Ask the Editor: An Interview with Marisa Siegel of The Rumpus

As editor-in-chief of The Rumpus, Marisa Siegel manages one of the internet’s most original and exciting websites, a space that prioritizes bringing marginalized voices into the spotlight. To learn more about her career and her path, MFA nonfiction candidate Elena Sheppard spoke to Siegel about her MFA experience and the formative roles and work that led her to where she is today.

I’d love to start by asking you about your road to The Rumpus. How did you become editor-in-chief of the site?

I first became involved with The Rumpus in late 2012 as a contributor, writing poetry reviews for Brian Spears. My first review ran in January 2013. In June 2013, I took on the role of Assistant Music Editor, working closely with our founding Music Editor Katy Henriksen. In late August 2013, The Rumpus launched an app and PDF called The Weekly Rumpus, and I became its Managing Editor in September 2013. In April 2014, as I was nearing the final trimester of my pregnancy, we shut down The Weekly Rumpus and I stepped into the role of Managing Editor of The Rumpus. I made an offer to purchase The Rumpus in fall 2016, shortly after the election, and officially took over as owner and Editor-in-Chief in January 2017.

I think it’s important to note that of all the roles listed above, only Managing Editor of The Rumpus was a paid position. I was fortunate to be able to volunteer as an assistant editor and as Managing Editor of The Weekly Rumpus, to have had a sum of money put aside with which to purchase The Rumpus, and to be able to work now as Editor-in-Chief without taking a salary. The latter has been difficult, as my financial situation has changed considerably in the last few years, but the work remains worthwhile.

How would you describe The Rumpus to the uninitiated?

The Rumpus is a place where people come to be themselves through their writing, to tell their stories or speak their minds in the most artful and authentic way they know how. We exist on the margins, and we strive to be a platform for marginalized voices and writing that might not find a home elsewhere. We want to shine a light on stories that build bridges, tear down walls, and speak truth to power.

The Rumpus is also a community of writers and readers, and we prioritize transparency within that community. We value the exchange of opinions and ideas and we are especially focused on inclusivity in everything we do—the work we publish, the events we put on and participate in, how we shape our editorial team, and so forth.

What does a typical work day look like for you?

There is no typical work day for me right now. My son is 4.5 years old and in school for 2.5 hours each day. I have a babysitter on weekday mornings, and occasional help in the afternoon from family. I work wherever I can, whenever I can—if I have my laptop and a WiFi connection and my son is safely occupied, I will probably work. And often, I work from my phone, too, answering emails and catching up on Rumpus social media.

My day-to-day Rumpus work can include: copyediting and scheduling finished pieces, editing in-progress pieces I’ve taken on myself, handling customer service inquiries, event programming and preparation, planning for our four subscription programs (Letters in the Mail, Letters for Kids, Book Club, and Poetry Book Club), reviewing submissions in Submittable, troubleshooting site administration issues that arise, long-term planning around generating revenue and fundraising, and more. Truly, no day is the same as the next.

When asked, I estimate that I work about 80 hours/week, but that happens in fits and starts. I also log a lot of weekend and evening hours, because it’s easier to be focused and I can work for longer periods of time at once.

I understand you work from home, and you’re a mom. How did you make that decision to have both your child and your work in the same space?

I didn’t really make this decision; the decision found me. I wasn’t expecting to be offered the Managing Editor role in 2014, and had planned to freelance part-time through my son’s early years. However, when deciding whether to make an offer to purchase The Rumpus, I did think about this. I purchased The Rumpus for three reasons: 1) Trump won the election, and so it felt like an imperative time for us to keep publishing; 2) I wanted to reclaim The Rumpus for all the women who’d contributed to its success without getting credit for doing so for far too long; and 3) I wanted to continue to build my own publishing credentials and contacts and remain active in the industry but still have the flexibility to be very involved in my son’s life during these early, formative years. So, it’s true that at that point I made an active decision to increase my workload and continue to work from home.

If we could afford it, I’d probably have The Rumpus join a coworking space. Working from home is incredibly challenging, despite the rewards that come with being more available to my child.

What have been the pros and cons of that decision?

The biggest benefit of working from home, and in roles where the hours are flexible rather than fixed, is absolutely that I’ve been very present for the early years of my son’s life. The biggest drawback to working from home is that it’s impossible to overstate how difficult it is, day in and day out, to work in the place you live and while your child is home, too. I don’t ever feel fully “at work” because I’m also at home, and my son is usually just one floor below. I did learn early on that a white noise machine and ear plugs were critical to accomplishing anything, and I don’t miss commuting everyday into and out of the city. But I do miss the camaraderie of an office full of coworkers, and I do miss being in NYC on a regular basis.

You have an MFA from Mills College. How has the MFA helped you (or not helped you!) in your career?

My decision to get an MFA just a year after college was less about academics or a career or even writing—I needed a reason to move across the country, to put physical distance between me and the really ugly relationship I’d been struggling to move past. I also needed thousands of miles between me and the house I grew up in, where my abusive father still lived at that time, so I could finally begin to process what my childhood meant for me.

So, I applied to four MFA programs in California that didn’t require the GRE because lord knows I wasn’t in a place to take the GRE that year. I didn’t ask anyone for advice and so no one told me that only applying to four programs was kind of stupid. I was rejected from three, and accepted to Mills.

Without a doubt, my time at Mills made me a better writer and thinker. I had a very positive MFA experience, and I wouldn’t go back and change my decision. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that anyone get an MFA just a year out of college at 22. I was the baby in my program, and I think my colleagues who were five, 10, 15 years older than me were in a better position to make use of what an MFA can offer.

Has my MFA helped me in my career? Those years in Oakland changed my life, and for whatever it’s worth, I first learned about The Rumpus from a grad school friend who shared a call for poetry reviews on Facebook. I can’t imagine where I’d be today if I hadn’t seen that Facebook post.

What did you do directly after leaving your MFA program?

I took a contractor position at Yelp, then a small start-up with a super cool office in downtown San Francisco. I loved working at Yelp, and was offered a full-time position shortly after I began there. If I hadn’t made the (in hindsight, regrettable) decision to leave Oakland and move back to New York, I imagine I would have stayed at Yelp for a while and I have no idea where I’d be today. I do think that I could’ve gotten the job at Yelp without an MFA.

MFA or NYC?

As always, it’s not an either/or. And, you don’t need an MFA or NYC—I know writers who’ve never lived in New York and don’t have an MFA who are wildly talented and successful.

An MFA offers a ready-made writing community, and I think that’s valuable for those of us who have trouble finding community. Is it worth the price tag? Maybe not, especially if you don’t want to teach. Will it help your writing? That depends on the program you attend, the professors you work with, and what you put into it and ask from it.

As for New York, well, it’s definitely the center of the traditional publishing world. If you want to work within that world, you’ll either need to live here or travel here frequently. But it’s too expensive, too competitive, and I’d rather be in California!

So many people want to break into the editing world but don’t know where to begin. Where would you say are some good entry points?

I think you have to be willing to work your way up, and yes, I do think that often means volunteering as an editor without pay at some point—so do that early on if you can! If you’re a student, start by finding out what publications you can be involved with while you are earning your degree. I worked at various publications as an undergrad, and as Poetry Editor of Mills’s journal, 580 Split. Upon graduating, take a job at a publishing house or in a publishing industry-adjacent business and network like it’s a second job. You never know who might open the right door for you in the future. Caveat: you should never take a job, paid or unpaid, where you and your time aren’t valued, and you should never tolerate harassment even if it’s coming from someone who can open all the right doors.

Beyond that, the best editors I know are people who genuinely love books and working with writers. Read widely and broadly, and never stop.

What about for writers, what is your biggest piece of advice for writers looking to get their work published on The Rumpus or elsewhere on the internet?

Read the submission guidelines! I know every editor says this, but that’s because we all receive submissions wherein it is glaringly obvious that the submitter didn’t even glance at, let alone read, the guidelines. And regularly read the publications you want to be published in; you can’t effectively pitch that a piece is right for a specific venue without understanding what that venue is looking for. Finally, do submit often and expect lots of rejection, but don’t send out work that isn’t ready or finished.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

My favorite thing about being Editor-in-Chief of The Rumpus is getting to work with editors and writers whom I admire tremendously. That, and the free books!

Lastly, what would you say are three characteristics that all editors-in-chief need to possess?

The ability to lead a team of editors toward a unified vision for a publication. A willingness to accept feedback and criticism, and to acknowledge and learn from mistakes. A sincere love for literature and the literary community.

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