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Literary Spotlight: Palooka

Poetry, fiction, nonfiction, comics, and art come together in this eclectic magazine.

The cover of Palooka #12.
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Ten years ago, author and editor Jonathan Starke set out to create a fair, objective, and open-minded space in which writers could showcase their work. The result was the international literary magazine Palooka, which blends poetry and fiction, nonfiction, and comics, along with artwork and photography.

The title comes from the slang term referring to a second-rate prizefighter; Starke used to box and enjoys combat sports. He views a “palooka” as someone passionate and hard-working – someone noble and struggling, in need of a break.

With this in mind, he doesn’t solicit writers to publish in his magazine. “I don’t publish friends, colleagues, or family, and I read everything blind,” he explains. “I run Palooka entirely by myself and put all my heart and passion into this magazine.”

Tone, editorial content of Palooka

Starke is open to all topics and writing styles in Palooka. “I don’t believe in omitting voices or ideas of any kind, even if I don’t agree with them,” he says. “For me, if a piece is strong and good and interesting, I’ll print it.”


Paul Luikart’s flash fiction piece “Big Top” in issue #11 particularly resonated with Starke when he received it. It’s the story of three traveling circus workers – a fire eater, a strong man, and a narrator – who find themselves unable to sleep on their train from Chicago to Omaha.

“Instead, they play cards and discuss at angles the recent suicide of their compatriot, the clown,” Starke says. “The story sets such a mood, a menacing tone, a dark ambiance. It puts the reader in a tight space of contemplation and tension. I’m moved by pieces like this that can do much with few words and a tight line. The writing doesn’t have to be minimal, but I appreciate when every sentence and detail is necessary, rather than decorative, and when the piece ends on a point of breathlessness, a hanging moment, unresolved.”

Starke also admires Virginia Watt’s coming-of-age essay “The Glen Acres Dump” in issue #10. In it, Watts writes about hanging out with her brother at the dump as a child and learning how to shoot a gun.


“But the essay is about much more than that, tackling familial and social connection, what we discard or keep as a society, and the lessons life teaches us along our path or how some lessons go astray,” Starke says. “Often, the work that entices me is powerful in voice, like this particular essay, and carries along with it a hint of danger, trouble, uncertainty, or disconnection. The characters or people within the work are often askew from society or watching from a distance.”


Contributors to Palooka include poets Julie E. Bloemeke and Kelly DuMar, fiction writers Nils Blondon and Anne Lindley Killheffer, nonfiction writers Deanna Hershiser and John Schafer, and graphic writers/illustrators Jason Hart and David Mahler.

Author Khalilah Okeke has a speculative flash fiction piece titled “The Black Monsoon” in issue #11, about a boy who watches his mother engage in a forbidden action with disastrous results. It begins:


“The widowed women in our Indian village refused to touch the sacred earth with their feet. Their throats hungered from fasting. They feared the Black Goddess whose yoni stormed skies – clouds gushed and spilled into seas. Her wrath flooded their lives with violent monsoons and turned their villages into boneyards.”

René Georg Vasicek and Noah Hulsizer have a graphic fiction piece, “The City of Machines,” in issue #10; it’s set in a dystopian industrial society and follows the life of an eccentric factory worker who describes himself as having a “slight defect,” which sets in motion a thrilling rebellion against a dictatorship, assisted by an imprisoned and abused young woman.

Advice for potential contributors

Fiction writers should submit a story, novel excerpt, or three flash pieces up to 10,000 words, while poets may submit up to five poems. Nonfiction writers may submit one essay, book excerpt, or three flash essays up to 10,000 words. Graphic writers and illustrators should submit one longer graphic narrative, up to three flash narratives, or five comic strips.


Starke is happy to receive any type of submission, but he particularly appreciates work that resonates emotionally. “I like to read stories, essays, and poems about what sets us apart, what brings us together, why we do and don’t pursue certain kinds of lives,” he explains.

He understands the creative struggle and cares deeply about the passion that inspires writers’ work. He isn’t interested in contributors’ demographics, credentials, or connections. As the mission statement on the website reads, Palooka offers “a fair chance and an open hand for everyone – the underdogs, the in-betweeners, and the already established.”

Palooka at a glance

“An international literary magazine of unique fiction, poetry, nonfiction, artwork, photography, and graphic narratives.”


Reading period: Year-round.

Length: Any.

Payment: Copies.

Submission format: Via Submittable, on Palooka’s website.

Contact: Editor Jonathan Starke, [email protected],




Contributing Editor Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019).Twitter/Instagram: @WildMelissaHart