Crossing the Radioactive Moat
As I’ve been looking through the archives of the publications I’ve covered in this series, I’ve discovered something that almost all of them had in common: Paul Cunningham. He was published in Red Lightbulbs, had an ebook on Pangur Ban Party, contributed to ƒault, had one of the first poems on New Wave Vomit, poemed on Let People Poems… all while publishing his own online journal, Radioactive Moat.
Radioactive Moat published eight issues between 2009 and 2013, after which it was succeeded by a new journal, Deluge (which is published, slightly confusingly, by Radioactive Moat Press). Perhaps because of its own radioactivity, the journal was constantly mutating. Every issue was laid out differently, with a fresh batch of unfamiliar contributors. And yet a Radioactive Moat style emerged. If you’re familiar with Paul’s work, the aesthetic of the journal will come as no surprise. He didn’t shy away from publishing the difficult, experimental, queer, or grotesque. He embraced these things. This was writing without regard for the establishment or the canon. This was writing from the edges. It had its own edges. And they were sharp. A lot of these pieces wouldn’t have found a home in more traditional journals, and the world would have been poorer for it.
A couple of the contributors shared their memories of Radioactive Moat with me:
Radioactive Moat was the first home I had not just as a poet, but as an “ugly fish.” I wasn’t sure where I was going, but Paul believed in me and my ugly feelings. He will always be a special soul to me for that reason.
Radioactive Moat gave me access to a whole new community of poetry. It was like nowhere else. In the first issue they published some of my poems written while living in South Korea. It was the first time a magazine showed any interest in those poems. In the last issue of the magazine they took some poems that were written on the circle line in London. The poems were named after the tube stops.
It was so encouraging to find a community of poet artists. Visionaries. Pioneers etc. There were so many exciting discoveries in that first issue. I had never read Amy Lawless for example. I read her poems and got her book My Dead from Octopus Books. Terrific! And of course the chapbooks. Crush Dream by Lonely Christopher arrived on this island. Wonderfully made and good for the hands and mouth. The most exciting discovery for me was Ji Yoon Lee. Her chapbook IMMA is so good!! It was mighty good to belong to a community of poetry that took big risks. That was fearless. That opened up so many possibilities. There are so many exciting things happening in the world of poetry/language art and they are mostly coming from micro presses. Radioactive Moat was one of my absolute favourites.
Paul answered a few questions about the journal:
Why did you first start Radioactive Moat? Did you have any specific goals for the publication?
Radioactive Moat, which I started when I was 19, was actually originally meant to be a cyberpunk-ish online journal. I was in love with books like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Neuromancer and VALIS and I had decided I wanted to publish and share similar stories and poems. The name—Radioactive Moat—came from a passage from Do Androids Dream: “[…] spilling over with radioactive motes, gray and sun-beclouding […].” I just changed the spelling of “mote” to “moat.” But—big surprise—no one ended up submitting cyberpunk-anything. However, in my search for writers, I still ended up coming across a lot of non-cyberpunk writing that I really admired. At the time, I was still very young and very new to everything, so I willfully allowed myself to be distracted by everything. When I started getting more of my own work published, I started meeting more and more writers. Additionally, if you look back at past issues of Radioactive Moat, you’ll notice it’s mostly always been a publication with queer and feminist tones. I guess you could say there was an underlying goal all along. I’ve also always done my best to publish ‘established’ writers alongside never-before- published and emerging writers. There’s a lot of younger writers that are often ignored because of their age or their lack of participation in academia. I find this is still true even today. And it’s problematic. Which is why I’ve never killed off the journal—even when I’ve really wanted to during severely stressful years in my life. Admittedly, I believe I see things quite differently than a lot of other editors out there. I think that’s why Radioactive Moat Press has been around since 2009. That might not sound like a long time, but it actually is compared to a lot of other journals no longer in existence.
How did you source the work you published? Was it all from open submissions or did you solicit as well?
As far as I can remember, the only issue in which I ever widely solicited writers was Issue 1. I didn’t know how else to begin! When I was just starting out it was outrageously cool to receive work from writers like Amy Lawless, Thomas Patrick Levy, Zack Sternwalker, among others. But I would say at some point—maybe after issue three?—I realized that poetry had a lot of issues when it came to diverse voices. Week after week, I noticed most of the submissions I was receiving were exclusively from straight white males, so there were times when I went ahead and sent out solicitations. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with solicitation—especially if you already have a relationship with that person or an understanding of their work. It’s an opportunity to contact a writer you admire and nervously wait for their “Yes” or No.”
What was the process of putting an issue together like? How long did it take?
Once I had the contributor list worked out, it usually took me a few weeks to get everything formatted. Occasionally I brought in other artists to provide the cover art. Sometimes, like today, I just do it myself. I’m still completely floored because one of my favorite artists—Jesse Draxler—agreed to do the cover art for Issue 2 of Radioactive Moat. I think he’s phenomenal.
How did the journal change at all over the course of its run?
The website design changed, but I don’t think the tone ever really shifted. Bri Scala used to curate photography for each issue, but after she left the press, the amount of featured photography definitely dwindled. However, the earlier theme of “spilling over” always remained consistent. Even now, Radioactive Moat Press still has a bi-annually distributed online journal. And Deluge is just what it sounds like.
What made you decide to expand into publishing chapbooks?
During my undergrad at Slippery Rock University, I’d frequently visit a studio in Pittsburgh called AIR (Artists Image Resource). I learned to do screen printing there. Eventually I purchased all of the necessary tools to do it myself at home. The first chapbook I printed was Feng Sun Chen’s Ugly Fish. It received immediate attention from authors like Johannes Göransson: “Her ‘ugly feelings’ create a kind of black hole of an ambience, through which the speaker moves moebius-like; she begins with Plath’s dead woman but supersaturates this image, burning a hole in the image so to speak.” The chapbook sold out rapidly.
The success of Ugly Fish inspired me to continue printing chapbooks. Every print run sold out. Today, I continue to publish digital chapbooks and there are new projects on the horizon. I stopped doing print chapbooks when I had to take a break from screen printing to do my M.F.A. at the University of Notre Dame. As you might know, not all residences come with access to a pressurized hose…
Looking back, is there anything about the journal that you’re particularly proud of? Is there anything you would have done differently?
I’m proud of it all. No regrets. And I feel like I did a lot of things no one else would be willing to do. Like making 14-year- old photographer Amber Ortolano the featured artist of Issue 5 of Radioactive Moat. I feel like a lot of others editors would have reservations about publishing a 14-year- old. But I thought they were really incredible photographs. I like to give credit where credit is due, you know. Especially if it insults someone else’s ideals. I loathe idealism. Especially in the arts. Low art is my high art and vice versa. Binaries were made to be broken. Et cetera.
Why did Radioactive Moat (the journal) come to an end? And what differentiates your new journal Deluge from its predecessor?
It was just time for a change. For a new design / different title. Aesthetically, the journals—Radioactive Moat and Deluge—are very similar, actually. But I think an argument can be made that Deluge is more unapologetically queer. In fact, the inaugural issue featured my drag queen friend, Bebe Beretta, on the cover. I really enjoyed Bebe’s sentiment: that “low-brow will become high fashion.” I love that. The rebirth of Radioactive Moat as Deluge was an opportunity to make my goal of inclusivity even louder. And if you know me, you know I’ll scream if I have to. But I will say if there’s one thing I hate more than idealism, it’s inclusivity for the sake of inclusivity. I would never want to be solicited by a mainstream magazine solely for being queer. I’m not writing to improve anyone’s publishing statistics. A conversation of some sort needs to take place. “I want to publish you because…” or “I am soliciting you because…” That’s what needs to happen. Journals shouldn’t be publishing certain writers for the sake of repairing their poor publishing statistics. How is publishing for the sake of publishing repairing anything? And, having read Bersani’s The Culture of Redemption, I’m not even sure I believe art is capable of being successfully reparative. Again, the louder and the larger the conversation re: ‘who gets published and why’ can get, the better.
In addition to your work with Radioactive Moat Press, you’ve held (or currently hold) quite a few other editorial positions. Can you tell us a little about that work and how it’s different from what you did with Radioactive Moat?
Well, when I worked as an editorial assistant for Action Books, the major difference was that I suddenly had bosses. Great bosses, too! Joyelle and Johannes genuinely care about their editors’ opinions and ideas. I also had a stunning co-editor! Nichole Riggs and I worked together to solicit two issues of Action, Yes and we also did a ton of collaborative editing / proofreading. I’ve never had to proofread full-length manuscripts before, but I guess it’s not too different from editing a 20-contributor issue of Radioactive Moat or Deluge. It was definitely nice to have extra sets of eyes when it came to editing. As opposed to what I’m used to: doing everything myself. Shipping books all over the world is also a lot easier when you have help! (Those boxes of Action Books were some heavy boxes!) Needless to say, I definitely miss my time with them.
As an editor for Fanzine, my time has mostly been spent prioritizing new work by women authors—like Shelly Taylor, Ji Yoon Lee, Christine Wertheim, Wong May, Sara Woods, and, most recently, Dawn Lundy Martin. Some of the most influential writers, filmmakers, and artists in my life have been women. And I feel committed to them. Fanzine’s managing editors—Casey McKinney and Blake Butler—have been incredibly supportive of my editorial choices and I just love having the freedom to review or solicit whatever I choose to review or solicit. Similarly, I used to do small interviews with writers at Radioactive Moat when it was first starting out: Roxane Gay, Steve Roggenbuck, Carrie Lorig, and even Sarah Rose Etter. Actually, Sarah and I are co-editors at Fanzine now! She’s a really wonderful writer and an infectiously fun person to be around! But, yeah, I do interviews again now at Fanzine and it’s something I really enjoy/want to do more of.