123: Welcome to the Issue
My last as Editor. Though, as Mark Twain once said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Truth is, I’ll be hanging around for a while yet, as fiction editor and contest adjudicator, and with a hand in fundraising and planning for the launch of Waterloo Region’s first annual “Wild Writers Festival” (go wild and save the date, November 2-3).
My successor, Pamela Mulloy, has already been hard at work. Those who love The New Quarterly (and there are a lot of you judging by the many nice notes I’ve received) can rest assured that the magazine will remain much the same—a lively, independent, inventive space where caring deeply about the writers and work we publish is seldom at odds with a sense of play and an open editorial stance. Rest assured, as well, that Pamela will bring a new energy and a new set of interests and connections that will enrich the magazine going forward, the conversation about writing historical fiction in the current issue a case in point. Pamela’s own interest in European history is fuelled by the years she lived, worked, and studied in England and Poland. She is married to an historian and has a daughter with a rich and commanding imagination and a fascination with earlier times: Pamela not infrequently arrives at the office dressed in pseudo-pioneer garb, having been harnessed to an activity that stretches her ingenuity as a mother. [Pamela: “I’ve made a pinafore (I don’t really sew so that was a challenge), we’ve prepared three-bean soup in Esme’s playhouse, made ‘herbal’ medicines, and attempted a covered wagon, but that was stretching our abilities. I’m sure there’s more but that will give you some idea of life on the prairie here on Duke St.”] One wants in an editor, as well as in a mother, someone so alive to the imagination!
Pamela will follow with some reflections on the issue in hand, but I thought I’d use this last opening editorial to speak to my own time with the magazine. It has been a long association—31 years this summer. Little did I know, when I wandered into the office back in 1981 and said to Harold Horwood, the magazine’s founder, that I’d be interested to see how a literary magazine got off the ground, I’d still be at it this many years later. It has been a life changing, life enriching experience—though not without its stresses. Jernigan is a Danish name, meaning something like Iron Arm (my husband’s ancestors having worked as armorers for the Viking kings), so on a visit to Copenhagen this spring, we took a side trip to the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde. My husband, an engineer, cruises the exhibits, but I am one of those dogged museum goers who reads every bit of accompanying text—happily so, because I came upon a translation of an old Norse poem that spoke to my experience as editor (Pamela, stop reading here!):
To love a woman whose ways are false,
Is like sledding over slippery ice
With unshod horses out of control,
Badly trained two-year-olds,
Or drifting rudderless on a rough sea,
Or catching a reindeer with a crippled hand
On a thawing hillside: think not to do it.
Substitute “To love a magazine whose funding is precarious” and you pretty much have it—but isn’t the language grand!
The New Quarterly has had its share of near death experiences. In its fourth year it abruptly lost its startup funding from the university and has continued as an independent ever since, incorporating as a not-for-profit in 2002 and acquiring charitable status this past summer. It has repeatedly had to find new office space, our latest (and largest) office kindly extended to us by St. Jerome’s University in 2009. In the millennial year, when we were in the midst of an ambitious symposium on the contemporary Canadian short story (a collaboration with the Academy Stratford and Porcupine’s Quill, Printers and Publishers), we lost our Managing Editor, her time on loan from the University’s Writing Centre.
The double “Wild Writers We Have Known” issue that came out of that symposium (an invaluable resource on the craft of the short story—alas for those who haven’t read it, longsince sold out) only happened because my daughter Amanda and her partner John Haney, both then recently graduated from Mount Allison University, gave months of their lives, at no recompense beyond room and board, to bringing it to life on the page. Add to these vicissitudes other unshod horses in the form of cuts or freezes to public support of the arts, the loss of the postal assistance program, a nasty computer crash that wiped out our subscriber list, etc., etc., etc.
But we have been fortunate in good friends in hardtimes and the pleasures of pulling the magazine together each quarter have far outweighed the uncertainties. Chief among those pleasures has been the opportunity the magazine provides to give important encouragement to writers in the early stages. One of those writers, Daniel Griffin, spoke persuasively to this role in a recent interview:
I remember how excited I was in the spring of 1996 when I came back from spending a year in Latin America. I’d been writing fiction seriously while away, but felt very much on my own in doing that. Within days of returning to Canada, I went to the library to see what they had on their periodical shelves. It was like discovering a new world. I’d been writing short stories on my own, and here in these literary magazines I found this place filled with others who were also writing short stories. I didn’t publish my first short story for another three years, but I loved the possibility, that there was this community I might somehow join. I think for a short story writer—maybe for any kind of writer—literary magazines are a proving ground, a place to put your writing out in the world, test it against the expectations and aesthetics of editorial boards.
As a young writer I didn’t always know what was good and what wasn’t. Working with magazines, and with editors helped with that—not that an editor or editorial board always gets it right—but writing is such a solitary activity, and the fact there were magazines out there that would read, consider, respond to, and sometimes publish my work was a great help.
The New Quarterly has not only served new writers by publishing their finished work, we’ve corresponded with them about work-in-progress; shared editorial insights (sometimes multiple insights, as we don’t always agree among ourselves and believe, in any case, that a writer’s work is her own and the most we can do is give a sense of ourselves as readers); nominated them for awards; recommended them for grants and fellowships and schools of writing; sent publishers, or sometimes jobs, their way; given them voice in our pages (we prefer to use interviews to introduce newcomers rather than to slap a familiar name on the cover); bought their books; and shared appreciative responses from our readers. And we think we’ve been pretty good at recognizing talent in the rough as well as at nurturing it.
But this sort of prescience is something most litmag editors aspire to. We are all, at heart, small time gamblers betting on literary futures. Where The New Quarterly distinguishes itself, or has tried to under my watch, is in how it frames the material published. Though we don’t publish reviews, we do provide an editorial context for the work published, playfully in our issue titles (for the most part chosen after the fact) and more seriously through a rich dose of writerly conversation—essays on writing, interviews, and afterwords.
I have been serving as Editor (that is, as the one who owns the responsibility and has the vision) since the magazine’s fourth year, much of that time alongside Peter Hinchcliffe, a professor of English at Saint Jerome’s University whose quiet and supportive friendship and ready wit have been one of the magazine’s greatest gifts to me—but it was only a dozen years ago that I owned the title and gave myself the freedom to really innovate and invent. We were approaching the millennium, and we decided to celebrate it with the aforementioned “Wild Writers” symposium in celebration of the renaissance of the Canadian short story. We were not strangers to such events, having previously published, as special issues and proceedings, gatherings on themes and genres in Canadian writing including Magic Realism, Family Fictions, the literature of the Mennonite diaspora, and a tribute to Robert Kroetsch on his 70th birthday, edited in grand and exuberant style by then poetry editors Charlene Diehl and Gary Draper. But all of these were attempts to marry our two worlds: the world of practicing writers and that of the academy which has been our home. “Wild Writers” marked our decision to throw off academic scholarship and instead invite writers to speak directly to their own work and that of their contemporaries.
Of the 20 writers we chose as the future of Canadian fiction, seven have gone on to win the Marian Engle/Timothy Findley Writers’ Trust Award for writers in mid-career: Terry Griggs in 2002, Caroline Adderson and Douglas Glover in 2006, Diane Schoemperlen and Michael Crummey in 2007, Michael Winter in 2008, and David Bergen in 2009. We have been drawing on the relationships formed at that symposium ever since, publishing just in the last year terrific new stories by Steve Heighton, Doug Glover, Caroline Adderson, and Mark Jarman. The title “Wild Writers We Have Known” was delightfully parsed by writer Keath Fraser in his introduction to Elise Levine: “The title for this conference caused me to wonder how exactly I myself was a wild writer. Who exactly were the ‘we’ who claimed to know me? How precisely was I known (if in the Biblical sense, who had I forgotten?)….” The sexual innuendo he notes, though unintended, was perhaps apt, as “Wild Writers” had two delightful offspring: “Bad Men Who Love Jesus,” poems and stories about sin and redemption, guest-edited by Leon Rooke, and “The Lists Issue,” guest-edited by Diane Schoemperlen. When we launch our “Wild Writers Literary Festival” this fall, it will be, in part, to introduce the next generation of innovative storytellers who have found their way into our pages.
I have also indulged my own interest in the literary essay with a move towards the inclusion of more nonfiction, essays on writing but also essays on life, as in our series “The Writer-at-Large,” or our “Extra” of two summers back in which writers wrote about their collections and obsessions and the all roads that lead to death. (An obsession with death can, and so often does, create a compassionate literature, not a morbid one. As Connie Rooke has reminded us, “the writer writes against death on behalf of other people. Bellow’s ‘sympathetic devotion to the life of someone else’—that quality he considers essential to fiction—means quite simply, that the writer cares about the life or lives that are represented in the story…”)
A poem or story that comes in through our open submissions policy, if it’s good, will find a home elsewhere if we don’t publish it here. But, for the most part, the essays we’ve published were called into being by our interest. There’s a certain satisfaction for an editor in that conjuring. Another series I launched, “Word & Image,” explores the intersections between literature and the visual arts. We’ve also explored the connections between literature and music, literature and science, literature and film, and between a writer’s early reading experience and the subsequent shape of his fiction or poetry. I’m happy to report that these various nonfiction and interdisciplinary features will be continued under former fiction editor Susan Scott.
The New Quarterly has always embraced collaboration as part of its editorial process. Collaboration, though sometimes trying, is more often enriching, at least in my experience. While I’ve wanted the magazine to have an identifiable voice and tone (playful, celebratory, intelligent but not pretentious, and giving reign to our collective curiosity), I’ve never wanted it to be predictable. We learned early on that one way to ensure this was not to rely on majority rule. We try to come to consensus in our editorial meetings, but failing that, better to horsetrade, allowing everyone in the group to own at least one heart-of-their-heart’s story even if it means making a concession on another front. Though I’ve retained the prerogative of scooping up the occasional poem or story without consulting the group, most decisions are made in the push and pull of discussion.
We’ve also been pioneering among lit mags in our collaborations with other magazines. The first of these was with Alternatives, an environmental journal. This was a project of TNQ’s Susan Scott, whose own writerly process has her thinking a lot about ritual and place and our relationship to the natural world. The paired issues focused on “Creative Communities” (Alternatives) and “The Artist as Activist” (TNQ).
The next, our “Salon des Refusés,” was an “activist” enterprise itself. The collaboration was proposed by Dan Wells of Biblioasis Press, publishers of Canadian Notes & Queries (CNQ). Dan is an editor/publisher whose intelligence, conviction, and passionate advocacy on the part of his writers I’ve always admired. The idea was to put out an alternative to the latest edition of The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, edited by Jane Urquhart. I agreed with Dan that there were some egregious omissions, despite the daunting girth of the anthology, omissions we hoped to rectify with our Salon. But I had some sympathy with Urquhart—editing an anthology of work by one’s contemporaries is always a thankless task—as well as admiration for her as a person and a writer. She had published early on with TNQ (a story of hers was one of my first picks as an editor) and had always extended the greatest courtesy and generosity to me and the magazine. As we neared publication, it became evident that what we’d undertaken as a bit of guerrilla theatre was guerrilla warfare for the folks at CNQ. I got cold feet, but my Board and then Managing Editor, Rosalynn Tyo, stood strong. We decided to trust to our readers. The Salon created a minor furor, both issues sold out, and the controversy renewed interest in the anthology as well.
CNQ continues to be one of the most provocative magazines on the racks, but one that’s also capable of self-scrutiny. Their subsequent issue on gender was, in part, a response to issues raised by the Salon. Similarly, TNQ’s series “On Criticism” was to some extent my way of exploring my tendency to shy from controversy. I’m not afraid of irreverence, in fiction or in life, and I can be stubborn in my convictions, but I find conflict wearying, not energizing. Still, as Eric Ormsby reminds us in the essay that launched the series, “Like it or not, the critic is a judge, and sometimes, unavoidably, a hanging judge.”
Our most recent collaboration, with Arc Poetry Magazine on last summer’s QuArc issue, was more exploration than exposé. We were interested in the crossovers between literature and science—in the poetics of science and in literature as experiment, in how writers mine science for metaphor or appropriate scientific genre to literary ends. It was a great rollicking collection, more science-y than scientific, but serious all the same and more fully illustrated than a typical issue. Published as a flip book reading in two directions, it was, I like to think, a kind of Spockian mind meld. Arc’s then editor, Anita Lahey, and I talked over pretty much every decision and it was both an education and an affirmation to see each other at work. And then we had the great thrill of being able to interview Alice Munro, in person, over lunch at her favorite restaurant in Goderich (since whisked away by a tornado, like much of the town’s central square).
My years with The New Quarterly have been a whirlwind ride as well. As Editor, I’ve aimed at a mix of writing that’s varied in style and kind, at a collaborative process, a writerly focus, an openness to literary experiment, and a sense of play. I’ve witnessed the progression from a time when our submission database was a set of index cards and cut & paste meant an exacto knife and a pot of hot wax to the world of tweets and blogs and digital publishing. Though I’ve sometimes felt unsure of myself, I’ve never doubted the importance of the work. And what a great privilege it has been to have had even a small hand in the extraordinary burgeoning of Canadian literature over the past 30 years.
I am grateful to our many supporters, both individual and institutional; to our boards past and present; to the other editors who’ve enriched the conversation along the way; to the Managing Editors who have kept the train on the rails (and especially to Rosalynn Tyo for bringing the look of the magazine in line with its editorial, in our most recent redesign); to the writers whose poems and stories so moved, challenged, and engaged us; and to our readers, a few of whom have been with the magazine almost as long as I have. I would be remiss not to mention as well a few special encouragers and mentors—Ken Ledbetter, Peter Hinchcliffe, John Metcalf, D.B. Scott, Bruce Johnstone, Susan Scott, and Barbara Carter—plus my children Amanda, Carey, and Ethan Jernigan and my son-in-law John Haney for gifts of time and talent. I especially thank my husband, Ed Jernigan, for his stalwart support. A mathematician and engineer by training, he’s gradually read his way through more Canadian books than many an English major. The magazine has taxed his wallet, but enriched his world, and he’s enriched mine.
Welcome, Pamela. May your unshod horses be few, may the road be clear, and may your pioneering spirit find ample play in our pages.
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