Former Arthur co-editor Zara Syed is in the process of setting up a new magazine, roughly aiming to start up by the end of fall. Arthur co-editor Dan Morrison sat down with Syed to chat about her new venture.
Dan: So what’s it all about?
Zara: The River Magazine is a grassroots organisation that has received funding from the Canadian Mental Health Association, PARN (Peterborough Aids Resource Network) and other local organisations to start a publication that accepts submissions only from those that are in poverty or low income and it is compensated submissions, so it aims to highlight the artistic community in Peterborough at the same time as battling poverty.
D: With contributions so far, are people trying to highlight their situation or just express themselves?
Z: It is mixed media so, for instance, we have a piece coming in that talks about being a single mother and the struggle of doing laundry with two kids. Sometimes it is as simple as “how do you take loads and loads of laundry when you’ve got a toddler and a newborn” and you don’t have help…ever since hydro went up the cost of doing laundry now is like groceries for that week, gone into doing laundry. A very simple task that falls on the domestic person.
Mostly we have opened it out to artistic submissions, to those who have visual art, who have poetry. [T]he stories we are interested in are about how are we surviving. There’s often stories about how there are people on the street but there’s this in between and people often don’t get a chance to talk about that. We are hoping the magazine can be a space where people can talk about trying to survive in Peterborough- it is hard to find jobs here. More so it is experimental, so we are not going to say “this is what we are”, we are just receiving submissions and that’s going to take shape. There won’t be a poetry section or a visual art section, it will all be interspersed.
D: How are you reaching out to people for submissions?
Z: We are going to start a social media campaign this week. People running the magazine are all full time, so something they are doing in their spare time. What we want to say is that if you’re a visual artist it doesn’t matter what kind of art it is, submit it to us. Literally anything, can be poetry, visual art, opinion piece, or even graphic art, if people want to draw comics that is very welcome
D: As has been well documented recently, Peterborough has quite a high population of panhandlers, will you be reaching out into that community at all?
Z: We have but often creating the art is a question of access, and most panhandlers don’t have access. We have a partnership with Artspace where we can use their scanner, so if people do not have access to technology to submit their pieces, they can use the scanner at Artspace
D: What sorts of themes are emerging from contributions so far?
Z: Definitely discussions of poverty, discussions of the working class struggle, a topic I find most interesting, struggles of being a student and trying to survive: someone wants to write about how to eat healthily and frugally, something that is not very easy but it is doable.
A lot of themes are coming up about mothers. How mothers have really saved families, particularly in single parent families when access to childcare is so difficult
A common argument against panhandling is “oh why don’t they/you go to a shelter”. When we were editing Arthur, we found that when people go the shelters, they have to present a health card or ID to be admitted. This is intersectional with mental health and access, and acquiring that ID is tough without a fixed address.
D: How do you navigate successfully highlighting these issues and raising the profile of people’s experiences with the risk of romanticisation?
Z: We have received a fair bit of criticism already. We are not romanticizing people in poverty we are trying to expose it, trying to expose the truth and reality of it: a lot of that can be expressed in art. We are just trying to do it in an honest way and we are expecting to receive a lot of criticism, but that’s what happens.
People believe in this project and we were only able to get funding because it is talking about this specific sector of the population in Peterborough. Most of the stuff that has come in so far is not political, it is art and poetry.
D: So, evoking the lived experience?
Z: It doesn’t have to be about poverty either, it can just be art, but because you are in that income bracket, we are interested in your perspective on the world, whether it is a painting of a flower… If it can be romanticised, then I will be learning. This is so raw…there is nothing romantic about being poor. If there is a way of romanticising that then I would be interested in publishing that.
D: There’s that portion of the left which is middle class champagne socialists that champion the honourable working class hero struggling every day, but they’ve not lived this struggle that they see as so worthy
Z: Look, we aren’t talking about the working class hero the way we used to. I walked by the old General Electric building, and the factory is huge but that probably isn’t totally at capacity because of huge layoffs…many in this town lost their jobs when GE made cutbacks. It is really interesting, because today you’d be lucky to be that working class hero.
D: Yeah a lot of the left is still based on this old school honourable idea, clocking in regularly doesn’t really exist in a world of much more insecure labour and the gig economy. So one really great thing about this magazine is that is documents and highlights the modern lived experience of insecure, low-wage labour.
Z: The Working class hero idea has been turned into a dog that is picking up the scraps, that should take anything they can get. We are really interested in the jobs in this town like the server or waiter/waitress, that struggle where you don’t have medical insurance…people who are often too busy working or supporting their family to talk about their story.
D: Final question, what is your ultimate aim, vision, thing that you want to achieve?
Z: The greatest thing about the magazine is that we want everything to be Peterborough, including the cover and the logo. We commissioned an artist so that even the logo is purely Peterborough. There are artists in this community who get a lot of coverage, my aim is to discover people that aren’t getting that coverage. Even if you doodle, here’s a space for you to get published. We’d like to go seek out every artist in Peterborough and go through a rotation until there are no more artists left that we can publish. Especially the influx of students coming in, now that the Canadian government has subsidized tuition for low- income students, we are going to see a huge diversity in students.
Deadline for The River Magazine: September 31st. If you would like to fund or support this magazine by making a donation, please email [email protected]