Announcer: This is why we write. A podcast of Lesley University. Every episode we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley Community to talk about books, writing and the writing life.
We’re wrapping up our second season of the podcast with a conversation about Commonthought Magazine, our literary magazine which celebrated its 30th anniversary this school year. In this episode we talk about the old days of magazine production and why it’s still an important part of creative live at the university level.
Christopher Clark: Hi, I'm Christopher Clark, administrative coordinator of the MFA program in creative writing here at Lesley. I teach in the undergrad creative writing program. I'm here with Anne Pluto.
Anne Pluto: Hi, I'm Anne Pluto. I am Annie Pluto and I’m professor of Literature and Theater at Lesley University.
Christopher: We're here today to talk a little bit about literary magazines, and specifically Commonthought, a literary magazine close to your heart and my heart. Celebrating. Can I do math? It's 30. I want to say 20, I always want to say 20.
Anne: I actually think it's 31 but I can't find the paper.
Anne: I actually like that too.
Christopher: Yes. It is a not bone of contention, but it's interesting to think back to what it must have been like in 1989 whenever you were putting it out, and to just have the hard copy, to not even have the option yet of scanning something in, and archiving it so that your future self could prove it's 31 years instead of 30. I wanted to start by talking a little bit about where you were coming from prior to getting involved in the literary magazine here on campus. As a poet yourself, what were your experiences with reading and, or submitting to literary magazines prior to launching what would become Commonthought?
Anne: I went to graduate school at SUNY Buffalo, and my professor was Bob Creeley and John Logan, and Irving Feldman. There were small magazines that I submitted to. I had many contacts in the Buffalo area. Of course, this is all print journals, this is all US mails, snail mail submissions. Then when I came to Boston in 1983 and I really was missing a literary community. I looked to find one, and I would go to readings and I found this magazine called Oak Square.
I wrote to them and I sent them work and they published my poems. Then I met Philip Orenstein, the editor, and we became friends. At the same time there was this movement of zines in the area and there was a person named Michael McGinnis who was putting out something called Nightmares of Reason. Then there was a group that wanted to become the Small Press Alliance of Boston, the SPA. I got involved with those people.
They were an amusing group, but the best thing that came out of it is that Michael, Philip, and I stayed friends. This is like 1985. It's a long time. Then Phillip had asked me to be one of the editors at Oak Square. I was teaching part-time at UMass Lowell and then I was full time at a junior college downtown, but it was Bay State, now I think it's a college. Then I came Lesley and there was no literary magazine.
Christopher: Yes, it's surprising to me. Were there writers? Was there a creative writing?
Anne: Yes. There was a master’s program that was in creative writing, and I know several people who did it, but undergraduate, no. In fact, the humanities department was very small and there were only three majors at Lesley then. There was teaching, human services and management.
Anne: It was a women's college. It was a very small women's college. There was a graduate school that was the bigger piece. There was a wonderful office of student affairs and I spoke with someone who worked there and she got grant money and we did a literary magazine. It is in the library, the original copy. It's mimeographed. I love it, that smell, and it was called, Woman Thought magazine because it was a woman's grant. I forgot where the grant money came. It stayed Woman Thought for a few years and then we changed it to Commonthought. The first two journals were mimeographed.
I want to back up to something else that we had, he was the chair of Liberal Arts. His name is Steve Trainer and he said to me, "You got to create a class because this should be part of your workload." So I did, and that's the course that you're teaching now and that I taught for, I don't know, 20 years. It was Intro to Creative Writing and Magazine Production. I think now it's just Magazine Production.
Christopher: Yes. It's a very interesting class. There are a lot of classes here at Lesley in the undergrad program that students can take, it’s creative writing classes, but they can take more than once because they're workshop based. Not a lot of people come back and take Creative Writing and Magazine Production again. I remember that being a bit of a not struggle, not change for me. Coming up, doing my own literary magazine when I was an undergrad, it was a club.
There was a sense of continuity because I came in as a freshman I learned from the seniors, the seniors graduated and then moved up step by step. As we were moving up, we were educating those behind us. The way Lesley has it. I think there are a lot of benefits to it as well, but it's interesting to try and start afresh with a whole group of students every year. Yet one of the benefits to that is that you get fresh ideas and that ends up being exciting.
Anne: I wish there was a way to meld it together, but still the idea of a course is important.
Christopher: There's a lot to learn.
Anne: Yes. There's a lot to learn. It would be nice, though, to have it continued. Maybe the idea would be to have an online version put out again by students like it comes out twice a year. That would take a lot of choreography.
Christopher: You mentioned an online version. One of the things I was curious to talk to you about was especially over the 20 years or so that you put this magazine out into the world, what did you see in terms of the changes in the way that-- Certainly there wasn't even an option for an online version when you started. How did the literary magazine evolve over the course of that 20 years, not just ours, but in general?
Anne: I'm picturing in my mind what they looked like. If anybody's interested, you can go to the library, they've been archived. I think we're only missing a couple of years.
Christopher: And if you can’t get to the library.
Anne: They're online.
Christopher: They are online, scans of the original ones. You don't get quite the same feel or the smell of the mimeograph, but you do get to see them.
Anne: The mimeograph was what? The mimeograph was the 8 1/2 by 11 sheet. I believe for the first few years, it was that size. Every year I had to go to another printer to see who would give me the best deal and what would it cost for a two-color cover, a three-color cover. I learned a lot about that stuff. Then I had a wonderful student one year, Amanda McNuge. She went to a printer in Medford Square because she was a commuter. I went to see him and he talked me into doing a smaller size.
Christopher: Smaller. Yes, not 8.5 by 11.
Anne: Yes. It was perfect because the smaller size you could put in a backpack. You could put in a purse so if you were on the T or on a bus, you could read it. I think it stayed that size. There was a couple of years that it was a weird size. It was more like a square. Now, it's been the same size since maybe 1994, '93. The one it is today. Evolution of magazines. I do a magazine now with Michael McGinnis, Philip Borenstein with some friends and we started Nixes Mate, which is the little island in the Boston Harbor where they hung the pirates.
Christopher: Oh. I think you've told me that but that's interesting.
Anne: It has a buoy. We've been around since 2016 now and we're doing really well. We do beautiful books. The magazine’ s online, digital. It comes out four times a year. We've done an anthology once a year. I think we've put out 45 books. Michael is a great designer. His background is he's a cabinet maker so he's all design. He does the book design. I think books are coming back. I think the print journal, people want them.
Christopher: I'm curious whether you think it's a nostalgia thing. I don't think it is. I was in Newbury Comics the other day. For people who are not local to Boston, Newbury Comics they do not primarily sell comic books. They primarily sell music. They do have comic books over in the corner. The corner always changes which for me as a comic book lover is always frustrating. I went in there and certainly, they still have the CDs but the front of the store is all vinyl records. Not just old vinyl records but brand new editions of the latest stuff.
I think there is a desire for a physical things, especially if it's the physical thing you want to hang on to. I think people are also really cognizant of not cluttering up their house with too many physical things. I find myself sometimes I'll read an ebook but if I want to have that thing I want to go get the physical copy so I can pluck it off the shelf. Do you think it's a nostalgia thing or do you think it's back and here to stay?
Anne: I don't know if it's nostalgia. I understand the record piece, the LPs. That might be nostalgia for people who've never had an LP, but they have no idea how much trouble that's going to be when you collect 300 of them, what to do with them then. Books are different, like a journal that you can flip through. That you can actually open up on the subway again or on the bus, but then you could scroll through it.
I see my students, they read a whole novel on a phone, which I find bizarre. I mean you can't write in that. That might be part of it. If you have a print journal, you can circle things and write notes. If it's your work, you can say to somebody, "Look, it's my hardcopy book." Which is different than having a digital.
Christopher: I think one of the beauties of the print version of a book, and especially of a literary magazine is the serendipity of flipping from one page to the next. When I teach students about putting them together, one of the things that we talk about is sequencing. I think I'm still thinking of somebody picking up a physical book, not being able to scroll through their device to get to the next page they want to get to. They’re going to actually have to flip.
They might finish the essay they're reading, find an amazing piece of art and then a poem on the facing page, and then be there for another 10 minutes. Something that struck me you were talking about when you first came to Boston, the zine culture. Of course, maybe you can explain for the folks who might not know what a zine is. It feels to me, there was sort of zine culture which was photocopied or mimeographed, then everything got maybe very professional. I wonder whether that squeezed out the people who were doing zines.
Then the web came along. The web democratizes that ability, anybody could go and put out a literary magazine that they want to if they can afford a website hosting plan. I wonder if you see smaller, Nixes Mate, you said started how long ago?
Anne: 2016, the three of us just hadn't seen each other in a long time and we've always been in touch. We met for lunch, and we all said we want to do a magazine. We were like, 'Okay, how do we do it?" Philip is the tech guru, right and Michael's really the designer, so I'm actually the person who puts everything in order. It's really different to put in order an online journal because he's always like, "Well, you could print the pages out." I'm like, "No, I don't want to print them."
I've gotten really good at going back and forth and reading or I take notes as we're reading subs thinking, "These all go together." When someone says to me, "Wow, great order." I'm like, "Yes, okay." I enjoy doing that. I help a lot of people with their books about the order of the poems. Then for my new book, Gloria Mindock at Cervena Barva, I put out like 120 pages. I said, "This is what I see." She said, "All right, give me an hour." She came up with a different order. It was great.
Christopher: I think that kind of collaboration can be great. I can't help thinking about going back to the vinyl records. Certainly, I never owned my own record player, but my dad was a DJ and so I was around vinyl records a whole bunch. One of the beauties of the vinyl record is that you can skip, but you actually have to get up, pick up the needle, and move to another song.
You are experiencing things in a sequence. I wonder whether or not sequencing. I feel like when I teach students about putting a literary magazine together, sequencing is something I have to really hammer home. They maybe haven't thought about that as much. Do you think that the art of sequencing could fade away as we maybe don't have those things where you’re just going to have to sit and live with a piece?
Anne: I don’t know because look at any online journal. It's sequenced. I imagine the editors are thinking, "Oh, this would go well with this." I like sequences. When I read an online journal, I'm like, "Okay, what are they doing here? Are they going theme? Are they going image? Are they going alphabetically, just to make it easy?" I think we did that with our anthology. I was like, "Just go alphabetical. Just do it that way."
Christopher: That's the best American series. At least the best American Series at least the Best American that everything is alphabetical by the author's last name. Sometimes that can lead to an interesting sequence of things. Other times I will find myself thinking, "Oh, this one would have been great as a last story but person happened to be born with the last name Adams." It's interesting.
Maybe you could talk a little bit about the performance part. I was thinking about albums, thinking about music and thinking about sequencing of concerts and things like that, which I certainly have a lot of thoughts about. Maybe you could talk a little bit about the live performance part of Commonthought because that was a big and continues to be maybe not as big anymore, a big part of the release of every issue.
Anne: The first time we did it, the reading was in the what is now the student center, but it was in the back on the first floor, not the second floor. I think it was sunken, it had there was another level if I remember correctly. There was so many submissions. It was amazing. We just put the word out. The word was on flyers that were all over school. This is before email. This is, it had to be '88. I came in '87. Imagine it was like the spring of '88 at the earliest.
There must have been 60 submissions from graduate students, from undergrad. I remember looking through it when I gave it to Philip at the library, I was very moved. I remember the reading, how many people came and they brought their spouses and their kids, and it was this potluck, dessert every brought something. Those times don't exist anymore.
Christopher: It is harder to get.
Anne: It's hard. I know this is really odd because I'm a theater person, right. I never thought of the poetry readings as a performance. I thought of it as a reading. Some people are really good readers. We know that there are some very famous poets who are terrible readers of their work. There’s this monotone nonsense in reading poetry, even fiction.
Some people were just naturally present and they could breathe at the right spot. They were louder. I think we had a microphone set up. Some people were painfully shy.
What are you going to do? This is a student’s work, they got up there to read it, be there a grad student, an undergrad student. The fact that they were up there reading it, and it was published was such a big thing for them. I didn't do any like acting coaching with any of them. It’s difficult, I go to readings and I'm like, "Wow, great work, bad reading." I'm not going to go to the poet and say that.
Christopher: No. It can definitely happen. We've danced around Commonthought as a thing. We've talked about the evolution of literary magazines and whatnot. I was thinking maybe we could talk about the scope of the magazine. Who's contributing to it, who has traditionally, who we hope might in the future, the scope, just in general of where it's been and where it might go in the future.
Anne: For the past 30 or 31 years, wherever we're counting from, the contributors came out of two places. One place was the class, so every class had to contribute something to the magazine. Then the other contributors could be anybody in the Lesley community. It could have been a professor, an administrator, somebody in physical plant, somebody in food service. It was Lesley community. We used to get as I said, 50, 60 submissions. Sometimes there would be 70 submissions because people would send, the way in a literary magazine you send five poems, one story. The people who sent a lot.
Then it got smaller and smaller and less people contribute even though it's easier now even though it’s easier now to contribute. To me, that's the conundrum more than vinyl records. Why is it when you can just email, that you're not doing it? We did a program review of the creative writing major. One of the recommendations that the committee made and it was all this teaching creative writing, was that we open it up like other colleges have and then you get contributors from all over the world, because they're sending you online.
Then maybe have guest editors along with you who's teaching the class, you get a a famous poet, you give a prize. There's a lot of stuff in the works that is not yet solidified.
Christopher: It's all exciting and some of it requires a lot of work, figuring out who those guest editors might be and things like that. Some of it requires very little because there are services like Submittable, which is what a lot of literary magazines use to ingest submissions from the wider public. Because we Commonthought, have used that, it was very easy actually.
I don't know if it was because we were going to do this interview today that I had it on the brain.
I took about 10 minutes earlier today, updated the rough deadlines and things like that and opened up the Submittable portal to the world. Now it's out there on the internet. What I think the real key ends up being and I think this is maybe the answer to why don't people submit more when you an either just email or in this case, submit through a website, is there's all sorts of places to do it. How did you find out about a zine? you found out about a zine from somebody else who knew the zine.
Maybe you can speak to this, I remember seeing them at libraries or different magazine shops, things like that. Nowadays, you can find out about or not find out about somebody's literary magazine by searching the web. It's great that everybody can do it. It's hard to find.
Anne: I think it's hard to find because people don't do the other homework piece of sending work out. You need to see what the magazine is publishing and then your chances of being read seriously. As somebody who reads a lot of manuscripts through Submittable for Nixes Mate, if you're a good fit for that publication and there's so many it's overwhelming. I tell my students also to go to the Harvard Bookstore if they want to look at hard copy or to the Trident and take a look at who's publishing. The Paris Review, that's going to be a hard copy. I think they want hard copies subs.
Christopher: That's always interesting.
Anne: That's a tough one.
Christopher: Especially for our students who maybe don't have access to a printer, who have to come to campus and use a printer to print things out and they've maybe got a limited budget, and they've got to decide, "Am I going to print my paper for my professor or print this thing that I'm going to send to the Paris Review?" You would hope they wouldn't have to make that choice but some of them probably do. I think if literary magazines are a thing someone listening to this is interested in, the local bookstore, you mentioned a few here in Boston and Cambridge.
I'm sure they're well-stocked, not at every local bookstore, but that's been one of the pleasures of my last couple years as a reader and writer is seeing more local bookstores pop-up. If they don't have literary magazines there at your local one, you can probably go and ask them. I've taken to rather than going to Amazon for my new books, going to my local bookstore and ordering them. You say, "Hey, I'd like to get the literary magazines. You've got a little space over here." They'd probably do it.
Anne: Probably. The records are coming back, so are local bookstores There was something on NPR the other day about David and Goliath. That David was taking on Amazon so the small bookstores. I hope they make their way back.
Christopher: I think one of my local…It's funny, I commute from about 40 minutes outside the city. When I get here, it's an embarrassment of riches. Back home, it's an embarrassment of riches about 20 minutes away in various directions. The Silver Unicorn in West Acton, Massachusetts is one that it's not on the main street. This I think one of the ways in which local bookstores are making a comeback, they're occupying these weird places. I think I don’t know if it used to be a dry cleaner or a pizza place or something [chuckles]. It's just an old building that they've repurposed.
You mentioned a couple of literary magazines. Maybe the Paris Review, which ones are you reading today yourself. Maybe not every month or every whatever, but with any kind of regularity.
Anne: I read a lot of them online because I get a lot of tags saying, "This magazine just came out and that one just came out." If I go to the bookstore, I will pick up the Paris Review just because I want to see what their publishing. Poetry because you want to see who's the top because all of us know if we get in there, we've "made it". They have a print and a digital, so you can read it online. I read a lot of fiction and I have to say when I'm teaching I'm reading a lot of novels and plays and poems and stories with my students. Then reading so many submissions for Nixes Mate. Sometimes I'm not at the bookstore saying, “OK, what’s coming out?”
Christopher: It's partially a selfish question because I don't get a ton of time to look at them myself, so I'm always looking for good recommendations. I think the Paris Review is one that I'll pick up near there. I just think it’s fun to go and see what's out because there are the mainstays, but you'll find new things on the newsstand as well. As we get a little bit closer to the end here, I wondered if you could talk a little bit about why you think it's important that campuses have literary magazines of their own. What are the benefits? What role do they play in the education and development of novice writers, maybe back when you first started and now?
Anne: I think they play such an important, pivotal role for novice writers. Commonthought wasn't just a literary magazine. It was a Lesley University magazine of the arts. Before AIB, now LA+ D.
Christopher: That's the Art Institute of Boston, which is now Lesley-
Anne: Art and Design.
Christopher: -Art and Design.
Anne: They came here in 1998. They merged with Lesley. Before that, they had this … Shaun McNiff had started art therapy so we did have artists. Artists were allowed to submit work also that would then be photographed and put in the magazine. It wasn't just a reading. At one point, there was an art show that was hung of the people whose work was in the magazine. At that time, it served as this platform for student, artists, writers, mostly students, to have a place to showcase their work. Still it was juried work.
The other thing I need to say is I would be the one that would take all the names off the submissions. It was read the way a literary magazine should be, or a peer reviewed journal should be read. Nobody knew who the authors were. It was a big deal to get your letter saying your work was accepted to be published in Commonthought. I think literary journals, art journals in colleges, universities serve like that stepping stone for maybe your publication that seems adult, professional. That you have that experience and then if there's a reading you get to read. In a school maybe then you'll want to take the class, and see what it's like to be on the other end.
Christopher: For the younger or novice writer who is maybe very afraid of putting themselves out there it can be, as you said, it's still juried. It's still reviewed anonymously so it's all about the quality of the work. If they're afraid, maybe of going out there and submitting it professionally to one of the big boy journals, this is a great place to get that first taste of what it might feel like. And not to say that we’re any less discerning in our tastes than those other things. I often find as an editor of the literary magazine wanting to take a chance on a piece. It may not be perfect but it fits in, and it's going to give that person the feeling that I remember I had as an undergrad submitting something, coming out of high school where I had been too shy to submit anything to my high school's literary journal. I guess I should be lucky that my high school even had a literary journal [chuckle]. I was too shy to do it. I came in as a freshman, I submitted something anonymously, they accepted it. All of a sudden, I felt like, "Maybe I can actually do this."
Anne: That happened to me also. We had a magazine in my high school. Recently I found it , so that was interesting. Then we have one in college and I was a freshman with these seniors. Some of them were a lot older than me, people who came back to college. This is at Brooklyn College in Brooklyn, New York. They were great. I learned a lot from that group. They did become my friends, these older people. That's good.
Christopher: Thanks Anne for talking to us today.
Anne: Thanks for having me.
Announcer: Thank you for Listening to why we write. To access the full archive of Commonthought magazine, check out the link in our show notes. This is our last podcast of the season. We will spend the next few months speaking with more authors and be back with more bookish content in a few months. Thank you so much for listening and we hope you will stay safe and healthy during these unusual and difficult times.