The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Prairie Schooner

Hilda Raz and Glenna Luschei, Endowed Editors. Quarterly. Vol. 81. No. 3. Fall 2007. $28 for a one-year subscription.


A shorter version of this review was published by Small Press Review Jan/Feb 2008.


Prairie Schooner is published by the Creative Writing Program of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln English Department, which includes ex-poet laureate of the U. S. Library of Congress Ted Kooser, and has plenty of money. Indeed, it is “endowed in perpetuity” and provides 11 annual awards totaling $4000. About half of the contributors mention they are professors or teachers, while perhaps others simply do not mention it. Besides essays, poetry, fiction, and reviews, this issue contains a three-page “News of Previous Contributors” rubric. Unfortunately, the only “news” mentioned concerns new publications or new prizes won, hardly at all worthy news. 

No editorial prefaces this issue. Has the editor nothing to say? If not, why is she editing? There is no mention of any particular focus. The masthead lists four other editors, 11 editorial assistants, nine “senior readers,” a designer and coordinator. Unsurprisingly, not one piece of writing in this issue questions and challenges the academic/literary established order. Evidently, criticism of that order must constitute a convenient taboo theme. What effect might that have on the free exchange of ideas and vigorous debate? With that regard, perhaps Prairie Schooner and so many other journals like it need to be more honest in their submission guidelines. 

The writing in this issue—fun reading, I suspect for some people, though hardly challenging intellectually—is a hodgepodge of essentially “safe” themes, including mother, father, daughters, husbands, and childhood. Many of the contributors seem intellectually entrapped—cocooned—in their little family units. “The last time I saw mother/ she was turned toward the wall/ with her eyes closed. Light fell/ across her body and flickered,” writes Floyd Skloot in “Lullaby.” “Little by little, my mother tells me, and I tell her no, I am the one/ who sobs and slobbers, the one with her head on the pillow,” writes Taije Silverman in “The Last Letter.” “This lovely day, this day of the bee who fell in love with my husband’s lilacs, which is what Cloe said to draw the small crowd toward her,” writes Shawna Lemay in Still, Dead, Silent. 

A few of the poems read like Dubus and Carver stories. “The man drove slowly away from his children,/ watching them in his rearview mirror./ The daughter, tall for her age, waved and waved and waved,” writes Mark Sanders in “Custody.” Some of the poems engage in linguistic juggling, while others are linguistically simple and clear. “I (obsessed with drawing long legged gray race/ horses) pulled a brick at my skull while falling/ from a moving truck. Now today is groomed and/ with misplaced lines,” writes Emily Beyer in “Zoo.” 

The most interesting piece is “Body Count,” a fictional story about a journalist in the Middle East. The most disengaged piece is “Excerpts from the Initial Stanzas of The Oziad“ by Gregory McGuire, who has written “five novels for adults,” including Wicked; The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West; Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister; Son of a Witch; and Mirror, Mirror. 

This issue is infused with the unoriginal, politically-correct multiculturalism strain, which relegates, intentionally or not, truth and criticism to lesser pertinence. Of particular note, is Terese Svoboda’s poem/essay “Nebraska and the World,” the keynote address for the Nebraska Book Festival, which reads like a rah-rah-rah, hyper-patriotic anthem for Nebraskan multiculturalism, and would have made an excellent mind-numbing graduation address. 

By the way, the other day I was at the University of Southern Maine’s student center, which houses a Multicultural Center. I asked a student sitting behind a desk where the Truth Center was. She looked up at me confused. Written on the blackboard next to her in large letters was “Transgender Day of Remembering.” At institutions of higher learning, one can find anything but tough critique of the professors infesting those institutions! Finally, Valerie Bandura’s poem, “Fun and Games,” perhaps sums up the issue’s focus, though is actually quite critical in nature, regarding her old Soviet preschool teacher. 

I do not recommend Prairie Schooner because of its general blandness, pro-status-quo lack of focus, and similarity to scores of other university-based literary journals.

—The Editor