We spoke with Jennifer Acker, editor in chief of The Common, in this installment of the CLMP Member Spotlight series.
I formed the nonprofit The Common Foundation in 2009, we published a mock issue (Issue 00) in 2010, and the official debut issue launched in 2011. The original mission was to publish diverse work from around the world, all grounded in a strong sense of place. We have stayed very true to that mission over the last 10 years.
The Common’s tagline is “A Modern Sense of Place: Stories, Poems, Essays & Images.” How does this theme influence your editorial decisions and the work you look to publish?
The theme of place is important to everything we publish, every essay and interview and photo collage. We seek to accept pieces in which the setting matters—place must be rendered sensorially, and it must influence how people think, or move, or interact, and the choices available to them.
As you mentioned, this fall marks The Common’s tenth anniversary, and you’ll also be releasing your 20th issue. How are you celebrating? How has The Common grown and changed since 2010?
Well, we were going to collaborate with folks across the country (and internationally) in a “10 events in 10 cities” tour, to emphasize our interest in place, but obviously COVID put the lid on that. Instead, we are bringing together our global contributors and readers through a virtual launch and celebration on October 28. Issue 20, which comes out on October 26, contains a portfolio from the Lusosphere—Portugal and its colonial and linguistic diaspora—in collaboration with the DISQUIET International Literary Program, and we have authors and translators representing four continents participating.
The Common has grown and expanded a lot in our first decade. This is most obvious in our educational programming. We now offer a classroom adoption program, called The Common in the Classroom, providing teachers with discounted subscriptions and free lesson plans and resources. This means that each term I get to visit (usually virtually but sometimes in person) with high school, undergraduate, and graduate students who are reading The Common, to answer their questions about publishing and (hopefully) demystify the literary world a bit. In the last few years we also launched Weekly Writes, an affordable 10-week series of writing prompts, and The Common Young Writers Program, a two-week fiction writing course offered virtually for high school students.
Editorially, we publish many more works in translation, and we feature fiction from a different Arabic country every spring. And while we used to publish roughly three online exclusives per week, that number is now more like five or six, thanks in no small part to our expanded editorial team.
Can you tell us more about your focus on work from different Arabic countries? What inspired this annual feature? Do you know what region you’ll be highlighting in 2021?
Our Arabic portfolios are one of the features I am most proud of. It’s unusual for a literary magazine to publish so much from Arabic; we just don’t have a lot of open cultural conduits between Arabic countries and the U.S. Less than 1% of translations published every year in this country are from Arabic.
Our literary connection with the Arab world began when my husband and I were invited to spend a year teaching at NYU Abu Dhabi. At that time, I was ignorant of contemporary Arabic writers, but I began to do some research and struck up a long-distance friendship with Jordanian writer Hisham Bustani, whom we published in Issue 06 in fall 2013. Hisham and I then began the massive undertaking of an all-Arabic issue, 36 pieces from 25 countries across the Middle East and North Africa. It was so much work! We published it in spring 2015’s Issue 11. Then, after we regained our sanity, we decided that every spring we would publish eight to ten contemporary short stories translated from Arabic, focusing on one country at a time. So far we have collections from Jordan, Syria, and Sudan. Morocco will be featured in spring 2021.
What is your Literary Publishing Internship?
This is a year-round, hands-on internship, mostly for Amherst College undergraduates (The Common is based at and partially funded by Amherst College). We see it, combined with our other student-focused programs, as doing our part to mentor and train the next generation of writers, editors, and publishers. We work with six to ten students per year, part-time during the semester and full-time over the summer. Often students stay with us for several years, so we form a real community, and students get a chance to contribute to all aspects of The Common’s publishing and programming. The magazine becomes part of their college careers, socially and intellectually, and not just a job.
Is there a story behind your distinctive covers? How did this design come about?
We are all in love with our covers and get tremendously excited about each new one. Since the beginning, our fabulous designer has been Gabriele Wilson. In the beginning, I knew what size I wanted the magazine to be and that it should have French flaps, but Gabriele came up with everything else. One of the original cover design options was a shiny, strong, but also tensile fork against a cherry red background. It was simple but eye-catching and emphasized another aspect of the mission statement, “to find the uncommon in the everyday.” Since then we have featured a “common” object on each of our covers, set against a striking background color and with a complementary endpaper color inside. Issue 20 returns full cycle to the fork, but this time hoisting a celebratory piece of birthday cake.