Cheap Beer and Tacos and Women with Thick Hips: An Interview with Barry Graham

“Phineas and Ferb,” by Copernicus “Ernie” Czyzniejewski. One of DOGZPLOT’s covers.

Barry Graham received his MFA from Rutgers University. He is the author of The National Virginity Pledge and Nothing or Next to Nothing. Graham is the editor for DOGZPLOT and publisher of Paper Hero Press. Look for him online barrygfunk.blogspot.com.

HFR: Which came first: DOGZPLOT, Paper Hero Press, or the writing?

BG: The writing came first, but I think all three of them were sort of flukes. Other than the King James Bible, I didn’t really read much as a kid. Played a lot of sports and got into trouble mostly. I started writing for the same reason many young men start a lot of things. Pussy. I was seeing this girl in high school who had this temporary Charles Manson obsession. When we wrote letters back and forth she would end hers off by scribbling little Manson quotes in the corners. So in turn I would scribble back my own philosophies, rebutting his, in the corners of my letters. So she started letting her little girlfriends read them and they somehow convinced me that I was “deep,” so I started reading all of Manson’s stuff and writing much longer essays. Then I moved on to other philosophers, Nietzsche, Malcolm X, Machiavelli, etc. So my first “real” writings were pretty much response essays to philosophers I was reading. From there I spent ten years or so writing really, really shitty William Carlos Williams wanna-be poems. But more importantly I spent a lot of time reading and studying the shit out of poetry, reading the masters, learning the craft, imitating what I liked, breaking it apart, figuring out how and why it worked. I didn’t even start fucking around with fiction until much, much later and the lessons I learned from studying poetry probably influenced my fiction writing more than anything else.

DOGZPLOT came next. I was in grad school and I didn’t know anything at all about lit journals, either print or online, then somehow, someway, I ran into Aaron Burch at a bar on my college campus and my professor let me get lit credits for interning with Hobart for a few semesters, so instead of sitting through 1800’s British Lit or some African-American or Chaucer bullshit, I got to meet up with Burch once a month and drink and talk aboutHobart‘s fiction submissions. When my intern gig was up I started a little flash fiction page on MySpace and I was surprised that good writers actually sent me their stories to post, so I eventually switched everything over to Blogger because its free and easy to use and that was that. I chose the name DOGZPLOT and the focus on two hundred word stories for reasons that would take much, much longer to tell, so I won’t bother.

Paper Hero Press came last. I had already been doing the Achilles Chapbooks for a while, twenty-four to sixty page individual author collections of flash fictions, but I hadn’t really put out anything longer. Like a lot of other people, I was reading a shit ton of Sam Pink and really feeling all the shit he was publishing, then I read something of Blake Butler’s onHTML Giant that said Sam had a full-length collection called I Am Going to Clone Myself Then Kill the Clone and Eat It that was needing a good publisher. So I gave it a few reads and fell in love with it and have been ever since.

HFR: Finish the thought: “Themed issues are…”

BG: …fun if you have the right theme and the right people involved. DOGZPLOT is currently featuring a “Vagina Saint” issue. We’ve done other themes: magic, Ben Tanzer, etc. There are quite a few journals that have some pretty bad ass theme issues. So many people take lit journals and writing and submissions and books and reading and all this shit so seriously. I’m just in it to have a good time and when it stops being a good time for me I’ll stop. Theme issues are a good way to keep it fun and to remind yourself that shit just ain’t that serious.

HFR: What do you say when someone asks you what your books are about, or even your other literary projects? And by “someone” I mean a non-literary someone? Do non-literary someones ever speak to you about your literary efforts?

BG: Every now and then a “non-literary someone” will ask me about my books and I usually just stick to themes. My books are about family or love or something like that. Usually this is enough to get them to stop asking questions, which is what I prefer. With DOGZPLOT I sort of do the same thing. I just say we publish really short things. Stories or poems or jibberish and they usually just smile and talk about something else. I don’t really smile at strangers or change my clothes regularly or shave so not many people bother to make small talk which is always good, unless the other person likewise doesn’t smile or change their clothes or shave (which is only tolerable for men, women, shave your goddam pits its nasty and may cause a brother to stay limp), in which case I’m always down for conversations with miscreants. The problem is these people tend to pry deeper into the books and don’t settle for minimalist answers, but I think that’s okay. These people are so few and far between that when I do encounter them I’m just glad to run into someone normal. I think I’m rambling and revealing too much about my own psyche at this point which may have been the question’s desired outcome from the beginning. At this point I just want to make a ham and cheese sandwich.

HFR: Who are some of your favorite writers who have written things under two hundred words? And what are those things?

BG: Wow, this list would be too long to make almost. I would start by saying everyone I’ve published at DOGZPLOT since its inception in ‘07. So many really. I’d have to limit this list to short fiction writers because so many poets come in at under two hundred words. I’ll give maybe my five favorite flash collections.

Black Tickets, by Jayne Anne Phillips,

Certainly not everything in Black Tickets is under two hundred words, probably not much even, but this is the first book I’ve read that I truly identified as flash fiction. Whether she approves of that label or not I don’t know, but in my mind Black Tickets is flash fiction at its finest. And don’t ask me for a definition of flash fiction because I don’t have one. Also, this is the last book I’ll be qualifying.

Trouble With the Machine, by Christopher Kennedy

Prose. Poems. A Novel, by Jamie Iredell,

I Am Going to Clone Myself Then Kill the Clone and Eat It, by Sam Pink

Oh Baby, by Kim Chinquee,

HFR: You were in Chicago for AWP and while you were in Chicago for AWP you ate a Dogzilla. Thoughts?

BG: Haha. Man. I really love hot dogs and Chicago style dogs in particular. The Dogzilla from Byron’s is no joke at all. All the traditional Chicago toppings plus a little cucumber thrown on top just for the hell of it, which I really felt because I love putting cucumbers on random foods for no good reason at all. The dog was pretty fucking huge and almost felt like a kielbasa which aren’t my favorite. I like a more substantial, meaty frank, like the ones at Portillo’s. And don’t diss Portillo’s because it’s a chain. If we’re just talking franks, no frills, no toppings, nothing but meat, Portillo’s is the best dog in Chicago, maybe in the country. So fuck the chain restaurant haters. But the Dogzilla, combines the enormous dog with the mound of toppings and you are left with goodness. Although I have to say, I wasn’t impressed by the bun’s stability. It seemed to give out half way through and I was stuck with a sloppy mess. Lots of mustard stains and finger licking. So, that may be the Dogzilla’s only major flaw. Everything else was pretty much spot on. Also, I’d like to say that despite his semi-impressive biceps and bad ass tattoos, Ryan Bradley was too big of a pussy to attempt the Dogzilla, instead he went with cold fries with too much celery salt. Yeah, I know, how embarrassing.

HFR: Flash fiction as a form: what shortcomings are there, if any?

BG: I wouldn’t call them shortcomings as much as differences. It’s a different genre so to compare it to poetry or short stories or novels would be like comparing beer to wine to whiskey. There are things you can do with a novel or a poem that you can never do in flash fiction and vice versa.

I know what people reading this are waiting for, but I’m not gonna pay you off. Just write whatever you want whenever you want and figure it all out for yourself.

HFR: How should small presses sell books?

BG: I doubt I have any real answers that people haven’t heard from other more successful small press folks, just a few tricks I’ve picked up along the way mostly by observation and learning the hard way.

A) If you can’t afford to pay your own bills, don’t publish books. It doesn’t matter how good your intentions are, you aren’t helping anyone. For me the most successful small presses are the ones with the most money. It isn’t just the cost of printing and shipping. Imagine the amount of money you think it costs to market successfully—now multiply that number by one hundred and it still won’t be enough to compete with the big houses.

B) Only settle for great manuscripts. And no, you’re friend and/or fellow editor’s book probably isn’t that bad ass.

C) So much of your success is determined by how hard you hustle. If you aren’t a hustler or don’t have enough money to pay someone else to hustle for you, find something else to do.

D) Use every available internet, media, and real life physical outlet to help you hustle, sell, promote, market. If you don’t know how to take advantage of the many, many tools and opportunities out there for small presses, publishers, art and writer folks in general, find someone who does and educate yourself. And don’t settle for traditional marketing vices: internet, Amazon, bookstores, small press distributors, readings, websites/blogs, bookfairs—that’s a good start but everyone does that. Think much much further outside the box.

E) Surround yourself with smart, energetic, creative, passionate folks. Publishing isn’t a solitary process, find good people you mesh well with and keep them around. Build relationships. Think about the small presses you truly admire. Part of the reason for their success is because they have whole teams, not just one individual.

F) Put your pride/ego in check. There will always be smarter, more popular, more successful, wealthier people out there than yourself. Learn from them. Listen to them. Don’t be too proud to imitate what works. Originality is great but overrated. There will be dozens of decisions you make every day that can force you to swallow your pride. Do it. Remember that you aren’t only acting and making decisions for yourself. You are the public face of your press and the authors you represent will be affected by any and everything that you do.

G) Don’t be a kiss ass, punk ass, fake ass, douche bag. If you are, everyone already knows it and they are ridiculing you behind your back as you read this. Be yourself. It looks so much better on you.

But even after all this, after you do everything right, after you pour your time and energy and heart into your own writing and the books you publish, in the end, they will not sell even a fraction of what they deserve.

A better question than how should small presses sell books is, how can we change the culture and make people love reading and books? How do we move small press books into mainstream America? How do we make Matt Bell as common a household name as Kobe Bryant?

HFR: New things cooking for DOGZPLOT/Paper Hero? What have you been writing as of late?

BG: DOGZPLOT is still alive and kicking it and vibrant as ever. We’re still posting new flash fiction on a bi-weekly basis and have been pretty steadily since 2007, with a minor slow down period when I was stuck at Rutgers trying to cram a three year MFA into a year and a half while teaching and writing and trying to spend enough time with my kids so they didn’t hate me.

We just put out a new short fiction collection from Ben Tanzer, This American Life, which is pretty kick ass. We’re also in the process of putting together the annual best of anthology. Hopefully it will drop late summer/early fall. We haven’t been doing so much as far as print because I’ve pretty much been broke as shit. And it’s really unfortunate because I’ve been getting more and more submissions than any of the previous four years and so many of them deserve to get published, but I just can’t afford it.

Long term, my ultimate goal is to get my shit together and open a community resource and education center. A community place where books and literacy and learning and art and community outreach and job skills and education all happen. I’m a big believer in the power of community and fellowship and people making a difference one smile at a time. I know I want to continue teaching and writing until I’m wearing diapers and forget where I live, but academia has too many boundries, restrictions, unwritten codes and rules meant to perpetuate their own cycle of bullshit, thus ensuring their own livelihoods and publications and limited attitudes and perspectives and funding and bullshit. And I know anyone reading this is thinking, you’re just a bitter hack because no one will give you a job. And to you I will just say, in the last two years I’ve turned down better jobs at better universities than most of you will ever even be offered. I’m not being a dick, I’m just saying, I’m not bitter, I just don’t like the stench.

As far as my own writing, I’m working on a retelling of Pinocchio. My version is set during Reconstruction in Lancaster County before it became Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Pinocchio actually figured out how to use his nose to… I’m not gonna give anything away. So yeah, that’s what I’m doing. I’ve also been working on a few horror screenplays. And the few other projects I’ve been turning over in my mind are: an expose on the homeless living under the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, a novel set in a Nevada brothel, and a Mexican print issue of DOGZPLOT, and maybe a few of my own south of the border inspired poems; think cheap beer and tacos and women with thick hips and big tits who degrade me in Spanish while we have sex in a back alley.

HFR: Lit zines who are doing it right?

BG: I have to start by saying I don’t read nearly enough lit zines to do this question any justice. But I will mention twenty or so of the zines, journals, and presses I think are doing it right on right on:

Hobart, Short Flight/Long Drive, Dzanc, The Collagist, Publishing Genius, Everyday Genius, Sunnyoutside, Pank, Tiny Hardcore, Storyglossia, StoryQuarterly, Main Street Rag, NY TyrantNOO, Magic Helicopter, Artistically Declined, Another Sky, Mammoth, Action, Tin HouseMcSweeney’s, Mud Luscious, Six Gallery, Lazy Fascist, Heavy FeatherFlywheel,ElimaeKill AuthorUnsaidThe New Yorker, Midwestern Gothic, Dalkey, LitnImage, Frigg, JMWW, Smokelong, Word Riot, Decomp, Artifice, Keyhole, Black Lawrence.

HFR: Where do you stand on the issue of paying to submit? Response times?

BG: Me personally, I won’t pay for submissions, mostly because I’m broke, but I have some sort of moral objection to it that I can’t quite articulate. If I tried it would just sound like babble about art and creation and free and beauty and art for art’s sake and love and tears and sandwiches. So I won’t. But I suppose if you use the money to pay your contributors or to contribute to literacy or education or your community or somehow making the world a better place then I’m all for it, but using your journal or magazine or press as a means of turning a profit for yourself, it makes me sick-nauseous.

As far as response times, DOGZPLOT is pretty small so I can handle the submissions quickly. We’ve been on Duotrope’s swift list since 2008. But that’s not the case with everyone. When I edited for StoryQuarterly there were thousands of submissions and that shit takes time. I get it. But I hope people are responding as quick as they possibly can, I’d hate to think people are on some prestige, ego, make you wait just for the fuck of it, because we can, bullshit. I’m sure there are journals and presses out there that do that and it’s fucked no matter how you justify it.

It’s 2012, baby. Get your life together.

***

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