Saturday, April 24, 2010

12 or 20 (small press) questions: Anita Lahey on ARC magazine

Arc Poetry Magazine was founded in Ottawa, Canada in 1978 by the Arc Poetry Society to nurture and promote the composition and appreciation of poetry in Canada. In its uninterrupted 32 years of publication—it is the longest-running, uninterrupted poetry publication in the country—the magazine has remained steadfast in this purpose. It gives out several annual prizes and awards, and can be found online at

Anita Lahey is the author of the poetry collection Out to Dry in Cape Breton (Vehicule Press, 2006), which was nominated for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry and the Ottawa Book Award. She has been involved with Arc since 2001 and has served as editor since 2005. She is also a journalist who has written on a wide range of topics for publications such as The Walrus, Cottage Life, Maisonneuve, Canadian Geographic, Chatelaine, the Ottawa Citizen, Quill & Quire, and several others. She lives in Montreal.

1 – When did ARC magazine first start? How have your original goals as a publisher shifted since you started, if at all? And what have you learned through the process?

Arc was founded in 1978 by three English professors at Carleton University, including the poet Christopher Levenson, who remained as editor of the magazine for many years after its association with Carleton ceased. Since its early days it has been independent from any larger organization such as a university or writers’ guild. In issue 2, an editorial stated the magazine had no manifesto: “Our only commitment is to good poetry and to good criticism, wherever we can find it.” Though many editors have taken the helm, including John Bell and Mark Frutkin, John Barton and Rita Donovan, myself and Matthew Holmes, and though a long list of Ottawa writers & literary folk have served on the editorial board (including David Staines, Colin Morton, Sandra Nicholls, John Buschek, Susan McMaster, Barbara Myers, Paul Tyler, Sandra Ridley), this has not changed—we at Arc are steadfastly anti-manifesto (though that in itself might be seen as a manifesto). Currently our board includes Rob Winger, Rhonda Douglas, Shane Rhodes, Grant Wilkins and several others. My own goal as editor of Arc is to contain within its pages, alongside strong new poetry, a lively conversation about poetry—I want Arc to be a locus for that often fractious but often enlightening conversation among poets and readers of poetry in Canada. What I have learned editing Arc I could spend a whole week talking about, but one thing in particular is that the poets function as a kind of small town—a community that is spread out in tendrils over the entire country. There is no province or territory from which we don’t receive submissions, and our contributors, be they poets, critics, essayists or all three, live in farflung locales all over the map. There is something remarkable about finding oneself part of this half-hidden world, and engaging with it, and always finding new lines and branches to follow. It is a privilege and an adventure.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?

Writing. I studied magazine journalism at Ryerson in Toronto, and have worked in various capacities as a writer or editor ever since.

3 – How do you approach the idea of taking over, and even altering a publishing mandate that pre-dates your own tenure as editor? Is this intimidating at all, or exciting, or both? How do you approach continuity?

In my case I became involved with Arc because I liked the magazine—I read it and tried to publish my work in it (my first published poem appeared in Arc before I knew anyone involved with the magazine)—so continuity of sensibility existed. I did not step in to alter the mandate or drastically change the magazine. Even the redesign that happened after I became editor with Matthew Holmes became reviews editor—we worked for a couple of years as a kind of co-editorship until he moved away and got a full-time job (and a family!)—was something the former editors were thinking about and wanting to do; this was not a radical shift. Changes have happened based on discussions around the table with the editorial board, different ideas people put forward, and probably to some extent my own personality and the journalistic experience I bring, my sense of what a magazine is as a whole. It’s gradual and organic. I think Arc with me has increased its essay quotient considerably—I like, as I said above, for the magazine to be engaging in, and in some sense even leading or trying to set a tone, for discussion about poetry and poetics in Canada at this time. Some might say doing that takes space away from being able to publish a few more new poems, and it does, but to me it’s a worthwhile and even an important trade-off. I like to put things in context, and as a reader to see things in context, and this has led us to do some explorations into issues and themes such as Canada’s “forgotten and neglected poets,” about whom we did a special issue, and the question of ego and poetry, which led to our “anonymous” issue. It is also why we have more little features in the magazine surrounding the new poetry and criticism, such as the Arc Dozens essay, the letters, and even a regular editor’s note. For me it also needs to be fun, so we try not to take everything too seriously: while we conduct very earnest investigations into the state of poetry, we try to be playful about it.

4 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?

Small publishers are like the training ground and apprenticeship for writers and editors. They are also the places where any kind of discussion can happen, where work can be tried out and shared, without concern over popular appeal—in essence where writers at any level can be free to follow their noses. In that sense, we are the incubators of art and ideas. We support, we encourage, and we provide a space, again, in which to play. A society needs these spaces, because it is here where the ideas that will later spread more widely take root, where many the writers who will later speak to the masses hone their craft and their skills, and also where the writers who may never speak to the masses, but who still speak in important and necessary ways, can exercise their voices and by doing so influence and enrich our world and our lives,.

5 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?

We provide a forum for discussion and criticism of contemporary Canadian poetry that is more broad and in-depth than I see elsewhere. Each issue of Arc contains a couple of dozen brief reviews of recent collections as well as 1-4 longer reviews—nowhere else is there this much room for informed and thoughtful discussion of new poetry being published in the country. We set a tone (I hope) of openness and exploration—others do this too for literature in general, but in a purely poetic context I think we are unique. Aside from supporting the creation of new work—which we do not just by publishing and offering prizes but also through our Poet-in-Residence program, which nurtures emerging writers who show promise and also gives room for a more established poet to work on a new project—we revisit and examine what is already before us and with us, in ways that matter the poets writing today: through our How Poems Work column and through such projects as the aforementioned “Forgotten and Neglected issue, and our more recent issue examining the legacy of John Thompson and the rise in popularity of the ghazal form since his death. We also try to push the boundaries of the poetry community and invite others in—this by such initiatives as in our recent How Poems Work Annual, in which we invited readers from all walks of life to comment on the poems being featured and discussed.

6 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new issues out into the world?

I’m not sure whether you mean issues of a magazine—or issues, as in, topics for discussion. If the former, I don’t know. We sell in stores, we have subscribers, we host readings and launches, we take part in Word on the Street and other book fairs, and even sometimes more general arts fairs, such as the Artspark event in the Ottawa neighbourhood of Hintonburg every May. Here we run an Arc Poetry Factory, at which people can “order” a poem from a member of Arc or an Arc associate, who is sitting at a typewriter ready to write on the spot. (We use this as a fundraiser for a local schools organization, and it is extremely popular, and again, a kind of outreach beyond our typical audience.)

7 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?

I am as involved as I need to be, by which I mean to say, some pieces are very well realized and only need a light touch, while others require more revision and rethinking—a deeper intervention from an editor. I am talking about prose. Most longer pieces require more editorial involvement, which is normal: it is the rare writer who doesn’t need an editor (as someone who is often on the other side of this relationship, I am often wary if an editor doesn’t wade in, for an outside eye and fresh perspective is helpful and in many cases even necessary). As for poems, I only ever offer minor suggestions for changes, if any; in general, the poetry we accept is selected because we like it as it is.

8 – How does ARC get distributed? What are your usual print runs?

As mentioned above, Arc is distributed through mailed subscriptions, sold on newsstands, (Magazines Canada distributes us to newsstands, as they do most small publications in the country), and sold at special events such as launches and festivals.

9 – How many other people are involved with editing or production? Do you work with other editors, and if so, how effective do you find it? What are the benefits, drawbacks?

Working with a team is important because everyone has different strengths and different ideas, and because hearing and considering a diversity of viewpoints—while this sometimes presents challenges—is important. A one-person operation risks being narrow in scope. We have an editorial board of 8, all of whom are involved to some extent in selection of content. Everyone reads submissions and we have editorial meetings where we discuss poems that are in contention for acceptance. Among this crew is a poetry editor and a reviews editor, both of whom help a little more with the process (the poetry editor is someone I consult with regularly, and the reviews editor does some of the assigning of reviews and also some of the initial editing). We have a board member who assists with copy editing, an art director who takes part in art selection and is very involved in our production process, a layout designer who formats all the content, and a managing editor who runs the show—by which I mean everything that doesn’t involve editing itself, from paying the bills to grant applications to managing submissions and distributing mail. Having this crew involved with all these practical matters (which wasn’t always the case at Arc) helps the editor be able to focus on editorial matters which is very difficult to do when one is busy writing cheques and managing budgets and that sort of thing.

10 – How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?

I have always shifted back and forth between the two sides of the writing business, so I’m not sure I can answer that—it’s almost too meshed to be able to parse. But when I’m working as a writer, I know, for example, that if I don’t hear from an editor for a spell it may have to do with their production cycle, rather than meaning they’ve forgotten I exist. The other thing I would say is that, for me, it’s tough to do both simultaneously. When I’m working as an editor, and feeling responsible for a host of different tasks, it’s hard to carve out the mental space necessary to write. In my case. For others, it might not be so difficult.

11 – How do you approach the idea of publishing your own writing? Some, such as Gary Geddes when he still ran Cormorant, refused such, yet various Coach House Press’ editors had titles during their tenures as editors for the press, including Victor Coleman and bpNichol. What do you think of the arguments for or against, or do you see the whole question as irrelevant?

I would never publish my own poetry. No editor of Arc can be published in the magazine, in fact. Prose is another matter. We are all sometimes prose contributors to the magazine; this is appropriate and even desired, because in that case we are sharing our knowledge and perspective on poetic subjects with Arc’s readers, as any of our other contributors do.

12 – How do you see ARC continuing to evolve?

I hope we will continue to host a lively and meaningful and topical discussion of poetry and poetics, and that we will find more and better ways to do this, and to expand out to a broader audience. We will also continue to further develop our educational & support activities, by maintaining our Poet-in-Residence program, which is in its pilot year and which continues into a second year in 2010-2011, and by doing more activities such as supplying lesson plans for teachers of poetry and writing with issues of the magazine (we did this first with the 2010 Arc Annual).
13 – What, as a publisher, are you most proud of accomplishing? What do you think people have overlooked about your publications? What is your biggest frustration?

I am frustrated by the federal government’s decision to cut its support of small publications—very frustrated. We are not money pits—the funding we received from Heritage Canada was minimal, but extremely useful: as a small operation we are able to accomplish a lot with a small amount of money. And we are indeed incubators of culture: our impact cannot be measured in numbers. Their quantitative approach to cultural endeavour is baffling. I am proud of our Forgotten and Neglected issue, of the fascinating discussion contained within our How Poems Work Annual (in which, for example, a chocolatier contends with a poem by bp nichol), and of our creation of a virtual Poet-in-Residence, the first of its kind in the country, who can provide guidance and feedback to promising poets anywhere. I can’t comment on what people may have overlooked; I have no idea!

14 – Who were your early publishing models when starting out?

15 – How does ARC work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see ARC in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?

I think I have mainly answered this above. But to add to that, we are currently in an active partnership with The New Quarterly on a joint issue (scheduled for summer 2011) on science and literature. This issue will be called “Quarc” and we are very excited about it. We are also, for our upcoming Annual, which will focus on poetry that uses visual art as its inspiration (we’re calling it the Poet as Art Thief issue), conducting an experiment involving 10 Ottawa poets and artists, and working with the National Gallery of Canada on some aspect of the issue. All of this is important—readings, launches, cross-magazine and cross-disciplinary experiments. When you make something, you share it: and then you let people respond to it, and this has an impact on what you make next time. This is how a magazine has a relationship with its community and its readers, and why magazines matter at all.

16 – Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?

We hold an Ottawa reading/launch for each issue of Arc, and sometimes extra launches in different cities, such as Montreal or Vancouver, if there are lots of contributors to be found in one place.
17 – How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?

Arc’s website features its own content (ongoing How Poems Work column, for example) as well as samples from each issue. We are currently engaged in a revamping of the site that will allow us to use it to more fully complement and build on the print issue, with different kinds of content, including interviews and readings.

18 – Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?

We take submissions from September to May every year. We want poetry that knocks our socks off, and we recognize that there are all manner of ways and means that this can be done. Indeed this variety excites us. There is nothing we aren’t looking for—except perhaps submissions from people who don’t read or like the magazine, or who haven’t read and followed our submission guidelines, which can be found on our website at

19 – Tell me about your most recent issue, and why it's special.

Our most recent issue, Arc 63 (winter 2010), features a great essay by Ottawa poet Barbara Myers about ending a poem—reading poems endings and writing them, and what “closure” really means in poetry. It also features a list of 12 his favourite poems by Don Coles, and why he likes them—a marvellous tour of poets through the ages, from Tomas Transtromer to A.E. Housmann to Douglas LePan—and an in-depth feature review on one of the most celebrated Canadian poets of this generation, Karen Solie. As for poetry, there are some fascinating scientific experiments by Nova Scotia poet Sean Howard; some rich sensual offerings by PEI’s Anne Compton, new work by Daryl Hine and John Barton, two of the country’s most accomplished gay poets (though of different generations); and an Arc debut by Susan Brennan, a Canadian ex-pat in the U.S. who writes in a fast-paced, urgent, surreal, fearless, “look at me when I’m talking to you” kind of voice, using language that fairly drips from the page. One of her poems from this issue is also featured on our “arc card,” a postcard inserted into each issue with original artwork inspired by the poem on the back. In this case, Brennan’s “The Artificial Fern’s Lament” inspired a wonderfully creepy creation by Halifax’s Melissa Marr.

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