A Look at MONK

MONK is a magazine exploring the relationship or link between spirituality and creativity. It’s path trodden before, but perhaps not with this approach. With the first issue just out I asked the Founding Editor, Sophie Lévy Burton, where she’s going with MONK.

How long has MONK been in development?

We’ve been an online magazine since November 2018 but this first print anthology was brewed over the lockdown last year when I became totally fed up with Zoom and wanted to return to paper and print, to the comfort of holding a book. Because we already had a thorough online blueprint, my designer and I were able to work quite quickly to figure out a hard copy and aesthetic. MONK has a very distinctive style of course; I wanted aspirational content rooted in a high aesthetic: an aesthetic object in itself, about transcendence which was itself a vessel of transcendence – bookish and beautiful – and collectible! MONK is designed to be kept as much as it will keep you. I’ve always loved vintage editions of Vogue and poured over old copies with their distinctive Didot typeface. Why not have a bit of glamour whilst examining aspects of the soul? We bought the infamous Vogue Didot typeface and never looked back. We’ve managed to keep the magazine clear of adverts – no paywall on the online issue or adverts in the publication. I view MONK as part of the slow media model like Aeon and Resurgence, which champions reading over revenue, contemplation over consumption. That’s some of the technical stuff of course. Metaphysically speaking I’ve probably been dreaming MONK into being for many, many years – it’s like the Chinese say, a lifetime in one brushstroke. It’s always been a question of the right moment. I certainly see my life’s course aiming to this first anthology. MONK holds all my life’s interests. Not such a long life by the way – I’m 49!

Can you tell us a little about your background. Are you a writer, an artist?

I should be able to give you a straightforward answer, shouldn’t I? But nothing in life is really straight like that. Whilst I now describe myself as an artist I was a writer and journalist for over twenty years. I cut my cloth in London and India with legendary editors like Alan Ross (London Magazine) and Jeremy Atiyah (Sunday Independent) on diverse subjects – travel, education, theology. Then I had a glorious period of deviation where I wrote fiction – three novels, on quasi-mystical subjects – and ploughed straight into a quite depressive phase, which looking back was very important for shaping my future creativity. I literally abandoned writing and took up painting and sculpture, and got an energy and fulfilment from both that I never really got from writing. All this short bio of course has fed MONK and the questions of creativity that it seeks to ask. My take out is we need to be creative to be whole. It’s part of our emotional, spiritual aspiration and evolution. MONK has brought me majorly back to writing, for which I thank it. But I regard myself as an artist now, not a writer. And anyway artists are much more fun at a party, and more fun to get drunk with... 

What motivated you to publish MONK?

The deep dive from online to print publication occurred in the first UK lockdown when I became fed up of screens and returned in a major way to my own book collection. Suddenly I knew it was right to bring out MONK in print. It felt inspired to be honest. My designer Rosy Naylor had been wanting to do this for a while but I hadn’t felt the pull. And it was an exhilarating process to go through, in terms of creative development, as I detail above. Moving to paper I felt far more connected to what I call my MONK family. When I told photographer Himanshu Vyas, one of our Indian contributors, about the print version he said, ‘MONK takes Avataar…’. I love that. Somehow it sums up that leap we took from cyber to print… a rebirthing, a manifesting…

When you pitched MONK to me I remembered a couple of art-and-spirituality magazines we stocked in our early days that tanked, so I assumed this would be a Christian art magazine and another tough sell for us. Plus I’m trained to think that to undertake a creative project you have an objective of sorts. It seems straightforward. Yet on opening MONK I came up against a simple and useful corrective from the painter Karen Fitzgerald who says, ‘In the studio, the mind expands’ and it’s clear your magazine is very much about the ‘why’ and all its fascinating strands. So how do you frame your mission against a mindset that marks MONK down as solely for the conventionally religious?

Well, I am not conventional myself on any level and I could never produce a conventional magazine…  And MONK’s interest is not in religions per se but the universal experience of that which lies beyond – through Spirit, Psyche. MONK’s byline is art and the soul an imaginarium, however it is expressed. We keep it loose. It’s supposed to be mysterious. Because it is about – the mysterious!

Although we encounter artists on their various journeys or pathways, I’m struck by repeated references to states of mind or states of being, such as ‘otherness’, ‘contemplation’, ‘reflection’ and so on. Obviously we are living through a dark, uncertain and isolating time and we’re all now wondering what’s ahead. Do you think MONK nourishes this thinking?

Yes, if the feedback is anything to go by. I’d say MONK is having a profound effect during this period, and that somehow it has tapped into the extraordinary phenomenon of the pandemic – the fact that extended lockdowns seems to be turning us all into monks – turning us inward, forcing us to retreat, slow down, press pause and think. I get messages all the time from people saying ‘this is what I needed…’  So it seems to be tapped into the Zeitgeist – of people exploring their creativity and inner worlds, questioning their inner narratives, feeding their souls.

It was quite a coup to land an interview with Rowan Williams in your first issue. He is a writer and poet as well as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, although I note he is quick to point out that his creative awakening followed his spiritual epiphany!  How did this interview come about?

To be absolutely honest, I just wrote and asked him. I’m a great believer, especially with everything I’ve learned setting up MONK, of the saying nothing ventured, nothing gained. I believe in knocking on doors, creating opportunity. If there isn’t a door, then build one. With Rowan – he is a generous individual anyway but I think he was particularly taken with the title MONK and that we actually aren’t a conventional publication – we examine creativity from a different almost maverick slant, looking at artists as conduits of the divine and art as a way of transcendence. I remember in my letter I used the phrase exploring the more shamanic side of creativity… the idea of the retreat into creativity. I learned a big lesson by the way with him. Just before I wrote to him I told two close friends, separately, about my approaching him. They both told me not to bother, that I’d never get an interview. Can you imagine if I’d listened to them? So be cautious when sharing your instincts or intuitive inner voice to do something, even close friends. If you approach a person or project with humility and sincerity – what the Buddhists call right attitude – there’s no reason why you won’t get a positive result. Believe it. It might happen. 

Rachel Kelly’s contribution is interesting, dealing as it does with depression and the apparent balm of poetry. It does stand alone in MONK I think, or I’ve missed the transcendental dimension. Why have you gone here?

Actually there’s a bunch of contributors who don’t talk about the woo-woo of spiritual inner life… Jim Smith writes an incredibly grounded article on his experience of being a Goldsmiths student with the YBA generation – not much transcendence there, but there is a fine analysis of creative intention, energy and atmosphere. Likewise Mbizo Chirasha’s fantastic rhythmic-prose essay on his birth and the origins of his poetic voice in Zimbabwe had almost nothing to do with a sense of the divine but everything to do with that energetic fabric that we weave, that gives us meaning. Our short stories carry no hard religious or numinous overtones but as I say in the introduction, they prick up your soul by questioning the meaning of it all – life, the Universe… We don’t proselytise or preach at MONK. We resonate, sometimes celebrate, never conclude. We meet the reader half way. Like art itself, MONK is an encountering. And that’s why I often call myself the ringmaster instead of an editor. I feel like I’m hosting an extraordinary set of narratives about being alive, which give us meaning. All part of the Imaginarium...

I enjoyed the interview with Neil Astley. I know he’s featured as a writer, but as a publisher (stressing the diversity of the Bloodaxe list) he observes ‘many ways in which all kinds of people read and respond to poetry’, ranging from a more cerebral, linguistic engagement, to emotional engagement, to spiritual sustenance. He’s right, there are many levels and routes to engagement and not just with regard to poetry. It’s often a struggle to communicate effectively and truthfully, particularly with abstract concepts – the world is full of misunderstood artists. I’m personally drawn to artists who reach out to their audience as much as those who follow their own path. I’m not suggesting that explanation is necessary or that art should be merely transactional, but rather that finding connection is a very good thing. Do you see as part of MONK’s examination, or is it more about the personal journey?

I think if you see MONK as an exploration of the narrative meanings we bring to life and an examination of their feelings of that which lies Beyond, it has to resonate or intrigue at some level, however individual or idiosyncratic the experiences of the contributors are. You're not going to connect with every artist or writer's narrative or exploration. Why should you? But something might stir you. In a strict sense there are two encounters going on – the artist's personal encounters of the beyond and then the reader, encountering this narrative. 

I know it’s early days but what has been the reception so far? 

We've had a terrific response and it seems to be striking a chord with many different people in many different countries… the inner-journeying people round the world have been forced to do with the pandemic. You can’t beat word of mouth: I was contacted by a reading group in Scotland last week who’d heard of MONK and wanted six copies for their group. When I delivered copies to Hauser & Wirth Gallery in Somerset a random customer in the shop exclaimed ‘Ah, MONK. I bought a copy of this last week…’ (from Magalleria as it happens!) Sometimes you can’t beat the mysterious ways of the universe and you just enter the flow, with gratitude. We’ve been well reviewed on blog sites that have nothing to do with religion and then again, we've just had a very considered, long academic review by Professor Emeritus Andrew Louth (Durham University) who compared us to the legendary Temenos philosophical movement. 

When I founded MONK I hoped it would be to some extent all things to all people and I believe it’s achieving that. I mean, essentially it’s about exploring a shared experience of consciousness on this beautiful planet, whilst looking at the most beautiful art. What’s not to love?