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Review: 'Out of Words' features many promising writers

It's probably a tribute to the culture of northern Minnesota and the great writers who live there that so much writing gets done and published. One need only look, for instance, at the large literary journals being produced by the College of St. ...

It's probably a tribute to the culture of northern Minnesota and the great writers who live there that so much writing gets done and published. One need only look, for instance, at the large literary journals being produced by the College of St. Scholastica -- "Out of Words" -- and the University of Minnesota-Duluth -- "The Roaring Muse" -- to see how many young people in our community write, some of them very well.
Take the latest version of "Out of Words." Weighing in at over 140 pages, featuring dozens of poets and prose writers, along with artists and photographers, it's a good demonstration of something going right at St. Scholastica. The faculty advisers Nancy Fitzgerald, a fine poet in her own right as well as a renowned teacher, and Todd White, who loves literature enough to produce his own artistic books on a letterpress in his basement, may have something to do with that production.
Of course, it is your typical college journal in that the student writing runs the gamut. You will find tone-deaf coming-of-age manifestoes better left in private journals. You will find rehashed classroom assignments. Self-indulgent, flowery writing abounds. This is not unusual or necessarily bad -- it's a stage most writers go through on the way to producing art.
And this journal also holds some gems.
Ann Plucinak's "Flames of Love" is an excellent, warm poem about a mentor who has passed away. Jessica Cole's "The Bad Pair" uses an inventive metaphor (playing off a homophone in the title) and sharp language to describe a relationship gone wrong. "Rearview Mirror," a short prose piece, details a mother's terrifying flight with her children from a violent husband.
All of these were chosen as winners in the journal's contest.
Outside of these winners and the honorable mentions is other great work. "Four Way Stop," by Joe Hofer, offers a genuine and wrenching poem of masculine grief. Jamie Olson's "Shisha" is probably the most fully-realized short story in the journal. It uses a strong metaphor and great characters, set in the exotic setting of the Middle East on a U.S. Navy ship, and it makes powerful, bald social commentary.
Lezlie Oachs, a faculty member, offered a wonderful, haiku-like piece called "Winter Morning in Duluth."
Dennis Hink's untitled prose piece puts readers in another exotic setting -- the South American rain forest -- with great imagery. Deanne Schaefbauer's "The Turning Point" illuminates the enormous cost of war, shown in the life of one who made it back.
Lori Fulkerson's "Goodbye," which was an honorable mention in the prose category, also deserves note. A well-wrought scene of grief, this one tugs at the heart.
And there are several more good pieces. It's quite an excellent showing.
I do have one major reservation about the "Out of Words," and that's the gender politics playing out in it. Women writers in this journal outnumber men significantly -- that's probably just reflective of St. Scholastica's demographics. But the tenor of the gender politics within the journal is troubling.
Despite a few positive portrayals of men by women writers in "Out of Words" -- usually as daddies -- the ugly male stereotypes of cheater, beater, self-esteem-wrecker, rapist and stalker take the dominant place. Such men are shot, spit out, condemned and verbally smacked down in these 140 pages.
Surely there is real suffering by women, and one of the jobs of literature is to give voice to it. But when negative stereotypes are the dominant view presented, such a gross and unfair imbalance does its own harm to both men and women.
The pieces awarded are also telling when seen through a gender lens. Of the three winners (there was a tie in the poetry category), one poem features the bad pear being spit out (used in the poem as a metaphor for a man) and the prose winner centers on a stereotypical violent man and the women fleeing him. Counting the honorable mentions, no men were included in the five awarded writers, despite strong cases for Olson and Hofer.
The best men fare among the five winning pieces is a positive portrayal of a supportive significant other by Fulkerson.
I may sound shrill here, but if it were women in this position, it wouldn't pass without comment in 21st century America, and rightfully so. It shouldn't pass without comment no matter who is disparaged.
In the last week I've read two works on the current state of literature that, on their way to other points, touch on gender. Mario Vargas Llosa's essay in a current issue of The New Republic notes that men aren't reading it. In Carol Bly's new book on teaching creative writing, she notes that modern literature is coming from women, minorities and the poor, asserting that the great teaching of the "school of hard knocks" is the reason. Maybe these questions need closer examination.
Anyway, these reservations aside, "Out of Words" is a wonderful sign for Northland literature and contains the work of many promising writers. Here's to more great work to come.

Kyle Eller is news editor for the Budgeteer News. Reach him at kyle.eller@duluth.com or 723-1207.
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