virginia, which featured 100 writers and 111 works, and last spring, launched WWPH Writes, a bi-weekly spotlight on writing from the DMV. For this issue of The Writer’s Center Magazine, they realized that they had a few unanswered questions for each other.

Was there a specific moment when you realized: I want to be a writer?

Jona: I don’t know if there was a specific moment, but I always would write in my journal…sometimes they became what I thought were poems. This was around middle school. I kept writing in high school, then in college, I got more serious and took workshops.

Caroline: I was one of those kids who always had a book with me, who was first on line for the Bookmobile at my elementary school each week. I was assigned to write a poem in third grade and never looked back, though it took me until I was forty years old to see myself as a writer. So, while I love talent of all ages, those that come to writing as a second act have a special place in my heart.

What is the first thing you look for when you read for publication?

Jona: I look for image and craft, and I always want a surprise. I want to learn something from the poem. I’m drawn to lyric poetry, but not exclusively. I love what other poets have said about what makes a poem a good poem: that it should move to action.

Caroline: In a short story, especially those that are 1,000 words and less, roughly what we accept for WWPH Writes, our bi-weekly literary journal, I read the piece through the first time and then close my eyes and ask myself, what stood out—voice, character, lyricism, plot? I’m not looking to be surprised but for something that resonates. And then I re-read the work again, and often a third time, seeing if I can envision it with WWPH. I don’t want to sound too mystical, but I do like it when a sentence sings to me. I am always hoping to discover new writers and to publish a writer from an underserved literary community. In 2022 and beyond, I also hope WWPH can be one of the first places a writer from DC, Maryland, or Virginia thinks of for publication.

What’s on your nightstand/TBR list?

Jona: I’m reading Diane Seuss’ Frank: Sonnets, which just won the Pulitzer Prize, and Best Barbarian by Roger Reeves. I’ve also had Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on my list for a long time!

Caroline: I’m in the middle of Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land. I’m looking forward to Susan Coll’s novel, Bookish People, because I believe it was inspired by a bookstore that many of us in the DC area know well! I love fiction that has a strong sense of place. I am also very drawn to speculative fiction and am slowly reading through Octavia Butler’s stories and novels. I usually read 3-4 books at a time so the pile grows, as if on its own.

If you could organize a literary dinner party with any three writers, who would they be?

Jona: Ha! I love this question! And, I would need to have multiple parties to get everyone I want. But, I guess, the first party would be Anne Sexton, Stephen King, and Toni Morrison. There would be some very interesting conversation!

Caroline: Can I come to one of your dinner parties, Jona? I’d like to sit around a table once more with two of my former teachers Jack Gilbert and Raymond Carver, as well as have Octavia Butler there so we can dive into the future as well as the past.

What author or book do you keep saying to yourself I must read but haven’t?

Jona: I need to read more fiction! I have a short attention span, so feel free to recommend something. I’m embarrassed to say that I have never read The Portrait of Dorian Gray by Wilde, so maybe I should start there.

Caroline: I didn’t realize that you thought you had a short attention span! I want to read more from small presses around the country, not just because I want to see what our ‘competition’ is doing but because I think some of the most innovative, diverse writing is happening outside the so-called ‘Big 5.’ Okay, I’ll admit I do have a marketing/public relations background and a competitive streak!

What advice do you have for writers submitting to WWPH? Manuscript contests for poetry, fiction, and now in 2023, creative nonfiction, open September 1 – November 1 and offer $1,500 in prize money, publication, and launch events at an independent bookstore and The Writer’s Center.

Jona: I would suggest that they read what we’ve published, check out our website, and see what we do and who we are. Since we are a cooperative, volunteer press, the next winner will be working with us. We want writers who also give back to the community and pay it forward.

Caroline: To expand upon what Jona says, read winners from past years, especially recent winners because they will very likely be on the judging committee. Read Adam Schwartz’s The Rest of the World, a stunning collection by a longtime Baltimore public school teacher, and our 2020 Fiction Winner. Read Suzanne Feldman’s The Witch Bottle and Other Stories, which beautifully blends speculative and realistic fiction, our 2022 Fiction Winner. However, keep in mind that all work is judged blind. Most of all, send us your literary work that reflects your authentic, finely-crafted writing.

What writing advice do you give to new writers?

Jona: To keep writing and trying to surprise yourself. Prompts and workshops that push you in a new direction even if you think you can’t write about it. Try a new theme or form. Also, writing about writing inspires and provokes. I wrote the foreword to Myra Sklarew’s Atlamira (a WWPH new edition), and I found that reflecting and responding to other writers makes you think more about your own work.

Caroline: Before the dishes, the laundry, the phone calls, or emails or texts, give yourself permission to write, for say, fifteen minutes. An inspiring poet and master teacher, one of the co-founders of WWPH, Grace Cavalieri, recently said to me it was about giving yourself ‘the courage to write.’ (You will find the essay/interview I did with Grace in the foreword to the new edition of Why I Cannot Take A Lover, published in June 2022 by WWPH). Give yourself the gift of time to think and to write; that’s what I say to myself, most early mornings.

Do we have any more questions for one another?

Jona: I am sure we do. We’ve just started, haven’t we?

Caroline: We’ll have to keep on talking, reading—and writing.

At The Writer’s Center, the Washington Writers Publishing House will celebrate the publication of its 2022 books with an in-person reading by Suzanne Feldman (The Witch Bottle and Other Stories) and Anthony Moll (You Cannot Save Here), winner of the 2022 Jean Feldman Poetry Award. Jona and Caroline will host the event and be available for any questions that you might have on publishing with WWPH. Join us at our open-to-the-public celebration at The Writer’s Center, Sunday, October 23, 2022, 2pm. RSVP at writer.org/wwph22.

For more about the Washington Writers’ Publishing House, including how to submit to WWPH Writes or to our annual manuscript contests in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction go to washingtonwriters.org.

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