The Carrier of Stories: A Conversation with Vincent Brothers Literary Review Editor Kimberly Willardson

The Vincent Brothers Review editor, Kimberly Willardson

ARTS & CULTURE

By Ray Eliot

The Vincent Brothers Review is a nonprofit, independent literary magazine whose mission is “to promote appreciation for the literary arts of poetry, short fiction, essays, and creative nonfiction.”  Begun in 1988 in Ohio, it published 23 issues and two chapbooks of poetry before taking a long hiatus.  This fall, the Review has come out of slumber and released their first full-color print issue, #24, featuring “four contest winners from their 2020 short story contest, dozens of new poems, two book reviews, analogue collages, and encaustic paintings,” all linked to the theme of “changes.”  Kimberly Willardson, one of the founding members of the editorial collective, has lived in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro area since 2004, around the same time that the Review took a break from publishing.  I spoke with her recently about her experiences, her passion for art, writing and stories, how she came to the area and her hopes for the TVBR as it relaunches itself toward the future.  The conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity.

RE 

Can you tell me a little bit about the history of literary reviews? What makes a literary review a unique contribution to culture and community?

KW

Well, I don’t know exactly when they started, but I’ll tell you what got me hooked. I was in middle school when I found out about Percy Bysshe Shelley. He started publishing as a political activity and not just poetry. He was very radical. He believed in equal rights for women and free love. He was probably one of the original hippies. And he was also friends with people who were printing things. He would print these political tracts and drop them off rooftops, and that fascinated me, when I was in middle school. I said to myself, “that’s what I want to do.” I just love the idea that you could write about what you believe, and disseminate it to people and then get their feedback. So that’s what got me hooked originally.

I grew up in the Akron, Ohio area. And there was a fabulous music scene, which was also tied into zines. I was a big follower of those. The writing, the music reviews that were happening, the poetry that went with that, and the people that had this incredible drive to share their ideas about culture, music, poetry, books and film.

RE 

When I looked at the website, on the bookshop part, the first thing that came to mind for me, actually, was zines. The look of the issues definitely seemed to draw from some of that history. When I think of zines, I think of underground, DIY initiatives with a rebellious spirit.

KW

I’m so happy that you said that because that’s what I would be doing. If I could get a printing press and make my own paper, I would be doing a zine.

RE 

It’s interesting to me that an aesthetic context, related to the 1980s in particular, would be applied to a literary review. I was walking around in Hillsborough behind the Orange County Arts Commission the other day, and there’s a free library there with some very elegant literary reviews, such as the “Black Warrior Review” and this elegant type of presentation is how I often think of a literary review. So I’m fascinated by this other kind of aesthetic that you all pulled together initially.

KW

I was always fascinated by publishing, and I knew I was going to work with books, I was always going to be a writer, and that was always going to be my main focus. I was working for the communications office at Wright State University in Dayton, and working with typesetters, and I worked for a student newspaper and the student literary magazine.

I’m 62 years old now, and I was there when Apple Computer started. I witnessed the revolution in the publishing world that Apple created. It was astonishing, just astonishing, how it revolutionized publishing. Everybody and their uncle wanted to do a newsletter, they wanted to do their own publication. The communications office where I was working couldn’t handle the workload any longer, and a buddy of mine—Vance Wissinger—he had the first Apple computer that I saw up close, said, “We have to do this.”

When I graduated in 1987, with my master’s degree, I had this job offer from AT&T in Cincinnati. It was a job editing the phonebooks. They really recruited me hard, and then I met with my buddy with whom I had been working on the newspaper and he said, “You know, I think we could do some of these overflow jobs if we had computers.” So, I worked up a business proposal, and I couldn’t get a bank to loan me the $6,000 I needed for a laser printer and a computer. My father-in-law loaned me the money. I had this big business plan, I was going to pay him back in five years, and I ended up repaying him in less than a year.

I did two books about Jewish poets for a professor, Dr. Gary Pacernick. I did brochures for Ohio Public Images, which was an advocacy group for people with disabilities. I did catalogs, I did wedding invitations, resumes, and it got to where I had so much work that the magazine, the literary part of my business, was not getting enough attention. There was always a balancing act from the very beginning of 1987 when I started. Eventually I got involved with the Ohio Arts Council. They had very robust funding and an advocacy program for all kinds of artists in Ohio, from the symphonies to individual artists. The literature coordinator, Bob Fox, was very supportive of independent efforts in the literary world. He was interested in outlets for people who weren’t based in an academic setting, which is rare, as a lot of the literary magazines come out of [an academic] context, and there was a big market for that in Ohio.

The Vincent Brothers Review #24

RE 

Where did the name “Vincent Brothers Review” come from?

KW

The name comes from a memento, a personal memento, and it works.

RE 

You say on your website that you are “getting the band back together.” Why did you go into hibernation for almost 9 years?

KW

I moved from Ohio to North Carolina in 2004 with every intention of continuing the Review down here, but then I went down other roads. I worked in corporate editing for a while. And I wanted to spend more time with my son—he was nine when we moved here—supporting him and his interests. And I got involved with some political groups. You have to have a lot of joy to do this work, because it’s 24/7. I’m reading all the time, and I was feeling kind of discouraged about the political direction of the country, and I felt that my time would be better served being active politically.

RE 

The political landscape these days is certainly still challenging and yet you have decided to put some energy back into the Review and bring it out of its resting state. Why did you feel that now was the right time?

KW

I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about that. I have a friend with whom I’ve been working from the beginning, Rafael Alvarez in Baltimore. He’s a fiction writer and he’s another public advocate for the arts and we never lost touch and he would say “Kimberly, this is what we do. We — the writers — write stories and you bring the stories together. You have to do this.” And all of a sudden about a year ago I just knew I had to get back in print. We have to get these stories and poems back in print. It was like a light came on. And the technology has changed a lot. The last time I did an issue in 2003, I typed the manuscripts into my computer. We did the typesetting and layout ourselves. And I take a lot of joy in doing that, because that’s when you get a lot of the editing done. You choose the order of the material for the issues and you really live and breathe the manuscripts.

This time, I just transferred the documents from email or from the files that we had into the layout. It was a different way of working. The last time we printed it was offset, this time it is digital. Digital printing costs one-quarter of what it costs to do offset. The last time we were in print, it was all black and white, because color was way too expensive for us. I had a hard time finding any artists who worked in black and white [this time around]. This time we had the opportunity to do color for the first time, which opened a whole other universe of opportunity and considerations. Every issue is an adventure when it goes from idea to print. It’s a learning experience. The technology just continues to change and evolve, and that’s part of the fun.

RE 

How did you recruit contributors for the new edition? Did you just use old networks? Did you notify people who knew what you did in the past that you were resuming publication or was it that submissions never stopped coming and you were collecting them for a moment like this?

KW

Submissions kept coming for a long time. It took a while to get those to stop. When I lived in Ohio, we lived in a rural area and the postal service would bring bags to my door, bags of stories and poems. And I still have some of them. It was overwhelming. It is hard to describe, because it sounds like I’m complaining. I felt honored that people would trust their stories to me. We always took that very seriously, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an overwhelming feeling. If we went to visit on holidays, I took a bag of stuff to read on the way. When my son was playing football, I had a bag of stories that I was reading. I was always reading and then I got to where I felt like I wasn’t bringing fresh eyes to the process. As we started up again, I posted an ad in Poets and Writers. I posted an advertisement for our short fiction contest and worked with a web designer to set up a submission system that wasn’t so overwhelming.

RE 

As you’re talking, I have an image of you as a “carrier of stories.” You say you felt honored that people trusted you to hold on to their stories, and I have this picture of someone just perpetually reading and reading and reading. Like, a spirit or a witch in the best sense of the word, holding on to all of our stories and the stories becoming part of you. What does it feel like to carry so many of other people’s stories inside of you?

KW

It’s wonderful. It’s wonderful. It is a spiritual experience. And I think one of the misconceptions is that you’re reading a lot of schlock or that you’re just trudging through this. It’s not that way at all. Most of the stories really are a gift. The challenge we find is having to select just a few from so many wonderful and varied treasures that come our way. But to get a story that you’re reading at 3 a.m. in the morning, and it makes you stand up and go, “Oh my god, I have to call my co-editor [Michelle Whitley Turner] right now and read this first paragraph to her” is just an amazing way to work. It’s a privilege.

RE 

One of the categories that you publish is creative nonfiction. What is creative nonfiction?

KW

Creative nonfiction is evolving. I can’t really give you a definitive answer as far as how they’re different from opinion pieces that you would see in a newspaper. But I guess you could say they are essays that are very creatively put together.

RE 

Does the creative aspect refer to structure of the writing? 

KW

I think that could be one of the definitions, the framing.  How the reader finds his or her way into the piece, the narrative doorway, rather than just who, what, when, why. It can offer a more innovative approach or an innovative portal for the reader to enter.

RE 

If I were trying to describe creative nonfiction in the TVBR to someone unfamiliar with it, would it be accurate to say that creative nonfiction is like an in-depth and fleshed-out version of the Readers Write section of the Sun Magazine?

KW

I think that would be a way in, yeah.

RE 

How did you come to North Carolina?

KW

I knew I wanted to move when I was 45. I didn’t like the school my son was attending. My husband and I traveled a lot. He was a civilian for the Air Force. We had been traveling, looking to see where we wanted to move, and I visited North Carolina, and I was sitting under the live oak tree at Weaver Street Market, and I thought, “This is it. This is where I want to live now.” I made my mind up, I started applying for jobs and I had some promising interviews, and it was close to the start of the school year, so I just moved down here. It seemed really crazy and alarming, but I have met so many people who had done the exact same thing at that time. I did find a job. My son really liked the school that he went to and my husband commuted for two years. Just as we were about to say, “Well, we better go back to Ohio,” he got a job locally.

RE 

What do you hope to focus on in the future?

KW

I’m very interested in building community here and in being involved with the existing community. Because I’ve been focused on raising my child and doing other things like hosting exchange students and working on my own writing, now that I have the spark ignited in me again, my radar for those kinds of opportunities has opened up. I was delivering copies of this issue to one of our contributing poets, Benjamin Pryor, who lives in Chapel Hill, and on our way to his house, there’s this big sign in Carrboro which said: “Poetry. Slow down for poetry.”  I stopped to take a picture and discovered that it was advertising a poetry festival, which I will go to and pass out flyers and have copies of the magazine and meet the poets and see what they’re up to. I’m really looking forward to that.

We want to sponsor a reading in the area. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while actually. Rafael has been here and has read a couple of times. I’d like him to come and read some of his fiction, and see if I can get some Ohio poets. I’ve always had this kind of thing in my head, where old friends meet new friends. I’d like to have a mix of Ohio writers and North Carolina writers, poets, fiction writers, reading together, meeting each other and sharing their work. We could have a poetry reading, and then we could have a dance. People are proud of themselves for going to hear poetry, and they should be, because they’re pleasantly surprised if they’re new to poetry, and I love introducing people to poetry, because it’s delightful. Often, they are really pleased when they can understand it, or when they get something out of it, when they have a positive response. And then they want to dance. I’m hoping that we can have an event like that.

RE

Will future TVBR issues continue to be organized around a theme?

KW

Yeah, we’ll always have a theme issue. We’re in the process of producing issue number 25. That theme is “ghosts.” The deadline coming up at the end of this month is “housekeeping.” The deadline for next May will be “old teachers,” and then the one for the following October is “portals.”

RE 

Is this a hobby or professional practice? It sounds like it’s both.

KW

It is both. This is such an exciting time to be a literary magazine.

RE 

How do you plan to distribute TVBR? You said that you are going to this poetry festival, and it also sounds like there has been word of mouth?  What about independent bookstores?

KW

If you have a local artist in your magazine, that’s usually a way in to the bookstores, and then you see if it sells books or if it brings people into their store. In the past, I could look for a book distributor. A woman who wrote an essay for this latest issue has a distributor that she says she can recommend to me, and we might go that route. We did a really short run of the recent issue, we only printed 250 copies, but it looks like we’re going to have to do another run. So that’s very exciting.

RE

What else would you like readers to know?

KW

That it’s an exciting time to be an artist. I think this is one reason why I came back to the work. After a while, the political activism can grind on you and become so demoralizing. You just get tapped out. This is where the arts come in. Art offers people an opportunity to process change, to process fear, to process joy. It’s a way for people to have dialogue and ease social tensions. Art and sports. Art gives people a safe space, but it also challenges people with new ideas. And I think it just occurred to me that this was my refuge and I needed to get back to it. I personally believe that any artistic endeavour is a political act. And it took me a while to relax the grip my political activism had on me and realize that you can just transfer [that energy and idealism] over to the creative side of your life.


Ray Eliot is a choreographer and dance educator who divides his time between Chapel Hill and Cholula, Mexico.

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