(This interview was conducted by co-founder/editor-in-chief Jonathan Truong.)
Sarah Lao is the founder and editor-in-chief of EX/POST MAGAZINE. Founded in 2020, EX/POST is a nonprofit independent literary and arts journal open to visual art, poetry, fiction, essays on craft, one-act plays, and more. They welcome submissions from all ages, but, as a youth-led publication, they are also especially interested in amplifying the voices of young writers.
In addition to leading EX/POST, Sarah Lao is an accomplished young writer, and a student at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in the Penn Review, Liminality, and Counterclock Journal among others. She is a 2019 Best of the Net Finalist and 2020 YoungArts Finalist in Poetry; she has been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, Hollins University, Penn State Behrend, and the Adroit Prizes.
Jonathan Truong: Describe your journal in 10 words or less.
Sarah Lao: Experimental, inclusive, and diverse.
JT: Can you discuss what motivated you to found EX/POST MAGAZINE? What distinguishes your literary magazine from others?
SL: There were a lot of different factors, and I didn’t wake up one day deciding that I wanted to start a literary magazine. I think COVID-19 gave me a lot of free time that I would never have had otherwise—the work of starting a magazine is extremely frontloaded, with web design, branding, and staff onboarding being just a few crucial and time-consuming tasks that aren’t necessarily related to writing (shout-out to our amazing staff, who I am eternally grateful to for believing in us when we were just a few social media accounts floating in space!)
We do have a soft spot for experimental work, but for a somewhat anti-genre publication, I think it’d be hypocritical of us to only accept that kind of work—we’re open to great art of any style. We’re also deeply interested in the prospect of creating art ourselves. Crowdsourced and digital art are especially fascinating to us in the sense that they’re a way to get our whole community involved, and Dear Loneliness actually arose partly from my reluctance to reject some loyal fans’ submissions. We thought a lot about this idea of inclusivity not being mutually exclusive with artistic excellence when we designed our brand—we want to be modern but not inaccessible, minimalistic but not snooty.
Some other things I thought about when crystallizing EX/POST’s mission: frustration with arbitrary boundaries like genre or word count that can bar great works from getting published // a hope to marry the traditionally literary with pop culture and news and fashion and everything else human // doing everything we possibly can to help emerging writers find a voice on our site and elsewhere // and a desire to aid those courageous creators who are changing the face of their craft.
JT: Tell us about the “Dear Loneliness” initiative.
SL: So Dear Loneliness is a mash-up of an art exhibit, archival effort, and research project! We developed the idea with our friend Carissa Chen (check out her brilliant work at www.carissac.com!), and we’re essentially seeking to compile enough letters on loneliness—which can include poetry, art, music, etc.—to break the current world record for the longest letter ever written. These letters can be COVID-19-related or not, but we do hope this initiative will let people share their hopes, fears, and experiences with isolation from 2020.
We’ll be featuring these letters both on our social media and online gallery, and we eventually plan to display them in a final physical art exhibit. That would involve a room whose walls are covered in over 1,000 ft of these letters, with the floor and ceiling covered in mirrors that reflect to create the illusion of letters on loneliness stretching into eternity—creating community in the process. It would look something like stepping into a letter itself! Additionally, we hope to donate these letters to a major archival institution as a resource for future historians or researchers.
You can follow us on Instagram @dearlonelinessproject, on Twitter @_DearLoneliness, and on Facebook @DearLonelinessProject. We’d love for as many people as possible to participate, so please spread the word!
JT: You are an accomplished young writer with an accordingly accomplished staff of young writers. Do you believe that good writers inherently make good editors?
SL: I’d like to say yes, but no, I don’t think so. You can be a very good writer, for example, and not understand how to read writing in a style completely different from yours. Or worse, you could be unappreciative or unable to objectively consider the merits of the work. There’s certainly a lot you learn from writing, but it doesn’t teach you how to read or edit. On the flipside, reading does teach you how to write.
JT: As both a writer and an editor, what are some of the trends you are seeing in submissions today?
SL: Hmm so far, the submissions I’ve read for EX/POST have been quite eclectic. I would say the biggest trend is probably the influx of work that carries a strong political message. I’ve seen a lot of work on the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as ironic critiques of inefficient political systems and Brexit specifically. Other than that, I think there’s been a resurgence in writing that’s focused on the body, both in its hunger and its relationship to womanhood or violence. That’s something I’ve noticed recurring in my own work recently.
JT: As a fellow unaffiliated and youth-driven publication, do you find it harder to earn the respect of older writers?
SL: Surprisingly, not really! There are so many kind magazines in the literary community who have supported EX/POST even without us reaching out. We’ve had a ton of older writers submit to our first issue (we actually had to encourage more young writers to submit), and quite a few of our submitters and staff applicants have remarked on the youth of our masthead as something that drew them in. In general, I think the literary community is really excited about the influx of younger writers and publications on the scene. Especially considering all the recent actions (or inaction) of larger, more established institutions like Poetry Foundation, I think now more than ever, older writers are welcoming the arrival of new voices and platforms who will champion all the underrepresented voices that the previous system failed to.
JT: What is the role of the author’s biography in your magazine? Do you read blindly? Do you solicit submissions from established writers?
SL: The author’s biography doesn’t mean much to us. I’ve honestly always thought that literary magazines published biographies just so readers could more easily support their favorite writers by searching up their other work. We do read all submissions blindly, unless the writer left their name in the submission and the format makes it too difficult for us to edit it out.
Since we’re very new, we’ve been soliciting some writers—many whom our masthead already knew—largely so we can establish our aesthetic preference. I know many writers are hesitant to submit to a new magazine due to not having any previous issues to judge if their work fits well, so for now, we’re asking some writers whose work we’ve really enjoyed to send something in—we’ll move away from that model in the future, though.
JT: Who are you reading nowadays? What was the last piece you read that stuck with you?
SL: Ooh I love this question. Some names off the top of my head include Solmaz Sharif, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Cameron Awkward-Rich, and Adelia Prado. I also read Anna Journey’s Vulgar Remedies last week, and it was incredible! Every poem was vivid and beautiful in the strangest, most magical way, but I think my favorites were “Elegy Where I Initially Refuse to Eat Sand” and “And Behold the Locks of the Three Dimensions Are Sprung.” There were so many lines that I wish I thought of, and the book’s eccentricity and freedom really reminded me of everything I enjoyed about poetry.
JT: What’s your source of creative inspiration? How do you first approach a piece?
SL: This is hard—I rarely feel that spark of inspiration that forces me to write, and I think starting a piece is the most difficult part of the whole process for me. In the past, though, I’ve found a lot of inspiration in the childhood memories that haunt me, my weird dreams, and myths. Reading great work usually gets me fired up to write, but honestly, I try not to rely on waiting for inspiration to hit me before writing. Some of my favorite poems I’ve written were made only through an uncomfortable, confusing process in which I really have no idea what I’m writing until the third round of revision.
Usually, though, I start with an image and go from there. I’ve never tried outlining the narrative before writing, but I’m pretty sure that that would destroy my process. Instead, I consider the themes and atmosphere the initial image brings up for me and try to build a cohesive world around it. Sometimes, I’ll let the rhythm of a line or the sounds of a word guide me in creating early associative leaps when I have no idea where I’m going next. When I’m around midway through a poem, I finally get a sense of where I want to end, and it becomes much easier to finish the poem rather than to start.
JT: Lastly, what advice do you give to emerging young writers?
SL: Don’t give up! Definitely don’t be afraid to take criticism and keep revising, but at the same time, know when you should stand by your work! If you yourself don’t believe in your words, it can be hard to find someone else who will. There were so many times I hesitated to submit something because I remembered some rough words, but in the end, I always scrambled to send in that submission last minute, and sometimes it worked out. When you do get rejected, though, you should send that piece out to five other places! Keep writing and submitting, and you’re bound to improve.