Carroll’s newest literary journal, Portage, takes its name from a common feature of the upper Midwest, the land bridges connecting our many lakes and rivers. It’s apt—the arts are indeed a bridge, between peoples, traditions and communities.
Obviously, Portage, which exists solely as a website, digitally transports words and images, but it also carries a connection between Carroll and a wider, creative community. Its mere presence bears proof that Carroll is part of that larger community and a place where good writing happens.
And it’s partly due to the work of a former Carroll student. Taylor Hamann graduated in 2016 with a double major in English and professional writing. In the summer of 2015, she and assistant English professor B.J. Best embarked on the development of a literary journal as a Pioneer Scholar’s project. The Pioneer Scholars Program annually funds up to 10 undergraduate faculty/student teams as they work over the summer on a research or creative project.
“Professor Best originally designed the project, but my main motivation for taking it on was to connect Carroll to the larger literary world,” said Hamann. “It is my personal belief that a community needs the arts in order to thrive. I wanted Portage to be a space for writers and artists to share their voices and express just how unique and diverse the Midwest is.”
How does one go about starting up a journal and how does such a journal establish credibility? “It’s origin in the university gives it some legitimacy to start,” said Best, “but, it’s the work we carry that will be the ultimate arbiter.”
As an on-going endeavor, the annual journal is the product of a class, English 350: Literary Magazine Publishing. Held each spring and capped at 18 students, the sessions operate more like editorial meetings than traditional university classes. The class is taught by Best, but he insists the journal is entirely student driven. “The students read the submissions, they do all the work, really,” he said. “It’s more like they show up to an office and work a couple hours.” The class typically meets Tuesdays and Thursday afternoons in the spring semester.
Of course, if you’re going to publish a literary journal, you need material. Best, a poet who was a finalist to serve as Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate in 2008, has extensive experience navigating the world of literary journals and the submissions process. He helped by getting the journal listed on sites such as duotrope.com, which provide extensive databases of writing markets for aspiring and professional writers.
Portage publishes literary writing, art, music, film and cultural commentary from the upper Midwest. “We wanted it to have a focus,” said Best. “We want to explore the question of what it means to be Midwestern.” The journal’s website puts it this way: “The upper Midwest is a region of contradiction, yet it exists in an odd harmony. Lawyers drink a beer after work with poultry farmers; silos cozy up to skyscrapers. The upper Midwest is where urbanization and agriculture shake hands and agree to work in tandem. Portage aims to reflect the same diversity. We want poetry about a broken windmill in Iowa sharing space with a painting of Chicago at midnight. We want a photograph of an owl reading Big Ten football statistics or the story of a girl who leaves her pet cow to pursue a life of modeling. If your work matches our vision, we want to read it.”
Submissions to the journal are directed into several categories: creative nonfiction, fiction, music and film, poetry, reviews and visual art. Students in the class are grouped into genre teams to review and haggle over the submissions.
“The editors decide what gets selected,” said Best. “They meet and they talk about it and make arguments. They get to decide what’s ‘good.’”
In doing so, students gain critical skills. “I think the biggest impact is providing students with opportunities no other class on campus can,” said Hamann. “Because the journal is student-run, Carroll students tailor their experience to their specific academic or career goals. Some of the various positions held in the past years were editor-in-chief, copy editor, social media manager and director of public relations. Additionally, by connecting students with people who have vastly varying experiences in the Midwest, Portage fosters growth on a personal level.”
As an online journal, Portage has one distinct advantage over a print publication—far greater flexibility in how many submissions get selected to appear; there is no page limit. “The quality and the quantity arises out of the content,” noted Best.
A look through the brief bios of the 20 poets selected for inclusion in the 2016 issue reveals a concentration of Wisconsin authors, but a surprising mix of voices from farther afield. Is it a success?
Best laughed, saying he defines its success by its mere existence. “Really, though, that’s mostly defined by the students. The real success of this is when the students get involved and take ownership. And for the students, this is hands-on work, learning skills that will help them. The goal is to have a line in their resume saying they did this.”
“Writing, editing, getting this online, working collaboratively with others—this directly connects with the wider world.”
Like a good bridge should.