Encounters With Books: in particular, those small ones that arrive in the mail with every season

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I am one of those people in whom the headline “Canadian literary magazines in peril” strikes a note of dreaded fear. And of course, because I’m one of those people, I read it first at Bookninja, that provisions in the Canadian Federal budget “will force Heritage Canada CMF to drop funding for magazines with circulations under 5,000, which is essentially every lit mag out there, as well as a whole host of others.”

Contemplating this, I felt like a puppy-lover watching The Humane Society burn down. I was galvanized enough to shortly thereafter click to join the Coalition to Keep Canadian Heritage Support for Literary and Arts Magazines on Facebook, an easy automatic gesture, and ever since then I’ve been thinking seriously about Canadian literary magazines, why they’re worth supporting, what they mean to me, and to the rest of Canada.

Because there really aren’t a lot of people like us, the 2670 coalition supporters on Facebook. I know this for a fact, because whenever my work is published in a literary magazine, my Mom spends a good week or two trying to track down the issue, and keeps me up to date on the chase– the Chapters employee who has never heard of the magazine (which my mom has never heard of either), and then the issue is late arriving in stock, and then there’s only one copy and someone else has bought it (and that was probably my Dad).

It is a very small world, that of those of us who’d gasp in horror at the thought of literary magazines in peril. It’s a tiny world, insular and incestuous, staffed by volunteers, where the writers are often the readers, particularly when “free” subscriptions are their pay. These magazines are labours of love, and those labours are perhaps the only not-tiny thing about them. In addition to the force of the work inside them, of course, and the painstaking detail of their layout and design, and the cost of printing, and the communities that build up around them. Of course, of course, but then I’m biased.

As a writer, I have been rejected by most of the best literary magazines in Canada. I’ve received handwritten notes, form letters, scraps of paper addressed to somebody else, and snarky missives scrawled in ballpoint. From all over the country, I have received envelopes addressed to me in my own handwriting (the SASE, sent with every submission, which writer Nathan Whitlock has noted is “kind of like making soldiers go into battle carrying their own body bags”). And I’ve kept track of every one of these rejections, because they stand up as proof that I’m writing, that I’m trying. Every rejected story getting worked over again, and then being sent out (with bodybag) even better than it was the last time.

Which must be true, because every once in a while, one of these stories gets accepted. Usually by email, and you can tell these are good news because they begin with “Congratulations…”, and don’t end with, “…and we decided it was just not right for us.” Thus beginning a correspondence with the magazine’s editorial staff (the volunteers, the labourers of love), who treat my work with such seriousness and consideration that it makes worthwhile every single hour I’ve spent at my writing desk. Who do me the honour of publishing my work, so I can feel less like someone who writes, and more like a writer.

I am an ordinary Canadian. As proof of this I offer the forty hours I spend at work every week, the importance to me of my friends and my family, a fondness for drinking beer outside on warm summer days, and a familiarity with the works of the band Trooper. And like so many other ordinary Canadians, I also like to make things. For twenty two of my thirty years, I’ve been writing poems and stories, perhaps in response to the literature I love so much to read, but also because by now I don’t know how not to. I think I’d write stories if I was the only person left in the world, if the stories just went on to live inside a drawer. But it means something enormous that they don’t have to.

Behind every rejection I’ve ever received is someone who folded a piece of paper into three and licked the envelope shut. Considering the number of rejections I’ve received, that licking and folding has required an enormous amount of manpower, and I am just one ordinary Canadian. From this you may begin to understand the amount of resources necessary to produce a magazine. And that there is really nothing small about these literary magazines after all, except their readership. If you consider 5000 small, that is, and I’m not sure that I actually do.

It is with some shame that I’ll admit to coming into the whole lit-mag thing a bit backwards. I’m sure I’m not alone in this either, that I didn’t actually start reading them until I wanted them to publish me. Certainly before, I didn’t realize what I was missing. Occupied by mainstream media (a considerable distraction) I hadn’t noted the book-sized hole in my life that could be filled with exciting poetry and fiction by new and established Canadian writers.

Literature begets literature, I firmly believe, and so that I came to the reading via writing isn’t the point. What is much more important is the fact that I’m hooked. That the arrival of these magazines in my mailbox brings a frisson of joy, and I devour them slowly (does that make sense? To hungrily savour?). That I still get far more rejections than I do acceptances, but I can participate in the literary community as much as a reader, and there’s such pleasure in that. That I should be magnanimous and note the numerous household name Canadian writers who’ve found their starts in small magazines, but instead I’ll tell you the ones I’m most glad I’ve found there– Anne Fleming, Terry Griggs, Amy Jones, Anne Germanacos, Christine Pountney, Heather Birrell, etc. Etc.

Government support of artists is a touchy subject, so I’ll avoid it, but less controversial– it has to be– is support of arts. This is a matter of principle. It’s about supporting endeavours that whole communities build up around, and even if these communities number less than 5000, well then, don’t also a large number of towns? These subscription bases don’t seem so small then, and neither do the magazines, so bursting with substance that they have to be stuffed into ordinary Canadian mailboxes all over the country. The mailboxes of ordinary Canadians like me who like to read things, and who like to make things, and receive an enormous amount of well-being from there being places to send our body bags to. Because body bags mean at least that we have bodies. It means at least that we are here.

They’re not for everyone, literary magazines, as evidenced by the (lack of) enthusiasm for them at the Peterborough Chapters. But any ordinary Canadian who reads has benefited from these platforms for emerging writing (…coming soon to your mainstream press). Any Canadian with an appreciation for the arts benefits from our country’s stellar literary reputation, and can catch a ride on its coattails. Any Canadian who values Canadianness must surely know that we’re a country founded of small communities, often isolated from one another, and that, at our best, it was mutual support that ensured our survival and created the nation we are today.

(Image by Stuart Lawler at Create Me This)

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