Northwest Review’s Glorious Return: Steve Duin’s Column
So, yes, we are still plagued by closed bookstores, reckless book bans, irrational school boards, the James Patterson pandemic, and a rare book room in Powell that only opens three days a week.
But readers also have the Northwest Review. Restarted. Re-invent. Repairman.
Resplendent, issue after issue.
First published in 1957 – with a short story by Ken Kesey, no less – Northwest Review gave up the ghost in 2011. John Witte, who edited the literary journal for more than 30 years, blames budget problems and declining humanities enrollment, trends that reflect “the general loss of empathy, understanding and civility in our country.
“Northwest Review has been, after fifty years of publication at the University of Oregon, a victim of this decline.”
Attempts to revive the magazine failed until S. Tremaine Nelson brought his wife, Emma, and children back to Oregon in 2018. Nelson graduated from the MFA program at Vanderbilt and Columbia University, with reading tours at the New Yorker and Paris. Review.
Because he’s also a huge Kesey fan – “I looked up to Kesey because he was a regular kid from Oregon, like me, who went to a public high school, like me, and played sports scholars like me” – Nelson was captivated by the journal’s legacy. He contacted Brian Michael Murphy, a good friend who is dean of Bennington College in Vermont, and they worked together to get the intellectual property rights from OU.
Nelson enlisted Samantha DeWys, a graphic designer and designer from New Jersey, and an intrepid group of poetry and fiction editors. He received a $3,500 scholarship from literary arts. Then he relaunched Northwest Review in the fall of 2020.
It was a bold piece. tin house and Portland Review had given up their print magazines. COVID-19 was ravaging so many other attempts to build or restore community. Witte admits he had doubts about everything but Nelson’s determination.
But after five issues, Northwest Review feels increasingly confident, intimate, essential. In Lauren Cerand’s tribute to Giancarlo DiTrapano, the late editor by Tyran Books. Chez Joshua Rivas cover photo of the 2020 George Floyd protest that submerged the Burnside Bridge. In “Hair Sestina” by Alexis Searwhich will be republished in the Best American Poetry 2022 series.
In the attitude that Nelson and his crew bring to the mush on the bid 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… No one tells us who we should or shouldn’t publish. We are not reckless; neither are we cautious. We want to publish the voices most urgently calling for change.
Because Nelson isn’t afraid to pursue (not always successfully) the work of writers he admires – George Saunders, Kazuo Ishiguro, Leslie Marmon Silke – some of these voices are familiar. Others are seeing print for the first time.
“Every issue, we really make someone’s dreams come true,” says Murphy, editor of Northwest Review. “Every issue has someone published next to one of their heroes.
In printing heaven, no less. When Nelson and Murphy first talked about publishing a literary journal about buffalo wings in Nectar, the bar that rock band Phish made famous in Burlington, Vermont, they agreed on, Murphy said, “If you’re not going to make a nice print newspaper, it’s not worth the penalty. It must have been a beautiful object.
Mission accomplished, thanks to Sam DeWys. Northwest Review volumes are wonderful in your hands. Every design element is extraordinary – the thick paper, the typefaces, the choreography in the presentation of Didi Jackson’s poem, “Storm Warning”, alongside black and white photography by David McCarthy of the Yukon Tavern.
With Nelson in Portland, Murphy in Vermont, DeWys in Jersey, and poetry editor Natalie Staples in Philadelphia, it can be difficult to maintain the connections so necessary in a creative life.
“We are all volunteers,” Nelson writes in the Spring 2021 issue, “scratching 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, nibbling at the concrete doors 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 opportunity abound at the edge of the border. Northwest Review is set to release a new edition of Kesha Ajose Fisher’s “No God Like the Mother,” which hosts Monday Night Oregon Book Prize at the Portland Center Stage in the Pearl.
Jesse Lee Kercheval, the new translation editor based at the University of Wisconsin, helps the journal publish works originally written in Swedish, Slovak, Persian and Mapudungun. Natalie Staples told me Northwest Review was planning a vinyl record with poets reading their work. And I savor my presentations to Hannah Dow, Maurice Carlos Ruffin and Kim Fu, once again reminded that if you can’t always force people to read, you can’t force anyone to stop.
“Anything that sparks discussion, argument or enjoyment about language and literature is a win for us,” Nelson says. “And by ‘we’ 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, is another sublime notion.