ZombieVerse: RJ Ingram and Alisha Karabinus on Resurrection

This month, OmniVerse features works revived from lost and out-of-print publications, curated by RJ Ingram. The following is a conversation between RJ and Alisha Karabinus, editor of Revolution House, on resurrecting our fallen texts.

RJ: Both OmniVerse and Revolution House are dedicating their current issue to re-publishing work. OmniVerse’s ZombieVerse issue is trying to resurrect pieces from publishing venues that are no longer active and publishing. What was Revolution House’s theme?

Alisha: We didn’t have a theme as such, just the same idea—offering a space for authors to re-place pieces from journals past. It’s a simple reality that venues come and go in the publishing world; little magazines rise and fall, and even bigger venues topple, especially in the past few years. Once we decided to do this special feature, we just put out a call, with only our usual restrictions: we’ve got to be able to fit it somehow on our digital pages. Other than that, we’ll look at anything, and we have.

RJ: What kinds of things are in the new issue?

Alisha: We’ve selected a fine variety of pieces, including an illustrated story, an essay with photos, some really wonderful work all around. Many of the pieces came from online journals that have since gone dark, but the illustrated story, for instance, came from a local ’zine the author was featured in.

RJ: Could you tell me a little bit about Revolution House and how you see the zombie theme fitting with the vision of the journal?

Alisha: We first started RevHouse with the idea that we would be a journal run by people who care. This isn’t to say that other editors don’t care; we all do. Listen, no one does this for the fame and fortune, right? But we at RevHouse, we’re writers, and we submit, and we know it’s hard to send out submissions and watch status updates and refresh Duotrope one hundred times a day only to get a form response when your work was out 67.3 days after the average response time, when you were certain someone was reading and re-reading, fighting for your work. We’ve all heard stories of subs getting kicked back or ignored for little things, weird cover letters or a file that wouldn’t open, because the truth of the matter is that there are always more submissions than editors, and editors are people, with lives and other responsibilities. We decided to ignore those basic needs and throw ourselves into being those editors who would return the submissions that couldn’t be opened, be kind to the people who ignored our guidelines, who would try to write as many personal notes as possible. Part of that idea, of being editors who are fully invested, who are trying to care about the writers as much as the work, seems to be thinking about all the ways we can get involved—and doing something like offering a home for orphaned pieces. A place for them to live forever, because most of us have that beloved story or poem in a magazine lost to the ravages of time. And as executive editor, since our magazine lives in a variety of digital spaces and I am committed to seeing that continue, I feel confident in saying RevHouse will be around in some form for as long as I have control of the content and the ability to make it live.

RJ: I know I was there during the conversation that became the germ of our issues, but for our readers who were not, where did this idea of having a resurrection theme come from and why did you think it was important for Revolution House to take up this project?

Alisha: The idea for the zombie issue—which became the resurrection issue, because it seems I’m alone in my love of all things zombie around the house (but you guys at OmniVerse know what’s up)—came about after a Facebook conversation I was involved in about markets dying. I’ve lost work in this way. Most writers I know have, and something just clicked for me. I ran to the staff with the idea. We’d long joked about a holiday horror issue, or specifically a zombie (the flesh-eating kind) issue, and this seemed even more appropriate. There was instant enthusiasm, though we did wonder what the response would be, how people would feel, if it would even work, but because we are really great at throwing caution to the wind, we opened subs shortly after. The fan response was overwhelming.

RJ: From what I understand, Revolution House had a call for submissions in order to find its work. How receptive were your readers, editors, and submitters?

Alisha: Submissions poured in, and in almost all the cover letters people thanked us just for the idea. They knew we wouldn’t publish everything, but they were so excited by the chance to resurrect their work that I kind of wanted to.

RJ: Did you notice anything different about the kinds of things being submitted for this particular issue?

Alisha: We quickly learned that it’s a whole different ballgame. People aren’t sending their new, best work, or the work they think you will like, based on what you’ve published before. They’re sending their favorite pieces. It’s the ones they love. We saw a wild mix of aesthetics. Obviously, it all had merit—someone, somewhere, had published it before!—but it wasn’t always our merit. I know in fiction, we turned down a lot of authors who’d written great stories… but they simply weren’t the great stories we were looking to publish, even for something like this.

RJ: I love the idea of having a lot of people more excited to publish their work. Do you think this issue is about reviving the pieces, or more about re-connecting the pieces with the author, or both? Is there anything else you want to add about giving this work a second chance?

Alisha: I definitely think both. Personally, I think there’s something alarming and exciting about taking up an old piece. I know a couple of our authors made some changes, and we edited a few, too, so what readers will see in the Resurrection Issue is not quite what was originally published in at least some of the cases. Now, a few of the works are newer; one was just published last year, and then the magazine went poof, so that one may be the same. But for anything older? I’m sure there are changes, even if I don’t know about them. Who can look at something two, three years old — or more — and be totally happy with it? You’re a different writer than you were then. The distance lets you see what was great about the piece, as well as all those little places you can tweak to gain a real edge.

RJ: Do you think the resurrection issue has changed the way you look at publishing & making work available? I’m also curious to know if you encountered any ethical dilemmas while putting the issue together.

Alisha: One thing I noticed, since we were getting work from as far back as the late ’80s (at least in prose; there may have been an even older poem or two), is how much the literary landscape really has changed. We know this. We all know it. But it was the first time I really had a chance to see and experience it as an editor. I think most of our final selections were more recent. That was a hard truth to face for me, that we were consistently drawn to work from the mid-2000s forward. I found myself wondering if it was fair to be judging older work next to newer work. But let’s be real: what’s fair about this process? It’s subjective. At the end of the day, it comes down to what we like. That’s not fair. It’s taste. Another issue was that one of the first pieces to come in was written by a good friend of mine, and it happened to be my very favorite piece of his. Obviously, there was no hiding that; it doesn’t matter that we read blind. In fact, I think half our fiction staff was familiar with it from previous readings. Normally, if we get something one of us recognizes, we leave the early debates and discussions to the others, because we do want to be objective. But what to do in a situation like this? We loved it. We took it. It was one of those reminders that, no matter how hard we try, we can’t be completely objective, and as our own writing networks expand more and more, as we meet and connect with more and more authors, the odds of someone knowing every twentieth person in the submission queue grow. How much can we worry about that? It’s not going to change. Instead, I think it’s important that we just make sure we’re looking at everything with the same enthusiasm. Just keep bringing our love of literature to the table, and that? We have in buckets. If a day comes when we stop sending each other messages saying, “Oh, go read this new sub, here’s the title, it’s wonderful,” then we’re doing something wrong. Until then, I think we’re doing as much right as we can.

RJ: Two of the pieces featured in ZombieVerse are a bit older, and because of the nature of print publishing and distribution they are things that I probably would never had encountered under any other circumstances. I’m interested if you know why you and your readers were more drawn to work from the mid 2000s on. Was it topics or editing decisions your eyes & ears were more used to maybe?

Alisha: I think a lot of it is the spirit-of-now that imbues digital publishing. You know, it’s interesting; digital pubs are more accessible to a wide audience than print pubs (that aren’t collected for library databases, of course), and they stay accessible longer so long as hosting is maintained, so you’d think they would feel just as permanent. Certainly our old issues continue to get traffic. But there’s a real feeling of now-now-now that I, at least, get when reading or publishing in an online medium. And all of us, we’re always reading and writing, always absorbing something new, and our tastes and selections keep up with that. Writing is always changing in general. I mean, I’m not trying to say something written a few years ago, or ten, or twenty, doesn’t have merit; that would be ridiculous. But the way I look at things tends to change. Something ten years old? Already filed into classics or particular eras, and you can feel a tangible stamp on a piece of writing that dates it, I think, for good or for ill.

RJ: Finally, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of distribution and whether or not letting things go once they are gone is the right thing to do. It was a value I didn’t really know I had until I had to confront it for ZombieVerse. There were a few needed changes in some places I didn’t expect any of us would need to make. Did you find yourself considering any editorial values with this issue in particular that you’ve never considered before? I want to know how this issue feels different from an editorial standpoint and whether it’s a good different or bad different.

Alisha: Whew, personally, I’m still editing and rewriting stories I started five, six, ten years ago—they change dramatically every time I pick them up, but some ideas I don’t want to let go until they’re gone. So for me, with stories, I don’t know that I can get on board with the it’s-gone, let-it-go idea. For poetry, I think things might be a little different, and I think some of that’s reflected in our selections — we definitely took more prose. But we did end up doing more edits than we usually do, and at first I hesitated. Someone already published these things, you know? But just because something’s published doesn’t mean it’s untouchable. As an undergrad, I worked with David Jauss, who’s got a really excellent craft book I recommend to everyone, and I asked him once, naively, how I’d know when a story was done. He said never. They’re never done. It’s just that sometimes we stop. So I took that attitude when working with some of these pieces.

RJ: Do you have anything else you want to say about this issue or others?

Alisha: Really, I just want to thank everyone. I continue to be overwhelmed by the response we get to every issue of RevHouse. I’m just doing a thing, you know, because I really like to read and write, and I like the hands-on part of putting work together, but when I first turned to these friends and said, “I’ve always wanted to start a literary magazine,” I never thought we’d be here. I never thought we’d be able to find these new ways of engaging, but I’m so glad we have. I’m excited to see where we might go next.

imageRJ Ingram lives in Oakland and is pursuing an MFA in creative writing from Saint Mary’s College of California where he edits MARY and works as a social media editor for Omnidawn Publishing. His cat Brenda lives in North Carolina where she practices necromancy after having lost a leg in a high stakes backgammon accident.

akbw2Alisha Karabinus is co-founder and Executive Editor of Revolution House magazine and an MFA candidate in Fiction at Purdue University, where she is also the Managing Editor of Sycamore Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such publications as Baltimore Review, the Southeast Review, Passages North, and PANK. She lives in Lafayette, Indiana, with her husband and children.