Experimenting with the Experimental

Now that our (exhaustive) timeline of the student-publication collection is finished for the moment, we can breathe a sigh of relief before diving into our individual parts for the final project. For me, what’s clear from the outset is the constant re-evaluation of scope, specifically the need to narrow my focus. Time constraint (we have roughly less than three weeks left!) and my limited experience with digital tools necessitate that I not bite off more than I can chew:

All student publications (125+) >

Literary magazines (41) >

Experimental magazines (~7) >

Io and Adelphian (2)


Why literary magazines?

Compiling and cleaning up the template for the timeline yielded useful data for generating a variety of graphs (which hopefully will feature on the homepage of our currently non-existent website for the final project). One of these, the-distribution-of-genres graph, shows that literary magazines make up the largest group with 41 publications. But that number alone does not provide the full picture, since some publications were single issues while others, such as the Amherst Literary Magazine, last upwards of 70 years. Nevertheless, not only were literary magazines the first student publications to come out of Amherst College, they remained a staple marker of students’ intellectual and creative lives throughout Amherst’s 200-year history.

It would be a Sisyphean task to tackle all of the literary magazines. Despite the generic and bland description often attached to them, “featuring short stories, essays, and poems,” they exist in all different shapes and forms, requiring extensive work, effort, and technical ability to give them justice. To take a more logistically realistic route, I have decided to focus on the experimental literary magazines as a lens on the literary establishment at Amherst. For this purpose, I selected Io (1965-66 at Amherst, 1967-1976 post-Amherst), an anthology combining literature, anthropology, natural and physical sciences into thematic issues, intended to be “a long accumulating poem, or myth, created by those who read it.” Puzzled yet intrigued? Me, too. The other is Adelphian (1985-1986), which aimed to attract “voices one would not expect to find at Amherst,” a phrase which itself raises questions about the student climate at Amherst and what was considered acceptable by the literary establishment.

So what does it mean that they are experimental magazines? For one thing, after spending two days trekking through the pieces, I can say that they are DIFFICULT to understand. How can digital tools like textual analysis help me with these interpretive challenges? The range of topics by itself is incredible, but more challenging to wrap one’s mind around are the styles of the writers and poets, who often perform technical feats to convey their points. “Experimental” is meant to be a catch-all term, because to pin down a definition for such words is, as Samuel Butler puts it elegantly, “to enclose a wilderness of idea within a wall of words.”

Nevertheless, “experimental” is relative, as it requires a point of comparison and historical context. To provide a rounded look, I plan to comb through the Amherst Student to gather information about their reception by the student body and the faculty. What are the dynamics between the literary establishment and these experimental literary magazines? Looking at the “established literary magazine” from the same period would be beneficial in gauging the degree of experimentation, although how to depict this visually remains a challenge.

Whatever I find in these next few days, I envision the final project to involve a lot of writing. Context is crucial, because in addition to looking at individual pieces themselves, my interest in origins lingers, prompting me to learn more about the founders and contributors. Where did they end up, and did their involvement with these magazines have any influence on their career path and current work? In working with the digital, I want to emphasize the human connection as much as possible, and perhaps this is one way of doing so. Time will tell (check back in a week).