What's in a name: Xylem Literary Magazine fosters creative writing

By Caroline Filips, Daily Arts Writer
Published April 8, 2015

If you find yourself enrolled at an esteemed university such as the University of Michigan, you’ve either been or are a writer to some degree. Whether it be typing up lab reports, journaling in your English 125 class or finalizing your poetry portfolio, you’ve translated thoughts and ideas into some form of a written work. Wherever you stand on the spectrum, somewhere between occasional essay writer and loud and proud English major, you’ve likely been strained by the craft at some juncture of your academic career. Writing — that’ll getcha.

When I sat down at Espresso Royale on a rainy afternoon with two writers, I was reminded of a truth I so often overlook: writers are an undeniably odd breed. That’s not to say LSA senior Supreet Grewal and Business and LSA junior Nisreen Salka were weirdos — quite the opposite, actually. They’re incredibly intelligent, witty and well-spoken students of the University; the type that restore your dwindling faith in the student body after overhearing some utterly imbecilic conversation at the UGLi.

Grewal and Salka are the editor in chief and the finance and publications chair, respectively, of the University’s undergraduate student-run literary magazine, Xylem.

Over our afternoon brew, we discussed their publication, the logistics behind it and its lengthy processes of submission and composition. But, we spent a majority of our time discussing the strenuous yet rewarding process that is writing (i.e. how we were all alike in that we’re weirdos by way of the craft).

We touched on the collective effervescence shared among writers, or the notion that there are unspoken rules one naturally subscribes to by being a writer. We determined there’s a bevy of components, some beneficial, some agonizing, but all relatable. Between our cathartic chat ranging from our love-hate relationship with clichés to the dichotomy of egocentrism and self-doubt, just listening to each other was like an apology of sorts — an apology on behalf of our creative venture for its affliction.

That’s not to say writing’s all bad. Immersing yourself in writing is an excellent route to self-discovery, or the thoughts we can’t seem to articulate in any other medium, as Grewal can attest.

“I think for me it is mostly my experiences, or things I can’t put into any other context,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll write a poem only because a poem is the best form for what I’m trying to say,” to which she jokingly added has hindered her from writing a lot of poems.

On the contrary, Salka approaches her work from a different angle.

“I hate drawing purely from my own experiences, but I like taking emotions from those experiences and putting it into a different personalities,” she said. “I think it’s boring to reciprocate just what I’ve been through. Inspiration can come anywhere.”

Whether derived from personal experiences and emotions or purely fictitious, Xylem’s content includes prose, poetry, short stories and occasional artwork. Due to its contingency on student submissions, at the root of Xylem stems an admirable authenticity, each piece distinctively delivered in the author’s emotive voice.

“I think the unique voice is that it doesn’t really have one,” Grewal said. “It doesn’t attempt to be anything super unified other than a platform for students to get their work out there.”

As a platform for writers ranging from burgeoning poets to Hopwood winners, Xylem fosters a pedagogical environment for all skill sets.

Prefacing each issue is Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “xylem”: “n. Collective term for the cells, vessels, and fibres forming the harder portion of the fibrovascular tissue; the wood, as a tissue of the plant-body.”

Which raises the question: what’s in the name? That’s a question even Salka and Grewal ask themselves. From a metaphorical standpoint, it’s clever — just a group of typists, sowing the seeds of their efforts, reaping the benefits of their work with each tangible copy of the journal. Yet, to the publication’s two figureheads, any definition offered is seen as contrived. Salka’s been trying to solve the mystery since she joined the staff her freshman year.

“No one knows, that is the biggest mystery,” Salka said. “That’s the first thing I asked the editor in chief when I started and she was like ‘no idea.’ ”

Though their roots may not be clear, Xylem exists as an abstract outlet for students like Grewal and Salka, who explore the creative pursuits that are often limited in the classroom setting.

Salka has seen the publication grow over the years, but its leaders maintain it has remained a place for students to express themselves.

“We accept more work and we accept more high-quality work,” Salka said. “We had two or three times as many submissions this year than last year. We have the luxury of being more picky when we get more options.”

Grewal happened into Xylem by a turn of events, after stumbling upon their submissions advertisement featuring an open editor position. She came to the University with intentions of a pre-med-related major, but a service trip to Nicaragua completely changed her mind, resulting in her pursuit of a dual degree in English and economics.

“I realized I was way too emotional to be a doctor,” she said.

Not only did the trip deflect her academic path, but her photos taken on the trip resulted in her photo essay submission for Xylem, for which she was accepted into the magazine.

“We were all so impressed by that, by the way,” Salka added.

As for Salka, Xylem simply seemed an enjoyable addition to her Business and Screen Arts and Cultures majors. The current finance and publications chair has been a part of the publication since her freshman year.

After the entire board of last year graduated, Salka was the only remaining editorial board member when Grewal assumed the position of editor in chief. Prospects were bleak in her eyes, as she doubted the journal could replace the graduated talent.

During the fall, the pair often met at Elixir Vitae, where Grewal was constantly reassured by Salka’s optimistic outlook.

“I have blind faith; I’m sorry,” Salka joked. “I kept telling her, ‘I’m sure we’ll find people.’ ”

Sure enough, Salka was right. At the mass meeting, it was just the two of them, pitching the publication to an eager crowd of students. Seeing as she underestimated the turnout, Grewal’s only regret was that she didn’t bring enough cookies.

“I found myself staring into this sea of people that I wasn’t expecting to show up at Mason Hall,” she recalled.

In terms of the yearly logistical timeline, Xylem begins advertising for submissions in two waves, one shortly before Thanksgiving and one just before Winter Break, allotting aspiring contributors ample time to create. The magazine generally closes submissions during the first week of January, and layout is finalized in late winter. Throughout the early spring, all components are sent to the publishers.

“First semester is all about generating interest and letting people know we’re accepting,” Grewal said.

She initially found the task daunting and assumed it a difficult venture to find eager contributors, but alas her doubts absolved.

“People are eager to get their work published,” she said.

In terms of what they get out of their Xylem experience, Grewal and Salka concluded the submissions team meetings as invaluable in their progression as writers. The group meets in early January for what Grewal describes as “mega-discussions” of the potential content for each upcoming issue. The lengthy submissions meetings last five to six hours, during which the team assesses the strengths and weaknesses of each piece from a literary standpoint. Group members are expected to read each piece beforehand, all of which are put in a Google Doc without names, in order to avoid bias When one’s own work is the topic of discussion, the writer is not allowed to speak on it, but rather listen intently to the commentary.

“As a board member, your analytical abilities and your method of finding something valuable in someone’s creative work really comes into play,” Grewal said.

The team was smaller than years past, as Grewal wanted to emphasize consistency and avoid past mistakes that came with a larger, unreliable team.

“In the past, there’s been issues with people having this huge amount of interest upfront, or they say they’re super excited and they don’t follow through and I didn’t want to treat student creative work with that level of respect,” Grewal said.

The workshop-style meetings create an environment for individual writers to improve their style, as submissions are dissected for their literary elements, which are then campaigned for by dedicated supporters or rejected by vociferous critics.

“It’s really easy to read a book that’s won four prizes and be like, ‘Wow this is great writing, how do I do this?” Grewal said. “There’s no entry point to figure out how to write like that. You get better as a writer, as an artist, by reading work that’s still a little rough around the edges and putting your own opinion in.”

“Critically analyzing someone else’s work helps you find the faults in your own writing,” Salka added. “If we were split on a certain piece or someone felt really strongly about it, we would let them make their case.”

With thoughtful consideration and helpful criticism, the 60-some selected works represent a combination of excellent writing and the essence of Xylem. Though entirely student-run, the publication exudes a unique professionalism that’s reflected in its presentation, described by Grewal as “something you would buy in a store.” This year’s cohesive cover design includes etchings of phantom-esque figures, with a back cover showing them walking away.

Though a date has yet to be decided (they’re looking at the weekend of the April 17), Xylem plans to host their annual launch party at Literati Bookstore, the kitschy bookseller on East Washington Street. While serving to distribute the magazine, the event also presents an opportunity for writers to bring their works to life as they read them aloud, with intended tone and emotion that may not have translated over text.

As with most creative endeavors, there’s a lot of clichés attached to writing. So in the theme of our discussion, reviving our love-hate feelings towards clichés, I closed the interview with a cliché question.

“What’s the best part about Xylem?” I asked.

Salka replied succinctly, stating, “The best part is the people you’re with.”

As for Grewel, she gave me an admittedly clichéd answer.

“Maybe the book is the best part, but this is going to sound so cliché, I hope you’re ready … just everything along the way,” she said.

By the end of the interview, out of all the trials and tribulations of writing we had previously agreed on, there was one more — they’re clichés for a reason.