An interview with the founders of Partisan


By Marsha Courneya

On my way to interview Jason Guriel and Michael Lista about their online magazine, Partisan, my streetcar driver inexplicably disembarked and descended into St. Patrick subway station, closing the doors behind him and effectively trapping us for about five minutes. This was after I transferred to another streetcar due to a construction-detour around College and Spadina, which is where I was to meet the two poets. As a result, I was running quite late. The whole ordeal felt like some CanLit conspiracy to keep me from my appointment. A crazy thought, I know. But then few critics have inspired as much outright hostility in Canada as Guriel and Lista. It’s a fair bet their new venture—which, according to their editorial, draws on “the great tradition of periodicals publishing pointed criticism”—is making more than a few people nervous.

They’ve certainly had a charmed start. Their first week online, a major piece on the “decline and fall” of Canadian literature by Stephen Marche went viral, attracting the attention of Maclean’s which devoted a podcast to the fiery essay. A month in, they’ve covered everything from Mad Men to The Iceman Cometh, from Sufjan Stevens to Karen Solie.


Michael Lista (left) and Jason Guriel (right), both chin-scratching

Guriel is an award-winning poet and critic, whose third poetry collection, Satisfying Clicking Sound was released in 2014. His writing appears in The New Republic, and his essays and reviews were collected in 2013 in the book, The Pigheaded Soul. Michael Lista is the author of Bloom and The Scarborough and his poems and prose have appeared in Poetry magazine. Until recently, he was a columnist for The National Post and the poetry editor for The Walrus. A collection of essays, Strike Anywhere, is forthcoming in 2016.

I finally arrived at The Red Room, an institution known for its Buddha-explosion approach to décor, cheap food and cash-only policy. Lista and Guriel graciously brushed off my tardiness and I felt like I was joining a pleasant lunch between friends.

In your editorial, you say you will take snark over smarm. But are those the only options?

Michael Lista: I think the terms are reductive. Stewart Cole just published what is ostensibly a tough review of a poet we both like, but I’m not sure I’d consider it snarky. What’s interesting is that other people will call it snarky. I think the terms are simplistic, but people will label things what they label them.

Is it important to disagree with some of what you publish?

Jason Guriel: I think so. We’re publishing a few pieces that take positions we wouldn’t necessarily take, but are very well-written. We want smart writers who write in an engaging way even if that means saying something we disagree with. Where I lose interest is with pieces that are riddled with jargon, that feel like they were authored by the writer’s beloved theory prof or that rehash a safe, academic position they might have been taught in seminar.

ML: Even Jason and I have clashing views. What Partisan is about is how you do it, how you make the argument—prose that aspires to be an art form in itself.

Does Partisan have an ideal reader?

JG: We’re not interested in targeting a niche. We’re focussing on things beyond poetry even though Michael and I are, for lack of a better word, ‘poetry people’. We got our start writing poems and then writing reviews about other people’s poems. I think we will certainly publish a lot of poetry and literary stuff, but we want to focus on other products. We want to capture people who may not necessarily be poetry devotees.

ML: One of the reasons Jason and I became close was because we both see poetry as another cultural product that you enjoy alongside old episodes of Star Trek TNG and the new HBO show and a novel and a book of nonfiction. It’s something you fit into your intellectual diet, and you gab about it the way that overworked, well-educated people sitting around a table talk about it. Everywhere—from newspapers to magazines—poetry gets this hushed, solemn treatment like it’s a delicate cultural artifact. We don’t think that’s true at all. We think it’s very condescending.

JG: In the first week, we published an exchange that I had through email with Slate’s poetry critic, who is a lovely, smart guy and a good writer, but we had this sort of nice argument back and forth, and I said at one point that I don’t want to be in the position of having to defend poetry as an art form. I want to write about poetry in a way that’s appealing to a lot of people. I don’t want it to be quarantined, like it’s this sickly patient that requires kid-gloves.

ML: We never want to coddle our readers. We want to let them be flummoxed and upset and worked-up. That’s part of cultural journalism’s job. I think there are very few meaningful pieces that don’t generate at least as much censure as approbation. We aim to be a disruptive magazine.

JG: I hate to say this, but often, when a piece I’ve written generates some hostility, I realize I’m probably doing something right. I don’t always trust the pieces everyone is in love with online.

Are reviews inherently personal?

ML: I think they’re personal in the sense that a really good review is a reckoning for the reviewer as to how he or she really feels. In that sense, most reviews are not personal enough. That is, they pull their punches almost every time.

JG: The people writing for us have responded beautifully and generously to our invitation to sharpen and refine their thinking. Moments where I’ve been like, “I’m sensing some dissatisfaction.” I don’t think it’s a conscious thing—I think a lot of critics unconsciously pull that punch. No, it’s not a punch. It shouldn’t be thought of as a punch.

ML: Exactly. It comes out of a place of where you’re telling yourself you’re being polite. But that’s not true. You’re actually saying, “Listen, I know you’re a writer and you’re a professional and you’ve dedicated years and years to producing these things that other people hopefully will read, but you can’t really hear what I have to say about it.” It just drives me crazy that it’s seen as some kind of virtue. What it really means is we’re afraid that, by indulging people who have a habit of thinking for themselves, things will devolve into some dystopian wasteland where we’re tearing each other limb from limb. It’s crazy. Yet that’s what culture is supposed to be: adults disagreeing.

JG: The thing to look out for is the reaction to the review. Write something that’s maybe a bit critical of a book and the attacks are ratcheted to another level: character assassination, back-channel rumour mongering and very destructive personal stuff. That’s a dangerous tendency in our culture right now. The reaction to honest, well-written criticism is often so vitriolic. I don’t know what to do with that. Well, I guess we founded a web-magazine. So that’s what we did.

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Marsha Courneya

Marsha Courneya is a Toronto writer and filmmaker whose work has been shown in festivals in LA and Texas. She is currently working on a science fiction web series called "The Spectre" to be released this Christmas.