The Steel Chisel – March 2013 – April 2016
The Steel Chisel was an online literary magazine and chapbook publisher that released its first digital issue in March 2013, and published new poetry and fiction monthly until this past April, 2016. The magazine, published and edited by David Emery, featured contemporary writers at various stages of their careers and finely walked the high-wire of promoting the publisher’s friends in the Ottawa writing community while also publishing new and unique voices in Canadian poetry. Through these publishing practices, The Steel Chisel managed to find and publish writers who would shortly become notable young voices. For instance, work from Jessica Van de Kemp, including an entire chapbook of her poetry, was selected by Emery before she was shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. Annick MacAskill, who now has a chapbook with Frog Hollow Press, had her first ever published poem in The Steel Chisel. Lastly, Jeff Blackman’s “The Prime Minister shook his son’s hand” was republished in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2015 after appearing in The Steel Chisel in March, 2014. From these examples, and from the outpouring of thanks and praise that filled The Steel Chisel’s Facebook page after Emery announced the magazine’s hiatus, it’s apparent that this online project was a success. Packed alongside Emery’s particular spirit for small press publishing, there is a devotion to community as well as a coherence and stylistic integrity in the work that appears in The Steel Chisel, all of which differentiates Emery’s efforts from other online and/or little magazines.
Emery cut his teeth in Canadian publishing at the Carleton University-based, student-run, and staple-bound, literary magazine In/Words Magazine & Press. In its beginning, The Steel Chisel appeared as another micro-press project from an In/Words alumnus, along the lines of Dragnet Magazine or Conduit Canada. During Emery’s time as an editor of In/Words Magazine there was a remarkable gathering of individuals who were all extremely passionate about Canadian literature and small press publishing. So, when the student-run magazine’s editors graduated, a number of them moved on to new publishing projects. Many carried with them the ideals that In/Words’ founder, Professor Collett Tracey, had instilled in the editors of Carleton’s little magazine: not only appreciating and promoting literature, but bringing people together and forming literary communities.
My experiences were similar to Emery’s—sitting through Prof. Tracey’s Canadian Literature courses and serving on the editorial board of In/Words Magazine, although a number of years after Emery left—and I began to read a hidden meaning into Emery’s self-description of his online magazine when he wriote that The Steel Chisel “was founded on the spirit of the country’s small press community.” I took that to mean that Emery had a new idea for publishing friends and the other talented writers he knew. The first three issues of The Steel Chisel were filled almost exclusively with In/Words ex-pats and/or Ottawa residents, poets like Cameron Anstee, Justin Million, Amanda Earl, and Peter Gibbon (the latter two appeared in both the first and last published issues of The Steel Chisel). These are inspirational figures in small press publishing who influenced Emery’s decision to initiate his online literary magazine. Yet, beside its rooting in the literary community in Ottawa, an overview of The Steel Chisel’s publishing record reveals another coherence, coming from the heartfelt and unique taste of its sole editor and publisher.
While Emery’s admiration of (and friendships with) the poets associated with In/Words Magazine fuelled much of The Steel Chisel’s content, this never meant that he sacrificed quality for nepotism. There was a straightforwardness and honesty in the work that Emery promoted; in an interview with JM Francheteau on Carleton University’s radio station, Emery explained that he would always come back to poetry for the moments that are “impressive or useful.” In every piece on The Steel Chisel there is at least one, and usually multiple, moments of impressive usefulness.
The work Emery promoted should be remembered as Canadian poetry that makes connections and stood for the building of small and global communities. Take Janna Klostermann’s “A young girl’s guide to acting refined” as an example of a poem that rejects the privilege communicated by etiquette in order to stand in solidarity with, or in support of, the “unrefined.” Meanwhile, Peter Gibbon’s “Concerning Rape” is a call to acknowledge rape in all its forms, and recognize all of its victims. Gibbon ends his poem with a reaffirmation that our humanity is more important than anything that divides us: “Difference matters: people / more.” These are examples of the “impressive and useful” poetry that Emery selected. In the poem that inspired The Steel Chisel’s title, John Newlove writes, “this is a ghost with a steel chisel, / sneaking another letter onto the stone.” Emery’s The Steel Chisel set out to highlight solid Canadian writing and inadvertently carved out a name for itself.
Chris Johnson lives and works in Ottawa as coordinating editor for Arc Poetry Magazine. Some of his chapbooks and poems have previously appeared with In/Words Press and in Ottawater, Matrix Magazine, The Steel Chisel, and (parenthetical).
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