College of LAS « Illinois


Arts and Letters

A new magazine from U of I challenges you to decide if it is literature, art, or both.


When writers describe their art, they often use visual metaphors. They "paint" pictures with words, summon "mental images," and "diagram" stories.

When LAS's Department of English Master's of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing decided to launch a literary magazine, they chucked the gray, text-only models of the past and explored just how closely the visual and literary interplay. The result is Ninth Letter, a beautiful, eccentric magazine that is almost as much about images as it is about words.

The March debut issue features works by such literary luminaries as Dave Eggers, Robert Olen Butler, and Steve Almond, and an interview with Yann Martel, the author of the bestselling book Life of Pi. In-between and often in tandem are works by noted visual artists such as photographer Linda Connors and painter Shahzia Sikander.

"What makes this magazine different is that all of its components—poetry, fiction, art—are working in conversation," says editor Jodee Rubins, who served as managing editor of the New England Review in Vermont for seven years before arriving at Illinois last September.

The dialogue that emerges, says Rubins, is serendipitous. For the first issue, the various editors chose their pieces independently of each other. The designers then read the selected pieces and identified commonalities.

"We saw elements working together, like the postcards and the handwritten letters from Mark Twain," says Rubins, referring to the artwork that accompanied a short story by Robert Olen Butler and an essay by Michael Martone, respectively. "The ideas of relativity and sexuality were also brought to the fore. No one was trying for a theme. I think it happened because art taps into issues that we are all thinking about. It illuminates who we are."

As with most art forms, profit is not the motive for publishing the literary magazine. Ninth Letter enters a competitive marketplace that is notoriously parochial. The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses lists 284 literary magazines, the majority of which have biannual print runs averaging only between 1,000 and 3,000. Zoetrope, which has financial backing from filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, is considered a blockbuster with a circulation that tops 40,000. Ninth Letter aims for 5,000, with an initial print run of 2,000.

Instead, Ninth Letter is prized for the stature it brings to the writing program and the magazine's role in fostering literary innovation.

ninth letter staff

Known in the industry as "little magazines," literary journals have a penchant for the avant garde and experimental. Poetry magazine, which inaugurated the little magazine movement in the last century in 1912 in Chicago, has published all of the century's great poets. All of the literary trends of the past century either got their start or found support in the little magazines, including feminism, imagism, surrealism, Dadaism, and the Beat Generation. Challenges to the social and political order often receive their first airing in little magazines.

"With the consolidation of the publishing industry, it is harder for new voices and even many famous voices to get published," says Philip Graham, himself a widely published fiction writer who will head the MFA program for the next two years. "Literary magazines are about getting the material out there."

From 1940 to 1960, U of I published a national literary magazine called Accent. Flannery O'Connor published her first short story in Accent. So did William Gass and J.F. Powers. The magazine published the works of e.e. cummings, Conrad Aiken, Katherine Anne Porter, Wallace Stevens, and Eudora Welty. Accent was replaced by Ascent from 1975 to 1989. Following the death of its editor, Dan Curley, who had also edited Accent, Ascent moved to Concordia College in Moorehead, MN, where it is currently published.

The desire for a magazine was resurrected last year by students in the new MFA program, which was only a year old at the time. They began asking, why not? More importantly, they asked, why not do something different?

By collaborating with the College of Fine and Applied Arts' MFA program in graphic design, the creative writing group was able to incorporate imagery and tap that faculty's expertise to select visual artists. The team then chose a generous 9-x 12-inch format to accommodate the wealth of visual and literary material.

Besides being an experiment in literature, the magazine provides a valuable training ground for students. Nearly 20 creative writing students each semester work in the editorial office, where they read and sort the submissions and learn how decisions are made.

The editors for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—English professors Michael Madonick, Philip Graham, and David Wright—meet weekly with their group of students to discuss how they arrived at their choices. Between 20 and 75 manuscripts arrive weekly. One out of 50 will warrant serious discussion. As the magazine's reputation spreads, Rubins expects the quantity of submissions to quadruple.

The art editor, Joseph Squier meets regularly with design students to discuss the artwork that will accompany the literary pieces. Most of the magazine's layout is done by graphic design professors Nan Goggin and Jennifer Gunji-Ballsrud, but the students complete some of the layouts as part of their coursework. The design students are also working on a website,, which promises to be as adventuresome as the print publication. New media is the next creative arena for literature—and visual art—and the Ninth Letter crew intends to be at the forefront.

The MFA program received start-up funds for the magazine, courtesy of outgoing Chancellor Nancy Cantor, and support from both colleges as it builds subscriptions and proves the magazine's concept. For the staff of the magazine and members of the MFA programs, Ninth Letter is already a success.

"We have wrapped the fate of the program in with the fate of the magazine," says director Philip Graham. "We showed page proofs of the magazine to all 10 candidates for two fiction faculty positions in the department during their campus visits, and all of them listed Illinois as their top choice. We can't credit the magazine with luring them here, but I think it demonstrated that we are risk takers and that they will find strong support here for the arts. The magazine has put Illinois' MFA programs on the map."

By Holly Korab, July 2004