Interview With The Conium Review
Author: James R. Gapinski
How has the magazine unexpectedly evolved since its establishment?
The Conium Review was established in 2011. For the first couple years, we published both fiction and poetry, and it was more like a generalist publication. In more recent years, the journal’s focus has sharpened, and the mission statement is clearer, paying specific attention to innovative fiction and socially responsible editorial practices. That’s been a welcome change, and it’s been great to see the magazine mature and find its unique editorial voice. I think a lot of magazines struggle with identity early on, trying to find an audience or publishing niche. I’m glad we evolved into something unique, and I feel like The Conium Review adds something special to the literary landscape.
What was your experience with The Conium Review like?
It’s been great so far. Stressful, but still great. I’ve worked with several talented authors and editors, and I get to see the journal’s readership grow each year. At times, it can feel like thankless work—and it robs your nights and weekends—but I love doing it. It’s all worthwhile when you stumble onto a fantastic submission from a new author.
As a writer, what have you gained from editing The Conium Review?
I’ve been exposed to a lot of different voices and viewpoints. We get thousands of submissions each year. I especially like reading submissions that challenge me and push my comfort zone. When I read a really creative and inventive submission, it vicariously encourages me to push my own writing to its limits. More importantly, editing The Conium Review has led to lasting friendships with other writers. As a writer, I think that sense of literary community is the biggest benefit.
What are some trends you tend to see in submissions? What makes you take notice in a submission? How does someone stand out from the crowd?
I see a lot of pieces told in fragments. Unfortunately, many of these stories seem to be fragmented simply because the author didn’t bother to consider the narrative structure. It’s like the author said “Okay, I’m not sure how these pieces fit together, but I’ll just pretend this is intentional and submit anyway.” I actually like fragmented stories, but only if the author has really thought it through and made a deliberate choice. I take notice when form and content play off one another. So if we’re still talking fragments, then I like to see this technique used to explore brokenness, or the fragility of memory, or something else best represented through a nonlinear burst of images. Basically, I like it when an author’s choices actually enhance the story. I see a lot of pieces that are so focused on chasing down a clever idea that the author hasn’t stopped to think if that idea even works for the story. I like to see deliberateness. I like to see purpose. When a story carefully considers how style, content, and form fit together, it creates a holistic experience for the reader. And when that holistic experience happens, I’m not even thinking critically about the story’s construction. In those ideal stories, all the elements are working so well that I simply get lost in the storytelling. In a roundabout way, that’s what I love to see—something that disarms my nitpicky editorial side, urging me to just sit back and enjoy.
What was the last great story or poem you read, and what made you love it so much?
I’ve been reading Carmen Lau’s The Girl Wakes. Her story “Inside the Wolf” stands out in particular. It’s a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story. I’ve read a few Little Red Riding Hood stories lately—we even published a great one on our website—it’s almost like Red is in vogue. But Carmen’s version is completely unexpected. It feels brand new, even as it works with familiar subject matter. At first, Red and the wolf seem to have a coy banter, and I’m like “Okay, I know where this is going.” Then Carmen abruptly shifts the story, and the wolf becomes this lonesome figure who wants to experience motherhood, swallowing the grandmother as a way to feel a something living and growing inside his belly. Red is curious and crawls inside the wolf, and she finds her fetal-like grandmother inside, and they feel safe and warm. And while the wolf longs for this motherly childbearing experience, Red is simultaneously longing to feel wolf-like, with gnashing teeth and wolfish muscles. Red fantasizes about the idea of digestion, breaking down and merging into the wolf’s body, becoming symbiotically linked to the wolf. She imagines becoming part-wolf, and there’s a certain desperation and urgency to her thoughts. “Inside the Wolf” is a wonderful story that explores both connection and isolation in the same breath. It’s also this metaphoric journey into gender and identity. Carmen packs so much meaning into this short story, and it all comes together beautifully. I won’t spoil the ending. Just go read it yourself.
So what’s next for The Conium Review? Any projects in the works?
We’re publishing two books later this year. Matt Tompkins’s Souvenirs and Other Stories comes out June 15th, and Melissa Reddish’s Girl & Flame comes out August 15th. We also just launched a critique and feedback service—it’s a pilot program scheduled through the end of May, but if there’s a strong response, then we’ll extend the project for a longer period. Since 2014, we’ve offered annual contests in flash fiction and innovative short fiction. This year, we’re also introducing a book and chapbook contest. It opens for submissions on June 1st and is judged by Matt Bell; the winner receives $1,000 and publication. So there’s quite a bit going on, with more in the works. The easiest way to stay informed about these and other projects is through our e-mail newsletter—it’s not too spammy, just one e-mail a month.