Benjamin Moe, Table Talk
The first issue of Table Talk appeared last summer, a Kickstarter-funded experiment by New York student Benjamin Moe. The ambition behind it was compelling, just the type of thing an upstart new literary mag should be attempting. Stories are based around a theme linking otherwise unconnected material, and contributors come from beyond the literary world. Moe imagines them sharing conversation over dinner – hence the name. We look ahead at his week as issue II goes to print.
Where are you today?
In a little coffee shop called Kuro Kuma in Morningside Heights. It’s right by Columbia University, where I go to school, and I like to steal away here to send emails and grab coffee.
What can you see from the window?
Although the neighborhood is getting increasingly gentrified, with its share of newly opened juice bars and farm-to-table restaurants, the view across the street says otherwise. There’s your classic New York deli on the corner, a boarded-up sushi restaurant next door that didn’t quite take off, and a hole-in-the-wall laundromat next to that. It’s freezing cold and the kerbs are covered in heaps of snow.
Are you a morning or evening person?
I feel like many people gravitate towards one or the other naturally, but I’ve never had a favorite. I love that feeling when you get up early and the sun is just rising, and there’s a sort of loneliness and contemplativeness that’s conducive to working. The problem there is that those mornings take early nights, and that’s always difficult. I also like the evening though, and I make it an opportunity to work in places I normally wouldn’t. If I have some important creative work, it’s hard for me to concentrate at a desk, so I’ll put in headphones and ride the subway back and forth writing or doing layout design, or walk into a church and work in one of the pews for a while. There’s something about being away from a space that is meant for work that allows me to be more creative.
What was the first magazine you remember enjoying?
When I was younger I use to look forward to Tuesdays when the New Yorker would get delivered and I could go through all the cartoons. I guess that was the first magazine I remember enjoying. When I started working on Table Talk, I began looking at a lot of independent magazines for inspiration and the first one that really struck me was Watad. It’s a beautiful publication made in the UAE that focuses on design and architecture in the Middle East. I loved reading about emergent and experimental design ideas from a part of the world that is so usually painted all one color by the mainstream media. One of my favorite things about indie magazines is that they can provide a view into niche sub-sections of the world that you didn’t know existed.
What’s your favourite magazine this morning?
Today I’m loving Nautilus which is a quarterly science magazine that connects science to philosophy and culture. It has a wonderful way of presenting science in accessible and interesting ways, adopting a narrative, journalistic tone in its pieces that makes it very enjoyable to read. I love magazines like Nautilus, that take age-old magazine types (i.e. the science magazine), and reinvigorate them.
Table Talk was a lovely surprise when I opened it, but I found it quite opaque at first. Can you describe the idea behind it, and why its called Table Talk?
Table Talk focuses on the hard-to-describe experiences we all have in life. The first issue centered on the idea of duende, the Spanish word for the chills we get when we are moved by a powerful song or performance. Those goosebumps and chills were something I felt since I was a kid but I never knew if anyone else experienced them. There are so many emotions and experiences in life, like duende, that words can’t really capture, and I wanted to create a magazine that would explore these and look at them from different perspectives.
Something that’s central to the magazine is that it gathers contributors from radically different walks of life, showing how these experiences relate to everyone from SCUBA divers to philosophers. We wanted to take the formula of the literary magazine, with its mix of critical essays, poetry, and fiction, and bring in voices from beyond the literary world. This idea of having contributors from totally different perspectives, all discussing the same thing, led us to the name Table Talk. It’s about having an informal discussion, an exchange of ideas, like conversation around the table after dinner (the Spanish have a word for this, sobremesa). The idea of the table also serves to describe how although the magazine tackles hard-to-grasp ideas and experiences, they are all ultimately rooted in something we feel, grounded, like a table.
We’re seeing increasing numbers of independent magazines tackling serious subjects. Do you see your magazine as part of this broader trend?
I see it more as a product of the age of crowdsourcing and the internet. It’s an ironic thing that the internet would lead to such an influx of print magazines, but looking closer it makes sense. Before the web, tracking down contributors was only possible if you were in the know, were within a network of writers and artists, had contacts in important places. Now you can email almost anyone directly or tweet at them, and there’s a possibility if they like your idea enough, they’ll work with you. Software like InDesign has enabled almost anyone to learn magazine layout and with the internet, any question you have can be immediately answered. In the past, magazine layout took much more training and time, something that was reserved for professionals and big publications.
Finally, crowdsourcing has completely revolutionized funding for magazines. Now anyone with an idea and a network of people can raise funds and make their magazine a reality. Table Talk was born out of Kickstarter, and the second issue, releasing at the end of February, was funded on Indiegogo. Crowdsourcing has leveled the playing field and opened up the doors for some truly fascinating and idiosyncratic publications, that in previous times, would never have existed.
Magazines often use themes as somewhat loose frames to hang content on, but Table Talk is based on a very specific theme and sticks resolutely to it. Is this difficult to achieve?
The difficult part is putting in a mixture of pieces that both tackle the theme head on, describing it explicitly, and take it more abstractly, zooming out a bit so the theme does not become trite or overbearing. We put a lot of work into achieving this with the second issue, placing pieces so that they would give the reader space to form their own interpretations of the theme. The second issue is focused on the idea of dyno, which is the moment in rock climbing when a climber must let go of the rock face, and leap into mid-air to reach the hold above.
We have contributors ranging from a rock climber and BASE jumper who describes the experience literally, to a photojournalist who explores how it related to witnessing the wreckage of the Air Malaysia crash in Ukraine firsthand. In this way we try to show the different ways this moment arises in our lives, where we have to let go of what feels safe, and take a leap into the unknown.
What did you learn from issue one that you’re feeding into the upcoming issue two?
We got a lot of great practical advice that either out of naiveté or ignorance we had overlooked. For example we added bylines to the table of contents so readers can see what each piece is about and we also added a contributor’s page, which we had left out the first issue thinking that it would equalize well-known and lesser-known contributors, but it ended up just making readers curious to know who everyone was. We also tried to make the magazine more accessible, shifting away from heavily academic pieces and gathering contributors from even more disparate walks of life, like comic book artists, poets, DJs, political philosophers, and SCUBA divers.
What are you most looking forward to this week?
Receiving the final copies of Issue II from printers this Friday.
What are you least looking forward to this week?
Starting our press campaign and all the emailing that goes with that.
What will you be doing after this chat?
Going over proofs of the second issue and sending off the final file to the printers!