From left, Dana Ezzell, NCLR art director, Margaret Bauer, editor and Rives Chair of Southern Literature, and Liza Wieland, fiction editor
By Jules Norwood
From the mountains with their brilliant autumn displays, to rivers winding through pine forests and past bustling cities, to the marshlands and beaches of the coast, North Carolina has inspired generations of writers to put pen to paper.
Since 1992, the North Carolina Literary Review, produced at East Carolina University, has given a voice to those writers, celebrating the poetry and prose of the Old North State as well as its artists. This summer, NCLR readers received printed copies of the 25th issue of the journal, featuring award-winning writers, book reviews and an interview with editor Margaret Bauer celebrating the milestone.
"I think it speaks volumes that East Carolina was the institution that took the initiative to create a North Carolina Literary Review," says Ed Southern, executive director of the North Carolina Writers' Network. "There has always been a strong literary tradition there, going back decades. It serves a student body from throughout the state and beyond the state, and by being the university of eastern North Carolina, it plays a vital role in fostering and strengthening the literary culture there."
Another N.C. writer, Allan Gurganus, agrees: "The NCLR is essential in promoting Humane Narrative as North Carolina's greatest export."
Each issue of NCLR finds its own balance. New writers and established voices, fiction, nonfiction and poetry-space is carved out for each, and Bauer says it happens naturally. Fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry are chosen through annual contests, while book reviews and interviews are submitted or solicited.
While each issue has its own theme, North Carolina is the constant thread running throughout. The diversity of the state and its people are a large part of what has made NCLR successful, along with the support its writers show for each other.
There is a wide variety of experience, Bauer says. In addition to N.C. natives, the university system brings people in who interact and influence each other. There is geographical diversity as well as cultural diversity.
"North Carolina inspires writers because to live in this state is to live in cultural tension," says Zackary Vernon, assistant professor of English at Appalachian State University, who curated Bauer's interview for NCLR's 25th issue.
"In North Carolina, past and present, one can experience a staggering range of cultural, ideological, political, economic, religious and educational platforms," he says. "As a result, North Carolina is and has always been a battleground state, and out of conflict, out of serious cultural contemplation, comes both engrossing drama and engaging intellectual debate, two key ingredients for great art."
Southern says the publication serves as a flagship for the state's literary community.
"Each issue shows off the state at its best, especially because Margaret and her staff don't just keep going back to the same well of favorites (no matter how deep and refreshing that well may be)," he says. "They've made the re-discovery of forgotten or neglected North Carolina writers an integral part of their mission and made sure to show off many of our new and emerging writers, as well."
North Carolina literary figures such as Clyde Edgerton, Jim Grimsley, Jill McCorkle, Fred Chappell and Lee Smith have appeared in NCLR's pages. But Bauer says it's not uncommon to hear from a writer that the piece was their first publication, or even the first story they've written, as is the case for the winner of this year's Doris Betts Fiction Prize, whose piece will appear in the 2017 issue.
"It's a wonderful way for the literary community of North Carolina to be informed about writers that they may not know," says L. Theresa Church. "It's a large state, and there are new people coming into the literary community all the time. So this journal gives them a way to know about each other."
Church's essay on the Carolina African American Writers' Collective, which also recently celebrated a milestone, appears in the 2016 issue of NCLR.
"We may write for ourselves," she says, "but if we have something to say, we're trying to say it to someone. You want to share, and it's a way to make yourself known in larger circles."
Dannye Romine Powell, book review columnist for the Charlotte Observer and author of three collections of poetry, says her copies of NCLR are keepsakes she cannot let go. "They are, individually, a clear window onto the world of literary activity in North Carolina. Taken together, they are an encyclopedia of all you need to know about the great wealth of our literary artists in this state," she says. "The NCLR is truly an indispensable treasure."
Alex Albright, founding editor, says NCLR was the brainchild of Keats Sparrow, former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
"He wanted the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association, of which he was president, to publish a companion journal to the North Carolina Historical Review, which had been published since the 1920s," Albright says. "And he really wanted it to be published at ECU."
From the beginning, he says, the vision was to create a place for previously unknown writers to be published alongside North Carolina's best. "We wanted to make a magazine that gave our state's literature a strong historical and cultural context, one that recognized the diversity of both its writers and readers," says Albright.
The journal was innovative in several ways, providing an outlet for publishing not only fiction and poetry, but also creative nonfiction such as essays and memoirs. Book reviews and interviews with writers added a scholarly writing element.
NCLR's first art director, Eva Roberts, was responsible for making the publication stand out visually at a time when most literary journals were mostly text, Bauer says. And art director Dana Ezzell, who has been involved with NCLR since 1996 when she was a graphic design student at ECU, has ensured that it remains unique.
"Each issue was handcrafted by writers, designers, artists and photographers-a weaving of word, story and meaning-the exact elements that I found passion in exploring," Ezzell says.
Like the writers, the artists featured in NCLR have North Carolina connections.
Many journals have fallen to the rise of online publication, says poet Jaki Shelton Green, but the longevity of NCLR speaks to its quality and the dedication of its staff.
"They have their ear to the ground in terms of appreciating and celebrating the diversity of writers and writing styles across the state. They do that in a very eloquent way, so that they're able to bring all these different voices together between the covers of this unique magazine," she says.
In addition to the annual print issue, an online issue was added in 2012. Each year the two issues feature unique but often complementary content.
ECU students are involved in nearly every aspect of producing NCLR. They help edit, fact-check and manage the publication. Several undergraduate interns and one or two graduate students serve as editorial assistants. Each receives invaluable real-world experience in putting together a publication.
"They learn everything from basic formatting to fact-checking," says Bauer. "They help with literary events that we go to, so they get to meet writers and make contacts, learn about the marketing. And they watch me go crazy sometimes."
Tim Buchanan '15 was a graduate assistant for NCLR in 2013 while working on a master of arts in English with a concentration in creative writing. A story he wrote for NCLR fiction editor Liza Weiland's advanced fiction workshop earned him the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Intro Journals Prize in 2014.
"The practice I got while reading other people's work helped me recognize what was good and not in my own writing and helped hone my critical eye," Buchanan says.
After publication, issues of NCLR often find their way into the classroom as teaching tools. Bauer says she uses them as an example of a literary journal to teach students about layout, captions, footnotes and style. She also uses interviews or creative pieces when teaching about a writer who has appeared in its pages.
Brian Glover uses NCLR in his introduction to short stories class. The class is primarily for non-English majors, and Glover wanted to find a way to encourage his students to read for themselves.
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"I started thinking about ways to give students some choices and control over what they're studying, while at the same time making sure they're being exposed to good writing and learning the things they should learn," he says.
Glover divides the class into small groups, and each group is assigned a literary journal, one of which is NCLR. Everyone reads and chooses the works they'd like to study, and each group has to come to a consensus and explain its choice to the class.
"The interesting part is where the students have to articulate what's valuable about the story," Glover says. " NCLR gives them something that's very close to them, stories that are by North Carolina writers or about North Carolina, and that's an important part of the mix."
Bauer, a self-described writer groupie, says she enjoys working with the state's writers as well as NCLR's staff and students. As the journal moves into its next quarter-century, she is working with the ECU Foundation to raise funds for a $2 million endowment to ensure its continued publication.
"I have gotten to meet some of my favorite writers, and they have sat on my front porch telling me stories and answering my questions about their work," she says. "It's been amazing, and they're such warm people. I wouldn't give it up for anything."
The publication is available in bookstores or by subscription. Back issues and additional information can be found at www.nclr.ecu.edu