this interview was conducted over email from November 2016 to August 2017 as part of a project to document Ottawa literary publishing. see my bibliography-in-progress of Ottawa literary publications, past and present here
Grant Wilkins likes letters, words, ink, paper and sounds, and combinations thereof. http://www.grungepapers.com/
Q: How did The Canadian Journal of Contemporary Literary Stuff first start?
A: Once upon a time, Tamara Fairchild and I were members of a writers group that had grown up amongst a circle of our friends. This group rolled happily along for a while – it was at least as much a social thing as it was a literary thing – until somewhere along the way someone had the idea that we should put out a little journal as a vehicle for our writing.
The first issue of MPD, as we called the journal (the conceit being that what the letters stood for would change with each issue), came out in 1993. It was very much on the standard photocopied & stapled “litzine” model, though I don’t think any of us would have known that term at the time. We initially had only the vaguest notion that there was a local literary world out there to be part of.
Although we tried to streamline the editorial and production process for MPD after the first one – there was a rotating editorial board of different members for each issue – ultimately, it was an integral part of the writing group’s identity that the whole thing had to function as a democracy. Not surprisingly, with a membership that ranged between nine and at least thirteen people over the years, both MPD and the group itself could be pretty slow moving projects, with things often only seeming to get done after much debate, and at the speed of the slowest, least interested, or otherwise most distracted person involved.
Anyway, Tamara and I had been friends for a good while before all this, and we ended up working together as the editors of the 2nd issue of MPD and then again on the 6th issue – so by the time we were finished putting out #6 we knew that we were on the same wavelength about a lot of things, and that we worked well together. After the 6th issue we also knew that because of the democratic “everybody gets a turn” nature of the project, we probably wouldn’t be doing another one for at least a couple of years.
At that point I think we both just realized that we had bigger literary ambitions than what MPD and the writers group was going to allow for – and so we decided to strike out on our own.
Q: How did this translate into The Canadian Journal of Contemporary Literary Stuff?
A: Deciding that we wanted to do our own thing was obviously the first step. Once we’d gotten that far, I think we focused in on what we saw as the need for a strong editorial presence in our (soon-to-be) magazine, and on setting it up to be – at least in part – a platform for engaging with and looking at the larger literary landscape.
One of the things we’d noticed through our ongoing involvement in the literary world was that few of the literary magazines, journals and zines we’d encountered seemed to have much of an identity beyond being the sum of their contents. There wasn’t very much in the way of editorial presence out there, and even less of a sense that anyone stood for anything or was interested in anything beyond the poetry & prose being printed in a given issue. It all seemed to be so humourless too – like latter-day manifestations of those stories we all read in our high school Canlit English classes, where noble prairie-folk trudged off into snowstorms to die.
So, while we certainly intended to publish good work in our magazine, we also thought that the literary culture in which we resided was worth looking at, talking about and maybe even showing off. I think we figured that if we could do this with a sense of fun and a certain level of capaciousness, we’d have a magazine that could be enjoyed by – and have something to say to – anyone with a modicum of interest in things literary.
The first and most obvious manifestation of this ambition was that the magazine would have to be as big and glossy – as close to a “real” magazine – as we could make it, and that we would have to get it properly distributed. If we wanted to invite the larger culture into our corner of the literary world, we had to be something that looked like it belonged on that larger culture’s magazine rack – and then we actually had to get it onto those magazine racks so that the larger culture could find it.
Like I said, we had big ambitions.
Q: How was the first issue put together? Did you send out a call for submissions, or were you predominantly soliciting?
A: In terms of pulling together the content for Stuff, we tried to have it both ways. We’d given ourselves a lot of time to put the first issue together – the magazine would be ready to go when it was ready to go, basically – so we had time to do a pretty intensive mail-out of our call for submissions. But we also hit up our literary friends, acquaintances and people we knew whose work we admired.
This part of it was especially important right at the beginning, because we were looking for recurring features – comics, comment, columns and such – that we could run in every issue. We really did want the magazine to feel like it was an ongoing conversation with and about the literary world – and this was something best arranged with writers whom we knew well enough to know that they would have something to say, and be able to say it on a semi-regular basis.
As it happened, Tamara ended up moving from Ottawa to Toronto almost immediately after we’d decided to start Stuff. Though this initially worried us a little in terms of communication and logistics, I think it quickly turned out to be a very good thing, as it meant we were physically present in both cities, and involved in both literary communities. Tamara was very much a practicing poet at the time too, and quickly got involved in the Toronto poetry world, which meant that we soon ended up with a lot more personal contact in that scene – the centre of the Canadian literary universe – than we might otherwise have had.
Q: How did that personal contact translate into what appeared in the journal?
A: It seemed to work out that people whom we had come to know and like and whose writing we admired from the Ottawa literary scene ended up as recurring contributors to Stuff, writing regular columns or otherwise being generous and flexible with their work when we asked for it. This would be writers like James Spyker and Catherine Jenkins, and Chris Pollard and Natalie Hanna, amongst others.
Of course, we were already familiar with the Toronto literary scene when we began putting the magazine together – we’d gone to small press fairs and Canzine with MPD, and there was generally a fair bit of communication between the Ottawa and Toronto poetry worlds. James and Catherine had already moved there by that point too, so we did have some points of contact there.
Tamara, as I said, was very much a practicing poet in those days, and got into the Toronto literary world pretty quickly once she made the move herself, meeting and becoming friends with people like bill bissett, Jill Batson, Nancy Dembowski and Lil Blume, amongst others. A lot of the literary friends she made there ended up writing feature articles or interviews for us, or giving us major poetry sequences to publish.
Although putting each issue together was never easy or uncomplicated, this Ottawa/Toronto-centric nature meant that we usually had a good framework of material ready (or at least in progress) when we started assembling an issue, which in turn meant that we were usually just trying to fill in holes or slots with work from other sources, and not trying to build each issue entirely from scratch.
Q: You deliberately conceived of a full-sized journal distributed through CMPA over, say, a chapbook-sized photocopied journal distributed predominantly through small press fairs and hand-sales. What led to these decisions, and had you any models when you were shaping these decisions? Given you hadn’t any funding, what were the benefits and drawbacks to the format?
A: There’s certainly an element of “what the hell were we thinking?” involved when I look back at Stuff. I’m glad that we did it – but I think that it was probably a good thing that we didn’t realize at the time how complicated, how expensive and how time consuming it was going to become as a project – because if we had, we might not have tried it... and that would have been a shame.
We did it the way we did it because, I think, we had this very clear conception of Stuff as being not just a vehicle for literary work, but also a platform for an ongoing conversation about literary work and about the literary world. It seemed to us that there was enough scope in this concept that there might be an audience out there for it in the literary world beyond poetry zines and small press fairs. To find that audience though – to get beyond the folded-and-stapled-chapbook scene and to make it onto the racks at Chapters and magazine shops across the country – Stuff would pretty much by definition need to be a proper magazine.
In terms of models, there were enough “real” literary magazines and journals out there that we knew we weren’t going to have to re-invent the wheel, and that in some sense, what we wanted to do was possible. Though I never really liked Broken Pencil much in terms of its approach, I did like the look of it, and it worked very well as a production model of what we were aiming for. I can’t recall if your Missing Jacket started before or after Stuff, but I think we were aware enough of your intentions for it for that to be a model as well.
In spite of the fact that we knew Stuff was going to be expensive to produce, we decided right at the start that we weren’t going to aim for any funding for it. We had a very particular idea of what we wanted to do, and we didn’t want to have to dilute it in any way, adapt it to fit a funding model, or even to justify it to anyone. If it really was a valid concept, then we figured it would eventually succeed on its own – and if it turned out it wasn’t, then it wouldn’t, and probably shouldn’t.
That said, I think we were still surprised by how much work and money we could sink into it without it being enough, and without making much in the way of forward progress. In hindsight of course, the idea that two people – one with a full-time job and the other trying to start her own business – could run something like this indefinitely on the scale we were aiming for was pretty absurd. With all of the tasks involved in getting an issue together – soliciting, reading & picking content, looking for advertising, marketing the magazine, actually laying out, producing and publishing the magazine – it didn’t matter what we did, there was always a long list of things that we didn’t have time to do.
The frustrating thing is that the magazine was quite successful in terms of distribution and sales. We had a major commercial distributor right from the start, as well as a smaller but really quite good “alternative” distributor based out west, and by the 2nd issue we’d joined the CMPA (the Canadian Magazine Publishers Association, now called Magazines Canada). Although the CMPA turned out to be kind of a dud – and not just in terms of distribution – we had very good sell-through rates with the other two distributors and with the shops that we personally stocked the magazine in. Unfortunately, the economics of magazine publishing was such that even at the best of times, a copy that sold off the rack barely paid for the cost of its own production, and any copies that didn’t sell of course were a dead loss.
We put as much time as we could into soliciting advertising and subscriptions, which is where we always knew the magazine would make it or break it. This turned out to be an even harder sell than we’d anticipated though – there was never enough time to do it properly, and neither of us were salespeople by nature. The ideal solution would have been to hire someone to do the ad-soliciting for us, but of course that would have required money, which we were already spending a lot of on production and everything else – and so it didn’t happen.
In the end, although we were always improving issue-by-issue in terms of our sales and our paying ads, our costs kept increasing too – so we never managed to make any significant financial headway. Eventually, after four issues spread over three years, we decided that we just didn’t have the time or the financial resources to go any further, so we ended it there.
Q: Through the four issues you produced, what do you feel you accomplished? What elements were unexpected? What had you hoped to accomplish but never quite got to?
A: Looking back, I think we actually managed to accomplish exactly what we were intending to with Stuff in terms of what we printed, and I think we managed to accomplish it right from the first issue. We had good literary content – poetry and prose – we had good pieces about literary content, we had good columns, comment and comics which amounted to an ongoing and not entirely humourless conversation about things literary, and we were showcasing chapbooks and work from the small and micro press end of the literary world. I may well be remembering it all through a twenty-year-old rose-coloured haze, but I think we managed to do pretty much exactly what we were aiming to do, and in the tone we were aiming to do it. It did take us a couple of issues to find our feet in terms of the production end of things, but I think that right from the start we were putting out a very good product with very good content.
The thing we didn’t accomplish, of course, was to have it succeed well enough fast enough to become a viable proposition... but as I said, in hindsight, given the way we went about it, it seems unlikely that that was ever a real possibility.
Aside from simply being successful enough to continue, the one other thing that I know we desperately wanted to do – but never managed to do – was to be able to pay our writers. It was and is inexcusable when the writers, artists and creators of cultural content don’t get paid for their work – and if we could have just gotten into striking distance of breaking even with Stuff, paying our writers would have been the first thing we’d have spent money on... but we never even came close, and we both very much regret that part of it.
The Canadian Journal of Contemporary Literary Stuff bibliography:
Editors & Publishers: Tamara Fairchild & Grant Wilkins
Design & Layout: Tamara Fairchild
Technical Support: Trevor Taylor
Print run: 1000 per issue
Price: $4.75 per copy / $16.00 for 4 issue subscription
Issue #1 (Spring 1997): Editorial: Tamara Fairchild & Grant Wilkins. Features: Jill Batson, bill bissett, Bob Wakulich, Catherine Jenkins. Regular Columns/Contributors: Chris Pollard, James Spyker, Valley Swooner, Johnny Steam, Tamara Fairchild. Poetry: Joe Blades, Donna Kane, rob mclennan, Catherine Jenkins, T. Anders Carson, Alix Smyth, Phlip Arima, Rob Winger, Rob Fairchild, Ruba Nadda. Fiction: Matthew Firth, Trevor Taylor, Gerald Noonan. Interview: Tamara Fairchild with Johnny Steam. Chapbook Excerpts: Stan Rogal, Natalie Hanna, una mcdonnell, James P McAuliffe. Reviews: Tamara Fairchild, Grant Wilkins. Proofreaders: James Spyker, Trevor Taylor. Cover photo: Richard Fairchild. 36 pages.
Issue #2 (March 1998): Editorial: Tamara Fairchild. Features: Sharon H. Nelson, Charlie Cho, Bob Wakulich, Natalie Hanna. Regular Columns/Contributors: Chris Pollard, James Spyker, Valley Swooner, Tamara Fairchild. Poetry: LeRoy Gorman, Stan Rogal, Michelle Desbarats Fels, Sumana Sen-Bagchee, Dennis Dale Palubeski. Fiction: myrna garanis, J.J. Steinfeld. Interviews: James Spyker with Steve Venright, Lil Blume with Brian Fawcett. Reviews: Tamara Fairchild, Grant Wilkins. Proofreader: James Spyker. Cover photo: Catherine Jenkins. 36 pages.
Issue #3 (October 1998): Editorial: Tamara Fairchild. Features: Nancy Dembowski, Adeena Karasick, Bob Wakulick. Regular Columns/Contributors: Chris Pollard, James Spyker, Valley Swooner, Trevor Taylor, Grant Wilkins. Poetry: Nancy Bullis, John Barlow, elyse friedman. Fiction: Catherine Jenkins. Chapbook Excerpts: David Collins. Cartoons: Andrew Toos. Reviews: Tamara Fairchild, Grant Wilkins. Proofreader: James Spyker. Cover photo: Tamara Fairchild. 32 pages.
Issue # 4 (September 1999): Editorial: Tamara Fairchild. Features: Joanne Morcom, Paul Vermeersch. Regular Columns/Contributors: Christ Pollard, James Spyker, Valley Swooner, Grant Wilkins. Poetry: Jamie Gairns. Fiction: Douglas Ord. Contest Winners: Melanie Fogel, Shane Neilson, Alan Twigg, Dierdre Havrelock, Jean Leslie. Reviews: Sharon H. Nelson, Grant Wilkins. 32 pages.