Sonja Vitow and Keren Veisblatt Toledano still joke after graduating five years ago that while GW was a haven for political clubs, the campus looked more like a creative desert for student poets and fiction writers.
After the alumnae left the District, they created their own online literary magazine, The Knicknackery, which promotes bizarre and off-kilter writing from foreign language poems to short stories. A year after they started the project, Vitow said the pair is still surprised by how many submissions they receive: roughly 60 every month, with about 800 total so far.
“I think it was like a ‘by-your-own-bootstraps’ kind of rugged individualism. We had to hack and saw our own literary community,” Toledano said.
While Vitow and Toledano had thought about publishing their own magazine since their undergraduate years, it wasn’t until they moved to New York City and Boston, respectively, for graduate school that they nailed down a concept. This past summer, they had their first in-person editing session for the tri-annual magazine, which has so far published two issues.
Vitow and Toledano said their shared interest in literature – and similar haircut – made them fast friends. They met their sophomore year after joining the staff of Le Culte du Moi (French for “the cult of ego”), an undergraduate literary magazine founded by a self-described “haughty camaraderie” of writers in 2002.
They soon became editors-at-large of the magazine with a staff of about five students. After the Student Association first allocated them $50 to publish, Vitow and Toledano said they won an appeal for $500 if they promised to print on recycled paper.
“I think it’s pretty easy at GW to get funding for international affairs clubs, political anything, journalism anything. Anything with the word ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ and it’s immediately approved,” Toledano said.
Though Vitow and Toledano tried to build interest in Le Culte du Moi – hosting an 11-hour marathon reading of Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous “Lolita” and planning trips to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s grave – the group could only afford to print one issue that year.
“We had to constantly present our case as to why we’re important to the campus,” Vitow said. “They just acted like it was the silliest thing you could possibly want to do.”
The duo also grew frustrated with the magazine’s veteran editors, who were less willing to experiment. They said editors would discourage switching up fonts or changing the black-and-white color scheme in the magazine’s pages.
When mentor and former Culte du Moi editor Seth Woolf, who Toledano called the glue of the Culte, suddenly passed away in 2008, the pair said they were inspired to start their own magazine.
“Not to be too introspective, but there was this idea of the fleetingness of things, and how ephemeral our time was and how we want to keep them alive in some way. And I guess this is the way we knew how,” Toledano said. The pair dedicates every issue of The Knicknackery to Woolf.
After committing to the idea of creating their own magazine, it took weeks of bouncing quirky phrases off each other before they hit their mark.
“We had this ongoing list of incredible words that we like to use, words that come up in conversation and we’re like, ‘Oh, my God, that word,’ like exactly the right something-or-other,” Toledano said.
It didn’t take long after making The Knicknackery’s site before dozens of submissions from freelance writers began to flood in, ranging from the prolific to bizarre.
In The Knicknackery’s inaugural issue, the co-founders’ former English professor, David McAleavey, published three free-verse narrative poems.
But behind the scenes of that same issue, the co-founders found comedic relief.
“We’ve gotten a few submissions about a weird magical cult,” Vitow said. “And after doing a little internet sleuthing, we found out the woman might actually be the mother of a cult. That’s got to be the weirdest.”
In the long term, Toledano said, they would like to compile the digital publication’s best submissions for a special edition hard-copy magazine. But in the meantime, The Knicknackery is accepting submissions for its third issue, which encourages writers to explore the connotations, be they behemoth or villain, of the word “monster.”
“We’re still establishing ourselves in a lot of ways,” Toledano said. “But I would love to have a physical object, something tangible. Something I could stick a bookmark in.”