Behind the White Wall

In Arts & Life /

Renowned throughout the literary scene, but unrecognized on campus, The White Wall Review is the most distinguished campus publication you’ve never heard of. Emma Prestwich reports

Ryerson’s minute English department is home to a distinguished, internationally acclaimed literary journal. Every year, editors of the White Wall Review sift through binders fat with submissions from writers across North America, careful to only select the best for publication. Their long list of loyal subscribers have come to expect a certain calibre of writing from the journal.

Putting the book together is a long process. Sarah Henstra, an assistant English professor who helped edit this year’s journal, said it takes about a month for editors to pick through the submissions. Once the selection is finalized, a rough draft of the issue is sent off to Coach House Books, a stalwart Toronto book printer that has also published work by Michael Ondaatje and bpNichol, who is a past contributor to the Review.

But to most Ryerson students, the White Wall Review is nothing more than a pile of old books taking up shelf space at the Oakham Café.

Henstra thinks most students aren’t familiar with the Review because so many of Ryerson’s programs are very individualistic and closed, which isn’t conducive to the development of an arts community.

“One of the drawbacks of Ryerson is that there are a number of very prestigious schools that are kind of in silos. The arts doesn’t really work that way,” she said.

While one undergraduate student’s work made it into this year’s Review, most of the contributors are continuing education students at the G. Raymond Chang School, which offers several creative writing courses, or writers outside Ryerson.

Chang School creative writing students also have a unique opportunity that other students are denied: they’re eligible to enter a writing contest for which the prize is publication in the journal and a two-year subscription.

Though most of the works published in the Review are works of poetry and short fiction, it also accepts comics, photography, visual art and non-fiction. Literary quality is important, but so is variety.

The Review is also praised for its edginess.

For the past two years, Fern G. Z. Carr’s poems have been published in the journal. The Kelowna-based poet said her writing style is very eclectic and thinks the Review is more open to experimental poetry than most other publications.

Both of her contributions to last year’s journal were visual poems. One poem took the shape of a tombstone. Another was designed as the two strands of DNA woven in a double helix.

“I like the fact the Review is willing to experiment with various styles,” said Carr.

But those who love the journal are still struggling to establish it as a well-known part of the wider Ryerson community. Henstra admits that basing the publication out of Ryerson’s tiny English department doesn’t help. Those who pulled the first issue together in 1976 mostly came from either the English or journalism programs, and the majority of the current editors are English master’s students and faculty.

At a recent meeting of the Ryerson Literary Society, board members discussed raising the Review’s profile. In 2002, the Review became part of the city’s annual Word on the Street literary festival and developed a contest where split-second pieces written at the festival would be entered in a draw, and the winner published in the next issue.

Another solution in 2007 was to link the official fall launch party with an unofficial gathering of Ryerson’s arts community. Splash: A Night for the Arts at Ryerson has featured photography exhibits, theatre school productions and screenings by student filmmakers.

Ryerson has no shortage of creative people, but Henstra said she thinks the school’s setup doesn’t support a campus-wide awareness of an arts community.

“It’s a real blessing and curse at Ryerson. I do think that the doors of the programs are closed.”

The biography on the White Wall Review’s website quotes Walter Pitman’s foreword to the 1977 issue, in which the former Ryerson president defends the existence of the Review at the always-practical Ryerson: “We all agree that our programmes should be relevant to the world of work, but we continue to agonize over the nature of that ‘relevance’ and the importance of liberal education.”

For Pitman, the journal did nothing less than “distinguish for us the educated from the merely trained mind.”

The Road to the Wall

The first issue, published in 1976, cost $1. It now costs $10.

When it started, the Review was volunteer-run with no guaranteed funding.

The journal was a hard sell to the administration at first, but the president’s office has since started contributing funds.

Selection is blind: submissions can’t include identifying information about the author.

Since 2003, each issue has featured a piece written on-the-spot at the Word on the Street Festival.

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