his month’s guest journal was recently named to a “Best Of” list for 2020-2021 of favorite presses, magazines, publishers, and journals to follow. I’m happy to say I know our featured editor from our time together taking several creative nonfiction courses. We went on to form a literary friendship outside the classroom, supporting each other on social media. Christy also writes for the WOW! community and you’ll come across her name from time to time in this very column—where she sits on the other side, conducting interviews! She’s in the chair as our guest this time. Please give a warm welcome to Christy O’Callaghan, Managing Editor with Barzakh Magazine. Let’s start by taking a look at the journal’s mission statement:
Barzakh Magazine is a multi-genre journal with an international stance. “Barzakh” is a word/concept that names the connecting link, the “between” of something. As a temporal concept it can be, and historically was, considered an interval of time. Emerging out of the English department at the University of Albany, SUNY, our focus is on innovative and experimental poetry and prose as well as socially engaged art. We want to hear voices hidden and silenced, quiet and yearning, loud and impossible.
Barzakh publishes one themed issue annually. They seek original art, poetry, and multi-genre prose up to 10,000 words.
WOW: Nice to catch up with you again, Christy! Since meeting you three years ago in one of WOW’s creative nonfiction classes, I’ve come to really enjoy when our paths cross.
Christy: Hi, Ann! It’s always a pleasure to work with the WOW! community, and especially with you. I’m so honored and flattered that you wanted to interview me because, as you mention, I’m usually on the other side.
WOW: We’re nearing one month into a new year, when many of us are still feeling the euphoria of our New Year’s Resolutions, and ready to charge forward. I keep up with your blog through social media, and read a recent post you wrote about winter solstice and beginnings; how you try to keep yourself open to the unknown. You mentioned starting a graduate program, in addition to taking on the role of Managing Editor with Barzakh. Can you tell us more about how this came about, and how your editorial role helps you embrace “the unknown”?
Christy: First of all, thank you for following my blog. It’s been a fun project for me, and I’m always thrilled when people message me about something it sparked for them. I started writing about five years ago after recovering from a prolonged illness. I wrote as a kid and through college, and stopped as my health worsened. Plus, I worked full-time in human services, so there wasn’t much time or energy left over. Most recently, I taught job skills to inmates and helped them find work upon release. I loved my students but it was time for a change, so I applied to University at Albany a year ago. I was accepted and started as a student last spring, as I continued working full-time. That was way too much, and with classes moving to in-person, I decided to take the leap and focus on school and writing, which was scary. I connected with Barzakh through one of the Editors-in-Chief, Connor Syrewicz. Last spring, I read a story for other grad students and Connor helped me prepare for the reading. That’s when he told me about Barzakh. This fall, we luckily had a class together and he said they were filling positions and suggested the Managing Editor role to me. I said yes, and am so glad I did.
WOW: You wrote recently on your blog that Entropy named Barzakh to two of their “Best Of” lists for 2020-2021. The first was for favorite presses, magazines, publishers, and journals. Congratulations! I’ve always enjoyed looking through these year-end lists from Entropy, as well as checking their monthly round-ups of calls for submissions. I know many of us will miss Entropy, with the recent retirement of their website in December 2021.
Entropy also included three pieces published in Barzakh to their “Best Of” fiction list. One was a short story from Edward Derbes, titled Death Sentence. The second was Clare Harmon’s A Series of Parables, and the third was Tript Kaur’s Qasba. Three selections from one journal is impressive! What do you think makes Barzakh’s ongoing selection of prose, poetry, and art stand out and capture the attention of these “Best Of” lists?
Christy: We’ll all miss Entropy’s contributions to the literary community. Their “Best Of” lists have been such an essential resource for me as I’ve ventured into the writing world. It was exciting to see Barzakh popping up in their list in December of this past year. In my role, I have the honor of sharing how great our team and contributors are. The short fiction list was extra cool for me because Karen Russell’s The Ghost Birds was also on it, and I’m a massive fan of her work.
Barzakh is comprised of excellent editors, most of whom are wicked cool Ph.D. students. I’ve been fortunate to have classes with most of them, and I’m in awe of their breadth of knowledge, grasp of language(s), and talent. I think they make a huge difference. Plus, they care, and they’re a pleasure to be around. They each have their interests and passions for their writing, art, and studies, which helps bring new ideas to the mix. And, of course, we have awesome contributors. Barzakh’s focus is on showcasing international voices. Those unique voices and experiences bring variety and flavor to the magazine.
WOW: You’ve been in your editorial role for several months now. What were your goals when you started, and have you learned anything new that you may not have expected? What do you most enjoy so far, and what are you looking forward to learning or doing in the upcoming year with Barzakh?
Christy: It’s so different to view publishing from this side. As a nonfiction reader for CARVE, my knowledge of this side has been growing and this opportunity with Barzakh offered me a chance to learn even more. When I started, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I do. I’m hoping to continue with a similar role when I graduate.
At first, my goals were not to screw up the back end of Submittable or the website as we prep the new issue, but so far, so good! Writers and artists trust you with their vision and their work, and our publication wants to respect that trust. My other big goal is to build up Barzakh’s social media presence. (Please check us out on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter!) I’m having so much fun doing social for the magazine. How could I not? For example, I love making posts with our Barzakh pencils. They’re so darn cute! Every Saturday morning, I do a post asking what creators are doing with their weekends. Most writers and artists have day jobs, and weekends are when they get to create. Their answers are inspiring and motivating. I know there are plenty of concerns and issues around social media, and it’s understandable—but it’s also a necessary tool to connect with creators all over the world. When you’re a small lit journal with a tiny budget, social tools are invaluable. By the way, if AWP is held in person this year, visit the Barzakh table and grab one of our cute little pencils!
WOW: Agree, those pencils are cute! I won’t be at AWP, so how else can I get one? LOL! Now, as a relative newcomer to the journal, what perspective would you say you bring to the editorial table?
Christy: It’s funny to be both the oldest and the newest at the same time. I was a community educator and organizer for 22 years, and those skills come in handy with engaging the literary community. I’ve been lucky to be on the writer’s side of submitting and publishing, and I know what I have and have not enjoyed as a contributor, so I try to stay cognizant of that in this role.
WOW: How is the team structured, and how does your role as Managing Editor intersect with genre editors and the Editor-in-Chief?
Christy: We have two Editors-in-Chief—Kevin Kilroy and Connor Syrewicz—and each section has co-editors. We also have several associate editors who read work and offer feedback. My primary function is to help bring the EICs’ vision to life. I also co-edit our art section. I’m there to support Juliana Haliti, our brilliant Art Editor. They’re a great artist and have done so much to expand the visual art section. I share my opinion, which doesn’t always match theirs, but that’s cool. Sometimes we need a tiebreaker. I had classes with a couple of the Barzakh editors last semester, and we got to hang out. One of the poetry editors, Kyle Macy, helped me with book ideas for my husband for Christmas. In my role, I manage a lot of the back-end stuff so the editors can do their part as smoothly as possible.
WOW: Barzakh has published issues since 2009. Why did the journal decide to publish annually, rather than quarterly or monthly? Are there benefits to publishing once a year?
Christy: It’s funny you ask that because we are about to release our Winter 2022 issue. It’s the first time we are doing two issues instead of one. With a journal run by volunteer grad students who also teach and work, and with a tiny budget, it takes time to grow. With each iteration of leadership, we’ve done just that. I’ve become familiar with Barzakh’s evolution while creating our social media posts. When the magazine first started, it received a great deal of support from the local Albany writing community, and they continue to have our backs through the years. Our current EICs built on that tradition by standing on the shoulders of those who came before them. We also have the best faculty advisor, Ed Schwartzchild, who is generous in sharing his wealth of knowledge, guidance, and energy. We’re in a great spot to continue expanding, while at the same time maintaining the quality we’re proud of.
“Voices of all ages and backgrounds can evoke excitement in a reader. My suggestion: create something that stretches and challenges you, but doesn’t lose your authentic voice.”
WOW: How is a theme chosen for each annual issue?
Christy: The process of selecting a theme is organic. It’s a collaboration of what the editorial team is interested in exploring. The Spring 2021 issue’s theme is “On Incarceration,” which came from staff members who have worked with inmates in some capacity. I wasn’t on staff at that point, but I’ve worked with incarcerated adults for 20 years, including in my most recent job. It was one of the things that drew me to Barzakh.
WOW: Your role there, especially with the Spring 2021 issue on incarceration and your experience working with inmates, sounds like serendipity! I’m looking forward to seeing the latest issue when it publishes. While on the topic of publication, what does the team look for in submissions? What might writers, poets, and visual artists do to make their work a good fit for Barzakh?
Christy: Much like any publication, there’s a balance between readers and editors and the larger vision. At the moment, we have very bright editors overseeing each section. They’re drawn to different voices and ideas, and innovative and conceptually challenging work which can come from anyone or anywhere. Voices of all ages and backgrounds can evoke excitement in a reader. My suggestion: create something that stretches and challenges you, but doesn’t lose your authentic voice.
WOW: About how many submissions does the journal receive each year, and what’s Barzakh’s acceptance rate? What can our readers expect for an average response time?
Christy: We’ve been receiving 600 submissions per cycle. Over the past two years, our acceptance rate has been around eight-percent. We send acceptances and rejections in batches, instead of on a rolling basis, so it may be a few months before a submitter hears from us.
WOW: Do you personally lean toward one genre? What is it about that genre that appeals to you?
Christy: Oh man, I love both nonfiction and fiction. I write and read both. Fiction is a place where my brain can jump in and swim around, whereas nonfiction offers my brain a chance to expand and explore. I like poetry, but it’s not my forte. I wrote my first poem in Montana this past August at the Elk River Writers Workshop. I have no idea where that poem came from, but it was about biting into a crisp apple. Mostly, I love voice and storytelling. If it’s a good story with a good voice, I’m in.
WOW: We love to promote other writers. Though you had not yet started your role with Barzakh when they published their last issue, do you have any favorites from it—or any earlier issues—that you think our readers would enjoy?
Christy: One of the best parts of my role is promoting our contributors and our editors. The Special Section on Invisibility in our current issue is a favorite of mine. Expressing the feel of invisibility is so powerful. With the pandemic, so many of us can relate.
WOW: We also like to turn the tables in these interviews and hear more about what our guests pursue with personal writing and other interests. Let’s start with your first publication, which is a big milestone for any writer. What made it especially memorable?
Christy: My very first publications were when I was ten or so, and I was so proud of those stories. My teacher photocopied them and made my whole class read them. It was both horribly embarrassing and thrilling at the same time. My first publication as an adult was My Year of Solitude with Perspectives Magazine. The call was to write from the perspective of an object. I chose an earring. When I was sick and going to treatments every week and exhausted all the time, I had a go-to pair of earrings I loved that made me feel more put together than I actually was. At my last procedure, where I had my port removed, I lost one of them. The story is about the earring that didn’t get lost, but was never worn again. It was my way to thank the earrings for their comfort through some rough years.
“Instead of resolutions, I pick a word for the year and don’t tell anyone what it is. I set the alarm on my phone, so the word pops up in the morning and then it’s in my brain for the day. Last year, it was 'focus,' and I started grad school and joined Barzakh’s masthead.”
WOW: How fun to write from the perspective of an inanimate object! I’ve also seen you share some amazing photos on Instagram. In particular, I love your “Mushroom Series.” How long have you been a photographer, and what prompted the idea to start a series around mushrooms?
Christy: Ha! Thanks. Along with writing, I take photos, draw, and paint. And mushrooms are just funky. They have so many colors, textures, and shapes. Last summer, I visited Yellowstone while I was in Montana and didn’t see any mushrooms. Because of the drought, there wasn’t enough moisture for them to grow. It rained for three days during the workshop, and mushrooms started to appear just before I returned home. And then, in the summer of 2020, Tiny Seeds published my story, Tree Eaters (which included one of my photos), about what the world would be like with no more mushrooms. My husband nicknamed it the “Post-Mushroom Apocalypse” fairy tale.
I love taking pictures on my cell phone while I’m out in nature or when I’m traveling. But I’m not really a photographer. Mostly I’m having fun. When everything shut down, I was lucky to live in an area where I could still hike and walk in the woods. I kept posting photos for my mental well-being. It touched my heart that so many who were stuck in apartments in cities or away from nature reached out to tell me how much the photos were helping them. I would have posted them anyway, but it gave me more energy to keep doing it.
WOW: That’s the upside to sharing on social media. We all hear about the downside, but there are helpful aspects to engaging. Case in point: your mushroom photo series, and how it lifted the spirits for those who may not often see something like that if they’re living in a city.
We started this interview with a nod to your blog post about how you like to embrace the unknown in each new year. What might you suggest to our readers when they think about stretching themselves this year? What philosophy or practice has helped you define your writing goals, and what keeps you on track?
Christy: Instead of resolutions, I pick a word for the year as an intention and don’t tell anyone what it is. I set the alarm on my phone, so the word pops up in the morning and then it’s in my brain for the day. The year I finally got the surgery that solved my medical issues, the word was “health.” All my decisions were focused on reaching that goal. The following year, it was “write.” I took a class that winter and was published by the end of that year. Last year, it was “focus,” and I started grad school and joined Barzakh’s masthead. After being so close to death and not getting to live life the way I wanted, my answer is YES to as much as possible. If something interesting presents itself, I say yes. It doesn’t always work out, but I try. And when I get nervous, I remind myself it’s just my body’s way of telling me that whatever I’m doing is important. I’m still nervous, but I don’t let it get in my way.
WOW: One-hundred percent! I admire your practice of picking words for each new year, and how it often works out, pushing you to stretch yourself. I’m curious what your word for 2022 is now! But, you just said you don’t share it in the current year. Be sure to let us know next December, LOL! OK, last question. What’s your go-to snack while writing, or during breaks? Are you Team Healthy, or Team Sugar?
Christy: Unfortunately, my leftover health issue is that I have pancreatitis, so Team Sugar is not my friend—but I do love chocolate. Actually, walking, hiking, and swimming are what I use instead of snacks. I think better when I’m in motion, and I do a lot of pre-writing in my head while I’m moving. I know it’s not the same thing, but for me, it’s better.
My thanks to Christy O’Callaghan, Managing Editor with Barzakh Magazine for chatting with me. Keep those mushroom photos coming, Christy, and I hope to see you again in a future WOW! class. I’ve received some of the most helpful workshop critiques in the creative nonfiction classes, and I encourage our readers to check out the latest selections and give something a try.
Barzakh will open submissions in a few days (January 30), to coincide with the publication of their next issue. Subs will close on May 1, so don’t delay in sending them your work!
Ann Kathryn Kelly writes from New Hampshire’s Seacoast region. She’s an editor with Barren Magazine, a columnist with WOW! Women on Writing, and she works in the technology sector. Ann leads writing workshops for a nonprofit that offers therapeutic arts programming to people living with brain injury. Her essays have appeared in a number of literary journals.