Posted by Mary Auld, GD Creative Nonfiction Editor for 3.2
I’m discovering that it’s important to understand the world of literary journals in order to work on one. This world seems infinite and overwhelming, featuring variations in look, medium, funding, affiliation, and theme. Each magazine makes its own attempt at carving out a space for itself in the overall scene. The Common, published at Amherst College, stands out as a journal with a well defined orientation within the realm of literary journals.
The central distinction of The Common is its content focus. The mission statement announces that the journal publishes, “stories, essays, poems, and dispatches that embody a strong sense of place: pieces in which the setting is crucial to character, narrative, mood, and language.” Though the journal is loyal to this commitment, the publication isn’t restricted by its focus. Each piece in an issue stands alone, but upon reflection the importance of “place” is easy to identify in each. In reading an issue cover to cover, I sensed a tasteful unity that is certainly the result of the common thread.
The journal is named for the town common, a public gathering space for discussion and interaction. The Common specifies that it aims to nurture a modern sense of place in a world where “the idea of a sense of place has fallen out of fashion.” The Common advocates for place in a world where the power of setting over human experience seems to be growing faint. If we can go to Starbucks almost anywhere, how is setting important or distinctive for our lives? Today, travel is fast, allowing us to go from place to place quickly and easily. Communication technology such as television and video chat make it possible to interact with far away places intimately. Location has become less restricting. The relatable, evocative content of The Common focuses on place as it becomes more dilute in our understanding and experience of the world in which we live. The vivid settings portrayed in The Common create a welcome opportunity for readers and writers to come together to examine place.
It is immediately apparent upon picking up an issue of The Common, that the journal follows its own path. The issues are elegant and fairly hefty. The writing in The Common is generally traditional, but experimentation is not entirely excluded as long as a sense of place is definitively intact. While the focus of the publication is on writing, artwork is included in each issue. Art is solicited, and typically multiple pieces by the same artist are printed in succession creating a gallery within the journal. The galleries are accompanied by a written piece about the work. Most images are black and white photographs, but maps and blueprints have also been published, all depicting some facet of place.
The Common has an impressive website. Each issue is archived there, but the website goes far beyond simply displaying past publications. There is an audio component, which provides recordings of poets reading from their work published in recent issues. There is also a bimonthly podcast, which is a conversation between two contributors about their publications in The Common. The website provides access to a weekly post from a member of the staff, interviews, reviews, and exclusively online images and poetry. A unique feature of the website is the resources that it provides for teachers. The “Teach” section supplies reasons to teach using the journal, sample lesson plans, and offers a free issue to those who incorporate the journal in their classrooms.
The Common has won awards, including the 2014 Art Works Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and has published numerous award-winning pieces. The founding editor, Jennifer Acker, will speak at the 2015 Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on the role that literary journals can play in the classroom.
Each semester the Gandy Dancer production team looks at one journal at length. This semester we reviewed Iron Horse Literary Review, and The Common is under consideration for next semester. Gandy Dancer is similar to The Common in that both are interested in shared spaces. In the case of Gandy Dancer the journal provides a common place for the specific collective of SUNY artists and writers. The Common has a lot to offer a group of budding literary journal editors and can help us in our goal of connecting SUNY readers and writers.