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The Literary Journal: A Labor of Creativity and Love

“It’s one of the largest book fairs of its kind in the world,” says Peter Chilson, Associate Professor of English. He’s talking about the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Conference, held every year in February. This year, the AWP – with some 8,500 attendees – took up residence at the Hilton on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Chilson was to read from his recent book, Disturbance Loving Species published by Houghton Mifflin [WSM review]. I went along to check out the Book Fair, particularly the 100s of literary journals displayed.

Peter Chilson and writer Michael Martone at the Ascent book table at the AWP Book Fair.

Peter Chilson and writer Michael Martone at the Ascent book table at the AWP Book Fair.

With 799 exhibitors, the Book Fair took up the entire lower floor of the hotel, and many of these spaces were rented by literary journals. Some of the big names in literary journals such as American Poetry Review, the Georgia Review, and New Letters can be found on the shelves of Barnes and Noble and Borders across the U.S.  but the largest proportion of literary magazines are more obscure such as the Straddler, Smokelong Quarterly, Forklift Ohio, Slack Buddha, and Duckabush Review. Slotted in between the independently run journals were those housed in institutions—Ninth Letter from the University of Illinois, Subtropics from The University of Florida, and Ecotone from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. What I found exciting was the thought behind some of these, the personality. For example, a woman named Jennifer S. Flescher explains the idea behind her journal Tuesday; An Art Project like this:

I wanted to make a thing we could hold.

I am a photographer, a bookmaker, a poet.

It was a reaction to all of the (necessary and often fabulous) on-line work that is out there.

It had to do with unrest.

There is a postcard in every issue, I hope you’ll mail it. I wanted it to come with a stamp on it, but that would have been another thousand dollars…

Chilson had told me that going to the Book Fair is a one-of-a-kind experience because it’s one place “you get to talk with editors who are so willing to talk with writers. The other thing is a lot of these editors are themselves writers.” So I set out to talk to as many as I could. One woman with long brown hair and a floppy skirt who couldn’t have been more than 25 years old sat at a table eating yogurt. She displayed three issues of her colorful journal H.O.W.  She told me she gives half her proceeds to African famine relief. “I wanted to do something for creative writing, and something for the planet, too,” she said. It looked like a gutsy thing to do, especially for someone so young. “It means constant fundraising,” she said. A little later in the day I approached the table of two men in their mid-thirties wearing flannel shirts and showing bright Norwegian skin. One told me how he had started the Minnetonka Review. When I asked him why he decided to start his own journal, he said, “I’ve always wanted to do this.” They had a priestly seriousness—not the kind of people you would associate with up-start literary journals. Further down the journal stalls,  I met a woman who runs the South Loop Review, out of Columbia College Chicago, about using John Schultz’s Story Method, a dynamic teaching technique I learned about while at Columbia that encourages students to visualize what they are writing and reading. We exchanged email addresses. Another woman I spoke to runs a small press off the money she earned from her divorce from a brain surgeon. There was an electric energy to these kinds of publishing ventures. They gave faces and personalities to the word “creativity.”

In the back of one of the exhibit halls, Chilson and I found the journal Ascent, run by Scott Olsen –  a man with the temperament of a terrier – from Concordia University in Moorhead, Minnesota. Scott had prepared poster-sized covers of all the journal issues he had edited, and he was having each author sign the cover of the journal that author had appeared in. Chilson, who published an essay chapter of his book called “Driving to Madness” (from his first book Riding the Demon) and two of the short stories “Tea with Soldiers” and “Freelancing” from his current book, had some signing to do. Later, he commented, “Scott really works hard to publish unknown writers—actually, a lot of these editors do. And that’s just the kind of boost to your sense of yourself as a writer you need to keep going. When you get published by one of these journals, you get an infusion of confidence, and a sense of what your work is, feedback from editors and readers. Scott gets comments from his readers and sends them onto me. I admire Scott, running a top-class journal on a shoestring, whose budget allows for a photo of his jeep on the back of each issue. Well that’s the great thing about AWP and the Book Fair – it’s the largest book fair of its kind that honors the role of these literary journals in the shaping of writers’ careers.”

At the end of the weekend, as I was walking down the Book Fair aisle, I heard someone say “hello!” It turned out to be a former student and editor of WSU’s literary journal, LandEscapes. She had gone on to the well-regarded MFA program at Eastern Washington University and was now serving as editor for their magazine Willow Springs. I experienced the pride most of us feel when our students use the talents and skills they’ve learned at WSU in a new venue. What I learned from the Book Fair is that for these people, whether they are supported by a university or not, whether they are produced in a large printing house or in a garage somewhere in Minnesota, the literary journal is a labor of love.


LandEscapes Spring 2008

LandEscapes Spring 2008


( is a magazine of the arts designed to showcase the talent of Washington State University students (undergraduate and graduate) in literature, music, and the visual arts, as well as offer a practicum for undergraduate students interested in publishing. The magazine is produced entirely by undergraduate students who represent the broadest possible spectrum of academic disciplines; Peter Chilson acts as faculty advisor.