A flood of creativity
In the popular campus journal Tributaries, students’ literary
ambitions flow freely.
Cathy Gilbert ’05 (above) served as Tributaries editor last fall. In the popular campus journal Tributaries, students’ literary ambitions flow freely.
By Mac McCormick ’04 & Anna Deters ’05
Photos by Marc Featherly
It’s been said that creativity is the act of organizing chaos — but chaos seemed to
have the upper hand on a chilly Friday night in February, just minutes before an open
mic poetry reading was scheduled to begin in the Memorial Center.
Due to a scheduling conflict, the event’s location had been changed, forcing the organizers
into a last-minute scramble to set up chairs and find a suitable spot for refreshments
that included a modest cheese-and-cracker tray. As the room filled, a notebook was
passed around for those wishing to sign up to read that evening.
This book offered more a rough suggestion than a precise outline of order, as students
who had signed up suddenly turned up missing, having rushed back to their rooms to
retrieve a forgotten poem from their notebooks or laptops. The suggested topic for
the night’s reading — in keeping with Valentine’s Day — was love, but even that wide
a subject net couldn’t hold the range of material that was presented. Along with poetry,
there were essays, stories, aphorisms, scenes from movies — even a critique of the
federal “No Child Left Behind” act. The high energy in the room reached a crescendo
with a dramatic reading of fluffy top-40 songs that brought the group of about 35
students to their feet.
During the event — sponsored by the Illinois Wesleyan chapter of Sigma Tau Delta,
a national honorary society for English majors and minors — Megan Thoma ’05 took the
floor. As editor of the student literary magazine Tributaries, Thoma reminded students that the deadline for the spring issue was looming for those
who wanted to express their creativity in a more formal outlet.
Illinois Wesleyan students have actively taken part in reading and publishing their
creative work since the first campus literary journal appeared in 1872 (click here
to read related story). But interest seems to be at an all-time high, as evidenced
by the fact that the staff of Tributaries recently announced it would expand its publication
to twice per academic year to accommodate the growing number of poetry and fiction
IWU English Professor Emeritus James McGowan says that interest in creative writing
steadily rose from the time of his arrival in 1969 to his retirement in 2000, but
received its biggest boost in 1996, when the writing track was adopted as a major
in the English department. The entire University underwent a reform of its general
education program, and the department decided to use the opportunity to respond to
a continually growing demand by students for courses in creative writing and journalism.
According to McGowan, the creation of the English-writing major “legitimized student
interest in writing, and it’s gone gangbusters ever since.” A tradition of visiting
writers — starting in 1994 with a memorable series of workshops given by the poet/journalist
Carolyn Forche — have helped pique that interest. In the past decade, many students
have successfully competed in national fiction and poetry contests, and in 2002 the
first May Term travel course with a creative-writing focus embarked to Paris. Today
71 of the 156 declared English majors are on the writing track (the rest are in literature),
and that number is expected to increase.
For those students, as well as non-English majors with literary aspirations, publication
in Tributaries has become an important standard for success. Tributaries, as it was renamed in 2001 by English-writing major Jeffrey Stumpo ’02, is the latest
in a long line of journals celebrating the strongest and most original writing by
It was last year’s flood of submissions that prompted the staff to increase the frequency
of publication, according to Cathy Gilbert ’05, an English major who served as editor
of Tributaries’ fall issue. Each semester, students have four or five choices for
creative writing courses, depending on their experience level, so each semester more
and more is written, says Gilbert. “It’s important for us to keep up with the work
|Jordan Ault ’04 (above) leads a sing-along of the immortal top 40 hit “Mmm Bop” at
an open mic.
The magazine is run entirely by students, with Assistant Professor of English Michael
Theune filling the role of faculty advisor. While Theune is available to support the
staff in any way that he can, he has no influence on what is chosen for publication,
according to Thoma. That job is left up to a panel of student judges who rate pieces
through a blind submission process in which all of the authors’ names are removed
from their pieces. Although differences of opinion are expected and welcomed among
the judges, some general guidelines for considering each piece are recommended, including
consideration for both craft and originality.
Thoma estimates that about 25 percent of submitted pieces are selected for publication,
but that number can vary. “The length of the magazine depends on the quality of work
submitted — and our budget,” she says. Tributaries, which is funded by the Student
Senate, has a circulation of between 500 and 1,000 and is freely distributed throughout
Tributaries is not the only campus outlet for literary efforts. Each year students invest their
own time and funds to create a variety of independent “desktop” publications. Past
titles have included The Typhus Chuckle, Porch Swing, Theunepfisch (a title that pays homage to Professor Theune), and, most recently, Stuff.
The gratification that comes with publication is not the only reason to submit material,
however. “The experience of submitting your work is worthwhile in itself,” says Gilbert.
“Being published, even at a microcosmic level, is good for writers’ self-esteem, and
we need to encourage people to express themselves in artistic ways.”
But authors are not the only people who benefit from Tributaries and other campus
publications. As Theune puts it, “A campus creative-writing publication helps to show
the soul of a campus. Look at the latest issue of Tributaries. In it, you’ll find
grief, anger, silliness, profundity, wit, passion, and irony — an amazing and moving
body of complex work, the revelation of profoundly human emotions and thoughts.”
Shaping all that emotion into an appealingly readable format remains a challenge for
Tributaries’ editors. “Our primary goal of the last few years was to produce a quality
magazine,” says Thoma. “Now that we have done that, we are searching for greater distribution
and also recognition through various contests.” Thoma also said she was looking forward
to a release party for the spring issue. It will no doubt offer the same giddy mix
of creativity and chaos that continues to make the campus literary scene a phenomenon
that’s well worth the read.
|Above, Alicia Rodriguez ’05 reads a selection of her poetry.
> To read about past literary journals at Illinois Wesleyan, click here.
> To read an essay on creative writing by one of its student practitioners, click here.
> An online version of Tributaries, with additional multimedia content, is located at www.iwu.edu/~tribut/ or click here.