Of the Page is an interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. This week we’re chatting with Montreal writer and editor Simon Diotte. He gained recognition for his 2016 National Magazine Award-winning travel story “Sur les traces d’un écrivain voyageur” (“In the Footsteps of a Travel Writer”) published in Oxygène, where he is editor-in-chief. The story recounts a multi-day hiking trip in France in the company of a donkey named Muscade, following the trail of the great Scottish adventurer Robert Louis Stevenson who hiked the same path in 1878.
NMAF: For the uninitiated, tell us about Oxygène magazine and your readers?
Simon: A newcomer to the world of outdoor magazines, Oxygène launched in 2013 and is published twice annually. We have a circulation of 25,000 copies distributed for free in Quebec, mainly at shops and businesses that specialize in the outdoors. Distinguishing itself from other publications that focus on all outdoor sports (trekking, climbing, alpine skiing, surfing, etc), Oxygène focuses on the classics—camping, hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
NMAF: So which came to you first: A taste for adventure or a love of writing?
Simon: Writing. I grew up reading L’actualité. I loved their “territoire” features which explored a particular region under a specific theme. I admired the journalist Luc Chartrand in particular, winner of numerous National Magazine Awards. I recall one of his reports that explored the wild regions of Haute-Mauricie. As I read it, I dreamed of walking in remote areas, a notebook in hand. It was stories like this that prompted me to choose to become a freelance journalist, and I started writing articles about the outdoors, which then gave me opportunities to go on adventures.
Paradoxically, in real life I am not necessarily a great adventurer. But I like to have the opportunity to travel in a professional context, where I can have access, as a journalist, to places and people (such as business leaders, politicians, etc) who are not easily accessible to everyday folks.
NMAF: So in addition to your role as editor-in-chief of Oxygène you’ve also been a freelance journalist for over fifteen years. Over the years, you’ve been published in magazines including que L’actualité, Les affaires, Coup de pouce, Châtelaine and Nature Sauvage. And you cover a wide range of topics, including personal finance, the environment, and tourism, to name a few. Tell us about the process of selection stories to pursue. And what topics are currently arousing your curiosity as a journalist?
Simon: Even though I love to work on adventure-oriented stories, I see myself as a jack-of-all-journalism-trades, which corresponds well to my personality. I enjoy stories on the performance of the stock market or the latest film of a famous filmmaker. And so I transpose my diverse tastes into my work as a journalist.
To succeed as a freelancer, you have to be an idea-generating machine. As soon as an idea starts to form in my mind, I immediately make notes on it. I do a quick search to see if it’s a subject that’s already been covered. Sometimes it takes years for an idea to grow into a magazine story—often because of the lack of time or opportunity to pursue it. I have tons of ideas in the bank, but unfortunately I lack the time and budget to pursue them all. Right now I’m working on several stories about hunting. Stay tuned.
NMAF: Your story called “Sur les traces d’un écrivain voyageur” won a Silver Medal at the 2016 National Magazine Awards. You weren’t able to attend the gala, but you responded almost instantly to the announcement on Twitter. What was the first thing that came to your mind when you heard the news?
Simon: I was really proud that a story by a freelancer writer in a small Quebec publication had managed to stand out among the panoply of high-quality magazines across Canada. As a freelancer I often have the feeling of being David against Goliath in various journalistic contexts. Winning the National Magazine Award is proof that with audacity and determination, you can do great stories.
Simon: In my many years as a freelancer, I’ve experienced periods where I’ve questioned myself. Should I continue or should I do something else? The recognition of the National Magazine Awards has affirmed my decision to keep living by the writer’s pen. And working independently gives me the freedom to work on the stories I really want to. Awards provide confidence to freelancers and raise our profile among clients. They help us stand out.
NMAF: The Canadian magazine industry has undergone some profound transformations over the past few years. One need only think of all the print publications that have migrated to digital platforms, or of the recent announcement of the sale of a number of Quebec magazines by Rogers Media, including L’actualité, the most decorated French-language magazine in the history of the National Magazine Awards.* In such an uncertain environment, what is the key to success for a freelancer?
Simon: As a freelancer, diversification is a major asset. The publications I write for trust me to handle a wide range of topics, as they know I’m versatile enough to do them. It’s also a great idea to get creative and pitch stories that seem a little off the beaten track. The work I do is about 50% ideas that I pitch, and 50% ideas that are commissioned.
That said, the future doesn’t look so bright for journalism, even for the best freelancers. With falling revenues, magazines have less and less money, and of course that has an impact on content. Like most freelancers, I often wonder whether I’ll still be able to do this exciting work in a few years.
Simon Diotte is the editor-in-chief of the magazine Oxygène and a National Magazine Award-winning freelancer writer based in Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @sdiotte.
This interview was originally published in French on the blog Prix Magazine. Interview by Émilie Pontbriand. Translated from the French by Richard A. Johnson.
Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. In this interview we chat with freelance journalist Virgil Grandfield, who won the 2016 National Magazine Award for Investigative Reporting.
In his award-winning investigative story “The Cage” (Eighteen Bridges) Virgil Grandfield describes one particular day of his multi-year investigation into human trafficking allegedly linked to Red Cross humanitarian efforts in Indonesia, post-tsunami. “Eva” is his assistant; “Mulyo” is a labour agent who may have been involved in human trafficking; “Otong” is a worker who disappeared while working on a Red Cross project and was allegedly murdered while trying to escape.
NMAF: In 2008, you decided to resign your position as spokesperson for the Red Cross / Red Crescent reconstruction efforts in Indonesia’s Aceh province. The international community had poured millions into rebuilding the region after the 2004 tsunami and 2005 earthquake, and from your position you were able to observe human trafficking creeping into the humanitarian project. How did you start down this road?
Virgil Grandfield: I was spokesperson for all Red Cross Red Crescent tsunami relief operations in Aceh in 2005-2006. In that time, I was proud of our work there. Only when I returned to Aceh in 2007-2008 as a delegate for the Canadian Red Cross did I uncover evidence of an epidemic of modern slavery in our housing reconstruction operations.
Before I go on, I should say that when describing the focus of my investigations in Aceh, I never use the term “corruption.” That word can sometimes be racially loaded, and too vague, subjective and misleading. As you mentioned, what I found on Red Cross and other tsunami projects in Indonesia was the very specific and clearly-defined crime of human trafficking—a discovery that rocked me to my core, in part because I immediately understood that it was our own fault. We had lost our way.
In short, the British, Canadian, Australian and American Red Cross had decided that rather than working with local people to rebuild, they would take a massive short cut and outsource all of our reconstruction projects to private contractors. Agents working for those contractors brought in tens of thousands of workers to our projects from more than 2,000 km away in Java. The agents and contractors deceived the workers, stole their pay and forced them to work against their will, often as outright slaves in squalid, malaria-ridden labour camps and often provided them little more than one bowl of rice per day.
This happened to virtually all of the thousands of construction workers on Red Cross and other tsunami rebuilding projects. It was the second, secret disaster of Aceh.
NMAF: What was the breaking point for you, and why did you decide to become a whistle-blower?
Virgil Grandfield: When I first discovered and confirmed the trafficking problem, I was really sad and angry. Another worker had died of malaria in one of our project camps the day before I had arrived there. And yet, management was refusing even to allow us to provide bed nets or spray for mosquitos in our camps, claiming the workers were not our responsibility. They had become so focused on material results—numbers of housing completions—they had totally ignored the humanity of the workers on our projects.
I reported what I had found to management in Aceh and Ottawa. They warned me to drop the issue. One told me that I was “too close to the people,” and said I had a choice: “You can either be with us, or you can be on the side of the workers.”
At the risk of losing my amazing career, I kept investigating and demanding action. Management agreed to look into the issue, but only interviewed the contractors and agents, the very men who had been doing the trafficking. They never spoke with the workers. After an incident where some of our workers were beaten by a local mob accusing them of stealing some jewelry to pawn in order to escape, I broke protocol and informed the Canadian Red Cross board of governors of the trafficking and implied that if we did not act within the month, I would go public. Only then did management approve anti-malarial measures in worker camps. They also promised me they would begin a feeding program for the workers and would hire the Ernst & Young auditing firm to do a more thorough investigation. And, I was offered a new contract and a possibly a promotion, on the condition that I drop the worker issue.
I told myself: “You carry a lot of responsibility, Virgil. You have fought for a long time to uncover and get the truth out. And you might have only this one chance to say some important things.”
A few months later, I heard from one of my former field officers that our head of mission in Aceh had interfered in the auditors’ investigation when he gave the contractors weeks of advance warning, and had tried to restrict the auditors to only two of our twenty-two housing projects. I also learned that the Red Cross also never implemented the promised feeding program for our workers. And although the auditing firm Ernst & Young confirmed my findings, Red Cross refused to consider compensating the victims.
That was the last straw for me. I resigned my Red Cross Overseas Delegate status and eventually leaked the story to a producer at Radio Canada in Montreal where I had done a graduate program in journalism at Concordia University.
NMAF: Having made the bold move to resign, you launched your own investigation, returning to Indonesia not as a delegate but as an independent journalist? How did you manage that?
Virgil Grandfield: Radio-Canada said they needed more proof of the trafficking before sending a team to Indonesia to investigate and film a documentary—an investment of at least $100,000. So, a year after I had resigned, I mortgaged my home in Alberta to fund a more thorough, preliminary investigation. I returned to Indonesia in 2009-2010, rented vehicles and equipment and enlisted teams of human rights workers—and at one point, even a local mafia boss—to help me find hundreds of Javanese labourers who had been trafficked on Red Cross tsunami projects in Aceh.
The evidence and video testimonies we took from those victims and scores of witnesses were enough to convince Radio Canada to send their own investigative team to Indonesia. Unfortunately, after their documentary “The Forgotten Workers” was broadcast on Radio Canada and CBC in March 2010, Canadian Red Cross denied all findings and shut the issue down. And it seemed like Canadians just kind of shrugged.
I was devastated, and it took me a long time to recover.
NMAF: In “The Cage” you describe a second journey you made to Indonesia in the summer of 2015 to meet a man named Mulyo, who may have been a trafficker of slave labour during the Red Cross reconstruction. You put your own life (and that of your assistant, Eva) at risk just to try to gain access to some of the workers who were exploited. What was the significance of that particular journey, and what did you expect to discover that day?
Virgil Grandfield: In 2015, with a little money from a writer’s grant and an income tax rebate, I headed back to Indonesia to try again. This time I could only afford to hire one person to help me, not whole teams. During my first investigation five years before, I had met families of men who had died on Red Cross projects or while trying to escape. I promised some of those families I would try to find the graves of their dead fathers, sons and husbands. So, this time, instead of searching for hundreds of surviving victims, my assistant and I would only search for the dead.
My assistant Eva (not her real name) is a gutsy, smart elementary school teacher about the size of a half sack of potatoes. She started searching for leads in North Sumatra even before I arrived. She found a labour agent named Mulyo (also not his real name) who claimed that 160 of his workers had been forced to work at gunpoint on an American Red Cross tsunami project.
Mulyo had told Eva that one of those workers, a young man named Otong, had been murdered by his guards, likely as a warning after trying to escape the project with a group of 30 other workers. Soon after my first meeting with Mulyo, Eva and I began to suspect that he himself had been a guilty party in the trafficking of Otong and the other men.
We tried to gain Mulyo’s trust, and that meant we had to give him our trust, too. We stayed in his home. We brought him gifts. We even went night fishing with him a few times at a kind of gambler’s pond where everyone treated Mulyo like the Godfather. We kept telling Mulyo we had to meet Otong’s co-workers in order to verify his story and perhaps find a way to meet and help his surviving family. Mulyo kept making excuses for not taking us to the surviving victims. Eventually, though, he said he was ready to take us to meet Otong’s former co-workers. But, he said we would have to go alone with him.
Eva and I knew there were two possibilities: either Mulyo had decided to try to help us, or he had decided to take us out somewhere to get rid of us once and for all—to kill us. If it was the first, we would be that much closer to getting the story that might finally get people to understand and care about this issue, a story that might shock the American public in a way that had not happened in Canada.
I had spent years of my life fighting this battle. I had sacrificed the career I had loved. I felt I had little left to lose and that I had come too far to fail. Getting to the bottom of this particular story about the murder of one worker might be my only way to finally get publishers and readers to care about the bigger story. And because the stakes were so high and there had only been denial on the part of the Red Cross, getting this story second or third-hand was not going to work. I had to meet the eyewitnesses—starting with the men who had also been trafficked—and record their stories. The only way to do that was to trust Mulyo.
I was prepared to risk death. The more important question was whether Eva understood the danger and was willing to make the same gamble. That is the moment at which our story “The Cage” begins, when Eva answers that she also was not afraid to die. It would not be the last time she would say that, in even more dangerous situations.
It felt important that this story reach Eighteen Bridges readers, for two reasons: First, because I felt our audience and the wider audience that might come across the story would greatly enjoy and benefit from Virgil’s mix of compelling storytelling and scrupulous moral inquiry. Second, because we at Eighteen Bridges really do believe in the power of the written word to open eyes and enact change, and it would have been wrong not to publish Virgil’s story. —Curtis Gillepsie, editor-in-chief, Eighteen Bridges magazine
NMAF: “The Cage” is now one chapter in a larger book project you have planned about the Red Cross reconstruction in Indonesia. On the one hand, your investigation focuses on the large-scale labour trafficking involving thousands of Indonesians who essentially became slaves to the agents and contractors who pocketed large sums of humanitarian funds. And then you’re also trying to unravel the mystery of the murder of Otong. What is it about his death that you think illuminates a piece of the larger investigation?
Virgil Grandfield: One problem I have had in speaking with literary agents was that they did not think this issue would be relevant to Canadians. They also said the fact I was a former employee of the Canadian Red Cross might create legal problems or doubts about motivations. Also, when I spoke to people in Canada about the trafficked workers, they just didn’t get it. Everyone has that uncle or brother-in-law who has been stiffed on a job. No big deal. And quite frankly, when people hear the numbers—that up to half a million men were trafficked on tsunami projects—they tune out because it sounds like statistics.
So, when I returned to Indonesia in 2015, I decided firstly that I would not look for any more victims from Canadian Red Cross tsunami projects—not even one. I would only look for victims from other Red Cross or UN or other tsunami projects. Americans have not yet heard about this scandal, and neither has the rest of the world..
Secondly, this time I wanted to investigate and tell, as well as I could, the story of just a few victims—people who had died because of the trafficking. I wanted readers to really feel and understand how horrible this thing was, how cruel and deadly it had been for humanitarian agencies to turn their operations over to profiteers and criminals and look the other way and even cover things up.
So, I thought the story of one man—among tens of thousands of tsunami slaves in Aceh—being murdered for trying to escape an American Red Cross tsunami project might get that point across. This was not your uncle being cheated for work he did on someone’s house. It was outright slavery and even murder. And I believed then as I do now that people will care more about one or two or three persons whom they feel they know than they will about thousands they don’t.
NMAF: “The Cage” ends with a bit of cliffhanger—Mulyo points you towards people who might know about the fate of Otong, but he advises you against speaking to them. Without giving too much away from your forthcoming book, have you since discovered more of the truth about Mulyo and Otong?
Virgil Grandfield: Mulyo eventually did take us to meet Otong’s co-workers, the witnesses to his murder. After telling us the story of their own ordeal as tsunami slaves and their escape from an American Red Cross project, they drew us a map. Eva and I then used the map to go on a kind of “Heart of Darkness” journey to follow the investigation of Otong’s murder to its end. What we experienced and discovered will be thrilling and mind-blowing to readers: a cat-and-mouse story of facing and narrowly escaping death—in typhoons and at gunpoint—in order to investigate and solve a crime implicating those in the “whited sepulchers” of Ottawa, London, Melbourne and Washington D.C. as much as anywhere else..
Eva and I are both currently writing those chapters for a section of the book called “The Map.” Using a mix of narrative and raw transcripts, we have also recently finished putting together an experimental work of literary non-fiction called “The Monument,” about a man and wife who were victims of trafficking on a British Red Cross project.
And, we will soon be writing our third main section of the book about keeping a promise I had made five years earlier to find the grave of one Javanese family’s father and husband who had died because of trafficking on an Australian Red Cross tsunami project. Our two-month search for his grave took us to an island where as many people died because of labour trafficking on tsunami reconstruction projects as died in the tsunami itself.
NMAF: At the 2016 National Magazine Awards gala, you accepted your award for “The Cage” on stage with a passionate call for critical Canadian attention to humanitarian relief and reconstruction projects, and the gaps in the system that enable corruption and trafficking. Can you talk a bit about your vision for a better system of oversight and implementation of these projects?
Virgil Grandfield: I was so utterly shocked and grateful to win the award at the NMA gala. I had originally written “The Cage” as a chapter for my book, so, I felt it was a fragment at best. Other stories in my category were more complete, I thought, and more polished, and by excellent and well-known journalists. But, I also figured that in the very remote case I did win, I had better be ready to speak. I told myself: “You carry a lot of responsibility, Virgil. You have fought for a long time to uncover and get the truth out. And you might have only this one chance to say some important things.”
In my speech, I thanked Eva and other people like her who have over the years risked their lives with me to investigate this story for little or no reward. I acknowledged the pain the family members of the victims had to endure in opening old wounds to tell me their stories. I spoke of the trust those families put in me, and through me, the trust they were putting in Canadians to finally make things right.
I also reminded my colleagues at the NMA gala that Aceh was not the first tragic misadventure the Red Cross has had in outsourcing its humanitarian responsibilities. Thousands of Canadians lives were ruined or lost because of the HIV or Hepatitis they contracted from the tainted blood bought by the Red Cross from American prisons in the 1980s. Not only did the Canadian Red Cross deny that problem and refuse to take responsibility for its victims in the Tainted Blood Scandal. It also refused to clean house after it was censured by the Krever Report.
NMAF: What do you think Canadians should expect of the money and goodwill that they and their government contribute overseas?
Virgil Grandfield: At certain times, even our most noble institutions fail.. Yes, there is something very broken in the world now, and that was and is the deeper problem. Neo-liberal organizations like the WTO and World Bank have been forcing the poorest countries to do away with protections for their most vulnerable workers. So they share responsibility for what happened in Aceh.
But the labour trafficking scandal in the Aceh reconstruction was also due to a massive failure of humanitarian leadership. The directors of the Red Cross, for example, deliberately chose—against all of our stated principles—to use a deeply-flawed and inhumane outsourcing system, instead of working with local people to rebuild. And they chose to continue to do so, even when they became aware of the trafficking. The agencies had too much money, their boards were in too much of a hurry, and their managers acted in ways that were ambitious, heartless or blind.
The great danger for humanitarian organizations—especially the large, well-funded ones—is that they work in places where institutional corruption and failures of leadership can have immense and deadly consequences. Even at the field level, professional aid workers can also let themselves become divided from their own compassion and humanitarian principles and responsibilities. They focus on careers and promotions and perks, and because there is no job security in humanitarian work, they don’t rock the boat. They turn the other way, or compromise with corruption, or cover things up.
I reported what I had found to management in Aceh and Ottawa. They warned me to drop the issue. One told me that I was “too close to the people,” and said I had a choice: “You can either be with us, or you can be on the side of the workers.”
And meanwhile, the media give them a free pass, as if they are somehow better than normal, flawed humans. Reporters never ask hard questions, don’t investigate, and when told the truth, like most Canadians, they don’t want to believe. But the stakes are so high and the dangers and consequences of failure so prevalent and drastic, especially for vulnerable people like Otong and countless others.
That is why the press must be far, far more curious, independent and critical. You must seek out the powerless, the voiceless workers and others in our projects, and ask them for the truth. You will only help prevent more human-made disasters and save more lives.
As for oversight and implementation, the so-called “Aceh Model” of privatizing humanitarian work has been touted as a huge success to be emulated in other disaster zones. That is an outrageous and inestimably dangerous lie that must be refuted at every level and opportunity. Everyone living in Aceh saw the disaster we caused there by outsourcing our projects; we caused far more harm and pain than would have been if we had never gone there. Only smaller, community-minded organizations refused to take the easy, outsourcing path, and only they avoided the trafficking disaster.
Unfortunately, after disasters, Canadians give the vast majority of their donations to the Red Cross—an organization which at its best only handles first stage relief work. There are other organizations which specialize in actual reconstruction work which is done with communities, and I am certain that some have better leadership than the Red Cross, at least right now. Canadians must demand that the Red Cross clear out anyone involved in the Aceh or the Tainted Blood scandals. Our government must legislate open-book auditing requirements for any agencies receiving public funds, diversify disaster funding to include small organizations through a national umbrella funding agency, and establish a related but fully-independent unit of anti-trafficking investigators and project evaluators, as well as independent ombudspersons for humanitarian sector whistleblowers.
Aid organizations must establish an international convention on standards for payment and living conditions for all workers on humanitarian projects and must ban outsourcing in all relief and reconstruction work. I mean, why use the worst, least-humane business practices for what is supposed to be the noblest of human endeavors–to help others?
And finally, it is my personal hope that we find and compensate at least some of the families of those men and women who died because of our gross negligence in Indonesia. We cannot fix the huge mess we created, but at least we can try to help those most harmed by our mistakes. It is our unfinished business.
NMAF: Can you talk a bit about the process of having Eighteen Bridges publish this story and help it gain a larger audience? And what has been the significance to you of winning the National Magazine Award?
Virgil Grandfield: At the NMA Gala, I also thanked Curtis Gillespie for his faith and support as an editor and mentor, and for his uncommon courage in publishing a story others would be afraid to touch. Without Curtis and his terrific team and the supporters of Eighteen Bridges, you and I would not be doing this interview.
As for the award’s significance, I think it will help me get over a huge wall that has blocked me and my work for years. People have called me a “whistleblower”; there is even a Wikipedia entry to that effect about me. It is something that can be a badge of honour, but in my case, the label is not quite right, not anymore, at least.
A whistleblower is someone who tells the public what he or she learned while on “the inside.” I did discover the tsunami slave trafficking scandal while employed by the Red Cross, but 99 percent of what I know about the story is what I dug up often at extreme effort and cost—only after I resigned.
Before I worked for the Red Cross, I was a journalist. The skills I had learned as a reporter helped me to first sniff out the problem in Aceh, and I have relied on those skills in all my work in the region since. I have done hundreds of interviews and asked thousands of questions. I have done endless research. I have triple-checked every fact and cross-verified every story. I have geo-tagged photos with victims and witnesses, gotten signed affidavits, recorded and transcribed interviews. I have had to treat every case as if it would go before a judge, and so, I have put aside scores of unverifiable stories for every solid one that I am reporting. I have also had to take unbelievable risks to follow stories to their rock bottom.
After the NMA Gala, a couple of the judges in my category came to shake my hand and to commend me for having done all that of that work. Their congratulations, and the award from the NMA, and the kind reception I received from my journalist colleagues at the gala were a terrific validation and homecoming. And when I introduce myself to publishers, from now on I can and will do so not as a whistleblower but as an award-winning investigative journalist.
I was thrilled for Virgil winning the National Magazine Award. I don’t think there are many writers who have suffered—literally suffered, physically and spiritually—as much as Virgil did for this story. On a different plane, I was pleased to see him win because it reinforces our overall message to Virgil, which is that he has a unique talent he is meant to pursue. And so when he won I could only say, Bravo, but this is just the beginning! —Curtis Gillepsie, editor-in-chief, Eighteen Bridges magazine
NMAF: When will we be able to read the entire story in your book? Have you been able to complete your journey that you started all those years ago, to finally illuminate the truth about Indonesia’s reconstruction?
Virgil Grandfield: To paraphrase a saying from Texas, where I grew up, “It’s all over but the writin’.”
On the very last day of my search in Indonesian in 2015, by a series of investigative miracles, I found a family I had been searching for half a decade. They told me the heartbreaking tale that will form the first and last chapters of the book.
I am now finishing coursework for a graduate program at the University of Lethbridge, with a research focus in Narrative and Social Justice. After that, I will get right to work full-time on the book. I don’t know if it is possible, but I would like to publish the book in early 2018. That will be the 10-year anniversary of a crucial moment in my life when I had to decide whether or not I was in the Red Cross for the career or to help people. It was also when I had to answer whose side I was going to be on—that of the powerful or that of the powerless.
In the decade since then, I have learned the hard way that I cannot force a resolution. I am too small. What I can do, however, is investigate and try to tell the whole story of what really happened in Aceh. I must do that.
What comes afterwards will be up to the rest of you.
Virgil Grandfield is a National Magazine Award-winning investigative journalist and a former overseas delegate for the Red Cross. He is doing graduate work in social justice and literary non-fiction at the University of Lethbridge and is writing a book about labour trafficking in Indonesia during Red Cross post-tsunami reconstruction work.
Read the original story “The Cage” in Eighteen Bridges from the National Magazine Awards archive.
The opinions and perspectives presented in this interview reflect those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the National Magazine Awards Foundation, its board or staff.
Virgil Grandfield’s National Magazine Award-winning story “The Cage” in Eighteen Bridges magazine was a work of first-person, narrative journalism which does not customarily bear the same requirements as standard news reporting for obtaining official replies from all concerned parties. Nonetheless, Virgil has emphasized that although in November, 2008, the secretariat of the Canadian Red Cross officially terminated all communication with him concerning the tsunami slave trafficking scandal, the organization has been offered multiple opportunities to respond to his findings and those of other journalists. Virgil has also said that he continues to welcome any initiative by Canadian Red Cross to reverse its decision not to communicate with him about the findings of his and others’ investigations.
Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. Recently we caught up with Jennifer Varkonyi, publisher of Maisonneuve, which was named Canada’s Magazine of the Year in 2016, among 5 NMAs it took home last year. A quarterly magazine of arts, literature, ideas and culture, published in English in Montreal, Maisonneuve publishes new and established writers, artists and photojournalists packaged around award-winning design.
NMAF: Congratulations again on winning Magazine of the Year in 2016, the third such honour for Maisonneuve since 2004. In presenting the award, the NMA jury said:
“Maisonneuve fulfills its bold mandate of ‘banishing boring,’ clearly striving to engage, inform and inspire. From its refreshing and imaginative art direction to its passionate editorial voice, the magazine feels like it’s constantly evolving, yet at the same time seems to connect with a sense of familiarity with its readers.”
As a publisher, how do you achieve this winning formula of evolution and continuity? And what was the significance to you and your team of winning the big award?
Jennifer: The answer is simple: the people. Maisonneuve has been blessed with great editors, art directors, writers, artists and interns who give their all to the magazine. We take the editorial process seriously, which means we do everything we can to help writers shape their stories to be the best they can be.
This striving for excellence has been a part of the magazine’s ethos from the very beginning, with founder Derek Webster’s drive to create a magazine that reflected intelligence, humour, and genuine curiosity, and the tradition has been carried forward by Carmine Starnino, Drew Nelles, Haley Cullingham, Daniel Viola and now Andrea Bennett.
Winning Magazine of the Year is significant for Maisonneuve. It reminds us that the hours upon hours of toil the editors dedicate to a fifth draft, or to tweaking display copy or scouring for typos, are noticed by readers and recognized within the magazine community. Being in Montreal can feel a little isolating at times, so coming to Toronto and winning the top honour is gratifying. The win also helps raise the magazine’s profile, especially among contributors, and it draws more people to the magazine.
NMAF: What three words or phrases describe the typical Maisonneuve reader? To what extent do you think about your current (and future) readers when you’re putting together and promoting a magazine issue?
Jennifer: I think here I have to go with the three qualities I used earlier: our readers are intelligent, have a sense of humour, and are curious about Canada and the world around them.
As publisher I consult with the editor-in-chief about upcoming issues, stories and themes, but the work of putting the content together really rests on the shoulders of the editors. Our editors ask themselves how they can best draw the reader into the story – how to begin a feature about, say, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in the North? How do you grab someone’s attention when discussing the politics of creating a national park? What messages do our graphics send, and are words and images working in unison? These are the kind of questions considered around the editorial table.
NMAF: What are the biggest challenges for a (small) magazine publisher in 2017? How do you address them?
Jennifer: The biggest challenges are resources (money) and maintaining circulation. Many people have a lot of love for the magazine, but connecting with that love and growing circulation even to 5,000 is a huge challenge. That’s partly a reflection of a competitive environment: there is so much amazing content out there competing for eyeballs and subscribers.
The Internet has put small Canadian magazines into direct competition with every other magazine in the world. Without our grants from all levels of government, we would not survive. I wish we were not so dependent on these funds, but it is a reality for most small Canadian magazines. Former editor Daniel Viola recently remarked to me that Maisonneuve runs on enthusiasm, and that is exactly right. I wish we could provide more remuneration to everyone who contributes to the magazine. I think every small magazine editor and publisher in Canada feels that way!
NMAF: Maisonneuve has a national perspective, but also very clearly reflects its Quebec and Montreal heritage. In many ways, Maisonneuve could be said to be the voice of Quebec for the rest of English Canada, in literature, art and current events. How has the magazine embraced this role, and why is it important to project Quebec (and Montreal) onto the national stage?
Jennifer: Maisonneuve has always wanted to blur borders – be they real or ideological. The magazine’s identity is rooted in Montreal, but it’s a cosmopolitan identity (which is very Montreal) so the result on the page is wide-ranging and eclectic. There are regular moments, such as in the Writing from Quebec section, where we shine a light on some new writing from the francophone community, but I think the voice of Quebec is more consistently found in the excellent reporting of L’actualité and the refined cultural commentary of Nouveau Projet, for example.
Maisonneuve really is a national magazine in its scope and story selection. There was a Beaverton headline that made me laugh recently – “Montreal declared the ‘I don’t know I’m just trying to figure my shit out’ capital of Canada” – and I certainly fit this bill when I was 19 and moved to Montreal from Saskatoon. The point being: Montreal presents an alternative to the norm, be it “Toronto” or “English” or whatever – you can do things a little differently in Montreal. Maisonneuve embraces this difference, and people appreciate that.
NMAF: Based on Maisonneuve’s success, what advice would you give to small magazine publishers who are concerned they can’t compete against larger magazines on newsstands (real and virtual) or at the National Magazine Awards?
Jennifer: I think the key is to take chances. Take chances on people, on ideas, on an opening, on a story’s length. If an editor’s interest is piqued, chances are readers will be interested too. One thing that small magazines have going for them is that enthusiasm I mentioned earlier, without the punishing production cycle of larger magazines, so editors can take a little more time with a story, push for something slightly better, and the results can be astonishingly rewarding. That doesn’t pay the rent, but this is where a gold medal from the National Magazine Awards makes the sacrifices worthwhile.
National Magazine Award for Magazine of the Year Submissions to the 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards are now open for submissions. The award for Magazine of the Year honours the magazine that most consistently engages, surprises and serves the needs of its readers. This award recognizes outstanding achievement in magazine publishing over the past year.
The jury shall evaluate each candidate for Magazine of the Year according to four general criteria—quality, innovation, impact, and brand awareness—and its success relative to the magazine’s editorial mandate. Each submitter will need to complete an application form providing details supporting each criterion. There will be 5 finalists for this award and one overall winner.
The deadline for submissions for Magazine of the Year is January 27.
(For all other categories, the deadline is January 20).
Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. Recently we spoke with Adrian Forrow, who won his very first National Magazine Award in 2016, winning the Gold Medal in Illustration for his series of illustrations featured alongside the article “My Prescribed Life” (The Walrus). The story is a memoir about the longstanding link between mental health and prescription dependency, and it also received an Honourable Mention for Best Health & Medicine article.
NMAF:As splashes of colour that break up pages otherwise saturated by text, magazine illustrations give the reader a welcomed break, a moment’s pause before they jump back into reading. What do you think the role of an illustration is for people reading magazine articles?
Adrian: The role of editorial Illustration should be additive. It should help set the mood of the forthcoming text. The image can help evoke visual interest and transport the reader to a place where ideas and understanding intersect.
NMAF:What details do you need before you can properly begin your creative, designing process? Are there certain elements or information that your client or partner needs to relay, in order for you to develop your concept?
Adrian: What I find that works best for me is to receive the brief and the text and really absorb the core idea before putting pen to paper. Once I feel I have a grasp of the idea, I might discuss the tone of the imagery that I feel is best for the article. This is where collaboration can happen with the art director and it’s a great way to help inform your imagery. I try not to think about the imagery at this stage–just the mood, atmosphere and tone of the picture.
The other detail that is critical for my process is the dimensions of the image. It’s really important for me to consider the whole compositional area. The dimension can ignite my conceptual approach and really make the art feel customized to the space available.
NMAF:You won Gold in Illustration at last year’s National Magazine Awards for your pieces featured in a memoir called “My Prescribed Life.” The story, published in The Walrus, discussed the link between the author’s mental illness and related dependence on medication. How did the subject matter of the memoir influence your creative conceptualization for the piece? How did you decide what tone would be most appropriate?
Adrian:This was a great article and so interesting. It was a delicate and somewhat saddening topic. I knew the colours were going to be really important. I didn’t want to do what was expected. I knew I had to take an approach that might have to be more ambiguous and surreal.
I didn’t want to use this illustration to summarize or define the problem. Instead my intent was to ask a question or pose a contemplative composition so the viewer would be left to decipher the visual symbols that I included.
The colours were mostly primary and that helped carry the idea of youth and aging. The colours also helped to create a surreal or even jarring feeling in relation to the content. The goal was for the colours and composition to carry ideas about an altered state of reality.
NMAF:Your Gold win last year was also your first time being recognized by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. How does winning awards for your illustration work help you, on both a personal and professional level?
Adrian:It feels great to know that my work is being received and appreciated within the industry. Personally, it helps to motivate me to keep developing my skills as a visual communicator. Professionally, it helps to open doors and possibilities for new and exciting opportunities.
NMAF:Your work has adorned coffee cups, been part of the creative for major music festivals and has been made larger-than-life by outdoor mural installations. Your work has also appeared in magazines, including The New Yorker, Corporate Knights and The Walrus. As an illustrator, what types of creative collaborations do you like to pursue? Do you try to not limit yourself to any one medium?
Adrian:I feel that in many ways I am just getting started. I have so many ideas and desires to push what I can do. The best thing about my profession is the variety it offers. One day I’m drawing a coffee cup, the next day I’m painting a huge outdoor mural. Variety is the spice of life, so I try to be diverse in the projects I take on.
I also love the collaborative process and making things that fulfill a need or desire. I have always experimented with different approaches and tools for making images. I think it helps my clients see different possibilities and vary their experiences with illustration.
As of now, I have been collaborating with Warby Parker for a new store mural which I am really excited to share with people. I have also been collaborating with Keilhauer to make some artful promotional products.
Adrian Forrow is a National Magazine Award-winning illustrator whose work has been published in The Walrus, Corporate Knights, Canadian Running & Cycling Magazine and The New Yorker. His debut National Magazine Award was the Gold Medal in Best Illustration, for his series of illustrations featured in The Walrus memoir, “My Prescribed Life“.
Submissions to the 40th Anniversary National Magazine Awards The 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards are open for submissions until January 20, including awards for Illustration and for Best New Magazine Illustrator.
Enter at magazine-awards.com.
In alternate years, the NMAF presents distinct awards for Best New Magazine Illustrator and Best New Magazine Photographer. For this year’s 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards, the Best New Visual Creator award will go to an illustrator whose early work in magazines shows the highest degree of craft and promise.
Read more about the Best New Creators Awards here.
Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. Recently we caught up with photojournalist Marta Iwanek, who in 2016 was named Canada’s Best New Magazine Photographer from the National Magazine Awards Foundation, in addition to winning the Gold Medal for Photojournalism & Photo Essay for her incredible reporting of the 2013-2014 Ukrainian crisis, titled “The Maidan” (Maisonneuve).
NMAF: In your award-winning photo essay, “The Maidan,” you take the reader on a journey to a winter in Kyiv, where thousands of Ukrainians gathered to take a courageous stand against their government. You capture the Maidan as a place of fear and uncertainty, but also of community and solidarity. How did you get a sense of the place when you arrived, and what were the human emotions that spoke to you as a photographer?
Marta: I first arrived in Kyiv in early November (2013) before any of the protests had started. I remember driving through the centre of the city and thinking what a bustling metropolis it was. Then I went out east to work on a film and returned in late November a little after the pro-European protests had begun. Everything was still calm at that point and there was a sense of hopefulness among the crowd.
The protest was to last nine days, but on the last night everything changed. The remaining protestors were chased out of Independence Square (Maidan) and beaten by police, angering many people. On December 1 a large demonstration occurred in Kyiv where the people re-took the square and the movement that became known as “the Maidan” began. I was supposed to fly back to Toronto shortly after, but realized I couldn’t leave.
The feeling was so powerful and strong among the people. It felt like people had been pushed to an edge and they had nothing more to lose. There were feelings of frustration, abandonment and urgency. At the same time, you could still find the glimpses of hope and community as people unified under one cause–to oust then President Yanukovych. I was always trying to show those emotions in my photos and trying to understand the situation deeper, trying to figure out what made it this way? I changed my flight and ended up staying three months, living among the protestors and spending my days and nights wandering the square, talking to people and trying to make sense of it.
I like to immerse myself in stories as much as possible and I hope this translates in my photos. It was also a story I felt personally connected to because my roots are Ukrainian and I grew up in the Ukrainian diaspora in Toronto. I grew up listening to the stories of Ukraine’s constant struggle for independence and to be free of corruption, so the feelings of the people in the square were not foreign to me. However, this time, it wasn’t just my parents talking about it in Canada, detached from the situation and it’s consequences. It was happening in front of me. When it was finally time to leave, I will always remember that contrast I felt when I first arrived in the capital and when I left–the place, the people and the country had been changed forever.
During my years as the art director of Maisonneuve magazine, I had the opportunity to work with many talented women photographers—each one a unique visual voice. Marta Iwanek stands out for the way she brings her compassion to a body of work that sits on the edge of war and peace, among fire and smoke, between life and death situations, especially with her Ukrainian “Maidan” project.
—Anna Minzhulina, former art director, Maisonneuve
NMAF: Over one hundred people were killed in the government reprisals, and you spent time not only on the front lines but also with those who were wounded and grieving. How did you balance your own safety with your passion for capturing every aspect of the story? And did you learn anything about yourself as a journalist that will assist you in the future?
Marta: There were certain days that felt very unsafe on the square, but the majority of my time spent there, things were peaceful. There would be flare-ups between police and protestors and then things would resume back to “normal.” I looked to other, more experienced photojournalists in the square for guidance and advice. I had only been freelancing for three months at that point, fresh out of college and had found myself in the middle of the news cauldron that was Kyiv.
There were many times that I was scared. Even today I think I still would be. The most important thing I learned in those kinds of situations is to trust your gut. There were certain situations I decided to be close-up and others I held back from. Sometimes, I beat myself up for not being in the right place or holding back too much, but you have to be honest with yourself and with what you’re willing to do. It took quite a while to reconcile these feelings, but the experience taught me that I’m not a conflict photographer.
Many photojournalists starting out often have a dream of covering foreign stories and conflicts. I didn’t go to Ukraine searching out a conflict to photograph, I just happened to be there when it all started. And a part of me left feeling like I had failed as a journalist because I hadn’t gotten the most heated moments, and I was actually back in Canada on the day that over a hundred protestors were shot. For me, it was more emotionally heavy to be away from the square during that time than when I was in it. Not knowing about the fate of many friends who were there, as well as feeling the guilt of not being there, took a toll.
We’re taught to want to be this travelling, conflict photographer, but that’s not who all of us are. The whole time on the square, I found myself being much more drawn and interested in the quieter moments and it took me a while to realize those moments are just as important too.
We are all unique and we will all notice different things in similar situations and we will be better at photographing in certain situations over others. Journalism is a communal effort and we need to be honest with ourselves, find out the type of stories you’re best at and are drawn to. Then don’t be afraid to do it.
NMAF: That was over three years ago, and since then Ukraine has experienced war and occupation perhaps beyond the worst fears of those who gathered on the Maidan. How has this story stayed with you since then?
Marta: My time on the Maidan has been one of the factors that keeps driving me to keep coming back to this region and exploring the underlying issues more deeply, looking at why things are the way they are now, what’s caused them and what keeps causing them?
It’s also something I’ve always wanted to do because my background is Ukrainian. I’ve always been drawn to Ukraine and Eastern Europe because I’ve grown up with my cultural heritage being so central in my life, from participating in folk activities, being involved in the diaspora community to regular dinner table conversations about Eastern European politics. I actually started primary school barely speaking English because at home we just spoke Ukrainian. It has a huge place in my heart. I’ve started looking at my own family’s history in the area, connecting with relatives and following the story of Ukrainians in Poland who were deported from the South-Eastern territories in 1947 under military Operation Vistula. Deportations are a huge part of Eastern Europe’s history and play a huge factor in why things are the way they are today.
There has definitely been media fatigue with Ukraine as the conflict reaches yet another year. It’s why I think it’s more important than ever to stay with the story and understand what is happening there, to put the past and the future in greater context for the average viewer.
NMAF: For the camera nerds, what bodies and lenses do you shoot with? And what was your technical approach to the photography on the Maidan?
Marta: Back then, during those three months on the Maidan, I was using a D600 and a 35mm f/2 and a 24-70mm. This is still my favourite set-up although now I have a D810 with a 35mm f/1.4. My technical approach is to go as light on gear as possible, zoom with your feet and build intimacy with the people you are photographing. This will create a much better photo than any lens or camera body can.
NMAF: You worked with Anna Minzhulina, then the art director of Maisonneuve, who said she was stunned by the evocative scenes and characters that jumped out from your images. Can you describe the creative process of how the two of you edited your body of work into a story that connected with the magazine reader?
Marta: Anna is an extremely talented and passionate editor and I am so grateful for her eye. Editing is an art of its own and a skill many photographers often lack, myself included. It was also a story I had immersed myself in, so it can be very hard to be objective about the photos when editing, which is where Anna came in.
So often, I would attach a personal memory or story to a photo and Anna was able to single out the photos that could still speak to a viewer who was encountering them without all the backstory. She chose the photos that could speak on their own and spoke together cohesively to tell the story of the square.
It was also exciting to be able to tell a story in a magazine over so much space. The majority of my time I’ve spent working in newspapers where it’s usually one image to tell a story, but here it was a different process of how the photos work together to form a narrative.
Women photographers are still an anomaly in the male-dominated documentary photo world, with its emphasis on traditionally masculine values like the courage and bravery to ‘shoot’ with a camera. We need to encourage more female visual voices like Iwanek’s here in Canada and around the world. Death does not distinguish between genders. It takes all. But I’m interested in how the female eye looking through a photographic lens might see it differently. It’s important that we have different perspectives, that we pay attention to what they might show us that we haven’t considered before. That’s why we need exposure to more work of female war photographers, such as Iwanek.
—Anna Minzhulina, former art director, Maisonneuve
NMAF: The night of the 2016 National Magazine Awards, you didn’t have a ticket to get in, but as the show started you were hanging out in the foyer in case your name was called. And it was—twice! What was that experience like? And when you were on stage accepting your awards, what was your message to the audience?
Marta: I was generously given a seat at the sponsor table and so in the end I was able to attend the awards. I had a small cheer crew at the table and we had a lot of fun. I hadn’t prepared a speech, but I just went up there and spoke from my heart. I thanked everyone who helped me and it was great to see Anna in the audience as I spoke. I was also thankful that the recognition of the award would bring more attention to the story, which had greatly fallen off the news cycle. It’s a story close to me and so I’m grateful for any opportunity to talk about it.
NMAF: Can you tell us about some of your latest projects, and what you’re up to next as a journalist?
Marta: A project titled “Darling” was actually one of my first projects and still one close to my heart. It is a story about an elderly couple in Trenton, Ontario, where Lex Duncan is the at-home-caregiver for his wife Mary Duncan, who has dementia. I started it as a way to reconnect with a generation I felt I didn’t get a good chance to know after my last grandparent died.
It was a project to deal with the loss and also understanding what my parents, as well as countless others in our country are facing as they care for an ailing loved one. I am so grateful to the Duncan family who opened up their home to me and gave me a chance to get to know them and tell this story.
This year I started photographing in the villages my grandparents came from. They were once Ukrainian villages but after WWII became part of Poland and the majority of the Ukrainians who lived there were deported and dispersed either to Soviet Ukraine or throughout Poland, my grandparents included.
I’ve always been curious about my roots and grew up with a father who has worked as a historian, making films and writing books on eastern European history. So after the Maidan I became interested in exploring Eastern Europe on a deeper level and understanding events in the past that have an effect on the present. Through this project I want to explore how identity changes when a culture is displaced from its ancestral land. It’s been a very personal project, but I’ve also found it to be incredibly universal through the many forced migrations happening throughout the world today.
Marta Iwanek is a National Magazine Award-winning photojournalist whose work has appeared in Maisonneuve, Maclean’s, the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and other publications. In 2016 she was named Canada’s Best New Magazine Photographer by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. Discover more of her work at martaiwanek.com.
The 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards are open for submissions until January 20, including three different categories for photography. Enter at magazine-awards.com.
Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. Recently we caught up with Richard Kelly Kemick, who was nominated for 2 National Magazine Awards in 2016–winning the Gold Medal in One of a Kind for his story “Playing God” (The Walrus), a reflection on his singular obsession with building Christmas villages. The story also won him a nomination for Canada’s Best New Magazine Writer.
NMAF: “Playing God,” your story thatwon Gold in the One of a Kind category at last year’s NMAs, was developed at the Banff Centre for Literary Journalism. Can you describe your experience there, and how this somewhat unconventional idea was developed into an award-winning magazine story.
Richard: During my month at the Banff Centre––as every tagline on their website attests––I worked alongside some of the best editors and writers in the business (Ian Brown, Victor Dwyer, Charlotte Gill, to say nothing of the exceptional participants I was writing alongside). What I wasn’t expecting, however, was how affirming it would be for me as a writer.
As I’m sure we all do, I wrestle a lot with insecurity and mediocrity. Banff’s LJ program placed me an environment where I had a month to only write, read, and sit in Michael Lista’s room to watch The Bachelor (he forced us to watch, like, every episode with him). It was an environment which told me––day after day for a month––that as long as I’m writing, I am a writer.
Anytime I get an opportunity to work with an editor, it’s an absolute privilege. The “Playing God” piece was edited, edited, kicked around, and edited again. And while I came to develop a profound hate for the Track Changes bubbles on a word document, my editor, Victor, took the piece from the ramblings of a limp-wristed despot into something with form, narrative, and an actual arc.
NMAF: More recently, your debut collection of poetry, Caribou Run was included in this year’s CBC must-read poetry list. How is recognition — from the NMAF and other organizations — significant to you and your work?
Richard: The CBC list was bizarre. I had no warning; I received an email from my publisher with the link and a note saying “this better translate into book sales” (just kidding, they’re incredibly supportive). It was a very rewarding surprise, just like the NMA.
These types of recognition are indeed significant. So much of what we do as writers is sit at a desk and clack away in an isolation the rest of the world would refer to as cruel and unusual punishment. (If you’re lucky, you’ll have a dog to aid you through this.) Any recognition that someone has actually read your work and––god forbid––actually enjoyed it is inexpressibly quenching.
On the other hand, however, I don’t want to think that recognition objectively signifies quality. There were poetry collections which were far stronger than mine but not included on the CBC list. Same goes for the NMA. A writer once told me that saying you “deserved” to win an award is like saying you “deserved” to win the lottery because you played the numbers well. (That writer was Michael Lista and it was on a commercial break of The Bachelor.)
Rewards are fantastic; anybody who says otherwise is either lying or Buddha. But it’s boom/bust. I was on the boom for a bit. Now is the bust. And I’m finding it hard not to become petty, jealous, and focused on recognition instead of the writing. But I’m trying to work against that, work through it. Because I think there is a name for writers, and the writing they produce, who are like that: fucked.
NMAF: Robert Moore, English professor at the University of New Brunswick, recently wrote apiecefor The Walrus questioning the future of poetry as an art form. In Adam Kirsch’sreviewof The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner, he claims poetry is “the site and source of disappointed hope.” He adds acclaimed poet Marianne Moore’s famous line “I, too, dislike it,” in reference to the craft. You’ve just published your first collection. What inspires you to write poetry?
Richard: As a poet, the perpetual death of poetry is my favourite topic. Yes, poetry now panhandles in the literary ghetto––neighbouring junk mail and the academic essay. Yes, poems gather more dust than acclaim. Yes, when I write “Poet” on credit card applications I all but assure rejection.
I think, however, that this apocalyptic setting is what enables Canadian poetry to be so exciting right now. We have an environment which produces writing, not writers. The pinnacle of this is when writers have brilliant collections (Michael Prior’s Model Disciple, anyone?) without floating off into the ether of poisonous pomp. Because the stakes are hedged, there is a democratizing force in contemporary Canadian poetry, a force which I’m not sure exists in any other commercial genre, a force in which free-verse upstarts and seasoned sonneteers are working within the same circles. Yes, there are politics within the CanPoetry community––just like anywhere. But at least we have the decency to wage our wars in divisive Facebook threads, rather than at the Giller’s or, for example, in a wildly offensive open letter.
I started writing poetry (and still do) because I wanted to be a better writer. Poetry––for my money––is the genre that best develops your craft. The attention to language is merciless, and if you can make fourteen lines of ten syllables each tell a story, think of what you can do with some elbow room!
NMAF: Much of your work centres around animals. How does your love for animals influence your writing, and what inspired the theme of caribou migration in your latest collection?
Richard: I write about animals because I’m unable to convey actual human emotion. Animals provide a healthy alternative. Like, if you’ve got a character that is unlovable but you want to make him lovable but you don’t know how–give him a dog. Then name that dog Maisy. Then let Maisy fool a woman, preferably a public school teacher because of the job security, into a long-term relationship. Then feel safe and loved and statistically unlikely to now die alone as you work on your poems all day, drinking coffee from small cups as your wife toils in a grade one classroom, with Maisy curled at your feet.
The caribou idea was just that I thought the migration was pretty rad and already had poetic elements within it. Four years later (which is about a third of a male caribou’s life), a book! Aim for the stars, kids.
NMAF: Your writing ranges from fiction to nonfiction, poetry to prose — do you have a favourite form? And, if you can tell us, what can we expect to see from you next?
Richard: I don’t have a favourite form. I consider forms like my children: they all disappoint me for different reasons.
I’ve currently got a collection of non-fiction essays (one of which is the piece that won the NMA) under consideration. I’ve also got a collection of short stories that was turned down for publication, but I’ve since been working on it and hope to submit again soon.
I’m trying to view rejection as an opportunity for me to make the work better. In five, twenty, or a hundred years (I plan to live forever), I know I won’t mind having been delayed in publishing a collection of short stories, but I will mind if those stories are shitty. I’m not saying that every rejection a publisher makes is sound; but in this individual case, the rejection has given me the clarity to realize that I can make the stories stronger and (after I’d cried myself dry and drank myself wet) I’m trying to do that.
Richard Kelly Kemick is a National Magazine Award-winning writer whose work has been published in The Walrus, The Fiddlehead, Maisonneuve and Tin House. His debut collection of poetry, Caribou Run,(2016, Goose Lane Editions) follows the Porcupine caribou herd through their annual migration, the largest overland migration in the world. Caribou Run was included as a one of CBC’s fifteen must-read poetry collections. Follow him on Twitter @RichardKemick.
Special thanks to Krista Robinson for her reporting on this interview with Richard.
At the start of summer, fall, 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 Review—to 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.)
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 TheRusty 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.
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.
Michael Prior’s Model Disciplewas 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 Echolocation. He’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 Ricepaperand 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.