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.

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.

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.”