The Magazine

 

 

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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

literature.

 

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

Essence.

 

"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

newspaper.

 

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

idiots?"

 

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.

 

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Sue C. Gorgeous

 

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