Off the Page, with poet Michael Prior

At the start of summerfall, and early spring, the National Magazine Awards Foundation publishes a comprehensive list of magazine writing contests and prizes. These contests are great opportunities for emerging writers and poets to establish their presence in CanLit. Michael Prior is one such emerging writer, and in just a few years he’s compiled an impressive record of Canadian magazine publications and contest wins.

Doggedly submitting his work to numerous literary publications, between 2013 and 2015 Michael placed in over a dozen competitions and garnered scores of publications in literary journals and magazines across Canada.

His success as a poet has evolved from literary publications to small-press chapbooks–Swan Dive (Frog Hollow Press, 2014) included poetry first published in The Walrus, Lemon Hound and the Winnipeg Reviewto a debut, book-length collection recently published by Véhicule Press: Model Disciple (Spring 2016).

Recently the NMAF caught up with Michael, currently pursuing an MFA at Cornell University, to chat about magazine contests and building a career as a writer.

NMAF: Your poetry career emerged quite recently and has been moving at breakneck-speed. How and when did you first set foot in the world of Canadian poetry, and why were you drawn to this world?

Michael Prior: I think, like a lot of other writers, I was nudged into this by a series of passionate teachers and professors. I had always liked poetry, but it wasn’t until later in my undergrad that I actually began to read poems deeply. And then, when I did, they became these fascinating and visceral experiences: Dickinson took off the top of my head. Lowell made me feel like my mind was in a vise. Bishop asked me to look more carefully until the act of looking became a way of thinking.

NMAF: “To Hunt” (2013) garnered you your first poetry contest win: 2nd place in Echolocation’s Chase Chapbook Competition. You were in Vancouver at the time; what drew you to submitting to the Toronto-based Echolocation? What did it mean to win, and what happened—personally and professionally—next?

Michael Prior: Well, I’m not sure anything happened immediately, but placing second certainly gave me a little more confidence. I hadn’t been making poems for long at that point, and I remember having received a few rejections around the same time, so it was a nice validation to think that someone liked something I had written.

 

NMAF: You’ve since won poetry contests in acclaimed Canadian magazines, such as Vallum, Grain, The Walrus, and Matrix Magazine. There are often financial incentives to entering magazine writing contests, but what are some of the not-so-obvious perks? (Winning the Matrix Lit POP Award, for instance, includes tickets to POP Montreal and offers poets the opportunity to present on stage.)

Michael PriorPrairie Fire’s Bliss Carman Poetry Prize invites its winner out to the Thin Air Festival, and the Robert Kroetsch Award from Matrix comes with perhaps the ultimate prize: a first book publication deal for its winner.

But in terms of less tangible perks, I would argue that the primary benefit of literary magazine contests is that most are run through a blind submission process; that is, the readers and judges aren’t permitted to see the authors’ names, and therefore have to judge the work on its own merits without the context of a writer’s corpus, their stature in a literary community—in theory, this should level the playing field a bit for less-established writers.

But of course, the factors involved in any contest’s outcome are undeniably complex. There are aspects of contest culture that might favour certain aesthetics, certain experiences, certain types of poems about certain things. Connected to this is the question of who’s actually entering literary magazine contests. Economic means can be an obstacle to submitting (contests usually cost around $30 to enter, which is a lot for someone struggling to make ends meet) and identity can also be a determining factor: writers of colour may be uneasy about sending their work to prizes if the judge is of European descent, while LGBTTQI writers may apprehensive about submitting to a contest judged by a cisgender, straight individual.

 

Regardless of whether one wins, or doesn’t, I think it’s important to remember that placing in a contest is only a small measure of success. What matters is that one keeps writing and reading and writing.

 

I do think, however, that contests present an important opportunity for writers, as long as one takes their inscription of hierarchies, their tendencies, with a grain of salt; the magazines that run contests should be thinking (if they aren’t already) about how to attract more diverse submissions from diverse writers. Mostly, I hope that judges and readers are doing their best to be respectful, empathetic, imaginative, and inclusive when considering contest submissions.

 

NMAF: Which Canadian literary magazines are on your reading list right now?

Michael Prior: There are many great Canadian literary magazines, though due to budget constraints I have to rotate subscriptions. Right now, the stack of periodicals on my bedside table includes issues of Ricepaper, Poetry is Dead, The New Quarterly, Canadian Notes and Queries, The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and The Fiddlehead.

I do my best to keep up with Canada’s burgeoning online publications, and like many of the poet folk I know, I eagerly await each new issue of The Puritan and The Rusty Toque. Also online: the poet Robin Richardson recently founded the Minola Review in order to create a unique publishing space for women, femme-identifying, and non-binary writers; the influential website Lemon Hound, though no longer publishing, remains an important archive; and Plenitude Magazine continues to publish and promote the work of LGBTTQI writers in Canada.

Needless to say, I think it’s apparent that there’s a lot of exciting work happening among Canada’s many literary magazines, of which I’ve only mentioned a small number, and I’m very grateful for all the editors and staff who volunteer countless hours to sift through the submissions and support new work.

 

NMAF: While completing your Master’s at the University of Toronto, you were a Poetry Editor at Echolocation. You’re now an MFA candidate at Cornell, and an Assistant Editor at Cornell’s Epoch Magazine. How does a magazine editor at a small press literary journal go about attracting new writing talent and new readers? As an editor, what do you look for in poetry submissions?

Michael Prior: To answer the first part of your question, I think an engaged editor obviously needs to read widely: books, journals, websites, blogs, and all the other places poems might be proliferating. This is undoubtedly time consuming—we’re all busy, and resources tend to be scarce at small magazines—but I think this sort of effort is essential to fostering a magazine’s ethos, which emerges over time through both the work an editor solicits, and the work an editor accepts from the slush pile. This becomes an even harder thing to foster at a student-run journal, where the staff changes every year.

Editorial work, in my opinion, requires a simultaneously historical and forward-looking perspective (what has happened, what is happening, what will happen next / what might I like to see happening more in the future). Editors are unavoidably gate-keepers. There’s no way around it: a magazine cannot, nor should it try to be, everything at once (though its scope of interest need not be narrow)—what’s important is that the literary landscape is able to support a diverse range of publications, and by extension, a diverse range of editors.

And of course, I believe editors should always be questioning what they like and why. As Jim Johnstone once said to me, it’s much easier to quickly dismiss a piece of writing than it is to spend the time and learn how it’s asking to be read. Some writing opens up in unexpected ways with a little persistence.

"Model Discipline" by Michael Prior is now available from Véhicule Press.
“Model Discipline” by Michael Prior is now available from Véhicule Press.

As for what I personally look for in a submission, well, I’m interested in poems that are compelling experiences, surprising experiences, experiences that are emotionally complex and powerful—poems that have something at stake beyond language as a game of phonemic pick-up sticks. Memorability is often a good marker of this for me: if I am re-experiencing a poem at unexpected times (while riding the bus, or when walking a corgi) moments when the poem is not right in front of me, that’s usually a good sign.

I am also interested in a poem’s formal qualities, especially its engagement with what has preceded it—its conversation with other poems, traditions, and modes. In other words, how aware is the poem of the fact it wasn’t written in a vacuum? This isn’t to say I’m only interested in canonically inherited formal structures (though I am a sucker for a well-written sonnet): I’m as equally enraptured by Alexandra Oliver’s metrical brilliance as I am by Alice Fulton’s fractal poetics or Cathy Park Hong’s renovation of the ballad form through lipogrammatic constraints.

NMAF: As both a writer and editor, what advice do you have for those new poets who have yet to enter a magazine writing contest?

Michael Prior: While it’s nice to win, entering a contest can be a helpful creative impetus: use the contest as a deadline to generate new work; use the contest as a way to support an admired publication; use the contest to hopefully get one’s work before the eyes of a favourite writer.

And regardless of whether one wins, or doesn’t, I think it’s important to remember that placing in a contest is only a small measure of success. What matters is that one keeps writing and reading and writing.


From the National Magazine Awards Foundation:


Michael Prior’s Model Disciple was released on March 29th, 2016. Véhicule Press has declared it “one of the most commanding poetic debuts in years” and the CBC included Model Disciple on their Spring 2016 Books Preview. Model Disciple is available in bookstores and for order now.

Michael holds an MA in English with a Creative Thesis from the University of Toronto, where he was the poetry editor of EcholocationHe’s now a poetry candidate at Cornell University, and an assistant poetry editor at Epoch Magazine. Though living in America, he’s still actively publishing in Canadian magazines, with work recently appearing in recent issues of The Puritan and Canadian Notes and Queries. He also has poems forthcoming in Ricepaper and The Fiddlehead. Discover more at MichaelPrior.ca and on Twitter @MichaelPrior06.

Special thanks to Leah Edwards for researching and conducting this interview on behalf of the NMAF.

The nominees for the 39th annual National Magazine Awards will be announced on Monday,. May 2, 2016. Follow us right here on this blog or on Twitter (@MagAwards) to find out who will be the finalists this year. 

En marge, avec Jean-François Proulx

JFProulxcroppedNP03-2

En juin dernier, à l’occasion du gala des Prix du magazine canadien, la récolte a été faste pour le magazine Nouveau Projet. En plus d’avoir décroché le prestigieux titre de Magazine de l’année, Nicolas Langelier et son équipe ont récolté deux médailles d’or, une médaille d’argent et trois mentions honorables, dont la médaille d’or pour la meilleure direction artistique d’un numéro (« Ce Canada dont nous ne voulons pas »).

Le jury a salué la vision du directeur artistique Jean-François Proulx en lui octroyant la plus haute distinction pour une catégorie visuelle. Depuis NP01, Jean-François Proulx fait équipe avec Nouveau Projet pour créer l’identité visuelle du magazine. La Fondation s’est entretenue avec lui afin d’en savoir davantage à propos de son parcours et de sa démarche artistique.

FPMC : Vous êtes le directeur artistique de Nouveau Projet, mais vous dirigez aussi Balistique, que vous décrivez comme étant un « studio de collaboration graphique à géométrie variable ». Pouvez-vous nous parler brièvement de votre cheminement professionnel et de la petite histoire de ce studio?

Jean-François Proulx : En 2016, Balistique célébrera ses 8 ans, dont 5 passées avec nos amis du magazine Nouveau Projet, depuis leurs débuts. C’est un désir d’indépendance combiné à un certain esprit d’entreprenariat qui m’a poussé à lancer ce studio, après avoir travaillé quelques années en agence, ici, dans le Vieux-Montréal.

Balistique n’est pas un studio au sens traditionnel. Pas de bureaux, de secrétaire ou de photocopieur. Seulement une équipe flexible créée sur mesure pour les besoins de chaque client, travaillant sous ma direction artistique (branding, édition, web, applications mobiles). Les méthodes contemporaines de travail changent, et la mobilité est maintenant un atout pour les entreprises créatives qui peuvent collaborer avec différentes personnes, dans un processus organique.

Depuis 2008, nous travaillons particulièrement avec des organisations dans les milieux culturels et corporatifs. Et cette année marquera aussi le lancement d’un projet parallèle d’entreprise avec la conception et l’édition d’une application mobile (plus de détails à venir).

FPMC : Vous réalisez divers projets sous la bannière Balistique : conception graphique de logos, de jaquettes de livres, de programmes, d’affiches. En quoi votre approche diffère-t-elle selon le projet que vous abordez? Plus spécifiquement, quel est le processus de création en ce qui concerne Nouveau Projet?

JFP : Chaque projet est unique et nécessite une approche différente. Balistique s’entoure de collaborateurs talentueux qui sauront mener chaque projet à bon port. Dans le cas du magazine Nouveau Projet, nous travaillons à proximité de l’équipe éditoriale. Assez tôt dans le processus (jusqu’à 6 mois avant l’envoi du magazine à l’imprimeur) nous organisons des rencontres de production hebdomadaires, qui nous permettent de bien planifier la création visuelle du magazine, à mesure que la direction des textes se précise.

Ensuite, je rédige un brief créatif précis pour commander les oeuvres et photos qui illustreront le magazine. L’apport des collaborateurs est évidemment toujours apprécié et encouragé. Enfin, comme pour chaque projet d’envergure, la production se termine par un mois de production et d’échanges de toutes sortes, entre l’équipe créative et la rédaction. Ces jours-ci, nous travaillons d’ailleurs à la conception du prochain numéro du printemps-été 2016.

FPMC : En page couverture du numéro « Ce Canada dont nous ne voulons pas », pour lequel vous avez reçu la médaille d’or, le portrait de David Suzuki donne spontanément envie aux lecteurs de parcourir le magazine. L’utilisation de la lumière donne l’impression de plonger au cœur des préoccupations du scientifique. L’effet est vraiment saisissant. Pouvez-vous nous parler de la création de cette page couverture et de votre collaboration avec la photographe Dominique Lafond?

JFP: Je pense que cette couverture est toute spéciale pour le magazine. Elle marque l’entrée de Nouveau Projet dans la sphère des grands magazines de société. La couverture a été réfléchie ici, mais c’est à Toronto que nous avons dû rencontrer monsieur Suzuki. Son horaire est extrêmement chargé, et il n’était malheureusement pas disponible pour une visite à Montréal. Dominique Lafond et son équipe (Rodéo Productions) ont réussi à organiser une séance éclair à Toronto. Et quelle rencontre ça a été!

Monsieur Suzuki est un grand homme qui possède une impressionnante expérience. Il était tellement bavard que nous devions parfois l’interrompre pour prendre les photos.

FPMC : Pourquoi avoir choisi le rouge pour le titre du magazine sur cette page couverture, plutôt que le blanc, utilisé ailleurs? Ce choix semble aussi en rupture avec les numéros précédents.

JFP: L’optimisme habituel des couvertures de Nouveau Projet a été légèrement revu pour ce numéro. Le dossier central touche un sujet assez grave, soit la disparition d’une certaine idée du Canada, autrefois perçu comme une nation progressiste. Le rouge semblait la couleur idéale pour illustrer ce sujet important.

FPMC : D’une couverture à l’autre du magazine, le texte alterne entre le noir et l’orange, ce qui rend la lecture plus conviviale tout en mettant en valeur certains passages. Le style est sobre, et la couleur est utilisée parcimonieusement. En quoi ces choix reflètent-ils l’identité visuelle que vous désiriez conférer au magazine?

JFP : Nouveau Projet est un espace de lecture et de réflexion. Sans être brutalement minimaliste, la signature visuelle du magazine favorise une certaine élégance et invite les lecteurs à prendre leur temps (dans la lecture, la réflexion et même dans la vie en général). On s’éloigne aussi de la signature des créations éphémères à la mode (puisqu’elles ne survivent pas toujours à l’épreuve du temps).

FPMC : Depuis l’ouverture de votre studio en 2008, la qualité de votre travail a été saluée à maintes reprises. Aux Prix du magazine canadien en particulier, vous avez remporté cette année la médaille d’or pour la direction artistique d’un numéro, et étiez finaliste dans cette même catégorie en 2014. Quel impact ces distinctions ont-elles eu sur votre carrière?

JFP : Malgré une importance démesurée accordée par l’industrie (et surtout les jeunes designers), les distinctions en design ne changent pas le monde et ne prédisent pas le succès ou l’échec d’une carrière en design graphique. Je préfère toujours réfléchir avec une certaine humilité: je pense qu’un prix en design est surtout une précieuse occasion de remercier le client qui nous a fait confiance, et féliciter l’équipe qui travaille derrière le projet gagnant. On pense immédiatement à l’équipe de création, mais n’oublions jamais le travail passionné de tous les acteurs qui font qu’un magazine de qualité peut voir le jour.

En savoir plus : nouveauprojet.com

Plus en marge
Isabelle Arsenault
Catherine Dubé
Dominique Forget
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Photo par Dominique Lafond

Off the Page, with Dan Rubinstein

DanRubinstein
Dan Rubinstein (photo by Lisa Gregoire)

This week on Off the Page, our interview series with National Magazine Award winners, we chat with author and NMA-winning journalist Dan Rubinstein, whose 2015 book Born to Walk emerged from a National Magazine Award-nominated story in The Walrus.

NMAF: Congratulations on the recent publication of your book Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act (ECW Press). You’re a self-described obsessive walker, meditating on the many benefits walking offers. How did your obsession with walking begin?

Born to WalkDan Rubinstein: I’ve always been interested in walking, both for fun and as a way to get from A to B. I like how the act allows me to intimately explore places or routes we typically don’t experience on foot. You never know what you’ll see or who you’ll meet, and you gain a deeper sense of how you fit into the natural and human ecosystem in which you live.

But this interest became an obsession in 2012. My “dream job,” as a magazine editor, had become a nightmare, and the long lunch-hour runs I took to escape the stress led to a blown knee. So I started going for walks at lunch, which offered a similar physical and psychological release.

And when I was back at my desk, I kept stumbling over news stories and research studies online that spoke to the many curative properties of walking, from physical and mental health to social cohesion and economic sustainability. I was hooked!

NMAF: Your article “The Walking Cure” — published in The Walrus and winner of two National Magazine Honourable Mentions in 2013 in the categories Society and Health & Medicine — seems to be the starting seed for Born to Walk. Can you talk a bit about the expansion of the article and the development of the book?

Dan Rubinstein: One of the first conversations I had about the myriad benefits of walking was with Stanley Vollant, the medical doctor at the heart of the “The Walking Cure.” He’s an Innu from eastern Quebec — the province’s first aboriginal surgeon — and had started a multi-year walking project, a series of group treks between First Nations communities in which dozens of participants experience the power of this healthy activity and re-establish connections to the land and to one another.

Stanley’s walks are hundreds of kilometres long, often in the winter, and people realize that the only way to reach the end of such a daunting journey is to approach it one step at a time — and they realize if they can do this, they can attempt to overcome any challenges they face. Stanley had the vision that inspired him to begin this project while doing the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain.

He didn’t know why he had to start walking with aboriginal youth and elders in Canada, but as he told me when we first spoke, “When you begin a journey, you don’t know why. The trail will show you the way.”

Writing this article was a natural first step for me, and expanded into the opening chapter of my book, it establishes the main themes and sets the tone. It also introduces Stanley, a recurring voice of wisdom in the book.

Read "The Walking Cure" (The Walrus)
Read “The Walking Cure” (The Walrus)

NMAF: Walking clearly influences the content of your writing, but does it influence how you write? Does the physical endurance built by walking long distances transfer to the long-term focus and dedication one needs to complete a book? Moreover, has walking influenced the form or pace of your writing?

Dan Rubinstein: I find it easier to walk for hours and hours than to sit and write for hours and hours. Walking is invigorating and inspiring — writing, for me, is hard work. But I did keep reminding myself, while working on the book, to take a “one step at a time” approach.

And the book, like many great walks, is a meandering journey, with a lot of side trails, that ultimately leads to a satisfying conclusion. At least I hope it does for readers.

NMAF: Do you have a familiar, favourite walk? Where is the strangest place walking has led you?

Dan Rubinstein: I don’t really have a specific favourite walk. I like walking from the place I am to the place I have to be. I like utilitarian transects that force me to go somewhere unexpected — say, an industrial park, or a subdivision that’s still under construction.

When I lived in Edmonton, I loved walking along the Athabasca River in Jasper National Park, or along the North Saskatchewan River in the city’s river valley. In Ottawa, where I now live, there are some beautiful trails along the Rideau River or in nearby Gatineau Park.

But really, I prefer the more unusual places where I’ve walked, such as the four-day hike I did from my parents’ house in Toronto to their cottage near Algonquin Provincial Park (which became an article for Cottage Life).

You don’t have to travel somewhere exotic to have a profound experience. You can literally walk out the front door and keep going.

NMAF: Since 2003, you’ve won a number of National Magazine Awards for work published in a variety of magazines (The Walrus, Canadian Geographic, Western Living, and Alberta Views). What is the role of magazine work — and magazine award nominations and wins — in the life of a freelancer?

Dan Rubinstein: Magazine assignments help freelancers explore ideas that they’re curious and passionate about. I’ve written about walking, for instance, in a dozen different publications.

This is the fun part of a freelancer’s life. Other gigs, like communications work, help beef up your income, but it’s the magazine assignments that provide the freedom that makes it all worthwhile. And if you write a story that wins an award, that makes it easier to pitch ideas to editors you haven’t worked with before.

Awards and nominations are a good calling card. They can help get you in the door. But at the end of the day, they’re not why most of us do this. It’s the stories that matter.


Dan Rubinstein is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist and author of Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act (ECW Press). Read more about the project at borntowalk.org/about/. Follow Dan on Twitter @dan_rube

Very special thanks to Leah Edwards for researching and conducting this interview with Dan. 

The 2016 National Magazine Awards are now open for submissions until January 15. Awards will be presented in 39 categories at the 39th annual NMA gala on June 9. Digital publications and magazine content can also enter the Digital Publishing Awards (deadline Feb 16).

More “Off the Page” interviews with award-winning writers
Heather O’Neill, author of Lullabies for Little Criminals
Emily Urquhart
, author of Beyond the Pale
Arno Kopecky, author of The Oilman and the Sea
Joshua Knelman, author of Hot Art

Off the Page, with Genna Buck

Genna Buck (photo by Jessica Darmanin)

This week on Off the Page, our interview series with National Magazine Award winners, we chat with journalist Genna Buck, who won the 2015 NMA prize for Best New Magazine Writer, given annually to an emerging journalist whose early work in Canadian magazines shows the highest degree of craft and promise. 

NMAF: Congratulations on the award for Best New Magazine Writer. Your winning piece, “Finding a Place,” found a place in Maisonneuve. Can you talk a bit about how you discovered Savannah’s story, and why you decided to pursue it?

Genna Buck: I was a super green reporter on a summer contract at the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, N.B., assigned to cover the provincial court. This was 2012. Savannah, a young woman with severe autism, was brought in for a hearing — I tell that story in the piece — and it was memorable because a representative from Social Development was supposed to be there and had failed to show. The normally very taciturn judge got a bit miffed about it, so I wrote it up for the paper.

Read Genna Buck's award-winning story in the Winter 2014 issue of Maisonneuve
Read Genna Buck’s award-winning story in the Winter 2014 issue of Maisonneuve

The next day I got this heartbreaking phone call from Joy Sullivan, Savannah’s foster mother of many years, who had no idea that her kid was in this situation. She’d been looking for answers but had gotten discouraged by that point.

I learned that this young person who was totally alone, who had no one to speak for her, who was a child of the system, actually had people. She had a family who loved her. And an institution that was supposed to be all about supporting families to stay together had dropped the ball in a really profound way. So the story had a narrative element — the arc of Savannah’s life — and a public-interest element.

I’d seen similar cases, sadly, many times in my short period covering the court, but I’d never found a way into the story until Joy reached out and let me into her life and opened up.

It was extremely brave and I will always be thankful to her for that.

NMAF: In your award-winning piece, readers are given a portrait of woman with autism who quotes Shrek, who crouches by a puddles and pretends to drown a doll, who is bounced from one “holding tank” to another. While you were writing the piece, what were the challenges you faced in trying to accurately represent Savannah’s story to your readers?

Genna Buck: There are a lot of things I would do differently if I could do this story over. I made the choice to share most of Savannah’s life story through Joy’s voice, which wasn’t ideal. I felt very uneasy about questioning Savannah because I didn’t know her well, and I wasn’t totally sure that I would be able to adequately inform her about what I was doing so that she could give her true consent.

I wanted to follow legal and ethical rules to the letter, because when I was doing the initial reporting, it was for my Master’s project, and I didn’t know if it would ever be published.

For practical reasons, I wasn’t able to visit Savannah in hospital. And I really, really did not want to make her think that I had the power to change her situation.

But if I were to do this again, I would spend extensive time with her and get everything from her perspective. It’s important that marginalized people are given a chance to express agency and speak on their own behalf. And that element was lacking in my piece.

There were also just the regular struggles to piece together things that had happened ten or twenty years before — names, places, dates, government agencies, all that.

“[Genna Buck] exhibits patience and grit in this magnificent profile. ‘Finding a Place’ has everything a good magazine piece needs: a gripping story, strong research and poignant writing that is balanced and sensitive.”
National Magazine Awards jury

NMAF: Your piece ends on an ambiguous note — with Savannah still in a psychiatric hospital. What was the impact (if any) of bringing Savannah’s story to the public’s attention? More generally, what do you hope to accomplish with your investigative reporting?

Genna Buck: Well, someone offered to mail a copy of the magazine to the relevant government minister in New Brunswick, so I know that the story got at least a few people fired up over the serious lack of housing and support for people with high needs in that province and across the country.

But to my knowledge — as of a couple of months ago — Savannah’s still in hospital to this day. She’s not sick. And she’s isolated from her family and friends and people who love her. So not a whole lot has changed.

Most of the momentum around this issue in New Brunswick seems to be about making what are essentially institutional environments, hospitals and group homes, nicer and bigger and better-equipped. There’s a real belief, and a stated goal, of supporting people to have a meaningful life in the community. But making that happen for someone like Savannah requires a huge investment of money and expertise.

What do I want to achieve? Well I don’t necessarily want to change the world, that’s not my role and it’s not in my power. My goal is always to get readers to imagine themselves in another person’s situation, to see their lives in a new and complex and visceral way.

Once you help cultivate genuine, sincere empathy, change flows from that. At least you hope so.

Genna Buck accepts the award for Best New Magazine Writer at the 2015 National Magazine Awards gala.
Genna Buck accepts the award for Best New Magazine Writer at the 2015 National Magazine Awards gala.

 

NMAF: Professionally and personally, what the impact of winning a National Magazine Award? How do you see your career as a magazine writer continuing to develop?

Genna Buck: Professionally, it has opened so many doors. I think it has put me on the path to being able to support myself as a freelancer, if that’s something I eventually choose to pursue (I might, one day; it’s TBD).

It has also opened editors’ ears and made them more willing to take a chance on a pitch from me that is a bit out-there or weird. I have a forthcoming piece in Flare about thrift shopping, and I’m working on a long form project that incorporates elements of Canadian history, women’s history and the story of how my own great-great-grandmother came to Canada.

Personally, it’s a big motivator. I think everyone in this business has moments where they’re just like, “WHAT WAS I THINKING? I CAN’T DO THIS. THIS WAS A BAD IDEA!” And I’m able to tell myself, “You can do this. Look, you have done it!”

I’m an editor full-time now, and I’m currently working as part of a team to make another MJ grad’s thesis into an investigative series. So what goes around comes around!

National Magazine Award winners Genna Buck and Richard Greene at Winners' Circle, a special networking event for NMA nominees and winners, on Nov 25
National Magazine Award winners Genna Buck and Richard Greene at Winners’ Circle, a special networking event for NMA nominees and winners, on Nov 25

NMAF: What advice would you give to emerging magazine writers?

Genna Buck: I know this is lame, but seriously, be manic about organization. Keep all your notes in one place. Scan and upload your documents. Label all your audio and store it in one place. Don’t shove a bunch of super important loose pieces of paper into a bunch of different folders and binders and notebooks and what-have-you. I learned that the hard way. Evernote is your friend!


Genna Buck is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist, the recipient of 2015 NMA award for Best New Magazine Writer, and a section editor for Views at Metro News Canada. She earned her Masters of Journalism at Carlton University, in 2013. Her work has appeared in Maclean’s Magazine, The Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve Magazine, and other publications. Genna’s Twitter handle is @genna_buck.

Very special thanks to Leah Edwards for researching and conducting this interview with Genna Buck. 

The 2016 National Magazine Award for Best New Magazine Writer is open to any emerging Canadian journalist or creative non-fiction writer whose first feature-length magazine story (1000+ words) was published in a Canadian magazine (including university/college magazines) during 2015. Submissions must be accompanied by a letter of reference from a teacher, mentor, editor or colleague. The submission fee is $25. Three finalists will be named and the winner receives a cash prize of $500. The deadline for entries is January 15, 2016. Enter at magazine-awards.com.

Related “Off the Page” interviews
Catherine McIntyre, winner of the 2014 award for Best New Magazine Writer
Sierra Skye Gemma
, winner of the 2013 award for Best New Magazine Writer
Jeremy Klaszus, winner of the 2008 award for Best New Magazine Writer
Carol Shaben, 2-time NMA winner & 2009 finalist, Best New Magazine Writer
Suzannah Showler, 2013 finalist for Best New Magazine Writer
Liz Windhorst Harmer, NMA winner & 2013 finalist, Best New Magazine Writer

Off the Page, with Today’s Parent editor Sasha Emmons

Sasha Emmons (photo by Roberto Caruso)
Sasha Emmons (photo by Roberto Caruso)

This week on Off the Page–our interview series with National Magazine Award winners–we’re chatting with Sasha Emmons, Editor-in-Chief of Today’s Parent magazine. 

NMAF: Today’s Parent had a banner year at the 2015 National Magazine Awards—8 nominations and 4 Gold Medals including Best Single Issue, Best Web Editorial Package, Single Service Article Package, and Tablet Magazine of the Year. Can you describe the feeling that you and your team experienced that night of the awards gala?

Sasha Emmons: It’s such a cliché but we were just so giddy to be nominated. I’m new to the Canadian publishing scene but I understood that parenting publications rarely get nominated, much less win. So it was pretty surreal to hear our name not just once but four times, especially considering the quality of work from all the nominees. I wish I’d spent more time working on speeches — I really thought there was no way I’d be up there.

Sasha Emmons of Today's Parent accepts the award for Best Single Issue at the 2015 National Magazine Awards gala.
Sasha Emmons of Today’s Parent accepts the award for Best Single Issue at the 2015 National Magazine Awards gala.

NMAF: What has been the significance to you, your team and your readers from winning the National Magazine Awards? 

Sasha Emmons: I think for us it was incredible validation that our digital-driven but platform-agnostic approach to creating content was working. We regularly get caught up in excitement for our projects, and sometimes we lose objectivity and wonder if what we’re working on is as cool as we think it is. Seeing our risks pay off, both with awards but also with audience engagement and amazing feedback, has also given us motivation to keep pushing ourselves to try new, bold things.

The awards have certainly made the industry take notice of us, and that’s led to really talented editors, designers and new partners knocking on our door, wanting to work with or be part of our incredible team.

NMAF: Winning the award for Tablet Magazine of the Year must have been particularly special. How has Today’s Parent developed its presence on the tablet magazine platform, what challenges have you faced in delivering digital content, and how has it been successful?

Sasha Emmons: I really wanted to win for tablet. After we close our print issue, the editors get a bit of reprieve but not our art team, who work long hours on a platform where we have fewer readers than print.

For our busy parents, there’s not a lot of Sunday morning long-reads lounging, and many can’t take out the iPad without their kids clamouring for it. The phone is more our device, and we actually create an iPhone edition each month as well. But despite a huge digital audience that’s largely mobile, the idea of consuming an issue on a phone or tablet hasn’t quite caught on in a big way yet. But it’s growing, and we’re hopeful it will continue to grow.

Our art director Sun Ngo has incredibly high standards but she also promotes a culture of playful experimentation. Her leadership and her team’s hard work are the reason our tablet edition is so great, and I was beyond thrilled to see her be acknowledged for that.

Her philosophy is both simple and complex. She’s laser-focused on making the content readable, with clear text and directional icons. We never want to get so enamoured of bells and whistles that we forget about usability. But then she and her designers go the extra mile, creating gorgeous animated covers, making food and crafts pinnable, integrating video and playing with stop animation.

I really believe our tablet edition is the best, richest way to read Today’s Parent.

NMAF: The package called “30 Awesome Cupcakes” (Gold Medal winner in Single Service Article Package) has been the most tweeted, most viewed article in our awards archive since June, doubtless because it’s just about the most attractive cover line imaginable, and also because the layout is so eye-catching, so much fun. How is that piece exemplary of the editorial mission of Today’s Parent? (And did you get to try all the cupcakes?)

Sasha Emmons: I didn’t know that, and it’s so great to hear. It is one of the great professional regrets of my life I was not on set that day. However, I have to give credit where it’s due and say that this story was already in the works when I started at Today’s Parent, so really Karine Ewart and Alicia Kowalewski, the editor-in-chief and art director at the time, deserve the credit. I did write the line though!

Overall, we aim for a mix of daring, zeitgeisty content, and smart, creative bread-and-butter service. This piece falls into the latter — after all, every parent has to figure out how to pull off their kid’s birthday.

 

NMAF: You’ve called raising two kids “the most humbling thing” you’ve ever done. (“There are moments where I feel like I’ve nailed it, but there are still so many moments where I have no idea what I’m doing.”) How does your daily experience as a parent help guide your leadership of the magazine, and your understanding of what your readers want you to deliver?

Sasha Emmons: I feel like the parents on staff have the best scam going. One of us has an issue with our kid, and we get to talk to leading experts on exactly how to handle it! Seriously, it’s such a privilege that my professional life is centred around what interests me most personally as well.

It’s hugely useful to be a parent and have many moms and dads on staff to gut-check everything we write. Believe me, I’m struggling with everything our readers are struggling with. Overall, I think there are a lot of ways to get parenting right, and only a few ways to get it wrong, and that laughing about its challenges makes the whole thing easier.

I hope that comes through in our content.


Discover more about Today’s Parent at todaysparent.com and on Twitter @TodaysParent, and follow Sasha Emmons @semmons. The mobile edition of the magazine can be found here

The 2016 National Magazine Awards are now open for submissions.

Check out more of our Off the Page interviews with NMA winners, including editors like:
Patrick Walsh of Outdoor Canada
Judith Pereira of Report on Business
Mark Reid of Canada’s History
Curtis Gillespie of Eighteen Bridges

The Call for Entries for the 2016 National Magazine Awards will be announced on December 8. 

Off the Page, with Hudson Christie

Off the Page is back! Our interview series with National Magazine Award winners returns this week with Hudson Christie, winner of the 2015 award for Best New Magazine Illustrator, sponsored by Red Point Media. Hudson generously gave us some of his time recently to talk about his winning work, the significance of his award and building a career as a magazine illustrator.

NMAF: Congratulations on the award for Best New Magazine Illustrator. Your winning piece accompanied a story in Maisonneuve called “A Portrait of the Artist with Testicles in Hand,” (itself a National Magazine Award finalist in the humour category; a personal essay about an angst-ridden young man having a scrotal examination). Can you talk a bit about the process of creating that illustration—from your design brief with Maisy art director Anna Minzhulina, your reading of the text, and the actual construction of the sculptures?

Hudson Christie (portrait by the illustrator)
Hudson Christie (portrait by the illustrator)

Hudson Christie: This was my first commission from Maisonneuve, and Anna smartly matched me with a simultaneously silly and dark article. I’m happiest when I get to work with unhappy themes! Illustrating a testicular cancer scare demanded both a degree of sensitivity for the reality of cancer while leaving room for the nervous laughter that accompanies the dodging of a bullet.

For the picture, I wanted to express the way that this event interrupted the author’s everyday life. We went through a variety of sketches until landing on the classic thinker pose, contrasting the humor inherent to banal, contemporary life (in the form of frozen food) with the (conveniently phallic) home decor.

NMAF: Your style of illustration—clay sculptures, painted and photographed, and sometimes animated—is striking and unique. (The NMA jury called it a “fresh approach to traditional illustration” that proves you are “unafraid to push boundaries and take risks.”) When did you start developing this style as an editorial art form; was it while you were studying at OCAD, or even earlier?

Hudson Christie: I started working on this approach during my 3rd year at OCAD. I was really charmed by figurative folk sculpture at the time and was trying to come up with a way to integrate its uncanny geometric features and deliberate colour palettes into my work.

I had some mental hurdles to clear in order to figure out a way of making this inherently three-dimensional medium conform to the framed two-dimensionality of editorial illustration.

A huge personal breakthrough was learning how to use the computer to plot measurements of my dioramas, giving me final pictures which are 90% true to the original sketch.

NMAF: One of my favourite recent pieces of yours was your work for Alberta Venture magazine’s “Best Workplaces” issue (June 2015). Every element seems precise and yet whimsical—the oversized water cooler, the dog dish, the first aid kit, etc—conveying a sense of a scene that is both exemplary and fun. What’s the biggest challenge in working with clay to create an illustration like this?

Hudson Christie: There’s always a bit of randomness that takes control between the sketch and the final props I build. For the Alberta Venture cover, I had to employ a bit of trial and error, changing the angle and position of the figures in order to remove confusing contours.

Lighting is another aspect that’s hard to predict during the sketch phase. In this case, lighting the crowd of co-workers while maintaining a sense of depth where they overlapped took plenty of fiddling.

 

NMAF: Can you describe your studio and workspace? I imagine a large table littered with discarded clay limbs and eyeballs, dog tails and unicorn horns. And of course a large oven emitting the earthy aroma of baked clay. Is that close to the mark?

Hudson Christie: You’re pretty close! I work out of a bachelor apartment in Parkdale, so it’s instead a fairly small desk that’s covered in tiny clay body parts. I also have a separate table (read: piece of plywood with detatchable Ikea legs) where I set up my dioramas. I use two halogen photo lamps and a DSLR camera.

Replace “large oven” with “toaster oven” and “earthy aroma of baked clay” with “vaguely burnt odor of Super Sculpey” and you get the idea. I use polymer clay for the speed and versatility, even though it’s a lot less romantic than the real thing.

Hudson Christie has a distinctive and clear voice that will attract notice from audiences and designers. He uses wit and humour to address a provocative subject and his technique is a fresh and a unique approach to form.
— National Magazine Awards jury

NMAF: What is the significance to you as a young illustrator to win the National Magazine Award? Has it helped create other opportunities to publish your work, or amplify your work to art directors and agencies? And is there anything new you’re working on at the moment that you can tell us about?

Hudson Christie: Winning a National Magazine Award in my first year out of OCAD was a really huge honour. Being named in the same breath as other renowned members of the Canadian magazine community made me feel like a real contributor to a larger creative goal.

Since my win, I’ve been featured in The Walrus, another Canadian magazine that I’ve been itching to contribute to since I started freelancing.

NMAF: Do you have any words of wisdom for young and student artists and illustrators about making an impact in the world of magazines and publishing?

Hudson Christie: My first real portfolio of ten illustrations was just my senior year-long project, called “Work Life Balance,” at OCAD, which was based around a self-initiated concept that I was really passionate about.

If you aren’t enrolled in any illustration program, I recommend initiating your own series from scratch anyway. A focused series of pictures is one of the best arguments for your intellectual and artistic ability.


Hudson Christie is a National Magazine Award winning illustrator, a 2014 Medallist in Illustration at OCAD, and the recipient of the 2015 NMA prize for Best New Magazine Illustrator. His work has appeared in Maisonneuve, The Walrus, Alberta Venture, The New York Times, Mother Jones and other publications. Check out his creative portfolio at hudsonchristie.com and find him on Twitter @Hudsons_House.

The 2016 National Magazine Awards are now open for submissions.

Related “Off the Page” interviews
Roxanna Bikadoroff
, 4-time NMA-winning illustrator
Byron Eggenscwhiler, 6-time NMA-winner and winner of the 2009 award for Best New Magazine Illustrator
Gracia Lam, 2-time NMA winner for Spot Illustration
Jillian Tamaki, 4-time NMA-winning illustrator
Selena Wong, 2-time NMA-winning illustrator

Off the Page, with Gracia Lam and the Spot Illustration

Gracia Lam, by Gracia Lam.
Gracia Lam, by Gracia Lam.

Off the Page is a regular interview series produced by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. Today we’re chatting with illustrator Gracia Lam, whose work has been published in Maisonneuve, The Walrus, More, Corporate Knights, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic and others. At last year’s National Magazine Awards, Gracia won both the gold and silver awards for Spot Illustration for two pieces of work published in Maisonneuve, the first illustrator ever to achieve that distinction.

NMAF: The spot illustration holds a special place in the makeup of a magazine. Diminutive, often playful, sometimes underrated in comparison to larger elements of artwork. What do you think makes spot illustration such a fundamental component of a magazine story? 

Gracia Lam

Gracia Lam: I think that spot illustrations are a splash of colour within a sea of text, constructing direction or a break for the reader’s eye. Within a confined space, it is carefully conceived to enhance the content of an article. It assists in the creation of tone and mood, and is used purposefully to amplify a reader’s senses and experience.

NMAF: You achieved an unprecedented feat at last year’s National Magazine Awards, winning both the Gold and Silver medals in Spot Illustration for two different works published in Maisonneuve. The jury awarded gold to your spot illustration accompanying a story called “The Elite Yellow Peril,” which is a very evocative work. What was your creative vision for this piece, and was it created specifically for the text or did you have a broader idea in mind when you created it?

Gracia: I often describe my two-dimensional pieces of illustrations as a short film. In film, the story is narrated through multiple frames and over a time period; my illustrations reveal the climax of a story in one frame.

My vision for the “The Elite Yellow Peril” was to create a connection with the viewer that is immediate and impactful. To achieve this, I created an illustration with imageries and representations as closely related to the text as possible.

NMAF: The article that featured your Silver winning spot, “The Tar-Sands Trap” dealt with the highly controversial, nationally debated topic of the Keystone XL pipeline. As a spot illustrator, how does your level of awareness on the associated story influence your creative process? Before you begin working on an illustration, how does your familiarity with the topic guide your conceptualization process?

Gracia: When working on any assignment, I allow the story to directly inform my creative process from conceptualizing initial sketches to final colourization. During the first read through of the assignment, I take notes and highlight bits and pieces of writing that round up the theme.

For “The Tar-Sands Trap” article, I needed to familiarize myself with specific elements of the story such as its location, the visualization of its landscape and environment, and the pipeline.

When the Art Director gives me complete freedom, I approach the conceptualization process with how I think the mood should be represented—which is to portray the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline as a danger to the community.

NMAF: Your work has appeared in a large number of magazines, including many National Magazine Award-winning publications. Is there a “Gracia Lam” style that is boldly consistent throughout your work in various publications? And what is the process of adapting that style to align with the vision of the art director or of the textual part of the story?

Gracia: My visual language is created using mixed media, combining hand painted and drawn elements along with digital execution. I love to delight the audience with wit by reimagining everyday objects, mundane environments, and familiar situations with visual puns.

The process of adapting that style is mainly through practice. I am grateful that throughout my career I have been given many opportunities on various topics and stories from business and finance articles to science and health stories. These challenges allow me to identify my strengths and edit out my weaknesses, so each project contributes to the gradual tightening and refining of my work and portfolio.

NMAF: You swept the Spot Illustration category at last year’s gala, taking home both the Gold and Silver awards. Before that, you had been nominated three times since 2010. Winning both top spots within a single category is no small feat. Can you describe the difference in transitioning from nominee to two-time winner? What effect have the awards had on your career since last year’s ceremony?

Gracia: I was absolutely blown away by last year’s awards and want to thank the judges who recognized my work. I have always been excited to be nominated alongside many known names in the field—many of which are my peers and idols. The transition from nominee to winner is humbling because winning any award from the NMAs had been a goal. Since the awards last year, I have been working proficiently to improve on each piece to be on top of my own game.

Gracia Lam is a National Magazine Award-winning illustrator, born in Hong Kong and raised in Toronto. She likes to reinvent everyday objects and mundane environments.. To view more of her work visit GraciaLam.com

Special thanks to Leah Jensen for conducting this interview with Gracia Lam. To view more nominated and winning work, visit the National Magazine Awards online archive at magazine-awards.com/archive.

Check out more of our Off the Page interviews with National Magazine Award winners, including illustrators Byron Eggenschwiler, Roxanna Bikadoroff, Jillian Tamaki and Selena Wong.

The nominees for this year’s National Magazine Awards will be announced right here on the NMA blog on May 4. This year’s awards gala is June 5 at the Arcadian Court in Toronto.