Rest In Publishing: Red Lightbulbs
Hi, my name is Jackson Nieuwland. I’ve been following online and independent literature for six years now. There are plenty of people who have been a part of this community for a lot longer than me, I’m still a relative newcomer. But even in the short time I’ve been reading online journals and buying books from small presses, I’ve seen a lot of great publishers shut their doors. Some of them had been around for what seemed like forever and others lasted only a few months, but they all put out work that genuinely excited me and which deserves to be remembered. In this series, I will talk to the people involved with these presses and lit mags, find out how they began, what they did, why they stopped, and try my best to do them justice. This first post is about Red Lightbulbs.
Red Lightbulbs was an online lit mag based out of Chicago edited by Meghan Lamb and Sara June Woods. It ran for two years, from 2011 to 2013, publishing ten issues. It seemed to be the coolest journal out, right from the very beginning. The first issue included cool people like Cassandra Troyan, M. Kitchell, Jordaan Mason, Neila Mezynski, and Joshua Kleinberg. Then they went on to publish work by Eileen Myles, Roxane Gay, Dennis Cooper, xTx, and Lindsay Hunter in future issues.
This is how they described themselves on their about page:
Red Lightbulbs was inspired by the words of a young man with autism. He lived in one of the group homes I used to work for. Every morning, he would bend down to inspect my hair, and every morning he came to the same conclusion. “You smell like red lightbulbs,” he told me. “Is that good or bad?” I asked. “It isn’t good or bad,” he said. “It’s like red lightbulbs.” Red Lightbulbs is an irregularly published collection of online ephemera open to fiction, poetry, video, sound, and many forms of hybrid art. We are interested in pieces that evoke, but don’t explain, reveal, but don’t represent. We seek pieces that embody an experience through flickers, fragments, and failed recollections. Basically, just don’t bore us. Don’t be boring. Don’t treat the reader/listener/viewer like a moron. We are interested. Really. Trust us.
But you could find all of that out for yourself by doing a quick Google search. What Google won’t tell you is the impact Red Lightbulbs had, on both its readers and its contributors. Nick Sturm‘s very first publication was in Red Lightbulbs. He told me what he remembers about it:
Red Lightbulbs was the first journal to publish any of my poems. I sent them five poems and they took all five, which seemed impossible. It was early spring 2011 and I remember getting the acceptance during that weather in Ohio that’s just starting to become livable again. It all felt like an opening. The practices around writing felt available and activated around that time. Part of that momentum led to starting the Big Big Mess Reading Series a few months later. I stayed with Meghan and Sara in Chicago and saw Sara often, either in Ohio or the city, and loved them both. Issue 6 includes some pages from a book-object I’d been assembling called And Sunshine. That issue also includes a poem by Carrie Lorig, who I’m now married to. I’m pretty sure it’s one of the first poems of hers I ever read. It was a lot of fun to be publishing online at that time and a lot of us made lasting friendships out of it. It was like our own digital mimeo mag revolution. I just remembered that Sara rejected some of my poems once, like in late 2012. The email started, “Holy fuck, Nick.” I appreciated that.
I emailed Meghan Lamb a few more in-depth questions about the history of the journal:
Why did you and Sara start Red Lightbulbs? Did you have any goals in the beginning?
Initially, the magazine was more Sara’s idea than mine (though ultimately it became a fairly balanced joint effort with Sara doing the poetry reading and web/design work while I managed the fiction reading, editorial work, and the “other”/hybrid arts section.) I think that in both of our cases, we desired to create a magazine with an amiable and personal submissions process for writers at all levels of publishing experience, and this desire came from a certain degree of frustration with the lengthy, impersonal submissions processes we were then feeling our way through as young writers.
We used to joke (but not really) about becoming the magazine with the fastest response time on Duotrope, a rating which we actually obtained and maintained throughout most of our existence. We read submissions constantly—and with genuine excitement—and in most cases, we unabashedly responded almost immediately after reading. We were very confident in our gut-level “yes” or “no” responses because we didn’t really feel a responsibility to uphold any aesthetic statement beyond “We eat what we like!”.
That was really the beauty of the magazine, too. I think people felt inclined to send us some of their weirder, riskier, more experimental pieces because our resoundingly clear attitude was, “We don’t care who you are or where you’ve published. If we like it, we’ll publish it! If not…try again tomorrow, and we’ll probably talk to you before the end of the day.” (Yes, this actually happened, and not infrequently.)
Now, I look back on that kind of confidence with smiling/wincing/adult person fragility. It was a really wonderful magazine, and in many ways, it could only have occurred in that particular literary moment, with both of us at that particular age and level of combined experience/inexperience.
What was the process of publishing each issue like? Did you enjoy it?
One of the truly unique aspects of our magazine was the fact that we had no release schedule whatsoever; we simply read and accepted pieces until we had a full issue, then set to work on preparing that issue for publication. Throughout the preparation of each issue, we mostly sat side-by-side on the couch with our respective laptops working on our respective tasks, passing them back and forth every now and then.
Among these tasks, I probably spent the most time creating collage videos. Sometimes, we received poetry submissions that had sort of a gauzy narrative quality, that felt like a kind of captioning, and I created video pieces that spoke to some audiovisual atmosphere I perceived in the language. This is another thing we did that seemed pretty unique to Red Lightbulbs. Though the magazine is no longer present online, I still have some links to these collage videos, if you want to include them…
Our long-term publication rate was something like one issue per month (insane, right?). Sometimes, we’d only read for 2-3 weeks before we’d begin crafting the next issue (though I don’t actually remember if we ever closed submissions during this time…I don’t think there was any need to, given how swiftly we worked.)
The journal seemed to be quite strongly rooted in the Chicago literary scene. Was that intentional? I know you were open to submissions but did you solicit work as well?
I think that given the small scale of our operation mixed with our frenetic activity, it was kind of inevitable that our magazine would be localized, to some degree. We never had any designs on being a Chicago magazine, specifically, but we were interested in hosting readings, and the locality of many Red Lightbulbs authors made this convenient, if nothing else.
Sara and I both continued to develop our own (separate) reading series even after the magazine closed shop, so I think it could even be said that these readings were the stirrings of new (separate) directions for both of us.
I think we solicited a couple pieces here and there toward the beginning (though the only piece that springs to mind was the one I solicited from Roxane Gay- damn, were we lucky!), but the only issue that was really solicitation-heavy was that final star-studded-blaze-of-glory issue (in which I did not participate).
Why did it come to an end? Was it something you could see coming, or did it happen quite suddenly?
There are some long, personal narratives I could give you in response to this question. I’ll give you the short answer: yes (well, yes and no, really, but the “no” is where it starts to get personal, so…)
We closed up the magazine and got a divorce. Both decisions were mutually agreed upon.
Looking back on it all, are you happy with the work you did with Red Lightbulbs? Is there anything you would change?
Very happy. I wouldn’t change a thing about the magazine itself; any small flaws or idiosyncrasies spoke to where we were, what we were, and what we loved at that time in our lives, and I embrace that for everything it is/was.
Part of me wishes we’d had a better plan for keeping the magazine alive somewhere after its death…drifting somewhere in the ether of internet ghosts…but oh well. It is a dead thing. And the desire to preserve dead things is usually a little perverse (and/or simply a waste of time).
I currently work in an archive of personal papers (manuscripts, realia, ephemera) of (mostly) dead authors, and I wonder about these things. Some of these kept artifacts are so beautiful (50 year-old butterflies preserved in delicate translucent paper! Wallets with old change, notes, and lists still folded inside! Hand-drawn cut-out paper dolls made as children! Devastating letters that can be read, now, in from the devastating distance of an entire lifetime, a full, dead, never-coming-back-except-in-these-letters lifetime!), and some of them are kind of just crap (Why would you keep all of your old receipts? Is there really a person who needs to see those? Maybe there is, I don’t know…). On one level, the distinguishing features of “beauty” vs. “crap” are pretty self-evident, but on another…
And then, “usefulness” is entirely different and even more subjective arena of concerns. Who’s to say what’s useful? Who’s to say when or why a “use” will suddenly present itself? (And then again, this is the way hoarders think…)
The Red Lightbulbs website no longer exists. Does an archive of all the work you published exist anywhere and do you think it will ever be made public again?
No…but if I really wanted to, I could open the old emails…I could resurrect them if I really wanted to…But into what, I have no idea, and to what end, I have no idea…I don’t even think I remember the password…(I don’t think I do…). But…
Yeah, no. No. What’s done is done.
Have you worked on any other editorial/publishing projects since Red Lightbulbs?
Yes. I’m currently working as the Revue editor for The Spectacle, a literary arts magazine run by students of Washington University’s English MFA and PhD programs.
The Revue is definitely the best pocket of the magazine I could edit for, as it features such wide-ranging content, including the subsections of “Minima” (<300-word fiction pieces), “Notes and Queries” (odd pieces of critical writing), “Tomfoolery” (comics and “humor,” whatever that means), “Encounters” (reviews a literature, art, etc. with an eye toward personal subjectivities), and “Vis-a-Vis” (interviews between writers). We’ve featured some really amazing work from Molly Brodak, Nat Baldwin, Lily Hoang, Molly Gaudry, Brandi Wells, Kayla E, and Claudia Rankine, to name just a few.
The magazine is (at the moment) exclusively solicitation-based, though. Our processes must be well-articulated and communicated among multiple editors. In short, it’s completely different from Red Lightbulbs.