Report by Angie Brasher
Ninth Letter is a literary magazine that is a collaboration between the Creative Writing Program and the School of Art & Design at the University of Illinois. It blends together the visual and literary arts in a biannual journal that has been published since 2004. Poetry, fiction, and nonfiction are all included in Ninth Letter, and although the emphasis is on the writing the graphic design is still a large component of the magazine. Both undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty at University of Illinois, are involved in the process of creating each issue, and the Art & Design students can get school credit for their work in designing the illustrations for the magazine. Ninth Letter was started in 2004 and continues to be published, their most recent issue being the Fall/Winter 2018-2019 issue with an upcoming Summer 2019 volume.
An interesting note about Ninth Letter is the collaboration between the Creative Writing Program and the School of Art & Design at the University of Illinois. Editor Jodee Stanley described the purpose of Ninth Letter as “provide[ing] our audience with an aesthetic experience that satisfies on a number of different levels” (Augello). The students in the Creative Writing Program work with faculty to choose what pieces to include in the magazine. These pieces are then given to students from the School of Art & Design. They design illustrations to go with the specific piece(s) that they have been assigned and because there are multiple students involved with the artwork it can vary a great deal throughout the magazine and makes it much more interesting to view. Some other literary magazines have tried to combine both the literary and visual arts. An example is The Masses, a socialist propaganda magazine published from 1911-1917 with a large amount of illustrations, even full-page ones, and variance from crazy, draw-your-attention type magazine covers to life-like sketches of real-life events including courtroom cases and popular events of the day. Even though the staff and contributors to that magazine were unpaid, the stance of the magazine was enough that many leading graphic artists still contributed work. Although Ninth Letter does not receive artwork from artists outside of the students in the University of Illinois’ art program the variance between the student artists in each issue is still quite broad and makes the magazine interesting and appealing to more people outside of the traditional “lit mag” community. The process to be chosen as an artist for the magazine is a hard one as many of the students in that program are interested in the opportunity. Numerous of the previous editors and artists of Ninth Letter “have gone on to career success in the fields of graphic design and literary publishing” (“About Ninth Letter).
Black Mountain Review was another magazine that was originally founded with the purpose of boosting a college’s enrollment through an experimental way of advertising—a little magazine. Although Ninth Letter does help to make more people aware of the University of Illinois the intention was not just to publicize for the university. In an interview with VIDA, Women in Literary Arts, Editor Jodee Stanley stated that she would announce every once in a while if the magazine seemed a little stagnant and with similar submissions as a “reminder to wake up, to open our eyes to the variety of great things…coming across our threshold” (McMullin). Ninth Letter was created to promote inclusivity and opening up a literary magazine to submissions from people from all types of backgrounds. In 2013, Ninth Letter actually published more women than men, and although they do not have a specific quota or anything that dictates exactly how many people of minority backgrounds they publish, they are intentional about being open to “writing that’s working in a different framework or coming from a different experience” (McMullin).
Ninth Letter came about soon after the introduction of the master’s program in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois in 2002. The English department was in charge of publishing a literary journal, Ascent, from 1940 to 1988 and in 2004 they decided to embark on the literary magazine journey again with Ninth Letter. An interesting fact about how the magazine got its name is that a student was brainstorming names and “decided to look up the definition of the letter ‘I’ since the University had recently created its new I logo. The definition was simple: “the ninth letter of the alphabet” (Galbreath). And thus the magazine became “Ninth Letter.”
In addition to the print magazine, Ninth Letter also has an online version that has its own exclusive content, chosen by a different group of individuals than the ones working on the print form of Ninth Letter (Galbreath). For school credit they take a class that focuses on specifically choosing content to put on the website and that works on how to present the content on that platform. The online version of the magazine has a theme for each issue, for example their Summer 2017 theme was “Margins.” On the Ninth Letter website, Editor Michael Don explains how they approach their theme and use it to choose submissions—"This issue deals with margins of many kinds: spatial, economic, and gendered, for example; and that appear in multiple contexts: mythical and historical, other galaxies and imagined futures”—exploring the theme in both literal and “unexpected ways.” Unfortunately, the art that always accompanies the print version is not included on the website. Another experimentation with the print issue is trying different ways of presenting it, ranging from a classic “book-type” journal to their latest issue, four booklets slid into an outer covering. In an interview with the Review Review, Editor Jodee Stanley replied in response to a question about the interesting designs of recent Ninth Letter journals that “The designers pretty much have autonomy in developing the look of each issue—I give them a budget and keep tabs on the texts…but otherwise the design choices and executions are all handled by the design students and faculty” (Augello).
Some magazines accomplish a lot of change within a short period of time while others may last ten years and do the same amount. Who is it up to determine when a magazine has run its course and completed its mission? Most literary magazines were not successful in society’s terms of success. Many proved a point or printed their friends’ work and for some that was the only goal of the magazine. Others still wanted to achieve success and financial stability for their magazine but had to shut down because they had invested their own money into the project and could not do it anymore. In the short time that Ninth Letter has been published, 2004-present, it has won numerous awards for both the printed magazine and its literary content, as well as many graphic design and art awards for the visual arts side of the magazine. Editor Chris Maier showed how Ninth Letter was planned to be different from other magazines in that:
“9th Letter is a publication that rejects the notion that literature is an isolated mode of expression…we recognize and seek intersections of literature with…visual arts, journalistic arts, science, history, and cultural studies. We seek these intersections not only in the creative content we accept, but also in the overall design and form of the magazine itself” (“Journal”).
Editor Jodee Rubins (Stanley) also acknowledged the role of the reader in being involved with the magazine—“So read on, then. See if we succeed, or if we fail. Either way, let us know what you think — without you, the reader, the conversation would have no reason to exist, and could not continue.”
There is a balance between the benefits of having the backing of an institution, like a college, since literary magazines so often run out of pocket and cannot sustain themselves, and also because of that partnership also having a limit on certain types of work to publish or needing to publish more of a specific type of work or type of writer. However, despite its affiliation with the University of Illinois, Ninth Letter is very much an open magazine to submissions of all types and its interesting points like the collaboration between literary and visual art students and the openness of the editors to readers’ input is part of what makes Ninth Letter stand out from a sea of literary magazines. The online version is not just a copy of the print version, but a whole new avenue of content to explore. Ninth Letter focuses on being open to publishing authors from all backgrounds without pushing that agenda to a point that excludes anyone else. When reading the print magazine the graphic design by itself is worth it, even without reading the words. Although there is not a huge subscriber base Ninth Letter is different from other magazines in these respects and stands out as a way of involving visual and literary art students in the publishing of an award-winning journal that catches people’s attention visually and emotionally.
Augello, Chuck."'Send Us the Work You Love.' A Chat With Jodee Stanley, Editor of Ninth Letter." The Review Review, www.thereviewreview.net/interviews/send-us-work-you-love-chat-jodee-stanley-editor-n.
Galbreath, Megan. "Ninth Letter." Illinois Distributed Museum, distributedmuseum.illinois.edu/exhibit/ninth-letter/.
"Journal – No. 1 Spring/Summer 2004 – Vol. 1, No. 1." Ninth Letter, University of Illinois, 2004, www.ninthletter.com/journal/48-1-1.
McMullin, Sheila. "Spotlight On! Ninth Letter." VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, 24 July 2014, www.vidaweb.org/ninth-letter-spotlight-on/.
"Ninth Letter." Ninth Letter, www.ninthletter.com/about/about-ninth-letter.