An Interview with Joseph Shields of Nerve Cowboy. Joseph Shields and Jerry Hagins co-edit the magazine. Joseph Shields took on the task of answering for both himself and Jerry.
Joseph Shields, thank you for being kind enough to consent to being interviewed about your journal, Nerve Cowboy, and your press, Liquid Paper Press.
1. One of the things I love about your web-site is your introduction to which I’ll quote here: “Nerve Cowboy is a biannual journal of poems and short fiction sensitive enough to make the hardest hard-ass cry, funny enough to make the most hopeless brooder laugh, and disturbing enough to make us all glad we're not the author of the piece.” How did you decide to create a journal based on the above-described attitude and can you explain the conception of the name, Nerve Cowboy?
Interesting question—the term “Nerve Cowboy” was actually coined by a two of my wife’s New York friend while visiting us in Jamaica where we served as Peace Corps volunteers. One of our visitors had a lazy, slackjaw boyfriend “Fat Dave” who just sat on the couch and watched TV and never wanted to do anything and drove her crazy. She referred to him as a nerve cowboy because no matter what she did, he had the ability to find her last raw nerve and ride it. Hence, the birth of Nerve Cowboy. Five years later I adopted it as the name of my new magazine.
The description on our web site really just represents the type of poems we want to see. Poems people can understand and poems that create some type of emotional reaction in the reader. Those are the poems I have always enjoyed reading in other journals and wanted to see in Nerve Cowboy.
2. Another thing I love about your journal is the fact that you take the time to hand-write notes to all of your subscribers saying you hope they like the issue and you also hand-write notes to everyone who submits poems to your magazine. Where do you find the time and why choose hand-written correspondence as opposed to typed letters or form letters?
We do that out of courtesy to our subscribers, contributors, and the larger community of writers interested enough in our magazine to send their work to us for review. I think it helps build a small poetry community and a connection to the hundreds of writers that make Nerve Cowboy possible. After all, I can’t pull these amazing poems out of my ass, somebody has got to write them and we need to connect with those people.
It is time consuming but as I just said, it is really part of what Nerve Cowboy is. As a writer, I never really liked the impersonal rejection or acceptance letters computer printed and unsigned. There are people behind the magazine and people sending poems—they should be corresponding in some genuine way.
3. I can’t resist asking this, so forgive me in advance: Having been around for more than ten years, how have you maintained success and continued readership through the ups and downs of the economy?
Sometimes I can’t believe we have been at this so long, going on 12 years with our fall 2009 issue. For one thing, Jerry and I keep doing the magazine because it never gets boring. We are truly excited about each and every issue that is produced, and are pumped when a new writer comes along that just kicks our asses with a fantastic batch of poems. We love to hear new voices.
In terms of the economics of it all, we have always believed that if produce an interesting and eclectic collection of poetry 2 times per year, the readers will be there. By and large, subscriptions remain stable (or grow or shrink a bit over time), but we try to keep the price of subscription reasonable and think it is a still a pretty good value in the scheme of things.
4. Your aesthetic for this journal differs from most in that it focuses so much on the nitty-gritty sides of life, including the artistic works on the cover and throughout the pages. What is the inspiration for the focus on life’s sometimes darker, dirtier, or more uncertain sides?
I have never really thought about it that way, but I guess you are right about the darker content. Simply put, I think that is just a stylistic preference, or it might just mean that the more engaging poems tend to be from that genre of writing. In any event, we are open to anything, but it has to have meaning for us in some way.
5. As editors, how do you vote on each piece? Do you both approve of each other’s picks or do you split up the number or type of items accepted into the journal?
We both read all of the submissions and tend to split up first and second reads. We usually only accept pieces that we both agree on. Sometimes we will go back and forth of some poems and discuss the merits of the poems or the writer and make a decision after that discussion. It is very collaborative and hopefully results in the best poems getting into the magazine, which is our end goal.
6. What is the process of putting this journal together and how long does it take to produce and then distribute? Are there more staff than just the two of you who help put it all together?
Once we have accepted enough poems and artwork for an issue (it usually takes about 6 months to collect and accept these poems and stories), I will order the poems and figure out which selections work best together, determine who we want to use as openers and closers for the issue, and see if there is a natural selection for the center of the magazine. Next, Jerry scans the poems to capture the text and lays out the issue on the computer, where he makes any page adjustments or poem ordering changes that need to be made due to spacing. Then, I select which pieces of art will go with which poems, Jerry scans the art in and reduces or enlarges them to fit spaces. Lastly there is a final proofing process (and we always miss something) before it goes to print. From the time the issue is full to the time it comes back from the printer probably takes about six weeks.
7. In addition to your journal you also produce chapbooks published under the name of Liquid Paper Press. Which do you enjoy more, sifting through poems for the journal or manuscripts for the press and why?
Currently, we are only publishing chapbooks which place in either first or second place in our annual contest, which has a January 31 deadline for submissions each year. We enjoy both the contest and the magazine in different ways. It is very satisfying being able to support an exceptional writer through the publication of their book. It is hard to get books published. But, I would say the magazine is our focus and I probably enjoy that work more because of the unexpected gems you can find in the thousands of manuscripts we receive each year. Sometimes five poems won’t work for us, but there is one in the envelope that totally rocks. It’s fun and never boring.
8. No doubt you have your hands full with your journal and press but do you both have regular jobs outside of this and may I ask what they are?
We both have day jobs. For years I have worked as a public policy researcher for the state of Texas and for private firms. Jerry is a public information officer for a large state agency in Texas. Our career paths have crossed a couple of different times and that is how we connected to start Nerve Cowboy.
9. Do either of you have time for other hobbies outside of poetry and what are they?
My hobbies are not all that interesting, but I used fly hang gliders in my reckless youth. I am a huge music fan and regularly see bands at clubs in Austin. Right now, I think Deer Tick is the best band on the planet. My wife and I end up spending a lot of weekend time on the soccer fields with our daughters who play on teams here in Austin. Being from Wisconsin, I am also a lifelong Wisconsin Badgers and Green Bay Packers fan
Jerry is a musician and played in the Pistol Love Family Band with his cousin, who has since moved on to bigger and better things at the guitarist for Okkervil River. He plays banjo and fiddle in various Austin bands and gives lessons to aspiring musicians in the area.
10. Who or what do you read for fun outside of what you read for the press? Do those writers influence the course of your decision-making with Nerve Cowboy and Liquid Paper Press?
Right now I am reading Ben Mezrich’s book “Accidental Billionaires” about the kids that started Facebook. His other books (e.g., Rigging, Bringing Down the House, Ugly Americans) are great too. Mike Manguson’s books are great (e.g., the Lummox, Fire Gospels, Heft on Wheels).
I also love many of the classics from Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment is top 5 all-time for me), Celine, Fante., and others The poets I love reading are too many to mention, and alot of them are the writers that appear in the pages of Nerve Cowboy, Pearl, Slipstream, and other small press magazines. The late, great Albert Huffsticker (who once lived in my neighborhood and with whom I shared many early mornings out in front of the old Hyde Park Bakery) is among my favorite poets ever. He was instrumental in me starting Nerve Cowboy in the first place, and here we are 12 years later.
11. Do you have any particular goals for the future in regards to Nerve Cowboy and Liquid Paper Press that you haven’t reached yet or are currently working on?
We just want to keep the thing going and continue finding interesting new writers to publish.
Joseph Shields and Jerry Hagins, thank you for letting me interview you about your hard-core journal and press. I wish you continued success for the future and can hopefully send some new subscribers and exciting poets your way.
If you are interested in finding out more about Nerve Cowboy or subscribing to them ($20 gets you a two year subscription, four issues total), you can visit their website at:
You will find links to poems they’ve published, the chapbooks page, and how to subscribe. I am renewing my own subscription with them and hope you will join me! I have always found it pleasing that they have an uncanny ability to pair artwork submissions that matches up with poem submissions in a way that always makes me say “Genius!”
Thanks always for reading, please stop in tomorrow for more Poems Found by Poet Hound…