When Stephen Osborne founded Geist magazine in Vancouver eight years ago, the last thing he wanted to give the world was another literary quarterly. He had something else in mind, a magazine of good writing for a wide audience. "I wanted a literary environment that was not literary," as he puts it, and the word "quarterly" gave off the wrong odour. So he announced in the first issue that Geist would appear five times a year, not four. Unfortunately, publishing economics being what they are, he never managed actually to produce five issues within a single calendar year. Circumstances made him, against his will, the publisher of ...a quarterly.
Geist now acknowledges that it comes out four times annually, but Osborne refuses to call it a quarterly. And with good reason: it doesn't feel like a quarterly, or any other kind of literary magazine. It has a surprising tone, ironic and intimate at the same time, and it seems to be published out of an eccentric affection for the world. Three qualities set it apart from most magazines in its class. First, it carries photographs of considerable power, chosen for their ability to point out something we might not otherwise notice in urban life. Second, populist references fill its pages; the perfect Geist story would take place in a donut shop. Third (and this is the most exceptional part), the writing seems carefully edited.
Most literary journals show little evidence of editorial attention, and some editors pride themselves on leaving the writers' work alone. Not Osborne. He and Mary Schendlinger, the managing editor, carefully massage the prose--and, Osborne says, the writers like it. The circulation is only 5,000, and the fees modest, but Geist (1014 Homer Street, Vancouver V6B 2W9) achieves a professional flair.
I've been a reader for years, and an admirer of both Osborne's own writing and the photographs he publishes under his delicious alias, Mandelbrot. When I met him the other day during a visit to Vancouver, he turned out to be an unusual hybrid, a product of both early 1970s counterculture and early 1980s computer culture.
A doctor's son, he was born on Baffin Island in 1947, and reared in Edmonton, Kamloops and Vancouver. From 1971 to the late 1980s he ran Pulp Press, a book publishing firm with leftish leanings. For a writer he was an early convert to computers--early, and obsessive. It was 1983: "I just became completely a computer nerd. For a few years I didn't come into the light." He developed pioneer versions of desktop publishing and learned it so well that he began teaching it to other book publishers.
For years he travelled around the country, setting up computer systems in publishing houses. His desktop publishing firm helped keep Geist alive for years and still shares office space with it. But no hint of computer lingo sullies the pages of Geist, and Osborne does what he can to stamp it out where he finds it. Typically, he noted that Brian Fawcett wrote his book, Public Eye, in "the stillborn jargon of the technocrats he professes to contradict."
Having been asked to explain its name, Geist published a lengthy analysis of the word geist (spirit, mind, wit, intellect) as it appeared in German writing back to Hegel and Luther and even earlier. But the real geist of Geist was a writer, D.M. Fraser (1946-1985), a perennial graduate student and legendary saloon conversationalist, whose two books of stories (Class Warfare and The Voice of Emma Sachs) were published by Pulp Press. The magazine didn't start till five years after alcohol and various afflictions had killed Fraser, but he was the mentor to Osborne and others connected with the magazine. His expansive curiosity and anarchic spirit are essential to Geist's mood.
Like all editors, Osborne wants more readers. With the investment of enough money, he believes, Geist's circulation could go to 75,000 or 100,000. Perhaps something like that will happen, but in the meantime those who discover it will continue to enjoy Geist's special qualities. Lately its efforts to be attentive to mundane life have produced, among other things, a fixation on shopping malls. In the current issue they become a major subject. Norbert Ruebsaat turns a piece about eating lunch at a mall into a touching and attractive account of a young man's fascination with female conversation. Stuart Ross's poem, The Shopping Mall, uses Kafka's approach, and a picture by Ron Pollard reflects his exotic specialty, photographing dead and abandoned malls--a kind of retailer's necrophilia.
In the same issue, the letters column has Mary Meigs wittily objecting to Alberto Manguel's use of what she sees as an offensive phrase, "little old lady," and Manguel, unabashed, deftly replying. There's a comic poem by Patrick Lane in which he tries to figure out what people mean when they call him neurotic. Best of all, there's a delightful fantasy by Stephen Smith about a hockey player who chews on a puck to quiet pre-game nerves while reflecting on the suicide ritual an old player in the West performs when his time is over--"he skates out onto the ice of the big bay until he can skate no more, to wait for the final thaw."
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