Lucy K Shaw and I first met online in 2016 when Peach Mag cofounder and former editor Matthew Bookin and I contributed a dual-perspective essay on meeting the author Karl Ove Knausgaard to her monthly newsletter, The Shabby Doll Reader. We were fast friends; we shared similar frustrations with conventional publishing, experiences of being women in the online literary community, and amusement at the mortifying corniness and insincerity of so much art. She struck me immediately as someone who just gets it.
The Shabby Doll Reader was a project of Shabby Doll House, an online literary journal—really, a community of writers-turned-friends—that published poems, short stories, creative nonfiction, and visual art from 2012 to 2019. In The Reader, Lucy interviewed Shabby Doll contributors on their latest publications and projects, solicited creative essays from contributors who had recently toured or attended interesting literary events, and listed recent contributor news at the end of each issue—like an applause. She kept up with us; she understood that the relationship between an editor and contributor didn’t need to end after publication, that it could in fact look a little more like friendship. Why are we all insisting on sharing our art with each other if we’re not, on some level, trying to feel less alone?
When I had the idea late last year to launch an interview series at the Peach blog spotlighting the creative, experimental, often brief, often shoestring, and always underreported-upon projects of indie lit, it was clear who I’d invite to contribute first: the publisher whose ethos of friendship has informed so much of my own attitudes toward publishing. Her latest project is ~Profound Experience, which you’ll learn about—among so much else—below. –Rachelle Toarmino
RT: Tell me about the origin story of ~Profound Experience. Where did the idea come from? What had you hoped to capture when you launched it?
LKS: The original idea behind ~Profound Experience was basically that I wanted to read and write about travel and intercultural experiences in a way that I was experiencing, and knew that other people were experiencing too, but I wasn’t seeing expressed in writing.
At first I had envisaged it as a project I would just do by myself... but then it quickly became obvious that it would be more fun and more valuable to gather different perspectives from writers from around the world.
I just felt like I was always seeing photos of interesting people in interesting places and not learning anything about what they were doing there or how they were spending their time or how they could afford it. I felt like it was the thing that everybody talked about with their friends, or at least that’s what I talked about with my friends, but nobody was making it into art or writing because there is, or there was then at least, I think, an expectation that if you’re somewhere new, out of your comfort zone, you’re supposed to just be grateful and having an unquestioning, amazing time. But I wanted to know about the realities of the experiences you only get a glimpse of on instagram... What does it feel like if you get unexpectedly detained overnight in Belarus during a work trip? How do you dissect the dissonance if you have to go to Hawaii for a funeral? What kind of people do you make friends with if you throw yourself halfway around the world to live in a small village in Ireland? What restaurant do you go to at Christmas when you’re lonely and living in Beijing? What about if one day Notre Dame burns down? Would you want to go and look at it?
What does it mean to propel your body into a place it's never seen before? How can you make it fit?
The original incarnation of ~Profound Experience felt like an attempt to answer those kinds of questions... but then, of course, last year, the questions changed. And the things that I’ve done with the project since then have been responses to the new ones.
RT: ~Profound Experience began as a travel writing journal and has evolved to include a quarantine zine, trivia series, and poetry book club. You’ve also got an anthology in the works. Can you hint at anywhere else you’re planning to take this project?
It’s hard to say.
Sarah Jean and I were talking the other day about how it would be cool to work on some stories that are locally based, rather than travel-based, as obviously everyone has gotten to know their immediate surroundings more intimately in the past year. I don’t know if that idea will go anywhere, but it could be fun. And I’ve also been thinking a lot about doing some kind of audio thing...
I’m really enjoying doing the poetry book club at the moment because I was struggling to read anything, and I still am really, but this ensures that I at least read a book of poetry every couple of weeks and have a reason to see everybody who comes to the meetings. The group is a really great mix of people who have written a lot, people who have read a lot, and people who are newer to poetry. (Anyone who reads this is welcome to join us by the way.) The sense of community that we all get from it is, I think, invaluable. And it’s a nice feeling to be consuming culture as a group, rather than producing it, for once. I feel like, especially now, that’s sort of healthy.
I think I will continue to kind of just do whatever I want in response to whichever shape life takes on, going forward. Whatever feels fulfilling. I like to think that each project is ultimately just a small part of the body of work I will build up over the course of my lifetime, so it’s low pressure. We can try things.
By the way, I really like this idea for an interview series and I’m happy to have these questions and answers on record, so thank you for asking. I respect so much what you have done with Peach Mag and it’s cool to think that some girl might read this in like two weeks or twenty years and think, well if Rachelle Toarmino and Lucy K Shaw could create magazines and communities out of nothing... and here I am with nothing to lose...
It’s the same way I’ve felt reading about Diane di Prima’s Floating Bear or Dennis Cooper’s Little Caesar.
RT: Speaking of Floating Bear and Little Caesar, what are some of the other literary projects—contemporary or historic—that have been a source of inspiration to you? I’m thinking of our column “Favorite Books” only now I mean “Favorite Journals” or “Favorite Collectives.” Which projects linger in the background of your work as an editor and publisher? Is there anyone you want to shout out?
LKS: The literary project that has impacted me the most must be Mellow Pages Library, which was an independent library in Brooklyn from 2013 to 2015. For a short time, they managed to manifest in real life what we’re all trying to do on the internet. A lot of great readings happened there, a lot of books were read, a lot of interesting conversations occurred between people who might not typically speak to one another and real friendships were formed. Which was possible because Matt Nelson and Jacob Perkins, the founders, were welcoming of everybody. You could go there, hang out, not spend any money on anything, and learn about whatever book people were talking about that week from whichever writer happened to be dropping in from wherever they usually lived. It was amazing. I hope we can do it again one day.
I also feel inspired by Ashley Obscura’s Metatron Press in Montreal, Kristen Felicetti’s Bushwick Review, the queer feminist collective COVEN Berlin, the young Romanian collective Zona Noua... Peach Mag, needless to say. Do you remember Illuminati Girl Gang? My friend who edited it wrote an essay a few years ago, which contained the line: “every perceived art movement was just a group of friends that had gravitated toward each other in the common interest of feeling less alone.” Which simple as it sounds, continues to feel revelatory.
RT: Prior to ~Profound Experience, you ran Shabby Doll House, a literary journal and monthly newsletter featuring contributor news, interviews, and more. How do you see yourself bringing your experience working on Shabby Doll House to ~Profound Experience? What are you doing differently this time?
LKS: I realise it’s a relatively frivolous skill in the face of the apocalypse, but when the pandemic hit, I knew that my thing, my way of coping personally and also of bringing comfort to other people, exists in the form of creating and editing these online magazines. So I just sort of kicked into high gear and started making them. And I definitely had a moment, a few weeks into the Quaranzine, when I felt like, damn, I’m so glad I spent four years making fifty issues of The Shabby Doll Reader so that I now have the skills to put together a magazine every seven days during a crisis.
And, of course, a large part of why that was possible is because I’ve built up this network of people over the years who want to work together. That’s the best part about all of this... the friendships and creative relationships that develop over time.
I don’t know if I am trying to do anything differently, necessarily, with ~Profound Experience. It just feels like the natural evolution of Shabby Doll House, like moving out of a childhood bedroom. You get to sleep somewhere else and it’s fun to redecorate.
RT: You’ve been doing indie lit for nearly a decade now, and I imagine you’ve seen a lot of projects come and go. What makes a new literary journal, small press, or other initiative stand out? What might editors and publishers be getting wrong?
LKS: I know this is dramatic but it’s true: I think that something like this stands out when you can tell that the editor/s who are producing the thing are doing it because their lives depend on it.
So if I could answer this question in a way that might be helpful to someone considering starting any kind of collaborative, creative project...
Firstly, I would say that it’s actually really easy to do if you really want to do it.
And if you don’t really want to do it, then it’s easy to do something else.
We have the internet so we can connect with people all over the world, and provided we have a computer, we can publish writing and art and sounds and videos basically for free. We have every tool available to us to make things that don’t already exist, if we want to. It’s never been easier to produce and publish work and to find an audience without needing capital.
You can create a world, a life for yourself, manifest friends and like-minded people, by dedicating your time and attention to an idea and working on it obsessively. If you want to.
If you don’t want to, then you don’t need to. And that’s fine.
But if you decide to go ahead with it, you’ve got to respect the people who send you their work and treat them well. You can change someone’s life by publishing their work, which again, sounds dramatic, but it’s true. So you want to change people’s lives for the better. You want to change your own life for the better. If you want to do it, there is nothing more exciting than making art with other people.
RT: What does respecting contributors and treating them well look like to you?
LKS: So many different ways to approach this question and the answer should probably be a whole essay, but one idea I keep coming back to is: Only publish things you love. I think that’s a good starting point.
RT: What excites you about making art with other people? What do you see as some of the biggest impediments to doing that?
It’s just what life is, for me. Real life. That’s how I can communicate with... the world. A lot of the time, in a lot of situations, we are expected to behave in ways that are unnatural and impersonal, and even amongst friends we might not feel like we can really be the way we want to be... so I think that when you collaborate with someone on something artistic, you can strive to communicate with them on a level that is truthful. And it just feels primal, to me. Editing with someone else in a Google doc feels like my natural habitat.
The hard part is finding your people! Or that was the hard part for me.
It’s difficult to recognise each other when we live in this imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy... They don’t want us to express ourselves.
So that’s why I think it’s really important that we have these platforms, to encourage people to make art, to give them a place to share it with others, and to forge community.
At our most recent book club meeting, for example, we had people in the United States, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, and Spain... coming together at the same time to discuss the same book that we all just read. I mean, how amazing is that! And what’s going to come out of it?
I’m excited to see.
RT: Circling back to what you wrote about the kinds of questions you were asking prior to launching ~Profound Experience—“I wanted to know about the realities of the experiences you only get a glimpse of on instagram”—I want to know about the realities of running a literary journal, book club, trivia series, and more. Can you leave us with a word of logistical advice for editors and publishers? Got any quick tips?
LKS: Yeah. Make friends with people you think are geniuses and do it together.
"You Can Create a World" is the first installment in our new interview series spotlighting the creative, experimental, often brief, often shoestring, and always underreported-upon projects of indie lit. Read more Indie Lit conversations here.