Write Here, Write Now

A web of Cincinnati-based literary journals and zines connect writers and readers in a thriving do-it-yourself community. They want you to submit.

Illustration by L.D. Nehls

The world of literary journals is vast, a point that Many Nice Donkeys coeditor Maggie Fulmer makes in a Zoom interview with her four colleagues. In part, that’s because publications like theirs can now live online and find audiences across the globe.

“Normally, it feels cliché to say, There’s a place for everyone, but in the literary world there probably is a place that will accept your work,” says Fulmer. “It’s about finding it. By creating these relationships with other magazines and other writers, we’re helping people find us. We hope they’ll submit to us.”

The staff of Many Nice Donkeys consists of five former Northern Kentucky University English graduate students: Jen Davis, Alexander Walz, Nik Moore, and Jasmine Williamson, along with Fulmer. That’s in no particular order. The quint makes it clear that they’re all equals; rather than having a set editor in chief, they rotate the role with each issue. The group bonded during an NKU study-abroad trip to Ireland, where they visited the farm of the country’s last traditional matchmaker, Willie Daly, who had a staked yard sign reading “Many Nice Donkeys.” The first issue was released in March 2022, with three more issues since; the latest came out in May with Walz at the helm.

Literary journals aren’t a new concept, of course. Ohio has been home to several established titles championing poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and other creative work for decades. The Kenyon Review published its inaugural issue in 1939, and Bowling Green State University’s Mid-American Review has been around for 30-plus years. Cleveland is home to two nonprofit lit magazines, Whiskey Island and Gordon Square Review.

Book cover art courtesy Many Nice Donkeys

Founded in 2003, the Queen City’s most established journal is The Cincinnati Review (more on it later). But Cincinnati has seen smaller, scrappier journals like Many Nice Donkeys form in the past few years. Another is the brand-new Pink Apple Press, which first came together during weekly art nights and bills itself as “showcasing the freshest, juiciest poetry, art, and flash fiction of the bushel.” Submissions for its first “chapter,” or issue, opened in the spring.

“It’s been so gratifying to provide a space where new artists and new writers can have their work published,” says Pink Apple Press cofounder Haley Hulett. “Getting published can be such a difficult and tedious process. I think it’s been really cool to lead the process from start to finish, hear from contributors and see their excitement, and then get the readers’ reactions on the other side.”

Over the past two decades, says Jen Davis of Many Nice Donkeys, online journals have gained more respect and are now more common than their print counterparts. Like many writers, though, she loves seeing her name in print. “New writers who are still working through their aches and pains deserve to be published, too,” adds Williamson.

In the four issues released so far, the journal has given several writers their first publication credit—side by side with authors who have published books. While the editorial team is mostly based in Greater Cincinnati, the work isn’t necessarily regionally focused. They’ve received submissions from all over, even from the UK. Since they blind read submissions, editors aren’t aware of anyone’s background until the work is accepted.

“The more we publish, the more our audience comes to understand the types of people we are anyway,” says Fulmer. “We’ve all seen such a big difference in the submissions we get now versus our very first issue.”

On social media, they see readers discussing the work they’ve published, some even becoming inspired to send in their own work. Moore says it feels special to be trusted with people’s work, and Davis says their original mission was to make writers feel respected and valued, no matter if their work is accepted or rejected. Walz has even noticed writers leaving notes with their submissions about resonating with other published pieces. “Our readers are connecting with the work we put out there and then are inspired to write something,” says Walz. “I really enjoy seeing that.”

Pink Apple Press partially grew from the remnants of Moon Cola, a local literary zine that debuted in early 2022 around the same time as Many Nice Donkeys. After publishing five issues, each with its own cheeky theme, Moon Cola is currently on indefinite hiatus. Two of its editors, Hulett and Megan Mary Moore, helped start Pink Apple Press. Samantha Lakamp and Emma Lawson fill the other two management spots, bringing visual art backgrounds to the table.

“When Moon Cola’s head editor made the decision to go on hiatus, Haley and I both thought, Wow, we had so much fun doing this. Do you want to keep doing it?” says Moore, adding that they both come from literature-oriented backgrounds. Knowing that they wanted to include art in the publication, Lakamp and Lawson were brought into the fold. “I was very lucky that they were both enthusiastic about it, because it’s hard to get a group of people together for a common goal,” says Moore. “And that’s exactly what we’ve done.”

Pink Apple Press is looking for fresh, earthy, playful poetry, prose, and art. As she did with Moon Cola, Moore says she wants to provide creatives a platform to submit fun work that may not fit more formal literary magazines. Sometimes fun topics take writers (and readers) into deeper places. Pink Apple Press is publishing digitally on a quarterly basis with rotating but connected themes. The editors hope to release an annual print issue that compiles the year’s digital content.

Pink Apple Press launched a website and Instagram account in April. The editors’ fun approach to magazine-making is evident; they regularly repost literature memes on the Pink Apple Press Instagram story. The branding is just as fun-forward. Lakamp and Lawson collaborated on creating the logo, a shiny pink apple emblazoned with a tiny heart surrounded by a vine.

“I did a brain dump and got a bunch of different ideas out,” says Lawson, who has a background in education and aspires to illustrate a children’s book. “At our next meeting, we talked about different color palettes, layouts, and how things would work. Sam rolled with that and created what we have now.”

The Cincinnati Review publishes two print editions a year, and they’re thick. The Fall 2022 issue weighs in at 272 pages and brims with content: six short fiction pieces, eight literary nonfiction works, 21 featured poets, and three essays/reviews. Each issue also includes a glossy insert of an art portfolio and a play-in-progress.

While The Cincinnati Review is based out of UC’s Department of English, current students, faculty, staff, or their families are ineligible to submit (unless they’re two years removed from the university). Managing Editor Lisa Ampleman says that having writers from all over helps position the city as a national literary community. “It used to be, for example, that you’d find poems in newspapers around the turn of last century—or even by the 1920s or so—or in magazines like Cincinnati Magazine,” she says. “But over time poetry and short stories have moved more and more into the classroom instead of out in the public sphere.”

Lisa Ampleman

Photograph by Jess Jelsma Masterton

Ampleman came to UC in 2009 to pursue her doctorate degree in creative writing and worked at The Cincinnati Review as a student editor for two years. After having a baby, adjunct teaching, and freelance writing and editing, she returned to the publication in 2017 as managing editor. “I was thrilled, because it’s the kind of work I want to be doing but it’s located here in Cincinnati,” she says. “I don’t have to go to New York or Chicago. I’m still a part of the literary publishing world.”

She is the publication’s second managing editor, the first being Nicola Mason, who left The Cincinnati Review to create its book-publishing offshoot, Acre Books. This year marks the journal’s 20-year anniversary, and to celebrate, the fall issue’s theme highlights literature in Cincinnati.

Ampleman rattles off some of the city’s literature institutions that champion writers and work to bring the community together: the Mercantile Library, WordPlay Cincy, the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library and its writer-in-residence program, independent bookstores, programs like Women Writing for (a) Change, and Cincinnati Poet Laureate Yalie Saweda Kamara.

Nik Moore also speaks of the value of having editorial boards in the Midwest. When they moved to Montana to pursue a master of fine arts in poetry, Moore noted that working on Many Nice Donkeys kept them creatively connected to the literary community they had in Northern Kentucky.

“We’re not New York. We’re not San Francisco. We’re not Chicago. We’re not Atlanta,” says Moore. “They’re big literary hubs of the U.S., but because of who we know and because of who promotes us, we draw quite a bit of submissions from people speaking to the region. But that’s not exclusive to what we’re willing to publish at all.”

The University of Cincinnati is also home to several literary journals focused on publishing work by undergraduate students, including Short Vine. Casey Harloe, a student poet from Hamilton, says a lot of her work is about growing up in the Midwest as well as exploring being Filipina American.

Harloe spent her first two years at UC’s Blue Ash campus, where she worked as an intern at The Blue Ash Review, a print and digital publication produced through the Department of English and Communications. On the other side, she’s submitted to (and has gotten work published in) other journals, including Short Vine. In 2022, her poem “When I Close My Eyes I Think Of” won the Academy of American Poets Prize.

“It was a pantoum poem,” says Harloe. “It was written about microaggressions I faced in high school. And I did craft it very specifically, because a pantoum poem repeats lines over and over again to highlight what trauma does to you.”

Northern Kentucky University’s campus is home to Loch Norse Magazine, an annual literary magazine run by and for undergrad students. Josafina Garcia graduated in May and spent the past school year as its editor in chief, and she says the experience has helped her get outside her comfort zone and connect with others.

Though a different magazine preceded it, faculty supervisor and poet Kelly Moffett says Loch Norse launched in 2011, born from students’ desire to have a “vibrant” open mic scene. At the time of our interview, issue No. 12 had just been released. “When we got the hard copy of the magazine and my poetry class was coming in, they were like, Hey, is the copy ready? And I said, Yes, go ahead and get one. They literally ran out of the classroom, up to the fifth floor, got their magazines, and came back down. I got to see their faces of, Oh my gosh, my name is in print for the first time! It was really beautiful.”

On a high school level, there’s Tellus Zine, which is run out of Kennedy Heights Arts Center’s Teen Artists for Change program. The publication is managed by an all-teen editorial board of students from across Greater Cincinnati.

Director of Education Sarah Rodriguez leads me to the arts center’s basement, where editors are working on a large-scale painting of a tree for the zine’s launch party, which would be held at the end of April. The door is open to let breeze slip in as students lean over the work. The program meets throughout the year and connects board members to working professionals.

“I’m having a unique experience you wouldn’t be able to get without having been on this board,” says Desi Distal, 16. “It’s a really great reference point if you want to be an artist or an editor of anything. And it really can hone in on some skills that you wouldn’t think you would have to.”

The inaugural issue of Tellus launched in 2019, and the new issue, its fourth, carries the theme “Taking Root.” As students wrapped up this year’s issue, Rodriguez says Tellus is now in a place where it can creatively push beyond what it’s done in the past because the students have laid a strong foundation.

“They know so much, and they look at the world in a very different way,” she says. “I’m not a teenager, obviously, but they give me a different perspective. The world sometimes can be a very difficult place to live in, but they’re able to talk about those hard things and understand it better through art.”

This year’s editorial board consisted of eight students. Applications reopen in September; once the board is selected, they’ll do a fall retreat to brainstorm the next issue. “I would love to have more students,” says Rodriguez. “It would be great to have students from more of a variety of schools represented, too. That’s an area I want to see grow. How do we get more voices, more diversity so that when we put the zine together we’re really showing Cincinnati as a whole?”

Rodriguez notes that zine submissions come from a range of ages. Some contributors might be starting high school, while others are entering college. “Our city is really diverse,” she says. “We’re getting art from all different perspectives and cultures. And I get to see it all come together as a beautiful little morsel.”

Diversity and inclusion are also important to Loch Norse, according to Moffett. The publication attracts submissions from across the university, not just the halls of the English department. The team hosts open mic nights throughout the year as part of that outreach. This year, editors collaborated with different organizations on campus, including the planetarium and the School of the Arts. Each event featured a different speaker; editors of Many Nice Donkeys made an appearance at one gathering. Anyone, from staff to outside community members to students, can sign up to read at one of the events.

“There are so many people eager to be involved,” says Moffett. “We’re actually creating more positions, like assistant readers. We’re going to launch an online presence because some of the work students are making can’t be held on a page.”

In 2017, The Cincinnati Review introduced a weekly online series titled “miCRo,” which digitally publishes a short piece of fiction or nonfiction or a poem. Ampleman says the idea came from one of her student editors. And in 2011, the magazine started accepting submissions online, a decision that’s increased accessibility and, in turn, submissions.

“I see that more and more people are reading content online,” says Ampleman. “We’re very committed to the print edition of the magazine, and people really appreciate it. Contributors love getting it and showing it to people and that kind of thing. But we also want to make sure we have online content so our writers can spread their work more widely.”

At UC, Harloe frequents open mic nights and is co-president of the campus poetry club. She laughs when sharing that she “shamelessly promotes” the latter. Similar to Loch Norse’s open mic nights, the poetry club is all about forging community. The group hosts educational workshops and gives space for people to share their writing.

As the interview at Clifton Heights’s Rohs Street Café wraps, Harloe sees nearby friends, who ask if she’s attending a poetry reading later that evening.

A lot goes on behind the scenes of literary journals. Garcia knows the strain of budget first-hand. When Loch Norse lost its printing services at NKU, she contacted commercial printers only for price quotes to come back double what they’d been to produce in-house. By luck, she ran across an affordable online service. “If Josafina hadn’t found that service, we wouldn’t be able to have what we have,” says Moffett. “And Josafina, you just found it by chance, huh?”

Garcia nods. “I found it through YouTube while looking at stuff for my capstone project,” she says. “I was going to use it just for my own project, but we were looking for a printer. It really worked out.”

Funding for Loch Norse comes from NKU’s English department. Moffett says the publication has also received support from the College of Arts and Sciences and community partners like the Friends of Steely Library. The Cincinnati Review also has support from UC and other groups, including the Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation, the George Elliston Poetry Fund, the TAFT Research Center, and the Helen Weinberger Center for the Study of Drama and Playwriting.

Ampleman reflected on the funding struggles many literary magazines face in a Cincinnati Review blog post in 2022. “Those behind the scenes at magazines know that very few break even,” she wrote. “For print mags, subscriptions help cover some costs, but not all.” Even online-only magazines, she said, have costs like website maintenance, submission management, and labor.

Book cover art courtesy The Cincinnati Review

Along with university support, readers can subscribe to or buy single issues of The Cincinnati Review. The publication also pays its writers—something many literature mags, especially smaller and less established ones, aren’t able to do. Accepted submissions receive $25 per print page of prose, $30 per print page of poetry, and $25 for “miCRo” posts.

Unlike some publications of the same caliber, it’s free to submit to The Cincinnati Review. Its mission statement ties that decision to efforts in “working against past and present inequities by publishing work by individuals from systematically marginalized groups.”

Both Many Nice Donkeys and Pink Apple Press are entirely volunteer-based and self-funded. Lakamp describes tentative long-term goals to make Pink Apple Press more financially sustainable. Selling physical copies annually is a piece of that goal, and she’s already making mental notes of local stores that carry zines and could one day distribute her journal.

Iconic music stores Shake It Records (Northside) and Torn Light Records (Clifton) sell small-press publications. A new Bellevue shop, INK, bills itself as a haven for zines, alternative comics, and self-published journals.

“A conversation the four of us had going into creating Pink Apple Press was, Are we doing digital only or print only?” says Lakamp. “What are our goals? What is our plan? The mixing of digital and print was this happy marriage we found to make it more accessible and less work on our end to have the digital releases.”

Davis says Many Nice Donkeys editors want to pay their contributors before paying themselves, adding that any money spent is coming out of their own bank accounts. A one-off print issue is a dream. “We hope that, eventually, we can spread past the internet,” says Nik Moore. “We want to possibly go to conventions. We have ideas we float around about even doing workshops or retreats. We hope to grow from what we are right now.”

When asked about a memory that represents Many Nice Donkeys, Moore laughs. “We were all sitting in a pub in Ireland, chatting, having a good time and taking a picture,” they say. “And then Jasmine’s pint glass spontaneously combusts. It was an absolute shock and a surprise. Jasmine was like, Wow, I just spent money on this beer.”

Each editor piped in their own details with the story. Davis was holding the glass and, as the camera’s flash went off, boom went the beer. A nearby young couple asked why they were there and, in response to hearing they were writers, the man recited a few lines from Seamus Heaney, the famous Irish poet.

The anecdote perfectly captures what those herding Many Nice Donkeys want for writers and readers alike: the thrill of surprise.

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