The 40-Year-Old Gargoyle

DC’s oldest lit mag celebrates a landmark!

On Wednesday, September 13th, writers and lit lovers from around the DC area packed into the Battelle Atrium at American University to fête Richard Peabody and Gargoyle Magazine. The occasion was a celebration of multiple milestones: Gargoyle’s 40th anniversary and the launch of issues 65 and 66.

Most importantly, it was an occasion for readers and writers of the DMV to share their appreciation of Peabody, the founder of the District’s oldest literary magazine, and, as event host Melissa Scholes Young put it, the literary godfather of DC.

MFA student Vince Granata kicked off the event with an illuminating overview of Gargoyle’s establishment in 1976, its reputation as a “scallywag, maverick” publication, its description in the Post as “Washington’s most revered and irreverent” literary magazine, and Peabody’s explanation in an interview that Gargoyle has never been bound by specific editorial guidelines because “[w]e don’t believe in them.”

Gargoyle has featured work by MacArthur Fellows, National Book Award winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, Nebula and Hugo award winners, and recipients of too many other prominent awards to list. The magazine has also been unafraid to take risks, as was evident in Scholes Young’s recollection of the time Peabody invited her to submit “whatever doesn’t fit, what no one else wants.”

Arlington Poet Laureate Katherine E. Young echoed appreciation for Peabody’s editorial independence and openness, noting that he has long been a champion of female writers in a male-dominated publishing world. One after the other, men and women alike stood at the podium to thank him for his mentorship, his dedication to DC’s literary community, and for standing behind the writers he believed in.

In addition to being the powerhouse editor/co-editor of 26 anthologies, Peabody is a prolific author himself, with a novella, three short-story collections, and seven books of poetry to his name. An alumnus of American University’s MA in Literature program, he has taught writing at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, University of Virginia, Georgetown, and the Writer’s Center.

Peabody was modest and appreciative in his remarks, sharing how much it meant to him to hold Gargoyle’s 40th anniversary celebration at his alma mater. Characteristically generous with the spotlight, he did not spend much time at the podium, choosing instead to place the evening’s emphasis on other authors.

The lion’s share of the event was dedicated to readings by previous Gargoyle contributors, featuring poetry by Young, Kateema Lee, and Leeya Mehta, prose by Suzanne Feldman, Andrew Gifford, Frances Park, Marija Stajic, Gregg Wilhelm, and Sarah Williams, and a musical/spoken-word performance by E.A. Aymar, DJ Alkimist, and “a cast of alternating sonic guests.”

Ah, Gargoyle, always piquing our interest with something a little offbeat.

Like the magazine, the readings were rich and varied, ranging from intimate images of the DC beyond the monuments; to a glimpse into the “decaying nightmare” of the late days of Gifford’s Ice Cream; to comedic angst over urban voodoo by “the witch next door”; to a daughter’s discovery of her mother’s secret baby; to cocktail waitressing at the famed Georgetown bar the Bayou; to a mass migration through a post-apocalyptic landscape; to Williams’ essay about learning to fly fish in Montana with a guide and the “Quality Chicks,” her mother’s all-female fishing crew.

In many ways, Williams’ essay encapsulated the spirit of the evening. She recounted how the exceptionally patient guide offered her reassurance as her first line broke, then calmly cut her errant hook out of her hat, then coached her on technique when she ran out of line with a trout finally hooked.

When she at last coaxed the trout into a net, he told her, “You did everything right.” She still carries these words with her, and knows this is what she will tell her sons when they’ve achieved something meaningful through their own hard work.

For four decades, Richard Peabody has been the equivalent of Williams’ fish-whisperer to the writers of DC, offering encouragement, a place to take risks, and — when they appear in the pages of Gargoyle — the pride of knowing they did something right.

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