29 Oct Prufrock: A Magazine of Writing
Helen Sullivan is the editor of the new magazine, Prufrock. James King is the creative director. I met with Helen a short while ago to chat about this exciting project. James added to the discussion via email.
A bit about Helen and the mullings and musings that came before
Helen, the daughter of two literary parents, grew up in Johannesburg. After school, she made the journey down to Cape Town to study English, Philosophy and French at UCT. While travelling around Europe after varsity, the first inklings of what would eventually become Prufrock began to form in Helen’s mind. It was at this time that she encountered beautifully published literary magazines, and became aware of their resounding absence back home.
When she returned she took a job at an NGO, but her thoughts were elsewhere. Over coffee with a varsity friend, James King, who had been working as a designer in the publishing industry, the idea that would become Prufrock was officially born. Frustrated by the lack of a local equivalent of The New Yorker, they decided there and then to create their own literary magazine. The driving intention: to bring together, into one place, all the pieces of writing that needed to be read – simply to make good South African writing more accessible.
So Helen quit her job, and three months later the first issue of Prufock was out.
Putting Prufrock together
In between conception and creation was a mad scramble to secure advertising, and basically learn all there is to the publishing industry. Reflecting on this time, Helen says that despite this being the hardest part, it was also the most necessary: “If you’re very clear in what you want to do, and that you can do it, then you just have to get over the shyness – stop feeling small, and young and naïve – because you can’t mess around with something that you know is important; you just have to go with it and make it happen”. To her initial surprise, the people she encountered thought so too.
“It’s hard to believe that you can do, but very easy to believe that you must.”
Headed up by Helen on the word front and James on the design side, the rest of the masthead team was assembled. Next came the name. ‘Prufock’, the title character from the T.S. Eliot poem, who wanders the back alleys of London pondering his place in the world, came up. “He’s a young, self-conscious writer, very likable and very human”, Helen explains. The poem is a reflection on the act of writing, and Prufrock felt a most fitting appellation.
A call for submissions was sent out, and a stream of content flowed in. Issue one began to take shape, story by story. Among the content was lots and lots of pictures of dogs, which lead to the theme for issue two: Yellow Dog.
So what’s actually inside?
All the pieces are intended to be short enough to be read in one sitting –the length of time it takes to slowly drink a cup of coffee or an Old Fashioned cocktail (a different, beautifully illustrated, recipe can be found on the last page of each issue). There are selected submissions – short stories, poetry, non-fiction, and photographs – as well as the anonymous classified ads at the back. The overarching tone is distinctly playful, tongue-in-cheek. Helen explains: “this shows an awareness both of similar magazines that have come before, as well as actually starting a literary magazine, which is a bit like trying to push your head through a straw”. In short, maintaining a sense of humour, she says, is key.
“Twenty years after democracy, there’s a need for people to be expressing the stories that are happening”.
And then the design … James talks us through his thinking
“I like to think that most of the design choices have a fairly practical or functional motivation”, he says. For example, “the colour palettes of the two issues were chosen because, in combination, they mimic full colour (CMYK) printing”. The flip side of this clever little trick is a beautifully muted overall tone.
James explains how he lets the writing guide the design: “Most of the striking graphic features or unusual layouts have a basis in an idea taken from the writing they adorn. In the first issue there was a piece bordered by a then-black margin. The piece was about a young man coming to terms with the death of an uncle. The black border is a reference to the Victorian tradition of mourning stationery used by relatives for correspondence during the mourning period”. Similarly, in the second issue, James let the rambling formless rant of musician Koos Kombuis run from one corner of the page to the other, mirroring the overwhelmed feeling of the text itself.
“The paper we chose is a book paper”, James says. “It has a depth, and a feeling that I can only really pretentiously describe as ‘slow’ – it doesn’t lend itself to being flipped through”. The illustrations, James says, are likely to become more of a feature in the future. The next two issues will continue this muted design, after which Prufrock will get an entirely new treatment.
“There’s danger in a single story – South Africa needs a plurality of voices and writers writing the different stories”.
Prufrock is available at locations around South Africa. You can find out where exactly on their website. The call for submissions for issue three, A Tall Glass of Water, has just gone out… so get writing! Find out more on Facebook, and follow Prufrock on Tumblr and Twitter.