UMSL Litmag wins 1st place prizes from American Scholastic Press Association and National Council for Teachers of English

by | Apr 8, 2024

The 2023 edition of the annual student-run publication featured 61 pieces of art, poetry and prose from a diverse group of campus creators.
Alum Amy Kenny talks to student

Alum Amy Kenny (right) talks to a student in the Millennium Student Center about the 2023 edition of Litmag last spring. Kenny served on the production committee of the annual student-run UMSL literary and art journal. The issue recently earned national recognition from the American Scholastic Press Association and the National Council for Teachers of English. (Photo by Derik Holtmann)

The pages of the 2023 edition of the University of Missouri–St. Louis Litmag contain more than art, poetry and prose. They also offer readers an experience – a chance to become part of the publication.

Prompts littered throughout the magazine, such as, “Write a one-sentence autobiography” and “What are your predictions for 2050?”, encourage readers to add their own thoughts to the page. Elsewhere, sketches mimicking those found in the margins of a well-worn textbook invite readers to doodle themselves. In addition to those interactive elements, the issue’s theme, “You are the light,” is carried elegantly from cover to cover by lightning bug designs, which combine aspects of the natural and manmade world.

The innovative approach as well as the wide variety of high-quality work from a pool of diverse contributors has recently earned Litmag, the annual student-run UMSL literary and art journal, national recognition.

In January, the 2023 edition was awarded first place with special merit in the American Scholastic Press Association’s annual Yearbooks, Magazine, Newspapers Contest. It also earned “Most Outstanding College Literary-Art Magazine for 2023” in the special category awards. The ASPA has held the contest since 1980, and judges select winners based on elements including content, design, editing, layout and theme.

The issue also won the National Council for Teachers of English’s REALM First Class Award, which recognizes excellence in literary magazines produced by students and is designed to encourage all schools to develop publications to celebrate the art and craft of writing.

Litmag advisors Kate Watt, associate teaching professor of English, and Elizabeth Buchta, assistant teaching professor of graphic design, were both honored to receive the accolades.

“There are some really exceptional student publications out there, and I think it’s just thrilling to know that we’ve been recognized among them,” Watt said.

Alum Ginger Redden, who served as the poetry editor on last year’s Litmag staff, was also thrilled by the news.

“To hear that it received accolades, it’s hard to put into words,” she said. “It was really amazing. It was great to see. I guess it’s fulfilling to see that something we worked hard on was enjoyed by others, not just UMSL people.”

Watt said she typically submits Litmag to the ASPA contest, where it has been successful in the past. However, based on the strength of the 2023 edition, Watt decided to submit it to the NCTE as well. The issue is also in the running for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Prize for Undergrad Lit Mags, a highly competitive award that only goes to one outstanding undergraduate-led journal and two runners-up annually, though the winner has yet to be announced.

“This issue in particular, I knew from the moment we were conceptualizing it that we had something pretty special, pretty unique, pretty out of the ordinary,” Watt said. “When we had the final product and we saw at the Litmag launch party the tremendous response by folks who had spent lots of time with it and who were also just encountering it at first glance, we thought there’s no better time than now to reach higher.”

Students on last year’s Litmag staff culled about 280 submissions from campus creators down to 61 pieces of art, poetry and prose. At 145 pages, it is the largest, and most ambitious, issue to date. The subtitle and theme of the issue, “You are the light,” acknowledges the darkness of the COVID-19 pandemic in the preceding years, but also extends a message of hope – a belief that everything will be OK. The staff aimed to publish a variety of works that offered readers an escape, but also an invitation to enjoy the present.

“We wanted to create something new, but also something comforting, something familiar,” Redden said. “One of the main things we were talking about was how to make it all feel like ‘at home,’ how to make the book feel like comfort food. ‘A warm hug’ was a big phrase that one of the staff members used. We tried to match everything to that sort of theme and vibe.”

From a design perspective, Buchta and her students took inspiration from antique books published from the late 1800s to the 1930s.

“I wanted to see if I could give this magazine, which is softcover, the feel of a classic hardbound book,” Buchta said. “Because part of what they were interested in exploring was comfort, regaining a sense of trust. I think those were some of the themes. So, this idea of pairing it with these old books that were classically designed felt grounding. It felt like it connected us to the history of literature in a way.”

Watt believes the close collaboration with the Department of Art and Design was what helped set the issue apart from other entries in the ASPA and NCTE contests. The partnership began in 2022, but it became more established last year. Buchta and Watt noted that their students visited each other’s classes and shared workspace, creating opportunities to brainstorm and talk through ideas.

“Inviting graphic designers to the table to help create an object or a book or any project is going to give you a better result and a more interesting result,” Buchta said. “Because designers are trained to use empathy and to think about somebody who’s on the other end of the experience. What’s the reader going to take away from this? How do we want the reader to feel? I think whenever you consider the receiver of your creative act, you’re going to get a better outcome.”

Buchta highlighted Martriana Muhammad’s contribution in particular. Muhammad designed the lightning bugs featured on the cover and throughout the issue.

“It was an idea to combine the aspects of natural and artificial,” Muhammad said. “So, I took something natural like lightning bugs and something artificial like blue light, which usually comes from light bulbs, and made it into one thing.”

Redden and Watt also believe the conscious effort to make readers part of the publication helped the issue shine compared to other entries in the competitions.

“That may be how it was able to stand out,” Redden said. “We were able to connect each of the pieces together, and then from there, connect the reader to those pieces or at least give some sort of bridge for the readers to connect with the pieces.”

Ultimately, the awards reinforce the value of Litmag on campus. The experience is a key professional development opportunity before graduation. Participating students develop practical skills working with other creatives to produce deliverables on deadline, while also providing an arena for creativity at UMSL.

“I’m an idealist, so I believe that each one of us is a creator and has this ability to express ourselves and a desire to do it,” Buchta said. “We reap a benefit from expressing ourselves. It’s intrinsically, inherently good for a human being to express themself and feel seen, feel heard.”

This year’s Litmag staff will debut the 2024 edition at a launch party from 6-7:30 p.m. May 9 in the Millennium Student Center Century Room C.

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe

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