"And now," cried Max, "let the wild rumpus begin!!" These are the words from my favorite childhood tale that, as a kid, I repeated over and over in my own reenactment of Where the Wild Things Are. It was the first book that ignited fire in my belly. It allowed me to relish in my mischievous and dark thoughts, and somehow made me feel justified in my inner trespasses.
When coming across the SF-based online literary magazine The Rumpus for the first time, I couldn’t help but be reminded of those unruly monsters and the feeling they evoked in me. It was late in 2009 and I too was doing a bit of foot stomping and tantrum throwing. I was in my mid-20s with a decent job, but no direction. The thought of sailing to an adult land of wild things couldn’t have sounded more appealing.
I worked my way through The Rumpus, savoring each layer as I discovered it. One by one, I found book reviews of obscure titles, essays by female authors who felt like peers, an entire section dedicated to the short story (my favorite literary form), and an advice column that broke my heart. Without realizing it, my wish had come true. I had set sail alongside The Rumpus’ authors to all the places my waking life rarely allowed me to venture. Three years later and countless book discoveries, events, and letters (from their Letters in the Mail section), I proudly consider myself to be a small part of The Rumpus community. The site is somewhere I can go, not only to learn and to challenge myself, but a place wherein I have found new friends and become involved in my city.
Over the last month I had the great pleasure of sitting down with a few of the local folks who help in the creation of The Rumpus. In our chats I learned the story of The Rumpus’ creation and gained a bit of insight into how they continue to crank out quality content day after day. Before introducing you to these rock stars I’d like to mention that there are a number of other contributors such as Antonia Crane, Cheryl Strayed, Rick Moody, Steve Almond, Roxane Gay, Lisa Dusenbery, and the many volunteers who are integral to the site.
Author and Rumpus editor-in-chief Stephen Elliott is nothing if not a powerhouse. Having published seven books, created The Rumpus, founded the political action committee LitPAC, and most recently wrote and directed feature film About Cherry, his track record speaks for itself. In part because of his résumé and in part because I happen to be a fan, I was genuinely nervous when I sat down at Four Barrel (aka the unofficial Rumpus satellite office) to meet the man myself.
Stephen's bright-eyed, seemingly innocent demeanor is a poetic complement to his professional and personal voracity. When I asked what it was that sparked the concept for The Rumpus, he took me back to a time in late 2008 when he had just finished his memoir, The Adderall Diaries, and had absolutely no desire to write another book. At the time, Stephen had been in a casual conversation with Arianna Huffington about creating some kind of a literary section on the Huffington Post. While mulling over his ideas, he thought, “Why not do this on my own?” and, as in all things Stephen Elliott, two months later a beta version of the site was up. He reached out to his circle for contributors and it was in their beautifully crafted responses that The Rumpus as we know it was born.
Stephen explains that having started the magazine without expectation, The Rumpus was able to take on a life of its own. By publishing the personal essays that he was drawn to, it naturally became less of a magazine and more of a community. You can hear the admiration in his voice when he tells me that his readers made the site what it is today. The audience wasn’t only looking for entertainment, they were asking for education and a place that would spur personal growth. For him, there is no doubt that it is because of this fact and the incredible team that both runs and contributes to the site, that his idea has turned into an internationally read and respected literary outlet.
Next, it was time for me to chat with managing editor Isaac Fitzgerald (who sometimes contributes to The Bold Italic), whose balls-to-wall personality is nothing short of a hilarious counterpart to Stephen’s mild demeanor. I commented on this fact as we strolled up to the roof of the Valencia Street office that The Rumpus now occupies. Isaac laughed heartily, and warned me not to be fooled. “Stephen and I are like a speed freak and an alcoholic pulling each other in opposite directions. He works at lightning speed and I’m always trying to slow us down.”
As we settled into a spot on the roof, I asked Isaac what he might say to folks who are intimidated by The Rumpus, since a “literary magazine” doesn’t exactly sound like the most accessible of all websites. He quickly shoots me an “Are you kidding? You’ve met the dudes that run this thing” type of a look, and I have to admit he has a point. He went on to tell me that the inclusiveness of the mag is exactly what makes it so rad. They publish authors of every shape, color, background, and sexuality. He said, “The Rumpus is like publishing moved from a high-class champagne party to a beer picnic in the park.” And he adds, “One with a lot of ladies.”
It’s true that The Rumpus is the first magazine of its variety to give women a prominent, if not dominant, presence in its pages. Not only have they published The Rumpus Women (a book of personal essays by women), the site features a Funny Women column, and has a majority of women on its editorial staff. While chatting with Julie Greicius, The Rumpus' senior literary editor, she reiterated how proud she is to be working on a site that gives women a voice.
After befriending Stephen at an Obama fundraiser, Julie first became involved as the magazine's art editor. This role was one she hadn't ever imagined herself in, but Stephen felt she’d be perfect for it. “One of the amazing things about Stephen is he looks for what people love, not necessarily what they are good at,” she told me. This love is at the root of everything that graces the pages of The Rumpus, which is reflected in the fact that the site doesn’t pay any of its contributors. “The work is the pay” said Julie, and that authenticity unites everything you’ll find on the site.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but The Rumpus' comics section is the site's feature that has most broadened my perspective on what this art form is capable of. For the majority of my life, I did not take comics seriously and thought them capable of momentary amusement at most. It is because The Rumpus created a space for comics that had a hard time finding a home in more traditional arenas, that my mind has been thoroughly changed. Artist and comics editor Paul Madonna’s own series “All Over Coffee” speaks directly to this point.
In chatting with him about his work, he elaborated on the conundrum. He asked me to imagine a row of shops each specializing in one medium: Art, Poetry, Comics, or Writing. He explained that up until finding both the Chronicle and The Rumpus, he would approach each shop with his drawings and continually receive the same response. The Art shopkeeper would look at the work and say, “Man, this is really great work, you should go next door to the Poetry shop.” He’d then go next door and be told, “Man, this is really great work, you should go next door to the Comics shop,” and so on. “I just didn’t fit in anywhere,” Paul told me.
Now that Paul acts as the gatekeeper for the comics section, he loves finding work that’s outside the conventional boundaries. He looks only for work that is honest and sincere, and where the artist clearly has the intention of having their art grow and change. He said, “The Rumpus is a success because it gives people a platform to do what they do best. I don’t edit work. Once I give it the green light I just try to stay out of its way.”
Stepping back I think about how authenticity and growth were at the heart of every conversation I had with The Rumpus’ staff, and how the two are inescapably intertwined. I think about Stephen moving from writing books to emails to articles to letters, and now, even a movie, all the while knowing that these changes were honest, and therefore right. I think about how I’ve watched so many authors evolve on the site and how contagious their honesty has been for me.
Now in my late 20s, I can see that while my course is far from set, there is no doubt that in part I have The Rumpus to thank for setting me off in this honest (and ever-changing) direction.
Do check out the magazine at http://therumpus.net/ or attend one of the awesome events where you can learn more: http://therumpus.net/sections/rumpus-events/. And, there's more big news for the Rumpus. The group is hoping to make its first feature film, Happy Baby, based on the book by the same name by Stephen Elliott. Help Kickstart it into reality!