Friday, November 18, 2022

Six Questions for Adrienne Marie Barrios, Co-Editor-in-Chief/ Founder and Dorian Zimmerman, Co-Editor-in-Chief, Reservoir Road Literary Review

Reservoir Road Literary Review publishes photography, poetry, literary short stories, flash fiction, and lyrical creative nonfiction. The editors want works that ask difficult questions and provide difficult answers. Stories that examine the truth in the bitterness, in the anti-heroes. Heavy stories full of grit and discomfort that shed sympathetic light on the questionable, the unfavorable..” Read the complete philosophy here and the submission guidelines here.

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

Adrienne Barrios: I started this magazine in the depths of a severe depression when I needed a reason to stay alive. That may sound dramatic, but it’s as close to the truth as I can come. I had fallen down the stairs several months prior and could not walk; I’d been told I might develop a serious chronic condition often morbidly referred to as “the suicide disease.” I was in excruciating pain all the time, on top of the chronic pain I already experience. I needed an outlet, a place where others like me could express the places our minds go when our bodies begin to fail us.

Additionally, I started this magazine because I often write things that are too difficult for most literary magazines: too blunt, brutal, callously honest. That’s where the name originates. I wrote a short story called “Reservoir Road,” named after an idyllic street near where I live, that will maybe never see the light of day because it is too much; it’s too dark. If I could publish it myself, I would. Instead, I hope to publish similar works by others.

SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a submission and why?

AB: The first—which surprisingly doesn’t vary by category, though you might think it would—is a story that gets right into it. I prefer stories that find a way around setup, even when those stories are long. Dive into the action and give me details along the way. Setup, and especially long setup, tends to negate the emotional, experiential quality we’re seeking at Reservoir Road.

The second is whether or not it deals with something aligned to our philosophy and vision. We have received many good stories, some great, but that’s simply not enough. We don’t publish just anything. We want stories that examine difficult things, whether those things are dark and heavy or mundane and monotonous to the point of throwing yourself off a bridge. We’re looking for stories that don’t allude to events but talk about them in painstaking (albeit not arduous) detail. We’re looking for pieces that don’t state the way a person felt but that take us there and make us feel that way, too.

The third is avoiding what is trite, saccharine, overdone. As Dorian will say for poetry, it’s not that a topic or focus can’t be reused and made new—it’s all in the way someone reuses it. For example, we receive many pieces about cancer. Most, though, are about people sitting at bedsides of sick loved ones, watching the cancer progress. Yes, that is sad. But what is there to say beyond that? Why does this story stand apart from the countless others on the same topic? I don’t mean to sound callous or uncaring. I have family members and dear friends struggling with and dying from cancer as we speak. I want to ache alongside our authors; I don’t want to read a sob story that could be in a newspaper.

Dorian Zimmerman: First and foremost, I look for the creative use of language and how the piece comes alive off the page. A poem can cover a topic or ask a question that others have tread and retread over and over throughout centuries–many of our submissions touch on similar themes, in fact–but still succeed and surprise us if it does so with an inventive turn of phrase, unique metaphors and attention to sonic and rhythmic quality. I read most submissions aloud and the ones that make me savor their syllables are my favorites.

Second, I look for a point beyond the poem. Given Reservoir Road’s mission and thematic tone, we receive many pieces that are frankly little more than rants or complaints, full of anger (albeit often justified) or a desire for revenge about something bad that happened. It hurts to be hurt, to be treated unfairly, or to witness the infliction of pain. The poems we want to feature go beyond all that and ask why or so what, maybe coming to terms with the fact that one may never know why but still finding a way to locate the trauma in a broader context.

Last, I look for empathy. Humans are imperfect beings, but still human. It is in the asking of how a human could be capable of something terrible where we find answers to help avoid further tragedy–or find the means to heal from it, at the least.

Now, let me be explicitly clear that I’m not asking poets to condone or forgive the unforgivable–and there are many true tales I’ve encountered as an editor here that have challenged my belief in the immense power of forgiveness. But I feel strongly that the difficult work of confronting our past pain and trauma, if successful, results in the expansion of empathy. That, in turn, helps stop or at least slow the continuation of cycles of violence against one another, against ourselves, and against our planet and the other creatures who call it home.

SQF: What most often turns you off to a submission?

AB: Essentially, the things mentioned in the first question: saccharine or cloying tone, laziness of “death is sad so I don’t have to try to be original,” lazy character development, overuse of metaphor or common turns of phrase that we’ve all read a million times.

DZ: The laziness of God. I do not mean the exploration of spirituality or faith–you’ll note we’ve published several poems that wrestle with the personal or societal implications of a deific worldview–but rather the tendency to stand-in the word ‘God’ for any force we do not fully understand, for what we cannot comprehend, for what we feel we do not control.

We’re asking for submissions that confront our most difficult questions, not sidestep them, and I find much of the use of the word God to be a form of evasion.

Similarly, while we do not forbid them, I find an overabundance of quotes, lines modified from other works or references to be a turn off. We are most interested in relatable, wholly original works.

SQF: What do you look for in the opening paragraph(s)/stanza(s) of a submission?

AB: Action. A reason to keep reading. Something that pulls me in, sets the piece apart, whether tone or setting or character. Fresh perspective. But really, I look for the absence of all the things that drag me down. Openers are not as important to me as endings.

DZ: Openers are overrated. There, I’ve said it—and I believe this especially true for poems, less so for fiction perhaps where there is a greater required investment of time to read it. If a reader is so impatient with a poem that they’ll give up in the first stanza, well… That’s a “them” problem, not a poet problem.

I’d rather a lackluster hook to a dribbling ending. If you’ll permit me a metaphor: a lover who starts strong and finishes terribly is a much poorer lover than one who does the reverse.

So I want a pithy, powerful end and I pay far more attention to that than the opener. However, to answer the question, I look for poems where the story is not entirely told or encompassed in that opener. If I can read your first stanza and get the gist of the rest of the poem, why write the rest? Just make that stanza better and have it be the whole poem. Poetry has no need to go on and on, as much as poets themselves are known for lingering.

SQF: Many editors list erotica, or sex for sex sake, as hard sells. What are hard sells for your publication?

AB: I ask for antiheroes, and I mean it, but the hard sell for me is the glorification of those antiheroes. A hard sell for me is a story from the perspective of a mass shooter, a story glorifying and gratifying incest. A hard sell is a mother who only goes as far as “I guess I have to accept that my child has a different life” when they have a queer daughter, and that’s supposed to be the pivotal climax of the story that we celebrate. The first two, I cannot support. The third isn’t enough. Although we tend to walk the line of what is and isn’t okay to publish at times, I will always protect our readers and vulnerable and/or marginalized groups.

And while I won’t say that it’s limited to sex, if anything seems to be added for the sake of it—violence for the sake of violence, death for the sake of death, drugs for the sake of drugs—it’s going to be a hard sell, but only because it feels lazy. Each piece of the story needs purpose.

DZ: It seems to me we’re the market for hard sells. Be it graphic descriptions of trauma, sex, violence—you name it, we’re asking writers and readers to confront the hardest sells.

I will say, however, that the hardest sell for me is sexual violence. To take an act so potentially creative, so beautiful, and distort it into destruction… I’ve never been able to understand it. Every submission period I brace myself against encountering more of it, but I believe that we cannot reduce or end it without confronting it. As they say, light dies in darkness and we’ve pushed too many survivors of sexual violence into the shadows of society.

SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?

AB: Perhaps the focus here should be on what we plan to do to elevate marginalized communities in yet another industry mostly dominated by white writers and editors. The staff and readers of Reservoir Road are no exception. I would tell you that I don’t fully know, but I know it’s an issue. We’ve done (and are doing) some things already to address this unbalanced staff and contributor pool: We’ve added an optional identity statement to the submission form that will help us know who’s who and elevate marginalized communities. We’re also opening two additional editor positions—Managing Editor and Photography Editor—exclusively to people of color. We believe it’s important to give people of color in particular the opportunity to step into those roles and other future roles. That exclusive chance is a step toward equity, I believe, because equality and equity are not the same, and writers and editors of color deserve more than they’ve received in the past.

DZ: Where is Reservoir Road going next? What’s on the horizon? We’re an online-only, decentralized, volunteer-based publication that has found a strong resonance among a talented community of writers and fascinating panoply of readers. We’ve toyed with the idea of funding a print publication or anthology. But, in truth, I’m unsure of where we go from here as much as I am sure that I’m headed there alongside Adrienne, our wonderful other editors, our writers, our readers. The work is simply too important.

Thank you, Adrienne and Dorian. We all appreciate your taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.

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