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WashU’s nationally known literary magazine helps students grow their skills

The Spectacle literary magazine allows WashU graduate students to gain editorial experience and participate in the larger literary community.

When it’s time to consider submissions to The Spectacle, WashU’s online literary magazine, poetry editor and MFA student David Ehmcke can face down a pile of up to 400 submissions.

The Spectacle’s volunteer editorial readers — all MFA and PhD students — go through several rounds of winnowing, making sure each entry has been read by at least three people. Once they’ve cut it down to their top 20 submissions, the group gathers at Ehmcke’s apartment with snacks and drinks to decide on their final picks.

“When we meet in person, sometimes a reader will make the case for a gem of a poem that others may have missed and the conversation opens up the entire room to the mind of an artist,” Ehmcke said. “That conversation alone makes the whole thing worth it.”

The Spectacle publishes works of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and visual art. It was founded in 2015 by English graduate students Kelly Caldwell, Cass Donish, and Jonathan McGregor, all of whom later published books in their respective fields. The founders continued to run the magazine with WashU faculty assistance even after they left the university. But, starting last year, the reins were returned to English department graduate students.

“We see it as a pedagogical tool for the grad students and an opportunity for them to engage in the broader literary community,” said Heather McPherson, a senior lecturer in English and The Spectacle’s faculty advisor.

The magazine has a national reputation, particularly among poets, McPherson said. Its mission has long been to publish works by writers from historically marginalized communities. And, unlike many literary journals, The Spectacle pays an honorarium for published pieces.

Over the years, the magazine has published an impressive array of well-known writers, including poets such as Eileen Myles and Jos Charles; fiction writers William Gass and Karen Tei Yamashita; and nonfiction writers Hanif Abdurraqib and Deborah Jackson Taffa. They’ve also run interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown and fiction writer Kelly Link, a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship. 

Kristin Emanuel, a third-year English PhD student who co-edits that magazine with MFA candidate Temperance Aghamohammadi, said the move back to student leadership gave them a chance to consider the magazine’s legacy, choosing which parts to preserve and which to reimagine. “We look for speculative, imaginative works that court the realm of the fantastical in a way that intensifies the commentaries the artists are making,” Emanuel said. 

The 14th issue of The Spectacle was published in March and Emanuel hopes to publish another issue as early as this summer.

Emanuel said she calls on her skills as a creative writer and a literary scholar in her role as co-editor. “As a writer, it’s essential to imagine yourself in this grand community,” she said. “I see it as an obligation to help other writers place their work and help it gain the admiration and attention it deserves.”

In addition to co-editors Emanuel and Aghamohammadi, each genre has a student editor and a cohort of student volunteers who read submissions.

Though the process happens outside of any organized classroom requirement, Ehmcke has come to consider his work at The Spectacle a vital part of his education, supplementing what he could get from a graduate seminar. It’s also allowing him to follow in the footsteps of his mentors. Professor Mary Jo Bang was the poetry co-editor of The Boston Review, Ehmcke said, and Professor Carl Phillips adjudicated the Yale Series of Younger Poets. 

“When I look at the writers I most admire, editorial hunger seems to characterize their practice in some way,” Ehmcke said. “I think my teachers would say their posts acted as prisms that refracted back to them knowledge about their interests and tastes as artists. I like to think of my work at The Spectacle as having a similar effect.”

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