Friday, February 25, 2011

Palooka Literary Journal: Interview with the Editors

Palooka is a new online, in-print and mixed-genre literary magazine with artwork. I was happy to recently interview the editors Nicholas Maistros and Jonathan Starke. I’m sure that you’ll enjoy reading about how the journal started, what they are looking to publish and how they continue with their own writing careers.

First, though, “palooka.” Do you know what it means? I didn’t, but I looked it up: A “palooka” is the underdog in boxing. While the magazine publishes new and upcoming authors and artists, this is not an underdog magazine. 


You are two editors, Nicholas Maistros and Jonathan Starke. Can you tell me a little bit about you how met and decided to start a literary magazine?

JONATHAN STARKE: We met at the MFA program at Colorado State. At a program like that, you’re looking for one person who can push you, someone you know that just kind of ‘has it,’ and when I read his  stories that were up for workshop and he read mine, it was just kind of evident that we belonged together. We have very different writing and reading aesthetics, but we click so well. We both read and write with the same philosophy, that it’s not about an equation or having the expected elements, but it’s about the hand of that single writer, the voice, the nuances that only belong to her. We were on the phone last March, talking about literary magazines for hours (as we still do and always will) and we got going on what we might do differently if we had our own magazine. I just said, “Let’s do this! I don’t want to wait until after the MFA. Let’s do this now.” So, we did. 

We had a little difficulty finding a name, but after a bunch of back and forth discussions, I said palooka to him, and he had never heard the word, and it was the first name that we both just latched onto. It must be like naming your child, you just know it’s right. I’m a fan of boxing, and it fit the theme we were looking for, supporting the underdog. And we’ve already done some cool, new things. We did the Palooka People’s Choice Award where we selected five poems and put them on our site and had fans of Palooka vote for the winner. We tell writers exactly what we’re looking for in each submissions category. We also offer as many types of writing and artwork as we can get our hands on because we want to promote more than just regular fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Our debut issue exemplifies that and shows that we’re really  open to publishing novellas (“Tuscaloosa Irredenta”), flash fiction (“Tupperware,” “Ten Midnight Koans”), graphic stories (“A World Without Surprises”), abstract paintings (Jim Fuess), visceral artists (Andrew Abbott). We have some really cool things coming together for issue 2. We have a hilarious and beautifully drawn comic, an insane cover (as pictured in the blog), a graphic creative nonfiction piece, a story in the form of a test, and much more. But, I think that shows the kind of journal we are and that we’re living up to our own expectations, really surpassing them at times.

You write online and in the magazine that you are "determined to find those writers and artists who are flying under the radar, producing great works that are going unnoticed by other journals." How do you find those writers and what are you looking for?

JONATHAN STARKE: Those writers really find us. I think our very honest and supportive approach lends itself to the kinds of people who are struggling to be heard, struggling to be published. Our policy is that we read blind. We don’t look at cover letters until after we’ve made a decision on a piece, so it gives everyone a fair chance. We don’t solicit. We don’t publish our friends. We value finding writers who have never been published or who are struggling to get their work in journals, but it’s not like we turn away a piece because the author has been previously published. We’re really just excited to give writers a fair chance without politics or connections involved. We don’t care who you know or what degrees you’ve earned or what your name is, as long as your work moves us.

I'm particularly taken by your interdisciplinary approach. You have a number of categories: Fiction, poetry, nonfiction, graphic and artwork. After you've chosen the pieces for the upcoming journal, how do you decide to order the work, all of which is mixed together instead of divided by genre?

NICHOLAS MAISTROS: The first big decision we made, as you’ve noted, is to let the genres intermingle. Partly because we feel that literature is moving in new directions, no longer confined to traditional genre conventions and distinctions—so why present it in a traditional way? But mostly, we’re thinking of the entire book as a journey. It’s amazing to see how these pieces and genres speak to each other (the final sentences of M.V. Montgomery’s “Ten Midnight Koans,” for instance, not only concludes his segment beautifully, but sets the perfect tone for Carl Peterson’s “Tuscaloosa Irredenta”). Imagine if you got the latest release from your favorite band and they put all the ballads right up front, all the dance numbers in the middle, and the mid-tempo get-ready-for-the-day tunes at the end. I guess you could hit ‘shuffle’…but that’s chaos! There will never be a systematic approach to the ordering of our books; it’s something we have to feel. There was a bit of trial and error before we found the right order for Issue 1. Two days before we sent it to the printer, in fact, I called Jonathan, having just read the manuscript straight through for the bajillionth time, and I said, “We have to move ‘Spellbound.’ It has to follow ‘Who Will Claim Us?’” He paused for a moment and said, as though it were ludicrous to have ever thought otherwise, “You’re right!” Of course, we do present the traditional categories in the contents page for those who wish to be choosey, though with all the hybrid works we’re seeing, we may need to start getting creative with those distinctions.

Palooka offers a print ($9.00) and electronic ($2.99) versions of your journal I haven't seen that very often, but I think it is a great idea. Are both versions exactly the same? What do you find is more popular, so far?

JONATHAN STARKE: Yeah, it was something we didn’t see much of. Some journals offer issues online, along with their print journal, and I think that’s very cool. We wanted to give people the virtual feel, but retain the exact look of the journal. That’s what’s lost in online publishing—it loses the style and feel of the printed book. We maintain that with our e-Edition. The only difference between our print and e-Edition is that one is a physical book (and comes with a sweet bookmark!) and the other is electronic. The content and the layout are exactly the same. I’m happy we’re giving people more than just one option. We also offer excerpts of some of our pieces on our website, so we really have three outlets for people to see what we’re publishing.

You are both practicing writers. Can you share a little bit about how you balance your various commitments, including the journal, with your own writing?

NICHOLAS MAISTROS: It’s certainly been a challenge, but one I’ve come to enjoy. I’m not one for routine—I like having a different day every day. I’m reading submissions one minute and working on a novel the next, copy-editing in my break between teaching composition classes. I’ve come to the understanding that the life of a writer is not a normal one. It can’t be. Not when the thing you want and need to do the most—write—refuses to pay the bills. I guess my short answer is, I write because I have to; there’s nothing convenient about it. Once I came to terms with that, the balance came about naturally. A friend did ask me recently if I had any semblance of a social life. My reply was, “Can’t talk. Gotta run.” No, it isn’t normal life.

JONATHAN STARKE: “Can’t answer this. Gotta run.”

Only kidding. Palooka takes up a good deal of my week. I work full-time at a hospital, am finishing graduate school, writing a thesis, applying for teaching jobs and fellowships, and spending 20-40 hours on the magazine each week. Not to mention five days lifting weights at the gym (which is a form of meditation for me). It’s a really full schedule. As Nick said, you write because you have to. I never chose to write, it just happened. I had so many stories or first or last lines in my head, and I didn’t know what to do with them. Writing them down made the most sense. I don’t write very often, and I’m fortunate to be that kind of writer. 90% of the writing is done my head, away from a computer or pen and paper. I write entire essays and stories in my mind while taking showers. About everything I’ve ever come up with has happened in there. I think when you’re this busy, you have to find a place where it’s only you and some white noise, the peace of yourself. I guess I’m saying I get all my writing done in the shower.

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