Volume 42, 2003
It’s one of those great, relatively rare feelings: finding a journal with not a single author (or very very few) you recognize, a journal you may have heard of but have never actually read through, and within a few pages you’re hooked. This was my lucky experience with Descant, a magazine I feel like I’ve read in countless contributor biographies. From the first lines in Bruce Machart’s “Where You Begin” to the last ones by Ronna Wineberg in her “Encyclopedia” (the interview with Michael Mewshaw is fine and readable as hell, but it’s nothing, candle-power-wise, to intended fiction or poetry), I was taken in by voices in stories (sole complaint: too much first person) and poems, like all the best, I couldn’t see coming with that oomph that makes it poetry. It’s a slim, fine volume, an annual that, once you know it, is something to look forward to like the longest day of summer and cool nights thereafter.– WC
from Small Magazine Review: January-February 2003 (Issues 112-113)
“Best Kept Secret” by Tim Gavin
Descant proved to be a pleasant read. The stories and poems are accessible and well crafted. I particularly enjoyed the stories, which carried the weight of their opening sentences and initial conflicts through to the final sentences and resolutions. No break downs. No let downs. Excellent narratives. The characters of the stories were realistic and well developed. The language used sound and image as part of the craft of story telling. The language wasn’t overwrought or inflated, but subtle and controlled. William J. Cobb, the recipient of The Frank O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction, led the way for the bulk of the fiction: The story of a young retarded girl, Mouse, who discovers the pleasure of intercourse when she meets the school janitor, demonstrates the value of one human life over another. She becomes pregnant and her mother, in an attempt to protect Mouse, drowns the infant. Other stories follow the darkness of “What Happens to Rain?” The poetry in this issue [vol. 41, 2002] is brilliant and reflects a variety of styles and forms. Each poem represents a different form and subject. James Doyle’s poem, “Louis XVI,” was a favorite of mine as well as Charles Harper Webb’s poem, “I Named My Cat Keats,” which received the Betsy Colquitt Poetry Award. Other mentionables: Jim Daniels, Patricia Chao, and Virgil Suarez. The only item missing from this excellent magazine is a review section. Descant may be the best-kept secret of Fort Worth, Texas. It is a must read.
descant: A Memoir
(from descant 2000)
By: Betsy Colquitt
Listed on the inside front cover of descant, The Texas Christian University Literary Journal, Fall 1956, Volume One, Number One are the names of the forty-six donors who contributed the money needed to publish descant. Among the donors are most of the English faculty, several TCU trustees, former and current TCU students, and others, usually from Fort Worth, with an interest in literature and little magazines. Though I don’t remember how much time this fund-raising required, for many years, donors and fund-raising were essential to descant’s existence. So too were subscribers, who paid $1.50 for the three-issue volumes. When the journal became a quarterly in 1964, a subscription cost $2.00. Such charges seem improbably low today, but publication and postage costs were much smaller then.
Like most first issues of little magazines, the initial issue of descant includes an editorial. Placed on page one, the editorial outlines the journal’s purpose and its origin. The editorial is predictably lofty about descant’s aims and optimistic about their achievement. Defining a literary journal as “a medium of presentation and comment” concerned with “the state of letters,” the editorial asserts that such a journal can “approach that concern with a conscious integrity denied the more popular media” and thus can “advance the state of letters” by publishing writings that are “orthodox or experimental, primitive or polished, spontaneous or deliberate.” By doing so, descant can “hew out its character according to the convictions and abilities of its editors.”
Titled “By Way of Introduction,” the editorial also notes that all writings in the issue are from members of a “critical discussion group” at TCU that, since 1953, had read and critiqued stories and poems by group members. This close interaction between editors and writers is expected “to continue” even though “future contributors will not be limited to this group.” The editorial concludes, “Because it is a college journal, it has upon it the stamp of thought, for we who have committed ourselves to a belief in man’s intelligence believe that only after much thought, much talk, and much silence can we, as Yeats phrased it, ‘descant upon the supreme theme of art and song.’”
All staff members who worked the first issue were TCU undergraduates and graduate students who had participated in the discussion group. Since TCU required faculty advisers for all student publications, Mabel Major and Louse Cowan, both prominent members of the English faculty, agreed to accept this responsibility.
Professor Major, a member of the TCU faculty from 1919 to 1963 when she retired, taught Shakespeare and other Renaissance courses as well as courses in Southwestern Literature. Louise Cowan and her husband, Don Cowan, joined the TCU faculty in 1953, she in English and he in physics.
The Cowans, whom I met when I was a TCU junior, and I became friends. They influenced me greatly as they have hundreds of others over the years, and I remain most grateful to them and also to two of my TCU English teachers, Lorraine Sherley and Paul Dinkins. The four of them became my mentors. Encouraged by them to think of college teaching as a possible career in spring 1947 as I was finishing my BA at TCU, I applied to graduate programs. Paul strongly recommended Vanderbilt, where he earned his doctorate, and his reference letter for me accounts for my receiving a scholarship. The Cowans also applied to Vanderbilt. Though my stay in Nashville was limited to the 1947-48 academic year when I earned an MA, the Cowans spent several years in Nashville, and both completed doctorates there. Louise was encouraged by her Vanderbilt professors to choose as her dissertation project an examination of the Fugitive poets, a group of students, faculty, and townspeople who created a literary society that began during the last years of World War I and continued until about 1925. Individually and collectively, the Fugitives were among the earliest contributors to the literary movement usually called “The Southern Renaissance.”
Though this long digression about the Cowans may seem unconnected to descant’s beginnings, it isn’t. The Fugitives became the model for the “critical discussion group” the Cowans founded at TCU in 1953, and from her dissertation, which is one of the earliest scholarly studies of the Fugitive writers and which LSU published in 1959, Lousie Cowan knew the benefits that the Fugitive writers gained from group meetings and discussion. Like the TCU group, the Fugitives included students, faculty, and a few townspeople who wrote or had an interest in writing. Like the TCU discussion group, the Vanderbilt group also published a literary magazine, The Fugitive. Like descant, The Fugitive was supported by donations, usually from Nashville townspeople, and by subscriptions. Vanderbilt never funded the journal, which published eighteen issues over the course of its life of three years: 1922 through 1925. TCU has been more generous with descant, which since 1965 has had some university funding. The magazine also benefits from a couple of endowments given to TCU with the requirement that their earnings be assigned to the magazine.
In 1959, the Cowans accepted faculty appointments at the University of Dallas, and the TCU discussion group that the Cowans and a few others helped to create and maintain had dispersed as student groups necessarily do. Meanwhile, an increase in submissions to descant meant that the interaction between writers and editors that the first issue set as a goal became more and more elusive. Increasingly, descant published more manuscripts from writers with no immediate connection to TCU or to this area, and the submissions often came from writers who had numerous publications.
Though my connection to the original student group and to the beginning of descant obviously came from my friendship with the Cowans, it also came from my interest in poetry and fiction and in little magazines (where I sometimes published). When I became a member of the TCU English Department in 1954, I was assigned the job of editing descant. As time passed, descant became better known, grew in reputation, and gained some financial stability. Though printing and mailing costs greatly increased over the years, the magazine was always solvent, and that it’s alive and well after four decades amazes and pleases me.
I think too that though descant wasn’t, and isn’t now, a deliberately regional journal, it has helped bring attention to writers in Texas and the Southwest. Contributions by Walter McDonald, Dave Hickey, William Barney, Carolyn Osborn, Tony Clark, Annette Sanford and many others belong in this category. At times, the magazine was lucky in accepting works from writers who later gained national reputations. Among these are Anne Tyler and Clyde Edgerton, both of whom published early stories in descant.
Being associated with the magazine from its beginning until 1996 when I retired makes me feel an almost maternal pride in the publication, which has also been fortunate in the many others who’ve worked on the journal. The English Department was generous in assigning student assistants to help with the journal. Moreover, department secretaries such as Phyllis Drake, and more recently, Claudia Knott, willingly helped with the many details publication involves. Colleagues too were generous in taking on editorial tasks. Among the most important were Harry Opperman, David Vanderwerken, Stanley Trachtenberg and Steve Sherwood who served as fiction editors. I’m also grateful to Neil Easterbrook, who, with a cadre of students, edited the journal just after I retired. That this editorial process replicated the journal’s beginnings is also fitting. Now, and, I hope, for many years to come, descant’s editor is Dave Kuhne, and with the assistance of his poetry editor, Lynn Risser, I’m certain the journal will continue to thrive.
Though descant’s forty-four years of publication doesn’t rival the longevity of little magazines like Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, which began in1915, forty-four years isn’t bad for a little magazine that began with great hopes and ambitions. In those years, some hopes and ambitions were realized, and the journal has had a modest success or two along the way. descant 2000, a special issue devoted to outstanding Texas writing, is clearly another of those successes.