When Brian J. Was A Publishing Mogul

2015 marked the twentieth anniversary of my brief foray into editing and publishing my own magazine. Let me take you a bit down memory lane and tell you the story of the St. Louis Artesian briefly.

When I was in high school, I was one of the founding members of the school literary magazine, Pen and Palette; I eventually worked my way up to the editor position my senior year. In high school, the editor role was mostly concerned with reading the student submissions and manipulating the democratic review process to get my favorite submissions into the magazine.

When I was at the university, I joined the new writers’ group my freshman year, and the group started a little literary magazine, The Scream. My senior year, I was the treasurer for the group, which meant I did what little banking was required to publish the magazine.

So after I graduated from the university with my degree in Writing-Intensive English and Philosophy, I returned to the St. Louis area, its open mic nights, and its coffeehouses, and I decided to go with what I thought I knew: Publishing a magazine.

I enlisted a friend from high school who was into art and design sorts of things and my girlfriend at the time who was a photographer, and we gathered a couple of poems from a couple of our open-mic friends, a drawing from a pen pal (this is pre-Internet, friends) in West Virginia, and an interview I conducted with a local open mic host. Basically, the whole thing came together in the Oasis Coffee Shop in Webster Groves which was the closest coffee shop to House Springs, the Jefferson County town where I lived.

I printed the stories out on an old PC and Jim pasted them onto textured backgrounds, and we ran them up to a printer in St. John, and The St. Louis Artesian was born.

Clearly, we had something to learn about camera quality art and printing quality.

Why the Artesian? Because I was trying for the word artisan and I missed, but when I looked up Artesian, I liked the meaning. An artesian well is one that requires no pump, and I’d hope I’d throw a bunch of effort into the magazine and it would take on a life of its own. I could have called it the St. Louis Chain Reaction, but I knew less about nuclear physics then than I did about loving craftsmanship. And, in my sense, in the intervening twenty years, the word “artisan” has gone mainstream.

So we printed 1000 copies and dropped them off at local coffee shops and whatnot. And started work on the second issue.

The magazine includes more poems from friends and two short stories: one from the new Assistant Editor and one from someone I did not know. I don’t remember how I got it: Did it come to the post office box I’d rented for submissions and business correspondence (at the Webster Groves post office, natch, since I didn’t want a Jefferson County address for a real business–contrast that with my current business, whose mailing address is on a numbered farm road and I don’t care who knows it), or did someone hand it to me personally? Probably the latter.

I was working at Artmart that spring, and I walked into the store office for something and the son of the store’s owner glibly said they were talking about including an ad in the magazine. So I held him to it, and he reluctantly shelled out a couple of bucks for a coupon in the magazine. He later said seven were used, which was a better engagement than he got from real magazines.

It was the only ad in the magazine, because selling ads was not my strongest suit. I have a hard enough time selling something I believed was a good product; advertising in a small magazine with an unaudited circulation and unknown reach? Forget it.

Undaunted, though, we went into the next issue. The Artesian started out as six times a year, which meant that the lead time was not very long.

With the third issue, we were starting to get some decent submissions. This issue included a pretty good poem by someone we didn’t know amid the Editor’s column, the Assistant Editor’s column, and an essay on how to do open mic nights by the editor. The magazine also teased a comic coming next issue. We sold like two ads for the thing, and by “we,” I mean Jim, the art editor, did.

Through the first three issues, we, and by “we,” I mean Jim, the art editor, were laying these things out by hand. We’d spend hours at Kinko’s with rulers and rubber cement, and he would reduce the art work or text blocks and paste them up for delivery to the printer. It wasn’t like a real magazine, where you have a hard deadline to get it to the printer’s to get it mailed and whatnot. We finished it up and took it to St. John.

Now, at the time, I was bouncing amid $6 hour and then $6.25 an hour jobs because when you get a degree in English, you can do anything (just not for very much money). So I was spending three hundred or four hundred dollars an issue on printing, a hundred bucks annually for the PO Box, and some walking around money at Kinko’s for the layout. It wasn’t an expensive endeavor, but it wasn’t cheap to someone working two jobs to pay student loans, either.

Alas, if only I could sell ads.

Volume I, Issue 4 represented a change.

For starters, Jim quit. He brought me the complete comic strip we’d teased in the previous issue, and the end featured alien masturbation. He watched me carefully as I read it, and when I simply said, “No,” at the end, he said he knew I’d reject it, and he quit. He and I had different visions for the magazine: I wanted a literary magazine akin to Harper’s or the Atlantic, and he was more for a dark Goth ‘zine (gentle child, in the early 1990s, before Web sites and blogs, kids put together their own little magazines and photocopied them to hand out to their friends). Although it was not much more than a zine, I had higher hopes for the magazine. So Jim left.

Which left me in charge of putting the thing together. So I did. I went out and got a copy of Microsoft Publisher that ran on Windows 3.11 and a scanner, and the first desktop publishing version of the St. Louis Artesian emerged.

As with previous issues, this one contained some pretty good poetry by people I did not know! Jerry, the assistant editor since issue 2, contributed a song in sheet music. I reviewed a couple of chapbooks by local poets and a couple of art exhibits at local galleries.

It was the first issue without Jim’s textured backgrounds, so I think it looks a little cleaner. Less like a zine, actually.

Funny story: I saw advertisements at the local coffee houses for another literary magazine in St. Louis called The Salamander. Sometime in 1996 or 1997, I ran into Jim at, what, Mangia Italiana down on Grand Street for a poetry event or something, and he revealed that he was the editor of The Salamander and he understood better where I was coming from because his art editor quit over a dispute in vision for the magazine, and he came to understand the point of view of the person paying for the magazine having the last word.

At any rate, I sold an ad to Evan at Sacred Grounds all by myself for the ad. Ah, Sacred Grounds. Which had a poetry open mic night that didn’t even have a mic. It was five or six people sitting in a room reciting poems to each other. Some participants often clamored for stories from the leader of the open mic night, and he would tell about interesting incidents in his life. Of course, Sacred Grounds has been gone a long time and its building undoubtedly turned over for the shopping centers on Hanley.

At any rate, with this issue, we went to a quarterly publication schedule, which meant the next issue would be the Winter 1995 issue.

The girl I was seeing was a pretty good photographer. The cover is a photo of the Gesu Church on the Marquette University campus. Inside, we’ve got two short stories and a number of poems that were over-the-transom submissions. Whoa. I also reviewed an art exhibition at Laumeier Sculpture Park. And, apparently, I sold some ads: The Way-Out Club has an ad, but I’d been to Bob and Sherrie’s open mic nights before they opened their own place, and there’s an ad on the back cover for the High Ridge Optimist Club Christmas tree lot. That I sold to my own mother, taking money away from scholarship funds for Jefferson County youth. Looking back, I’m going to convince myself to feel guilty.

The magazine also contained an ad for the Chicago-based Artisan Journal who apparently started out with a slightly better understanding of the English language than I did. The editor ran an ad for the Artesian and I ran one for her. I think that’s pretty standard for literary journals, like university magazines. But I was caught between wanting to be a commercial magazine and…. Well, no, I wasn’t really shooting for the hi-flying literary magazines. Artisan Journal was printed on letter stock, not newsprint like early issues of the Artesian, and it lasted for a number of years longer than my magazine.

But this issue wasn’t the last. There was 1996 breaking.

Back in the Winter 1995 issue, I started promoting “Reader Response,” encouraging readers to write in with their thoughts on things they read. The only response we got was from my friend Glenn in Wisconsin, who wrote to to dispute some premise of my Editor’s Column and to inform readers that I could not reason my way out of a wet paper bag. The magazine also includes an assistant editor’s column, so we were hard up for copy. But it includes a number of poems by people I didn’t know and original art work.

It also doesn’t include a single ad except for the ad swapped with the Artisan Journal.

It proved to be the last issue. 1996 was a busy year. In March, I got a full-time job that was career-track. That is, I became a printer. In early summer, I broke up with that photographer, and it meant it was just me from the original staff. I spent my time in coffee houses yet, but I also did some different things, like taking a class in fencing that summer and studying martial arts for a couple months. Every once in a while, something would come into the PO Box, which I sent back if it had a SASE. The whole thing never really got off the ground; all my experience in starting magazines had been on the editorial side, and I didn’t have the resources really to sustain it long term. Plus, I probably got bored or discouraged.

In a slightly related story, the only application I made for grad school came as a result of the magazine. I reached out and sent letters to the writing departments of the Saint Louis colleges to try to encourage their students to submit, but Washington University responded with a form letter and an application for the writing program there. So I filled out the application, took the GRE, contacted old professors for recommendation letters (although I’m not sure how that turned out–I was a bit of a card in college, especially my writing classes, and I don’t think a professor who had me would actually recommend me), and included a writing sample including a novel (the unpublished Marquette Minus One), a full evening play (The Courtship of Barbara Holt), and a long poem called “Homecoming ’93: A Collage” which includes the lines:

“So what are you doing after you graduate?”
The vertigo question of many late nights
is fielded with a practiced hand.
“Grad school, maybe,” I offer.
I threaten to master the fine arts
and as the words are spoken, the idea,
the project becomes their own.
“Let’s call John,” they say,
brother of a chancellor of a local university,
a United States Senator,
“and get a, what do you call it,
writing fellowship.”

That university, of course, is Washington University.

How would I have been different if they’d offered me a spot and I’d taken it? I could have been the next awesome writer who doesn’t sell books so nobody knows his name

I think I’ll stop the post now; I keep wanting to go back and add other little tidbits and thoughts because that was a busy time with lots of crazy things going on, of which the St. Louis Artesian was only a part.

But, ah, my foes, and oh, my friends. It gave a lovely light. And a cool story.

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