One Year of Penduline: Meditations on a Dastardly Theme

U.K.-based freelance editor Charlotte Russell talks with Penduline Founding Editor Bonnie Ditlevsen on the one-year anniversary of Penduline Press.

Bonnie, congratulations. Sarah [Olson] and you have made it through four issues. How do you feel about Penduline’s first birthday?

You know, I couldn’t be happier that we’ve rounded the one-year bend. We’re still learning who we are, and where the magazine is headed. But all in all it’s been relatively easy and fun to do this work. And exciting, too.

We create an online presence for artists and writers by bringing them to anyone with Internet access. We curate, we communicate, we improve the field and the craft by bringing about exposure. It’s a lucky thing to be published somewhere. And the good luck all rubs right back off onto us. Look at Sarah—she got pregnant during Issue 2, and just last month had a beautiful baby daughter. And I got to travel to London and Amsterdam. How lucky is that?

For Penduline’s one-year anniversary, what are you going to do?

Look at submissions for the upcoming Ohio issue, and send the contributors I have lined up thus far their editorial feedback.

No champagne? No nice dinner out?

No. No plans for any of that. I do have a box of Leonidas Belgian chocolates that I was given when I visited Tessenderlo, a small town near Antwerp, in January. I’ve been hoarding them. They’re unreal. I’ll have a few to celebrate, if it makes you happy. Let them melt like creamy lozenges in my mouth while I tinker with people’s sentences.

What have you chiefly looked for in a piece of writing? Take, for example, the most recent issue, The Dastardly Issue. What were you looking for? And how did you find it?

“Dastardly” is an intriguing word. It has several dictionary synonyms, each with its own variety of bad. Cowardly, underhanded, malicious. Base. Treacherous. An embezzling, lying, cheating CEO is dastardly. A storm surge, one that with no warning washes away an entire village, is dastardly. People who torture political dissidents in dank cellars are dastardly. The slow-simmering, deep-seated loathing of a spouse—even if never spoken aloud or shown—is dastardly. You don’t need the guy with the handlebar mustache going mwahahahahaaa.

So…you had many ways to see the theme. What caught your eye?

A certain bleakness of prospects, a kind of sense that no matter what, the character has lost something, something for good, and will never get it back. Maybe he has lost his innocence, or relinquished his optimism. Maybe she has now seen herself for the first time as victim and perpetrator of the crimes against her.

I like to think that we live in a world of altruists, dreamers, and the bedazzling miracles of nature. But we also live in an evil-infused world with all sorts of ill will flying about, random as well as intentional. Look at Josh Powell, that American husband and father of small boys, who (presumably) was involved in his wife’s disappearance, then just this last month hacked at his two kids with a hatchet, and caused a gas explosion in his house to further ensure that his family would be wiped off the face of the earth. If he couldn’t have his kids, then no one would. How do dastardly people get to that point? That’s what I pondered as I read submissions. And…what traces of humanity do they perhaps still have left?

Writers of fiction don’t really have to look far for story ideas.

No, indeed. One police blotter, and you’re good to go.

But again, how did you know which stories to select? And which poems?

I found a number of stories that had fun, classically “dastardly” plotlines, involving capers or deceits. And then there were a number of stories that were less about plot and more about feeling, like mourning a loss. Misery and suffering are relative. So, the dastardliness that for one story was a harrowing and unexpected physical/emotional ordeal endured by a character who stays more or less static (as in the case of Cecilia in Lauren E. Watkins’ “The Blind Ones”) was for another story a subtle, much more gradual character shift (as in the case of Howard in John McCaffrey’s “Too Good to Be True”). The dastardliness could come from the outside, or grow like a cancer from within. Even just the bizarre imagery of a professional clown’s empty bunk bed, and shoelaces dangling from the beam of it (as in Zach Fishel’s “Upon Seeing the Fat Clown in Toledo”) conjured up the specter of ill will—something terrifying that was done, or would be done, to some innocent person.

So, you knew then. You knew which works you wanted.

Yeah.  Some of them took a longer editorial process to get to where they got, and others initially seemed like they’d fit, but wound up being about entirely something else, so I had to reject them, say to the writer that they’d perhaps find a better publication home elsewhere.

What do you anticipate seeing for the Ohio issue that’s coming up?

Well, hopefully nothing about the Buckeye football team. I disliked having an office in the Ohio Stadium back when I was a lecturer at Ohio State. It was before the big multizillion-dollar renovation, and raccoons used to chew through the ceiling panels. Their feces and crud—and sometimes even they themselves—would fall onto our desks in the English as a Second Language Department. We’d be there calling up Maintenance to please come trap them! It was bad enough having to teach the twelve tenses of my mother tongue to speakers of languages with far simpler verb grammars. Being an academic and having to share space, and rub raccoon-elbows, with a big-time athletic machine let me know where people’s priorities were. Please, people, don’t send me any Ohio State football stories. Not unless the zombie raccoon apocalypse of 2012 is in it, and characters are bleeding scarlet and gray as they’re being gnawed to death.

I’m asking for real.

Did I digress?

You always talk and talk when you talk about Ohio.

Ohio, if you weren’t aware, has the greatest concentration of higher educational institutions per capita in the U.S. They have something like eleven million people, and three distinct linguistic isoglosses of American English (going east-west, like the layers of a cake). You’ve got the Rust Belt, you’ve got the Ohio River, and you’ve got all kinds of agriculture. You’ve got a swing state that makes international headlines every presidential election. You’ve got this crazy evangelical bent to a state that has also shown itself to be quite liberal, that was a big part of the Underground Railroad, and a champion of educational opportunity for minorities and women—think Oberlin College. You have aviators and astronauts, Sherwood Anderson, Toni Morrison, and Donald Ray Pollock. With all that and so much more that I haven’t mentioned, I don’t foresee any problem whatsoever finding truly worthy storytelling in my submissions inbox.

But what kind of Ohio story would you really like to see?

I suppose I can’t really say. I lived in three regions of Ohio for a total of twenty years of my life, and was always pleased to be leaving whenever I did a foreign exchange, but also always happy to come back. Ohio was my backboard, my mental Linus-blanket. I escaped it gladly, then wondered about it from afar, even though its rivers were choking with agricultural runoff and industrial pollution, and people were losing their livelihoods.

There was a certain Ohio sensibility, an Ohio identity. A we-are-here and this-is-what-there-is. You always felt you were getting straight talk from an Ohioan. Plain speaking, like the Amish say they are. But it’s also because both of my parents hailed from New England. They were like fish on land when we moved to Ohio during my later childhood. They had thick East Coast accents and rapid-fire humor that just went right over people’s heads. My way of rebelling against the parental units was to dig my nails deep into my plain-speaking Ohioanness. My keenness on plain speech was an asset when I taught English to non-native speakers.

I’ve of course now lived the majority of my years NOT in Ohio. That’s perhaps the motivation to do this issue…I’d like to see stories and prose poems offering some answers to my own essential questions of “What is Ohio, really, when it all boils down to it?” and “What am I missing by not being in Ohio anymore?”

And what you are missing by starting Penduline in Portland, and not in Cleveland, Akron, Cincinnati, Toledo or Columbus.

I would never have founded this publication in Ohio.

Really? Why do you say that? You surely don’t mean that if—

Oh, never. Never in a million years. That’s not the fault of Ohio at all. I was a full-time employee in a school district in my last job there. I had the weight of school funding cuts, benchmarks, planning meetings, and job insecurity on my shoulders. I couldn’t manage to balance the inherent dullness of that job with an outside life having that necessary spark required to be an artist. Creativity? Independent publishing of edgy stories by unique voices, and attention-getting work by talented visual artists? Never. I spent a lot of time freshening up my mulch beds—a kind of obsessive thing with Ohioans. Nose to the grindstone.

That’s a waste of your talent.

That’s what a gas pedal and 2500 miles were for. Hello, Portland.

You can’t blame your creative doldrums on Ohio, can you?

Yes, and no. There is a certain mindset, a meat-and-potatoes, git-‘er-done, just-shut-up-and-do-your-job mentality there. I was actually once told by an employer that I thought too much.

Oh, now don’t do that! [Laughs.]

But lucky me, I was older then and I had lived in several places overseas where I noticed that anybody with an ounce of creativity or radical thought had to skeedaddle—to some bigger city or creative haven. You would honestly not believe the antiintellectual climate I experienced in some of the cultures I was immersed in abroad. I decided, once back in Ohio, that I wasn’t going to live out that drudgery anymore on my home turf. Creative people are always, always outnumbered by uncreative souls. You have to struggle.

Well, I look forward to your continued success, Bonnie, and to what you and Sarah come up with for the Ohio issue.

Thanks, Charlotte. Sarah grew up in Pennsylvania—in the Philly area, not really the more Midwestern kind of PA. We both wear the cloak of belonging to the Pacific Northwest. We can drive up to Mount Hood in the summer, camp by the beaches of Oregon and Washington, and drink all the Stumptown and Peet’s coffee we want, but we can’t ever forget our Eastern Standard Time roots. So yeah, this issue will be good for us.