The Knewton Blog

Our monthly newsletter features edtech and product updates, with a healthy dose of fun Knerd news.

Side Projects: English Majors Unite

Posted in Knerds on August 15, 2012 by


This is the latest installment in our blog series highlighting Knerd side projects.

I started the literary magazine LitCouture 4 years ago, right after I graduated from an MFA program in creative writing. Using my own network of writers and my knowledge of small presses, I was able to build up an organization fairly quickly.

Right off the bat, I was thrilled with the kind of talent we were able to attract. We published winners of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Yale Younger Poets Prize as well as Guggenheim and NEA fellows and hot emerging voices. In 2009, we came out with a lavish, full-color print edition which was sold in bookstores nationwide. We had a great circulation rate for a lit mag, and we were sold in Barnes & Nobles, Borders, and independent bookstores all over North America. Once we launched, I got substantial interest from undergraduates, and soon after, I built up a fairly substantial internship program.

We’ve had over 20 interns over the years, and many of them have received grants to work with us from their respective undergraduate institutions. It’s a very intellectual internship (as much a class as a work experience). For instance, the internship has a “reading list” which includes authors like Nabokov, Calvino, Borges, and three of my favorite contemporary authors, Steven Millhauser, Rikki Ducornet, and A.S Byatt.

The first week of our meetings, everyone reads Dana Gioia’s famous essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” which was published to acclaim in the Atlantic Monthly in 1991. (Gioia is a businessman and poet who has controversial ideas about making poetry relevant in society again). Here is a quote from Gioia which sums up my reasons for starting the organization in the first place:

“American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group…”

Gioia goes on to outline some of the ways we can draw poetry back into mainstream American life: hold readings that are more creative (readings people actually want to attend); showcase poetry with music, visual art, and dance; emphasize performance as well as analysis in classrooms.

With LitCouture, we’re putting a lot of these ideas into action. We’re infusing our literary endeavor with a sense of pleasure, beauty, and enchantment. This all reflects my view that the literary experience is glamorous and exhilarating; it is not high brow or low-brow; it is no-brow.

When I started working for Knewton, I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up the print publication, and I wanted to experiment with more digital stuff anyway, so we just kept everything online.

One of English Majors Unite’s featured images. Source

This summer we started English Majors Unite, which is the scrappy, irreverent side of our whole operation. That’s where we scour the earth for literary stuff: literary bathing suits, literary cakes, literary homes, literary birthday parties, literary bars, literary drinking games, literary cars, literary perfumes, literary jewelry, literary younameit. We search the world for the most charming literary things and showcase them in one place. And once a week or so, we pair original fiction and poetry from our archives with a “maker” — a visual artist of some kind — preferably in a category that defies categorization (public art, street art, wearable art, renegade art, etc.). Ultimately, what we want to do is provide a belletristic lens for viewing the world and a space which reflects our total obsession with aesthetics.

This concept of “makers” probably requires a little explanation.

Whenever I see artfully designed things on the streets or in stores, I think, “This reminds me of Calvino. Or Borges. Or Steven Millhauser.” Our blog is a collection of all these baroque, eccentric, idiosyncratic, painstakingly crafted objects — the sort of things you look at as an artist and feel a sort of kinship with. Perhaps it’s different for others, but I know that whenever I see anything beautiful — whether it’s a ballet or a leather handbag — anything that reflects total discipline on the maker’s part–it inspires me to write, to aspire to perfection — and of course, inevitably fail. The striving is the point: it’s part of this Romantic sensibility which I am trying to cultivate around our project.