Magazine Review #5: Canteen, Issue Six

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Issue six of Canteen is gorgeous—clean and modern, lots of white space, square format, luscious paper, a beautiful illustration by Rod Hunting on the cover, more like an art book than a magazine—and because of this, the stakes for good content are even higher.

As a designer, I’m often drawn to the initial look and feel of a magazine before I give serious consideration to the content, but beauty is no substitute for substance. It would be easy to write Canteen off as just another pretty face on the magazine rack. Thankfully, it’s not. This issue is chock-full of exceptional poetry and short stories, intellectually engaging essays, and a fascinating photo contest.

The most important part of this issue is “The Great American Novel” series, which includes eight short essays that explore the things we’ve lost. It’s important because the collection isn’t just lamenting the loss of the novel. As the editors’ write in the intro, “Enough ink has been spilled over the decline of the blockbuster novel.” Amen to that. These thoughtful essays go way beyond the usual suspects of nostalgia, and explore losses like prank calls, the deep end of the pool, getting lost on road trips, and music culture.

Each essay touches upon some tiny, all-but-forgotten detail of life that was common just fifteen or twenty years ago. Malena Watrous writes lovingly about prank phone calls. “This was before the cell phone, before caller ID, before *69, even before the advent of cordless—back when a coiled plastic cord connected the handset to the body of the phone, and a long cord tethered the phone to the wall, keeping us on a short leash. We weren’t allowed to have phones in our bedrooms, but we found ways around this rule, like all others: stretching the coiled cord taut, then forcing the door to close over it with a bone-crunching sound.”

Anyone who was born before 1985 knows the exact tone of that sound. I grew up with a mustard yellow rotary phone stuck on the wall in the kitchen. We had it well into the ‘90s and I was the last kid I knew who actually got a phone with punch buttons. It wasn’t until years of whining (from my brother and myself) that our parents finally caved and got a non-rotary phone. After reading this essay, I actually missed that yellow phone—the awkwardness of having to make phone calls in the kitchen, the touch and sound of the rotary, especially if you dialed 9 and it took forever to reel back around, and even its ridiculously unhandy coiled cord. Tapping my iPhone never felt so hollow.

Chris Smith’s essay, called Mix Tape, is less about actual mix tapes, and more about music culture in general. A music obsessive, Smith eagerly awaited each new Rolling Stone and Creem magazine. As a teenager, he became a loyal reader of Maximumrocknroll, the Bay Area punk bible. “A pulpy, grayscale rag that seemed to smudge your fingers if you even looked at it, MRR ran profiles of bands big and small; dispatches from scenes across the world, from Tacoma to Toyko; and, this being the 1980’s, screeds against Ronald Reagan.”

MRR was a gateway into the world of punk. Smith writes, “My education was laborious. Every month I’d stuff a few dollars into an envelope and send off for whatever sounded most interesting: a thrash band from Sweden, maybe offering a demo with 57 tracks in 42 minutes, or some teenagers in Peoria who wrote songs about cow-tipping. There’s no way I would have found this stuff by myself; MRR was my only point of entry. The reviews, however sketchy, served as my guides.”

We all have our points of entry into the music world, our MRRs, so to speak. Mine was Matt at The Record Exchange. Whoever this Matt person was, he wrote the most perfect reviews at Boise’s best music shop. Aside from my dad, Matt probably defined my music education more profoundly than any other person in my life. As I browsed through the staff picks, Matt was my musical soul mate—highlighting Dylan bootlegs, Tom Waits rarities from Japan, and local gems like Treepeople and Built to Spill. I happily geeked out and came of age in that record store.

Smith goes on, surprisingly, to champion MP3 blogs. “Like their dead-tree predecessors, MP3 blogs offer that old sense of hidden worlds opened wide. (By the way, this isn’t about that species of blog that exists to vomit up the latest Jay-Z a few days before it officially drops. I’m talking about sites that primarily feature out-of-print or under the radar music.)” We can educate ourselves now because we can find obscure worlds of music just by clicking around.

As much as I love (or rather, have loved) browsing in record stores and taking chances on albums I never heard of, I have to agree with Smith. Maybe the Internet is killing the music industry, but there’s never been a better time for the musically obsessed. It’s all at our fingertips. Matt at The Record Exchange has simply been replaced by Chad, the music blogger at Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands, not to mention the dozens of other music blogs I read regularly. I’d be hard-pressed to swap the vastness of the Internet for one downtown Boise music shop.

Each of the essays in this collection made me recall, somewhat wistfully, my own experience growing up. Ivy Pochoda writes about getting lost on road trips—something I genuinely feared as a kid, and something we rarely experience now due to GPS and Wi-Fi. If we actually were lost, we’d probably just tweet about it and someone would find us.

Lincoln Michel writes, rather remarkably, about the loss of the deep end of the pool. “Deep ends are disappearing in hotels, parks, and backyards, across the country. They are being replaced by shallow pools that are more efficient and less exclusionary.” I simultaneously loved/was terrified by learning to swim and overcoming the deep end was a rite of summer passage. I’m somewhat depressed by the fact that kids nowadays just splash around in a couple feet of water. As Michel so rightly concludes, “A pool can only be conquered if you actually have to swim in it.”

This collection of short essays really resonated with me because all of the authors are roughly my age; we share these experience with everyone else in our generation, and maybe that’s why we feel a collective sense of loss when we talk about small things like prank calls and the deep end of the pool. We all have the same memories, and regardless of if we actually want or need the things we’re nostalgic for, the nostalgia is there, poking around in the back of our minds as we progress forward.

Issue six also includes the results of Canteen’s inaugural photography contest. For the most part, the winning photos are fantastic, but the intriguing bit is the inclusion of the judges’ methodology. Stephen Pierson, Canteen’s Publisher, says “…we sought not only to choose some fine pictures, but also to pull back the veil on our judging process. Too often, the methodology of photography competitions is opaque at best and nepotistic at worst, with a winner’s circle made up of the judges’ former students, interns, or the occasional love interest.”

The inclusion of the judges’ commentary really does shed some light on the judging process and the dialogue between the two judges (photographer Matthew Porter and Brooklyn Museum Director Arnold Lehman) feels organic and thoughtful. They don’t agree on everything and the winning photos receive some disapproval. One of the contestants is even allowed to respond to the judges’ criticism. The photography not only adds a lot of visual beauty to the issue, but also works as a nice compliment to the writing.

This issue of Canteen is so good—so striking, and rich with compelling content—it makes me wish they published more often. In their mission statement, Canteen claims to “redefine the literary magazine.” With issue six, they’ve done just that.


Nancy Smith is a writer and graphic designer. Her work has been published in Paper, The Believer, Seattle Weekly, Resonance, and Communication Arts. She has an M.A. in Media Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She is currently working on a Ph.D in Communication and Culture at Indiana University. She blogs about books, design, and technology here: somequietfuture.com More from this author →