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Interview with Richard Peabody
by Ayla Zuraw-Friedland


Richard Peabody

Give us a brief autobiography.

Born at Georgetown University Hospital, spent first year in Arlington, VA, then lived above my father's pet shop in NW DC for a few years, before moving to Bethesda where I grew up right beside NIH. Went to Ohio U., transferred to Maryland, earned my MA at American University. Hitchhiked around the country in 1976. Started the mag when I came home. First workshops I taught were at St. John's College in Annapolis. Eventually taught at Writer's Center in Bethesda, UVA, Georgetown, University of Maryland, and began at Johns Hopkins in 1995. Co-owned a bookstore that same year: Atticus Books and Music in the U Street corridor. Didn't really begin writing until I was at Ohio U. I'm a bit of a late bloomer in everything I do.

Describe the best french toast you've ever had.

Might have been in Montreal. I remember Halva with bananas and strawberries. Honey instead of syrup.

In another interview, you talked about how Gargoyle got its name after a photography misadventure that resulted in more pictures of gargoyles than it did of the subject in mind: the Pan statue. Why did you initially set out to name the publication Pan?

I had a list of contenders. Pan had links to a 60s band that Ron Elliott (guitarist of the Beau Brummels) had been involved with, and then there's the great scene in The Wind in the Willows where Pan puts the animals to sleep. That's the scene Pink Floyd used for their first album title-The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. A totally surreal chapter that has nothing to do with the rest of the book. And Pan was much better than The Potter's Wheel, another contender. We couldn't get a decent shot of the Pan statue in front of the Herb Cottage no matter what we did. But Rusty just started shooting the gargoyles on the National Cathedral while we set up photography paraphernalia trying to get a good shot and once we developed the roll the name for the mag became obvious. Sadly, the Pan statue is no more.

What sparked the idea to start a literary magazine?

I took an Irish Lit course in grad school and fell in love with all things Irish. Didn't discover I had a drop of Irish blood until I took the Ancestry.com DNA test this year. No record of it in the family tree. But the music the art the lit resonated for me. Richard Murphy was one of the first poets I ever heard read. He had long hair and seemed to be my age though in fact he must have been 50+ at the time. That's when I learned that poetry keeps you young. On the Bicentennial hitching trip I landed quite by accident in Madison, Wisconsin, where I went to a poetry reading by Warren Woessner and Tuschen. Woessner had a radio show and co-founded Abraxas magazine but Tuschen blew my mind cuz he didn't use his first name, had a terrible stutter and could barely get a word out, until he read his poems, which he were clear and perfect. I bought his book and later printed some of his work. And when I came back home I decided it was time to do something-though a press or a magazine I wasn't sure.

What is the most challenging part of maintaining a literary magazine? What have been your favorite parts, or the things that have felt the most rewarding?

Everybody wants to discover somebody and that has been fun. We decided from the get-go that we'd print new writers and forgotten writers. That was the stated goal. Nothing beats the high you get off the first issue. Warts and all. I get a certain satisfaction on keeping it going when for many the lifespan is 2-3 issues. Most challenging is always money and distribution. Library sales are nothing like they were in the 80s. But I love the tribe and this idea of "literary citizenship." Paying your dues and helping others get started. I help fledgling literary magazines and presses if they want help. Mostly I encourage, steer writers to other markets, blurb books, etc. And all of that has spun out of the actual magazine.

Loved printing Maxine Clair's first work. Printed Rita Dove's fiction. Had a correspondence with Paul Bowles and Edouard Roditi. Took John Gardner a bottle of Mead when he was up in Baltimore. Love gathering contributors together for readings. And at some point in the late 70s, doing a couple of road trips around the country to introduce the mag to indie bookshops like Tattered Cover, Borders (when it was an indie in Ann Arbor), Elliott Bay, Prairie Lights in Iowa City, and on and on.

What is the process of selecting stories to publish? Do you ever start out looking for anything in particular?

No, we don't do themed issues of the magazine. We did a bunch of anthologies for St. Martin's in the 90s. Mondo Barbie being the first. At this point we've read so many stories that we know what we don't want, which is a huge part of the editing process. Being a writer is akin to 90% rejection. We're a little different because we like to read/write/teach/publish both realism and experimental writing. A rare thing in this country. Because we do both there are a lot of folks who think we have no taste and must take everything we receive. I believe it's more likely that we accept 1 out of every 100 stories we're sent. Better than it was in the early days. Now that we use so many interns for the slush pile I like to get 3 yes votes before I'll even read the story. Because we see so many. There was a time I read them all but now I mostly read works by people I know or have heard of before. Some surprising things have turned up in the slush lately though. The interns have been doing a great job.

In your nomination for the "Above and Beyond Award," someone described the work you do as: "dedicated to printing work by unknown poets and fiction writers, as well as seeking out the overlooked or neglected." Do you feel there are still specific groups of writers that fit that description that have yet to come to light?

Writers are so introverted that it's real work to pry anything out of some of them. I beat my head against that writerly wall for decades. I think the net has opened everybody up considerably, to the point that some magazines have stopped snail mailed submissions. I'm considering that step myself. It does seem like anything that comes from the USPS these days is from a writer who has no idea what's being written now. I always hope that some Luddite master writer is out there but I haven't found them yet. Now that creative nonfiction and translations are so in and trendy, I think it's a great time for literary excavation. So many talented writers have o.p. books and could use a burst of spotlight. I think we all have a favorite that we'd promote.

CBP: What do you consider to be special or unique to Washingtonian writers?

LA is about Hollywood. DC is about the government. This has always been a COMPANY town in that regard. I think the NY houses have always wanted to find thrillers and detective novels to spin into film. It's a hungry mawl that needs to be fed. When I began in 1976 there were tons of indie magazines and readings. Since then the literary population has grown and evolved. There were good writers here before but now there are so many-George Pelecanos, Edward P. Jones, Marita Golden, Alice McDermott, Mary Kay Zuravleff, Carolyn Parkhurst, Julia Slavin, Alma Katsu, Tim Wendel, Louis Bayard, Keith Donahue, et al.

And since DC is a transient city poets and writers come and go all of the time. International organizations bring in lots as well.

How has the content of the magazine evolved with the passage of time and quickly cycling editorial staffs?

Dunno that I agree with the "quickly cycling." That's true of a lot of university magazines. I've been here since day one and we've always had a shared process. Not collaborative. More I want this and you don't but if you let me run this one, I'll let you run that one. We negotiate. Now that we've been using interns so much these past five years, I like to get them to commit to 2-3 pieces they'll fight for when the deadline approaches. Keeps it real.
In the early days we were noted for doing so many interviews and reviews. The online world has taken over both aspects of things literary, so we now pack every issue with as much poetry and fiction as we can. We make a lot more room for nonfiction these days. And since our printer, Main Street Rag in Charlotte, NC, owns their own POD equipment, we've been able to expand the magazine into the 400-500pp realm. We no longer have to be slaves to our storage facility for past inventory, nor do we have to print 2,000cc in order to get a discount. We print as need arises and everybody is happier.

What are some of the biggest and most important changes you've seen come about in publishing in the last 40 or so years Gargoyle has been in print?

The Borders vs. Barnes and Noble death match killed off most of the indie bookshops. And now with Borders gone, Barnes and Noble no longer needs to stock as much. Of course it's predicted that they will go belly-up in 2015. The rumor is getting quite loud. The online mags went from being ignored to being accepted in record time. There are still power levels or strata in the lit world but they seem less relevant when a fan fiction writer can sell a book for 6 figures to the bigs. I think the gap between mass-market fiction and literary fiction has increased. Libraries have astonished me by making books less important in their overall collections. I love the idea of e books. We hope to get our backlist and archival materials online in e-copies but it's slow going. It moves so quickly. Remember CDs? Seems like yesterday. Now poets can do individual downloads of their work, videos. You can watch somebody read in places you've never traveled. Oh and I love the new desktop technology. When we started we were cutting and pasting long lines of type with wax guns. And the Submittable site has been perfect for handling magazine submissions. Amazing time to be alive in terms of the possibilities. How long can it all survive?

What remains though is the actual writing.

How has the role of being an editor or a mentor on behalf of other blossoming writers over the years had an effect on your own writing? Does it make you more critical of yourself or do you manage to keep the two identities separate?

I must get a lot of satisfaction from teaching or I wouldn't do it. And helping another poet or writer over some of the art blockades has been fun. I hope they learn as much from me as I learn from them. I never planned on becoming a teacher. That idea was purely a means to an end. And yes, I find it impossible to write while I'm teaching. The editorial side is so strong that it can and does get in the way.

I distract mine with music most of the time. The critical brain gets easily entangled in instrumental music of any type. My daughters are in those teenage years. Might be why flash fiction and short shorts are so popular. Rough for me to write anything longer. And by longer I mean 10-20pp. I can usually handle 1-5pp before somebody has to be fed or driven somewhere.

I regret wasting so much time in my 30s and 40s. And children have required me to be very focused. So yeah, when I'm not teaching I can really let things rip. Give me a week at a colony and I will churn something out.

What is the most important advice you can give to writers in the process of submitting work to Gargoyle or any other literary magazine?

The old saw = read the magazine. Duotrope.com and Newpages.com have made it easier to see what editors want and print. Stores don't carry that many any longer. And who can afford to keep up with buying all of them? But if you get a taste for a particular mag you have a much better grounding and chance. The process is really like making friends. I hope to meet kindred spirits. People who do this because they have to do it. I meet tons of people who want to be Stephen King by tomorrow. That was never my goal. I'm in this for the long haul no matter what happens. It's a life choice not a job.

What's next for you?

Local indie, Alan Squire Publishing, is assembling The Peabody Reader, a sort of Best Of a la the old Viking Portable series (Conrad, Crane, et al.). Not that I'm on that level. Still, the idea of having the best of my existing work-poetry, fiction, non-fiction-gathered in one place is appealing, particularly since so many previous publishers are defunct. That's due out 2015.

Beyond that we're readying Gargoyle #61 for late July. And I hope to get some writing done over summer vacation. We shall see.

 


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