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Cirque: The future of literary journals?

  • Author: Ben Anderson
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published July 5, 2011

The Pacific Northwest has a rich literary tradition. While it may not carry the weighty history of regions like the American South and New England, authors like Ken Kesey, Raymond Carver and Sherman Alexie have forged a distinct, modern style for Northwest writers. Now, a young literary magazine, armed with a unique online presence, looks to tap the market of aspiring and established Northwest writers.

Cirque is a biannual literary journal that had its inaugural edition just over two years ago and recently published its fourth volume. The submissions for the magazine are limited to writers who hail from or who have previously lived in the Pacific Rim: "Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Hawaii, Yukon Territory, Alberta, British Columbia, or Chukotka," according to the journal's guidelines.

Cirque is the brainchild of Mike Burwell, a former professor of creative writing at UAA (since retired) and a published poet who originally conceived of the journal when the University of Alaska Press temporarily discontinued its "journal of circumpolar poetry," Ice Floe.

"I started Cirque to fill the void that Ice Floe created when it stopped publication a few years ago," Burwell said. "I decided, OK, I'll start my own literary magazine."

But a year and a half later, by the time Cirque was ready for its debut, Ice Floe had returned, and where Burwell had been looking to "take up the void" for an outlet where northern poets could see their work published, he ran the risk of redundancy. Cirque was different enough, in its geographical range (Ice Floe draws from polar nations, the long-running Alaska Quarterly Review from around the world) and with its focus on other genres besides poetry (although AQR has similar genres).

While Burwell admits he has a particular fondness for poetry, he said he makes a conscious effort to play up the fiction and nonfiction sections of Cirque, cycling through which section leads the journal in a given edition. The journal releases every six months, on June 21 and Dec. 21, the days of the summer and winter solstices, and also typically features a play or two within its pages.

Aside from the writing itself, perhaps the most interesting thing about Cirque is its business model -- the magazine is published primarily online, available to read for free. In an interview with Burwell following the release of the debut issue, Alaska author Andromeda Romano-Lax described the online format as "elegant," and it's really a very apt description. A full-screen view of each issue allows you to click through with a sweep of a digital page, and on a high-definition screen like the one on the iPad, the well-designed pages are particularly easy to read.

The online format also allows Burwell to keep costs down. Cirque is mostly a one-man show, with Burwell acting as primary editor and making the decisions on the order that the stories will run in an issue.

He admits that his selection process is kind -- almost to a fault. "If anything," Burwell said, "I'm a pretty forgiving editor. I find that I like to represent all the genres, and sometimes they may not live up the high standards that I'd like to eventually achieve."

Achieving those standards is becoming easier, as the readership and the number of submissions increases with every issue. Burwell said that the issue released in December of 2010 has amassed around 22,000 hits.

Once he has the submissions narrowed down, Burwell files them all in a long Word document and passes them to Paxson Woelber, who -- with suggestions from Burwell -- creates the page layout and puts it on the web. Also offering input is Burwell's partner, Janet Levin, who also contributes many of the photos that pepper the (occasionally more than 100) pages of the journal.

Published contributors get hard copies, which Burwell described as his biggest expense. Second biggest, he said, is for Woelber's web design and page layout services, acknowledging that "the aesthetic part of the magazine is due largely to his ability to put it together." Individual hardcopies are also available through the print-on-demand service MagCloud for $30 apiece, and a digital, PDF copy can be purchased for $4.

Burwell said that he may apply for grants at some point, but right now "it's a labor of love."

The online literary magazine provides an interesting example of a potentially sustainable online business model -- writers eager to have their work published submit work for free, and if Burwell wasn't sending out hard copies, or doing his own design, the overhead would be even lower. Although such a degree of involvement might present an untenable workload, the income from printed and read-anywhere digital copies could offset the cost of doing business, providing a service that could stretch into perpetuity, especially as e-books and electronic newspapers and magazines establish their market.

"The younger generation doesn't have the fixation with hard copies that mine does," Burwell said.

For his part, Burwell doesn't seem concerned with profitability. For him, it's more about the community fostered by a literary magazine confined to a geographical area. And people have begun to embrace the idea.

"What's happening is different states are discovering it," he said. At first, it was mostly writers from "…Oregon and Alaska with a smattering of Canada, then the Montana and Idaho people started to figure it out."

"There's a rigorous writing community in Whitehorse," he said. "I've probably had two to three people from each issue from the Yukon Territory."

Burwell also said that much of the satisfaction of publishing a literary journal comes from giving aspiring authors the opportunity to see their work in print -- while noting that because it's online, "it never really goes out of print."

"There are two or three people per issue that have never been published," Burwell said, "and to me it's astounding that they haven't been -- these people really deserve to be out there, being read."

Others seem to agree. "The feedback starts to come back," Burwell said. "Who are these people? They're really good. And I'm like, 'that's what I thought!'"

Given the low costs and large amounts of time Burwell and others seem willing to put into Cirque, the future of the literary magazine seems secure, but Burwell is looking for more ways to get the word out. Before the Mountain View-based MTS Gallery shut down, Cirque would occasionally perform readings there with several authors from a given edition. Now they're waiting for a new venue, while adding to the journal's website, with a hoped-for link to books written by contributors, as well as a series of audio interviews and podcasts with local authors.

Well-known Alaskan writers like Nancy Lord and Marjorie Kowalski Cole -- who passed away in 2009 but had an unpublished story printed in the December 2010 edition of the journal -- along with other hopefuls with "enormous publication histories" lend to the journal's credibility.

And in the world of serious literature, credibility, perhaps even more than profitability, is king.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)

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