BRATTLEBORO — Using the current U.S. Census Bureau standards for what constitutes a "rural" area — 2,500 people or fewer — the town of Brattleboro, officially falls into the urban category.
To Desmond Peeples, a Brattleboro native, that's laughable.
"By those 2010 census statistics, I, in my (beautiful, complicated, irreplaceable) one-or-two-horse town of 12,000, live in an urban area, and my experiences should be counted among those of queer, mixed-race people in Boston, Denver, Fresno," Peeples writes in a blog post. "Sorry, but it just ain't true."
Peeples goes on to characterize rural America as "miscounted," "fundamentally misunderstood," and popularized in a way that erases many — notably, queer non-white residents — who call it home.
"[F]olks working behind the scenes in publishing and the creative industries are still overwhelmingly white and middle or upper class — so the writers and artists whose voices are raised up often fit a certain set of white and middle or upper class expectations," Peeples writes. "A certain kind of brown immigrant story, a certain kind of small-town queer story. Editors, curators, and other creative 'gatekeepers' are not looking for most rural LGBTQ and POC voices because they forget that we exist, or they do not recognize our true existence when they see it."
In an effort to paint a more inclusive and accurate image of places like Brattleboro, Peeples has revived Mount Island, a literary magazine that started five years ago before going on hiatus. It's now seeking submissions from rural LGBTQ and people of color artists and writers, with an intent to publish this fall. (To submit or learn more, visit mountisland.com).
"We will be the roadside blackberries, and America will be the hungry runaway come a' pickin'," the magazine states. "There will be wide eyes, disbelief. To the American imagination we'll say, 'read it and weep.'"
Southern Vermont Landscapes recently sat down with Peeples, Mount Island's editor-in-chief, and Shanta Lee Gander, its managing editor, to talk further about the magazine's history, its goals, and the value of establishing this type of creative community. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Southern Vermont Landscapes: We can start by you both introducing yourselves.
Desmond Peeples: I was born in Brattleboro and I live here still. That's after several years of moving around the country. I went to Goddard College, which is up in Plainfield, and it's a low residency school, so I took the opportunity to move around. I started the first iteration of this magazine right after graduating from Goddard. I had gone to school to focus on my writing and after getting out, realized there's this whole world of publishing that many undergraduates aren't exposed to. So I decided to jump in and figure it out on my own.
Shanta Lee Gander: I've been in the area for about a decade. I'm originally from Connecticut, and I've worn many professional hats. Here, I was the formal head of the Arts Council of Windham County. I did a year as a Brattleboro select board [member]. I'm currently involved with the [Brattleboro] Words Project, which is looking at the history of peoples, places, and just overall history as part of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Peeples: I'm also the assistant director for that.
Gander: I'm a writer, I'm a photographer.
SVL: How did you two meet?
Peeples: I remember it was at Arkham I think. I was just walking by, and you, like, stopped me, and were like, "You're cute!"
Gander: I think that's how we struck up a conversation. Friendship from there.
SVL: And you're both at Vermont College of Fine Arts for its MFA, right?
Gander: We're there now.
Peeples: I'm in my second to last semester.
Gander: I am beginning. I have another grad degree in business. I'm interested in the business of art as well as art for art's sake.
SVL: Can you talk about re-starting up Mount Island and if the vision for it has changed at all, or if it's stayed the same, and why now?
Peeples: I started it back in 2014 really just as a way to get into the publishing world and that professional community of writers. And that really just isn't enough of a focus to sustain a long project. Now, I'm almost done with grad school and really miss publishing. What I've noticed over the years working in MFA circles and the small press scene, there's this current interest in serving underrepresented artists and writers. But there's what I think of as a really big swath of people who are not being served because there's this American cultural idea of rural America that erases these persons — that's rural queer people and people of color. I still live in a rural area and love it here and would like for there to be more opportunities for people like me. We need a publishing house that serves this very specific niche because as far as I can tell, there isn't one.
Gander: I personally have been someone who has fed into the stereotype, being from an urban place, being someone who still goes to New York or Connecticut often, and finding myself wanting to see more of an "other," more of the voice of "the other." People are having this conversation about museum acquisitions, and what's in the museums, who are we seeing, who are we always hearing from? I'm very excited to be a part of this project that uncovers here. We certainly have a lot of gems here and a lot of richness that we forget about.
Peeples: I have always encountered a lot of people who kind of jokingly, but in all seriousness, say, 'There's no black people in Vermont." The fact is, there are all sorts of people here, there have always been. So we just need more institutions and groups that are actively bringing them to the fore.
Gander: And there is a history here. We started rural, agricultural, and somehow we've wanted to escape that or we only want to revisit it when it's comfortable.
Peeples: I think the mainstream conversation about rural Americans and what is possible here at home is kind of a straw-man. They're not actually talking about the conditions of what life is like here.
SVL: What are you looking for in your submissions?
Peeples: A few submissions have come in that outrightly state, 'this is my queer writing.' That's not necessarily what we want. We certainly want [people] to bring that specificity to the table, but we just want good writing. We want stories about anything and everything. There are black science fiction writers, there are queer stories about bank robbers. The quality of writing to me is really the most important [part].
Gander: We're going to expand on that, too. We're talking about editors for visual art as well. We're interested in showing people who are expressing within and beyond their identity.
Peeples: For example, we got an art editor on board just recently named Shani Stoddard, who is a drag performer up in Burlington who has been really successful and is just incredible.
Gander: We want to use this as a platform even to get people to think expansively about what we call, what we see as art, especially as it relates to underrepresented voices.
SVL: You've talked about the rural-urban divide, and in terms of what is represented in your magazine, how does that come into play?
Peeples: Even though our focus is rural LGBTQ and POC voices, we are welcome to everybody who is interested.
Gander: Allies especially.
Peeples: You just have to have some significant and expressible connection to the rural world.
SVL: You said there does not seem to be another publication with this kind of focus, but are there examples or models from your own artistic lives where you look to that and say, "That's what I want — I see myself in that"?
Gander: It would probably be more historical. This is how I got involved in the [Brattleboro] Words Project. Lucy Terry Prince was Abijah Prince's wife. For years living here, I would hear about Abijah Prince Road, Abijah Prince, African American. But didn't explore more beyond that. I want to say in 2016, [project director] Lissa Weinmann came to me and was like, "She was her own person — who was this person, Lucy Terry?" Come to find out, Lucy Terry and her husband were both African-American, they were once enslaved, then they were freed, they owned land in Guilford area. [Lucy] is the first-known African American poet. She pre-dates Phillis Wheatley. She had one surviving poem called "Bars Fight" that chronicles what happens with Native Americans coming into territories and hauling people off. Which is very significant for the time because of her status. The fact that she was here and the fact that she also used her voice — there were a couple times she went to the highest court in Vermont to argue for her rights. I found that inspiring. What other voices are hidden?
Peeples: There are a bunch of presses that are working to uncover what have been pushed aside or hidden voices over the years. Anybody who is actively doing that is an example for us as a publisher. The Offing, which is a project of the [Los Angeles] Review of Books, they've been doing really well.
SVL: This is a pretty big project to take on. I'm assuming you're not paid right now — can you talk about that choice to invest yourselves?
Gander: Certainly we will be seeking grants, we will be seeking sponsorships and all sorts of opportunities for people to invest in it. I see it as a business opportunity as well as an artistic opportunity.
Peeples: I have more of a reluctance towards business. I recognize that to keep this alive for the community and
artistic reasons I want it to live, we do have to approach it with those practical things in mind. But literary magazines have always been labors of love. I just have no problem giving my time to that. Particularly because it is one of the best ways I have found to keep a creative community around you and to keep it fed and strong. For all that matter, we just got sponsorship from Fractured Atlas, which is a national arts service organization. We can take tax-deductable donations. So, if you want to lend a hand
SVL: Can you elaborate more on why this is important personally to the two of you?
Peeples: I've grown up here and I've always seen people trying to get creative projects going. I've also lived in central and northern Vermont, where things are a little more active, it's easier to build momentum. I'm just tired of that. I've lived in a bunch of different rural areas, and that's a pretty unifying experience, especially for queer people, people of color in those areas. All writers and all artists have always had to actively maintain a community and I think this is the best way I can promise myself that and anybody else who wants to take me up on that.
Gander: I go back and forth between wanting to create my own community versus being a part of what is. I also very much have been part of what is. Honestly, one of the things that has been challenging for me has been seeing the old guard as the gatekeepers here, the generational tension. I've been thinking, where can I put my energy in terms of creating for myself, but also building other communities that are nurturing and that I also feel like I can actually give to?
SVL: Are there questions I'm not asking?
Gander: We're going to be starting a podcast as part of [Mount Island Magazine]. So look out for that soon.
SVL: What will that look like?
Peeples: We'll be talking about pretty wide-ranging, perhaps tangential conversations about the creative process.
Gander: We've done things like "What do you get out of your well?" "What inspires you?" "What's the danger of exploration?" Also, voice, the appropriation of voice.
Peeples: We'll also be doing interviews with contributors. And in October, the idea is to have a launch party.
Gander: Something fun and something engaging.
Peeples: A game show. That's all I'll say.