Monday, March 25, 2013

Giant Steps (On Spook Issue Two)

Last year my friend Ericka Blount sent me a link about a new literary magazine called Spook. Conceived and edited by a young writer named Jason Parham, the journal was my introduction to the latest generation of short story scribes, painters, poets, photographers and others who want to make a little noise on the artistic landscape.

While the new millennium has given us such intriguing print publications such as Bronx Biannual edited by Miles Marshall Lewis, Coon Bizness edited by Greg Tate and Hycide edited by Akintola Hanif, all magazines that I’ve contributed to, there is always room for more voices to “join the conversation.”  

Like Parham, who works for Complex and writes fiction, I too read The New Yorker and The Paris Review, though it often bothers me that “writers (painters, poets, photographers) of color” are barely represented in their pages. et, instead of crying in his coffee, Parham decided to take giant steps like Coltrane and do his own thing. In June of last year, he delivered the first issue of Spook, which featured works by Justin Torres (as edited by fiction editor/novelist Victor LaValle), Hank Willis Thomas and others.

While the first issue served as the wonderful introduction to the Spook aesthetic, the latest issue is, in the words of LL Cool J, “Bigger and deffer.” Indeed, Spook Two features a cool balance of art (paintings, photographs) and text (essays, plays) that culture watchers are bound to find exciting.

A few of the outstanding contributions include the paintings of Kajahl Benes, who also illustrated the cover, brilliant photo collages by Kameelah Janan Rasheed, dope essays by Kai Perry Parker, D. Scot Miller and Rembert Browne. Oh, the Geoff Mak short story “Sacre Coeur” and Lenore Bell’s funny short play “Morning After” and the poem "34 Excuses for Why we Failed at Love" were three of my favorites entries.

In addition, Parham, who I finally had the pleasure of meeting at the Spook panel/art talk session at MoCADA earlier this month, also published my latest autobiographical essay “Why Did You Do It?”  in this bold new magazine. 

1. Let’s begin with the title. Why Spook? 

From the beginning, my hope was to create a space for young writers and artists who, despite being prodigious talents, had been left out of established journals, literary and otherwise. With that in mind, Spook operates as a space for artists who have been “othered.” I wanted to find a title that captured a similar feeling, and one that was also culturally significant.

One day I happened to be skimming through Hokum, the African American humor anthology edited by Paul Beatty (who is one of my favorite writers), and came across the word “spook” in one of the stories. I knew then that that would be the name of the magazine. I vetted the title amongst friends—Storyville and Baldwin were other possibles—but ultimately I kept coming back to Spook.

I’m very aware of the historical weight the word carries—I’m a black man in America, after all—but one of the missions of the magazine is to give new meaning to the word with the essays, fiction, poetry, and art we publish. We’re still new, but I think we’ve been able to do that so far.

2. Talk about what the challenges of publishing a new literary magazine.

I’d say Spook’s biggest challenge is establishing a name for itself in a world already flooded with a multitude of voices. I am constantly asking myself: How do we create something new, relevant, and compelling? And, in print, no less.  It’s no secret, magazines and newspapers are folding left and right, and to create a print magazine in 2012 is a radical idea. I’m very much a traditionalist, though. I am a student of the magazine world, studied journalism and literature in college, interned at Vibe way back when, and have freelanced for a number of publications. 

That said, I wanted Spook readers to have an experience, one that is often lost when reading a story on a computer screen. To me, there is something special when a person sits down to read a magazine or a newspaper or a book—the spine cracked open, fingers smudged with ink, each new page a wonder.  

The other challenge is getting people to believe in your dream—both contributors and readers.  I had this idea for a magazine, sure, but would others be as receptive to it? I called in a lot of favors from friends, sent out hundreds of emails, and, in the end, was fortunate to get four big names on board for the first issue—authors Victor LaValle, Patrice Evans, and Justin Torres, and artist Hank Willis Thomas—which helped immensely when establishing Spook as an important piece of literature.

3. What did you learn from putting together your debut that helped make issue two that much better?

I wouldn’t say that Issue Two is “much better,” our design approach was just different going into it. When I first began work on Spook, I wanted Issue One to be an extension of the long, rich history of literary journals in America. Though the content we published altered vastly, I molded the first issue after journals like The Paris Review, Slake, The New Yorker, Bronx Biannual, Harper’s, etc (to paraphrase rapper YC: words on words on words).

The thinking for Issue Two was the total opposite; I wanted Spook to feel more like a magazine, I wanted there to be a dialogue between the words on the page and the art we featured, fluidity amongst the pages (something I felt was lacking from the debut issue). We also had a larger page count, which allowed us to experiment more with design this time around. But Spook is constantly evolving, and I imagine Issue Three, which will be our first all-fiction edition, will look and feel totally different than the previous two.

4. Talk about the featured artists Kameelah Janan Rasheed and Kajahl Benes; their work is so provocative. Where did you discover their work?

Kajahl Benes, whose artwork is featured on the cover and in the pages of Issue Two, was recommended to me by Hank Willis Thomas, an Issue One contributor. There is a gallery of Kajahl’s work within the magazine and our intention, with the pieces we decided on, was to create a trans-historical narrative where the boundaries were less defined and the subjects stand out of time. What I admire most about his work, aside from the sheer beauty of it, is how he has created his own mythology with each new painting. I’ll be forever indebted to Hank for suggesting Kajahl, if for no other reason than exposing me to a brilliant artist.

My introduction to Kameelah Janan Rasheed was through the wonders of Tumblr. I came across her work one night while scrolling through the site, and emailed her instantly (the same happened with artist Stephanie Matthews, who designed Spook’s logo and the cover of Issue One). I’m huge fan of collage, and when I saw her “No Instructions for Assembly” series, I knew she had to be a part of Spook. Artists often tend to romanticize the past, nostalgia is tricky like that, but Kameelah has this knack for finding the beauty in spite of the ugly details. She’s an archivist first, and an artist second—which informs the essence of her work greatly.

5. As a writer, I enjoyed Spook’s balance of different kinds of texts: essays, poetry, fiction and even a complete short play. Talk a little bit about that.

I like to think of Spook as a collage—an amalgamation of provocative storytelling, whether through a first person narrative or a play, and compelling art. I’ve been lucky with both issues in that the pieces submitted ranged greatly in genre, and going forward I hope to experiment even more. Issue Three, which will be entirely fiction, will be more intimate than the previous two, but, with a bit of work, we will provide some sort of balance content wise.

I also put a lot of faith in the writers and artists who contribute to the magazine. It can be a poem, a photo, or a 4,000 short story, but I trust each contributor to submit a piece that has a strong, distinct voice. I think the balance has more to do with my selection of writers and artists than me trying to include a specific type of essay or short story or poem. Luckily, for both myself and the reader, it’s worked out each time.

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