Reading the River

The February cover of the Rapid River Literary Digest features what appears to be a wide-open mouth displaying a tongue tattooed with the words “Pick Me Up.” Though not all that inappropriate for the Valentine month, the image seems a little too flippantly punkish to do justice to what actually lies between the covers of Asheville’s new, free, literary journal.

“[The ‘tattoo’] was actually one of those [heart-shaped] Valentine’s candies,” explains the magazine’s art director and co-publisher, Terri DeLoach, shrugging.

Rapid River is an ambitious and straightforward monthly collection of mostly poetry and fiction, chosen by DeLoach and editor/co-publisher Dennis W. Ray from among a rapidly growing field of local submissions (they’ve also received a few pieces from as far away as Boston and Ohio).

The paper was conceived by DeLoach and Ray in between waiting tables at the same local restaurant. “I’ve always had an interest in publishing,” says New Mexico native Ray. “About two years ago, I decided I wanted to do something like this, so I looked around to see where would be a good place to start up a magazine. I heard that Asheville and western North Carolina is, per capita, the number-one spot for the arts in the country, so I headed here.”

It would be easy — but wrong — for an ungenerous critic to slam the whole paper by picking apart a few pieces deemed subpar. It would be equally easy to go overboard the other way and gush about a few sublime slices of literary excellence (like a poem in the March issue called “a thousand hollow wings,” by Piedmont poet Christopher Mankoff). But the fact is, it’s the paper’s eclectic avoidance of any set political or literary theme that makes it so readable.

Some pieces are highly intellectual, some are simplistic, and the rest fall somewhere in the broad range in between. If the style or subject of a particular story or poem doesn’t trip your trigger, try another. And if this month’s issue doesn’t do it for you, check out the next. “Some pieces work together,” Ray points out. “That might mean we’d print one over another that might have a higher stylistic quality, because it just doesn’t fit in, but [the higher quality one] will maybe be printed next month.”

The first issue, largely written by Ray, came out last October. This month’s issue, with DeLoach’s photo of a snow scene on the cover (DeLoach feels it’s a bit too corny, but perhaps it will atone for the “tongue tattoo”) is the sixth, and all indications are that the paper is thriving. No one gets paid (at least not yet), but they have enough long-term advertising under contract to cover costs for the remainder of the year, and more than enough submissions to let Ray focus on publishing, rather than producing the content.

“It’s only been out six months, and I think it’s grown a lot, it’s gotten a lot better,” says DeLoach. “I look forward to seeing what it looks like next year.”

By all accounts, Ashevilleans are embracing Rapid River enthusiastically.

“I was delivering [the paper] the other day,” Ray relates animatedly, “and I just got swarmed with people [saying], ‘All right! That’s the latest issue! Great!’ People just grab it, because they’re excited to see it. Maybe their work’s been in it, or their friend’s work’s been in it. Plus, a lot of people I’ve talked to, I’ve asked [them], ‘Are you a writer? Have you submitted anything?’ and they say, ‘No, no, no, I just really like some of the stuff you’ve got in there.’ I’m always really excited when someone approaches me like that.”

Where do DeLoach and Ray plan to go with the paper? “Short-term, I’d like it to get really renowned in this area,” DeLoach replies. “I think [people are excited about it] now, but I also think it could be a lot better. I’d like maybe to do it in a different format, too. … I’d also like to branch out and start covering more of the art scene, start covering the music scene … not preview/promotions, but actual reviews. I’d like it … to be more than a literary digest.”

“If we go regional, we’ll have to [start selling] it,” adds Ray. “It’s not going to help the advertisers here to advertise [in another city]. … If we go regional, we’ll have to change formats and direction, and that’s something Terri and I would have to discuss, somewhere down the line.”

“I want to keep the focus here,” DeLoach says firmly. “We’re getting submissions from other places, but I want most of the writers to be local western North Carolina writers.”

“Well, at least Southern writers,” Ray offers.

“I want a local paper,” DeLoach responds firmly. “I would like to expand it [at some point], but I think right now that’s why people look forward to reading it — it’s local.” (Although the practiced ease with which they disagree might lead one to assume otherwise, both insist that their relationship is exclusively professional.)

Currently, Rapid River has space to print only about 10 percent of the poetry it receives (“We get tons of poetry,” DeLoach relates), and a somewhat higher percentage of the fiction, but they still want more, and they encourage anyone to submit completed manuscripts — poetry, fiction, essays, reviews — to the address listed in the paper.

“We try to have a wide variety,” says Ray. “We published [a poem] by a 10-year-old girl. We try to blend it. A concern is all these depressing poems — the therapy kind. We try to veer from those a little, we’d like to get more comedic poems.” But he’s reluctant to discourage anyone from heeding their muse. “That would limit someone who might write these incredible depressing poems … like Sylvia Plath.”

DeLoach emphasizes that Rapid River “[doesn’t] want eight pages of poetry — [we want] to have three pages of poetry.” She says they’d prefer more short fiction, not to mention visual arts. “I’d … like for artists to start submitting black-and-white photos, 8-by-10s, even slides,” she says. “Or just contact us.”

Rapid River is an exciting, evolving product put out by excited, committed people and well-received in the community — in short, a success. Even if you don’t think you like poetry, or if the word “literary” makes you nervous, what’s to lose by perusing the paper (which you’ll find at area shops, restaurants and galleries)? As DeLoach succinctly puts it: “It’s free. Pick it up.”

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