On a warm September evening, six students sit around a seminar table on the fifth floor of UVM's Old Mill building. A pink harvest moon is rising outside, but the students, who are poring over print-outs of poetry, are more concerned with the pictures that are made by words.
After reading a flight of manuscripts, they stop to rate each on a scale of one to five. Discussion follows, with comments ranging from warm to scathing. "Obviously, somebody copied magnetic poetry off their fridge," senior Rachel Brown says snarkily of one poem. Another student critic admires a run-on poem for its "e. e. cummings style." Yet another retorts, "They should make good use of their line-breaks."
This is the editorial board of Vantage Point, a student literary magazine founded three years ago by Brown and senior Zach Holz; she's majoring in Environmental Science, he's going for Poli Sci. There are some English majors on staff, too, but this journal isn't an outgrowth of their department. The John Dewey Honors Program provided initial funding for Vantage Point. Now it's supported by the Student Government Association.
It was Brown who originally took on the task of reading about 100 submissions each semester. "I wanted UVM to have a literary magazine," she explains. "We've had quite a few unsuccessful ones. And I wanted it to be a magazine for everyone -- staff, janitors, students, graduate students."
All literary magazines are labors of love; many depend on academic institutions for their existence. But student-edited literary journals require a special devotion. Widely distributed on campus but not always widely read, they may gain a reputation for insularity and clannishness. After all, it's hardly unusual to see the names in the masthead reappear in the table of contents, suggesting that the editors are using student activities dollars to publish... themselves.
But this exclusivity is more likely to be a result of simple self-selection than the work of some editorial cabal. The college kids who volunteer to read and judge short stories and poetry tend to be the same ones who want to write them.
To avoid the appearance of bias, Vantage Point's organizers read submissions blind and keep their editorial meetings wide open. The staff of the Onion River Review, the 30-year-old literary journal of St. Michael's College, goes through an even more elaborate procedure to ensure authors' anonymity. The submissions to each annual issue -- in 2003, they numbered 220 -- go directly to the email inbox of faculty advisor Will Marquess, who removes names and passes them on to the editorial board. While the students discuss the submissions -- "sometimes quite strenuously," Marquess says -- he watches, "occasionally commenting on the process but scrupulously keeping my mouth shut about literary judgments."
And what do the magazines publish? The Onion River Review is a compact, professionally printed journal with several pages of student artwork in glossy color. Vantage Point is scruffier and rangier, a Kinko's production whose Spring 2004 issue offers 61 big pages of poetry, prose and black-and-white art. (Middlebury College, home of the New England Review, also has three student-edited magazines, but none defines itself primarily as a literary journal.)
The poems in the Onion River Review are generally excellent, with contributions from faculty and alumni appearing alongside those from current students. Contemplative and descriptive, they evoke old houses, empty fields and desolate landscapes such as those in "At-Bashi, Kyrgyzstan" -- by alumnus Eric Boyer, who worked in the Kyrgyz Republic with the Peace Corps. The journal's prose offerings are less satisfying. But Shannon McCarthy's creepy, elegiac story "Until the Light Dies" is a stand-out, with lines such as "It is July and the air feels like a prickly pear rolling against your skin."
Vantage Point's Spring 2004 issue exhibits more range in style and quality, and the contrasts make for an entertaining read. Where but in a student magazine could you find an elegy to forbidden love alongside a song in praise of the Haier HSBO2 Mini-Fridge? ("It keeps my frozen dinners frozen and my fruity dinners fruity," writes Patrick McKnight.)
Other offerings include a bizarre allegorical verse play by Alexandru Gureanu, a series of fractured, imagistic, often haunting poems by Shannon Stewart, and two clever twists on Celtic folklore by Morgan Hamilton. My personal favorite is Rae Muhlstock's quick-witted, Beat-style rant against the information age, which opens with the poet addressing her outdated computer: "Happy birthday to you/ One year old today,/ my big old piece of crap,/ What would you like?/ Maybe a zip drive?"
To see what the kids are writing, snag a free copy in the dorms. Vantage Point's next issue appears in January. The Onion River Review is due in March or April and may also turn up in local bookstores and cafes.
UVM sophomore Daniel Paul Mills has a story -- "Coyotes and Wolves" --in the latest Vantage Point. But he's experimenting with another do-it-yourself approach to publishing fiction. His website, at www.wintergreenfalls.com, offers readers a downloadable short novel and short stories -- more than 120,000 words in all. The content isn't your stereotypical Internet fiction. There are no hobbits, boy bands or misplaced apostrophes in sight.
Mills' online novel, Wintergreen, tells the story of two UVM students, male and female, who find themselves in the deserted -- and perhaps haunted -- dorms over winter break. The plot is minimalist, offering more epiphanies than action. But in his elegant descriptions of town and campus, Mills achieves a distinctive mood, a muted mournfulness that may remind older readers of how unsettling the first years of young adulthood can be. In one passage, the protagonist's window seems to become the edge of the world: "Outside, the world spun night-black, the lights... flickering so bright, tiny and faraway -- distant stars and setting suns."
As this paper goes to press, students and moms and office workers are furiously typing in cafes and bedrooms scattered through Vermont. Their goal? To finish a 50,000-word novel by December 1, after exactly one month of writing. They're participating in National Novel Writing Month, a contest-cum-Internet-phenomenon created in 1999 by twentysomething Bay Area resident Chris Baty.
As Thanksgiving approached, the Vermont writers were less worried about dry turkey than about making a "final push" for the end. You can read all about it on their online forum at www.nanowrimo.org. "If I could just write crap, this would be soooo much easier..." laments Colchester technical writer Douglas Beagley, who's currently sneaking up on 49,000 words.
Breanna LaRow, the Stowe resident who's serving as Vermont's "municipal liaison" for the contest, is more sanguine. She describes her ongoing novel involving Girl Scouts, office equipment and erstwhile child star Corey Feldman as a "completely unpublishable plot." The point is to "get back into the swing of writing every day." Whether or not any masterpieces emerge from "NaNoWriMo," it's one -- albeit extreme -- way to break through writer's block.