As with almost everything else associated with art we encountered at
William Paterson College, the literary magazine was in decline. Bob
Nickas, the grumpy editor I had met two weeks before my first magazine
meeting, was preparing to graduate and had little or no time to put up
with the fickle moods of writers. He was a bit self absorbed and had
ambitions in the graphic arts world, and would later become editor of
the school's art magazine, something that had significantly more
relevance off campus than the literary magazine ever did. In fact,
Nickas would hook up with an internationally known art critic who also
taught at William Paterson, a man who would later be murdered in the
Carribean. Nickas would earn his place in art history by editing a book
on the man's work and life, and as a result would curate art shows
throughout the metropolitan area, detailing catalogues rather than
He was a stocky man with slightly pockmarked face, who reminded me a lot
of Leo Gorcey in his role as a Bowery Boy, yet much more articulate. All
through the first meeting, he kept mumbled about deadliness and
committees, vowing not to make the same mistakes he'd made the previous
year when he and Scott McGraff had been stuck with every aspect of the
magazine, from reading and judging submissions to laying out the final
copy for the printer
"This year we'd like to delegate authority a little, get people more
involved," he said. "I had a hard time with my classes last year. I
can't afford the same trouble again."
He and every editor constantly feuded with the Yearbook staff,
especially when the yearbook people took over the office for
photographs, a non-stop process that often lined the halls with
graduating seniors, women pruning themselves to look their best, men not
giving a damn, both little realizing the immortality of that picture.
Even when no camera flashed, the yearbook staff generally left the place
a mess, scraps of this or that lying everywhere, books from previous
years cluttering the desk tops. We routinely received complaints for
putting the place in order again, someone moaning about us losing their
place and setting their production back by months, telling us they'd
tell the kids we were to blame if the year book wasn't out by graduation
(It rarely was, and largely because it posed an impossible task, even
without our accidental delays.)
Later, when I inherited editorship, I would go through the boxes,
pulling out yearbooks from past graduating classes, examining the faces
of the generations that had come before us. I suppose I searched for a
familiar face, someone I might have known from my own era -- those with
whom I would have attended college if I had come here right out of high
school. I saw none for all my nosiness, but I caught the flavor of the
changing school, and knew that our class would no more define the
character of William Paterson than those which had come before us, for
each class defined itself, then passed on, leaving the school to the
next, uncertain generation. Nothing remained the same. All things faded.
And gathering in the office to discuss the magazine that first time, I
knew we would have to shape ourselves for ourselves, and forget about
anything like posterity.
Perhaps we all felt the weight of it, that sad sense of passing, and
that exciting sense of something new, we, like leaves falling from this
tree in preparation for Winter, wondering at what the new leaves would
look like when we were gone. We had no way of anticipating the magnitude
of the changes that would come. We did not yet understand how
significantly the world would change after the election of Ronald Reagan
the next year, how a new, culture of greed would emerge to take the
place of that supposedly based on love and peace.
Even the caliber of student changed. Sue, me, and the others represented
the twilight years of Intellectualism at William Paterson, writers and
artists would lose value steadily as the school emphasized a much more
practical educational approach, returning to the concept of
"manufacturing parts of the great American machine," which had seemed so
offensive during the cultural revolution of the 1960s.
We had no way of knowing that we would be the last of the liberal
generation, the radical rag tag who upon whom the curtains of the old
act would close, but who would not be on the stage for the next of t
Sue protested immediately. She said she didn't mind being part of the
literary scene and all, and didn't care if we made her read a poem or
two every once in a while, but said her first love was the newspaper and
that's where she would be spending most of her time. Indeed, She claimed
to have two majors and a minor coming into her sophomore year, and told
everybody in the room, how busy she was, and how she never seemed to
have time to go out any more, and then, while still stringing out the
details of her busy campus life, seemed to eye each man in the room as
if expecting one to offer her an evening's reprieve.
Joel Lewis would later call her "one of these energetic jugglers you run
into at school -- she had a double major, was the paper's news editor
and held down a part time job."
When no one made an offer to help relieve her burden, Sue sighed -- one
of those infinitely drawn out sighs I would later associate only with
her, so sad, so weary of life, so dramatic that every head in the room
turned toward her when she started to speak, then repeated her diatribe,
as if trying to drill its importance in our heads.
"I'd love to help, and I do love writing and all, but I've got work to
do at the newspaper. I don't think I could find the time, with how busy
I am, you know. There's just no time to do everything that needs to be
done," she said, before anyone had actually asked her specifically.
In later weeks, I would see her a lot in and our of the newspaper
office, looking as busy as she claimed, though for the most part what
appeared in the pages seemed hardly to justify how hard she worked.
"I'm not asking you to put yourself out," Nickas said. "Just help out a
little with the sorting. The hardest part of this job is reading through
the submissions. We generally get a lot more than we can use, and most
of what we get is shit."
"Are you saying my work is shit?" Sue asked sharply. "You did print
something of my last year, remember?"
"That's not what I said," Nickas moaned, glancing around at the rest of
us, with an expression suggesting he didn't know how he had worked
himself into that corner and knew less about how to work his way out.
"I'll help," I said, and saw a look of gratitude come into his eyes.
Michael offered, too, though Nickas would later confide to me how good
an editor Michael would make, but how the magazine's advisor, Professor
Richard Nickson, wouldn't allow it.
"He thinks Michael's too radical," Nickas said.
Michael scared many people on campus. He was wild, opinionated and just
intelligent enough to threaten the comfortable intellectual laziness of
the professors. He had taken Nickson's creative writing class, and told
the professor it was trash, thus explaining the professor's distaste.
Sue eyed us her perch as if suddenly curious about our interest in
literature, clued in for the first time about just how serious we were.
But she did not join us after the meeting when dragged me outside,
opened his hard bound note book and read some of his literary tracts.
Sue's interest would waver where the literary magazine was concerned.
She would show up irregularly, make small contributions, then vanish
again into the haze of her busy life. I would see her a little more
often when I inherited the magazine a year later. As new as I was to the
literary scene, I did not specifically seek the position. It came as a
compromise. When Scott and Bob decided to leave, Nickson absolutely
refused to give the job to Michael, so I inherited it instead. Nickson
never realized just how much more radical I was than Michael, who took
over the magazine a year later when I gave it up. When contacted in
Texas, Michael said he didn't remember much about Sue contribution to
"Of her writing, I only remember printing a photocopy of her face in the
ESSENCE I edited with Matt Greco, a postmodern pre-Raphaelite image we
used to frame somebody else's poem," Michael wrote.
Sue had stuck her face onto the flat glass surface of a copy machine,
her blond hair turned black except for a few streaks at the bottom. And
the image it presented was as sexual and seductive as any she would
later present in Ridgeway's "Redlight." In giving Sue credit, Michael
only wrote "ugh!"
Over the next few weeks, we would see her only once, when she delivered
her poetry for us to evaluate, and she went back to her desk at the
Not that she was rude or arrogant, she just marched in, dumped the
manila envelope on the desk and said this was her submission, pausing
long enough to qualify as a member of the club, but not to get caught in
any possible responsibility here. She looked the same way as I saw her
the first day, though I noticed her sandals now, something straight out
of that era of dirty toes I called the 1960s.
"You want to read it?" Nickas asked me, since he was already engaged
with some badly written epic which was so full of grammatical errors and
so full of stereotypical anti-woman rhetoric, he needed to finish the
work, giggling over every other paragraph with an exclamation about how
wonderfully selective admissions was: "What was the point of dumping all
those students last year, if they're just going to bring back bigger
I picked up Sue's envelope. She had already fled, like a rabbit with a
pocket watch. I found only three sheets inside, and only a few lines on
two of them in the guise of poetry. The third seemed to be some sort of
fiction. Nickas eventually picked one of the poems and printed it
underneath a photograph of a black man staring down onto a football from
the bleachers. I don't remember what the other pieces said, but all
three struck me oddly, as if she was saying something behind the words I
didn't understand, much more complex than the usual juvenile
I-am-the-center-of-this-lonely-world pieces that had flooded the
magazine during the previous week.
"I searched for solace in the sky," she wrote in the piece that appeared
that Spring. "But the brightest star I saw was just a passing plane."
She had insisted only on using her initials, as if she was speaking to
one particular person and that person would know who "S.M." was without
our saying so.
But I did take notice of her, especially after reading those few pieces
of poetry and fiction she'd submitted.
Sue C. Gorgeous