Institutional Memory

In Conversation With Walter Gordon ’14

by The Editors | Institutional Memory | Web Exclusive

187 North Professor Street, where Wilder Voice’s offices were located during Walter Gordon’s tenure as Editor-in-Chief.

A former Editor-in-Chief chats about favorite mistakes, the editing process, and Lena Dunham’s Girls.

What years did you attend Oberlin and what was your major?

I graduated in 2014 and I majored in English. I almost had a minor but didn’t have a minor. 

What in?

Art history. I think I had enough credits for an art history minor but I didn’t get the paperwork in or something. 

What are you doing now?

I’m finishing up a PhD at Columbia University. I work on African-American literature and energy […] literal energy, like coal, the environment, electricity, things like that, and how they show up in Black writing from the 20th century. 

What years were you a part of Wilder Voice and what positions did you hold there? 

I was just there my last two years. First I was Assistant Editor, then I went straight to EIC. I don’t know how typical that is; it felt fairly typical in a certain way because there weren’t that many options. I was kind of the most senior person on staff even though I had only been there for a year.

How did you get started with WV?

I cannot recall. At that point in my undergraduate life I had done at least one publishing internship at a literary magazine in San Francisco during one of the summers.

Which magazine?

It’s called Zyzzyva. They had me reading the slush pile and writing book reviews. And so by the time I got to my junior year I knew I wanted to do something literary, not directly publishing-related, [and at Oberlin] there were kind of two options, if I recall: there was Wilder Voice and Plum Creek Review, I don’t know if that’s still around.

Yeah, it is. 

Yeah, and they were very different from each other, they have very different processes. And I believe I worked for Plum Creek briefly because it was kind of open, you could just go to a meeting and they would be like, “Alright, you can vote on what gets put in the magazine,” and I did that for maybe a semester before Wilder Voice. And then I jumped ship and went to WV for some reason that I can’t remember, unfortunately.

Did you ever do anything with the Grape or the Review?

I never did anything with the Grape or the Review, I never have been interested in traditional journalism. Which was one thing that was interesting working at Wilder Voice, and maybe this is still the case: when I got there, I was like, “I don’t care about all of the investigative journalism, nor can we do really good investigative journalism with the time and resources we had as undergraduates in this small town—what we can do is more creative work.” So maybe there was a slight shift towards creative stuff when I was there, which I’m curious to see if that’s had an afterlife or if it’s kind of returned to being more nonfiction-oriented. 

“I tried to steer it towards something a little more, I don’t know, a little more Paris Review than Harper’s.”

Right now it’s a lot of personal essays. Some reporting, but not a ton.

Yeah, I think that’s a shift that’s happened over the last 15 years.

When you say “creative pieces,” do you mean fiction and poetry?

Yeah, that was definitely in it, but more leaning towards the kinds of essays you guys are talking about. Less things that are tightly structured investigate pieces and more things that lean para-academic, not quite academic discourse but certainly kind of intellectually engaged, more in that kind of way. 

Do you feel like you played a part in that shift via the decisions you made as EIC?

I think so. I mean, I felt generally like there were only certain things I could make decisions about, and one of the things I couldn’t make decisions about, on a certain level, was content. Because the amount of submissions we got was usually such that we printed, like, two-thirds  of what got submitted, or half, maybe. So there wasn’t really that much that I could do in terms of “I want this type of writing,” you know? ’Cause it was sort of like we were dealing with the body of writers we had available to us, which was one of the problems that Wilder Voice faced while I was there, just expanding that pool of writers to include more people, specifically people of color. But yeah, I tried to steer it towards something a little more, I don’t know, a little more Paris Review than Harper’s

In hindsight, what role do you think Wilder Voice played in your career at Oberlin? 

It was a big deal. It took a lot of my time. I don’t know if this is still the case for you guys, but it was immensely time-consuming. It took—I was just talking to my partner about this—it took just a little less time commitment than all of my other classes put together. And a lot of that was doing the kind of shit that I never do anymore and that at a normal magazine I don’t think an Editor-in-Chief would do, like arranging things on a page, making sure that the magazine looks right and has good margins and all that crap. That took an insane amount of time. And then there was something, I can’t remember the specific structure of it, but we had some kind of thing where there was a two-week period where it was a crazy crunch and everybody had to finish their articles and we had a name for it, and it was like, “You gotta finish your articles and get them from this early stage to basically being done within these weird two weeks in, like, November or something.” That period was insanely stressful. 

In terms of less quotidian ways in which it affected my life, it did push me towards continuing to work in literary magazines, something to do with literary journalism publishing, which I did do for a year after I finished college. I moved to New York, like a good literary Oberlin grad, and I worked at New Directions and New York Review of Books. And I got into grad school at that time, so very quickly kind of abandoned ship, but I was on a clear trajectory towards doing publishing stuff. And that was directly because of working at Wilder Voice and enjoying that work.

Do you have a favorite Wilder Voice memory?

I have quite a few. I have one that I really wanted to ask you about, because I have an indelible memory of this and I wonder if it had any kind of long-lasting effect, which is that—I wouldn’t say this is a favorite memory because it was the source of much stress and shame—but [to print Wilder Voice] we had to go through this crazy process through the school. Like, it was a school contractor who had a contract through Wilder Voice, I don’t know how the people who set up Wilder Voice originally did it but they’re wizards. But anyway, I wrote them a check to print however many magazines and it was some outrageous amount of money, like $9,000 to print the magazine, and I gave them the check and we got charged and the magazines came, and there were half as many magazines as there was supposed to be. And I looked at the charge and they had charged me $4,000-and-something dollars because I have really bad handwriting, and they thought my nine was a four. So we printed half as many magazines as usual, and that ended up being a really good thing because—I don’t know if this is still the case for you guys—but generally there’d be literally a thousand extra magazines that’d be sitting around, and there’d be these boxes and boxes of magazines just sitting around, so that’s a really good memory in a weird way because it was a complete accident that should have been a disaster that was completely fine. 

Do you have a terrible WV memory?

Yeah, I do have a terrible memory. I at one point—maybe it was my first or second semester at the magazine—I  publicly talked shit about a writer. Like, about their piece, among my friends on a porch or something. And I got caught, basically; it got to the writer somehow that I’d been talking shit about them and then they went to Elizabeth [Kuhr], and was like, “Walter is a shithead.” And I had to apologize to the whole staff and apologize to that person profusely and it was really shitty,  but it also… it was an interesting position to be in, to be the head of the magazine and to make the mistake that one is not supposed to make; that was an interesting experience for me. 

What’s your favorite article that you published at WV?

That’s a tough question. There was a really good one on a porn star, like on a relationship that a student had to a porn star in the virtual world, and the kind of place that this porn star held in their sexual idenitity. There was a really good one about selfies that I feel like came out at a good time when the world wasn’t yet inundated by writing about selfies. I don’t think selfies are undertheorized at this point; when this kid wrote about selfies it was still fairly fresh. That one was cool. I also had a couple of friends who interviewed a bounty hunter. Apparently it’s not a very good piece in retrospect, but I recall having a lot of fun putting it together and getting them to interview this bounty hunter and stuff, that was cool. Those are the ones that I recall the clearest. I really like—when I took over we switched the format of the visual art section. Previously there was some art and then maybe some writing from the artists about their art, and then when I did it, I had our Art Editor interview artists instead, and that felt pretty good, I remember quite liking what came out of those. Those are all highlights. 

It was an interesting position to be in, to be the head of the magazine and to make the mistake that one is not supposed to make.

Did WV have any type of “reputation” on campus? 

Honestly, not really. I feel like it was very under-the-radar, like people knew Plum Creek way better than WV and what WV was, because I think it was very ambiguous to people, partially because of the way in which it was about news but also literary. [That] was very confusing to people, and the whole super-long editorial process that we did kind of created a bubble around WV. The people who were involved with it knew what it was but I think very few others did. I would guess it had a reputation of being kind of pretentious or something, which is not a word I use very often or one that I think is very helpful, but I would imagine that’s how some people understood it, to an extent. Maybe a little less artsy than PC but still somehow intellectually prepossessing and intimidating is how I would put it. Certainly took itself more seriously than the Grape.  

What do you think is the most essential part of Wilder Voice that makes it Wilder Voice?

I mean, definitely partially it was the editorial process. As much as I hated it and bucked against it, and found it counterintuitive and frustrating, it definitely was unique and did produce a certain environment for writers that I think is kind of rare. Like now what I teach is basically a freshman seminar but without a theme, it’s just how to write for college. And the basic point of that class is it’s the only time they’ll ever get to run, like, six drafts by a professional writer and get responses constantly, and Wilder Voice did something kind of similar, even though it wasn’t professional or whatever: somebody who’s supposedly pretty good at editing, and had people above them who were even better supposedly, and so it was a unique situation, the kind of setup for helping to cultivate writing skills. So that definitely was vital. 

And then another thing was the variety of forms—which again, as much as I griped about the ambiguity of the investigative journalism shtick, it was cool that we had reporting and creative nonfiction and poetry and art and  totally weird kinds of creative writing that were something else entirely. I really felt like we could put anything in it which was cool, which I really took advantage of my second semester. 

I published a really weird thing that I wrote half of, because I was just like, “I’m in charge, I can do whatever the fuck I want,” so we did this thing that was called—I don’t have acces to any of these old magazines so I can’t look back at this so I can’t remember what it was called exactly—but it was something in Latin and it folded out and it was a bunch of word definitions or etymologies of words, some of which were completely fictional and some of which were real. And I thought that was very cool, that I could put this in that [issue] was like, what is that even? So that to me is a basic tenet of Wilder Voice: it’s kind of formless and can kind of take on whatever kind of thing can be literally put in the pages. Or even now that you’re digital, you don’t even have to deal with fitting in pages. Which is probably something to think about. How can you take advantage of the situation that you’re in, you know? 

We’d love to hear about your view on the editorial process at Wilder Voice, specifically what frustrated you about it and how you went about trying to change it or refine it.

I don’t think I did change it very much. It was one of the things that I was like, “This is too much of a fucking, like, iceberg.” I only had a year to make changes, but if I remember it was just difficult that there was often tension between writers and editors, because the writer would have an idea for what they wanted to do and then the editor [would have] conversations with everyone else on staff who were very opinionated… and the writer was not privy to those conversations, right, and so we’d come back with all this stuff and the writer would be like “Where is all this coming from? Why are you not responding to me?” So that was a major problem, there was a major emphasis on collaboration between editors which was perhaps detrimental in the way that it was kind of done without transparency. That was frustrating to me. A lot of writers just found it incomprehensible why they were being asked to produce something new. A lot of people wanted to come to Wilder Voice and be like, “Yeah I wrote this cool essay, can I publish it?” And we’d be like, “No, actually you have to start a new thing.” Why go through the editorial process itself when you have this finished thing that will just go through months of editing? So those were the kind of issues I had with it. Like I said, I think there were a lot of good things about it, that it did in certain circumstances really foster a relationship between an editor and a writer that really helped the writer to develop, but that was not the most common experience.

Do you think you would have done anything differently as EIC in hindsight?

I probably would have placed more of my energy into widening the audience and the pool of writers that WV reached. There was a really kind of depressing thing that happened where about halfway through the year a poster went up for another literary magazine that was Black-run, like everyone on staff was Black, and they were trying to get mostly Black writers or something like that, and on the poster it said they were the only magazine in Oberlin run by a POC, and I’m a POC, and so it was this real moment for me where I was like, “Damn, you know, it’s a surprise to me that I’m not always visible as such to people.” That is something I’ve come to terms with over the course of my life, obviously, but the fact was that that should have been acknowledged, that should have been passed out to people outside of the small realm in which I lived. So that was super disappointing for me. And my response to that was partially—I mean, we did a little more outreach but not much, like we didn’t really know how to do more outreach, but what we did do is I think the poetry section was all Black writers or all writers of color, maybe, for a semester or maybe two semesters. But that to me is a kind of band-aid. It’s just kind of amplifying voices, but what you really need to be doing is kind of cultivating more and creating more connections where they’re totally missing. So that probably would have been more of an emphasis—but it’s hard to do that. Again, this is why institutional memory’s important. Like, there was no evidence that that had been a project that anyone before me had taken in any kind of similar way. There was no kind of precedent for how I might go about doing that, so it’s good to talk to people and see what has been tried in the past and fix problems that are still problems. 

Is there anything we should’ve asked but didn’t? 

Not really. But I have one question, actually. One very small change I made was that the magazine looked almost exactly the same. Specifically the cover was always this evocative image and then like a bar and then Wilder Voice in full volume, and I think my first semester we were really struggling to come up with a cover and I was like, “What if we just put a circle and then a ‘WV’ inside of the circle?” and that’s what we ended up doing, and it looked really cool, so I was just wondering if the cover’s reverted to being the same every time, or if it’s looser now. I know that it changed shape, which is very exciting. Like in the two years after I left it shrunk significantly which I think is smart.

The little “WV” circle is still around.

Current (left) and former (right) “WV” circles.

I feel like that’s another thing about WV: our designers were fucking sick… I was always happy with how the magazine read. To be frank with you I was not thrilled with all of the pieces but I always liked how it looked. It looked very professional. Have you spoken to a lot of editors?

We did a big group interview with the ones who, like, took it over from Lena Dunham.

Right, right. Have you gotten Lena Dunham?

Her publicist didn’t get back to us. And it would ultimately be harmful to us.

Is she widely reviled on campus at this point? 

Yeah, we think.

That’s super interesting because when I was there it was, like, the birth of Lena Dunham. I was there from 2010–2014, and Girls must have come out in 2013, so it was like, “Woah, Lena Dunham got famous.” So there was very much a more complicated—like, everyone hated her but ultimately was just mega jealous. Half the people in the Creative Writing Department were like, “She took my shit!”

Walter Gordon graduated from Oberlin in 2014 with a degree in English. He is currently a graduate student at Columbia University.

Photo by Sam Schuman.

Institutional Memory

In Conversation With Elizabeth Kuhr ’14

by The Editors | Institutional Memory | Web Exclusive

The Fall 2013, Spring 2013, and Spring 2014 issues of Wilder Voice, published while Elizabeth Kuhr was the magazine’s Managing Editor.

Wilder Voice’s former Managing Editor, now a journalist in London, talks favorite memories at the magazine and what makes Oberlin a special place for young journalists.

This discussion is part of a new interview series, “Institutional Memory.”

—The Editors

When did you graduate Oberlin?

I graduated Oberlin in 2014.

What did you major in?

I was a history major, and my concentration was Middle East and North Africa studies.

What are you up to these days?

I am a journalist and TV producer with NBC News based in their London bureau.

What years were you involved with Wilder Voice and what positions did you hold?

If I remember correctly, I was involved with Wilder Voice my last two years at Oberlin. I think I had some sort of editor role or something for the first semester that I was involved, and then for two or three semesters I was Managing Editor underneath an Editor-in-Chief.

What kind of role did WV play for you in those two years at Oberlin?

It was such a special place. Anytime I think about Wilder Voice, the first thing that comes to mind is just a feeling of community and warmth. I thought it was an incredibly creative space, it was a safe space in more than one way, it was an open space, and it was just a consistent, great place to have, to be spending some of my free time.

Could you talk a bit about what you mean when you say it was a safe space?

It just felt like there was a lot of diversity—internally, [and] externally. I felt like we were very open and creative with the ways that we put the magazine together. We always were open to taking ideas from our contributors, from our other editors, and we did a lot of  really interesting layouts with the magazine. Like I remember one year, we had one poet, and their poems were interspersed throughout articles, or we had, one year, one artist design art interspersed throughout the articles. I felt like we were always coming up with new and different ways to put the magazine together.

We’d love to know about the art that you published in the magazine. How did you guys go about getting art and how were you thinking about art during your tenure?

It always just felt, like, really dynamic, which goes back to what I was saying about how I felt like it was such an open and creative place, professionally. We took very seriously how we would reflect 3D mediums into the print magazine, so we would make sure we had the right photographer, or right photocopy. And I also remember we did a couple articles where we actually embedded somebody’s modern art into an article—so art that wasn’t directly related to the article, but was like a brief pause while you’re reading. You could view this art embedded in the page. And I remember just thinking that was so creative and beautiful. The articles can be very long in Wilder Voice, and I loved that we were open to including art even within the layout of the magazine and articles.

What do you think you learned from your time at WV?

Being a manager, I learned a lot about how to work together as a team and how to manage staff, how to manage writers—but mostly, definitely the teamwork aspect. I learned how to be on a team and work together.

“I think it is an incredibly unique experience to have the opportunity to put together a magazine that is such high quality.”

We’d love to know what you did right after you got out of Oberlin, and if (or how) WV factored into that or helped you with that.

I actually sometimes still have Wilder Voice on my resume, because at the time we had a pretty big budget and it was the first time as a young person that I had managed that kind of money and that amount of staff—plus upholding the journalistic integrity of the magazine. So for me it just showed a level of responsibility that employers were interested in, and it was proof that I had experience in journalism. I went pretty much right into journalism after I graduated. I knew I wanted to do that. I actually remember, when I applied for internships and Winter Terms, I had given copies of the magazine to potential employers because I was so proud of it. I thought it was so impressive and an incredible example of the work that we can do as young journalists.

What’s your favorite WV memory?

My favorite Wilder Voice memory is probably the interview that I did with Zeinab Abul-Magd, who’s the [Middle East and North African studies] history professor. It was an incredible experience to sit down with my advisor, with someone whom I considered a mentor, and have the space and the time to publish this back-and-forth and let her tell her story and her experience.

On the flipside, do you have a worst WV memory?

I wouldn’t say that there are any worst ones, ’cause I worked with such great, calm people. I would say that I do remember the days leading up to printing being quite stressful. I remember spending very long hours and [have] distinct memories of, at the end of the semester, spending very very late evenings [at the WV office]. Leaving-when-it-was-dark-out evenings. I do remember it being down to the wire.

What, to your knowledge, was WV’s “reputation” on campus?

[Laughs] Definitely a bit posh. We had a sort of posh reputation, to put it nicely. I think we also had a reputation of really hard journalism, like hard news journalism. We had a reputation of really brilliant writing. We had a reputation of taking a look at very interesting and complex stories.

What do you think is the most essential thing about WV that makes it WV?

I think it is an incredibly unique experience to have the opportunity to put together a magazine that is such high quality, to be able to have a publication that takes art seriously, that takes poetry seriously, plus doing hard news articles and interesting investigations. I think that is a very, very unique experience as a college student and it definitely makes the magazine stand out.

Is there anything you wish you had done at WV that you didn’t, or anything that you would have done differently in hindsight?

I would’ve taken more moments to be mindful and be present in those experiences. Wilder Voice was one of many things I was involved in at Oberlin, and yet it was probably one of the most precious memories I have, so my only wish would be that I would be more mindful […] you know, take a deep breath and take in those late-night editing sessions, ’cause I remember it very fondly. 

Is there anything that you were surprised, or not surprised, to learn while working with Oberlin writers?

I just remember being genuinely impressed with the empathy and the journalistic integrity of all of the journalists I worked with at Oberlin and how they approached their reporting, from the newspaper to Wilder Voice

Do you think there’s anything about Oberlin that draws so many people to doing journalism here or going into journalism later?

Yeah! I think it fosters a curiosity, and an empathy, and an openness, and those are some of the most fundamental characteristics of journalists.

Thanks so much for doing this!

Yeah, it’s really cool. It’s tough to have a legacy when people are just there four years on a rotation, and I think going back and doing something like this is huge, because it’ll be referred to for years to come, too.

Elizabeth Kuhr graduated from Oberlin College in 2014 with a degree in history. She is an NBC News journalist based in London. Elizabeth writes, films, edits, and produces stories for TV and digital.

Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Kuhr.

Institutional Memory

In Conversation With Wilder Voice’s Founders

by The Editors | Institutional Memory | Web Exclusive

Former Wilder Voice editors Meena Hasan, Louise Hanks, and John West.

A discussion of late nights spent in Mudd, the mid-’00s Oberlin mediasphere, and how Wilder Voice found its name—and its footing.

The first issue of Wilder Voice went to press in 2005. Fifteen years of continuous publication is an accomplishment for any literary magazine today, let alone a college rag with a near-100% turnover rate every four years. To commemorate a decade and a half of providing Oberlin students with a space to share true stories, we are launching a new interview series, “Institutional Memory,” to explore the magazine’s history through conversations with former staff members. For our inaugural installment, we caught up with some of the publication’s first editors—Louise Hanks ’09, Meena Hasan ’09, Heather Jones ’09, Sadie Nachtigal ’09, and John West ’12—over Zoom to ask them about their time at the magazine.

—The Editors

Could you tell us about what Wilder Voice was like when you were working on it?

Heather Jones: It was originally a much smaller publication and magazine, and it was a smaller format—print—and, basically, all of the people who ran it graduated and handed it down, randomly, to me and this other girl, Amanda, who worked on it for a little bit but then she quit. So then I reached out to Sadie and we were like, “We don’t love this name, it’s kind of pretentious”—the Journal of Proper Thought—“we want to rename it and make it something totally different.” We were kind of picturing this full-length, glossy magazine. We wanted to make it a lot more professional and we wanted to incorporate a lot of new writers. It was a very bumpy, stressful start. I remember, it was sophomore year and it was me and Sadie and Annie working on it at that point and, you know, just pulling all-nighters trying to finish this magazine. My favorite story is from when we read it all during the blackout on a flip cell phone.

Meena Hasan: Oh God.

Heather: It was a rough beginning but we have some good memories! 

John West: [Holding up a stack of old issues of Wilder Voice] Here they all are.

Sadie Nachtigal: Oh my God, I’m so glad you have full evidence and props. Remind me, Heather, if I’ve got this wrong, but I think the Journal of Proper Thought was very… It was 8×5” format, kind of posturing as a very tongue-in-cheek, Victorian, kind of Oscar Wilde snark vibe. Wasn’t Lena Dunham the editor?

John: She was published in it.

Heather: I think she was one of the editors, actually. She was one of the people who graduated and passed it down. We went to a meeting with her.

Sadie: Yeah, yeah, okay. I mean, there were things we liked about it, and I think we were definitely pretentious in our own way. [We were] like, “This is going to be like the New Yorker!”

John: It was like the New Yorker, Sadie, it was.

Sadie: I’m not so sure.

John: Better! 

Sadie: But yeah, at the beginning there were definitely a lot of differences about the style, about the format, about the name, about what type of journalism we were going to do.

Meena: In terms of design, there was always an argument, about how to maintain a certain level of authority while also looking pretty clean and crisp. 

John: Yeah, I remember I was really… I had very strong opinions about layout. That was how I started, working in layout, and we wanted to make it a full-size magazine instead of a half-sheet, and then Meena came on board and was like, “John, you have to stop putting borders around everything.” I think one thing you said was, “John, what are you doing?” And I still am like, yeah, you’re right about that, actually.

Meena: But we had to keep the borders! The compromise was to reduce the size. We were very aware of the way design art looks so it makes sense to put borders, but as soon as we graduated, they were gone.

John: I want you to know that in retrospect, you were right and I was wrong. I’m admitting it right here right now: I was wrong about the borders. 

Heather: Also, editing was really important. That was a priority. We spent a lot of time with the articles doing rounds of editing. We were really careful. We became really close as a team. We would be in the library and we’d have the article up on the screen and we’d all sit in chairs and group-edit, which was such a special experience.

Editors Annie Strother, Sadie Nachtigal, and Heather Jones work on the Spring 2007 issue of Wilder Voice.

Sadie: I can’t believe—it was so fun! All the editing! Now I have a real job and it’s like, this is a pale shadow of when I edited cool articles!

John: I do wonder if some of this isn’t tinged with nostalgia, because I also remember being soooo tired by the end. Just totally deranged beyond all belief. 

Sadie: Also, 100% it was a bad use of time I was going to regret. At one point, there was a giant reggae festival on Wilder Bowl, and we were in the A-Level. “I really wish we could get all these issues to Oberlin, this is important, people care!” And now I’m like, “Why were we not at the reggae festival?”

Heather: Totally. We tried to make [the editing process] really structured. Quality was super important to us. We focused a lot on bringing in people’s personal stories and making room… we were open to publishing all types of articles and taking risks and talking about things that people were not talking about. I remember we had a Wilder Voice survey and we would ask all of these touchy questions.

John: It continued on for a while.

Louise Hanks: Yeah, I do remember that. I think there were a lot of brave moments in there. I remember having somebody talking about eating disorders; I was talking about sexual assault. There were lots of big moments where people were sort of coming out to the Oberlin community about something that had happened to them or something they were dealing with. And so part of those meetings was, “Let’s look at your article and get it up to snuff,” but it was also—now I’m in the therapy world and it was a little bit of that going on—a lot of validation, and “Oh, this is great!”

“I will say with the name, I remember there was a big brouhaha from Wilder Hall.”

John West

We feel like looking back, there were a lot more journalistic stories, and now we’re getting a lot more personal narrative stories. We were wondering if you tried to strike a balance between personal narratives and more journalistic pieces?

Louise: I think we were trying to make a point to connect the personal narratives with bigger issues that were going on at the time. The combo of “This is how I was affected, and this is how it fits in with what’s going on in the world.”

John: I will say that there’s a cycle that happens. I stayed at Oberlin for a non-embarrassing amount of time after everyone else graduated. For a couple of years it was really heavy journalism and then, as a new team of editors took over, including Sasha Jones, Heather’s sister, they wanted to bring in more personal voices, very explicitly. During my tenure, it was much more longform journalism-y, and I think it got a reputation of being explicitly for that. We had a memoir section at the end of the magazine, but that was where memoir was, and everything else was kind of journalistic writing. But one of the issues is that as the reputation develops, it kind of steamrolls a bit and then a new cohort came in and [the magazine] changed again. But that’s kind of the meeting point of what the editors want and what the reputation is. 

Sadie: We explicitly wanted to create a space for longform journalism because there wasn’t another outlet [for it] and we wanted to be able to support people and do the research ourselves and do the heavy hitting—it sounds so pretentious—really in-depth, very serious things that we didn’t necessarily have another outlet for.

We’d love to know how you settled on Wilder Voice as the name. And how’d you decide to focus it on longform journalism? 

Heather: Sadie came up with the name.

Sadie: I don’t remember how, exactly. I think we were just sitting in Wilder, playing with different names and it was just an idea I had. 

John: I will say with the name, I remember there was a big brouhaha from Wilder Hall. They were mad that we had picked Wilder Voice as the name, and as a result, even up until 2012, we had to put, “Wilder Voice is not affiliated in any way with Wilder Hall or the Wilder Student Union” at the end of the magazine. 

Sadie: I think I wanted to call it “the Wilder Voice” and it was shot down. That was the right decision. The longform journalism is credited to Heather and John being very much aligned, but I also think we found that there wasn’t much space to really read or write these kinds of really in-depth articles that we wanted to hear. People study such interesting things in their classes and are thinking so seriously about such a wide range of things and there’s not necessarily a forum for people to hear that that has no other constraints than making a good piece. I think, also—and feel free to disagree with or add onto this—but we felt like it was a time when longform journalism was super super in danger. I thought that I might never write for the New Yorker, I might never get a full-time job where anyone pays me to write longform journalism about some topic I find interesting. [I thought that working at Wilder Voice] might be the only chance where I don’t have to worry about being paid and can just do that with my friends. 

Wilder Voice is what trained me to be an editor.”

Heather Jones

Heather: That was definitely an element of the beauty of the freedom to devote so many pages to a story, but cost was always an issue, especially at the beginning. I just remember walking through the snow to so many different co-op meetings to try and ask for twenty-five dollars. Like, waiting an hour to speak just to be like, “We request 25 dollars for Wilder Voice” and doing that seven times over the course of the night to get a printing budget. But that was something we really wanted, to get a really professional-looking magazine, and that was more expensive than what had been spent on it before, so raising that money was a lot of work. I know at least after we left, Wilder Voice got more funding and got an office, but that was the uphill struggle in the beginning. But [it was important because] how long [Wilder Voice] was was very valuable because we fought for that.

Heather: Going back to what we were saying about it being a tight crew, this was kind of our thing, our extracurricular, and we did spend a lot of time on it. I think that was just one of the keys to success, and it was fun to spend a lot of time on it because we all got along so well so it was easy to, you know, sacrifice a night or whatever. And yeah [there was] just the fun of making a lot of creative decisions together and making a product that we felt really proud of. But it did take a lot of time. I feel like I devoted as much time to Wilder Voice as I did to any classes.

John: Or the aggregate of all of the classes, even.

Sadie: John put in a lot of hours. 

John: I had to make sure everything lined up perfectly, you know, it took a lot to put in all the borders…

Sadie: It’s not like there was never tension or anything, but we all had very high standards and respected each other’s high standards and were rigorous in different ways. Maybe it’s not even that, maybe it’s losing a sense of perspective for a college magazine. I remember we would proofread together and print out the entire magazine and everyone would read it and read it and read it, and no one was like, “This isn’t a good use of our time!” We were all just like, “There can be no typos ever!” And then we would be like, “Are we doing Oxford commas?” and we would have a long conversation about that. And then it would come out and there would be typos and we would be so crazy from finals anyway, someone would find a typo and we’d just cry or something.

Heather: Having been in the work world for a long time, it is hard to find positive work environments, so [Wilder Voice was] special. It’s a really good experience to have before going into the work world, and I feel like the experience of Wilder Voice is what has helped me get most of my jobs. It’s how I got my first job. I was a lowly marketing intern [in the publishing world]—I hate marketing, that was just the only way I could get in—and I was carrying a manuscript to the editing team and I found a typo in this final manuscript and pulled it out and was like, “Hi, I just found this little typo.” And the editor was like, “Hi, who are you, what’s your name?” and then I got an interview two weeks later. Wilder Voice is what trained me to be an editor, none of my classes, it was just working with you guys and being rigorous and having those high standards and being really obsessive over everything, which, you know, you could argue was healthy or unhealthy…

Sadie: I think it’s good to have that personal relationship [with other staff members]. You feel that feeling when things really [work] and then you kind of search for that again in the next thing you do. Even today, I was having lunch and someone was like, “What’s your ideal work environment?” and I was like, “Wilder Voice.”

We’re very curious, as far as you all were aware, what was Wilder Voice’s reputation in comparison with the Plum Creek Review or the Grape?

Heather: What stands out to me is that I felt very intimidated by the people who worked at the Grape. It seemed very insular, like you might not be accepted. I just remember feeling kind of afraid to even go in… And there was a really certain tone for all the articles that I thought was cool, but I just don’t think I probably could have done it. And I remember the Review feeling really restricted, it wasn’t a  place where you could be really open and creative.

Sadie: Absolutely, [when I worked at the Review] it was a very intense and unhappy environment where people were just in and out, getting paid and leaving. I mean, it was the college newspaper so it had a more standardized kind of approach. And also, just reading them from the outside, the Review has a very traditional voice, very straight-laced, whereas the Grape was a very specific counterpoint. I enjoyed reading the Grape but it was a very specific snark that I think even now would be pretty controversial in terms of not being super inclusive or PC. Sometimes I felt like it was speaking to a very specific inside joke. Plum Creek, they were focused more on poetry and fiction, and we were more research-based and longform format. 

John: I’m actually married to the former editor of the Plum Creek Review, in a little bit of Oberlin incestuousness for you, but yeah, that’s exactly right. What set Wilder Voice apart was that there were no other publications that were dedicated to longform journalism. The Plum Creek Review didn’t publish nonfiction, it was fiction and poetry and art, and there was nothing creative about the Review—it was important work that the Review was doing but it was not creative nonfiction, and the Grape was shortform. 

Editors Louise Hanks, Heather Jones, and John West at Black River with Wilder Voice mentor Laurie McMillin and Wilder Voice writers Nora Sharp and Katie Sontag.

Could you talk a little bit about the art that you published in the magazine? Because the art we’ve seen in Wilder Voice has always been really professional.

Meena: There’s definitely a certain kind of art that’s best for publishing. We knew the printer really well and we knew those limitations and simple things like high contrast, interesting compositions, graphic shapes, those were kind of the guiding principles for what I was looking for. I was also in the Senior Studio class and I’m pretty sure I asked almost everybody in that class for a submission at some point and everyone was more than happy to do that. John Pearson was this amazing silkscreen professor and he  guided this very strong design mentality. A few students who worked with him after we graduated were fully indebted to him. 

What did you all major in at Oberlin?

Meena: Art

Heather: Comp lit and French

Sadie: Comp lit, French, and Russian

John: Philosophy and historical performance

John, what do you play?

John: Recorder. Musical, really musical!

What did you want to do with the magazine that you never got to do?

John: I didn’t want to do it at the time, but now in retrospect I wish I had been more attuned to the interplay of how Oberlin sits in the broader northeast Ohio region. I think it would have been really cool to, for example, commission someone who’s a northeast Ohio writer to write about [Oberlin’s position in the region]. All of this stuff that would have been really cool to do about the landscape of Lorain County that we just never did. That was really a missed opportunity.

Heather: I completely agree with that. I wish we could have done more journalism about our local context and stuff that was happening in Cleveland and around that area. We also wanted to do publishing and that was something that John did after we left, but we had all talked about starting our own publishing company after graduating, and that was a dream we had until we realized that the publishing industry was kind of crashing…

Sadie: Graduating in 2009!

Heather: We had this dream of doing more publishing, creating space for people to tell new stories that might not have been getting heard or might not have worked at traditional publishing houses but that we would have published and made them really artsy. I remember Meena having some really cool ideas about what that could look like. One of the really cool things we started doing was including professors and having them write pieces.

John: Yeah, and the professors loved it. We worked with Brian Doan, who I think passed away really sadly a couple of years ago, but he was a film professor and he was quite young and he wrote a really great piece for us. I remember he reached out to me because he wanted to let me know that he had put that piece on a CV for a job application—he was really excited about the fact that he had published this thing. He made it seem like he had to publish a certain kind of thing as an academic, so it was fun for him to get to write something a little more adventurous. Even though it was for a student magazine, he really appreciated being able to do that. That was really gratifying. Laurie McMillin wrote for us, I remember.

Meena: Wilder Voice is just such an open platform that embraces subtlety and nuance as a really core value of its structure. We were so full of ideas and so passionate about so many options. There were so many different ways it could go. I think there was one point we were reaching out to publications at other schools and trying to build partnerships across the country and have guest writers and open up that network even more. I don’t think we ever got there, but that would be cool to set up an exchange.

John: One thing I’ll say… I don’t mean this as a discouraging thing about the web, I love the web, but […] We made a website and I don’t think people really went there. Times are different now than they were in 2011 or whenever, but one thing that’s really exciting and interesting about being on a college campus is that you’re on a college campus. It’s so rare to live in this small town with all your friends, and even rarer to have cultural artifacts that only have meaning within that small town with all your friends. What made Wilder Voice so special to me was the physicality of it, because it was tethered to this place with all these people, and we all tried to make messy meaning there together. I think that there’s something really unique and special and wonderful about a geographical area, because now, especially if you’re in a certain cohort, you might live in New York and there are a lot of friends in your neighborhood, but there’s something really unique and wonderful about the physicality of Oberlin and the way that a magazine or publication can inhabit that space. 

Louise Hanks graduated from Oberlin in 2009, and currently works at a middle school in Austin, Texas where she facilitates restorative justice practices for staff and students. Louise holds a Master’s in social work and is pursuing her clinical license. She’s passionate about mental health and justice reform, loves beach volleyball and dancing, and can’t seem to ever leave Texas for good.

Meena Hasan received her B.A. in Studio Art from Oberlin College in 2009 and her MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Yale School of Art in 2013, where she won the Carol Schlosberg Memorial Prize for Painting. She has participated in a number of group exhibitions including Sheherezade’s Gift at the Center for Book Arts, NY, Stages at Zürcher Gallery, NY, Bosch Young Talent Show at The Stedelijk Museum, Den Bosch, The Netherlands and Ying/Yang at 0.0 Gallery, L.A. Currently, Meena is a full-time Lecturer in Painting at the School of Visual Arts at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts. 

Heather Jones graduated from Oberlin in 2009, and currently works as the program director for an Austin, Texas creative writing nonprofit called Austin Bat Cave. Heather holds a Master’s in social work from the University in Texas at Austin and is passionate about developing programs that teach writing as a tool for activism, healing, and social change. 

Sadie Nachtigal graduated from Oberlin in 2009, and she currently works as EU marketing manager for Employer Brand at Amazon. She holds a Master’s in International Management from ESCP Europe, and lives in Paris, where she spends her time finding new ways to explore the city, most recently by bike and on roller skates. 

John West graduated from Oberlin in 2012, and he currently works as a computational journalist and technologist in the R&D Lab of the Wall Street Journal. He holds an MFA in writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and he lives in Boston with his partner, a baby, and a cat.

First image courtesy of John West; all others courtesy of Heather Jones.