The Two-Year College
Just Plain Good
By Jessica Powers
I teach at a community college and, I’ll admit, I never paid much attention to the literary journal we produce each year until recently. When I took a look, I wasn’t surprised by what I saw: the wobbling efforts of new writers in print. But apparently, the organic expression of a local, emerging community of student artists is only one vision of literary magazines published at community colleges. These days, the two-year college lit mag can be anything from a glossy, professionally produced product, containing works from celebrated writers around the world, to a 100% student-run effort, publishing only works by writers and artists who attend the college. Different visions for literary magazines proliferate and they all justify their presence at the two-year college in a variety of ways. So what is the purpose of the two-year college literary magazine? How is it different from a typical literary magazine housed at a university? And why should the rest of us pay any attention?
Revolution and Decentralization:
Publishing Students and Student-Led Publications
Depending on who you ask, the purpose of the two-year college literary magazine is all about showcasing student work. SLAM (Student Literary Arts Magazine), published at Washington state’s Pierce College, only publishes work by students at the college, which program coordinator Michael Darcher says is facilitated by the fact that Pierce College has a large student body. Not only does that mean they receive numerous submissions, but it also means they have more students who become involved in editing and designing the magazine.
“We [are able to] involve students at all facets of the process,” Darcher says. He suggests that there are good reasons for having a faculty-directed literary magazine, as well as good reasons for allowing a two-year college lit mag to be run by students. “It comes back to what people see as the mission or the intention of the magazine. Do they want to put out what they consider the highest quality content or do they want to provide a learning vehicle for students? Does the process matter more than the product? Each magazine makes that determination for itself.”
He does suggest, however, that publishing students is the primary reason for a two-year college literary magazine. Since many students transfer from community college to four-year institutions, their experiences with the literary magazine at the two-year institution exposes them to the world of art and prepares them to enter the larger literary community.
“Community colleges, by their own definition, are established to thrive and expand that community,” Darcher points out. “We don’t necessarily get our writers up to speed but we get them out of the gate. I’m always reminded how thrilling it is for some of our contributors to have their work appear in print. That’s the payoff. For a few of them, they realize they can do this and, more importantly, that they want to do this, that is, lead a life of poverty as a writer or artist.”
When featuring student work, either exclusively or primarily, the two-year college lit mag has the possibility to be truly de-centered, even revolutionary, in its approach to literature. “Community college students are non-traditional – so you have this whole crop of writers from incredibly diverse backgrounds,” says John Dermot Woods, faculty advisor for Luna, the student-run literary magazine published at Nassau Community College in New York. “The possibility of finding something there, something raw, something that isn’t out of a polished school of literature or thinking, is a really wonderful thing.”
And beware if you read “raw” or “de-centered” as negative attributes, as a suggestion that these lit mags aren’t selective. “We don’t accept everything that’s submitted,” says Woods. “[The student editors] can be kind of harsh. They’re very discriminating actually; they’ll turn down anyone, including senior faculty of our department.”
Darcher agrees. The editors at SLAM – comprised of faculty members, a librarian, an administrative assistant, and students – select and publish less than 20% of pieces submitted. “I wish the magazines that publish my work would be as dedicated to editing and appearance,” he says.
Running with the Big Dogs and Holding Its Own:
The Two-Year Literary Magazine Goes National
Alternatively, when trying to prove that it can run with the big dogs, the two-year college literary magazine also holds its own. Several literary magazines in the last decade have “gone national” and started publishing writers, new and old, from around the country – sometimes exclusively, sometimes alongside student work.
“We weren’t content to be a small literary journal and just publish our students,” says Bart Edelman, the editor of Eclipse, a Glendale College literary magazine that went national in 2000. Eclipse reserves about 15-20% of the magazine for student work. “I thought it was really important to do something greater and to allow our students to have that unusual opportunity to be part of a national literary landscape. We wanted to see if we could have the best of both worlds.”
Marketing magazines outside of the campus is another way to participate in the national literary scene. “It’s not like my magazine has this giant reputation nationally but I’m trying to battle that vanity press publication image,” says Lindsay Wilson, editor of The Meadow, published at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada. Wilson makes sure copies go out to the larger Reno community, as well as select bookstores in the Bay Area, California and Portland, Oregon. “[The literary magazine is] a calling card for the institution, either regionally or nationally.”
Ultimately, just as there are great arguments for keeping the two-year college lit mag “counter-cultural” and “de-centered,” there are some excellent reasons to go mainstream. The community college’s ultimate goal – getting students ready to go to a four-year-institution – is one of the reasons that Wilson offers for his decision to publish established writers.
“We’re trying to prep students to transfer,” he says. “If they have a myopic vision of what a literary magazine can do, what will they do when they go to another university? I want them to see other writers [published in the magazine] beside their peers. If they’re just reading everybody in Reno, what are they getting exposed to? Half of them are going to know the guy.”
Some literary magazines published at two-year colleges have taken it one step further – they don’t just see themselves as a community college literary magazine but publish with a broader scope. That’s the case with The MacGuffin, published at Schoolcraft College in Michigan. Though the magazine exists to bring prestige and recognition to Schoolcraft College, it doesn’t function only to publish student writers. “We've grown to be recognized as a literary journal, as opposed to strictly a two-year college literary journal,” says Nicholle Cormier, the Managing Editor. “Our goal is to appeal to a diverse audience, and to publish emerging writers alongside established writers. We receive and consider submissions from every corner of the globe, and have evolved over the past 25 years from a small local journal to an international publication. We publish student contributors in every issue – not necessarily from community colleges, but from everywhere. We are delighted to have the best of both worlds.”
Outsiders Looking In:
It’s Time the Rest of Us Pay Attention
Two-year college literary magazines face the same beasts that plague all literary magazines. Continuity. Funding. Finding an audience and keeping that audience. It is perhaps the last problem that many outsiders would ask about. Why should we pay attention to literary magazines published at community colleges? Why should we spend our time and resources reading a two-year college literary magazine when there are so many other literary magazines out there?
Well, in some senses, we really can’t or shouldn’t take the time, just like we can’t pay attention to every blog that an aspiring or established writer puts out there. There are too many of these publications to count. Further, since most community college literary magazines are meant to have a limited audience (that is, the college itself), most of them will never gain ascendency outside of their own little sphere of influence. That’s okay, Lindsay Wilson would say. “I see the readers really as the student body and I’m trying to expose them to some new people. If I grab Kim Barnes because she’s in an issue with an interview, that’s awesome. I don’t expect Kim Barnes to read every issue I do.”
On the other hand, maybe two-year college literary magazines – regardless of whether they are purely student publications or not – should have a wider audience after all. Wilson would like to see a wider readership, which is why he drops copies off at coffee shops as far afield as Bakersfield, California. Rather than dismissing a literary magazine simply because it publishes mostly (or solely) student work, he suggests that people check it out and give it a chance. “Every literary magazine should be able to meet on the same ground at least once. If you don’t like it after you’ve looked at it, fine,” he adds. “But don’t judge it if you haven’t looked at it first.”
John Dermot Woods would go farther than Wilson. He wouldn’t suggest that the starting point should be equalized. Rather, he would suggest that the two-year college literary magazine should be read because you’ll find radically different literature there than you’ll find anywhere else. “Who’s ever in the past decade read a New Yorker poem?” he asks. “We’re seeing the end of commercial publishing, which I think is an exciting thing, and what we’re doing at the community college is the splintering of this literary scene. Harper’s is no longer the pace setter.”
As Bart Edelman will point out, any publication that includes works from a community college student population is bound to be diverse. Looking at the most recent issue of Eclipse, Edelman noticed that they had many Armenian students in there who represent the Glendale community. Eclipse also had published male and female writers who have returned to school in their 60s and 70s. “Often, those older kinds of students aren’t going to be at the university,” he says. “They’re going to be at the community colleges, especially these days, with the economic downturn.”
What both Woods and Edelman imply is that our focus is wrong when we ask ourselves why we should pay attention to the two-year lit mag, as if they need us as readers and contributors. In fact, it’s obvious they’re doing just fine without us. But are we doing just fine without them? College sports would be in a pretty pickle if they didn’t send scouts to check out the high-school talent. Likewise, professional sports teams are always poaching the best collegiate athletes. Maybe it’s time we started paying attention to what’s going on outside of the literary bubble, so we can see some of the raw talent of writers who aren’t afraid to experiment. “Some of the submissions we get really blow my mind,” says Woods. “People on the inside [of the literary establishment] wouldn’t dare submit some of this stuff, and it’s unfortunate that you don’t see more of it.”
Jessica Powers’s novel, The Confessional, was published by Knopf in 2007. She is the founder of Catalyst Book Press, a literary press that specializes in non-fiction for adults. You can read her blog at www.jlpowers.net.
Posted November 12, 2009