The Trickle-Up Theory

Long after the advent of the personal Web page, local zines and journals keep striving to change the world of writing with print runs of 200 copies

But Artword has inspired such passion in its small but devoted readership that when Robertshaw recently announced she would no longer be editing the magazine, readers inundated her with letters asking how they could help to keep the magazine going. Eventually, two readers offered to take over editing--returning to Robertshaw a considerable portion of her total waking hours. In the meanwhile, though, this editor is still hard at work on the current issue, the source of both exhaustion and, according to her, the loss of her short-term memory.

"For each issue I have to read about 500 poems," Robertshaw sighs. "I have a proofreader come in to look over the issues, but otherwise I do it all myself. I don't know how familiar you are with small-press magazines, but they rarely make a profit and they are very difficult to sustain." As far as I can tell, Artword, like most small presses, operates at a slight loss, although the cost of printing 200 issues would seem minimal. Robertshaw refuses to speculate as to the total cost of each issue so she doesn't really know how much money she might be making or losing--and she has never much cared. "They're usually a labor of love," she explains.

Indeed, it was Robertshaw's passion that inspired her to begin the magazine in 1995, working on old desktop-publishing software and then sending the text out to be professionally printed. A poet herself, Robertshaw had found herself dissatisfied with other small-press magazines. "Perhaps I was just not aware of what was out there," she says, "but I felt like a lot of what I read was work by young individuals. Their life experiences were not as broad as [those of] people who have had kids, who have raised families." Robertshaw, who had previously produced arts-themed shows for public radio, decided that she could publish a small-press magazine on her own, "and probably do it better."

Signal to Voys: Audio journal editors and German radio fans Erik Belgum and Brian West
Teddy Maki
Signal to Voys: Audio journal editors and German radio fans Erik Belgum and Brian West

Artword, as a result, has focused on writers who represent a mature perspective. Glancing through the Winter 2000 issue that eludes Robertshaw's frazzled memory, one comes across poems that could only be written by older writers. Robert Lowenstein's "The Marathon," for example, tells of his family of marathoners who have quit jogging over a period of years. "They think I am some kind of nut, but I am just an ancient model running on an almost empty tank," he writes.

"I want most of the classical elements of good writing: precision, clarity, balance, economy of language," says Robertshaw. "But there has to be some sort of epiphany in the poetry I publish." In fact, the word "epiphinal" appears in her writers' guidelines:" Artword is seeking poems that provide readers with an epiphinal encounter with the familiar."

Let us take a look at "Falling Petals," by Robert Cooperman, for an example of this edict in practice. Telling of an elderly woman who mourns the changes in her old neighborhood, Cooperman explores this domestic scene with unusual metaphoric phrases, effectively creating an atmosphere of melancholy without ever becoming maudlin. "Everyone she knows," Cooperman writes, "seems to have lain down in the long grass of the past tense, this church morning."

The 53-year-old Robertshaw explains that she has interests outside of publishing, such as windsurfing and snowboarding, that she has necessarily had to set aside while she edited Artword. But she confesses to some small anxiety about the future of the magazine after she steps down. "The new editors are much younger than I am," Robertshaw says. "They are committed to keeping the magazine the same as it is now, but it will be interesting to see how it changes." (Sparber)

Annihilate This Zine

WILLIAM WALTZ DOESN'T look like the kind of guy who would risk annihilation. At age 38 the poet and editor seems a study in hipster casual--an aura amplified by Waltz's loose resemblance to a young Elvis Costello. Neither does the northeast Minneapolis duplex where Waltz and his wife Brett Astor assemble the seven-year-old biannual poetry journal, Conduit, bear the mark of any past annihilations: The artwork on the walls is vivid yet tasteful, the music kinetic yet subdued, and even the back issues of Atlantic Monthly on the table have been swept up into a neat stack. And still, on the inside cover of every Conduit issue Waltz and Astor produce is the boast "the only magazine that risks annihilation." Thus far, at least, the two have managed to beat the odds, publishing their slim, wise, and fabulously unprofitable magazine while preserving both sanity and solvency.

As the wind in the venetian blinds taps a counterpoint to the free jazz wafting through the apartment, Waltz tips back in his armchair, expounding on the Conduit credo. "The annihilation thing works on several levels. One level is that it's funny. Humor is part of our thing--not slapstick, but an undercurrent of sardonic wit. Our thing is not working within the norm.

"The other level is that poetry's entirely impractical, so anyone who does it is risking a lot. In order to make great art, you have to sacrifice the ego to get into the zeitgeist or Godhead." Waltz grins self-depreciatingly. "Or whatever."

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