Because Ka Wai Ola prints only about one in five of the submissions it receives, it comes in for the usual kinds of criticism from those students whose work is not chosen. There is, perhaps inevitably, a perception out there (it’s been around for longer than the eight years I have been advisor) that the choices the editors make are either arbitrary at the one extreme or prejudiced at the other.
We’ve worked pretty hard to create a process that is fair. We’ve refined and codified it so that it at least aspires to objectivity. Each submission is printed out, without the name of the author, given an ID number, and stapled to a sheet of heavy paper with spaces for five readers to indicate whether they think the piece should appear in the magazine or not, and why. After each piece has been read by five different students (who must sign off on their comments), the entries are sorted into three piles: a small pile of pieces with unanimous support, a somewhat larger pile of pieces with no support at all, and a rather large pile, perhaps 75% of the total, which are getting a mixed reaction. A lot of the reading takes place in the reference room of the library, where the folder of submissions is kept on file. Ten or twelve or our meetings are given over to discussion of the maybes. I shrink the entries on a Xerox machine to the point where they are just barely readable and then paste up sheets with as many entries as possible on each sheet. We run off copies so everyone at the meeting can see what is being read. And then we read each one out loud, talk about its plusses and minuses, and then vote on whether to accept the piece. Once the pieces are chosen, we lay the magazine out using inDesign, proofread it about six times, and then send it off to the printer.
The discussions are the most interesting and problematical part of the process. It is unusual for all of our staffers to be able to attend any particular meeting, so the mix of students varies. Sometimes we have people who are new to the process. There’s a mixture of older and younger students, and often no real common sense of what makes a piece of writing good. Some students very quietly make amazingly perceptive and helpful comments; others loudly make completely evaluative statements that flatly contradict the evidence of their senses. I have heard students praise a list of abstractions for its descriptiveness, and criticize minute description for its vagueness. I have heard students praise the structure of pieces which had none, and criticize highly organized pieces for their lack of logic. I have, on one memorable occasion, listened as a student complained about a poem because it had the word “ladder” in it.
I go into every meeting promising myself that I am going to stay out of the conversation and let the students work things out on their own. In previous years I have broken my promise more often than I kept it; if students were willfully misreading a piece or being manifestly unfair in their judgement of it, I felt I could not in good conscience sit there and let them deep-six the piece. And I would like to believe that in my capacity as advisor I may be able to help our student readers learn something about reading well, and perhaps try to move them along in that process, rather than confirm them in their sometimes bizarre notions of What Makes Writing Good. (There’s been a longtime conversation in the department at large about WMWG. At one end of this conversation is the principled position is that if a student thinks what he has written is good, it is good. At the other end of this conversation is the principled position that there objective indicators of goodness in writing, that we know what they are, and that we need to help students interiorize and aspire to those standards. But unpacking that conversation is a blog for another day.)
This year, so far, after three meetings, I’m doing a little better, mostly because we have a large quotient of seniors on the staff and they’re doing a pretty good job of helping to shape the discussions. But I’ve been tempted. And so that’s one dilemma I’ve been thinking about: how long do we as teachers let students flail around and go down false trails and get themselves into awkward places before we step in and say, “Hold on.” In the classroom it’s one thing. As the teacher I reserve the right to step in and do some instruction when it’s called for. With the literary magazine, it’s a little dicier. I don’t see the literary magazine as my magazine, and I don’t want the students to see it as my magazine. But left to themselves, they will often make bad decisions based on bad or careless thinking, and those decisions will result in unfairness to the students who have submitted their work. There have been any number of occasions when I have taken a piece the students have already rejected and done something as simple as reading it aloud myself (the student readers are often flat-out terrible oral readers, which means that the piece is not going to be judged on its merits, but on the basis of a garbled reading which does not put the piece in its best light). At other times I have simply overruled the editorial board, a move which (again, predictably) some editors seem to understand and accept, and others go into a seething fury over. But I figure, this magazine is going out with my name on it, and there are some kinds of things that I’m not going to endorse.
Traditionally, Ka Wai Ola readers tend to respond positively to a certain kind of writing: a short piece, readily understandable on first reading, with some sort of hook or joke or clever bit at the end. They tend to be impatient with longer, more complex, or more highly textured pieces, as well as with pieces that resist their readerly inclination to resolution. If they don’t get it right away, they tend to assume that the piece is not good.
Yesterday, there was a particularly interesting test case. It’s a poem that some of the students really liked, and some of the students really disliked. After the discussion was over, the vote came out exactly even: 4 yeas, 4 nays, with several abstentions.
Devo Andare Adesso
My lips are red as Chinese lacquer
(they say Chinese lacquer is an aphrodisiac)
Scream, don’t sing, sweet-smelling sour
Poisonous, my candy apple
My voice is licorice aftertaste
The Cheshire Cat ate licorice as he watched the Aurora Borealis
His smile lingering like an aftertaste that never went away
Well, one day it went away
If you want some brownies
Let me know, and we’ll get hyphy—
Something about the powdered sugar messes with your dopamine
The life and times of a lipstick librarian
(probably a lesbian)
I will brave the coast of Cote d’Ivoire
And glamorous African men will love me as you love Yoko
But that will never do
Because you can’t love anyone fully in the 21st century
Everybody knows that
Devo andare adesso,
(I must go now)
Fluorescent lights gossip and whisper,
Winking at mirrored walls and mirrored floors,
And in the reflection there are lips
Red as Chinese lacquer.
This really is an interesting case. It’s a poem which is highly organized but almost willfully obscure. At times it seems to be suggesting a sort of plot line, at other times it seems to be undercutting that expectation. Is the hopscotch logic playful, or mere self-indulgent? Do the syntactic leaps (“Scream, don’t sing, sweet-smelling sour poisonous, my candy apple”) create an interesting field of energies for the mind to play in, or are they just pointless and confusing? Is the offhandedness (“something about the powdered sugar messes”) evidence of calculation or carelessness? There’s certainly a sense that the author had a strong sense of what s/he was doing—especially for a high school student—but what does it do for us, for you?
So I’ll put the matter in your hands, gentle reader. Is this a poem that interests or satisfies you? Would you vote yes, or no? Why or why not? Comments accepted below.