If you ask Brett Van Emst, the connotations of the term “literary magazine” are better than those of “bloated corpse,” but only slightly. Granta? “Boring.” The Paris Review? “Muddy.” How about Red Cedar Review, the one produced at his alma mater, Michigan State? “They just keep churning out the same issue with different names.” He won’t have Midnight Mind, which he publishes and edits, lumped in with them. “Midnight Mind,” he says, “is more of a cultural magazine.”

Midnight Mind has more in common with McSweeney’s, the Baffler, or local upstart Bridge. Perfect-bound and digest sized, each issue is organized around a theme, and Van Emst is promoting number four–which, like the sixth issue of McSweeney’s, comes with a CD–with a rock show. But he says the similarities stop there. He’s a bigger fan of the McSweeney’s book imprint than of the magazine that made Dave Eggers famous. “Their book publishing is awesome,” he says. “I think it’s going to change the way publishing is done.”

Van Emst, who’s 27, started his own publishing endeavor, White Fish Press, in 1997; he put out I-94: A Collection of Southwest Michigan Writers that year and released two subsequent books before moving on to produce the first Midnight Mind in March 2001. “The books did well,” he says, “but they’re not as fun as the magazine.”

He sold or gave away more than 400 of the 500 copies of that first issue, which was subtitled “Going Home Again.” Since then, Van Emst has found a distributor; he printed 660 copies of the third issue–“On the Road in America”–and they sold out in six weeks.

That issue included road trip stories, short reminiscences by authors ranging from Sue Grafton to Denis Johnson about their first cars, a photo essay on the restoration of a ’51 Nash, and vintage ads for late, mostly unlamented models like the AMC Gremlin and the Plymouth Cricket. The current issue has a print run of 1,000 and is subtitled “The Chicago Culture Issue.” As Van Emst lived in New York when he rounded up the submissions, and didn’t have a job or his own apartment when he moved to Chicago last June, it was a rather ballsy undertaking.

Last spring Van Emst, a Michigan native, figured he’d been in New York long enough. “I got to the point,” he says, “where somebody would cross in front of me and I would run into him on purpose.” It was time for him to leave, and Chicago seemed like a natural next stop. He had friends who lived here, as well as contributors such as Ben Tanzer, Kathryn Hughes, and Eileen Favorite, who teaches creative writing at the School of the Art Institute. Van Emst thought, “Let’s sort of try to figure out what Chicago is.” He moved in with a friend in West Town, and arranged for a pal to pick up submissions from his PO box in New York. The result–which came out late last month–is a 144-page journal of fiction, essays, photography, and poetry that references, among other things, Rosa’s Lounge, Carl Sandburg, Liz Phair, the late-night scene at Iggy’s, the Chicago Marathon, the el, and Naked Raygun.

Of course, Chicagoans have always had a problem with being defined by New Yorkers. Van Emst points out that at least half the contributors in the issue are Chicagoans, and that the same goes for the bands on the accompanying CD. But he also thinks the New York thing is the most annoying chip on Chicago’s shoulder. “Maybe I haven’t spent enough time here to find the stilts it builds itself on,” he says, “but just claiming itself as the second city they’re starting on the wrong foot. Just claim themselves as the first city and make their own culture.”

Van Emst isn’t heading back to New York anytime soon, but he doesn’t plan on staying here either. He’s thinking about packing up his laptop and moving to D.C. “I feel like there’s believers there, people who want to change things, and if you can get involved in that culture it might be a very good scene.”

Midnight Mind number five’s working subtitle is “The Guide to Life,” and will include a map with arrows pointing to the places Van Emst and Midnight Mind have traveled. “We never really had a home,” he says. “We operated out of New York, and that’s our postal address. But there was always the idea that we wouldn’t stay. I don’t want to be grounded anywhere. Stay for one issue and say OK, we did that, let’s go.” That plan might change in D.C., however. “If I have to sign a one-year lease, that’s two issues.”

On Wednesday, November 13, Midnight Mind will celebrate the publication of “The Chicago Culture Issue” with an 18-and-over release party at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport (773-525-2508), featuring Giant Step, Dick Prall, and Julie Korman. Doors open at 8, and admission is $10.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.