At work with: Alison Lewis, editor, American Chordata

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The ninth issue of US art/literature mag American Chordata features a refreshed design and stronger cover identity. We spoke to editor Alison Lewis about her working week, her favourite magazines and the magazine’s brighter look.

Tell us about your typical Monday journey to work
It’s pretty dreamy actually; I live and work in Brooklyn, and I bike to work through the park and along some very green streets. I stop at my neighborhood coffee shop on the way and wedge my to-go mug into my bike basket, and have some time to think as I bike.

Describe the state of your desk and what you can see in your office
Well, there are two desks; I work as a literary agent, and that desk is (mostly) organized into piles of contracts and submissions and royalty statements and such, and I look out at other office windows and a little sliver of sky.

The magazine work happens at the desk in my bedroom at my apartment, which is piled with rather high to-read/currently reading piles, and I pin up my favorite recent book reviews and articles and poems on the wall. I find it heartening and sort of focusing to have them in front of me.

Outside that window is the rogue vegetable garden my roommate has grown on the roof of the roti restaurant underneath us, which is heartening to look at too.

Which magazine do you first remember?
I think probably Cricket, but the first magazine that I really loved was Teen Vogue. This was in middle school. I read every word of every issue, including the photo captions, and then I cut out my favorite photos and taped them on my bedroom wall up to the ceiling. I would try to recreate the outfits from the concept shoots out of my closet of Abercrombie and Limited Too, with some strange results.

At the time, Teen Vogue was totally apolitical and full of fluff-pieces about make-up and designers and models, but I was enamoured with what I saw as “the world of fashion”—the glamour and surprise of it. I grew up in Colorado and, as far as I remember, none of my friends read Teen Vogue or dressed in the highly eccentric ways I was dressing. It felt like—and was, honestly—a great gift to have this portal into another world.

Which magazine matters to you the most right now?
I love the Latvian magazine Benji Knewman. They have a particular sensibility that’s both warm and offbeat, and very rooted in the city of Riga. It’s written I think originally in Latvian, which is on the right-hand pages, and translated into English on the left. It feels personal, and not too shiny—you get a sense while reading of the people behind the words on the page. I love their interviews especially.

They’re searching—about history and the legacy of the Soviet Union, and about how one chooses to live a creative or “meaningful” life. I find it very moving, particularly because they’re asking these big questions without taking themselves too seriously.

Can you describe your magazine in three words?
I often use the word quirky, but I think what I mean is just all the weirdness of being a human. It’s that odd, idiosyncratic feeling, like all the little surprises you come across when you’re getting to know someone for real. That’s what we like, in both art and writing. And, along with it, a touch of drama and humor.

Your magazine’s editorial identity is very discrete: the name is slightly obscure, there’s no tag line. How would you sum it up?
Ha, yeah, almost no one knows what the name means. In the classification of living things—kingdom, phylum, class, etc.—‘chordata’ is the phylum that includes everything with a spinal chord. The idea is to evoke the enormous diversity of lived experience.

I also like that it’s a scientific word, that it connotes research. It’s like we’re collecting evidence of thought and emotion at a particular moment in the history of the globe. I want each issue to feel very current. Also eclectic, thoughtful, many-layered, and earnest. And I want it to make you cringe and laugh a few times. But the quality of the writing and the story-telling is crucial—that’s the bottom line.

How has the magazine grown and developed as your role within it has grown too?
I started off editing the fiction, and for the past couple years I’ve been editor of the magazine as a whole. It’s been a total joy; I think we really cohere as a team now, and our editorial vision has sharpened. We’ve started publishing works in translation, and our community is growing—our readership and contributors around the world. I’m quite proud of it all.

The subtle changes to the design have breathed new life into the pages; can you outline what you were seeking to achieve?
We spend so much time staring at these pages as we’re putting the mag together, and we were just getting tired of them. They started to feel dated—the design was almost five years old. So we wanted it to feel hip and new. I am not the expert on hip, but our art director Bobby Doherty is extremely hip, and extremely talented. I trust his aesthetic sense of things absolutely.

We had NoIdeas, who are friends of friends, redesign it for us. It’s a bit more fun and dynamic now—the fonts of the opening pages will change with each issue. I also wanted to give the text more visual weight on the page, so that the writing catches your eye when you’re flipping through, in the same way that the art does.

What’s going to be the highlight of the week for you?
I am nearing the end of the Italian writer Natalia Ginsburg’s short novel ‘Happiness, as Such’, which New Directions has re-issued in a new translation, and it is so funny and sharp about the insides of families, a total joy to read, so I think sitting down to finish that might in fact be the highlight.

What are you doing after this chat?
Hopping on my bike to work. Wish me luck avoiding angry drivers!

americanchordata.org


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