The Coelacanth Journal, like its namesake (a Prehistoric fish with a prototype human heart that was thought to be extinct until re-discovered under a ledge in 2008) seems almost like a link to a former time. Black and white, printed in small runs, biannual and filled with surprising and exciting snippets about art, artists, fiction and poetry, the journal evades easy categorisation. I wanted to ask Editor Phoebe Blatton a few questions about publishing and editing the journal, which is now in its eighth edition.
How did you decide to set up a journal?
My friend Susan and I used to work at Shipley Art Booksellers (now RIP) on Charing Cross Road. It was a typical 'old fashioned' bookshop, with shabby Edwardian wallpaper and a roaring fireplace. We used to spend a lot of time cataloguing all sorts of unusual publications, some of which included old arts journals and magazines, often things that were produced much like today's zines - on the cheap - but which had a sincere objective to collate and disseminate interesting articles and showcase artists and writers. Some of it was really good, but a lot of it was kind of crap, too, and I think we just thought, in a rather high-minded fashion, that we could do better, and it'd be an easy thing to start doing. At that time, I'd really gotten into writing fiction, and so had Susan, and we had a lot of friends from art school who we wanted to work with. We thought we'd produce a simple booklet, and that would be the constant that could then facilitate other projects. Of course nothing's that easy. (We soon abandoned hand-stitching every copy of Issue One in favour of staples, but there are a few out there!)
In the editorial of the 8th edition, you say that one of the aims of Coelacanth is to find "human coelacanths", artists, poets, writers who have been neglected or are relatively unknown despite their contribution to art and knowledge. How do you choose them?
Another imperative for starting the journal was our admiration for the writer Brigid Brophy. We wanted, when funds would allow, to bring out a new edition of her 1956 novel The King of a Rainy Country - and in fact the book is literally at the printers, some five years on, as we speak! Brophy is perhaps the quintessential Coelacanth - an incredible writer, well respected in her day, but who fell out of favour for a number of reasons, not least the traditional book world's lack of imagination in dealing with writers who are difficult to pigeonhole. She was our first 'coelacanth', and we wrote to her late husband Michael Levey, for permission to print an extract of the novel in the Issue 1, with a view to one day reprinting the book. I'm keen to bring different ages together, but not because of nostalgia, rather to renegotiate what our sense of 'historical' is. The fact that younger contributors sit alongside the 'coelacanths' is also a gentle reminder that there are many alternate 'art worlds'. It's not so much that someone exists on 'the fringe' but that they exist despite such transient, questionable boundaries. How I choose them is really hard to answer; we've had heart surgeons, icon painters, filmmakers, former ambassadors to Georgia... I suppose I'm just always on the look-out.
Who has been your favourite Coelacanth to be unearthed so far?
Oh that's like asking a parent to choose a favourite child! Obviously Brigid Brophy is really important to me as I've finally carried through with republishing The King of a Rainy Country. I never got to meet her though (she died in 1995). The coelacanths who I have met or communicated with have all been so wonderful and giving, not least the animator Sally Cruikshank, who I first discovered through her cartoon Quasi at the Quackadero, and interviewed in Issue 6. MoMA in NY recently did a retrospective screening of her films, so she's certainly not lurking in the depths over there, and it was so nice of her to respond so generously to The Coelacanth Press. Just saying, but pre-MoMA, we did the first retrospective screening in London!
One of the big themes of issue 8 seems to be DIY - from Cynthia Maughan's films from the 70s, or Joe Brainard's poetry magazines and covers from the 60s. Can you talk a bit about that?
Yes, as I mentioned above, we originally just wanted to do something inexpensive and easy. The idea was, keep it simple, you can't go too far wrong! That's not strictly the case (I think our typos are slightly better these days, but if you look hard enough...!) but on the whole, it's about getting it done, getting it out. I work in the book trade, and see so many things that hide behind a slick aesthetic. I'm not interested in that at all, and if you do something long enough, well that sort of creates an aesthetic anyway. The journal is always around 30 - 40 pages, black and white, with a centerfold, and a coloured card cover. I think it's also good to give people a basic framework, and see how they work with that. One of the things I love about publishing is, it is (or at least should be) about disseminating stuff democratically. The journal only costs £3. Anything can be expensive it's not worth it, but I think I can stand behind this and say, well at least it's worth £3!
In Coelacanth Les Coleman talks about the effect of the "Mimeo revolution", when people started printing out tiny print runs of magazines in runs of as little as 50 and as much as 500 on Mimeograph machines. We're in the digital age - what's next?
Of course we're in the digital age, but in that sense we're also really keen to hold on to the analogue. I don't think it's 'old fashioned' to still want to put on a record, or read a paperback, it's just that these things have intrinsic tactile qualities that we still enjoy and respond to. I'm not against the idea of digitising content, I've just been a bit slow. I keep a blog, but I'll always stick to making the hard-copy version of the journal. I think online content could work really well for articles that are about film, say, with media embedded, but on the whole, you can read the journal, then go look it up. In many ways it's just a starting point for research, discussion, whatever. The other thing that's important about making hard copies, is that you can put them in places (bookshops, galleries etc.) that you like! And that adds content to the place, and keeps it alive, and people browse, and talk, and the world keeps spinning... we're in the digital age, but we're still analogue; we're all going to die and mulch down like a magazine left out on a wall in the rain.
There seems to be a really massive zine culture in the States, yet it doesn't seem to be as big here, why do you think that might be true?
America's really big, and there's also something about the way Americans fetishize things - sometimes in a good way, sometimes bad. There's some great fairs in the UK, like Publish and be Damned, or the Small Publishers' Fair, for artists' publications, and zines have become rather 'cool', so you see a lot of zines there. I don't know if I really got into this wanting to be part of any gang or 'zine culture'. I know there's people writing PhDs on it, and there's archives, and exhibitions, and a recent book that caused a lot of controversy with contributors over rights to their work etc... I think the zine is also reflective of 'throw-away' culture. Why not make something a bit crap? In that sense the zine is political, it's why you get so many feminist, punk, queer zines, or even zines about the stuff in your bedroom, it's very linked to staking out an identity, and I think it's interesting to look at how the culture, whatever that might be, develops alongside the socio-political landscape of the world it exists in.
Is Coelacanth going digital?
As above, why not? It might even go musical-theatrical.
Do you have any favourite blogs/zines that inspire you?
Funnily enough, I'm not that much of a collector! I think it's because I work around so many different publications all the time. But there was a publication called The Saturday Book that ran between 1941 - 1975, that I always looked out for when I worked on Charing Cross Road. I wrote about it on my blog actually, and described it as belonging to an era of publishing that relished the eclectic, and had a salon style approach to presenting items both serious and whimsical. One of my favourite articles was on "Men's Tears" which asked why "Englishmen seem to have abandoned the art of crying, at least in public".
The Coelacanth Press produces a biannual arts publication called The Coelacanth Journal (ISSN 1759-7455). You can buy the Coelacanth Journal at a range of independent bookshops in London, Brighton, Glasgow, Milton Keynes, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. Check out www.thecoelacanthpress.co.uk for more details on stockists.
Brigid Brophy's classic novel of 1956, The King of a Rainy Country, is being released this month and will be launched at The Keynes' Library, 43 Gordon Square, London, WC1H 0PD on Friday 30 November 2012 from 7-9pm. RSVP needed.