Loras College, the Catholic liberal arts college in Dubuque, Iowa, has inaugurated what I think is long overdue and should be welcomed with huzzahs from East to West: Catfish Creek, a literary journal “intended as a showcase for undergraduate writers from across the country and around the world.” O ye scads of undergraduate creative writing majors, minors, and hopefuls, and all those who teach and mentor said scads, should unite in praise of the concept—and the execution. Demonstrating the variety and depth of which undergrads are capable, this is a very fine first volume. May there be many more!
Catfish Creek is not an arts mag. The only visual image is the cover, a provocative black-and-white photograph, by Courtney Brandt, of a butterfly winging across, or through, a fence. But the text inside is full of images, proving one of the cover’s possible symbolic points that this magazine, like the butterfly, gracefully ignores whatever obstacle might prevent publication by those not yet in MFA programs. As an example, let me reproduce Alex R. Baldwin’s truly lovely short poem, “Night in Idaho After Our Second Stillborn,” in its entirety:
Bright white snow, rising like mountains,
low clouds moving, slowly, nowhere.
Mufflerless, an engine sounds,
grumbles against troubling cold.
No Moon. No stars. Pain, as light as day.
I nearly wept when I read this; the images are stark, icy—perfectly heartbreaking, and perfect. And the perfect coda comes a few dozen pages later, with Cynthia Hershberger’s equally moving personal narrative about her own stillborn boy child, Stephen. I did weep when I got to the end of this; Catfish Creek gets my warmest applause for publishing this heartfelt story of the most difficult of griefs confronted squarely, but ultimately with the strength of faith. Baldwin’s other poem, “Climbing a God Tree,” is as powerful in its imagery as “Night in Idaho,” with its compassion for “all the massacred at Bear River.”
More poems—by undergrads from as near as Des Moines (Heather Reading), as far away as Wilmington, North Carolina (Ashley Anderson), and eight undergrad institutions in between (including one high school!)—fill the pages with compelling imagery illuminating subjects from war to incest to death.
Three other pieces of literary nonfiction join Hershberger’s to indicate the quality and power of undergraduate work in this genre. Danielle Lensen (one of the poets as well) writes of a strange and transformative moment in the art museum where she works, when a patron (or a homeless character off the street—we never know for sure) shows her what art really is. Pritha Prasad recounts a moment of realization that “you are not your own,” when a parent calls a young adult child who happens to be languishing, drunk, in a parked car not too far from home in her piece “Loud Songs and Old Trees.” Philip McDonald reveals the secrets of his father’s broken dreams in “Contra.”
And the fiction here is also reassuring regarding the prowess of our undergrad writers in this genre. Five well-crafted short stories round out the offerings in this issue, which is prefaced by a thought-provoking essay entitled “Three Attitudes for Writers” by Dennis Schmitz, a 1959 graduate of Loras College and author of many books of poetry. His advice—to hold to poetry as a way of life; to “maintain ignorance,” and to “develop the happy surprise”—is well taken by the young writers showcased here. We can look forward to even more happy surprises in future issues of Catfish Creek to live up to the promise in this first one.