Descant, the arts and literary quarterly published independently in Toronto since 1970, has announced that its forthcoming 167th issue, Vol. 45, No. 4, Winter 2014, will be its last.
Editor-in-chief Karen Mulhallen posted a farewell note on the magazine’s website, noting that after painstaking efforts to find alternative funding and deliberations among staff and funders, “we have jointly decided that Descant magazine in its present form is no longer sustainable.”
Grants have been in decline for more than five years, although other revenues such as sales and subscriptions have held steady or increased. We have cut costs everywhere we could, but many expenses over which we have no control have continued to spiral up.
Descant has won 6 National Magazine Awards since 1980 for its fiction, poetry and essays, most recently Adam Lindsay Honsinger‘s short story “Silence” in 2009.
What began as a mimeograph forty-four years ago evolved into a robust and stimulating literary magazine that has published works by Anne Michaels, Timothy Findley, Evelyn Lau, Margaret Atwood, Isabel Allende, Tom McGuane, Jane Urquhart, Dennis Lee, Michael Ondaatje and R. Murray Schafer, among many others. Lately its production office has been the historic George Brown building at the corner of Baldwin and Beverly Streets.
Off the Page is back. In the latest installment of our popular interview series, we chat with National Magazine Award finalist and freelance writer Arno Kopecky, author of The Oilman and the Sea, shortlisted for this year’s Governor General’s Literary Awards.
NMAF: You’re an intrepid magazine journalist. We’ve read your reporting fromIcelandandColumbiaand others in The Walrus, fromBeaver Lakein Alberta Views, and recently from the British Columbia coast in the Reader’s Digest story “The $273 Billion Question,” for which you were a finalist for a National Magazine Award this past spring. How did you get started on this journey to a freelance magazine writing career, and what do you find personally or professionally rewarding about it?
Arno: Intrepid? Thanks, but groping in the dark is usually how it feels. I studied creative writing at the University of Victoria, and when I graduated in 2002 I realized I had no idea how the world worked, let alone how to write about it; so, on Bertrand Russell’s advice, I travelled. Moved to Spain and got a job teaching English, and after two years I’d learned (barely) enough Spanish to land a reporting internship in Oaxaca, Mexico. A string of magazine and newspaper internships followed: New York, Toronto, Nairobi. I was basically a professional intern for a few years. Somewhere along the way I started selling the odd story to various publications, and before long I was too old to be an intern, but the writing and travelling continued.
The thing I love about my “job” is what I think many journalists love, whether they travel or not: Writing gives us an excuse to meet interesting people doing interesting things. We get to join the conversation.
NMAF: The RD feature story appears to have led to an even larger project, your latest bookThe Oilman and the Sea(Douglas & McIntyre), which won the 2014 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction and is shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award. Was there momentum from your fascinating voyage up the BC coastline to the magazine article to the book, and how did your writing journey proceed?
Arno: Actually it was the other way round: the book contract came first. I pitched the idea to my then-editor at Douglas & McIntyre about two days after my friend Ilja Herb (whose photographs are in the magazine story and book) bought a 41-foot sailboat. We wanted to see the oil tanker routes proposed by Northern Gateway for ourselves, and it was clear from the beginning that the trip would generate tens of thousands of words, if only we could find a home for them. Douglas & McIntyre signed on early and gave us the reason we needed to pursue the expedition.
But Reader’s Digest signed on very quickly as well, and was hugely supportive from the outset. My editor there fought to get me real estate for one of the longest stories that magazine has published in recent history.
Two weeks after I got home from the sailing trip, D&M went bankrupt. Suddenly that Reader’s Digest feature was the only thing I had going for me. Thankfully, Harbour Publishing swept in to the rescue and resuscitated D&M, so that by the time my RD feature was on the stands I had a book contract once again. All I had to do was… write a book.
NMAF: Your approach as a writer to the complex debate about the Northern Gateway pipeline could be characterized by journalistic curiosity, a sense of adventure (to say the least) and perhaps a sense of responsibility, at least with respect to seeking out grassroots perspectives in places such as Bella Bella, Kitimat and others. Was there a particular place or event in the evolving process that made you think, This is the heart of the story, this will grab the reader’s (and editor’s) attention?
Arno: The Great Bear Rainforest–as the north and central coast of British Columbia is known– was itself the thing that captivated me from the outset. In some ways it’s the story’s central character. Here’s this Switzerland-sized labyrinth of whale-jammed fjords and evergreen islands on BC’s north and central coast, the biggest chunk of temperate coastal rainforest left on earth, that also happens to be one of the oldest continually inhabited regions on the planet–Heiltsuk, Haisla, Haida, Gitga’at and many other coastal First Nations have called this place home since the last ice age. I’m not sure how many Canadians are aware of its existence. The fact that oil tankers are now poised to navigate through those waters for the first time was, in some ways, just an excuse to talk about this teeming, volatile, amphibious zone, the likes of which happen not to exist anywhere else on the planet.
NMAF: What is the significance to you of being nominated for or winning awards for your work, whether National Magazine Awards or others? Is there (or do you foresee) a measurable impact on your career?
Arno: I heard a debate on CBC a while back as to whether there weren’t too many awards in Canada’s literary scene these days; that may well be true, but it doesn’t feel so when you get a nomination yourself. It’s become a cliché, how hard it is to make a living at writing, and anyone who wants to give writers a few bucks and some attention-grabbing praise has my everlasting gratitude.
That said, it’s hard to measure what the impact is on your career. Doors crack open, but you still have to push through; money comes, and then it goes. I guess for me personally, insecure hack that I am, the psychological boost that comes with an award is its most lasting aspect. Recognition helps put the self-doubting demons to rest, and it can be called on to subdue them when they inevitably reappear.
Last night at the annual Giller Gala in Toronto, Montreal-based writer Sean Michaels won the $100,000 prize for his debut novel, Us Conductors. This remarkable story, noted the CBC, is
“… inspired by the life of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the Russian inventor of the eerily beautiful theremin, taking him from the rambunctious New York clubs of the 1930s to the bleak gulags of the Soviet Union. The Giller jury praised Michaels’ writing, saying “he succeeds at one of the hardest things a writer can do: he makes music seem to sing from the pages of a novel.”
Like many a former Giller nominee and winner, Sean Michaels has built a successful career as a magazine writer. First nominated for a National Magazine Award for his music criticism in Maisonneuve, he won a gold medal National Magazine Award in 2010 for his essay “The Lizard, the Catacombs and the Clock” in the literary magazine Brick.
The intoxicating story of the underground labyrinths of Paris and the cataphiles who spelunk within them, Sean Michaels explored one of the more mysterious sides of the world’s most-visited city.
Parisians call it a gruyère. For hundreds of years, the catacombs under the city have been a conduit, sanctuary, and birthplace for its secrets. The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables’ Jean Valjean both haunted these tunnels, striking students descended in 1968, as did patriots during the Second World War. The Nazis visited too, building a bunker in the maze below the 6th arrondissement.
In 2012 Sean Michaels won a second National Magazine Award, alongside veteran Canadian photojournalist Roger LeMoyne, in the Words & Pictures category for “Ringmasters” – a portrait of Montreal’s Tohu circus published in The Walrus.
But the artists still remember what drew them under the lights: the risk, the thrill, the chance to brush up against another world. Experiments are once again taking place in the streets, in the metro — or even at Tohu, where management rents studios for as little as $2 an hour: a troupe called Recircle salvages equipment from the trash, while Cirque Alfonse reinvents the family circus with a show that turns Québécois stereotypes (sometimes literally) on their heads.
It was announced today that The Grid, Toronto’s popular and award-winning weekly city magazine, is closing after an inspiring three-year run following its evolution from Eye Weekly. Publisher Laas Turnbull, a former director of the National Magazine Awards Foundation, told Marketing magazine that the shut-down is due to declining ad sales, changes in media buying patterns and a lack of time to develop new revenue generators that the magazine had been testing. “We ran out of runway,” he said.
Since it launched in May 2011 with the first of its annual Chef’s Guides to Toronto, The Grid won 15 National Magazine Awards (10 Gold, 5 Silver) from 53 nominations; over that span, only The Walrus, Report on Business and L’actualité won more.
As we bid it farewell, the NMAF looks back on some of the most remarkable Grid content to be celebrated at the National Magazine Awards. (You can find more in our online archive.)
The second-ever cover story by The Grid (May 19-25, 2011) swept the Gold medals in the categories Magazine Covers, Art Direction of an Entire Issue and Art Direction of a Single Article. That hadn’t happened at the NMAs since 1998.
At this year’s National Magazine Awards a new category for Infographics was introduced. The Grid snagged 5 nominations for this award, winning Gold for “How much does a street cost?”
Finally, Danielle Groen’s impressive story on public-school sex ed won a Silver National Magazine Award in 2012. Read the entire article and view more award-winning work from The Grid in the National Magazine Awards Foundation’s online archive.
Our best wishes to the talented staff and contributors who made The Grid so wonderful, informative and beautiful.
The nominees for the 37th annual National Magazine Awards have been announced.
The National Magazine Awards Foundation is proud to be able to provide full-text articles of all nominated work as part of its mandate to promote Canadian magazine creators, broaden the exposure of Canadian magazines to the general public and strengthen the role that magazine content plays in the Canadian cultural landscape.
On our website you can:
Download and read more than 200 magazine stories nominated in 25 writing categories: Travel, Humour, Arts & Entertainment, Business, Investigative Report, Personal Journalism, Poetry, Fiction and more.
View thought-provoking magazine artwork nominated in 12 visual categories: Photojournalism, Illustration, Fashion, Art Direction, Portrait Photography and more.
Check out the top Canadian Magazine Covers from 2013.
Off the Page is an interview series that appears regularly on the Magazine Awards blog. Today we catch up with Brett Popplewell, editor of The Feathertale Review, winner of the 2012 National Magazine Award for Best Single Issue.
NMAF:The Feathertale Review has been dubbed the “illegitimate love child of Mad Magazine and The New Yorker.” We just saw your latest issue, no. 11, double in size to 128 pages. Is this a signal to readers that the child is growing up? And if so, where is it headed?
Brett Popplewell: It’s definitely a sign that the child is growing up. Where it’s heading, I have no idea.
Truth is our entire team has grown up since our launch in 2006. We were just kids back then who felt there was an absence of high- and low-brow humour magazines in the Canadian market and thought we could be the cork to plug that hole. Lee Wilson, Feathertale’s co-founder and art director, and I wanted to create something that would feel fresh and cutting edge but that would hark back to an age when magazines leaned entirely on illustration to bring their words to life. We’re the ones who started calling our creation the “illegitimate love child of Mad Magazine and The New Yorker” because it felt like the best way to describe it. Continue reading →
Off the Page appears regularly on the Magazine Awards blog. Today we catch up with writer J.B. MacKinnon, winner of 11 National Magazine Awards and author of The Once and Future World (Random House Canada).
NMAF: In an essay titled “A 10 Percent World” (The Walrus, September 2010), you argued that humanity’s vision of an idyllic past is myopic; that in seeking to temper the impact that we have on our environment, our purpose “is not to demand some return to a pre-human Eden, but rather to expand our options”; that “our sense of what is possible sets limits on our dreams.” What did you mean by expanding our options beyond the limits?
J.B.: “A 10 Percent World” looks at the natural world of the historical past—a much richer and more abundant state of nature than we know today. We’ve largely forgotten this more plentiful world, and that limits our sense of the possible.
Yes, it’s depressing to find out that grizzly bears used to live on the Canadian Prairies and they don’t any more, or that Vancouver waters were home to a year-round population of humpback whales that were all slaughtered by 1908. But if we aren’t aware of these facts, then the absence of the bears and the whales seems normal. When we do become aware of them, we’re able to set a higher bar for our vision of what nature can be. Continue reading →