Not long ago, some coworkers got together over reheated coffee in a sterile breakroom to yack about their passion—contemporary literature. Or maybe it was a few friends and a pitcher of beer in a roadside tavern. Or maybe it was two paddlers a birch bark canoe in the middle of Lake Champlain and a flask of ice-cold vodka. Depending on who was on what at the time, the story varies.
“We were young, idealistic, ethnically diverse, and gender-neutral,” Emma recalls. “Kris, myself, Sho-Ti, and Mario were the core. Deb and Lorraine piled on. Brandon was the doyen, years into postgraduate limbo. Others drifted in and out, made suggestive remarks, and left fingerprints.”
“We had one thing going for us,” Kris jumps in. “We didn’t know squat about making a magazine.”
Like striplings the world over, they cared only for art and social justice, and they pursued their dream of excellence. They scraped together a few dollars, they jiggered the system, and they made it happen. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. In a way, they are us.
“The first year was a cliffhanger,” Brandon admits. “We had no budget, no dartboard. We used a janitor’s closet as an office. Personal laptops and eyeliner. No accordion files, no steel drawer cabinet—it was all in our heads.”
Tattered manila envelopes, dented cardboard mailer tubes, and huge electronic files trickled in like an intravenous drip. Then they gushed like a flash flood in an arroyo.
Nights and weekends, the team browsed stories that described in clinical detail the terminal cancer of a close family relative. They perused poems on bodily fluids. They glozed creative nonfiction set in devastated places in the aftermath of war. They threw up their hands.
“The original artwork was beyond awful,” Lorraine says. “It was creepily likeable. The music videos had some nifty choreography, but the lighting!”
Exhaustion set in like toxic mold in a damp crawl space. Limbs atrophied. Brandon fell out of a swivel chair. Kris woke from a stupor to see moonlight glaze the vinyl tile floor.
Arguments erupted over the relative merits of poetic language versus plot and character. Sho-Ti held out for pure style as a criterion, while Deb plumped for ritual.
“The collective model is counter-productive,” Mario declared. “I’m taking over as Maximum Editor.”
“What a relief,” we sighed.
“You, you, and you, hop on the masthead.”
“What about Lorraine?”
“When she gets back from the hospital, Art Director. Move it out, people.”
We revised the submission guidelines and inserted an arbitration clause. We apologized in advance for wielding a meat cleaver. Brandon and Kris quit smoking, while Sho-Ti took up cigars. We advertised for an unpaid intern, who turned out to be the preternaturally able Vesh. Were it not for Vesh, where would we be?
Despite a last-minute change of vision by Lorraine, a printer’s strike, and personal differences related to hygiene, the first issue of the magazine gelled. When at last Deb held a perfect-bound copy in her hands, she wept.
“The sheer beauty got to me,” she says. “Plus I hadn’t eaten for three days.”
Distribution was by bicycle, hand-woven basket, and a little red wagon. Brandon sweet-talked business owners, exchanged private numbers, and commandeered public space for display. He gave away free samples. He touted and hectored.
Outré labeled our maiden effort “a baby step in the right direction.” Magazine Maven said, “It’s surprising to realize that nobody thought of doing this sort of thing before, at least in this sort of way.” The Peoria Journal Star called it “Boffo! And just in time for the holidays!” Trudy Kalikow of Lame Girls said, “If I wanted a gluten-free popsicle that tasted like cheap cologne and stained my tongue blue, this would be it.”
Our favorite comment came from a guy standing in the rain outside a drugstore, a guy we dated before he got weird. We all dated him. He waved a copy over his head and shouted.
“You think this artsy-fartsy, made-up crap is worth a rat’s ass? I read it from cover to cover and made notes in the margin. Your methodology is flawed!”
The second issue took longer to assemble, given the quest for consistent punctuation, the wrangling over whether to include a hologram, and the implications of soy-based ink. Mario slipped on a pair of epaulettes, and the barriers toppled. We signed with a bicoastal talent agency. We goosed our search engine optimization into overdrive. We achieved market niche.
The magazine invites under-represented and over-the-top submissions. Rest assured that rejection is never personal, just hateful. Your screams have been recorded. We know how it feels, because we too clean the litterbox. If you expect to be paid for ceaseless toil, long hours of painful introspection, and weeks of dangerous field research, ha! Some day we hope to reward contributors with lottery tickets, institute a profit-sharing plan, or wire money to offshore accounts, but until then we are penniless.
Here is what the Poetry Curator demands: “Send us what you were saving for someone else. Fill us with longing for we know not what. Pour out your heart’s blood, the fruit of your loins, nectar and ambrosia with a chaser of absinthe and a side of hot cheese curds. Do the trick they said was impossible to pull off. Make us bow to the earth, snatch our breath away, induce labor. Trigger a grand mal seizure, your stuff is so good.”
And here is the Prose Department: “Dump raw fish guts in a gilded porcelain snuffbox, wrap it in charred aluminum foil ripped from the bottom of the barbecue grill, and tie on a pretty pink ribbon. Give us the interview that would land you in jail for public indecency, the recipe that feeds an army of looters, the inside scoop on a terrorist camp, the story the oak leaves whispered as you waited for the bus. Tickle that lobe. Scare us with data. We want it all.”
Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Fiction International, The Fiction Pool, Litro, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Short Fiction.