Five guys walk into a bar. Sounds like a setup for a punch line, but it’s the creation story of Barrelhouse, a D.C. literary magazine celebrating the anniversary of its inception over post-writing-workshop beers a decade ago.
During the discussion of common interests — Quentin Tarantino, Snoop Dogg, “Arrested Development” — and the difficulty of getting stories published in literary magazines, talk turned to finding a way to combine the two. “It seemed like the magazines we were reading and sending our work out to weren’t much fun, and didn’t seem to live in the same world we were living in — the one where you can be a writer and serious reader, but also talk for a half hour at the bar about reality TV,” says Dave Housley, one of the founding editors, three of whom are still with the publication.
The writers envisioned a magazine that could be literary without being pretentious. “I used to tell people that we want to be a literary magazine for people who don’t like literary magazines,” says Joe Killiany, another of the remaining founding editors, a group that also includes Mike Ingram. “We wanted the stuff we published to be smart but accessible.”
Those discussions — and the pooled resources of the founders — led to Barrelhouse magazine. Although most independent literary magazines have begun to fold by the three-year mark, Barrelhouse — the word denotes both a disreputable bar and an improvisational jazz style — is a rare literary success story. The magazine is distributed nationwide at Barnes & Noble and at independent bookstores, publishing two print issues a year as well as additional stories and articles online.
The magazine has become a small but significant hub for Washington’s literary community, hosting a monthly reading, Barrelhouse Presents, in bars such as the Black Squirrel in Adams Morgan, the Wonderland Ballroom in Columbia Heights and the Petworth Citizen and Reading Room. The readings showcase the work of other small presses and literary magazines inside and outside the Beltway.
Mark Cugini, who edits the Washington literary magazine Big Lucks and runs the Three Tents reading series, cites Housley and editor Dan Brady, who joined Barrelhouse one year in, as strong supporters of his magazine launch four years ago. “They taught me that it’s not enough to publish a print issue and call it a day — it’s equally as important to support other publications and writers and readers.”
Brady says that outreach to fledgling presses is a way to give back the support Barrelhouse was granted at its start. “I think there’s this continuum of what is the D.C. literary scene, and it’s been really great to be a part of that,” he says. “I don’t think we would’ve lasted without it.”
Barrelhouse sponsors an annual literary conference, Conversations and Connections; its popular “speed-dating with editors” session allows fledgling writers to pitch their work — in 10 minutes. This year, the magazine branched out into book publishing, with a collection of Barrelhouse pop-culture essays and a poetry collection by Justin Marks.
“Barrelhouse brought a desperately needed element to Washington’s literary scene — fresh, but not hipster,” says poet and former Writer’s Center board member Sandra Beasley, noting that the magazine’s pop culture themes are “tinged with a very Washingtonian wonkiness, an attention to detail and a craving for perfection on the page.”
Throughout its growth and evolution, a shared passion for great writing has remained central to the magazine. Although the magazine has hired readers to vet submissions, its editors still meet to reach an agreement on each submission’s inclusion in the magazine, a process during which passions can run high: One editor legendarily threatened to eat a submission rather than risk its inclusion in an issue.
The editors also meet twice a year for a weekend retreat. “A lot of it, to be honest, is to capture that original feeling of all being in it together, as part of this collaborative effort,” Brady says. “I think if we lost the spirit of why we’re doing this, and it just became like a corporate magazine, we’d all probably just stop doing it.”