Literary Spotlight: Pioneertown

This 4-year-old online journal is blazing new literary trails in all genres.

Pioneertown
Photo by Mary Beth Sullivan

Pioneertown, near Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, is a strange and magical place. Founded by Hollywood investors just after World War II as a working town with Old West false-front facades, it’s now an attraction for tourists content to walk around the rickety buildings, catching the occasional mock gunfight or concert at Pappy and Harriet’s restaurant.

Pioneertown is also a 4-year-old online literary journal founded by Brenna Kischuk, who grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles. It features fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and hybrid works. “The name of the publication works on a literal level because the work that I want to publish is all about taking risks and exploring and discovering and forging ahead,” she explains.

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Visitors to the journal’s website will find a wealth of archived pieces as well as playlists – all reflecting the editor’s love of music and rhythm and language.

Tone, editorial content

Kischuk enjoys a variety of writing styles, from traditional to experimental. As a Master of Fine Arts student, she disliked having to identify her own work as fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. “It’s so limiting,” she says. “The students I was in graduate school with did a lot of experimental work with image and sound, and I wanted to be able to hold space for those pieces, as well as for comic strips, visual poetry, and anything under the sun. I threw all the rules out the window when I started Pioneertown. Our minimum word count is one.”

Connecticut writer Greg Hill submitted four words that Kischuk published in 2017. “He repeated the words IT WAS AN ACCIDENT over and over, designed in a Word doc in the shape of a gun,” she explains. “I was thrilled to get such a cool piece. We’re not a super-political journal, but it’s such a powerful piece that distills the work down to its essence.”

Kischuk gravitates toward what she calls “dark, deeply funny work” – stories like Noelle Rose’s “Nolan Gregory Dies!” which she’ll publish in 2019. “It’s told in little fragments, and goes into death and a funeral,” she explains. “It’s only five pages, and it’s just so lovely. Her prose is tight and effective. I’m stoked to publish this piece.”

Pioneertown seldom publishes what most think of as “traditional” short stories. “We’re looking for something just a little different, whether in content or form,” Kischuk explains. Stories like Augusto Corvalan’s “Small Sharp Knives Everywhere.”

“It’s bizarre and compact and fragmented, about two girls who grow up in a cannibalistic world, and it’s told through lists and diary entries and random thoughts. It’s cringe-worthy in some places, and pretty kickass.”

Contributors

Chicago writer Melissa Wiley’s story “Underwater Bees” appears on the journal’s website, representative of the lyrical language that Kischuk adores. It begins:

“I have tried to sell myself at so many yard sales but have yet to be bought. I also have no yard, so I’m hardly my own to hawk. My lungs, though, are mine, if they hardly know it themselves, because they would breathe for anyone. Because while my eyelids twitch beneath sheets printed with seashells, they have begun dissolving into gills.”

Pioneertown features a great deal of poetry, including Texas poet E. Kristin Anderson’s pieces, which are frequently informed by music. “She’s created sonnets out of Foo Fighters songs,” Kischuk says. “She’s always working with sound material and doing really different things, and she produces work that just slays me.”

“The name of the publication works on a literal level because the work that I want to publish is all about taking risks and exploring and discovering and forging ahead.”

 

Kischuk has also published poetry written in collaboration between Chicago poets Ben Clark and Dana McKenna. In 2018, Pioneertown featured their “At the end of the day you visit me in my nest,” which begins:

When I come to,
I list all the things
I have ruined for you.
Snow, white wine,
watering houseplants,
leaving the house.
You say you never cared
much for any of it.

Kischuk reads work out loud when she receives it, looking for a particular rhythm and intensity. “When I read E. Kristin Anderson’s poetry and Ben Clark’s collaborative poetry, I think, ‘Oh yes, thank you.’ They give me all the feels, along with a sense of gratitude.”

Pioneertown
Photo by Mary Beth Sullivan

Advice for potential contributors

Kischuk doesn’t require potential contributors to slap a genre on their submission. She accepts manuscripts up to 5,000 words but prefers shorter pieces and urges writers to look at their final drafts with an eye for where to cut and tighten.

“Can you edit it down even more?” she asks. “Can you do a read in which you’re thinking about every sentence and whether it’s necessary? Can you noodle around with the language, back up, dive in, expand and contract, not looking at a piece and asking whether it’s well written, but asking whether the piece is the very best version of itself?”

As well as editing, Kischuk is a writer. Working on Pioneertown has given her insight into why it often takes months for writers to receive feedback on a submission. “Literary journals are run by people who have five other jobs,” she explains.

Each journal has limited space, so rejection isn’t necessarily a reflection on the quality of the work. “Move on quickly from disappointment,” Kischuk says, “and write the piece you absolutely have to write.”

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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). melissahart.com