David Bright
Editor of Gemini Magazine

David BrightJendi Reiter conducted this exclusive email interview with David Bright, editor of Gemini Magazine. Launched in 2009, this online literary journal publishes original poetry, fiction, and artwork by emerging talents. They offer three annual contests with a top prize of $1,000: the Gemini Magazine Poetry Open, now accepting entries through January 3; the Gemini Magazine Short Story Contest, now accepting entries through March 31; and the Gemini Magazine Flash Fiction Contest, whose most recent deadline was August 31. See an overview of the contest judging process here.

David says, "I studied engineering in college, dropped out, went to
Vietnam. Over time I gradually realized that art is my true passion. Got an English degree from UMass Boston, then worked in journalism for a few years. Started a resume writing service during a recession. Headhunters and human resource managers said they liked my 'simple' resumes. I've done a lot of different things besides writing—drove a cab, worked for the post office (too much like jail), read electric meters, helped ex-convicts transition back to the community."

David Bright's fiction and poetry can be found in places like The Café Irreal, flashquake, Nuvein, TPQOnline, Ascent Aspirations, and 100 word story.

Q: The tagline on Gemini's website reads "fiction, poetry, a little craziness & more". What's good craziness in art?

A: Good craziness in art is where you shake off the straitjacket and reveal your true creativity. A great visual example is our November 2011 body art cover. Naked, screaming, arms thrown up in the air, Susan Olmetti seems to be exulting in the joy of life. The bright pastel colors and wild design emphasize this spirit of freedom and excitement. It should be the same with writing, like in "The Lazarus Dream", our 2011 Poetry Open winner. David Mohan punctuates his narrative with vivid, unexpected imagery like "a wildcat's screech", "goon-swamp of the rain country", "raw frog" and "nails as long as a village magician's". In this instance, a little craziness, or as Mohan puts it, "an attempt at imaginative empathy", is just the right touch to show compassion for those who experienced war or other psychological trauma. In the poem "Daffodil" (April 2011), Fred Longworth effectively inserts a little craziness in the form of a talking daffodil. The narrator is trying to write a poem about genocide when the flower appears and warns him he "can do nothing to stop the massacre." In "A Knife or a Blade", which won Honorable Mention in our recent Flash Fiction Contest, Geoffrey Uhl shows us some scary but fun craziness when thugs on a train knock a man down and clean his teeth with a toothpick.

A church sign on our July 2009 cover shouts:

IT'S TIME TO
BE SET FREE
COME FIND NEW LIFE

I think that is good advice for writers of all levels and styles. Don't stagnate. Continue to open up. But after you do that, of course, don't forget to edit.

Q: Why "Gemini"? How does the name suit your mission or inspiration?

A: I'm not into astrology, but they say Gemini is the sign of communication, so it seems to fit. To me, Gemini implies color, creativity, imagination, excitement, energy, openness—all qualities I'd like this magazine to represent. Gemini. It instantly sounds like a strong, established, creative force.

Q: How does the online format affect a magazine's aesthetic? When creating a poem or story that's meant to be read online, what factors should a writer consider that will be different from a print presentation?

A: Well, ideally, it shouldn't make any difference. But realistically, everyone has a shorter attention span these days, especially when they're online. Therefore, online readers gravitate toward tight, concise, generally shorter writing that grabs their attention right away. "Three Minutes", a flash fiction by Elizabeth Barton, won an Honorable Mention in our 2010 contest. It has been very popular, not just because of the compelling, stream-of-consciousness writing about a young woman waiting for the results of a pregnancy test, but also, I believe, because the title indicates that it may be an especially quick read. There are hundreds—maybe thousands—of online journals out there. With such intense competition, it is extra important for a zine to be visually appealing as well as have great writing. decomP is one example, with its attractive new layout and abstract art. I know I can always find something good to read in there. Ducts ("the webzine of personal stories") is another with appealing design and good reading.

Q: Gemini appears open to a variety of fiction genres, from realist fiction to "noir", supernatural, humor, and magical realism. The poetry on your site is mainly narrative free verse. Does this narrower range reflect editorial preference or the nature of your submission pool? What advice would you give poets working in other styles, such as experimental or formal verse, to craft submissions that are fresh and appealing to you?

A: I may lean a little toward narrative free verse, but that is by far the biggest share of the poetry submissions we receive. I would love to see more of a mix—experimental, rhyming, haiku, haibun. The main thing is, whether it clicks with us or not, no matter what style. My advice to poets working in other styles is to keep trying us, keep imagining, keep writing.

Q: Your reading fees are attractively low for prizes of this size, and the magazine is free to read online. How does Gemini support itself? What are the pros and cons of this business model?

A: I've set our contest reading fees extremely low—four or five bucks for a chance to win a thousand dollar prize—so that virtually everyone who wishes to enter can do so. I would much rather have, say, 200 people enter our Poetry Open at five bucks apiece, for a total of $1,000, than have only 50 people enter at twenty bucks apiece, for the same total amount. For me it's a no brainer. I don't want to exclude anyone, and a lot of good writers simply can't afford to let go of fifteen or twenty dollars for each contest they want to enter. I want to draw from as wide a pool as possible—professionals, novices, academics, students, prisoners...It's much more exciting this way. I should add, however, that in many contests with higher entry fees, the fees are often justified. As I'm sure you know, advertising, organizing and administering a contest, printing out entries, buying necessary office supplies, reading, reading, reading, sending hard copies to readers and judges, paying a judge (in my case I work for pizza and beer), paying the prize money—these can all add up to an awful lot of time and money. But at Gemini I wouldn't have it any other way. I like the idea of writers being able to enter multiple contests—not just ours—and showing the world their work, so I think our reasonable fees benefit readers, writers, and literature as well.

At Gemini, money is not the #1 priority. I believe if you put quality writing into an exciting publication, the money will follow. My business plan is to follow my instincts: art first, money second. Many successful businesses of all types expect to operate at a loss for the first couple of years or so while they gain recognition and build their customer base. That's pretty much how it is here at Gemini. While I do subsidize the operation and guarantee all the prize money out of my own pocket, the need for that is lessening as Gemini gains momentum. Despite the down economy, the number of contest entries continues to increase at a healthy rate. I'm also pleased that general (free) submissions continue to increase as well.

Q: How do you promote Gemini and its authors? What could be done to make traditional literary conferences, which are centered around bookfairs, more useful to online publishers?

A: I send out announcements about new issues and contests to an ever-growing contact list of writers, readers, editors, agents, colleges, writing programs, industry groups, and newspapers. I also send press releases about contest winners to specific targets. Sometimes it works out: this past August the BBC's Arts Extra radio program interviewed our 2011 Short Story Contest winner Seamus Scanlon about his remarkable story, "My Beautiful, Brash, Beastly Belfast", which concerns The Troubles in Northern Ireland. That was exciting! So you've got to be proactive and get the word out.

Online publishers could have out-loud readers at their booths and key locations around the conference halls read selections from journals and e-books non-stop. This idea comes from a road race I once ran in
Dedham, Massachusetts called "The James Joyce 10K". People were posted all along the 6.2-mile course reading aloud from "Ulysses" as runners passed by. While I'm not a big fan of Joyce, it made for a great experience. I hope to attend my first conference soon, possibly AWP in Chicago in February. When I wrote about computers a long time ago I went to huge industry conferences where vendors fought for the attention of a hundred thousand attendees. Often the parties, hospitalities and special events were the most useful—an excellent way to network. So maybe more parties would help!

Q: Talk about some of your recent winners and what made their work stand out.

A: In the aforementioned poem, "The Lazarus Dream" by David Mohan, I loved how the narrative segued from the haunting, jolting dream to a description of what it's like trying to adapt to normal life after traumatic experiences. This poem moves with a bumpy fluency, never stays static.

The runner-up to Mohan's poem was "The Three Coats" by Mab Jones. This poem, which revolves around fur coats the narrator inherited from her mother, contains biting humor but also carries a deeper message about secrets held by her mother. I like the pointed rhymes, such as sin/skin and cashbox/fox.

I marveled at the concise writing in "Drinks on the Doctor", Xavier McCaffrey's winning story in our recent Flash Fiction Contest. Set in a bar, there is a lot of snappy dialogue and it almost reads like a play. McCaffrey very skillfully gives us snippets about the lives of a half dozen people from the old neighborhood, but leaves a lot to the imagination. Example: when the narrator is trying to escape from his old friend's drunken mother, she screams after him, "I know what you and Tommy did in the basement!"

In contrast, the runner-up in the Flash Contest, "Death in Nairobi" by Agatha Verdadero, is less concise, but poetic. The first line really pulled me in: "You don't speak of death at
noon in Nairobi, not when the equatorial sun is at its apex in the lapis lazuli sky."

Q: Who screens the contest entries and what are their credentials or backgrounds? Are entries read anonymously? Why or why not?

A: Most contest entries are screened anonymously by seven or eight readers. No names on the pieces, no bios. This allows them to focus on the poem or story only, with no distractions or potential bias. I like to keep the process as simple and as uncomplicated as possible. I screen a lot of entries also. I do see the writers' names when I open the emails and snail mail, but if I recognize any of the names, I recuse myself and pass the piece along to a reader. We have a good, eclectic mix of readers. One is in the MFA program at the Art Institute of Chicago. Another is a talented fantasy writer who received his GED about a year ago. One is a prolific writer who recently started her own literary magazine. Another wrote advertising copy for a decade and co-edited a small literary journal.

Q: Some of the most memorable pieces in Gemini, to my mind, are the ones that illuminate the perspective of society's underdogs—prostituted women, victims of racial profiling, the poor in the developing world. What can literature accomplish that is different from other strategies for social change?

A: Literature can definitely increase awareness that leads to social change. That's what happened with Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, one of my favorite novels. The book revealed the exploitation of migrant farm workers in California during the Great Depression. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt defended the novel after Steinbeck was accused of promoting a socialist agenda and some school boards banned it for its realistic, supposedly vulgar language. Congress held hearings about conditions in the migrant camps and changes in labor laws were made. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel The Gulag Archipelago exposed the brutal treatment of prisoners in Soviet labor camps where as many as a million or more may have died. This work of literature dealt a severe blow to the Communist regime.

At Gemini we don't consciously seek out the underdogs, but they always seem to show up. In the aforementioned "Death in Nairobi", the story is written so beautifully, in such a caring way, that one can't help but feel empathy for the narrator as well as the victim—who dies under mysterious circumstances in a government hospital.

Q: Please describe some of your favorite authors, books, and/or writing websites, and suggest what contest entrants could learn from them.

A: If I were banished to a desert island, here's some of the people I would bring with me: Kafka, Edgar Allan Poe (his poem "The Bells" is so alarming!), Chekhov, Richard Yates, Richard Ford (The Sportswriter, Rock Springs), Wallace Stevens, Alexander Pope, Knut Hamsun (Hunger), Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Maya Angelou (poem: "Phenomenal Woman"), Martha Gellhorn, William Burroughs (The Yage Letters), Langston Hughes, James Baldwin. To me, they all display uncommon originality as well as simplicity, directness and a certain, indefinable force in their writing. In his essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain", Hughes stated that "no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself." So, contest entrants, don't be afraid of sounding improper or different. Just be yourselves. After that: edit, and then edit some more. In Kafka's "The Legend of the Doorkeeper" (a passage in The Trial), a man comes to a door and waits the rest of his life for the imposing doorkeeper to let him in. Just before he dies, he asks the doorkeeper why no one else ever came to the door. The doorkeeper bellows into his ear: "No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended for you. I am now going to shut it." For a writer, that door is originality. We should all take Hughes and Kafka's advice—don't be afraid of being yourself, don't be afraid to push through that door.

There are many great writing websites out there. In addition to Winning Writers, two that come to mind are WOW! Women on Writing (useful to men also) and My Little Corner by Sandra Seamans. Both have plenty of market information and writing tips/thoughts, and are fun to read.