John Barton of the Malahat Review edits with a poet's heart.
In the 1970s, creative writing student John Barton left Alberta and came to UVic in hopes of taking a course from revered author P.K. Page. When the budding poet arrived, however, Page had just quit the faculty. So Barton unpacked his pens and spent three years under the tutelage of an equally celebrated word conjurer and academic, Robin Skelton—the ring-encrusted Wiccan witch and co-founder of one of Canada’s leading literary journals, the Malahat Review.
Recently, in a bit of symmetry that would be considered too pat for A-list fiction, Barton came back to Victoria as editor of the magazine that had once seemed something of a beacon, and a bit out of reach. “I first contributed to the Malahat in 1982, the year after I graduated from UVic,” says Barton. “So, yes, it does feel like I’ve come full circle.”
Barton, BA ’81, returned here in the winter of 2004 after spending nearly two decades in Ottawa and most recently served as editor-in-chief of the National Gallery’s quarterly magazine. His poetry, meanwhile, thrived. Barton began winning significant awards in 1986, and has eight volumes of poetry listed on his resumé. Currently he has two projects on the go, including the first-ever Canadian anthology of gay male poetry. And from 1992-2003 he was also co-editor of Arc: Canada’s National Poetry Magazine, a publication similar in quality and importance to the Malahat.
“When John applied for the job here, we just couldn’t believe how fortunate we were to be getting an editor of his talent and experience,” says Lynne van Luven, a professor in the Writing Department. “Not only is he a fantastic guy and a wonderful poet but he truly is a peerless editor. He can spot the little infelicities that the author may be blind to… he improves, but without imposing his own style on the material.”
The Malahat print run of 1,000 copies goes out to subscribers in 16 countries. It publishes about 80 authors a year, winnowed from a towering 4,000 submissions. The quarterly has often punched above its weight—even a partial list of awards runs to several pages. Long-time readers will remember getting debut peeks at writing by authors such as Michael Ondaatje and Jann Martel.
Barton was eager to make the magazine even stronger, and one of the first things he did was create internships for senior Writing students. “I wanted to get the department more involved in the publication,” explains Barton, who nominally edits part-time but often puts in a pretty full week on the Malahat. “It gives the students an invaluable look at the working of a magazine. Literary writing in Canada is a cottage industry, and getting students to read manuscripts gives them a sense that writing is bigger than themselves.”
“Before John came, the Malahat was like a well-kept campus secret, it wasn’t fully integrated into the university community,” notes Lorna Jackson, a writing professor and occasional contributor of book reviews to the Malahat. “John was committed to strengthening relationships within UVic, and one of the ways he did that was by collaborating with the Maltwood Gallery and accessing their collection to come up with cover art,” she adds. “John’s done a great job as editor, plus his knowledge of the magazine business has been invaluable.”
Used to high production values from his publishing experience at the National Gallery, but equally familiar with the money constraints common to both publishing and museums, Barton has been able to groom and nurture the Malahat on the relatively minuscule budget of $115,000. “I do it by counting every penny,” says Barton frankly, before quipping: “Plus I took a vow of poverty when I quit the government, so I’m personally very familiar with making do without a lot of money.”
Barton has also increased the number of pages devoted to book reviews, adding a lively intellectual ferment to the Malahat. And even though this reduces space for submissions, he thinks the benefit is that only the very best work now gets published. “Authors—especially for poetry and short fiction—need feedback,” asserts Barton. “So we’re giving them a little critical comment… whether they want it or not.”
Another Barton innovation is a new annual award, Far Horizons, that alternates between short fiction and poetry. “This reaches the one really under-serviced writing sector, that of emerging authors—those who haven’t yet been published in book form,” says Barton. “Plus anyone who applies to Far Horizons gets a Malahat subscription in exchange for the fee they submit. It’s a good way to plump up our mailing list.”
Asked what he’s most proud of with regards to his tenure at the magazine that many people still associate with Robin Skelton, a look of wary hesitation flickers across his face. “It is always daunting when you take over a magazine with iconic significance,” he says eventually. “I like to think that I have at least maintained and maybe even enhanced its reputation.”