The glorious comeback of Northwest Review: Steve Duin column

So, yes, we are still afflicted by shuttered bookstores, reckless book bans, irrational school boards, the James Patterson pandemic, and a Powell’s rare-book room that only opens three days a week.

But readers also have the Northwest Review. Rebooted. Reimagined. Restorative.

Resplendent, issue after issue.

First published in 1957 – with a Ken Kesey short story, no less – Northwest Review gave up the ghost in 2011. John Witte, who edited the literary journal for more than 30 years, blames budget woes and a declining enrollment in the humanities, trends that reflect “the general loss of empathy, understanding and civility in our country.

“Northwest Review was, after fifty years of publication at the University of Oregon, a casualty of this decline.”

Attempts to revive the magazine founded until S. Tremaine Nelson brought his wife, Emma, ​​and the kids back to Oregon in 2018. Nelson is a graduate of Vanderbilt and Columbia University’s MFA program, with tours of reading duty at The New Yorker and The Paris Review.

Because he is also an ardent Kesey fan – “I looked up to Kesey because he was a regular Oregon kid, like me, who went to a public high school, like I did, and played varsity sports, same as I did” – Nelson was captivated by the journal’s legacy. I have contacted Brian Michael Murphy, a good friend who is Dean of the College at Bennington in Vermont, and they worked together to secure the intellectual property rights from UO.

S. Tremaine Nelson, in prankster mode

Nelson enlisted Samantha DeWys, a graphic artist and designer from New Jersey, and an intrepid band of poetry and fiction editors. I have secured a $3,500 fellowship from Literary Arts. Then I relaunched Northwest Review in the fall of 2020.

It was an audacious play. Tin House and Portland Review had jettisoned their print magazines. COVID-19 was savaging so many other attempts to build or restore community. Witte admits he had doubts about everything save Nelson’s determination of him.

But five issues on, Northwest Review feels increasingly confident, intimate, essential. In Lauren Cerand’s tribute to Giancarlo DiTrapano, the late publisher of Tyrant Books. In the Josué Rivas’ cover photo from the 2020 George Floyd protest that overwhelmed the Burnside Bridge. In “Hair Sestina” by Alexis Sears, which will be republished in the 2022 Best American Poetry Series.

In the attitude Nelson and his crew bring to the slush on the submissions desk.

“When we’re not beholden to shareholders and universities, we can publish what we believe is the future of American literature,” Nelson says. “Universities have become unwittingly inflexible and slow in the face of social revolution… There’s no one telling us who we should or should not publish. We are not reckless; neither are we cautious. We want to publish the voices crying most urgently for change.”

Because Nelson is fearless in pursuing (not always successfully) work from writers he admires – George Saunders, Kazuo Ishiguro, Leslie Marmon Silke – some of those voices are familiar. Others are seeing print for the first time.

“Every issue, we truly make someone’s dreams come true,” says Murphy, Northwest Review’s managing editor. “Every issue, there’s someone who is published next to one of their heroes.

In print paradise, no less. When Nelson and Murphy first talked about publishing a literary journal over buffalo wings at Nectar’s, the bar the rock band Phish made famous in Burlington, Vt., they agreed on this, Murphy says: “If you aren’t going to create a beautiful print journal, it’s not worth doing. It would have to be a beautiful object.”

The glorious comeback of Northwest Review: Steve Duin column

The magazine lay-out blues

Mission accomplished, thanks to Sam DeWys. Volumes of Northwest Review feel wonderful in your hands. Each design element is extraordinary – the thick paper stock, the fonts, the choreography in presenting Didi Jackson’s poem, “Storm Warning,” alongside David McCarthy’s black-and-white photograph of the Yukon Tavern.

With Nelson in Portland, Murphy in Vermont, DeWys in Jersey and poetry editor Natalie Staples in Philadelphia, it can be challenging to maintain the ties so necessary in a creative life.

“We are all volunteers,” Nelson writes in the Spring 2021 issue, “scraping aside a few minutes here and there to work on this journal whenever we can, stolen from our other jobs, lives, children, our own projects, our own writing , to create this gnarly little physical space, chipping away at the concrete gates of the old literary canon, opening the doors to the next frontier, wherever we can find it, wherever we can protect it.”

But for now, hope and possibility abound at the frontier’s edge. Northwest Review is set to publish a new edition of “No God Like the Mother” by Kesha Ajose Fisher, who is hosting Monday night’s Oregon Book Awards at Portland Center Stage in the Pearl.

Jesse Lee Kercheval, the new translation editor based at the University of Wisconsin, is helping the journal deliver works originally written in Swedish, Slovak, Persian and Mapudungun. Natalie Staples tells me Northwest Review is planning a vinyl LP with poets reading their work. And I’m savoring my introductions to Hannah Dow, Maurice Carlos Ruffin and Kim Fu, once again reminded that while you can’t always force people to read, you can’t force anyone to stop.

“Anything that incites discussion or arguments or enjoyment about language and literature is a win for us,” Nelson says. “And by ‘us’ I mean the tribe of people who love and believe in the power of free inquiry and an open exchange of ideas and information.”

Kesey’s crowd, in other words, and another sublime notion.

–Steve Duin

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