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Do-It-Yourself Literature:

Two Local Magazines are Making it Happen

Starting a magazine is like having a baby. Both require gestation time, patience, faith, boundless energy, money and a whole lotta love and devotion. Fortunately, Sasha Cagen, founder of To-Do List magazine, and Danielle Jatlow, publisher of Watchword Press's literary magazine, two new Bay Area literary endeavors, seem to have all of the above in abundance -- well, except the money, of course!

We Bay Area natives and transplants are blessed to live in a place where, for all the bitching about how hard it is to find that elusive perfect date or that incredibly soul-satisfying job, folks come out of the woodwork when a worthy endeavor comes around. Sasha Cagen, who launched To-Do List magazine in 2000, says, "What's really great about San Francisco is that there is such a glut of young, talented, creative people who are willing to donate their time on a project that is non-remunerative (financially, anyway)." By reaching out through Craig's List and to friends, Cagen has found people willing to volunteer to do everything from designing the magazine's website to selling ads.

To-Do List, "a magazine of meaningful minutiae," offers the voyeur in all of us a chance to revel in the obsessions and compulsions of daily life. With hand-written to-do lists submitted by readers juxtaposed with articles about everything from flossing to collecting Chinese restaurant menus, To-Do List has also launched the "quirkyalone" concept, and nabbed some nice NPR coverage on "All Things Considered."

Recently, To-Do List moved into an office space in the Mission, down the hall from veteran indie Bitch Magazine and Watchword Press, a nonprofit publishing company with a focus on emerging American writers and Eastern European translations. For anyone who craves a glimpse of the wealth of talent that hasn't been plugged into the corporate publishing world, the company's eponymous literary magazine, Watchword, the latest issue of which features 26 writers and includes translations into English from Czech, Romanian and Serbo-Croat, is a treasure. Publisher Danielle Jatlow and editor Amanda Green have cast a wide net, bringing together some truly fine prose and poetry -- an amazing feat given that, at this point, no one is getting paid.

The challenges of bringing a publication to life are large. "The financial aspects of starting and evolving a new magazine or literary press is always an uphill battle, "says Jatlow. "Printing costs for small runs are very high, postage costs are going up, and widespread distribution to bookstores is difficult." Through fund-raising, soliciting advertising, and, of course, being open to any donation that comes along, both Jatlow and Cagen have made it work thus far.

While both To-Do List and Watchword are obviously labors of love, they are also testaments to the continued need for an outlet for "alternative" voices and to the creative passion that infuses the Bay Area. Says Jatlow, "Even though a lot of people and the media have tended to focus on the dot-com revolution when they think of the Bay Area entrepreneurial spirit, there are plenty of us out here that turn that spirit in the direction of the arts."

In the New Year, both Watchword and To-Do List are poised to grow, hoping to print more copies, sponsor more readings, and bring more new voices to the forefront. While those big NYC glossy mags complain about dwindling ad revenue and tough economic times, let's give thanks that the new kids on the West Coast are making a go of it.

Upcoming events:

To-Do List's release party for Issue #3,
"Self-Loathing: A Resistance Manual"

Saturday, February 23 @ 7:30 pm
Espresso Bravo Café
663 Valencia Street, 415.863.7785


Watchword's release party for Issue #2
Wednesday, February 13th @ 7 pm
Adobe Bookshop
3166 16th Street, 415.864.3936
Featuring Stephen Elliott, author of A Life Without Consequences; Daniel D. Grenda, poet, playwright, actor, director and co-founder of the Traveling Art Circus, a theater group based in San Francisco; Jenie Pak, who feels that words and images are like a persistent itch that will never go away; and selected translations from Issue Two read by Amanda Green, editor of Watchword.