The State of North Dakota Quarterly

Next Friday, I’m heading to Fargo, ND to the Northern Great Plains History Conference to participate in a panel on the “The State of State Journals.”  I have the pleasure of representing NDQ at the conference and this gives me a chance to further blur the boundaries between my professional service and research.

My paper is a bit short for now and I’d love to expand it a bit once I get confirmation on the length of paper’s wanted for the panel. But it’s a start and a decent one at that, I think. 

The State of NDQ

First, I want to thank Suzzanne Kelley for bringing this panel together today and giving the region’s editors and publishers as chance to share notes with one another and provide updates on their current situation with our community. My talk today is going to going to sketch out the recent history of North Dakota Quarterly and to foreground the role of the remarkable regional humanities community in ensuring the Quarterly’s survival into the third decade of the 21st century and on the verge of its 90th issue.

As many of you undoubtedly know, NDQ is the state’s “little magazine.” Founded in 1910 as a literary and public humanities magazine, it published continuously until the Great Depression and then from 1956 to the present. Faculty and staff at the University of North Dakota edited and published nearly all of the 90 volumes that have appeared over this time. For the first decade or so, most of the contributions came from on campus contributors, but by the 1920s, the journal had come to consistently feature contributions from regional authors. These contributions tended to focus on issues of contemporary interest and concern, from the role of the region in World War I to the state of North Dakota’s school, the region’s economy, and various thoughts about history, geography, economics, and geology. The rebirth of the Quarterly in 1956 saw the magazine’s slow pivot toward it current “literary magazine” format and the gradual increase in the number of pieces drawn from outside the state and the region. Under Robert Wilkins’ editorship from 1968-1981, the magazine emerged as a national journal of essays, fiction, poetry, and reviews where regional authors and concerns intersected with national contributors and content. From 1981-2007, Bob Lewis transformed NDQ into a national platform that featured emerging writers — particularly Native American authors — and developed a reputation for publishing significant recent research on Lewis’s research specialty, Ernest Hemingway, and the work of Tom McGrath. Lewis’s death in 2013, left the Quarterly with a firm sense of direction but without Lewis’s sage and accomplished leadership.

Fortunately, Lewis endowed NDQ with a strong editorial board, staff, and subject editors, who helped the Quarterly find its footing in the ten years since Bob’s passing. This became all more crucial as the journal faced a series of unexpected challenge brought about by budget cuts at UND and the changing expectations of various university administrators. I joined the editorial board in 2013 amid pressure to expand its digital footprint and transform the Quarterly into a “sustainable” project. Within a few years, this pressure had metastasized into a full fledged crisis with budget cuts leading to the loss of our subscription manager, then the retirement of our longtime managing editor Kate Sweeney, and finally, the loss of course releases or contract time for the journals editors. In these conditions, the burden of managing, editing, and publishing the journal became so large as to be impossible and Sharon Carson and I, who were serving as co-editors, came to the painful conclusion that the journal should be shuttered for good.

Then community happened. As last ditch effort to explore our options before we closed the Quarterly, Sharon and I started to meet with various people and groups in the Red River Valley and beyond to understand how we might save the journal. First, we met with Brenna Gerhardt at Humanities ND and she patiently discussed with us her view of the humanities landscape in the state. Suzzanne Kelley, at NDSU Press, helped us to understand the challenges facing any publisher who would take on the Quarterly. Patrick Alexander at Penn State University Press saw potential value in the Quarterly for a university press and his words of encouragement emboldened us to reach out to the University of Nebraska Press with whom I had worked (along with Suzzanne) to get Elwyn Robinson’s iconic History of North Dakota made available for free. They too saw the potential of NDQ and agreed to publish the journal.

While this was going on, the long-tail of budget cuts and editorial change had meant that our fiction editor, poetry editor, and art editor had left UND and our editorial board was depleted. Once again, the remarkable community and spirit of collaboration and support cultivated in the Red River Valley rose to the challenge. The UND diaspora stepped into the breach. Gilad Elbom, a UND PhD now at Oregon State, agreed to be fiction editor, Paul Worley, who taught at UND from 2009-2014 agreed to be poetry editor, Sheila Liming, who was at UND and is now at Champlain College in Vermont, agreed to read essays for the journal. Ryan Stander, at Minot State, became our new art editor, and Sharon Carson agreed to stick around as our reviews editor. Suzzanne Kelley brought her decades of publishing and editing experience to our editorial board, he was joined by Richard Rothaus, former NDUS vice chancellor, who is now Dean of College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at Central Michigan University, and a number of new colleagues to fill out an expanded editorial board. Most importantly, for me as a new editor, is that Kate Sweeney, despite having retired, has continued to offer advice, encouragement, and critique as I learn the ropes as journal editor.

Starting with volume 85, NDQ emerged from the challenges of austerity with a editors, a new publisher, and a new lease on life as the material embodiment of Tom McGrath’s hackneyed axiom that “North Dakota is everywhere.” As we now work to bring double issue 89.3/4 to press (it’s due to Nebraska on October 1st!), we can look back on the last 5 issues and see even more clearly how the survival of NDQ depended upon the creative energies, experience, and generosity of our community. For example, a key contribution to NDQ 86.1/2 came from Prof. Crystal Alberts at UND who edited a special section in honor and memory of the great post-modern novelist, critic, and teacher Bill Gass (who, incidentally, was born in Fargo). From down here in Fargo, we’ve been fortunately enough to publish manuscripts from local writers, Sarah Beck (whose “Ymir’s Blood” appeared in 89.1/2 and documents the experience of the 2009 Red River flood), poetry from Emil Vieweg and Anthony Albright (an NDSU PhD) will appear in a forthcoming issues, and John Cox from NDSU has not only published translations from across the Slavic speaking world in NDQ, but we’re excited to welcome — very soon, in fact — his translation of The Cherry Tree, a novella from the German by the leading contemporary Sorbian writer, Jurij Koch, which we’ll publish in collaboration with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. This will be the second book length work of fiction published by NDQ, the first being Tom McGrath’s This Coffin Has No Handles, from 1984. Lest the Red River Valley acquire undeserved prominence in my litany, we have also featured authors from Bismarck, Minot, Dickinson, Jamestown, The Cities, and various other communities across the region. Their work joins writers of national and increasingly global status who both amplify these local voices and situate our communities within a global context. The global stature of our authors attracts thousands of submissions annually from which we accept fewer than 5% for publication. Our subscription numbers remain decidedly more modest, but we do hope that the same community who has supported our recovery from the crisis will also support our future health!

My litany today gives you a sense for the state of NDQ in the present as well as a sense for how NDQ’s survival represents both the region’s and its ”diaspora’s” commitment to the journal and the willingness of both institutions and individuals to step into the gap created by the changing administrative and budgetary commitments at UND. I also hope that my description of the state of NDQ demonstrates how a “little magazine” continue to represent the

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