Structo: An Interview with Euan Monaghan

Structo is a British literary magazine that publishes a selection of short stories, poems, essays, and interviews twice a year. Submissions for issue ten are currently open; I spoke to magazine editor and founder Euan Monaghan about editing poetry, digital publishing, and what makes a great piece of writing.

How did the magazine start?

I founded the magazine in 2008. I was working in the Netherlands at the time, and had recently graduated from my first degree which was in physics. I had worked on the university film magazine, and on graduating I left all of that behind and I really missed that kind of atmosphere, working on a magazine which I eventually designed by the end of my undergraduate time there. So I was at a bit of a loose end as regards a massively distracting side project; I’ve been interested in fiction – short stories, poems – for quite a while, and it seemed to be a nice way to tie it all together.

Do you write yourself?

No I don’t. I enjoy reading, and writing non-fiction – I do a lot of writing for my research, on the science side of things. I don’t write fiction, or at least I don’t write stuff for other people. I enjoy practicing writing all kinds of things, but it’s not really for anyone other than myself.

What sparked your interest in starting a literary journal rather than a scientific journal?

Because it wasn’t science! Absolutely that. It’s the process more than the end result, I think – the experience of being sent work that people are very proud of and then essentially choosing the stuff you really like and publishing it.

Issue 9 ⓒ Structo
Issue 9 ⓒ Structo

What do you look for in a submission, something that will particularly catch your eye?

We’ve never had themes, we’re not looking for any particular or specific thing with each issue. Good writing is a lot of it, but not all – you can write incredibly well but still tell a very boring story. And vice versa – there’s some stuff which we’ve had in which is really intriguing and interesting with beautifully built characters, but isn’t written particularly well. It’s the marrying of an interesting idea with good writing, which is a very trite way of saying it but that is what it comes down to. But sometimes something really just catches you, and you don’t know why. It’s just something that speaks to you, an experience, or something which you know is right.

In the last issue, which did you think were the stand-out submissions?

On the poetry side of things, the Phil Callaghan was unanimous. We have a lot of people reading for the magazine, and we agreed that was just a case of how soon we could print it… It’s really difficult, and that’s one of the reasons we have so many people working on the magazine. Some fiction or poetry speaks to people more than it speaks to others. If we have one or two people who are really fond of something and other people are ambivalent, then it has a very good chance of getting in because if it has champions – art is subjective, literature is subjective – if someone’s excited by it then it has a fighting chance.

How many people work for Structo?

There are eight of us at the moment. With each issue we’ve expanded a little bit. It started off with just me, so I did everything apart from printing it. I edit and design, our poetry editor is Matthew, who’s in the States. This year I’m delegating some of the fiction editing to Kier who has been a contributing editor previously. Our proof-reader is Heather, based in Oxford; Elaine is our copy editor, and we have our editorial team who amongst other things read the bulk of the material. Mostly they read everything – we have a couple of people who don’t read poetry or don’t read prose, but it’s pretty diplomatic for the most part except for the odd veto, positive or negative.

Where did the emphasis on Nordic poetry in the last issue come from?

Our poetry editor studied for a while in Fróðskaparsetur Føroya in Faroe, and like myself is quite interested in other languages. So we decided – without making it a theme or a restriction – to keep an eye out for poetry translated from or written in Nordic and Northern European languages. We had a nice range of stuff, a lot of which I’m not sure if in the final thing were solicited from the poets themselves and their translators, the ratio varies.

Poets at Structo 9 Launch ⓒ Catherine Mottram
Poets at Structo 9 Launch ⓒ Catherine Mottram

How do you find poetry works in translation?

We had an event about poetry and translation at the Milton Keynes Contemporary Art Gallery. I didn’t know the answer to that, and so I wanted to bring some people in who could tell me the answer. We had a poet who was in the last issue, Christine de Luca, who writes in Shetlandic and translates from some of the Nordic languages. She came down from Edinburgh, and we had a couple of more Southern poets, Olivia McCannon and Chris Beckett, who translate from French and African languages as well. So we had some brilliant performances, and then a Q&A session where I grilled them about these questions – how do you begin to translate something like this? What seemed to come out of that was that if it’s not your work, then you have to take ownership of it yourself, and essentially realise that it’s now your poem. If it was simple to do you could stick it through Google Translate, and get a literal translation that wouldn’t speak through the poetry and what is being talked about – rhyme schemes are different, the words themselves have a different rhythm. I’m still slightly baffled by how they do it, but it’s a little more understandable now. Still terrifying, I don’t think I could do it myself. Especially with poetry – editing poetry is a complete nightmare. You’ve got someone who’s sweated over every single word. In fiction it’s a little bit easier because it’s about a story or a sense of place or something – poetry is about the words and the rhythm. It’s a nightmare. Which is one of the reasons why I brought Matthew in a few issues ago. Poetry editing is a skill, and he is very skilled at it. I’m very happy to delegate that kind of stuff to him!

How does that process of editing poetry work? Is there more mediation between editor and poet than when editing fiction?

It’s tricky, is the very diplomatic way of saying it. If there’s something which is just a typo then obviously it’s easy, but often there are times where you’ve got something which is more of a suggestion and more of an iterative process. You can say maybe this would work better for the rhythm, etc. Most people are receptive to that kind of stuff because they want to improve things… Often we’ve had great improvements in pieces through even slight changes in word choice. It’s very tricky and if anyone does this for their full-time job then I applaud them for it. Maybe it gets easier as you do it more.

How important do you feel the spoken element of poetry is compared to the written?

Some poetry works incredibly well spoken, and not so much on the page; for others the reverse can be true. Sometimes it’s to do with the performers – some poets and authors are not performers… I think they’re different things. Some poetry works in both forms, and that’s amazing, and mainly I would say that’s to do with the performer. Christine de Luca, for example, is absolutely spell-binding. It work beautifully on the page but when she speaks it, because of the accent and the fact that she is from Shetland, she introduces what some of the words mean that you might not know because it’s in Shetlandic – and then she just hypnotises you with an evocation of place. Even though it’s not 100% understandable because it’s in a dialect, you got enough of a sense of it from the way she spoke. It’s a learned skill and a talent. [Performance and writing] are very different things but sometimes they come together and it will work.

Stephen Beechinor at Structo 9 Launch ⓒ Catherine Mottram
Stephen Beechinor at Structo 9 Launch ⓒ Catherine Mottram

What unique space do you feel Structo occupies?

We initially sided a lot more with the ‘zines’ and the really independent, photocopied, stapled-together brigade. It never really fitted in because we always wanted to produce something which was a bit more lasting. From issue 4 we turned to tabloid newspaper print. We seem to have pigeon-holed a lot by the way the end product looks; now, it’s easier to put us with other mainstream literary magazines because we look like a little thin book. This last issue was 100 or so pages, so it can be shelved. Previously it was a nightmare – how do you sell a 30-40 page tabloid newspaper in the spaces that people might be buying literary magazines? A lot of it works in terms of where we sell – we sell in bookshops, and it’s now a lot easier… The majority of us who work on the magazine are more at an askance to the literary scene for one reason or another – several of us have come from science backgrounds – so we’re not in a particular ‘scene’. It’s a difficult one to say from the inside, I think it would be a lot easier for someone on the outside to judge.

How has digital publication affected journals such as this?

We’ve always published online – there’s a fantastic site called ‘Issuu’ which is essentially a way to read magazines online… We’ve had at least 100 times more readers online than from the print magazine. But initially I always loved the idea of a physical magazine, partly because I really enjoy designing them. But to maximise the number of people who read these brilliant stories, then you can’t ignore digital because it’s easier for people to read it. They might not read the whole issue, and that’s a different way of reading things, dipping in and reading specific things before flying away and maybe reading something else. If you’re proud of the stuff you publish, which we are, it’s pretty silly to ignore an entire readership who are otherwise interested. It’s very much both formats, and we started off by embracing both and didn’t see them as separate so much. The only thing that we’ve done now is that we publish online for free, but only 3 months after publication. We have a print issue, and then it goes online. This is partly to give people who’ve bought a paper copy a bit more money’s worth… The new format as of two issues ago is almost exactly the same size as an iPad – this isn’t a coincidence. But that’s a very tricky thing to get into and we’re working it out.

Do you visualise and structure the magazine differently knowing that it’s going online? Some things work very well in physical format but less well online, and vice versa, particularly lengthier submissions.

This is something we’ve been thinking about a lot recently. At the minute, there’s no difference between what goes online and what goes into the publication, it’s exactly the same. It’s published online as a coherent pdf which is the same as the physical volume you flick through… Going forward, we’re about to launch our new website… which means that the amount of flexibility we will have is enormous. We’ve been talking about that exact thing in the past few weeks. If we have submissions that might not work in print because they’re too long, or have some kind of hyperlink idea going on – there’s some interesting stuff going on in experimental writing which links between spaces in the text, and I’m quite interested in experimental writing anyway – and some things simply wouldn’t work in print. I don’t know, is the honest answer, but it’ll be really interesting to see what happens.

Do you think things like that change the way people write? You can write a haiku, super-impose it onto a photograph, upload it to Tumblr and find it’ll be shared and people are reading your work that way. It’s a great way of publicising but you simply can’t do that with an entire short story. Do you think that will change the way people think about their writing?

It’s an interesting one. I’m very excited by what is going to happen to literature. The current generation have grown up knowing nothing else but a connected world where you can publish your stuff anywhere in any format you want, essentially. Given you can publish however you want, you might not reach the readership – but that’s down to both quality and luck, really. It’s going to be incredibly exciting, building in a flexibility to promote the writing we like. That’s the basic idea of the magazine; to promote writing we like, no matter what. It could be a first-time author, or someone who’s published by one of the big publishing houses, it doesn’t matter. If we can be flexible enough to publish a really good haiku that’s photo-shopped on top of a picture and happens to be amazing – if we can find a way of publishing that then great. I’d probably share that on Twitter now. It’s about being flexible and letting what you want to get out there drive the format. At the moment I think the best way to read this stuff is on paper, or on your e-reader. If something else is easier, we’ll move towards that.

Who are your favourite writers at the moment?

One who I always recommend to people is a Ukranian writer called Andrey Kurkov, who wrote Death and the Penguin. It’s a fantastic book – dark comedy. I think he lives in London now… But he’s hilarious and I always go back to his books because I know they’re going to be good. We interviewed Stella Duffy for the last issue and I’m continuing to read her books, and they’re very readable as well as being really good… I’ve got some Ian McEwan piled up, and I’m going back through some popular classic stuff like Orwell… I’m writing my thesis at the moment so I’m reading a lot of papers, and interspersing those with fiction and non-fiction. I’m reading a lot of non-fiction at the moment which is nice, a lot of stuff about the early days of exploration.

Would you ever publish non-fiction, maybe travel writing or historical fiction?

I don’t know. We’re getting a new columnist for the new issue – we’ve published his reviews online before… His brief is ‘whatever you want that is vaguely literary’. That’ll be really interesting because he can talk in an interesting fashion about most things. So in the future we’re definitely going to be publishing more – I don’t know what you’d call it really – creative non-fiction? We’ve never really had a plan except to promote interesting writing, and that is interesting.

Do you have any opinions on literature in education – how you ignite the first spark to get someone to pick up a book and maybe enjoy it?

Keir [Pratt], my soon-to-be fiction editor, really hated poetry. He wouldn’t read it, but he was slowly won over (although I’m sure he wouldn’t admit this) by the good poetry we publish. He just had an impression that a lot of people have after going through school. I was taught a lot of terrible poetry, I hated it. It was only through writers like Philip Pullman, coming across Blake, that I realised that those we were studying were terrible – or at least, I think they’re terrible. Being made to study things that you really don’t like, as a 15 year old, can turn you off an entire swathe of literature. And yet, when I was in sixth form, I worked in a bookshop in the holidays. They ran a poetry competition, and my English teacher won it. She wrote incredible poetry! She was teaching us terrible poetry and writing very good poems in her spare time, which I thought was so unfair of her. I don’t know whether she liked the stuff she taught. If she didn’t, perhaps there needs to be more freedom for people to be passionate about what they teach… I know how little flexibility there is in the National Curriculum, which is a problem that several of our staff could bore you to tears about. With the availability of all different kinds of literature, it’s perhaps easier for people to find stuff they like. I don’t know whether that’s good, in that then you’re not pushed to try stuff you don’t think you like and discover is actually amazing – I wouldn’t have thought one of my favourite authors would be a Ukranian who writes dark comedies about a guy who writes obelisks for a newspaper, for example. But in education it’s difficult to find what you like because you’re being told what to read and study. If you’re lucky and get something like To Kill a Mockingbird  or Atonement or something, then great.

Are submissions for next issue open?

We’re open for submissions for just less than two months, for our tenth issue, which is very exciting and slightly unbelievable – we’ll be advertising a bit more widely now and get the word out. Again we have no theme except good stuff. We have a hard limit of 3000 words for fiction, but again we’re looking for stuff we like. I realise this isn’t very helpful for writers, but if you look at back issues you’ll get an idea of the kind of thing we’re looking for. We used to say that we liked ‘slipstream’, which is a somewhere inbetween literary and genre fiction, but actually I think that restricts us a little.

When you said you’re interested in experimental writing – is there anything you’d really love to see from an experimental writer that you think would be really interesting?

The experimental writing we’ve published – the form tends to have been driven by the story. We’ve had things which have excerpts from books leaking into the story, and blocks of text which are streams of consciousness which benefit the story. Sometimes there’s not even a story there. I’d like to be surprised, to be perfectly honest. It would be great to see something that makes people pay attention. It’s very easy to do that in a shocking way which is cheap. If you can make a reader pay attention and be invested in what’s happening, that is gold.

Leah Broad

For more information about Structo magazine, please visit their website; the deadline for issue 10 submissions is 30th April 2013, and work can be entered here. You can also follow them on Twitter and on Facebook.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook

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