Sonora Review intern Rachel Sargent interviews Ben Harper, a 2010 University of Arizona graduate and the Co-Founder and Editor of The Topaz Review, an online arts magazine that features original submissions in both literary and artistic fields.
Could you tell me about the origins of The Topaz Review?
I’ve always loved writing, poetry, and art, but I’d hit a bit of a creative slump. I’d previously started a little writer’s club called the Knights of the White Elephant, named for the British Poet William McGonagall, purportedly the worst poet in the English language. Some university pranksters wrote a fraudulent letter to McGonagall, conferring him an honorific “Topaz” member of the Knights of the White Elephant, a fictional Burmese order, which he proudly included in his name until his death. So The Topaz Review was intended to be a spiritual successor to the Knights of the White Elephant, giving my friends and me an outlet for our respective arts.
What makes The Topaz Review different from other literary and art publications?
The most notable difference between The Topaz Review and other magazines is our selection process. The three pieces that run each month are selected by the creators of the last month’s pieces, et cetera. The prize money for each month varies substantially—it’s just a fixed percentage of the total submission revenue. We keep a small fraction for website costs (one day, we’ll break even) and the rest is split evenly between the three winners. The visual aesthetic is also much different, a handcrafted design that hearkens back to the pre-Internet ‘zine golden age. Co-Founder and Art Editor Sarah Trainor had the idea of building a website composed of entirely physical components, so we built and scanned every part of the site from construction paper and assembled it all in HTML and CSS. Each page of The Topaz Review is typed in paper using one of our typewriters (generally Sarah’s Royal Safari), which is a pretty laborious process.
Can you tell me more abo
After typing and scanning the issue we sometimes make a few postproduction corrections to the pages in Photoshop to fix typos and various typewriter errors. Then Sarah designs the cover. Occasionally, we draw the cover art from submissions, but usually Sarah builds a papercraft cover related to the issue’s theme. Next we make a slightly modified, often jokey, variation on that cover, which we use for (God forgive me for uttering this phrase) social-media promotion. While she’s working on that, I write the Letter from the Editors, which tends to have a sort of megalomaniacal, George-Plimpton-on-mushrooms sort of feel to it.
Is there anything specific that you look for in submissions?
Well, that depends on the month’s selection committee. Ideally, we like to see a lot of variety in the media—only one poem, one story, one piece of journalism, one painting, etc. I would love to see less traditional submissions to the magazine, more abstract writing that doesn’t usually appear in litmags. But submissions have been more or less conventional so far. Once we’ve received the submissions, we do look for a common thematic thread in all of them, which becomes the month’s theme and title.
How do you determine what selections will be included in each issue?
We encourage the selection committee to work collaboratively, rather than simply by vote, but the selections are fundamentally up to the committee. It’s very interesting to see what gets picked—it’s almost never the pieces we predict.
Were there any surprises as you began your work on the publication?
The amount of work entailed in coding and updating the website, typing the draft copy, managing social media and e-mail, and soliciting submissions. I assumed submissions from unpublished artists would just fall from the sky, but, um, they don’t. So tell your friends.
Do you have any long-term plans for the magazine?
We’d love to start printing physical copies, but we need to assemble the capital first. We also intend to publish an issue with all the best submissions that, for whatever reason, haven’t yet been compiled. It’s hard for me to see some of this work languish in obscurity! Mostly, we just want to get things running smoothly. Does anyone out there want a low-paying internship? The Topaz Review was founded in May of 2013 by Ben Harper and Sarah Trainor. Each issue is assembled by hand in Tucson, Arizona. Visit The Topaz Review online for more information.
Rachel Sargent is a student at the University of Arizona. She served as intern for Sonora Review during the production of Issue 64/65.