_ I spent that past Saturday at the Florida Literary Arts Coalition/Other Words Conference at beautiful Flagler College in one of my favorite cities, St. Augustine, Florida, a place that has a wonderful mixture of old world charm and new American kitsch. Along with editors of On Tap, CaKe, and Quilt, I was on a panel addressing literary magazines and journals. Each of us came to the table with different backgrounds and different magazines. For instance, Pegasus (the campus literary magazine I advise) is a small, regional journal while CaKe (FAMU’s literary journal) is nationally-recognized journal of poetry and art. While we all had different backgrounds, we all agreed on one thing: even in the digital age, print journals still matter. And they may matter more now than they ever have before.
A literary magazine isn’t merely a receptacle for words. It’s a manifestation of a community of writers who have come together because they love the written word. Granted, Pegasus is a small magazine; we have a small staff. Fortunately, we are funded rather well, and we an afford press runs of 2000 issues, usually. We’re a non-profit, so we make no money off of our publication. In publishing the magazine, however, we come together as a group of writers and artists who believe that, despite what popular culture keeps telling us, the humanities and the literary arts mean a lot to a large group of people. I can’t express the satisfaction I get each spring when a new Pegasus arrives fresh from the printer.
The community created by a literary magazine staff, however is only part of the extended community of the literary magazine audience. When I first started publishing in little magazines in the late 1990’s, a friend said to me, “Who’s going to read that besides you and the people in it?” I remember worrying about that fact. Who would read my work besides other writers? It didn’t take me too long to figure out that writers were the perfect audience for my work. Indeed, I don’t know anyone who appreciates good fiction or poetry any more than writers themselves. The subtle references and allusions writers purposefully drop into their work delight me as a reader. A musical turn of phrase sends me to the internet to Google the poet. Literary magazines and journals allow this kind of extended community to exist.
Unfortunately, the term literary is ideologically loaded. For some (many?), the word may conjure images of gate-keeping academics blowing pipe-smoke on the unfortunate plebe who deigns to enter their safely-guarded world. The word evokes Norton anthologies packed with obscurantist writers and politically-charged canons protected by tightly-knit society of nefarious editors. And certainly, these charges probably have some real-world validity. However, in my experience, most of the literary community I know (the Southeast) is an open and inviting, eager for new voices to find their place in the ever-long symphony. Meetings like the Gulf Coast Association of Creative Writing Teachers Annual Conference and the Florida Literary Arts Commision/Other Words Conference are manifestations of these communities. In addition, the community of writers in the blogosphere and on social networking sites is an extension of (and in many cases, its own) the literary community.
At the conclusion of our panel at FLAC, Michael Rumore, the Editor-in-Chief of Quilt, made what I thought was a startling claim. He said that he thought of Quilt as an organization/community and that the magazine itself was secondary. I was a little taken aback. I’ve always argued that the reverse is true. However, after my visit to the conference and after hearing from all the different literary magazine editors and advisors at the conference, I think that Quilt’s editor just might be right. A magazine (print or online) is a manifestation of community. Without a community of writers and artists, a magazine cannot exist.
Why print journals? Why not just navigate everything to the web? The answer is simple: a magazine’s design goes far beyond how it looks on the page. The texture of pages, the size of the journal, the font, the white space: all of it is a Gestalt. I don’t devalue the role of online literary magazines; I think that journals like Waccamaw, Hangman, storySouth, and The Hobble Creek Review are doing amazing things and publishing fantastic writers. Those journals reach an audience that a print journal may never reach. At the same time, however, I argue that a printed journal is greater than the sum of its parts and that in a world that seems obsessed with transitory trends in fashion and pop music and television, it’s a tangible manifestation of what matters and what’s beautiful. A printed journal is a distilled moment, a frozen pocket of time. And here’s to hoping that, despite what some are prophesying, I don’t think they’re going anywhere any time soon.
O for a muse of fire,