A journal such as ours requires a vibrant literary and artistic environment to thrive—and even survive. In appreciation of the various cultural entities around us, we present “Meet the Neighbors,” a series where we provide you with personal introductions to a diverse assortment.
The Free State Review website caught my eye with an elegant layout and excellent photography. And kept my interest with statements that revealed a strong sense of identity. There was a focus on “place and experience.” On “authors who live the poem—story—essay before they write it” and provide “some glimpse of a genuine moment in this high concept world, reflected pieces of the real.” And exhibit “engagement and grace.”
That was what I’d tried to achieve in my own work. I would’ve been happy to submit a story had the 3000 word limit not stopped me short. Undaunted, I decided to do the next best thing. I contacted the editors—there seemed to be four—to ask, “So, what is your story?” One of them, writer and reviewer Barrett Warner, was pleased to oblige. Here’s how he responded:
We never had a sign that said, Right now, start a new literary review. There weren’t any voices in the winds. No beautiful angels flying into our minds, nesting on our sternums, singing in our ears. We just found each other.
Editor Hal Burdett found himself when he retired. It took him 81 years, 60 of those spent writing columns in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Times and other Metro newspapers. Raphaela Cassandra found Hal. The May-December pair next found poet J. Wesley Clark. It wasn’t hard to spot Jim. His familiar beard has grown through ten US presidents. He has published 11 poems a year for over 50 years in well over 300 literary magazines. His books include Daughter of the South County, Asleep With Whippoorwills: New & Selected Poems 1970-1995 and I Am Paraguay.
Jim found me. I’d been dodging success as a poet for 30 years and begun focusing on book reviews and essays. I’d written 35 in the previous year, enough to see a lot of new writers and styles and exciting presses. I was thrilled and jealous, especially when writing reflected experience that was “street” but had a polished sense of craft.
All of us had a feeling that writers in the region shared a dream about life. We also knew that elastic forms existed all over the planet. Creating Free State Review was a way to combine them—writers who smelled of seawater, writers who had metal parts and others scented by chlorine or mud. The language seduces us. When words are set beside vigorously lived moments, the experiences dazzle and the art moves us deeply.
We knew that we needed a website, whatever that was, but we had no idea how to advertise that we were accepting submissions except by word of mouth. We wagged our chin-choppers for three months before anything appeared in our box. The first parcel we considered included poems by Chris Toll, Edgar Gabriel Silex, Barbara DeCesare and Jessica Lynn Dotson. The first three were veterans, having eight books between them, but Jessica was a new arrival. She wrote about auto mechanics and had only had one poem posted—and that on a site since abandoned.
Others slowly handed over some poems or an essay or a short. Some such as Rachel Adams and Scott King were strangers who came to us the way that editors sometimes have of sensing other editors. Some such as Beth Spires and James Robison were friends who wanted to go on the journey. There was only one rejection for that first issue. Our raft was a big one, and the Argo could make a sailor out of any cowboy.
The press given about our first issue, its growing distribution (Hal, like all good newspaper reporters, is a fanatic about distribution), our crazy launch at Ram’s Head in Annapolis and the rising murmurs about our next issue were impossible to predict, especially given the small number of submissions.
I’d been courting Bethany Shultz Hurst for almost a year, following her work in literary journals across the country, anticipating a book that I wanted to review. After we accepted her poems, she became a finalist in the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition, as did the local author Katherine Cottle, who had some great titles with Apprentice House. Similarly, our new poet Jessica subsequently had poems accepted by five other journals and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
We’ve since come to pride ourselves on seeking and finding authors on the rise, at times weeks, at times months shy of a break-out year. In the next issue, there are two authors, Kevin Lavey and Dan Ferrara, who would make me shake.
I found Kevin’s story in a pile of rejections for a fiction contest run by the Maryland Writers’ Association. It was the only one that I liked. Kevin and I met for coffee at Artifact and talked it through three or four revisions before we accepted it. A month later, he received a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award for Fiction. Dan Ferrara—who knows where this cat’s going to prowl in six months? Mostly the demons chase us, but every so often a certain writer turns and chases those demons right back. Ferrara’s got a purr that would scare any hungry coyote.
A reporter asked last month if there was a particular writer that I hoped to get into our journal. Yes, I answered, but the perfect writer has no name, no zip code. We’re searching, turning over stones, hoping that he or she will find us. Perfection isn’t a state, it’s just a single moment in a changing, stirred-up world. Here’s the dope: we’re trying to meet those moments and connect and put them into print.
It’s partly beginner’s luck that we found so many talented authors, but the fact is that we’re not beginners. Hal had came up at The Sun under HL Mencken, and that wizard’s two literary journals had sparked an early interest for the enlightened conversation that the arts bring to our day-to-day. Jim was a foreign correspondent in Mexico and Cuba. We’re an older Sunshine Club of hard-knocking dreamers.
So we’re different from other new magazines started by much younger types with lots of energy and visions of changing the world or maybe doing something with their MFAs. We’ve seen so many movements and presses and writers come and go, even actual revolution. You develop an instinct for sensing when you’re glimpsing a real modern-day Icarus and when it’s only a wad of feathers passing overhead. Jim says, “The first step in writing from the gut is to have plenty of guts.”
Ours isn’t the coolest, hippest journal out there. We’re no Fence, Coconut, Dzanc or Mud Luscious. We’re no Adam Robinson. And we don’t know all those stars making life-changing one-shot films or posting about zeroism or “the new severity.” We’re too old school for that. We still enjoy reading without having to plug in something, all the more so if we’re snuggled under a quilt. And we believe in public readings, in the live poetry scene, in bringing words to people’s ears and not just their eyes.
Raphaela is helping us with this, setting up readings at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, East End Book Exchange in Pittsburgh, Minás Gallery in Baltimore and Mystery Loves Company in Easton. Her take is that life is too messy without literature. Raphaela designs robots at the Naval Academy and helped attract St. John’s College astrophysicist and poet Jim Beall to the Review. His “Odysseus” includes images such as “axe murderer” and a boat run aground in the mountains “wrestling with legacies” as he speculates about the poet and dreamer in each of us.
Hal could talk the leg off a dead mule, but it’s not all a sales pitch and I believe him when he talks about empathy. He says,
In the modernist world, the heroes are all lonely creatures. They deal with their mortality all alone. There’s not much tension in that, but these Free State Review authors focus on moments of separation and slipping away, the husband taking a job somewhere else, the father endlessly repairing his car in a late night garage but driving nowhere or a brother’s suicide. Empathy is the perfect countermeasure for 21st Century isolation.
This is why Free State Review is not just a journal. It’s a love affair. Maybe we saw something for a moment and suddenly knew that our lives would be different. Knew this in spite of our eyes being bloody from staring at nothing so long. We saw it and knew that we wanted this love, this flash of hope, this electric profile that was there for an instant, then was gone. So, this time we decided to follow it, to see where it led and—chanting some and jigging some—disappear into its miracle of words.
As someone who is new to the world of literary publishing but not the world at large, I wish Barrett and his band of seasoned beginners all the best. And remind them that small literary journals like ours have a cultural influence that is disproportionate to their size.