Sheila Squillante is a poet and a professor, and is the Editor-in-Chief of The Fourth River, the literary journal of Chatham University’s MFA Program. As editor, she helps guide students through the process of reading submissions and preparing the literary journal for publication. The journal seeks to explore the relationship between humans and their environments and as a result includes visual art, travel writing, and creative nonfiction more generally.
Gideon Simons (GS): How did The Fourth River get started? How did you get involved?
Sheila Squillante (SS): The Fourth River has been the journal of Chatham’s MFA program since 2006. I became editor-in-chief when I joined the faculty in 2013, and we launched our first online issue in the fall of 2014.
GS: Why did the editorial staff decide to focus on the interaction between people and the environment? How much of an effect does that focus have on what you accept?
SS: Our program and the journal are both inspired by the work of Chatham’s most famous alumna–Rachel Carson–environmentalist and author of Silent Spring. We like to say she was a creative writer with a social conscience. The journal accepts work that elucidates the intersections of humans with their environments, both natural and built. We use that word “nature” to include both wild and cultivated spaces, as Chatham is an urban campus in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh. We may be surrounded by the trees of our arboretum and in proximity to lush green spaces in Frick and Schenley Parks, but we are only a few short miles from Pittsburgh’s Strip District, from countless iron bridges over rivers, from the remnants of industry, from healthcare monoliths and our sister universities, from Google HQ and gentrification of neighborhoods all over the city.
GS: Has the mission of the journal changed over time? Has the approach to evaluating submissions changed?
SS: Our mission has changed only in that we are explicitly working to include more diverse voices in our issues and on our staff.
GS: The journal recently started Tributaries, which publishes work from poets of color and LGBTQ poets. Where did the idea for Tributaries come from? How did the idea of guest editor for it come about?
SS: See above. We have traditionally done a good job with gender equity in our issues, but not so well in terms of race, in particular. There is a stubborn misunderstanding that “nature writing” is the province of white writers. I say misunderstanding because of course writers of color have much to contribute to this tradition (see Black Nature, the important anthology of such writing edited by Camille Dungy), but it IS true that the tradition has long excluded them. I believe that it’s the responsibility of editors to actively work to reach audiences, to open doors, not close them. The best way to do that–or, at least the place to begin–is by ensuring diverse representation on the masthead. The Fourth River is edited by faculty in the MFA program, all of whom are white. This is not going to change for the time being (diversity in MFA faculty being another issue altogether), so I tried to think about how I could get around that in some meaningful way. I decided that a rotating guest editor of color would be a start, and Tributaries, as our most regular and prominent feature (weekly on the website) would be a good venue for highlighting new voices. We’re thrilled with what Ira Sukrungruang has done with this space since coming on in the fall of 2017.
GS: How do you approach the “first round” of reading when it comes to the slush pile? Do you rely solely on the slush pile or do you solicit work?
SS: Students in the MFA program serve as assistant editors on the journal, and it’s their job to read through the work that comes to us via Submittable. The class is a practicum, so we spend time discussing what makes a good submission, and they practice articulating their choices with each other in small group discussions. I would say 90% of what we publish comes from “slush,” though we do solicit as well. This is another important way to increase diversity in the journal.
GS: How does your approach to looking for/accepting submissions change for online, print, and contest publication?
SS: It doesn’t, really. We are looking for excellent work that engages our imagination and our social conscience. For the Folio contest, we are looking for longer work that does the same thing.
GS: Unlike most literary journals, The Fourth River publishes creative nonfiction and visual art. What do you feel this adds to the journal? How does it change your editorial approach?
SS: I’m surprised to hear this, actually. My experience is that most journals publish nonfiction at least, and many publish visual art. Nonfiction tends to be an easy fit for our theme, as writers are always trying to make sense of their environments. In fact, we tend to get more nonfiction than fiction submissions!
Gideon Simons is a first year Fiction writer at Virginia Tech. He is the Fiction editor for the minnesota review.