On my dining room window, there’s a paint smudge at the center of the third pane of glass. Before quarantining for eight months, before gazing out that window each day at the same thin grove of oak trees, the same overgrown backyard, I couldn’t have told you that. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, this kind of interiority inspired a pod of writers at Columbia University’s MFA program to establish No Contact, an online literary magazine aiming to “put our inside voices on the page, and write what’s integral to our daily experience. At a careful distance, of course.” No Contact publishes biweekly issues featuring pieces under one thousand words that span all genres, each one accompanied by its own striking custom graphic. While the work may not always directly relate to pandemic-inspired isolation or solitude, perusing a No Contact issue feels like being invited into a stranger’s living room, for however brief a time—a reminder that what connects us transcends geography, and always has. I spoke with founding editors Gauraa Shekhar and Elliot Alpern (at a careful distance, of course!) to learn a little more about the magazine’s inception, their plans for the future of No Contact, and how their involvement in the literary community has helped keep creative inertia and loneliness at bay.
I’d love to know more about the impetus for starting No Contact. What was the spark that caught? Why now, quarantining for the COVID-19 pandemic, and why a literary journal?
We’d been half-joking about starting a lit mag through most of our MFA at Columbia — pitching names when we were all hanging out, like one might for a band they’re definitely going to start. So that seed was always there, even if it seemed like something distant, kind of over the horizon. And then one Friday, we came home from classes, and by Monday, the semester was online. It was quick. The shock of that was a bit hard for us to even know how to handle. And we knew a lot of other writers who felt the same way — we’d all lost access to this rich literary community, and we really needed some sort of nucleus that we could coalesce around and start working toward. Some sense of purpose, however trivial it might have felt at the time.
How has the pandemic impacted your process, operations, and goals, if at all? Is there anything you wish you could do on the editorial or promotional side that you can’t due to social distancing?
Of course, when we first launched No Contact, we weren’t even sure if we’d still be in quarantine more than a month or two later. We had some grand ideas for opportunities we’d hope to get to some months down the line, when “things cleared up” (still waiting for that). Collecting issues together in print volumes; hosting live readings and events in Manhattan; even crafting some custom artwork for contests/prizes. A lot of that feels largely inaccessible now — though we do have some stickers we like to give out, as those can be sterilized. But the timeline for so much has slowed down, which is fine; it just means we have to adapt to new methods of access. We just launched The Remote Viewer at No Contact, a space for features, interviews, book reviews, etc. And we’re hoping to host live readings and online events soon — there’s always more to come!
The name implies that you’re situating the journal in the context of the pandemic, and you mention on the site that you’re interested in writers’ “inside voices” and in plumbing the depths of daily experience. You publish work dealing with a range of subjects beyond pandemic-inspired isolation, but I’m curious what you’ve learned from reading and publishing pieces related to how we’re coping with COVID-19.
I think we realized quickly during social distancing that lockdown closes off our ability to deeply consider each other’s experiences in isolation. When we’re inside, we’re so walled-in, we forget that someone else is walled in with a dog who barks at the neighbors, or with their slightly offensive parent. Or in a relationship that might not survive the pressures of isolation. Or still physically going to work every day. And that’s their daily life right now. Reading the submissions sent our way helps knock those walls back a bit, and let the world in. You get to see through someone’s eyes into the space they’ve carved for themselves, their own daily constant. We haven’t physically gone to someone else’s home in months, and yet, through the work we’ve had the pleasure to read, we’ve still had the chance to visit, in some small way. In a sense, that’s what we’re trying to offer through No Contact as well.
The weight of the world right now has suppressed or impeded the ability to create for many, but the idea behind the journal seems to stem from the opposite experience, which I find intriguing and inspiring. As writers, have you had trouble accessing your inside voice? How do you find inspiration in stasis or solitude?
We both felt somewhat creatively dampened just a couple weeks into quarantine. One of our professors once stressed the immense value of “total relaxation” in allowing the best work to come through (or, at least, the most ease in writing) — and how could anyone be fully relaxed these days? If we’re being totally honest, that’s part of the reason why No Contact exists; it gave us a structure we couldn’t anxiously keep shelving for when we (might) feel better tomorrow.
How has your work at No Contact changed or reinforced your perspective regarding the power of writing?
It’s definitely been more of a reinforcement than a change — we’ve both respected the weight and power of writing in the world at large. I don’t think either of us would have studied at Columbia without that. But it’s been so, so nice to be reminded of that constantly at No Contact . We worried, when opening up general submissions, that we’d feel the pressure to accept a certain number of pieces, and just “take what we could get,” so to speak. But our experience has been the opposite. Since the very beginning, we were shocked to be receiving such affecting writing as a small lit mag. Just the other day, we came upon a submission that we knew was a “yes” barely a third of the way through, and it’s just such a joy to read for pleasure, knowing that you get the chance to show this piece to the world. That never, ever gets old.
Do you see No Contact continuing beyond the pandemic, and if so, in what capacity?
Absolutely. In a world where people still get the bubonic plague (in 2020!), that “after the pandemic” utopia is starting to feel more and more like some mythical city of gold. The truth is that we’ll be dealing with the pandemic and its after-shocks for longer than we think, and its ripples for many years beyond that. And it feels like a lot of the literary world wants us to think this is too passing to truly acknowledge. That’s fine, of course, but we believe this means that No Contact will maintain relevance for quite a long while. And we hope to support it, at least until that beautiful, faraway day when children can walk, mask-free and hand-in-hand, down streets paved with gold.
Lena Crown is phoebe’s assistant nonfiction editor and a second-year MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at George Mason University. She was born in Oakland, California, but she spent most of the last decade in St. Louis and is currently at work on a project interrogating her time there. Find her essays in Sonora Review, No Contact, The Offing, Entropy, Hobart, Atticus Review, Porter House Review, and elsewhere, and hit her up on Twitter at @which_is_to_say.