BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
Joseph P. O'Brien is a phenomenal literary citizen. He is the managing editor of the fantastic magazine Flapperhouse, which he also organizes readings for the magazine for each issue. The readings are true illustrations of Joseph's dedication to the lit community, as each reading includes a musical performance by Alibi Jones (his partner in crime), and Joseph himself often impersonates a famous writer for each event. This creativity poses a welcome change to lit events, but they're also just so damn good.
But besides all that, Joseph is warm and welcoming, and works tirelessly for a community where there isn't necessarily a reward. This is why I spoke to him about the community and how he wants to change it.
JV: What is one piece of advice to writers when dealing with their editors and publishers?
JO: Volunteer to read slush submissions for a publication/press that receives a lot of them. Do it for at least a year. Do it as long as you can. It'll be a great help creatively & professionally. You'll get to see all the hot new cliches, or start noticing popular old cliches you might not have noticed before, so you can avoid them in your writing & make your own submissions shinier & sexier.
You'll also gain a greater appreciation for the work editors & publishers do sifting through submissions, which might make you less inclined to send a bitter email reply or hostile social media post if they reject your work. (It doesn't happen very often, but it happens, and when it does, it never helps the writer's chances for future publication.)
You'll probably become more thoughtful about how & where you submit: doing more research on where you submit, reading submission guidelines more carefully. I totally get the desire to send your work to as many places as possible; getting published can be hard & frustrating, and you want to increase your odds. When I started submitting my work, I sent it all over the place, without much discernment. But after years of reading slush, now I'm more deliberate about how & where I submit. I try to avoid wasting the time & effort of editors who aren't looking for my kind of writing, which of course wastes less of my own time & effort.
What was your first publication? (Link if possible).
If we're counting elementary school lit magazines, there was the story I wrote in 1st grade about a greedy landlord duck who stole money from his bunny rabbit tenant. As an adult though, my first publication was in 2012, for a journal that appears to have vanished from the internet since then. It was a story called "The Shortcut," and was based on the time I was in junior high and my friend & I trespassed onto the grounds of a boarding school for troubled teenage girls. It's a coming-of-age tale about innocence & illusions lost, largely inspired by James Joyce's "Araby" and the work of Junot Diaz. I certainly don't believe my story was on those levels, but it remains one of my favorite things I've written so far. Maybe I'll try to get it reprinted somewhere...
What's the worst rejection letter you've ever gotten? (You don't have to name names, though.)
It was just three words: "We're gonna pass." Part of me respects that kind of no-bullshit approach, but a bigger part of me thinks a rejection letter should have a slightly-higher standard of courtesy. Especially by email, where one can freely & easily copy-&-paste a form rejection containing multiple sentences. It's not like this was through twitter or telegram.
When you get discouraged, what helps you rally through?
Meditation generally helps me calm down, recharge, and maintain a more cosmic perspective whenever I'm feeling extra twitchy and low. Cuddling with my wife and/or my dog is basically a miracle drug for whatever ails me. Listening to certain songs can make me feel invincible like flicking a switch: Black Sabbath's "Supernaut," say, or PJ Harvey's "50 Foot Queenie." I'm also endlessly inspired by all the love I see for my baby Flapperhouse.
When I started it a few years back, I had high hopes, but far less lofty expectations. I assumed it would be read primarily by my close friends & family, if that. The fact that so many Earthlings I've never met actually seem to enjoy our weird little zine, and that our community continues to grow by giant leaps with every passing season...it makes me want to live forever, or at least until I can start rocketing copies of Flapperhouse into outer space.
What do you love about the lit community?
I'm continually amazed by all the warmth & support my fellow writers & editors show each other. It feels genuine, too. Maybe sometimes we get carried away with our praise, but you can feel that it comes from the heart. It's not just duplicitous butt-kissing. And I've encountered very, very few of the bitter, petty, arrogant, pretentious types that literary folk are often stereotyped as being. Also, all the new kinds of stories & forms of linguistic expression we keep creating never ceases to boggle my mind in the best possible way. I consider this true of the lit community in my internet-sphere, as well as in my local NYC scene.
How do you want to change the lit community? What's your least favorite part of it?
Needless to say, we're living in very turbulent, troubling, trying, and trippy times. Warfare is becoming less physical and increasingly psychological, and for artists & writers, our art and our words are our weapons. And I love that so many of us in the lit community are fearlessly wielding our word-weapons against tyranny, oppression, hatred, bigotry, injustice, and propaganda. What I don't love is how often I see artists & writers resorting to the same kinds of toxic tactics practiced by the the very powers we're supposed to be resisting: things like willful narrow-mindedness, knee-jerk hostility, fact-distortion.
I've certainly been guilty of such hypocrisy myself. So each day I try to keep in mind that every single one of us contains far more ignorance than knowledge, that we all have biases we must work to overcome. And I'm beginning to think that if we want to more effectively evolve our socio-political environment, maybe we shouldn't be so eager to spray our righteous anger around haphazardly, like Tommy-gun gangsters fleeing a foiled bank heist? And I wonder if maybe we should be more like rooftop snipers, firing our rebellion-bullets using patience and precision and laser-sighted rifles? (Come to think of it, kind of like that submission method I mentioned earlier.)
Favorite item of clothing you own.
The Ramones T-shirt I got at one of their final concerts in 1996. Ever since I was 12, The Ramones have been one of my favorite bands, and the concert, which I went to at age 15, was the first one I went to of my own volition. (My older sister took me to a Dave Matthews Band concert a year earlier, and while I'm not trying to hate on DMB, it certainly wasn't my choice.) Feeling that fast-roaring Ramones energy enveloping me & a crowd of thousands was one of the best experiences I've ever had, and it drastically changed the course of my life for the better. So there's a priceless sentimental value of the T-shirt I bought that night. It's like the clothing version of comfort food. Not just emotionally, but physically too.
They only had XL shirts left by the time I got to the merch table, so I had to buy one that, to this day, is still a couple sizes too big for me. But I'm grateful for that now, because not only can I still wear it, I love the way it hangs on me, loose and drape-like. I usually only wear it around the house these days, though occasionally I'll wear it in public if I'm feeling especially rocknroll. Bless my wife for never asking me to throw out my tattered, beloved, 21-year-old T-shirt. When I die, I want to wear it at my wake, and when I'm cremated, I want it to burn with me.
How did you start Flapperhouse and its reading series? Why did you decide to?
I started the magazine because it's the kind of thing I wanted to see more of. I felt there weren't enough genre-fluid publications that would publish seriously good lit without taking themselves too seriously. It was also my intention to invoke my favorite aspects of 1920's culture: mainly the weird stuff, things like Surrealism, Dadaism, German Expressionism; but also the not-so-weird, like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, the Harlem Renaissance; and, obviously, the freewheeling spirit of the Flappers.
Similarly, I felt like I wanted to see more literary readings that weren't just writers reading their work. Not that there's nothing wrong with that! I just thought readings could offer so much more entertainment-wise, like elements of music, comedy, and theater, while still keeping literature at the core of the show. So I started our reading series, which of course features very talented writers reading their very excellent work, but we also have musical performances, and comedic interludes featuring readings by famous dead writers. And I want to keep expanding what our readings can include: Multimedia presentations, perhaps? Literary-themed burlesque? Magic? Improv poetry battles? Game show-style quizzes? There's so much I want to try...
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (2016, ELJ Publications) & Xenos (2016, Agape Editions). They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, as well as the managing editor for Civil Coping Mechanisms and Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared in Prelude, BUST, The Atlas Review, The Feminist Wire, The Huffington Post, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets.
Joseph P. O'Brien is the Managing Editor of Flapperhouse. His short fiction has appeared in Matchbook, The Alarmist, and The Rusty Nail. Non-fiction at El Jamberoo. Lives in Brooklyn with his lovely wife and their very popular dog.