MFA Students Keep Historic Literary Journal Strong
Fat spoonfuls of butterflies taped to our tongues.
The stirred color of hush in a jar . . .
These are the beautiful, mysterious lines from two different poems by a young writer who was little known — until a reader at TriQuarterly, Northwestern University’s student-run literary journal, saw something special in the words. The piece was read several times by managing editors and volunteer readers, discussed and debated, and even sent to faculty for a final look. In the end, the poems by Raven Jackson were pulled from hundreds of submissions and published in the historic, groundbreaking journal’s 148th issue.
“It needs to be strong,” says Noelle Havens, managing editor at TriQuarterly and a graduate student in the Northwestern School of Professional Studies (SPS) Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, which is home to the journal. “And if it’s a story, everything needs to work really well — characters, plot, the ending and the quality of the writing. At the sentence level, the word choice, syntax and other elements need to be just right.”
Learning what makes for exceptional, publication-worthy creative and nonfiction writing is one of the benefits MFA students gain from working on TriQuarterly. Not only do students help bring new writers to a broader reading public — as well as publishing work by established writers — they learn about literary publishing first-hand and what it will take for their own work to make the cut at other journals.
“Working on TriQuarterly provides an unusual opportunity for students to learn about publishing from an editorial perspective,” says Susan Harris, faculty advisor to TriQuarterly. “They can also bring that knowledge and experience to bear on their own writing and submissions.”
Putting an Issue Together
TriQuarterly is managed remotely without a designated physical office; two paid, part-time student editors (for the most recent issue, managing editor Noelle Havens and assistant managing editor Dane Hamann) lead the selection process and communicate with staff through email. Lots of email.
“Sometimes I wish for a real, in-person conversation, especially when my colleagues reject a submission and I want to know more,” Havens says. "But there’s a benefit to working alone, away from each other. I feel the privacy helps us be more independent in our judgment.”
TriQuarterly has developed an inclusive review process for pulling together each issue that maintains the journal’s reputation for quality and finding new talent. Managing and assistant managing editors, as well as the lead editors in each genre, solicit submissions from established and emerging writers. These selections then go to a pool of volunteer readers for a second read. In the meantime, the editors and readers are also reviewing unsolicited submissions — the “slush”— that flood in. The final contents are drawn from these sources. Many of these writers are unknown, but others have several books and awards to their name. The TriQuarterly staff then meets in person at least once, prior to each issue’s publication. The discussion is lively, vigorous, thoughtful, and passionate—a room full of readers and writers helping to shape the literary conversation.
Managing editors, like Havens, have the final say in what makes it into the journal, but she will often consult with Harris to champion particular pieces, and the process often continues after the in-person meeting. And while determining the final content is a collective effort, responsibility for everything else — soliciting established writers, contracts, budgets, production managing deadlines, workflow and staff — falls on the managing editors.
Harris also teaches an elective course in journal publishing that considers TriQuarterly in a larger context. “In the course we discuss TriQuarterly, but it’s not the sole focus — the course covers working with literary journals more broadly,” says Harris. “I advise students on compiling each issue. We talk about how to find and solicit writers, how to read as an editor, and how to develop an editorial identity for a magazine.”
“I used to think, ‘My writing isn't what it should be,’” says Havens. “But I didn't really know what that meant. TriQuarterly has shown me, as a writer, what it takes to get published, and giving exposure to up-and-coming writers is really exciting. As an editor, I’ve learned how to run a journal, to see how each piece builds into a balanced issue. I feel privileged to be part of it.”
An Evolution for a New Era
Making TriQuarterly a true student-run publication is part of its more recent history. Named for the three quarters of Northwestern’s academic year, the journal was founded in 1958 as a faculty and student print magazine, and in 1964 was transformed into a national magazine by Charles Newman, who attracted a sophisticated readership and published some of the most important fiction and nonfiction of the era. Some of the now famous names that appeared in TriQuarterly include John Barth, Susan Sontag, John Updike, Italo Calvino, Tobias Wolff, Cormac McCarthy, and Joyce Carol Oates, as well as the first collections of essays on Vladimir Nabokov and Sylvia Plath. TriQuarterly is also credited with having influenced the look, feel and direction of today’s literary magazines.
The journal was edited by a full-time professional and had minimal student involvement, even as student-run journals were becoming a standard part of most well regarded graduate writing programs. In 2009, the decision was made to transition the journal to a purely online publication with submissions reviewed and selected entirely by graduate students in both paid and volunteer editorial positions. The decision followed the closure of several prestigious, influential print literary journals associated with universities and was met with mixed feelings in the literary world, due in part to a rising fear in the general fate of print in the community.
“The anxiety and anger was a little unbelievable and exaggerated, in my opinion,” recalls Reginald Gibbons, Northwestern Professor of English who served as an editor of TriQuarterly from 1981 – 1997. “However, at that point subscriptions numbered in the hundreds. The Internet offered an opportunity to grow TriQuarterly’s readership. The day it went online, it had ten times more readers than it did before, and the number of unique visitors has climbed to more than twenty times higher than that."
Broader Content — and Unexpected Success
In its online format, the journal has been able to not only increase its readership but expand the type of material it publishes. In addition to original stories, essays and poetry, the journal now includes video and a “craft essay” section devoted to writers talking about writing. The spring/winter issue features “Sandpiper,” a stunning video adaptation of the Elizabeth Bishop poem, an original video by essay by Kelly Sears, artwork, poems, essays and stories — all identified and solicited by students.
“Since we made the decision to transform TriQuarterly, the publishing landscape has changed in ways that no one expected,” says Gibbons. “Many excellent journals have been born on the web, and the vast majority of poetry reading now happens online. TriQuarterly has done really well, even against well-financed competition that we never thought we’d have in the online environment.”
Even as it continues to evolve, the journal is taking steps to move its entire print history — 137 issues — online, a major step in Northwestern’s adoption of digital humanities. These works will be available to anyone anywhere, at no charge.
“TriQuarterly’s history as a print journal is a unique and (we believe) peerless resource for readers and for those who study late-20th-century and 21st-century writing,” Gibbons announced in June. “The special issues — so various, often compendious, and unusual, from the 1960s to the early 1990s — are now fascinating windows on writers, topics and places that were part of the continuous remaking of literary culture both in the U.S. and abroad.”
Article by Linda Behzad