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INTERVIEW
Jonathan Penton

 Jonathan Penton of Unlikely Stories (Image © Leona Strassberg Steiner) 

Jonathan Penton of Unlikely Stories (Image © Leona Strassberg Steiner) 

It seems silly to be impartial during an interview with someone you have called a friend and mentor for some fifteen or so years. So we’re not going to really bother with that.

I started at Unlikely Stories about 15 years ago. That is approximately 3/4th my entire professional career. It started with Jonathan publishing some of my earliest short stories, and then turning down a column sample. That was fair. It wasn’t a great column in any form or fashion. I came back to him a few months later, asking him if I could say I worked for him, so Henry Rollins would give me an interview. That was the one condition by Henry, and Jonathan was the only way I could meet it. I was 19, and I hardly knew anyone in the literary world, or in any creative world, really. I was a couple of years off from Bloodzone Media, the horror site I would work for between 2006 and 2007. Drunk Monkeys and Cultured Vultures were a long ways away.

Jonathan said sure, go for it. I was surprised, but I always like to imagine that he was, as well, when I turned in a short interview with Rollins a short time later. I was so intimidated at the prospect of actually interviewing Rollins, I balked at asking him any real questions of substance. I kept it short, and I assumed he had better things to do.

Still, it was a good interview. Jonathan liked it enough to publish it. After that, I started writing book reviews, and doing interviews for Unlikely. I got better at those things, and with other things that now make up my writer’s toolbox, and a lot of that improvement was because Jonathan worked with me. At the same time, generally speaking, he also gave me space enough to figure out my own. I’m sure that was partially, or maybe mostly, because he was busy with a lot of other things. Still, over the course of the 7-or-so years I worked for him, I learned a lot. I received a lot of feedback. Jonathan Penton helped me to become a better writer on a lot of different levels.

Along the way, I also got to watch Unlikely evolve. That was one of the biggest perks of running the music department, the book reviews, and a few other things that he would put on my desk. A lot of the things I can do now as a writer came out of doing them first at Unlikely.

There are a lot of stories like that, when it comes to Jonathan Penton and Unlikely Stories. With both of those entities, we are looking at a sizable contribution to literature, and to the indie lit world. Probably the New Orleans literary scene, where Penton has made his home for a number of years, while we’re at it. As a writer, he has written beautifully, painfully, and hilariously on a wide range of subjects. As an editor, he has curated one of the most astonishing ongoing archives of creative energy to be found almost anywhere online. Few people believe in the true diverse potential of writing, art, and anything else you can imagine along those lines, as much as Penton does.

It is for all of these reasons highlighted above that I was honored to interview him. It is also for all of those reasons above that I’m not going to bother being subjective. This is my friend, and I am proud of everything he has done.


Drunk Monkeys: 20 years in the literary magazine world seems like a lifetime—plus, maybe, five years on top of that. Unlikely Stories Mark V started with a website that had a lot to say about culture, literature, music, politics, and more. Since the first time I worked for you, going back to 2004, I’ve always just been really impressed by the consistency of your message, and of what you try to achieve every day with Unlikely. Do you feel like the message has been pretty consistent these past 20 years? Has it evolved?

Jonathan Penton: Gabriel, thanks so much for your time, questions, and observations, as well as your good work during your tenure as Staff Interviewer.

Unlikely Stories was founded on the idea that experimental and extraordinary approaches to literature were interdependent with extraordinary and transgressive approaches to social norms. (As you may recall, we only published literature, and some sociopolitical essays, from 1998-2004, then expanded to include visual art, movies, and music when high-speed Internet became common.) That idea—the co-mingling of unusual thoughts with unusual politics—is still our driving concept.

We define “experimental,” “extraordinary,” and “transgressive” very broadly. In the words of Mao Zedong, “let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Accordingly, we’ve sought to publish highly diverse works that are in aesthetic and philosophical opposition to one another, though we’ve grown narrower in some respects—more on that below.

In the past twenty years, I’ve viewed countless submissions, and greatly expanded my own understanding of art and literature. So naturally my aesthetic vision has grown more complex and refined. Looking back, I feel that I’ve made a lot of aesthetic mistakes—accepted things I should have rejected, and, more embarrassingly, rejected things I should have accepted. And that’s OK.

I think in a lot of ways, we’ve been pretty consistent with or sociopolitical approach. We don’t tolerate racism or misogyny, and don’t consider them transgressive. We do not censor any word. We demand that authors use explosive and hateful words with utmost care, and we expect readers to assume good faith upon encountering such words. Similarly, we find violence disgusting, but know that it is sometimes an artist’s role to disgust. We expect artists to use violence responsibly. We appreciate it when artists use human sexuality constantly, because sex is wonderful and belongs in art, literature, and everything else.

Unlikely Stories has always tried to speak truth to power. We love satire, but we’ve always tried to “punch up:” mock those with power over you, not those over whom you have power. We’ve published a lot of poems and stories on how it feels to be considered trash; we aren’t looking for authors who want to belittle people, or even behaviors, that they consider trashy.

Back to intellectual diversity—one thing that’s changed is our approach to conspiracy theories. Twenty years ago, I celebrated them, along with many other unusual—if falsified—concepts, such as various New Age philosophies. Unfortunately, since then, conspiracy theories have been weaponized. Alex Jones has successfully taken all of the conspiracy theories on white Americans’ radars, combined them, and convinced the credulous that Hillary Clinton is behind all the world’s evil. It’s not a mindset for which I have sympathy, and it’s soured me on that sort of thinking.

You’re aware that there’s a big banner atop Unlikely Stories: Never Trump. I was vehemently against the second Iraq War, but I never put up a “Never Bush” or “End War” sign. I didn’t need to. People didn’t send me pro-Bush or pro-war stuff. But they do send me essays on how Hillary Clinton is a reptilian alien who rapes children in a pizza parlor and only Trump can save us. I ain’t even a Hillary fan, but I’m out of patience with it.

DM: One of the first questions I suppose anyone would ask, in a situation like this, is how it feels to still be kicking after 20 years. Does it feel like it’s been that long?

JP: Yes, it feels like it’s been 20 years.

You’d think I’d remember, but memory is strange, and I don’t really know what it feels like to run Unlikely Stories for less than twenty years. It has been, for all of that time, an inextricable part of my identity. We’ve gone on the occasional hiatus—I suppose we’re technically on a publication hiatus right now, while we prepare for the 20th Anniversary Issue, though we’re still accepting submissions and working hard—but there hasn’t been a point in which I seriously considered quitting. At various points, we’ve changed the publication schedule in various ways. Other times, especially when I was working most intimately with MadHat, Inc., we’ve been way behind in releasing issues. But there was never any doubt in my mind that we’d publish again.

I know what it’s like to fail. About nine years ago I attempted to create a printing-cum-distribution project, Make It New Media, LLC. It failed spectacularly. The creation of our print anthology, Unlikely Stories of the Third Kind, didn’t go nearly as smoothly or successfully as I anticipated. And honestly, I’m not sure how I’d rate the success of Unlikely Stories, other than it’s had a 20-year run and I plan to continue.

Perhaps I could better understand the question, “How does it feel to run a magazine for one’s entire adult life?” I’m 43 years old. I started Unlikely Stories at the age of 23, which only makes sense in the context of 1998—when most publishers, editors, and authors still eschewed the web. Unlikely owes much of whatever success it has to its status as an early adopter of that technology.

So I’ve always been an editor. I haven’t always been a good editor (though I daresay I’m a very good editor, now). This has been good for my personal happiness. I am not trying to become a Great Writer. I am trying to become a great editor. This provides me a couple of emotional insulations. First, for every would-be great editor, there are 100 would-be Great Writers, so even though I’m less sexy than a Great Writer, I’m frankly much more useful. Second, although I believe in my own writing, and submit it, and hope to be published, I do not feel the sting of rejection to the same degree as many authors. I am simply less invested in acceptance and rejection, because I am satisfied with my creative work and identity as an editor.

That said, one shouldn’t become an editor, or a publisher of a magazine, unless one derives pleasure from it independently of one’s own sense of identity as a writer. One certainly shouldn’t start a web-magazine to help their writing career; it’s a waste of energy. But one really shouldn’t edit unless one is prepared to surrender and subsume one’s own aesthetic and will to the will and aesthetic of another. An editor is obliged to bring out the best vision that another person can have, and that vision and that person might in no way resemble the editor’s. It takes humility, and a willingness to completely, though very temporarily, suspend and dissolve one’s self into the creative self of the edited.

DM: Forgive another “expected question”, but how has the literary world, particularly the parts Unlikely inhabits, changed over the past 20 years?

JP: The literary world is social, and the social world has become almost unrecognizable over the past twenty years.

I’ll have to begin with a US-centric description of “indie” literature in 1998. Remember, there was no Google, no Amazon. The major search engine was Yahoo, and one could register one’s site with Yahoo. Unlikely Stories was one of a handful of sites registered with Yahoo as a literary magazine, and that’s where the bulk of our submissions came from. I also solicited poets and authors whom I wanted to publish, and a great number of them wrote me back, politely telling me they sought print publication only. Of course that stance seems absurd today. It seemed absurd to me, then, but no matter.

At the time, I was heavily invested in increasing the respectability of web publications, as opposed to print publications. Such an investment is no longer necessary. The web rules literature. That’s what I always wanted, and it’s a good thing—let a hundred flowers bloom. The old guards of literature, the great grey gatekeeper literary journals of the 20th Century, have been overthrown, and good riddance. I’m not terribly thrilled about trying to design layouts for serious works of literature so that they can be read on a tiny smartphone screen, but that’s a small price to pay for the great diversification of thought and art.

Social media, on the other hand, has not been good for literature. We were perfectly capable of promoting our web-magazine before social media, and authors were capable of finding us, thank you. Now, all serious web-literature has been decentivized. Young authors reasonably believe that they’ll get more readers by publishing “hot takes” and “think pieces,” which are inherently garbage. The instantaneous monetization of such pieces is throttling more careful, considered essays and art. Resultingly, we’ve got a generation of highly articulate people, who can craft a beautiful article, and can reasonably consider themselves writers, yet have no idea how to create meaningful content because they have no idea what meaningful is. They are articulate, but ignorant. They babble, and call it literature and journalism both. It’s threatening real intellectualism.

But forgive me for yelling at the cloud. More concretely, social media decentivizes thoroughly exploring the web and web-literature, instead incentivizing exploring art through the filter of one’s social media apps. Authors do not wish to be found, or anthologized, or stumbled upon and enjoyed once. Rather, they want followers. But followers have no reason to read their “favorite authors.” Instead, they hit “like” for authors, or leave a comment, and it makes the authors happy, and author and follower can form a shallow bond which makes both feel good, but does not represent the real connection provided by reading and savoring a great work of literature. It’s a step backwards, in literature, art, and the rest of the world.

But hey, two steps forward for the web, one step back for social media, I reckon that’s not so bad.

Academia has changed much more slowly than the rest of the world, which is fine; it’s designed to. And I myself have no direct experience with it; I know it only as an outsider. In 2007, I attended my first Conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs—an annual academic literary conference, moving around the US, known as the AWP. Since then, it keeps growing, with more and more grad students every year. These students have slowly gotten savvier to the world of literature—creative writing programs are doing better at arming students with the tools necessary to seek publication and deal with rejection from the indie lit world. Some real problems between academia and independents remain, though.

Above, I talk about punching up: writing against those who have power over you. When I began Unlikely, the academy was the most powerful thing I could imagine, and my favorite literary target. I got over that delusion in 2004, when the Bush/Cheney regime sought to criminalize the translation of Iranian literature; I began to see myself as academia’s ally against tyranny. If academic and independent literatures are allies, it’s a troubled alliance. This is because academics are decentivized from honoring their obligations to independent presses, reading series, and authors. Academics must honor their all-consuming academic obligations, and if they spread themselves a bit too then, they do not suffer if they choose to just flat-out lie to independents. They struggle to maintain their academic commitments, but are completely insulated from any consequences in failing to honor other commitments.

Many academics, of course, honor their commitments because they have honor, and I have great relationships with many. I approach unknown academics carefully.

 Image © Jeffrey Cyphers Wright 

Image © Jeffrey Cyphers Wright 

DM: At this stage of the game, what is the biggest challenge of being Founder and Editor at Unlikely?

JP: Events, because I can’t work at my own pace.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with a number of excellent editors and volunteers. I’d particularly like to shout out my current co-editors, Prose Editor dan raphael and Art Director Leona Strassberg Steiner. As it happens, Leona and I both live in New Orleans, but dan lives in Portland. Other co-collaborators, editors, and volunteers have been spread over the world, and I have worked with them through e-mail, messaging programs, and via the phone. The web site and books require us to do very little in real-time, or in one location.

A literary event, on the other hand, ideally has an MC (that’s me), someone to work the door, someone to sell books, a videographer, and, if necessary, a bartender and photographer. I’m just not rolling around with that kind of staff at any given time and place. I’ve got to work on that.

DM: Before Unlikely, what were you doing?

JP: Ecstasy, every chance I could get. I loved that shit.

In 1995 and 1996, I ran Sick Puppy Press with my friend Paul Sibley. We worked on a web site and chapbooks. I really learned a lot from this experience—both basic editorial concepts and the all-important technical lessons which have fostered my successes.

Before that, I was a teenage father, and not-coincidentally a high-school dropout. My son was born in 1994, and has grown up to be an extraordinary and clever man.

Before that I was doing puberty.

DM: If you could only choose five pieces from Unlikely, across the entire span of its history, what would they be? These can be poems, essays, short stories, music, art. If you don’t want to pick absolute favorites, maybe 5 that you would use to emphasize what you want people to take away from the site?

Also, to be clear, I’m not including books that have been published by Unlikely in this. We’ll get to that in a second.

JP: Since 2004, we’ve often published multiple poems on the same HTML page, so I don’t have a way to count the pieces we’ve accepted, except by hand. They number well into the tens of thousands. I don’t think I can name five or fifty—better that people just explore the site, and stumble upon what they stumble upon.

DM: You’ve also published some pretty amazing books over the years, featuring some of the most creative, passionate people to be found just about anywhere. I wouldn’t dare to ask you to pick favorites, but maybe just a couple that you’d like more people to know about?

JP: It’s OK, I’ll pick a favorite. When your best friend dies, you get to openly declare her book your favorite, and your other authors don’t get to complain. It’s in the contract.

ASHES AND SEEDS was written by Michelle Greenblatt (1982-2015) and published by Unlikely Books in 2014. I had the pleasure of editing it, with good help and input from Michelle’s husband, Kyle Ramsay. It’s a book of poetry, 166 pages, in three parts. The first part, Chapters of Absence, contains one poem: “Streaks of Scarlet,” a 100-stanza mythology in which Scarlet, a raven-haired princess, explores a castle as victim and antagonist, held in a nebulous captivity by a heroin-addled prince and mysterious, malicious queen. It weaves in-and-out of romanticism, reality, and metafiction. “Streaks of Scarlet” will appear in the 20th Anniversary Issue of Unlikely Stories in its entirety.

The second part, Except for Then, is a selection of contemporary free-verse poetry. It’s confessional and brutal, exploring the author’s psyche. The third part, The Perpetual Principles of a Dream, is a collection of haibuns. Haibuns are a haiku following a prose poem, and since these are contemporary English-language haiku, they are presented as three visual concepts, on one line, in any number of syllables.

All that said, every Unlikely Book is a title I’m very proud of. Each one represents an intimate period between the author and I, in which we fully explored their vision, and did everything possible to actualize it vividly and flawlessly. They’re all great, and I stand behind every one of them. So rather than name more favorites, I’ll name the three that are most unusual, the most “unlikely” in their format and conception.

ANCHOR WHAT is a typographical poetic treatise by Vernon Frazer. It explores Frazer’s remarkable ability to restructure language, to convert wingdings to comprehensible speech and back.

Soy solo palabras but wish to be a city, a graphic longpoem (you know, like a graphic novel, but it’s a long poem) is illustrated by Gui.ra.ga7 and written natively in Spanglish by León De la Rosa. It details a meeting and relationship between a masked vigilante and an academic in Ciudad Juárez, where De la Rosa and Gui.ra.ga7 are from.

For pure weirdness, check out We’ll See Who Seduces Whom, a manic ekphrastic perversion illustrated by David Aronson, then written by Tom Bradley. It’s grotesque, bizarre imagery with layers of metaphysical sardonicism: on the back cover, I call it “Bhagavad-Gita porn.”

DM: 20 years also means you’ve had to say goodbye to a lot of really beautiful, talented people. Are there any such losses that have hit you particularly hard through the years?

JP: As I said, my best friend, Michelle Greenblatt, died in 2015. She was Unlikely’s poetry editor, and the only person, besides myself, that I’ve ever trusted with that position—poetry is what we do the most, and she did it brilliantly. She was the poetry editor for Unlikely Stories Episode IV, and designed, with me, Unlikely Stories Mark V, though she did not live to see the current incarnation of the site. I am actively mourning her.

I’ve written a fair amount about my relationship with Michelle and her death, and I’m not the only one. Our tribute issue to her includes my wordy eulogy, and a song for Michelle that Alexis Moon and I created. When I wrote those pieces, I didn’t realize how much of everything I wrote would be Michelle-related, and for how long. She’s in everything I write, and I think it’s apparent, both thematically and stylistically. She’s especially present in the libretto I’m working on, despite a plot that has nothing to do with her.

I mourn the loss of Kurtice Kucheman, 1981-2014. He’s the author of the incredibly violent neo-pulp Unlikely Book anonymous gun., and was a great friend. We both traveled—some would say drifted—a lot when we were young, and I treasure memories of our good times in Georgia and Ohio.

The much-loved Marthe Reed died unexpectedly in April at the age of 59. She co-wrote an Unlikely Book with j/j hastain, pleth. Anne Lombardo Ardolino, author of I Can Sing Fire, died at the age of 69 in 2014. Both were wonderful people and dear friends.

DM: Any big plans for this 20th anniversary? I know there’s at least a couple of events coming up in New Orleans in June, which I’m planning to be part of.

JP: We are currently accepting submissions for the 20th Anniversary Issue of Unlikely Stories, which will be a web-based extravaganza of poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction, visual art, music, movies, reviews, and other criticism. We—meaning dan raphael, Leona Strassberg Steiner, and I—are planning a huge issue. We’re especially focused on publishing people who have been previously published in Unlikely any time in the past twenty years, but we’re accepting submissions from anyone and everyone. Submissions are open until June 1st, so please do check out the guidelines at http://www.unlikelystories.org/mission and send us some work.

We are indeed planning a weekend of events, here in New Orleans, to celebrate: Friday, June 22nd, and Saturday, June 23rd. We picked those dates because they run in the middle of the Conference of the American Library Association, which, by good fortune, will be here in New Orleans. We thought folks might want to come into town and catch a day or two of the Conference, as well as checking out our 20th Anniversary Parties.

On June 22nd, we’ll have an Unlikely Jam Band: Willis Gordon, Lizz Hough, and Christopher Shipman. They’ll be performing with four spoken word artists: James “Traverse” Blanchard, Jessica Bordelon, Alex “PoeticSoul” Johnson, and Frank XTeele.

On June 23rd, we’ll have a release party for three books: Left Hand Dharma: New and Selected Poems by Belinda Subraman (our first New and Selected, so I’m very excited, I’m finishing up this book now), Pachuco Skull with Sombrero: Los Angeles, 1970 by Lawrence Welsh, and Apocalyptics by C. Derick Varn. Subraman and Lawrence will be in from El Paso, and Varn will be in from Salt Lake City. We’ve got a packed reading schedule. Our other scheduled out-of-towners are Wendy Taylor Carlisle, Bonny Finberg, Kenning JP García, Jemshed Khan, Anne McMillen, and one Gabriel Ricard. We’ll also have a two-be-announced slate of readers from south Louisiana, including Dylan Kreiger.

After that, Varn and I will take the midnight bus to Georgia. We’ll perform at the Golden Bough Bookstore in Macon, Georgia at the end of June—I don’t have that date yet, sorry. Then, on July 1st , we’ll perform at Kavarna Coffee in Decatur, just outside Atlanta, along with Unlikely contributor H. Holt.

More information on these events can be found at http://www.unlikelystories.org/content/the-20th-anniversary-of-unlikely-stories .

DM: Assuming we don’t kill the planet first, are you down for another 20 years of Unlikely?

JP: Look, Gabe, I’m a fool. But I’m not so foolish as to try to predict anything within me or without me in twenty years from now. Let’s go with five years, 2023. I’ll predict another five years of Unlikely