From the Bookshelf: Literary Magazines

Very often when I’m figuring out what to teach, I find myself going outside of the classroom English textbook. In this feature, I take a look at those reading selections.

I think that there’s something about being an English teacher that makes me a hoarder.

Okay, that’s a lie because today I handed something out to my advanced English class that a high school teacher of mine had handed out nearly 20 years ago and I had saved. So clearly I’m simply a hoarder. Although I’ve also been to plenty of colleagues’ houses and apartments and seen stacks and shelves of books, which makes me think that maybe English teachers are a certain type hoarder.

Hoarders of the written word, perhaps?

Those last three paragraphs clearly make little or no sense and to be honest I was just trying to come up with a clever way to explain why I have so many literary magazines. You know, other than the fact that they’re from my high school and college days and I am either listed as an assistant editor or contributor. I’m sure that if you think back to your time in school or higher education, you’ll remember what your campus literary magazine was like: a collection of poetry, fiction, or non-fiction prose that was considered the “best” of what the school’s writing populace had to offer. There probably was even some sort of photography or artwork accompanying the writing. It came out every spring and you might have wanted to contributed but were maybe even a little intimidated by the talent represented (and then were amused to realize it was run by a crack team of editors who probably worked in a dank computer lab during what little time they had availble). But you remember being impressed by the abilites of your fellow students.

My copies of Loyola College in Maryland’s two literary magazines: Forum (featuring non-fiction prose and art) and The Garland> (featuring fiction, poetry, and photography) spent the first decade or so after my graduation collecting dust either on a bookshelf in my guest room or in a box with the rest of my errata from high school and college. I probably would have forgotten about them had I not brought them into work last year because someone in the department was floating the idea of starting up a literary magazine and wanted some examples (it’s finally getting off the ground this year). I forgot about my copies of the magazines again until earlier this year when I was straightening up my classroom and found a copy of Forum from 1997.

My ego being what it is, I checked to see if it was one of the editions in which I had an essay published (it wasn’t–I simply was listed as “assistant editor” because I worked on layout), but then started thumbing through some of the essays inside and found one that actually went with a unit I was going to be teaching.

I ran off copies of and began jotting down notes about “My Father’s Music,” a piece that puts a very complicated and mostly strained father-daughter relationship (dad’s an alcoholic and yells at mom) in the context of the music that reminds the author of her father–specifically, Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” The essay itself is structured in a very clear way, as she shows her father coming home on two separate occasions. The first time, it’s a happy moment–the music is playing, she’s dancing with her father, and her father dances with her mother. The second time, her mother gets a phone call and tells her that her father will be home late–he’s drunk and angry this time. I’m sure that more famous writers have composed similar stories–after all, an alcoholic father is a staple of both fiction and non-fiction–but it seemed that sharing a piece written by someone who was nineteen or twenty at the time made it easier to relate to.

Perhaps some of my students even related to it in a way that was relevant to their own lives, which was not the reason I picked it. I simply had wanted to use a piece written by someone around their own age so as to say to them “I know you always say you suck at writing but here’s the potential you have.” My students also seemed to have no problem getting critical about what they were reading. Later in the semester, after my advanced class read Elie Wiesel’s Night, I assigned a couple of pieces that would be the focus of a “fishbowl” discussion. One was an essay from another year’s Forum entitled “Auschwitz,” in which the writer discussed her own visit to the notorious concentration camp, which is now a museum in Poland.

Again, my intent was to show a fellow student’s/fellow teenager’s experience; again, it became something else in a way. “I think she’s a little self-absorbed,” one of my students said at one point. They then went on to have a discussion where they picked apart her style and her point of view as if they were workshopping her essay in a class. I’d never seen a group of students do that to reading before in such a thorough manner. Sure, we’d had discussions of why certain plot points in Life Of Pi worked or did not work, and we certainly struggled with Shakespeare’s idea of “comedy” in Twelfth Night; however, they were ready to more or less grade this. Maybe it was because the essay was a student piece not some presented with that booming Great and Powerful Oz voice of, “THIS IS CLASSIC LITERATURE AND WE SHALL DISCUSS IT!?” It was the kind of thinking that you dream about getting, and knocking the writer (or the concept of the writer) down a peg helped them get there and they probably felt comfortable tearing the piece apart because they were “on the same level” so to speak (although I’d love it if they tore apart any writer, to be honest). So for once in my life, my sentimental nature and need to save random stuff pays off.

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