Contemporary Journals

Willow Springs: Spokane’s Literary Babushka

Report by Katie Lacayo

Before the 1970s, Spokane’s literary scene was practically nonexistent. Writers and readers had little interest in Spokane, WA, and their work and eyes were taken elsewhere. Although the Lilac City was central to much of the action and commerce of the inland Northwest, it took time and effort to make Spokane not suck, especially when the literary world was in question. However, the end of the 1970s marked a historical shift within Spokane: art was forming.

Through members in the creative writing program at Eastern Washington University, or EWU, located in Cheney, a small town on the outskirts of Spokane, writing began to take shape and take hold of Spokane (Bookey). One of the most successful contributions EWU provided for Spokane’s literary scene was their graduate literary magazine, Willow Springs. Since 1977, this Spokane literary magazine invited work and ideas from all kinds of writers, influencing both Spokane and the Pacific Northwest. The journal has survived Spokane’s literary climate for forty-two years and publishes both up-and-coming writers, as well as established authors. Willow Springs’ impact today is two-fold. Within the literary world, the magazine has been able to maintain a singular mission, even with differing editors, students, and writers. Through this mission, Willow Springs has become a platform for new writers, particularly within the Spokane and greater Pacific Northwest community, to share their work and invite conversation.

Willow Springs has a specific mission statement, which has guided the magazine throughout its long run. The goal of the magazine is highly community focused. As their website states, “Willow Springs publishes work by unknown and up and coming writers, and by U.S. Poet Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners, engaging our readers in an ongoing discussion of art, ideas, and the human experience” (“About Willow Springs”). The key ideas here are that Willow Springs aims for both diversity of writing as well as diversity of thought. While the magazine has experienced design and multimodal transformation, this literary commitment remains true for the magazine. Current Managing Editor Leona Vander Molen spoke to this significance in an interview, describing how the “mission statement has not changed very much, since we still work to publish the very best of the work we receive in submissions.” While the very best work may seem like a broad and overarching statement, it also captures a mentality that is specific to Willow Springs. They accept any and all work that they find exceptional, regardless of who wrote it.

Most of what allows Willow Springs to remain true to their mission is the approach of the editors and staff. Although this body of individuals shifts quite dramatically, especially with the volunteer students who leave after graduation, Willow Springs is able to keep a consistent tone regardless. Because of their ultimate allegiance to EWU, the magazine chooses to “give students the opportunity to work in various jobs…such as readers, genre editors, web editors, and social media managers” (Vander Molen). Unlike the continual recycling of student assistants, EWU attempts to keep the staff unchanged. A leading figure in the establishment of the magazine’s design and character was previous editor, Samuel Ligon, who guided issues from around 2005 to 2016. He was described as, “simultaneously one of the most laid back and yet enthusiastic editors…courageous and yet open minded, enthusiastic and yet no nonsense, giving, attentive, rad. Wise blood, as it were” (Butler). Through his vision for the magazine, Willow Springs was able to modernize (while still maintaining) their mission. Current editor, Polly Buckingham may be newer to the position but the established look and feel of Willow Springs has stayed the same under her direction.

The digital age has certainly posed an interesting challenge for Willow Springs as it tries to continue its pursuit of diverse writing. When asked what sort of changes the magazine has experienced, Vander Molen expressed, "We still publish all three genres, however we do not publish artwork . . . we work to maintain a magazine that is open to change and new styles. We want to make sure it still looks clean and professional, while also updating things as our world advances." In the last two years, Willow Springs majorly updated their website, as well as developed a new logo. The logo for older editions was a bird's wings encircling old lettering with "WILLOW SPRINGS" at the center. The latest logo lost the bird and moved to a simpler design with a W sitting on top of an S like a crown. Though changes like this do alter the original intention of past generations of editors, Willow Springs has taken action to stay relevant in a quickly changing world. The website, which contains the covers and authors within each past issue, offers less tactile audiences a feel for what the magazine publishes. This spurs interest, while the books themselves hold most of the content. Each online issue only includes four to seven pieces of full writing, which creates a sense of allure for future purchases of the physical copy. Slight changes like this have occurred since the magazine's foundations, but the roots are still grounded, even if they grow over new landscapes.

The magazine is able to grow and transform through a steady income, which is established in four ways. For a literary magazine, Willow Springs has a surprisingly steady income, though much of it is through donation. Because the journal is sponsored by EWU, they are able to receive enough funding to continue publishing. There are certainly individuals who donate to the magazine, which are featured in contributor sections at the front of each issue. There are also a decent amount of subscribes who pay a yearly fee. Subscribers get a slight discount for the two issues published throughout the year—Spring and Fall—but readers not involved or invested in the magazine can also buy copies as a single-book purchase, either hard copy or e-book. The magazine utilizes Small Changes as their distributor and focuses "mostly in distributing our magazine in the PNW area. "Starting local and working out is a good policy for a lot of lit mags, since locally we can make more of a cost effective effort to promote our magazine" (Vander Molen). Part of what makes Willow Springs special in regards to money in this intentional focus on the Spokane and Pacific Northwest area. Concentrating on readers from a smaller part of the U.S. encourages growth for the magazine, while also allowing the area to to further its literary grasp.

Ultimately, the success of the magazine is its local impact on both writers and readers alike. In 2013, the Inlander claimed that “the creative writing program at EWU is the engine of Spokane’s thriving literary scene” (Bookey). In the same article, Sam Ligon explained his own excitement for the city and how EWU and Willow Springs has contributed to that: “The writing scene is vigorous in Spokane. And the artistic scene is really strong in this town, and it really wasn’t ten years ago.” Through the focus on discussion in its mission statement, Willow Springs, among other programs, has been able to accomplish a tangible literary movement within Spokane. The magazine also invites local writers to publish and participate, “which is great since we can include authors [from the PNW] more easily in events like AWP, the Montana book fest, Portland Lit Fest and more” (Vander Molen). Willow Springs is actively finding ways to involve local writers in the literary scene, which further expands literary appreciation and curiosity in Spokane.

While this appreciation for newer writers certainly shows in the pages of Willow Springs, the magazine is still able to publish high-profile writers as well. One of the ways the magazine does this is by welcoming guest interviews. “We interview authors that we genuinely want to speak to about their work and their experiences as a writer,” explains Vander Molen, “We most recently interview[ed] Jericho Brown (poet) and Ramona Ausubel (fiction).” While people like Jericho Brown are high profile, the interviews also include past published writers or people that the editing team holds in high esteem, regardless of status. They also aim to give equal footing to poets and prose writers. In Volume 58, the team interviewed Marilynne Robinson, whose success in contemporary literature is indisputable. Willow Springs brings these authors into the magazine to allow for higher diversity and spark further discussion. Name-authors also can be found in Willow Springs, including Spokane Poet Laureate Laura Read. Previous Poet Laureate Thom Caraway described how Read has “local, regional, and national credibility,” and her poems appeared in Volume 70 of Willow Springs (Lamberson). The combination of both well-established authors and unknown writers is essential to the magazine, and each issue aims to unite these pieces of writing.

Willow Springs is Spokane-central not just in its writing, but in its presentation also. In many past covers, the artist and inspiration has come straight out of Spokane. In several issues in the mid-2000s (around 56-74), the cover art was explicitly drawn from members of the Spokane community. There are several issues in which the artist of the cover was also the Managing Editor of the magazine in one-year or two-issue installments. As of late, the magazine has “been doing 4-issue contracts for artists, using one artist’s work for 4 issues before choosing a new artist” (Vander Molen). The current artist, Chris Bovey, is local to Spokane and so far has two of four of his prints published on the covers. As Thom Caraway pointed out, these prints include items, landmarks, etc. that are specific to the Spokane community. This is a first for Willow Springs, whose past covers have mainly been anything the editors like. As Vander Molen explains, “We want a design that allows for our name to be prominently displayed and also look like a cover people will want to pick up and look through.” It seems probable that because Willow Springs has become a huge member of the Spokane literary scene, their interested audience will see Spokane-related tokens and find these more compelling than other covers. Collaborating with local artists allows Willow Springs yet another opportunity to draw from and establish the Spokane literary scene.

Through developing and keeping to a single mission statement, Willow Springs has been able to deeply impact the Spokane community. The magazine includes fun covers, thoughtful interviews, and great writers from all walks of life. The diversity of thought and invitation for discussion creates a sense that Willow Springs cares about the literary world, particularly with training their students at EWU to enter carefully and courageously into it. In a way, Willow Springs functions as the wise old grandmother, whose presence in Spokane has lasted throughout many editors and students. She is still fiery, strong, and capable to go beyond limits, but she has a stake in Spokane and, if time and money allow, Willow Springs will not take it out anytime soon.

Works Cited

"About Willow Springs." Willow Springs.

Bookey, Mike. "The Word Boom." The Inlander. 17 September 2013.

Butler, Blke. "Sam Ligon [About]." Samuel Ligon. ​

Lamberson, Carolyn. "New poet laureate Laura Read aims to create poetry of place." The Spokesman Review. 30 October 2015.

Vander Molen, Leona. Personal interview. 24 April 2019.