Editor breathes new life into literary journal Existere

A revitalized Existere, the journal of arts and literature published by Vanier College, rolled off the presses in September – a month earlier than planned.

Edward Fenner, the student-run journal’s new editor, hurried the issue to the printer in time to showcase it at two major literary events – Toronto’s Word on the Street and the village of Sharon’s first Words Alive literary festival – the last weekend in September. Student volunteers had worked together all summer out of a virtual office created on Facebook to pull together an issue packed with the best fiction, non-fiction, poetry and art selected from hundreds of submissions.

The highlights included a short story by Priscila Uppal, a York creative writing professor whose Ontological Necessities was shortlisted for the 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize, and Fenner’s interview with Brick publisher and editor Michael Redhill, author of Consolation, which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Both Uppal and Redhill contributed to Existere early in their writing careers, when they were studying at York.

Existere has had an uneven life since it was launched in 1978. Funded by Vanier College Council, it has published once, sometimes four times, a year, ranged from a few, typed and photocopied pages stapled together to broadsheets and pocket-size books. When he became editor and publisher last April, Fenner went to work applying 20 years of marketing and communications experience to restore the journal to a quarterly by 2008. The 43-year-old mature student decided the journal needed consistency and a much bigger profile.

"I saw the opportunity to give it better legs to stand on and compete with other journals at other universities,” says Fenner, thinking of the Queen’s Quarterly, Grain, Prairie Fire and The Dalhousie Review.

He started by putting the call out for volunteers and submissions, in campus publications and on listservs, anywhere where writers might be looking. Fenner, who is also the founder of the York University Mature Students’ Organization, recruited over two dozen volunteers, mainly literature students. He set up a virtual office on Facebook and organized them in groups to sift through hundreds of submissions from Canada and around the world. By the end of the summer they had created shortlists and came together to decide the final design and content for the 100-page issue.

Left: Edward Fenner

Meanwhile, Fenner created a Wikipedia site about Existere, where he created a historical profile of the journal. The early efforts of some very eminent Canadian writers appeared in the pages of this journal, including poet bpNichol and novelists Susan Swan, Barry Dempster and Redhill.

Fenner set up accounting and administrative systems, and introduced honorariums for writers. He started offering subscriptions and increased the print run to 750. With all these things in place, Existere will soon qualify for grants to offset print and mailing costs, says Fenner, his eye clearly on the future.

Through Fenner’s marketing efforts, Existere has earned back at least half the cost of its production budget, happy news for Vanier College Council, its sole funder at present. Fenner has made bulk sales to all the Master’s offices and is working on other opportunities. Senior fiction editor Cristina D’Amico brought in a bulk subscription for a set of doctors’ offices. Fenner’s hawked it at booths at Word on the Street and other literary events, and arranged for shelf space at the York University Bookstore, major and specialty booksellers and magazine retailers from coast to coast. And he’s looking for advertisers and sponsors.

“The idea is to make it self-sustaining so the journal can carry forward without interruption and provide opportunities for student volunteers to gain valuable experience,” says Fenner.

The second issue comes out in February and will feature winning entries in Existere’s first contest. To generate interest – and revenue – the journal is offering prizes of $150 for the best poetry, fiction and non-fiction submissions. The entry fee is $10 and deadline, Dec. 31. For more information about the journal and the contest, visit Existere’s Web site.

By Martha Tancock, York communications officer