Long River Review interviews Sina Najafi (2012)

Since February, we here at the Long River Review have been accepting submissions for Long River Rapids, our new online flash fiction series, where each month we ask readers to submit short works in response to a general theme that has been suggested by our editors. For March, it was “falling down.” This month’s prompt was “tattoos.”

In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, we can’t pretend that the idea for LRRapids was completely our own (as much as we’d like to); in truth, we owe its spark of inspiration to the folks at Cabinet, an award-winning arts and culture quarterly published by a small nonprofit in Brooklyn, New York. Founded by Sina Najafi and Brian Conley in 1999 with the prospect of bridging the divide between the worlds of journalism and academic writing, Cabinet has since worked to do so in part by redefining the way we think about “novelty.” Each issue brims with an array of adventurous content from artists and writers, many of whom have been drawn out from the candlelit corners of academic esoterica to tell their stories. As such, a fierce commitment to the historical and factual paired with non-prescriptive themes that range from the narrowly focused (“Horticulture,” “Insects,”) to the more interpretive (“The Average,” “The Enemy”) and obscure (“Invented Languages,” “Pharmacopia”) can account for the ambitious nature of the material itself. In the most recent issue, “24 Hours,” for example, London-based artist Jonathan Allen calls forth the story of a mountainside village in southern Spain that was repainted blue in promotion of this summer’s 3-D Smurfs movie to consider the evolution of the color’s psychological and ideological power. All is featured in an open rotation of columns, essays, interviews, and special art projects that challenge the bounds of the glossy pagein a sense, literally: bookmarks, audio CDs, posters and postcards may often be found tucked away amidst the large color print.

Brian Dillon working around the clock as the first participant in the nonprofit’s “24-Hour Book” series. His text, I Am Sitting in a Room, will be released by Cabinet Books next month.

As editor-in-chief of Cabinet, Sina Najafi has also organized a number of events with the magazine throughout the years, including “Cabinetlandia,” a project inspired by Issue 10, “Property,” and started in 2003 on a half-acre parcel of desert property in Luna County, New Mexico. Events are often held in the magazine’s own art space, which doubles as a production office to cut costs, including “At the Eleventh Hour,” an exhibition from 2009 of paintings by Victor Houteff, founder of the Branch Davidians sect that reached national attention under David Koresh’s leadership. Najafi also serves as the editorial director of Cabinet Books, and has put out ten titles to date, including Brian Dillon’s 2011 historical look at the scenography and architecture of writing, I Am Sitting in a Room, penned in a day at Cabinet headquarters as the first of its “24-Hour Book” series. Born in Iran and raised in England, Najafi holds degrees from Princeton, Columbia, and New York University, and has taught art theory at Cooper Union and the Rhode Island School of Design. We had a chance to speak about roots, “the industry,” and other key aspects of running a small magazine in a short interview from earlier this month.

Long River Review: In keeping with Cabinet’s central statement that the unmarked histories behind our everyday experiences demand critical reexamination, I should ask first—how did your career predating the magazine lead to founding it? Where did you get your start?

SINA NAJAFI: The magazine was founded in 1999, but I had been part of two magazines before that—one was a Swedish magazine based in Stockholm, the other was an English-language magazine based in Stockholm and New York. So I had some experience in making magazines before. My particular background, however, is in literature, theory and cultural studies. When we started Cabinet, I was writing a dissertation in comparative literature at NYU, which I never finished.

In the early 90s, I was living in Stockholm, which is where I first got involved in magazine making. This happened more or less accidentally; in 1992, all the editors of a non-profit arts quarterly called Index left it, and a friend of mine was asked if she’d like to take it over. She called me up and asked if I would join her, which I did. Since no one had any expectations for the magazine to succeed, we jumped in. Luckily for us, neither of us had ever run a magazine before, so we got to make it up as we went along. It turned out that, though a lot of work, running a magazine is in some sense very simple—it’s basically words and images, and it’s not that difficult to imagine how to do it. In 1997, I left Index to start a new magazine with two other friends. By that time, I had moved back to the United States, and after a couple of years, I decided that it’d be interesting to start a new non-profit magazine based here in New York.

LRR: Do you have any advice for young people starting off in the industry today?

SN: Well, the first thing is that you should not think of it as an industry for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that you’ll start to think that the industry’s “wisdoms” are things you need to pay attention to. In my opinion, those “wisdoms” are in fact often obstacles to running an interesting magazine.

My second piece of advice would be to remember that a magazine is just a collection of words and images. If you’re passionate and want to put together a magazine, the hardest part is not coming up with the ideas. No, the hardest part is distribution. So my advice is plunge in, if you can, and start making, because you will learn a lot by just making something. Doing will be your best teacher.

Third: If you have an idea that everyone around you thinks is good, take a closer look at it; it’s probably no good. After cowardice, consensus is the most direct path to mediocrity that there is. And a final piece of advice: someone I know once told me that the only texts he has ever written that he still feels for—and he’s a truly great writer—are the ones that have left him slightly ashamed. And I think this is very important. In making your magazine as well as in your writing, if you don’t feel anything at risk, if you are not unsure half the time, you’re doing something wrong. It’s not possible to do all these things all the time, but I think they are useful to have in mind as goals.

But let me go back to my first point. The “industry” has a whole bunch of wisdoms, many of which basically act as barriers to keep out “amateurs.” Here’s an example. The very first person I approached to join me when the idea of Cabinet was brewing decided not to come on board because every expert we talked to at that time told us that any magazine with less than three million dollars in startup money would definitely fail within two years. When Cabinet was finally launched, we had 80,000 dollars, and we’re still here twelve years later. Some things would have been a whole lot easier with three million dollars, for sure, but some things would have been harder or even impossible, and years later we learned that the small size we started at was in fact a very good size for the specific project we had in mind. So, there are a lot of things that people are taught about how to run a successful magazine that I think you should just ignore. McSweeney’s is a perfect example of how to ignore all those rules, follow your convictions, forget all the consensus around you, and do a terrific job.

All this is true for writing too. Journalism courses often teach people to write in a particular way, and I think it’s important to unlearn all that stuff— about having a hook in the first paragraph, moving efficiently from A to B, etc—if you want to be an interesting writer. Your readers are much more curious, much smarter, much more intellectually agile than is usually assumed by these sorts of rules. I should point out that everything I’m saying here is for running a small, hopefully interesting, magazine—not for running a large publication with a staff of 100. Then it really is the industry and it’s best to learn all the rules I’m telling you to ignore.

LRR: Over the last twelve years, you’ve run a fairly tight ship at Cabinet— before opening up your art space on Nevins Street in 2008, you were working with a staff of five out of your Boerum Hill apartment—which readers might be surprised to hear, given the high volume of material you publish in each issue. What’s more, you offer just a six-week response time for submissions. How does your editorial board collaborate in such an extensive selection process?

SN: Well, we’ve never had a full-time staff of five at the office. At the moment, we are one full-time person and three part-time people. We have a few other core editors too who we are in touch with regularly by phone, email, etc, as well as a freelance art director who designs each issue. We also have two part-time interns at any one time, and a large group of contributing editors all over the world who are in touch with us as they see interesting material.

One thing that streamlines our work is that we don’t have an elaborate system of copyeditors and proofreaders. Instead, we have a very unusual and efficient editorial system, which is based on every single text being edited by Jeff Kastner, senior editor at the magazine, and myself in real-time. What this means is that Jeff and I sit together, side by side, at a computer and we read each article line by line to each other and put in all our suggestions, from large-scale suggestions to tiny proofreading fixes, as we go along. I’m sure this system has disadvantages, but one of its advantages is that it’s incredibly efficient. I also think that having us read everything at the same time means that we are both more tuned into the nuances of the text than we would be if we read the text individually. What we end up with is not just the sum of what each of us would have noticed on our own. The text is proofread again later by other colleagues at the office, but the joint editing saves us a lot of time.


Najafi [center] and fellow staffers at Cabinet headquarters in Brooklyn, NY. The team is currently in mid-production of the magazine’s next issue, “Games,” due out May 31.

LRR: As an aspiring writer myself, editing for a small journal has raised a few cardinal questions that I’ve taken to deliberating in my own writing—for instance, at what point does a piece’s style deny its content? How has acting as editor-in-chief of an award-winning magazine affected how you see yourself as a writer? As a teacher?

SN: I used to write in almost every issue in my other magazines, but now I am too busy and I write very little. I write mostly short things, usually in other venues. For Cabinet, I do a lot of interviews instead, with all kinds of people. For our next issue, I’ve interviewed Bertell Ollman, a professor of history at NYU who created a board game in the early 80s called “Class Struggle.” But I’ve also interviewed, for example, a guy who created a database of sneaker soles for the FBI because 99% of crimes in the US are apparently done in sneakers. I love doing interviews more than writing now, because one of the magazine’s goals is to advance the idea of listening to the world around us. We live in a culture that celebrates self-expression, but forgets to encourage listening. Doing interviews is in part about being a student again, and about listening again. When we interview people, we want the interviewer to take up the position of the “intelligent ignorant” (that’s a phrase coined by the great Mary Beard). We imagine our reader will be a smart person who nevertheless knows nothing about the field of the person being interviewed, and we want the interviewer to occupy the same space.

Anyone who is part of a magazine is obviously engaged with pedagogy by definition, since any serious magazine thinks that it can offer interesting intellectual perspectives to others. We’re not different, though our pedagogical impulse also dictates our belief that very complex material can be presented in simple, approachable, jargon-free language . My personal model for this would be the late Foucault, whose books on the history of sexuality are written in such clear, simple prose, even if he is proposing an incredibly complex argument.

And one of the other things that’s related to all this is that we have an office where everyone helps out with all the tasks as much as possible: all of us at the office help stuff the new issue into envelopes for our subscribers, we all help out with cleaning up the event space, etc. This may not seem to have anything to do with pedagogy, but it does. We share all this as much as possible because doing all these things reminds everyone here, including me, that every aspect of what makes an organization go forward is equally important. And I think that’s an important lesson to remember, no matter what institution you’re at. You could say that we’re so small that of course everyone needs to help out with everything, that it couldn’t be any other way. But it’s also the case that having more division of labor would probably have made us grow larger more quickly. In some sense, we have acted in ways that have kept us a certain size, but this is also a choice. We want to stay a certain size, which for us is the size at which we can continue to have an artisanal relationship to what we do. This is not to fetishize artisanal production, but for us that’s the scale at which we can still feel connected to what we do, and the scale at which the ethical question of how an institution goes about doing what it does still feels like a relevant one. I’m of course just talking about us; I’m not saying this is the right size for every project.

There’s been a disturbing trend in recent years in the fields of arts and culture where every organization is supposed to “develop” and get larger, as if the corporate model of development is one that is also necessarily the right thing for arts and culture organizations. Staying small is no longer a viable option, it seems. And alongside this trend is a related one, which has always been there in some form but is, in my opinion, getting more and more pronounced, which is the tension between what an institution says about the world and how it behaves in it. For example, we don’t think twice when we see that a cultural institution makes statement after statement in its programs about democracy, critiquing power, dismantling hierarchies, etc, but then still operates in ways that basically negate all these statements, for example in a salary structure where the director makes half a million dollars and someone at the bottom barely makes 30,000 dollars; by having all sorts of elitist perspectives; and where the director would think certain tasks done by the staff are beneath him or her, etc. One advantage of being small is that it more or less forces you to avoid some of these dangers!

LRR: The next issue of the magazine, “Games,” is due out this spring. Can we expect new exhibitions, events, or books in the coming months?

SN: Long before we decided to do the issue on games, we had planned to do a weekend event called “Parlor” where we would basically turn our space into a salon for playing all sorts of games. We delayed and delayed, and now this issue is the perfect time for us to finally do this. There will be tables with all kinds of games on offer, ranging from ordinary ones like backgammon to “Class Struggle,” the board game I mentioned before. In addition to board games, we also want to offer some of the classic games that game theorists developed, among other things. Leading up to the weekend, we’ll invite speakers to come and do presentations about various aspects of the history of games. Games are a very rich topic, philosophically, historically, and culturally, not to mention the economics of it all—as you may know, the game industry today has revenues that rival Hollywood. 

LRR: Is there anything you’d like to add?

SN: Good luck with your plans.

For more on Cabinet and to view an entire sample issue online, be sure to check out cabinetmagazine.org.

To submit to Long River Rapids for the month of May, send any short work (prose, poetry, photography, paintings, drawings, videos, facts, etc.) on “glasses” to submissions@longriverreview.com by April 28. We ask that written entries remain at 500 words or fewer, videos 1 minute or less.

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