An Introduction to the Beginning

On the night of January 16th, 2008. I got an email. It read:

rust and moth…
rust and moth…

and a mustard seed…

That’s it. That’s how our journal began.

The email was titled “Josiah 01.16.” We were in the habit back then of writing little scraps of poetry to one another. It was just this thing we’d come up with. A little practice to keep the ink flowing.

These initial lines slowly became something much more ambitious. Four months later, there’s another email from Josiah. This was back before he made a living doing graphic design, back when he was just trying to get a portfolio together. “Guys, as per our earlier discussion, I have acquired Here are a couple of logo layouts for your consideration. I am pretty keen to get this whole thing up and running soon (it will look great in my portfolio and it is awesome).”

This is followed by a selection of handsome blood-red moths. Matthew responds in all lowercase: “i’m keen to get it going as well. rust and moth literary journal… photography, poetry, short stories… pretty sweet.”

Two weeks pass, and then a slew of logistical emails. Shared calendars, passwords to the website. We even had the Library of Congress assign us an ISSN code. (Shoot for the moon.) And then come the parade of emails, to friends, to distant family, to friends that felt like family, all bearing the same message: Give us your poetry please. My outbox has an email, addressed to a fellow I sort of knew, which reads: “me and a buddy have started an online literary journal, and when i was telling catherine about it, she mentioned that you might be interested in submitting stuff.”

I guess the lower-case thing was big back then. (Capitalize her name, kid. You’re not fooling anyone.)

We didn’t find a whole lot of poems that way. A few, enough to get a first issue together, but not enough to really fly.  (Though there were some early surprises. Frederic J. Greenall, how the hell did you find us? A journal always remembers its first true submission.)

And so began the era of pseudonyms.

An embarrassing percentage of our earliest issues — maybe half? — is our own poetry, faked to hell under names like Lazarus Jenkins, Mark Twombly, Sadie Lawson, and our good friend Bobby Van Zandt. We even got into the habit of writing fake query letters to ourselves. Suncerae, in a typical fit of grace (and, thank God, proper capitalization), wrote: “To the editors of Rust and Moth, please know how much we all appreciate what you guys are doing. It takes so much perseverance to make even the smallest of things happen in this world.”

Suncerae always wrote the true stuff. We limped along for years.

That all changed with yet another email on October 14, 2013. This one read: “We are writing to inform you that we have added a listing for Rust + Moth to our award-winning resource for writers of fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction… Best wishes, The staff at Duotrope.”

Our submissions quadrupled overnight. And then septupled. Duotropupled? It was a crazy, insane time. And with all that energy coming in, we felt compelled to burn a little brighter. Matthew took the helm as our dedicated “filter,” the first set of eyes that sees each submission, and through him we began to develop our voice as a journal. Suncerae took on the critical work of formatting each poem for the website, while I took on the bulk of the proofreading. Meanwhile, up in the crow’s nest, Josiah revamped the website, redesigned our guardian moth familiar, and weaponized our inbox, making the work easier than it had ever paradoxically been.

By 2014, we were nominating poets for the Pushcart Prize. Best of the Net followed, and soon we were offering chapbook reviews to our nominees. Then there were guest covers, ad campaigns, even failed attempts to woo poets laureate to our pages. All the while, the four of us — now separated by miles and often state lines — were coming to realize what the work had given us. It was more than just a front-row seat to some of the most exciting writing we’ve ever encountered (though that is certainly true). But, even better, we had been given an excuse. A shared task. A reason to keep in contact, even as our careers, families, and pastimes began to mutate, blossom, and wander. A way to stay close, even as cosmic spring turned to earthly summer.

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth,” an old book says, “where moth and rust doth corrupt.” We get asked about our name occasionally. Sometimes we dodge the question and say, accurately but untruthfully, that Rust + Moth is a metaphor for decay. A warning against greed and material obsession. A reminder that entropy is the enemy and that our time here is brief, so… that thing you wanted to do with your life? Do it. Do it right now.

But the truth is, Rust + Moth is just this thing we came up with once. And, fortunately, it’s a thing we get to keep coming up with, thanks to Duotrope, a handful of unsupervised office printers, dear friends who helped us bind the first print issues by hand, and most significantly you, our contributors and readers. Ten years and counting… this one’s for ya’ll.

Thank you for being our mustard seed.

Suncerae, Josiah, Matthew, and Michael

[Special aside to our online readers: We will be unveiling this ten year anniversary issue in four installments over the next three months, with each section corresponding to a season. Start the looking-back with Suncerae’s take on the darkest spring.]