Little did he realize it then, but the nameless young poets reading on stage in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1976 were going to change a hitchhiking Washington native’s life—and by extension, the lives of hundreds of others who Richard Peabody would discover, mentor, coach and otherwise influence in an award-winning publishing, writing and teaching career spanning more than 40 years.
Before we get into what it was about those poets that set Peabody on his life journey, you need to know the end result: 67 issues of a largely Washington-focused regional literary magazine called Gargoyle; several collections of hundreds of twisted stories and poems about Barbie, Elvis, Jimi, Marilyn, James Dean and Alice of Wonderland, among others; story and poem collections about sex and chocolate; fiction by women only and forgotten female beat writers; several spoken word and music recordings; and 10 books of his own poetry and stories.
Three years ago saw the release of the career-spanning The Richard Peabody Reader (Alan Squire Publishing), an impressive 435-page tome of short stories, poems and a novella, with an introduction by a Pulitzer Prize-winning literature critic. It was done without his knowledge by his longtime publishing partner, the late Lucinda Ebersole.
By his own count he has counseled hundreds of regional writers. But if you add the factor of the students who studied with him during 15 years of teaching at the Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs, where he twice won faculty awards, and stints at the University of Maryland, the University of Virginia and the Washington Writers Center, the number is certainly in the thousands.
And yet, you have probably never heard of him. Or Gargoyle. Or the other books. Or most of the writers.
This does not say anything about him or you. But it says something about something, doesn’t it?
Peabody is 66, with dark hair pulled into a long ponytail and a gray scruff of a beard that may always be exactly three days old. He has a wide, happy face, and he speaks softly enough that you have to lean in to hear but often punctuates his punch lines with a brief burst of loud laugher.
He and his wife Margaret Ellen Grosh, a senior advisor at the World Bank, have lived for about two decades in a brick North Arlington house a block or so from Washington-Lee High School, where their two daughters, Twyla and Laurel, go to school. He and Margaret met at a bookstore during a reading by a writer they both knew.
Seated as we are at his dining room table in a comfortable home on a leafy street in a bustling suburb, we are a long way from that fateful between-colleges, soul-searching hitchhiking journey. So what was it about those poets in Madison that appealed to the then-25-year-old Peabody?
“They weren’t old,” Peabody says, still surprised at the transformative impact. “They were my age and spoke directly to me. I’d never met any young writers. I’d never met any writers.”
In high school—he went to Walter Johnson High in Bethesda—“all we read were British books and classics,” he says. “We never read anything contemporary. The first time I knew there were living writers, which sounds insane, was when Jim Grady published Six Days of the Condor. And now we’re buddies, and I never would’ve expected that.”
The idea that not only were there living American writers in the world but that they could be young and expressive, “that just really resonated with me. I was astonished. A living writer!”
And then it dawned on him, he says: “I can be a writer.”
By the time he had thumbed his way back to whatever basement he was living in in Northwest Washington at the time, Peabody had the bug to do a magazine, and not just any magazine, but a magazine of alternative writing by non-mainstream writers—a literary and culture magazine for an underserved readership of young people like him.
“Because,” he says, leaning back in his chair and stretching out his arms, “writers. Poets.”
Of course. It was for the artists.
Peabody was already drawn to a community of artists who had no reliable home in the region, despite the few local literary zines that circulated now and again. And after much pestering, he enlisted the help of founding partners Rusty Cox and Paul Pasquarella, fellow employees he worked with at Brentano’s Bookstore in Northwest Washington. The resulting publication was done in the great tradition of “let’s put on a show” naiveté.
“Another manager there was the one who knew typeset and design. My father knew the guy who ran a newspaper printing press in Piedmont, Virginia, in the Plains,” he says. What more do you need? The Gargoyle team was set.
Those first newsprint issues sold for 25 cents and were a hodgepodge of fiction and nonfiction, including arts reviews and poems.
“We made every mistake,” Peabody admits. “But nothing beats the rush of the first one. It’s an addiction: the smell of the ink, the way the paper felt in your hands. And even though it was amateur and naïve, we felt like we had done something.”
But three issues in, the printer finally asked for payment.
“We had no money,” Peabody says, laughing. “At that point, I was living in a friend’s basement. I didn’t have any money.”
The publication had an audience, though, one that would not let it fail. A hat was passed around during a house party with a made-up bluegrass band called, for the night, the Gargoyles, and enough money was raised to pay for the three issues.
But while the audience was devoted, the other principals were less so. “They said, ‘I’m out’ for the fifth issue,” he says. “But I kept it going.”
Peabody was voracious in finding publishable, unheard-of writers. “I was looking for everything. Everything,” he says. “We were reviewed a couple of times, and they said, ‘Obviously they have no taste and they publish everything,’ and that’s not true. We’re very selective.”
They were so selective that at one point Ebersole pushed him to consider publishing a collection of rejected works. That idea was nixed.
Gargoyle was intended to be a monthly, but it’s been a quarterly, then semiannual, and then annual, but these days it’s really “just regular.”
Technically, there have been 33 years of Gargoyle. The magazine was produced from 1976 to 1990, but Peabody took a seven-year sabbatical, working, of all places, as a proofreader at Tax Analysts in Falls Church (you can’t beat benefits for part-timers) before joining Ebersole at Atticus Books in 1995. His publishing energies revived in 1997, the same year he met Margaret (they married two years later).
Before the sabbatical, Gargoyle served hundreds of subscribers by mail, but by the time he started it up again, the publishing industry had changed.
“Now it’s all mostly single [copy] sales,” he says. “My distributor kicked me to the curb because I couldn’t sell enough copies [on newsstands], so I don’t have distribution. I don’t have a subscriber list. It’s all pretty much mail order and Amazon, as much as some people hate Amazon because they take a huge cut, but so do bookstores. Bookstores take 55 percent [of the sales price]. The only reason to have anything in a bookstore is for certification that you exist.”
Libraries, which were reliable for buying hundreds of copies of everything, stopped stocking the titles, an irreversible trend for most publishers. His best-selling issue of Gargoyle was No. 51, which sold 1,500 copies, but, he says, it was probably because it had an illustration of a UFO on the cover.
This is all sounding very bleak, so we have to ask: How much longer can he keep this up, with two teenage daughters and college looming on the near horizon?
“Not much longer,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “The natural transition in this business is to do books,” which he publishes under the name Paycock Press. “I’ve done a couple this year, and I’m kind of thinking about doing a couple more, but it just breaks your heart. Maybe I’m going to bag it.”
There’s silence for a moment. Then: “I’ve tried to bag it before, but you keep running across people who no one knows about who are really good, and it just breaks your heart.
“But there’s no money in it. I believe in the Golden Rule, that nothing ever happens to me until I’ve done a lot of other stuff for other people.”
He’s reluctant, but he knows there’s another alternative: “In the end, I might have to do the inevitable and put it all online.” He considers this. “But you can’t autograph an e-book,” he concludes, so he probably won’t.
This fall saw the release of Gargoyles 65 and 66, called “Side 1” and “Side 2,” which seems extravagant for a 40th anniversary release, “but I accepted too much stuff, and it was too thick for my printer to bind” into one book, Peabody says.
He does not say this remorsefully or regretfully. It’s just the way it is and the way it has been for 40 years. Too many writers are writing good stuff that might not get seen otherwise.
It just breaks your heart.
But wait a minute. Peabody has sung this song of woe before.
“For a while Gargoyle was pretty regular, but I’d say for the last 20 issues it’s always been ‘Well, this could be the last one,’” says Michael Dirda.
Dirda, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for literary criticism (so he should know!), continues to do a weekly books column in The Washington Post. He’s known Peabody since the beginning, not because Peabody sought him out and curried favor but because Peabody was omnipresent in the regional literary scene. Plus, they worked at the same bookshop, the venerated Quill & Brush in Bethesda. (Peabody was the shop’s third employee.)
“He was part of the [literary] circle around this bookstore,” says Dirda, who contributed an expansive introduction to The Richard Peabody Reader. “He was incredibly good-looking, charismatic, like a boyish Warren Beatty in his heyday. He had so much energy for books and poetry; people found him incredibly attractive in multiple ways, and [he] was a real live wire. And I would run into him from that time on anytime I would go to literary events. Rick was everywhere. He was really active in the literary scene.”
Peabody served a greater, or at least, equal purpose than publisher and editor. He was an indefatigable networking connector, putting people together who probably needed to know each other.
“He is kind of a literary activist,” says Dirda. “He really believes in the power and value of books and poetry, and he wanted to promote the growth of it as much as he could. And in that sense he was selfless—he did the magazine for the benefit of the contributors. And he’s contributed a lot of time to helping younger writers as a teacher. He’s become much beloved in the greater Washington literary community.
“I admire him a lot,” Dirda says. “He’s truly devoted his life to the cause of literature, particularly Washington-based literature. Very few other people have done that.”
Not to be overlooked are Peabody’s own writings, which Dirda almost did.
“He’s not as nationally known as he should be,” says Dirda. “Until I wrote the introduction to the book I was unaware of how good a writer he is, and I think more people should be aware of him. In my view The Richard Peabody Reader should have lots of readers. Not only is he a good writer, he is very entertaining and funny. And very sexy, too.”
Dirda points out that Northern Virginia readers will recognize many of the locales in Peabody’s stories and poems. Arlington, Georgetown and suburban Maryland landmarks abound.
“You feel right at home when you turn the page,” says Dirda.
Chances are your idea of a literary magazine is something you encountered in college because many colleges feel obligated to publish the youthful-yet-impenetrable yearnings of budding bookish doyens or the more polished but unmarketable-for-many-reasons works of would-be giants-in-their-own-minds.
Gargoyle is not that.
Gargoyle is accessible and full of surprises, written by people who are probably your neighbors, not New York literati. The settings are familiar. The plots ring true. The dialogue is in your vernacular. It’s a fun read, and you feel enlightened, entertained or entranced at the end. Erudition is not required.
Not content with not making money on book-bound literary magazines, Peabody branched out, publishing with co-editor Ebersole compilations of writings about pop culture icons including Mondo Barbie: Essays on Exile and Memory; Mondo Elvis: A Collection of Stories and Poems About Elvis; Kiss the Sky: Fiction & Poetry Starring Jimi Hendrix; and Mondo James Dean.
Naturally, he was sued by Mattel, the Elvis Presley estate and the gonzo singer-songwriter Mojo Nixon, who took exception to his lyrics from “Elvis Is Everywhere” being used elsewhere. (Nixon settled for copies of the book and a couple of cases of beer.)
There’s also a series of Grace and Gravity books that collect the works of fiction by female writers in the Washington region.
“It’s been an education in a lot of ways and the most fun thing I’ve done in 40 years,” Peabody says. “I give them complete freedom to write anything they want, and I said what interests me is the story you love but that everyone else hates. Send me the ones that scare you.”
Before he recently turned the series over to American University professor Melissa Scholes Young, the seven volumes since 2004 represented the writings of some 300 writers. Who knew there were that many women writing fiction in the region?
“It’s fascinating to be plugged into a network of writers no one knows about,” he says. But, he adds, it’s an undercurrent that one has to go to rather than having it come to you. And that’s true for male writers as well.
“Yes, there are people famous on the internet [who] have sold tons of books, and there are people who are famous in literary magazines who don’t have a novel,” he says. “But if you don’t subscribe to literary magazines—and who does that?—you don’t know who they are.”
But they are out there, and he knows it. “There are people who can make me believe that this,” he says rapping on the dining room table, “is alive. There are people who can do that.”
But no one knows them. But they should. It just breaks your heart.