Check In to the No Tell Motel
No Tell Motel was an online journal, run by Reb Livingston, that published one writer a week, putting a new poem of theirs up on the site every weekday. Unfortunately, I wasn’t hip to the site when it was active (2004-2011) but as I became more familiar with online literature I began to realise that it had been important to a lot of the writers who had come before me. The name still echoed through the web.
While I was preparing to write this post, I finally went back and browsed through the archives. I spent hours in there. And I liked what I found. The work published on the site came in a vast array of styles, moods, and voices. While not everything I read was entirely up my alley, I think any fan of poetry could find something to enjoy on the site.
What really excited me was the way Livingston spent a whole week on each writer, giving us time to get to know them. Often reading a single piece by a writer, sandwiched inside an issue of a journal with twenty other contributors, isn’t enough for me to get invested in them. Everything blurs together. But No Tell Motel gave its writers room to breathe, gave each piece the space to be properly appreciated. I think that’s something to applaud.
I also love the No Tell Motel Gift Shop. I think every journal should be selling thongs and dog t-shirts with their logo on them.
Some contributors shared their memories of No Tell Motel:
I loved the spirit of the No Tell Motel — slightly irreverent, approachable, but really serious about the value and love of poems. I also loved the format — to have one poet unfold over a week’s time, one poem a day, is a lovely way to get to know a voice. It was a visionary concept.
I am happy to say how much I admired and think the scene was energized by No Tell Motel. Their one-poem-a-day format by a feature poet each week was innovative, and worked great at time when blogs abounded but other social media formats were less prevalent than they are now. Reb was ahead of the game on poem-as-sharable or viral element, among web journals of the time. And she had great taste, which of course also influenced the press that came later, and the books it put out.
I loved NTM. Exciting and well crafted work, energetic and friendly editors. I was happy to be connected to those editions I was in.
Reb Livingston answered my questions about the site:
Why did you first start No Tell Motel? Did you have any specific goals for the site?
I started working on the site with Molly Arden in June 2004 and we launched in August. Personally I was inspired by a couple things. One, I just became pregnant and worried that I didn’t have much to show for (literary wise). At the time, I had it in my head that motherhood would impede my breaking into the “scene” so I needed to start something beforehand if I was ever going to become established. My earlier benchmark was that I had to have a book published before I could have a baby, but that wasn’t in the cards. I was working against the clock of my own imagination. My husband had a similar idea in his head involving his needing to make X amount of $$$ before he’d be ready to be a father. We can be silly sometimes.
The second was jealousy of writers my own age and younger who were launching their own publications and the belief that I could do it better.
Our goal was to work on a poetry magazine that had a recurring daily readership. We also wanted to be playful and have fun with it. Yes, we were very serious about what we were doing, but we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. Greatness and legacies were the realms of old men and not on our radar.
How did you come up with the model of publishing one writer a week with a new poem every weekday?
In the 90’s I worked at America Online and it was clear that to get regular visitors (readers) you needed new content on a regular basis. People read differently online than they do in print. Publishing web-based issues every quarter or month didn’t make a whole lot of sense. These days that’s less the case with apps, tablets and eReaders.
Was it hard to maintain that schedule? Were there ever times where it was a struggle to find something to post?
No, I scheduled work weeks, often months, in advance. There was never a lack of good work. Quite the opposite.
How did you source the work you published? Was it all from open submissions or did you solicit as well?
About 80% came from open submissions and the rest from soliciting writers. Soliciting was important early on so we wouldn’t be the White People Poetry Magazine. As our magazine diversified so did our unsolicited submissions. Finding women was never an issue, possibly because were we two women editors with a magazine that could be construed as welcoming. Lots of women sent work from the beginning. Men sent lots of work too, but in general men always send lots of work. Percentage-wise, fewer men sent work we wanted. I think that’s because a number of men send anywhere and everywhere without much thought if their work actually fits. There were a few times I solicited work from men so it wouldn’t be two back-to-back months of women. I guess I wanted to demonstrate that we were open to men too. 🙂
In the ‘00s many editors were resistant to the possibility that they were directly responsible for the lack diversity in their publications. You’d hear a lot of “the only things that matters is the quality of the writing” comments while it didn’t seem to occur to them that they were implying that writers of color or women, etc., weren’t producing quality work. Yet they wondered why they weren’t receiving much work from these groups.
Now if you publish an issue with 80% or more of straight-white-male-authors, you’re roundly and publicly mocked.
What a difference a decade makes.
You published one batch of your own poems on the site. Did you have any qualms about that?
Not at all. I had long been critical of the antiquated publishing rules that made absolutely no sense and only succeeded in limiting a writer’s reaching a broader audience.
I’m not against rules or guidelines, just silly and self-defeating rules and guidelines.
What did you enjoy most about running the site?
I liked reading and selecting the poems and, for the most part, I enjoyed connecting with hundreds of writers. NTM received a fair amount of attention and accolades which was gratifying. It always feels good to have ones work acknowledged.
What prompted the expansion into publishing books and how was that different from running the journal?
I always wanted to publish books. When print-on-demand became viable I jumped on that bandwagon.
To difference between running a journal and running a press, as I see it, is the same as the difference between going on a date and getting married. When you publish someone in a magazine, you’re working with them short-term. Unless you pursue something more, after the work is published and promoted, nothing more is expected of the relationship except common decency. But when you publish someone’s book it’s a long term investment. You spend 6 months to a year getting the book ready and then at least another year providing publicity and support. It often goes longer than that. The book remains in distribution. Reviewers, interviewers, bookstores, teachers will request copies years after the publication. There’s the possibility of royalties. There’s the possibility of publishing future books.
Did you sell much merch through the No Tell Motel Gift Shop?
Not really. Maybe over the course of 7 years I made $100, if that. I’ve never earned back anything close to what I spent on publishing NTM and especially No Tell Books. Two of the NTB titles broke even after several years.
Why did No Tell Motel stop publishing in the end?
It was 7 years and I simply wasn’t feeling as passionate about it as I had in the early years. Everything has a lifespan and I felt that NTM reached its. I preferred for it go out on top instead of letting it drag on until slowly fading away.
Also, I wanted to do other things and became bored with No Tell being the #1 and, in many cases, only association folks had with me. I was a writer and an editor/publisher, but too many people only saw me as an editor/publisher whereas I always considered myself first and foremost a writer. I can’t blame people for having that association with me. Editing and publishing was where I put the majority of my time and energy. It was time to change that up.
I’m still an editor (for Queen Mob’s Teahouse) which I enjoy a great deal, but it’s not the main role in my creative life.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
With hindsight in regard to NTM, there might be some minor decisions I might make differently. Perhaps avoid publishing a small handful of writers who proved to be too difficult to work with. Maybe publish work by a couple of writers who I passed on.
With NTB, I wish I would have worked harder to have more diversity with the book authors. In many ways, the press was diverse, but I could have done better on that front.
The site, along with all the archives, is still online. Do you plan to keep it available indefinitely?
Yes, it costs very little to keep the site up and everyday there are 10-125 unique visitors. It still serves a purpose.
What have you been up to since No Tell Motel? Any other writing or editing projects we should check out?
Mostly enjoying having fewer commitments. 🙂
I wrote a goofy, fragmented narrative categorized as a novel (Bombyonder) that I found challenging to write and am quite proud of now that it’s out in the world. I curate the The Bibliomancy Oracle, adding new prophecies every week and I’m the Misfit Documents editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse.
My summer project is an interactive fiction game (gamebook). I’m early in the process, so I’m not willing to speak too much more about it but I hope to complete it by the fall. I like working on things that are new to me.