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A Retrospective

Table of Contents › Essays & Plays ›

Joanne Johnson

As I sit on our balcony overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, with the orange sun just rising and the promise of another 70-degree day in Southwest Florida, the North Country and its sub-zero January temperatures seem far away. But it seems like only yesterday—not twenty years ago—that an excited new English instructor opened the printer’s boxes with Volume One of the Black River Review.

That there was no active literary magazine when I arrived at JCC in 1990 surprised—and secretly pleased—me. Here was an opportunity to do something I had always wanted—develop and edit a college journal, however modest.

Literary magazines had been tried before at JCC. The first was called SAID, begun in 1972 by Professor of English Charles (Chuck) La Pierre and several colleagues and published intermittently until 1981. A thin volume, SAIDconsisted of short pieces of writing, poems, and black and white drawings by faculty members, with its pages folded and stapled in the middle. A few copies are still around.

After SAID came the first Black River Review, named and edited by the head librarian, Suzon Kister, in 1984. A great name, but this Review only lasted four years.

To get the new BRR going, though, was a challenge! Could the College, then with less than 1,000 full– and part-time students, support a journal with quality work? Who would pay for it? What should it look like? Who would be the editors? What would be our editorial policy? Who would publish it, and how would they want the text? The artwork? (These were the days when each office shared one Apple computer outfitted with Word).

Lucky me to have the support and know-how of colleague Katherine Fenlon, who became my co-editor and friend. Art professor Klaus Ebeling joined us, and Dick Young, Chair of the Humanities Department (which then included English, known as the Writing Faculty), helped us get start-up funding from the Faculty Student Association. To this day, FSA still provides the prize money for outstanding student contributions in writing and in art (thanks, guys!).

We were off! And that first volume was a beauty! It sported a newly designed logo by Professor Ebeling, a two-color cover with perfect binding (no more staples!), a Table of Contents at the beginning, a Contributors’ Notes at the end, and included a variety of short fiction, poems, photographs, and art work by students and faculty (all typed by Irene Regan Wilder, part-time Humanities secretary). Volume One had 36 pages and cost $920.00 for 300 copies; today, a typical issue consists of 50 plus pages and runs over $2,000 for 750 copies. From day one, the BRR was made available for free.

Now the question became how to support and continue this first success. In 1990, JCC had no program to develop and create writing and no venue to showcase writers, whether student, faculty, or professional. So the next year, we began the Campus Writers Read series, featuring faculty reading original works in the fall, a professional writer visiting in February (a month when few or no events occurred during the free hour!), and the contributors to that year’s BRRreading in the spring. The amphitheater in the Samuel Guthrie Building was often filled to overflowing for these programs!

The following year we added ENG 220, Creative Writing. Now we also have ENG 221, Creative Nonfiction, and three one-credit, eight-week, creative writing mini courses (one each in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction). Two years ago, the English Department revived the North Country Writers Contest, which is open to all writers, and greatly expanded the literary events associated with it.

As our writing program evolved over the years, so did the BRR. Like any woman as she matures, the Review has undergone periodic “makeovers” to improve her appearance and stay current. Under the editorship of Glenn Miller (2002–2005), he and graphic designer David Bowhall gave her logo a more contemporary look and designed an online format for her. Today, anyone can read the BRR by accessing the link on our web site, an option appreciated by our far-flung military and alumni communities. Another major change occurred when Lucinda Barbour arrived at JCC in 1996 and took over as art editor. As she developed new drawing and painting courses for her curriculum and enthusiastically encouraged students to contribute, she greatly expanded the quality and variety of the art work, and the Review’s covers have been knockouts with computer-aided designs and vibrant colors.

Past editors-in-chief have also included Dory Sheldon and former adjunct Charlotte Miller (2006–2007), and since 2008, Josh Dickinson has provided the leadership. They all have had different styles and made their own contributions. The heart of the process, though, remains the same. Written submissions and art work are solicited—through flyers, announcements, and word of mouth—from September through early February. The literary editors read, discuss, and then often re-read these submissions before selecting the pieces to be included in that year’s Review. Student entries have always been given priority, and only students are eligible for the cash awards. Kim Stearns, Liberal Arts Division secretary, types up the manuscript; then the editors begin proofreading it a hundred times (well, it seems like that!).

Meanwhile, Lucinda lays out the artwork, reveals the cover piece (always an exciting moment), and meets with the literary editors to decide on the most compatible arrangement of all the works. In the “old days,” the artwork had to be taken separately to the printer, but now, thanks to the magic of technology and David Bowhall, we do the layout in-house and give the printer a camera-ready copy.

Voila! In about four weeks, the new issue of the BRR is delivered—in this case, our 20th volume. Twenty years and still going strong. Twenty years and still a labor of love for all of us involved.