Friday, June 25, 2010

Discovery Friday: The Drum

This post originally appeared on Pagan Kennedy's Writer 2.0.

by Henriette Power

For a writer, I’ve been acting a little strange lately. I’ve been driving around eastern Massachusetts with a pre-amp and a pop screen and other assorted pieces of sound equipment in a large messenger bag, and wielding a folded-up microphone stand in one hand.


I’ve been poring over sound files, cutting out extra-long pauses and noticing that I’m starting to recognize the shape that particular words form in the sound waves of Garageband. I’ve been working with short fiction, making editing suggestions, commenting on tone. But none of it has involved looking at actual words.

May 1st marked the launch date for my new writing venture: The Drum, A Literary Magazine For Your Ears. The Drum is a lot like other online lit mags, except for one thing: the stories, novel excerpts, and essays it publishes exist only as sound files. This is writing out loud. Literature to listen to.

The idea for The Drum took shape some time over the summer, as I listened to audiobooks during long car drives and wondered why there couldn’t be an audio counterpart for short works. The idea seemed a natural for our iPhone age. With so many sources of information and entertainment jumping mediums, I had to believe that, somewhere, the literary magazine had undergone a similar transformation.

As I began to research the concept, I discovered that The Missouri Review posts a handful of its published works as audio files on its website; that Scarab magazine is an iPhone app that offers mostly poetry read aloud; that Poetry Speaks sells audio files of new and public-domain poems. Still, I found no magazine for prose that’s read aloud—no place that was just like a literary magazine except in a different medium.

I took the fateful step of mentioning my idea for an audio magazine to two friends. Rather than pat me on the arm and change the subject, they reacted with enthusiasm and—more dangerously—with names of people I should talk to in order to make the idea happen. With experience in non-profits and in radio, these two serve as The Drum’s first Contributing Editors. Over the next several months, and with help from these friends and a number of other people, I gradually put together the magazine you can find now at www.drumlitmag.com.

The process was fascinating. I learned that, thanks to the truth of six degrees of separation, you already know everyone you need to know to get practically everything done. A lawyer to draft the rights agreements? The mother of my daughter’s friend knew just the right person. A web-builder? My rowing coach referred me. A logo designer? Two rowing connections led to that one. How to incorporate and apply for 501(c)3 status? Another rower. Sound editing? My neighbor’s son. All fall, I turned all my friends into focus groups for one aspect of the magazine or another. There was no coffee-drinking or dinner that didn’t involve some sort of brain-picking on my part, if only for a moment. (Perhaps the biggest lesson here was: if you want to get something done, ask a rower.)

What continues to strike me the most about this new endeavor is how it reveals the paradox of the digital age: far from removing all humanity from our increasingly technologized lives, digitalization has made it more possible for individuals to produce and to connect. I will leave the discussion of standards, gatekeeping, and the decentralization of taste-making to another time. My point here is to observe the psychological and more personal effect that building a new digital magazine had on this one writer. I have never quite made peace with the notion that my success lies in someone else’s hands. I’m not particularly comfortable waiting. But building The Drum was like the best part of writing fiction: creating something out of thin air, making something, and then collaborating with others to bring the thing to life. Thanks to the digital world, there is more than one way for a writer to make a mark.

By the second half of April, I was ready to begin the actual recording. Boston’s Grub Street Writers very kindly allowed me to use their space as a central recording location. But that didn’t cover writers like Aimee Loiselle who lives in western Massachusetts. And I had already learned that a large, high-ceilinged room with no carpeting or curtains is not exactly an ideal recording studio. To save Aimee a long drive, and to save The Drum’s listeners from the sound of an echo chamber, I recorded her short story in her friends’ farmhouse midway between our two homes. When I pulled up on a raw, gray day, a horse was grazing beside the driveway, and a brush pile smoked across the road. The room we recorded in was perfect: a renovated 18th-century bedroom full of pillows and linens to stifle any errant sound waves.

It’s a good thing I love to drive. In one week alone, I recorded in a Back Bay apartment, the Park Plaza hotel, and homes in Franklin, Oxford, and Jamaica Plain. There were slight occupational hazards, like the train rumble in Porter Square, the dog barking in Annisquam, and another dog chewing loudly on a bone on Commonwealth Ave. All of it, wonderfully, could be edited away.

Now, as I continue to go from house to apartment to office, I joke that I’m the Story Catcher. But it’s kind of true. I go around capturing the American Short Story in its element, like a cross between a lepidopterist Nabokov and the legendary Alan Lomax, who recorded folk music throughout the US. My travels are a vivid reminder that there are stories everywhere, and there are great writers everywhere, eager to hear their words brought to life. To me, the short works I’m publishing in The Drum are the records of a new American folklore—the folklore of contemporary literary culture.

The Drum’s writers seem to share my excitement for this enterprise. They have clearly rehearsed for their recording sessions. Many come with water bottles, some with lozenges. They consider whether they’ll perform better sitting or standing. They get comfortable. We do a two-sentence test for the sound levels, and they adopt their reading voice, taking care to enunciate and maintain a steady pace. Listening to them read, I have one eye on the levels—and a hand ready on the knob—but I let myself get transported to the world they’re creating. It’s like having a story read to you in childhood. Only better, because you get to listen to it again and again without having to beg the reader.

And then something interesting happens. When the piece is done, The Drum’s writers thank me. But why? The Drum can’t pay contributors anything right now. It’s a young magazine whose readership is growing but hardly guaranteed. To me, it seems clear that it’s The Drum who is benefiting from these writers’ generosity. Yet there seems to be something about reading aloud that brings its own rewards. There’s another digital paradox: instead of detachment, technology creates and preserves immediacy. The Drum’s writers seem to feel that they’re reaching people in a new way. Even though it’s just me in the room (sometimes accompanied by a helper), they respond to the larger audience they know they can reach through something as simple as an mp3 file.

Find The Drum online at http://www.drumlitmag.com/