Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Mags to Niches

Introducing Brightleaf: A new look at the new South and its writers

By Leonard Gill

AUGUST 25, 1997:  When the bi-monthly tabloid Brightleaf: A Southern Review of Books premieres in early September, its masthead will read David Perkins, Publisher/Editor, but for the past several months, visionary/missionary has been more like it.

Brightleaf is a book-review publication with one ambition, and that ambition, in a nutshell, is to make you see the South "with new eyes," courtesy of its major and emerging literary lights. New eyes, though, can only mean that somewhere out there are publications covering the same ground but with tired eyes, and "redneck chic" -- Perkins' term -- is precisely what Brightleaf vows to avoid.

"We're hick and we're proud of it and we're going to try to make that seem chic" is how, in a phone interview, Perkins described the existing crop of magazines devoted to Southern letters. "That's not going to (and it wasn't designed to) appeal to anyone like me, who's moved here, who wasn't born here," he pointed out. "I want to be more inclusive than that. I want to be not just about the South, pre-1968, but the contemporary South," a South, to borrow from Brightleaf's promotional mailer, "as it absorbs new immigrants, builds a new economy, and seeks all the while to be true to itself and its history."

And true, in Brightleaf's case, to its tobacco-plant namesake. With its roots in the South's heritage of words, the review means to give readers a fresh look at Southern writers turning a new leaf. Established writers such as Reynolds Price and Doris Betts, who appear in the September issue. And future contributors such as Allan Gurganus, Josephine Humphreys, Kaye Gibbons, Hodding Carter III, Clyde Edgerton, and Anne Rivers Siddons.

Into this mix of well-knowns, Perkins intends an additional mix of lesser-knowns -- African-American, gay, and greater numbers of women writers -- all within a truly ambitious mix of essay-length and capsule reviews; short stories, poetry, and "works-in-progress"; travel pieces and profiles; and news of author tours, publishing houses, and regional book-sellers.

With these aims and expectations out of the way, what, then, is a 42-year-old former book reviewer and Northern transplant named David Perkins doing proposing them? Simply filling niches is how he'd describe it.

"I was the book-review editor for The [Raleigh, N.C.] News & Observer for almost four years, but after some budget cuts when the paper was sold to a chain, I was ready to take on a bigger project," Perkins explained. "I hadn't consciously thought I'd start a Southern magazine, but I've lived in the South for 15 years and gotten more and more involved with the literary community here in North Carolina -- Reynolds Price and Lee Smith and Fred Chappell and others, these wonderful writers. So it was sort of a combination of my frustration that I couldn't work with them anymore ... and, having honed my skills as an editor, a readiness to take on something bigger."

Ready or not, by the spring of 1996, Perkins, "kind of on the sly," was talking, but mostly listening, to bookstore owners, writers, and university-press people about the need for a review that wouldn't talk down to its readers and wouldn't limit its appeal to the smaller audience of old-line quarterlies. "This was a business niche that no one was filling anywhere in the South," Perkins quickly understood. "And an intellectual niche, as well."

His prototype may have been The New York Review of Books (minus "its usual grayness") and his design ideas may have required three sets of graphic artists before he got what he wanted, but Perkins knew the writers for such a review were here all along. To be "regional in the best sense," he lined up the best as regular columnists: John Shelton Reed ("one of those rare academics who can almost split your sides") to write on the changing South; Fred Chappell on poetry; Janet Lembke on nature; and Edwin Yoder on public affairs.

Over the course of a few months, Brightleaf was evolving "a little beyond just book reviews to a lot of different aspects of life," Perkins said. "Another way of carving out a niche."

BORN IN PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY, and raised in Ithaca, New York (his father once served as president of Cornell), Perkins grew up on Publishers Weekly and read The New York Times Book Review "religiously" as a teenager. After graduating from Yale and working on a master's degree at Cambridge University, he spent time at several magazines in New York (including an assistant-editorship at the under-read and left-leaning New Leader) before taking the unusual step of moving to Anniston, Alabama.

Why Anniston, you may ask. "The South had always fascinated me, partly because of its writers, partly because it was changing so fast, and yet it had this tragic history," Perkins recalled. Anniston's small but respected newspaper had acted as a kind of "liberal beacon in the Sixties" under its editor, Brandy Ayers, and a beacon it continued to be "for a lot of liberal, privileged Yankees who go to lose their illusions about the South and themselves ... and realize the whole thing is a lot more complicated than you thought."

Anniston turned out to be "a fantastic place to cut my teeth as a reporter," according to Perkins, who "covered everything from barbecue to George Wallace." But as even he admits, "I don't think I ever entirely saw myself as a journalist, that's to say, a newspaper man. I never was a hard-news man ... but it was a great way to learn how society works and how the South works."

After three years as a reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, Perkins taught and free-lanced. But when the paper needed a book-review editor, he went for it. ("A lot of free-lance writing will do that to you. Focus the mind.") Perkins called the opportunity and the timing "unique": a daily, privately owned newspaper, flexible column space, "indulgent" budgets, and a host of area writers of national stature to review and enlist. Perkins was an editor now, not just a writer, and he "immediately fell into it," with his magazine experience coming back into valuable play. Until, that is, ownership of the paper changed hands four years later and budgets were no longer quite so indulgent.

As publisher of Brightleaf, Perkins himself is learning something about budgets. Seed money from a friend allowed him to quit his job, set up an office, buy a computer, and set about collecting more money. But much of the $40,000 he's raised is gone. Five hundred paid subscriptions doesn't sound bad for a literary review that's yet to appear, but Perkins is counting on 15,000 before he sees any profits.

"People," he said, "are really skeptical about the finances, which is normal because we're doing something new." And what of the writers who have agreed to be listed in future connection with Brightleaf?

"I think they're a little bit curious. Maybe just a little bit wary. It's going to have reviews in it, after all, and they want to make sure they're reviewed well. Doris Betts and Reynolds Price both read at a fund-raising event a few weeks ago. ... They're very much behind it."

Are advertisers? That's one question too early for David Perkins to answer.

Brightleaf: A Southern Review of Books will be available at newsstands and bookstores, or through subscription. For further information, call (919) 664-8650, or write Brightleaf at P.O. Box 11458, Raleigh, N.C. 27604. You can pay a visit at www.brightleaf-review.com.


First Stop: Memphis

Plans for Brightleaf call for each issue to carry a special travel section on a chosen Southern city, with the intention of spotlighting its literary scene, up-and-coming talents, and general sites. The focus in September's issue is Memphis, and it's partially in the hands of two local writers. Watch for Robert Gordon on area (emphasis: independent) bookstores, and Corey Messler, Burke's Book Store manager and reviewer for The Commercial Appeal, on soon-to-be-published novelist Tom Graves, short-story writers Joy Allen and Jerome Wilson, and poet John Reed.

For a more "impressionistic account" of the Bluff City, Brightleaf is sending Mab Segrest, a "wonderful writer and lesbian activist from Durham," according to publisher and editor David Perkins. As "an emerging Elvis imitator of some kind or other," Segrest will be covering the recent Elvis conference at the Memphis College of Art in light of "the part of her that's Elvis" for a "very personal take" on Memphis as "a crossroads of race and gender." "It's not going to be your usual travel piece," Perkins added. Perhaps. But, from the sound of it and given this town, nothing unusual about Mab Segrest. -- LG


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