Western literary journals give voice to story and place
by Susan J. Tweit
“We are out loud and proud as a regional journal," says poet Maria Melendez, publisher of Pilgrimage, a literary magazine based in the former steel-mill city of Pueblo, Colo. "Our mission is to nurture the voices of the Southwest -- and beyond."
Literary journals like Pilgrimage are devoted to publishing inspiring and innovative fiction, nonfiction and poetry. These "little magazines" serve several important purposes, providing fertile ground for new writers, encouraging established writers to push the boundaries, and giving voice to communities, cultures and viewpoints often neglected by commercial publishing. Their independence offers another major advantage, notes Charles Finn, editor of the High Desert Journal in Bend, Ore.: "We aren't beholden to anyone -- or any advertiser -- and so our only criteria is excellence."
There are about a thousand literary magazines in the nation; although no one tallies how many are based in the West, The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, a trade organization, counts 141 Western literary journals as members. Not surprisingly, almost two-thirds of those spring from the big, artsy cities along the Pacific Coast. Most have limited circulation (a few hundred to a few thousand readers) and infrequent publishing schedules (some are annual, others appear half-yearly or quarterly).
The number of literary magazines is increasing, says Jeffrey Leppendorf, executive director of the Council. "We get new members every week. The Internet and online publishing make starting a literary magazine so much easier than in the days of print." Digital technology notwithstanding, the two newest CLMP literary journal members from the West are both print-only, The Rattling Wall ("sophisticated short fiction, travel essays and poetry") from Los Angeles and Conium Review, an annual publishing poetry and fiction from Portland.
These small magazines are surviving, says Elizabeth Quinn, High Desert Journal's managing editor, "because connection matters. Story matters. Imagination matters. Place-based journals give us opportunities that we hunger for … exploration, learning and understanding." That sounds inspiring -- but just how do these literary and art journals survive, especially in the wide-open Interior West, where both funding and readers are sparse?
Many carve out a niche based on geography. That may mean being explicitly regional, like High Desert Journal, which aims to "give readers another way to think about and understand the high desert," publishing work inspired by that region, regardless of where its contributors live. Cirque, A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim goes one step further and accepts work only from writers residing in its territory, which stretches from Hawaii and Alaska to Idaho and Montana. Other journals, like Camas, published at the Environmental Studies program at University of Montana, focus on place in a more general sense. Still, Camas, according to its editors, remains rooted in the West, "much like the plant it is named after. Despite the homogenizing effect of modern communications technologies … the attachment of people to places is one of the most fundamental relationships that makes us human."
Whether regionally focused or not, the West's literary magazines contribute to local cultural conversation. "Even publications not focused on regional concerns add to the 'intellectual ferment' of the places where the editorial offices are housed," says Scott Slovic, professor of literature and environment at University of Idaho, and founding editor of the journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. "It is extremely important that publications of national and international distribution and reputation are not only based in large urban areas or on the East and West coasts."
Slovic points out that literary magazines have an economic role as well, especially in small towns and rural areas, providing jobs for writers and editors and arranging events for local venues. Though the number of jobs may be small, they nourish the creative life of otherwise isolated communities. Northern Lights Magazine, run by the Northern Lights Institute in Missoula, Mont., published from 1984 to 2001, gave many now-famous writers a start, including Mark Spragg, William deBuys and Terry Tempest Williams, and the Institute sponsored projects aimed at resolving environmental disputes in a collaborative way.
Many journals are run by nonprofits; for example, indies like Pilgrimage and High Desert Journal rely on grants and donations. Others, such as Permafrost Magazine, are housed at universities, and draw on academic funding and the labor of student writers and editors. (University budgets do not guarantee survival, however, as demonstrated by the demise of Isotope, Utah State University's highly regarded literary journal, a victim of budget cuts in 2009.)
Journals based at universities must serve academic programs. Patricia Murphy of Arizona State University explains, "I started Superstition Review at the polytechnic campus, so I had to package it with teaching opportunities focused on technical writing and graphic design." The journal's mission is to provide "real-life experience" to undergraduates: "The students read and vote on submissions, correspond with authors, plan events, run the social networks, design the art and website, run advertising campaigns, and manage all content."
Murphy, a poet and short-story writer, founded Superstition Review as an online journal "partly because it's green," and partly because using digital technology like Skype and social media allows her to teach students important technical skills, as well as to enroll interns who work from as far away as Switzerland and China. Being online also helps contributors build their "digital literary platform," she says, including participating in the Review's podcasts of authors reading their work.
Independent literary journals may have more freedom in shaping their publishing programs, but unless they are lucky enough to be bankrolled by wealthy foundations like San Francisco's Zoetrope: All-Story, founded by filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, indies face a constant scramble to raise funds through grants, subscriptions, donations and events.
"We sell a lot of beer," says Todd Simmons, publisher of Matter, a literary journal based in Fort Collins, Colo.: The nonprofit Wolverine Farm Publishing, which publishes the journal, has been "befriended" by New Belgium Brewery, which runs local events, including an outdoor cinema program in the summertime. Wolverine Farm volunteers sell beer at these events, and the profits sustain the publishing program, which includes books and a local newspaper.
Melendez, Pilgrimage's publisher, says the journal survives through "alchemy," plus "a very strong base" of individual and institutional subscribers and donors. Still, the journal and its board are exploring ways to provide more financial stability. Melendez is determined to nurture Pilgrimage's mission of giving voice to "story, spirit, witness, place" from the greater Southwest -- and beyond. "I emphasize the 'and beyond' part of our mission statement because I don't want to limit the journal," she adds. "We're all southwest of something!"© High Country News