Journal Spotlight: The Conium Review
Written by: Katya Cummins


I am very excited and pleased to invite James R. Gapinski of The Conium Review to Niche. I want to take this opportunity to thank him again for taking the time to conduct this interview. We’ve very honored to have him here.

NICHE: Can you tell us how Conium Review came about?

James R. Gapinski: I’d worked on zines several years earlier, and I was itching to do something bigger. The idea for The Conium Review had been percolating for a while. I finally founded the journal in 2011. At the time, I had just started my MFA, and I was recommitted to my creative writing life after years of soulless copywriting for various websites. It just felt like the right time. Admittedly, the game plan wasn’t clear—it was a gut decision—but I brought on additional editors, and we gradually developed more specific focus for the journal.

NICHE: Conium offers authors the options of submitting to print issues or The Conium Review Online Compendium and the opportunity to enter contests that are judged by guest authors. Can you tell us a little bit about how each of these publishing venues differ? What current or previous contests has Conium sponsored?

James R. Gapinski: The print edition seeks innovative fiction of virtually any word count. The Conium Review Online Compendium is dedicated to shorter works. So these differences in length often impact form and content. And as you mentioned, we’ve also got guest editors and contest judges. We shoot for a relatively consistent editorial voice, but each venue is somewhat influenced by the individual authors or editors who are on the masthead for the specific project. Amelia Gray is currently judging our annual Innovative Short Fiction Contest. Later this year, Laura Ellen Joyce will judge our Flash Fiction Contest. Previous judges and guest editors have included Manuel Gonzales, Ashley Farmer, and Marc Schuster, among others.

Store-Cover-Image-510x550NICHE: Conium recently changed “formats,” as it were. You went from publishing volumes to publishing an annual paperback and then a collector’s edition of each issue. Can you tell us a little bit about why Conium changed formats and what buyers and readers might expect to find if they invest in a collector’s edition?

James R. Gapinski: There are numerous reasons for the format change. The simplest reason is that Uma and I reflected on the first few years of The Conium Review, and we talked about what we’d do differently if given the chance. One thing that came up was the idea of a special handcrafted or collectible object. We wanted to go that route, but we also wanted to keep a more affordable paperback option. So we decided to do both. Instead of two different paperbacks per year, we publish a single volume in both paperback and collectible format. The current collector’s edition is a book-shaped wooden box. Inside the box, readers find individual handcrafted chapbooks and micro-chapbooks. Each little chap corresponds to a specific story from the paperback edition. Future collector’s editions may continue with a consistent format, or we might mix it up; we’re debating a couple options.

NICHE: Can you tell us a little bit about Conium’s editorial and production process?  For example, Conium has a certain look and feel. What were some of the ideas behind the design?

James R. Gapinski: I like clean lines and playing with white space. I’m also a fan of interesting typography, as long as it’s done well. I’ve seen some publishers overdo the typography thing. And I’d probably overdo it too if I worked in a vacuum—I consult with Uma and Chelsea on various design options, and they help reign things in. You can be “innovative” without having crazy, practically unreadable text splashed all over the place. I want the journal to be aesthetically interesting, but it also needs to be inviting and readable. It’s all about finding a good balance.

Fall2012_Cover-510x793NICHE: Your listing on NewPages states that Conium leans “toward unconventional plots, bizarre settings, and experimental language. … We’re interested in fringe stories.” Of course, the best way for potential contributors to find out what this means is to buy and read the magazine, but I was wondering if you could elaborate on what this means to the editors personally.

James R. Gapinski: The standard buzzword for our publication is “innovative,” and I’ve already used the term a couple times during this interview. So we’ve got some allegiance to innovative fiction, but everybody has their own definition of what that means. The Conium Review isn’t limited to a single paradigm of innovation or experimentation. Basically, we’re looking for stories that have weird content or form. This could involve surrealism, magical realism, experimental format, or inventive syntax. However, if you’re looking for narrative realism and a classic dramatic arc, we’re probably not the right publication for you.

NICHE: Conium has also been known to publish a chapbook or two—for example, Bear Season by Bernie Hafeli and High Art and Love Poems by Keith Gaustad. Can readers expect more chapbooks from Conium soon?

James R. Gapinski: Both of those chapbooks were the result of some other partnerships, and it’s been a couple years since then. But future chapbooks are a definite possibility. We recently began considering unsolicited chapbook-length manuscripts. It all depends on budget and editorial workflow, but we’ll likely publish at least one chapbook within the next year.

NICHE: Is there anything else Conium wants our readers to know?

James R. Gapinski: We strive to be a socially responsible publication. For the last couple years, we’ve set aside a portion of every print run for donation to charity organizations. And we recently took a proactive approach to gender representation in our pages, as illustrated in our 2014 “count.”

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  •  All images were borrowed from The Conium Review’s website. Please visit their store here, or consider making a donation so this beautiful magazine can continue to provide innovative and exciting literature to avid readers like you.
  • Read about The Conium Review at Small Press Reviews & The Stone Highway Review.


Album Review: Margaret by Jason Webley and Friends
Written by: Katie Cantwell

Margaret by Jason Webley and Friends

The story starts on December 12th, 1907 in Everett, Washington.

Margaret Rucker was born on December 12th, 1907 to a wealthy family and grew up in Everett, Washington. She would later attend the University of Washington, then marry a military officer, Justus Armstrong, and move to California. She would be caught in a car crash that made the newspaper, have two sons, see her husband decorated by the military, and later witness his death. Throughout, she wrote poignant, beautiful poetry. She died on June 18th, 1959.

The story starts on an unspecified date, somewhere around ten years before 2003, in a garbage bin in San Francisco, California.

A man known as Chicken John Rinaldi was relieving his van of some garbage in a dumpster at a deserted construction site in the early hours of the morning. Crouching out of the wind in the bottom of the dumpster to light a cigarette, he found a scrapbook, hand made by an unknown author, containing pictures and poems and newspaper clippings about the life of a woman named Margaret Rucker.

The story starts December 12th, 2014 in Everett, Washington.

Chicken John Rinaldi told a friend of his, an Everett native, Jason Webley, about the scrap book, and Webley connected the woman in the scrap book to the Rucker family who helped found Everett, and whose thirty foot pyramid of a mausoleum was a bit of a local landmark. He started a Kickstarter campaign to make a project called Margaret. The plan was to make an album of songs written by him and other musicians who had all become fascinated by the story of Margaret Rucker, both her life and how her story had surfaced. Margaret surpassed its funding goal and was released on December 12th, 2014, her birthday, as a full album and book of all the evidence of her life that they could find. It contains scans of all her poems that they have been able to recover (regrettably, only four), and the story of Margaret Rucker and Margaret, as told by Rinaldi and Webley.

a4063648369_2The book itself is small and beautiful. The pictures, like Margaret’s poems, speak for themselves. We see Margaret leap in faded sepia photos from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, (pregnant and recovering from the car crash in a hospital, healthy and smiling with her two sons and husband, looking away from the camera and sitting in the front seat of a new car, glancing away accidentally in a group photo at a restaurant, sitting jauntily on the arm of a deck chair) and glean the details of her life from small scraps of newspaper.

The album contains fifteen songs, written by artists who were either inspired by the story of her life, or who found ways to put her poetry to music. Personally, I have never liked when musicians put poetry to music, I’m always dissatisfied with the end result: the pulse doesn’t fit somehow, or the key doesn’t match the tone that the poem takes in my mind. Margaret, however, does not disappoint in this respect; the poetry is brilliantly interpreted, and they make an emotional synergy when they are sung. The album straddles the line between new and old. While most of the songs are performed on traditional instruments, strings, pianos, there is more than one accordion on the album, none of the songs feel very traditional. Jason Webley’s own take on her poem, Two Deaths, My Love Left Me In April, performed with only an accordion and Webley’s characteristic, haunting singing, sounds more otherworldly and heartbreaking. Zac Pennington’s, Possession Sound, begins as an orchestra warming up and then pushes the suspense of that sound to its musical limits.

photo-originalThe story of Margaret Rucker is made up of fragments amidst gaping holes in her life’s story, sewn together over 15 songs and 88 pages. We don’t know how she met her husband, Justus, or why he would later kill himself in front of her. We don’t know what she did after his death, or what happened to the rest of her poetry. We don’t know what it was like for her to grow up in the shadow of the massive mausoleum her family spent years and a small fortune building. Her story is characterized by an absence of information (not for lack of looking: Webley’s and Rinaldi’s extensive research produced limited results), and this fragmentary nature of her story, perhaps, makes it all the more sadly beautiful. In that way, Margaret is every story we never got to hear the end of and all the questions to which we’ll never have answers. It is Margaret’s story, but it is also the story of everyone who collaborated, and the story of how stories can seemingly end only to . . . not end at all.

Margaret is an imperative read/listen for anyone who loves stories, for anyone who has ever thought about the wonder and brevity of our lives. The woman, the book, the album, cannot be distilled into a one-sentence summary. Margaret is full of voices, not only her voice, but the voices of the people in her life that echoed in her poetry, the voices of the people who found her, the people who brought her voice back, and the people who have listened. If there is one single thing one can take away from the story of Margaret, and the story of Margaret, it is the title to Chicken John’s testimony on finding a story at the bottom of a garbage bin: there’s no such thing as garbage.

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Careers In Writing: An Interview with Catherine Dmuchovsky
Written by: Katya Cummins

I am very pleased to continue our new profile series, Careers in Writing, with advice from Catherine Dmuchovsky.

Catherine Dmuchovsky is the director of marketing services for a U.S.-based global company. She is the author of a number of notes scattered around her house, and she is working on turning them into a work of fiction. She graduated from McNeese State University with an M.A. in English and an M.F.A. in creative writing.

NICHE: How did you get started on your particular career path?  In effect, can you tell us a little bit about the years after the MFA? A lot of graduates have told me that they  feel uprooted from the literary community. Was that the case with you, and did this feeling in any way influence your choices?

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: I did not lay nice wide, flat paving stones for my career path. It’s more like I picked up random rocks (some of them very pointy) and quickly kicked some dirt around them so I could put one foot in front of the other.

After the MFA, I did temp work for a couple months before getting a job as a writer/editor at a magazine for insurance agents. This was not a path that I had envisioned for myself. I had no dreams of learning about the federal flood insurance program as I wrote my thesis at McNeese. However, I needed a job and this was a good one, and I learned about how to produce a monthly magazine., how to meet deadlines, how to separate my own style from what the publication needed. I later worked at another magazine owned by the same publisher, but was laid off after a while there. That was when I got a job at a university, first as an advisor in its graduate school and later in the communications department of its law school. I’ve been back in the corporate world since leaving the university, now in a marketing role at a global company. My goal has always been to earn my living writing, if possible.

After my teaching experience at McNeese, I knew I didn’t want to continue with it. I enjoyed it a lot, but I didn’t love it in the way that great teachers do (and I suspect I was barely mediocre), and I respect and value the profession too much to half-ass it. That decision is probably the most significant in separating me from the literary community. It’s not one’s day-to-day life anymore. So yes, I felt–and still feel–uprooted from the literary community. A kind of self-imposed but necessary exile. At first I didn’t notice it as much because I was focused on supporting myself and wondering how the fuck I was going to do that, and building my life, but the feeling is always there. It takes more effort now to connect in a meaningful way to the writing world, both the one inside of myself and the one outside.

NICHE: How does editing in academe differ from corporate editing? (That is, what kind of corporate and academic editing have you had experience with?)

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: In my mind there is no difference. Good writing is good writing, and good editing is good editing–always and everywhere. What can change are the purpose of a piece and its audience. Those factors influence the kind of choices you make while you’re working on something and how “creative” you can be. And depending on the industry, in corporate writing there can be compliance issues you have to be aware of, some things you legally can’t say.

In my own experience, I’ve written and/or edited long and short articles, brochures, video scripts, web copy, proposals, newsletters, and even people’s emails. And on and on. Grammar and style decisions are mostly driven by Associated Press guidelines in corporate communications (with some variations, of course), and I use CMS and Strunk and White as reinforcements as well.

NICHE: What are some of the particular pleasures or challenges associated with your job?

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: I like collaborating with other creative people, and I like the international component of my job–it’s something new in my career. It’s cool knowing that ads I wrote are now being used in South Africa, or working on a high-pressure project with people in our Australia office. I also enjoy writing scripts, which is not often, but seeing the CEO (once or twice) and other people speak my words–and having the audience respond how I intended–is gratifying.

So many challenges, so many…. One of the biggest is time. There’s never enough of it to complete a project the way I’d like because the workload is pretty unrelenting. And I’m not a fan of the stress this causes (nor of the repeated, tiny comma-sized blows to my perfectionism). My mind starts to turn in tighter and tighter circles and won’t stretch like it should.

Managing people is another challenge–or, more specifically, doing it well is a challenge. As with teaching, the decisions I make can have a direct impact on another person’s life.

NICHE: Have you noticed any new style and grammar trends in the last five years? 

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: I’ve noticed that now people use “around” when they should use “about”–as in, “there’s been a lot of conversation around strategy.” Stupid. Just stupid. I always picture a bunch of people standing around in a circle, hands in their pockets, staring at a lump of of something with the word “strategy” on it, or whatever it is they’re talking about. “Yup, that’s strategy. See it, Bob? That’s strategy right there.”

NICHE: What were some of the trials that you’ve experienced? A friend of mine, who is in the early stages of an editing job now, is actually interested in how the quintessentially “dreamy” writers have gone through disillusionment about careers in writing [publishing] and come through the other side to build strong careers for themselves. How does one managed to balance the dream with the reality?

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: Embrace the disillusionment! It’s fun. Seriously, though, what are you really losing? Just an idea, a fiction of what you thought an experience would be like, one with no more value than what you choose to give it. If you’re paying attention, you gain knowledge and judgment in return (whether you use that knowledge to make different choices for yourself is another topic). And as writers, we of all people should be prepared for this–we should not be surprised. The passage from innocence to experience is a popular theme in the canon, after all. We’ve devoted years of study to the human experience, and yet it’s a total shock when it happens to us.

I don’t believe anymore in the false dichotomy between the “dreamy” artist/writer and other people. It’s cliché and it strikes me as ego-driven. Everybody has to learn about their own profession, and get better at it, through trial and error. You can’t avoid that process or go around it. Your dream may take a beating or go dormant for a while, but that is OK.

NICHE: What do would graduates, who want to pursue your line of work, need to be aware of?

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: As a good communicator, you have skills that are becoming increasingly hard to find (believe me–I’ve seen the shitty résumés), so you have more options than you think. Also, you won’t always be the smartest person in the room, so read, read, read and keep learning.

NICHE: Have marketing strategies evolved due to social media, and if so how? How have companies had to accommodate? It might seem like an obvious statement, but there seems to be more variables involved than people think. Otherwise, all advertisements would catch on, authors and companies wouldn’t have to hire their own publicists,and every single video on youtube would go viral, right? It is also well accepted that someone could have written the best book in the world but if the book is not marketed properly then the book will likely never be known or receive the attention it deserves. What advice do you have for those seeking to market themselves or their work?

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: Yes, marketing has changed since social media has become more popular and widely used. Companies have to communicate their message in more and different formats than before; they have to reach consumers where they live, which is of course on their phones, on all of the various channels (facebook, twitter, instagram, blah blah). The air of making-it-up-as-you-go-along is thicker in the social media sphere because companies are really just following a nanosecond behind what consumers are doing–it’s like watching a school of fish flash in the water. (Although clever marketers have designed the desire to have the devices that foster this connectivity to everything, all the time.) The process of marketing hasn’t really changed, though. New ideas and messages are simply produced in greater quantities and failing and/or disappearing faster than was possible in traditional formats.

As to the second part of that question, about marketing oneself, I don’t know that I can offer much advice here, certainly nothing you couldn’t find in Poets & Writers. I’ve been out of the game for a while. But I think the scenario you describe will always exist–any number of authors will write great books and never get recognized, and that’s not something that marketing can solve. It’s tempting to chase after the experience of someone who got a book contract because of her blog, which she started while working on her novel (you get the idea). But that’s luck, not a realistic plan. (And if you constantly humble-brag on your social media outlets, people will start to hate you.) It’s also worth considering what kind of recognition you’re after. If it were me, I would still leave the marketing to the publisher.

Advice for managing others: The qualities that make someone a decent human being also make that person a good manager–honesty, kindness, integrity. Follow through on what you say you’re going to do, ask your employees how you can help them, and never, ever micromanage. Seriously. Never. Managing people can be an odd mix of the intimate and the corporate. You learn things about your employees’ personal lives that you probably wouldn’t if you were just their coworker, so of course you must also be discreet. And don’t feel you have to put on a different “boss” personality in order to be effective, which can happen if you’re insecure about leading someone else or if you’re new to managing people. Just be honest and admit you’re learning as you go. But you also have to learn how to have difficult conversations, and in those instances it’s better to be direct without being harsh, and to be specific about the problem. And be prepared for it to feel uncomfortable. Because it does.

NICHE: Is there anything else you want our readership to know?

CATHERINE DMUCHOVSKY: Your readers probably know more than I do.