When I email Descant Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen to confirm our interview appointment the next day, she responds with the news she has slipped on the ice that morning and hurt her arm. Of course I say we should reschedule at her convenience. But Karen is a self-admitted workhorse and powering through is one of her greatest strengths. It’s what helped get Descant through four decades of publishing in an increasingly precarious industry.
“I hope you’re not going to ask me that question,” she says to me when we first set up the interview. Since December, when she announced the news of the magazine’s closing, friends, colleagues and complete strangers have been asking her: How do you feel about this? How does it feel to say goodbye to Descant after all these years?
“What am I supposed to tell them?”
I promise I won’t ask her.
I meet Karen at her home near Kensington Market in Toronto. Over a pot of tea — or bottle of Prosecco, I can’t remember now — we talk about the magazine that has been her full-time labour of love for more than forty years. Before we start the interview we discuss plans for the big party, Descant‘s grand finale, on March 25th. While editing the programme for the final bash, Karen updates me on what still has to be filed and sorted in the office. It’s been like this for three months — dealing with the end while planning the literary celebration of the season.
Those of us involved with the magazine are familiar with its origin story: that Descant began in 1970 when a group of University of Toronto graduate students produced mimeographed copies of the first issue. Karen Mulhallen was not the first editor of the magazine; she was the assistant editor of issues three and four, and became the editor shortly thereafter. From 1972 until the last issue printed earlier this year, the magazine has been perfect bound (sections sewn or glued together with a cover, like paperback books). There are about 25 contributors per issue, in poetry, fiction and non-fiction, as well as visual artists, in photography, painting and mixed media. A number of issues include a full-colour gatefold (the literary version of a centrefold) and since issue 133, the magazine includes colour in the text as well.
There’s no question that Descant is a beautiful magazine and one of the most respected literary journals in Canada.
Descant’s third issue, in 1971. The cover image is from a photograph taken by then-Assistant-Editor, Karen Mulhallen.
For the first six years after she became editor, the magazine was housed on the lower level of Karen’s home. She explains, “it just became a part of how the house functioned.” In the 1980s, Karen hired Maria Gould Meindl to be Descant‘s first managing editor. Maria sold subscriptions to help cover her salary and was, according to Karen, a quick study and committed apprentice and colleague. Recalling those early years and her work with Karen, Maria says:
“She was brilliant, gorgeous and fiercely committed to the magazine. I was a little scared of her, to be honest. I knew I had a lot to learn, fast. She also put a lot of faith in me.”
It’s still true — Karen has a directness that, combined with a quick mind and an unflinching aesthetic, can intimidate those who don’t know her well. It’s also true that putting her faith in people and their nascent talent are what has made the magazine such a success, in Canada and abroad. In 1983, several years before his novel The English Patient catapulted him into international literary stardom, Descant published an entire issue on Michael Ondaatje. “I was just dazzled by his writing” Karen tells me.
Over the years themes and special issues have included places (North Africa, Latvia, Turkey, Venice, India, Berlin …), people (like Michael Ondaatje, above, and Dennis Lee), and topics such as music, gardening, dance, comedy, sports, birth, memory, war, writers in prison, space, fashion, hotels, comics and the search for happiness.
I have no idea how to describe Karen’s literary or artistic tastes because she is impressed by such a wide variety of styles. In one of the many emails of condolence she has received since the announcement of Descant‘s closing, a longtime friend points out that Karen is unusual in this way: her personal style and tastes have not dictated what gets published in the magazine. Karen is also known for cutting writers and artists a lot of slack when others find them … challenging.
Alongside established and well-known authors, Descant has always published new and emerging writers, many of whom have gone on to successful writing careers. You would be hard-pressed to name a successful Canadian writer who has not been published in Descant. I can say that honestly as I have recently been going through the entire list of our contributors.
I ask Karen to estimate how much time she has put into Descant and before I can finish my sentence she says “forty hours a week.” I clarify, “no, I mean you personally, how many hours?” She repeats her answer with the tinge of impatience that determined people get when faced with mundane questions. “Even when you were working, full-time?” She nods and I cannot resist the urge to blurt out, “but how is that possible when you worked as a Ryerson prof and have published so many books over the years?” (Later, I ask her if it’s 14 or 16 books and she says with a shrug, “more than 16 now. But why do people need to count these things?”). She tells me, “I didn’t think about it. I just did. If you think too much about it you go crazy.” She says that without children and not much time spent in front of the television or radio (“I don’t like things projected at me”), she incorporated the work of the magazine into her daily life: “If I couldn’t sleep for some reason, I’d just get up and work on the magazine.”
Karen Mulhallen speaks at a launch party for Descant.
I have seen this dogged determination recently in the labour of closing the magazine. The infrastructure that supported Descant and helped it grow for more than forty years is now almost completely dismantled. Karen has single-handedly, and with some help, sorted through decades of financial information, materials for the archives, and that middle ground that all of us dread: files marked “miscellaneous.”
One afternoon someone dropped by to see about buying one of the office computers. I was busy trying to sort through one of the filing cabinet drawers but eventually I became aware that there was some kind of problem with the way the computers were wired in to the table. Before I could even offer to help, Karen had found a screwdriver and crawled under the table where she could better survey the problem. Then, pink cashmere sweater and skirt notwithstanding, she lay on her back and went to work. In our interview she tells me that her basic operating principle has always been, “we can make it work.”
As well as the 167 issues of the magazine, Karen says she is proud of the outreach programmes Descant has spearheaded, including SWAT (students, writers and teachers workshops), Operation Springboard (writing workshops with young people in conflict with the law), Now Hear This! (literary workshops and support for at-risk youth), and grief-writing workshops. Descant‘s quarterly launches, often standing-room-only, are another kind of literary outreach and Karen’s eyes light up when she talks about them. Although she does often make some introductory remarks at the launches, it’s the production editor’s night and she defers to their plans for the evening, including the choice of readers.
In response to the question Why is the magazine closing? her answer is characteristically unequivocal: “It’s really simple, it’s not complicated at all. As arts funding diminishes and costs rise, we can’t meet the deficit.” But she did try. Since 2010, when she announced she would retire in 2014, she has tried to find some one, or some organization, to take over the magazine. While there were a few nibbles, no one came through with the time and money that it would require. At the last hour, the current group of co-editors discussed the possibilities of taking over the magazine but, like others Karen had approached, we just couldn’t see how to make it work without the linchpin who has held it together for almost 45 years.
“Descant”: noun; a discourse on a theme or subject
Even as core funding has dwindled, Descant reader subscriptions have steadily increased. I asked Karen when the magazine’s volunteer ranks got so big and she said she really noticed an increase at the monthly editorial board meetings about five years ago. She is clearly proud that these meetings have always been open to anyone who wanted to participate, no questions asked. You could just walk in, pick up a submission, read it and turn to the person next to you to discuss it.
I ask her the inevitable question about the legacy of the magazine:
“Descant has published important writing and art that comes out of a particular time and place … we’ve made a permanent record and helped people grow in their craft and provided a sense of community. Magazines have to be committed to be a record of the thinking of an era and to the artists who make that thinking available to our era … we need to make this available to other people. No one goes anywhere alone. We go there together.”
Karen refutes the perception that if you’re around long, you’re necessarily staid. She says that the goals of a literary magazine are no different than when she started: “to publish people and help them grow and be better at their craft.” What does she make of factionalism in the literary world? “I pay no attention to that. You have to acknowledge development of the culture … you have to help grow the culture and support the whole prospectus.” Maria Meindl notes that:
“Descant kept changing, reflecting Karen’s endless curiosity and willingness to reach out to new artists and new communities. It kept growing and reaching out into the world, thinking of new ways to reinvent itself. Just the idea that a magazine CAN do that, for as long as Descant did is incredible.”
Descant‘s last launch was this past January, for issue 167. It was a packed house and I heard more than one person say it was the best launch they’d been to. There was a joie de vivre despite, or perhaps because of, the bittersweet celebrations. Karen was surrounded by old friends and several generations of managing editors. But at one point, when I looked across the room to find her, she was standing alone and I saw her wipe her eyes. In our interview she explained that it was contributor Jim Nason’s comments that really got to her. Before he read that night at the launch, he told the audience how he’d submitted a poem to Descant in the 1980s and got a note back (from Maria Meindl) asking him if he could rewrite it. “Now he’s an author and owns Tightrope Books. There was 30 years in front of me,” Karen says softly. “That’s when I started crying. You know, 30 years? There it was, in that moment, in Kensington Market.”
Near the end of our interview, Karen pulls back a sleeve and we stare at the nasty looking purple mark on her arm from her fall the previous morning. She runs a finger over it and I ask her how it feels. She stares at me for a moment then says, “It hurts. You always know it could happen, but when it does it’s such a shock. It hurts. It hurts a lot.”
1970 – 2015
Please join us to celebrate Descant‘s 45 years of publishing new and established writers and visual artists. Antanas Sileika is the MC for our big bash. We’ll be giving away back issues of the magazine so if you or a friend were published in one, now’s your last chance to pick up another copy. We have some crazy-big raffle prizes as well, including a $500 scholarship for the Humber School for Writers.
When: March 25th, 7pm
Where: Revival Bar, 783 College Street, Toronto
Catered appetizers and cash bar. Visit our Facebook page for more information.