Capturing the Essence of Somewhere Particular: Editor Discusses Lit Mag Focused on Modern Sense of Place
The Common is an award-winning new print and online literary magazine publishing literature and images with a strong sense of place. Inspired by the mission of the town common—a gathering place for the display and exchange of ideas—we publish original narratives, characters, and language that reflect the worlds of the speakers and narrators. The Common, based at Amherst College, publishes two print issues per year and maintains an active website featuring original essays, interviews, poetry, and art, plus audio and video content.
Interview by Lisa Mecham
What was the impulse to start a new literary magazine three years ago and why the particular focus on "sense of place"?
Several important factors converged to inspire The Common. When I graduated from college, I fell in love with magazines. For a while, I was the managing editor of the lovely and provocative, but short-lived, Latino culture magazine Hopscotch, founded and edited by Ilan Stavans, an Amherst professor and mentor of mine. I was also devouring The Atlantic from cover to cover and falling for the gorgeous spreads and writing of the now-defunct DoubleTake.
What I loved about magazines was, first, the diversity of content: thought-provoking essays or reportage, followed by photo essays or art, fiction, perhaps food writing or humor, and poetry. Second, I loved the subscriber relationship. Every month, into my home, some visionary editorial team was sending sharply focused, beautifully written stories. I didn’t realize how different the subscriber relationship was to that of a book buyer until I worked in book publishing. At Knopf, I got tremendous exposure and learned so much from my boss and the senior editors there, who encouraged me to learn everything about the life of a manuscript, including production. I loved to hang out with the jacket designers (one of whom became the designer for The Common) and hear them get excited about graphically alluring people to books they believed in. (Everyone there has incredible devotion to literature, and Knopf has one of the best production departments in the industry.)
And yet, once a book is out into the world and the publisher has done all it can to attract readers, the book fades into the background and the next project looms large. Magazines are entirely different. They create an ongoing relationship with readers and become a trustworthy source of new ideas and emerging talent. Readers then follow these ideas, authors, and artists out into the world.
That’s the publishing side of things. The editorial vision and interest in sense of place is much more personal—it grew out of my own upbringing and early experiences. I was raised in rural, central Maine, where most people have been cultivating or living on the same land for generations. My parents were outsiders; they came from professional lives in urban areas (though my father was raised on a subsistence farm in Colorado during the Depression), and my mother is Jewish. So I carry with me both a sense of native belonging – I identify with the rural landscape, I went to public school – and of being from a home and family culture that was clearly different. When I graduated high school, I was young for my grade and took a year off before college. I lived in Kenya for a semester, with a family in a mud hut near the Rift Valley, and taught English and geography. The next six months I lived in Chiapas, Mexico, and worked in a restaurant and volunteered at a small museum. In college, I studied anthropology because I was so fascinated and flummoxed by these various homestays and travels and work experiences during that year.
My first idea for The Common was something about “regional voice.” I wanted to capture the essence of what it meant to be from somewhere particular: writing that revealed how real, everyday life in a place underlay imaginative experience. I wrote up a couple of vague editorial statements to this effect. I was living in New York at the time, and I remember walking around and around Prospect Park with two dear writer friends who would look at me kind of blankly and uninspired when I tried to articulate this idea. It also dawned on me that I didn’t want to edit “theme” issues, in which I would have to find all the best writing I could in North Dakota or the Maldives, or some other region I knew nothing about. Then the idea of “sense of place” materialized. It’s an old idea, but felt especially fresh and relevant considering the incredible rise in global migration, to cities in particular, and troubling worldwide displacement. I like the idea of bringing literature and art with age-old value to a digitally oriented, mobile, and global sphere of readers.
As for the name, I’ll have to say it came to me in a dream because I really don’t remember the moment when I thought of it. I was trying to get at the idea of ordinary life and also the communal town spaces of the New England I’d grown up in. It was a thrill when poet Richard Wilbur wrote how much he liked the title—it seemed to him like a name that had significance and long standing. I do have to say it is the most un-Googleable name possible, though!
Finally, I would like to blame my friend Harold Augenbraum for getting me into the literary magazine business. Starting a magazine was his idea. By 2008, he’d been directing the National Book Foundation for a few years, and I was struggling with job possibilities. I resisted at first, because it sounded like a lot of work (which turned out to be true!), but when it’s not overwhelming it’s fantastic.
The recent trend has been for some university-affiliated magazines to downsize or disappear altogether. How did Amherst become involved in launching this new magazine?
The excited planning phase described above was happening in early 2008, when I was fortunate to find a sphere of early supporters at the college and in the area—beginning with the Amherst English Dept and Creative Writing Center and the Dean of Faculty, and The Common’s poetry editor who teaches at UMass, as well as several respected alumni. As I was drafting the mission statement and inviting writers and editors and publishers to be on the Editorial and Advisory Boards, the economy kept crashing, harder and harder. The idea of a new print literary journal more and more foolhardy. But we forged ahead.
The idealism came in part from the fact that Amherst College, where I’d been an undergraduate and a writing/editing fellow in Public Affairs, and where my husband, at the end of 2007, had just received tenure, did not have and had never had a professional-quality literary magazine. The college is very proud, rightfully so, about its literary tradition — from James Merrill to David Foster Wallace to Richard Wilbur to Ted Conover to Lauren Groff — but it had no contemporary journal to perpetuate this tradition.
The first step was to establish The Common Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to publish and distribute, at subsidized rates or free, excellent sense-of-place literature from around the world and to support, through donations and sales, the writers, artists, and community of editors who shepherd this work into the world. The Common Foundation currently receives support from Amherst College in the form of paid student interns and some grants from the English Department, the Creative Writing Center, the Dean of Faculty, and the Center for Russian Culture.
As of last year, I’m a halftime employee of Amherst College Press--a new open access, scholarly press founded by Amherst’s wonderful, forward-thinking librarian, Bryn Geffert--which supports my work editing and developing of the free, online version of the magazine. Early on, Bryn offered The Common office space in the library, which was huge: we needed a home and were given one in the Robert Frost Library, in the heart of campus. I see tremendous potential for growth in our relationship with the college-- increased leadership roles for students, more campus and public programming, greater support for emerging writers and artists, better worldwide and multimedia distribution.
Aesthetically, The Common (both online and in print) is gorgeous. How did you initially conceptualize the look of the magazine?
Thank you! At the same time that I moved from New York back to Amherst, one of my Knopf colleagues, Gabriele Wilson, started her own design firm. As soon as we scratched up the funds (a grant from the Creative Writing Center), I asked her to design a template. I knew the size I wanted and that the magazine should be book-like, with French flaps, and that the magazine should convey not wackiness or whimsy or recycle a found image like a painting or photograph: the magazine needed a design, like our mission, grounded in the real world and allowing infinite variation.
Gabriele is phenomenal. She came up with this incredibly elegant and simple design that conveys the idea of a town common with its square, transparent logo; incorporates common objects; and features lush, eye-catching color combinations that can support regular reinvention. (Her work won The Common first place in print design at the New York Book Show.) Issue 05, for example, features not a single object but an array of similar ones that belong together – old-school typewriter and calculator keys.
Often the cover object is inspired by one of our contributors. At our very first launch event at BookCourt, in Brooklyn, in 2011, I asked our readers to suggest objects for the next cover. Fiona Maazel’s was amazing, and a crowdpleaser— possum-fur nipple warmers, hot purple-- but not exactly “common.” Ted Conover brought his pink magic rub eraser, gently worn. Gabriele knew instantly it was a striking possibility. She was sitting in the front row and said, “That’s a contender.” People often tell me that if an issue of the magazine is lying by their bed, in dim light they’ll reach down to grasp in their hands the eraser or the fork pictured on the cover. I love that. At AWP one year, two advisory board members, Harold and Joanna Yas (former editor of Open City and now director of programs at the NYU MFA program), were tabling for the magazine while I was on a panel, and when I came back they told me the best way to sell the magazine was to ask people to run their hands over the cover; it has this luscious, thick feel.
Gabriele also designed the website, with support from our web developer. The design principles here are the same — a clean look, easy to read, lots of white space, not too busy. Though we publish a lot of multimedia content — audio, images, even videos — we want the site to be easy to apprehend. Neither the print magazine nor the website take advertisements. I completely understand their necessity as part of a business model, but visually they drive me crazy.
The Common publishes fiction, essays, poetry, documentary vignettes and images. When you physically lay out the magazine, how do you decide which pieces go where?
That part is really fun; it’s when I get to be a curator. Usually the print issue starts with an object essay, like the one in Issue 05 by Claire Massud about a stuffed Koala bear from her childhood. Upcoming in Issue 06 (sneak preview) is a piece by Ben Anastas about his boyhood synthesizer. I try to arrange the pieces so that if one were reading from front to back there would be variety of content and forms, a balance of short and long, fast and slow, eye-popping and sedate, easily accessible and work that might require more investment and patience.
How do you get established writers of the caliber of Jim Shepard, Claire Messud, Philip Lopate, and Mary Jo Salter (to name a few) to contribute to a recently-launched literary magazine?
These authors are incredibly generous people. They were all emerging writers once and, now that they have large and devoted followings, they continue to appreciate and respect both their readers and the publications that take a genuine interest in their work. It’s incredibly gratifying to ask a writer of Claire’s stature and wit and talent to write a piece especially for The Common and to have her say yes.
What other authors you would like to see in the pages of The Common?
Oh, so many. In my own personal pantheon, there are a handful of writers--mostly women, as it happens--who continually inspire me and in whose work a sense of place burns brilliantly. Some of these women are now elderly and may not write much, if any, more fiction. I’ll mention two of them because I think they’re underappreciated and underread: Shirley Hazzard and Mavis Gallant. I prefer not to mention any other writers for fear I’ll jinx my chances at ever publishing them! In general, I’d like to read more narratives by African and Middle Eastern writers. I’m thrilled to announce that the next issue features a short story by Jordanian writer Hisham Bustani, who’s just beginning to be translated into English, and an excerpt from a debut novel by a Kenyan Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.
Since the reading of a physical journal can be a solitary experience, does the digital presence of The Common fit more closely to your notion of a communal experience?
Though you can’t physically read with another person — unless you’re reading aloud — most writers I know think of reading as a kind of communal engagement. While reading, you’re learning about the mind of at least one other person, often more, and you’re absorbing far-flung places and situations as well. Shirley Hazzard talks about growing up in Australia at time when it was very provincial. A poetry anthology presenting verse from authors around the English-speaking world was for her an incredibly meaningful, worldly experience—“how much they spread before us,” she says.
One reason I enjoy publishing works on the web is because of how quickly they can circulate — across continents, instantly. My Kenyan host brother and I have kept in touch for more than 18 years, first by letter, then by email, and now he reads The Common via Facebook, often leaving appreciative comments. Though I dislike the promotional activity that “sharing” has become, I believe the impulse to share words and images that we love with people who are not living close by—so many of us have moved several times even by our thirties-- is genuine and worth making as simple as possible.
Beyond the requirement that stories capture "a modern sense of place," are there any other trends you see in the submissions you receive?
In the beginning, we received many travelogues, pieces largely consisting of I went here and did this and this. Those pieces often contain a great deal of interesting local detail, but they often lack an answer to every reader’s implicit So what? We don’t see quite as much of those pieces anymore.
There is some kind of current trend that privileges tragedy over the development of character, place, and language. Of course literature should engage with grief and death and illness, but too often the pieces created out of a succession of misfortune neglect characters’ agency; the character or speaker ceases to act reasonably and engage with the world and other people with empathy and desire for understanding, instead lashing out and deciding to behave like jerks. Makes for good tabloid gossip, but not very nuanced literature.
Your submission period is year-round, with no reading fee for subscribers and it varies for non-subscribers. How many submissions do you receive annually?
It’s hard to give an annual figure because we’ve only been reading for about two years, and our poetry submissions have closed a couple times, including for the curation of a special selection of Anglophone South African poetry, but I ran the numbers recently and discovered that we publish much less than one percent of the thousands of submissions we receive.
How many readers have their eyes on the work in the slush pile?
We have a three-tiered reading system for the magazine’s prose submissions. Smart editorial assistants are the first-round readers, after which I take a look at their comments and the piece itself and evaluate whether it should be read by additional staff. This second-tier are experienced sophisticated readers who are editors, MFA graduates, teachers, etc. I make the final call and work with authors on revisions toward publication of print pieces-- occasionally essays are edited in the initial rounds by assistant editors. The poetry editor reads almost all the poetry that we publish, though I select some pieces as well.
For The Common Online, there are several excellent section editors who solicit and edit columns, such as Reviews, Interviews, Dispatches, and Poetry. I review all of this content but edit myself only a few pieces per month for the website.
Tell me about a piece you recently published that everyone should read right now and why.
That is a hard question. Of course I want to say all of them! In every issue we publish, alongside authors with several books to their names, many talented writers at the beginning of their careers, and I like to point to those pieces and say: get to know this author, you will be hearing from her again. After every issue’s publication I’m contacted by agents wanting to get in touch with these early-career authors.
In our most recent issue, 05, I would point toward the short story “Lukas and Elsa” by Earle McCartney, whose narrative contains no extraordinary events but manages to be both elegiac and hopeful, as well as insightful. It’s a lovely example of a story that incorporates luck but never lets characters off the hook – the agency issue I mentioned above. The short story about strangers in an oddly foreboding East Africa by Teresa Svoboda is beguiling and so linguistically interesting. Finally, for a long time I’ve been a fan of the nonfiction writer Gregory Curtis, who investigates in his essay the final days of Vincent van Gogh and incorporates the letters and perspectives of his brother, Theo, and sister-in-law. (Longreads recently discovered this piece and promoted it on their site.) On the poetry side, though I confess I did not warm to his prosy pieces immediately, I have become smitten by Giampiero Neri, translated by Martha Cooley. It was also a pleasure to be introduced to the poetry of Scot Ian McClellan and to publish, a few issues back, up and coming Jamaican author Ishion Hutchinson.
Literary magazines often have a challenging time reaching a wide audience. How do you cultivate readers and subscribers? How might someone discover The Common?
The best way to discover The Common is through our website: thecommononline.org. Our four-day per week online publication schedule – including dispatches; reviews of books, films, and architecture; poetry and poets reading their work; interviews; as well as content from our print issues — immediately conveys our sensibility and the variety of styles we embrace. On the website, one can subscribe to print, PDF, and Kindle versions of the magazine. We’re also available in Amazon’s Kindle store and for Nook via Barnes & Noble. We distribute to brick-and-mortar bookstores, both big ones and indies, across the country. If your local bookstore doesn’t carry The Common, please ask them if they would like to and send us a note! We are even carried in bookstores in three or four other countries.
Of course, sites like The Review Review, Faster Times, The Millions, and New Pages are indispensable for thoughtful coverage and questions. We love collaborating with the passionate and devoted editors and writers from these sites. Work from our pages is also frequently reprinted—in a design journal called Places, in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and on the poetry websites Verse Daily and Poetry Daily. Increasingly, there are new mobile device-based platforms that have been asking to republish our content. I’m particularly excited about a new venture called PhoneFiction, which seeks to get exciting, readable short stories onto the mobile phones of commuters, those waiting in dentist’s office, parents waiting to pick up their kids from basketball practice, etc.
What is The Common Foundation and does it relate to the annual gala you host in New York City?
Our annual New York City benefit, The Common in the City, is a crucial component of the fundraising that allows us to meet our annual budget, including funds for print and web development, the elegant design that honors our cherished authors and artists, and the programming that promotes contributors’ work and engages communities. Our fundraising directly increases support for those we publish, and it’s also of the utmost important to me, to compensate, in the near future, the exceptional editorial staff who are nearly all volunteers. I’ve learned, in part from our authors, that The Common is unusually dedicated in its editing, to making sure that we publish the best possible versions of the inspired literature we receive. Editing is a process that honors creativity and rigor and precision, and it is extremely labor-intensive.
The Common Foundation is continually looking for collaborative partners in other literary, arts, architecture, and environmental organizations that emphasize the importance of place. We seek projects and events that grow out of questioning and valuing and bettering the places we live and work and exploring themes of displacement and exile. We expect our partnership with the all-digital Amherst College Press will lead to some exciting multimedia collaboration. Already we are doing more with audio content, and more soon, I hope, with video. I’d also love to get a regular, community-focused literary/social activity off the ground in the Pioneer Valley in Western Mass. There is a strong sense of place here and so many smart and talented people, The Common Foundation can be a strong, inspiring, centrifugal force.
What does the future hold for The Common?
I’m hoping the above speaks to this!
A midwesterner at heart, Lisa Mecham lives in Los Angeles with her two daughters and the dog that they suckered her into. She is pursuing a Creative Writing Certificate in Fiction from the the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and her poems have appeared in WordPlaySound and Emerge Literary Journal. Lisa is working on her first novel.