Interview With Canteen Magazine
Author: Mia Lipman
How did you come up with the idea for the magazine? What makes Canteen magazine a unique part of the publishing community?
In 2005, I’d just moved back to the Bay Area after living abroad for a while. While I was away, my friend and former colleague Sean Finney (we were tech reporters together in the late ’90s) started an occasional reading series at Canteen, one of chef Dennis Leary’s restaurants in San Francisco—authors would share short pieces between courses, so Sean dubbed them “intercourse readings.” Another old reporter friend of ours, Stephen Pierson, flew in from New York for one of these literary dinners and asked Sean if he wanted to spin a magazine off the series. Stephen had left reporting to become a very successful online poker player, so he had cash in hand and wanted to spend it on a venture connected to his writing background and passion for creativity. They brought me in because neither of them had worked in publishing before, and I’d switched over to the editorial side of the desk a few years earlier.
Along with Sai Sriskandarajah, a designer friend of Stephen’s, we spent nearly a year developing the concept and first issue of Canteen. We wanted to explore the creative process—how and why writers and other artists do what they do—so originally we thought the magazine would just feature essays along those lines. Then we realized it would be more compelling to include the results of that process as well: stories, poetry, illustrations, photography, and fine art showcased in a beautiful, tactile package.
Canteen holds a special place in the world of lit magazines because we’re as focused on how each issue looks, feels, and smells as we are on the work it contains (printer ink is an aphrodisiac for our staff). The interplay of words and art has always been our cornerstone. And, as our initial pitch to the press put it, Canteen is the only literary magazine founded with gambling money. Well…as far as we know.
How did you begin to gather materials for the first issue of Canteen magazine? How did you go about the process of solicitation and advertising the journal?
We solicited most of the work for our first issue from authors and artists we knew personally or through professional connections—so nearly all the contributors were based in California or New York. We had a small slush pile from a call for submissions sent to friends, but we didn’t take much advantage of it. Canteen’s slush has grown exponentially since then: These days we get a thousand or more pieces to comb through for each issue, with writers and artists submitting from all over the world, and we have a team of reviewers working under our managing editor, Khristina Wenzinger, to roll up the most promising pieces for consideration. We still solicit writing and art, and we’ve run two photography contests and one fiction and poetry contest, with fantastic results. Our most recent photography contest, Naked Judging, was judged transparently: Panelists’ and participants’ comments were posted online, and the entire final round was streamed live. We got extensive feedback from the photography community about this event, and we plan to try similar experiments in the future.
What reader do you hope will happen upon Canteen magazine? What do you hope they’ll find there?
We don’t necessarily have an ideal Canteen reader—anyone who appreciates writing and art is our kind of person. But it helps to enjoy longer-form pieces, rather than bite-size ones, and to have an interest in how creative minds operate. In this voyeuristic age of reality shows and memoirs by twentysomethings, the public wants to know all about the personality of a writer or artist before exploring that artist’s work. So we’re giving Canteen’s audience the chance to peek behind the curtain and see what Oz is thinking.
What do you look for in a publishable piece of writing?
A strong and engaging voice; wry humor, intellectual insight, or both; just the right amount of snark and/or lyricism; and an original concept, or at least a familiar one presented in an original way.
What is the next exciting thing happening at Canteen magazine?
Our ninth issue, coming this summer, has a guest fiction editor: Elliott Holt, whose first novel is coming out in May. We’re very excited to have her fresh perspective on the magazine’s prose. The new issue will also include a portfolio of work from the transparently judged photography contest I mentioned earlier—comments from the panelists and entrants, along with audience reactions. We’re breaking new ground with this level of visibility, and we look forward to an ongoing dialogue with the photography community about how to make contests more honest and worthwhile for everyone involved. To complement Naked Judging, Elliott will contribute a piece about her selection process for fiction: what she liked and disliked (and why), along with thoughts on how to evaluate such a subjective medium.