We all get the urge, at least occasionally — the desire to write or draw something unusual, out of the ordinary. To create a work of something that, if you were to show it to a group of your peers, at least one person would be kind enough to dub “art.” And when we get the urge, there is a means through which we can share that work with the world — several means, in fact, in the form of the many literary magazines on campus today.
Six student editors gathered in the newsroom of The Michigan Daily in the middle of a Tuesday to talk about their magazines and the role they play in fostering creative expression, even in a world where anyone can use blogs or WordPress to self-publish their writing.
Fortnight co-editors and LSA seniors David Kinzer and Sarah Doukakos, sat on one side of the table, along with two representatives from Xylem Literary Magazine: the copy chair, Dena Cohen, an LSA senior, and assistant submissions manager Cecilia Jaquith, an LSA sophomore. Opposite them were LSA senior Jackie Cohen, editor in chief of the RC Review, and LSA and Engineering senior Powell Perng, editor in chief of the upstart publication Blueprint.
With the exception of Xylem and Fortnight, which are run by the same organization, most of these editors were discovering each other’s publications for the first time.
If you wanted to share your story, poem or artwork with your peers in the University this year, your piece — a piece that you had to work up the nerve to pluck from the cozy insularity of your own mind to subject to the critical eyes of strangers — probably had to go through someone sitting around this table.
“I think it’s a pretty incredible feat to have students putting together a magazine,” Jaquith said.
“It’s a great feeling to pick up a book and see your name in there,” Dena Cohen added.
And somewhere in that mysterious gap between your submission e-mail and the day the publications go to print, whether or not you will experience that feeling is decided.
So Many Magazines
When gathered into the same room, each of the editors was surprised at just how many other literary magazines were functioning on campus.
Even the University’s world-renowned medical school is home to its own printed creativity outlet — a publication named The Hippo, which accepts submissions both medically and non-medically themed from its campus community.
Second-year Medical School students Priya Rajdev and Owen Albin, co-editors in chief of The Hippo, who were unable to participate in the roundtable conversation, wrote in an e-mail interview that they see value in providing such an outlet to some of the hardest-working students on campus.
“We think The Hippo brings a therapeutic outlet to people who want to exercise their artistic impulses,” Rajdev and Albin wrote. “If anything, The Hippo brings a small amount of intellectual balance to the medical school. For some people, it allows an opportunity to explore their interest in medicine in a very different way, and for others, it allows the opportunity to spend time doing something completely different (from medicine).”
Those ideas of therapy and balance were equally verbalized by the editors around the table, who see their publications as gateways for students to immerse themselves in the world of literary creativity.
“I think that our literary magazine is really just promoting people to get involved in literary arts,” Dena Cohen said.
This involvement comes through events like readings, workshops and, in the case of the RC Review, a rummage sale that made $500 for the magazine its first year.
Most of the workshops are intended to help interested students prep pieces for possible publication in a magazine, though things don’t always pan out this way, much to the chagrin of the editors.
“The last workshop we had, there was one person who was working on a really fantastic poem,” Kinzer recalled. “And we told her to submit it, and she never did, and my heart is still a little bit broken.”
With the abundance of campus magazines, there’s certainly no shortage of outlets for student creativity. And more seem to be cropping up all the time.
For instance, this is the inaugural year for Blueprint, which is set to publish its first issue at the end of the month. As an Engineering student, Perng took notice of the many creative writing contests that were offered to engineers and wanted to establish an annual outlet for such works. It was also, he said, partially to buck the common misconception of the engineering community as a noncreative environment.
“I don’t think that many people think that engineers are actually interested in literary arts,” he said. “It’d be useful for the rest of the community to see the kind of creativity, when it comes to literary arts, that Engineering students share.”
When Perng saw how other established programs like ArtsEngine and the IDEA Institute were already bringing together different North Campus denizens through a focus on the creative arts, he decided to expand Blueprint’s scope to include the other three colleges on North Campus: Architecture, Art & Design and Music, Theatre & Dance.
Jackie Cohen, too, has been able to defy stereotypes while overseeing the RC Review.
“A lot of people in the RC, there’s a stereotype of not being familiar with computers,” she said. “But (we) taught each other InDesign and Photoshop and all these layout tools and we lay it out ourselves.”
When you’re finally ready to hand your masterwork over to the unknown, keep in mind that each magazine takes a different approach to the submissions process.
Though it’s published through the Residential College, the RC Review has accepted submissions from students at Eastern Michigan University and Washtenaw Community College. An RC alum who graduated in the mid-1970s submitted pages composed on a typewriter to a recent issue.
Fortnight has found a greater audience than ever before thanks in part to its more substantial online presence. A non-student from Australia even submitted a poem to the publication after finding it online.
“It was amazing. We just had to publish it,” Doukakos said of the poem. “It was just one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever read.”
There was also the novel abstract the magazine received from a retired University professor who was apparently confused about the size limitations of a monthly, less than 20-page, stapled student publication.
“It was terrible. It was a mess. Something about lotuses, I don’t know,” Doukakos said with a laugh.
While it may be easy to turn down a novel for publication, deciding among the piles of other, more legitimate submissions is a far more daunting task. The RC Review, Blueprint and Xylem each has its own anonymous submissions format, which allows the editors to rank each entry unencumbered. The submissions with the highest rankings pass the test.
Blueprint, started within the College of Engineering, employs a complex mathematical formula to determine its submissions.
“I’m still not sure I completely understand it,” Perng admitted, but he brought it up on his laptop and showed off the graphs and reams of data to many oohs and aahs from the others around the table. The formula involves grade-weighting the score given by each editor based on his or her editorial standing, as well as a threshold of how many words the magazine plans to accept.
Internal data reveals which editors were most critical toward submissions and which were the nicest.
“We kind of just made fun of each other, like, ‘Oh my God, you liked that work? That was so bad!’ ” Perng said.
“Have you considered publishing the graph?” Kinzer asked Perng, half-jokingly to Perng’s response that would be unveiled at Blueprint’s release party.
Disputes and Controversies
So let’s say your piece manages to grab the attention of one of these editors. They see something about your submission — maybe it’s concerning a subject matter that college students don’t often write about, or maybe it explores a well tread campus topic in a different way. But perhaps there’s something holding your piece back: a grammatical goof, a clumsy metaphor. Is that the end of your journey to publication?
There is a debate among the different editors about the best way to handle less-than-perfect submissions. The RC Review and Xylem will contact the writers of pieces and work with them to improve submissions, while Blueprint and Fortnight feel it is not their place to do so.
“We wouldn’t discount a piece because there was one tiny thing (we didn’t like),” Jaquith said, noting that Xylem is sometimes met with resistance from authors unwilling to make changes.
Doukakos, however, questioned whether such editorial suggestions were wise to make.
“Is that our right to do something like that, to kind of impose our views of what we think is stylistically appropriate for a story?” she asked.
Kinzer was against the idea.
“I find it kind of troublesome to send an e-mail, like, ‘We like this poem but there’s too much alliteration, cut it out,’ ” he said.
This is but one point of contention between the editorial staffs of Xylem and Fortnight. Both Xylem, which is published annually, and Fortnight, which has a print run every month, are published through the Undergraduate English Association (UEA), and they hold joint readings and writing workshops. Nevertheless, their editors claim there is a “friendly rivalry” present, which manifests itself in the occasional staff overlap and Kinzer’s claim that the UEA cut Fortnight’s funding in half the previous year while keeping Xylem’s intact.
Then there was the case of a controversial photography submission: a picture of two nude female bodies from the waist down, lying on the beach, their feminine regions covered by two strategically placed piles of sand. When Fortnight selected and published it as the cover image for one of the magazine’s issues last year, a student member of the UEA decried the piece as pornography. Then the same piece appeared again — in the following issue of Xylem, to which it was also submitted.
Doukakos pulled out the issue with the offending image on the cover to show around, and both Perng and Jackie Cohen declared they would have absolutely published it. Jackie Cohen noted that the RC Review often receives erotica submissions — though they are often met with stranger reactions when presented at readings, the genre is accepted just as any other would be.
Get a Job
Congratulations — your piece has been selected for publication in one of the University’s very best forums for creative expression. Go ahead and ride that high that comes with being a published author. Submit more pieces. Maybe join a staff. Maybe you’re thinking now about actually doing this for a living … if so, you might want to think twice.
“I used to want to have a career in literature, and now this has convinced me out of it,” Jackie Cohen admitted, to a chorus of laughter and sympathetic reactions.
Doukakos and Dena Cohen are still interested in the publishing industry, and Kinzer wants to be a writer. But at the other end of the spectrum is Jaquith, an aspiring high school French teacher — though she said she would jump at the chance to oversee the production of a similar literary publication at whatever school she ends up working at.
Despite their different vocational interests, all of the editors were quick to list ways in which their roles have aided them in their future career goals — regardless of what those goals might be. As Medical School students, Rajdev and Albin most likely won’t be pursuing careers in literature to pay off student loans. But they noted that their roles at The Hippo have still taught them valuable skills about the world they’re preparing to enter into.
“Working in a group and sorting out differing opinions is crucial to working as an effective part of a health care team,” they wrote.
Regardless of what each individual’s futures hold, all of the editors are steadfast in their optimism about the future of campus literary magazines.
“I think that magazines will always have a future on campus,” Perng said. “Until the day when everyone uses Kindles.”
But even when that happens, the urge to create — and, for editors like these, to present — will still be very much alive. And if you have the drive and something to show for it, there will always be a place to accept your submissions.
—Co-Editorial Page Editor Michelle DeWitt is a former editor-in-chief of Xylem.