Conversation with … Dave Kuhne ’97 PhD

Descant: Fifty Years from TCU Press celebrates a half-century of Horned Frog literature.

Conversation with … Dave Kuhne ’97 PhD

Descant: Fifty Years from TCU Press celebrates a half-century of Horned Frog literature.

In 1956, Louise Cowan and Betsy Colquitt along with other members of the English Department founded the literary journal Descant to recognize and publish emerging writers. Named from a line in W.B. Yeats’ poem “Speech After Long Silence,” Descant has evolved from being a showcase for TCU writers to a wider scope highlighting well-known writers such as Joyce Carol Oates as well as lesser-known scribes such as Catherine McCraw, a speech pathologist in Oklahoma. Dave Kuhne, principal editor since 1999, spent more than six months culling through 50 years of journals to find the very best for the new collection published this year by TCU Press.

Why do an anthology now?
Very few small literary journals live to be 50 . I can only think of three or four older than descant. It seemed appropriate to celebrate that milestone with an anthology that looked back at the origins of the journal and where it has been.
In 1976, descant published an anthology of the best of the first 25 years, it wasn’t a book, it was a special issue of he magazine. We thought it would be nice if we had a university press book for the first 50.

Why has descant made it while other university literary journals haven’t?
A couple of reasons – the great leadership of the original editors – Cowan and Colquitt, especially Colquitt who was editor for almost 40 years and kept it alive in some skimpy times and funded it when funding was hard to get.
Also, the very fact the TCU administration has been generous enough in funding to keep it alive. Without that funding it’s unlikely we would have made it. Colquitt mentions that in her memoir that opens the anthology.

How did descant evolve?
There was a connection between founding editors Colquitt and Cowan to the Vanderbilt University group known as The Fugitives (which included Robert Penn Warren and others who came to dominant literary criticism of the 20th century) that clearly paid off in terms of the organization and inspiration to get descant started. That’s another reason this is a worthy project – just to explore the history of this journal.

When they started this journal in 1956, the Fugitives weren’t that as famous as they are now. They weren’t known at that time for establishing new criticism and the new critical movement of the ’60s. There were some important writers and Cowan (who earned her doctorate at Vanderbilt) knew about them. That Vanderbilt connection was what brought Robert Penn Warren to campus. In the early days, Colquitt would invite major American writers to speak at our annual creative writing awards and both the Karl Shapiro and Robert Penn Warren essays in the anthology were actually delivered as speeches on campus as part of the creative writing awards.

When the journal first started in the mid 1950s, almost all the material was written by students and professors here at TCU. That led to more Texas writers being involved in the early years, but as you look at the table of contents for this book, you’ll see that pretty quickly Colquitt was able to establish a rapport with writers from all over the country even in those early years.

There has been continued interest in Texas writing through the history of the journal, but as Colquitt mentions in her memoir, we never really intended to be a Texas journal, there was just an initial local interest in the journal that led to a lot of Texas writers publishing in it, but early on, there were emerging writers finding out about this journal. I’m thinking of writers like Charles Bukowski and Denise Levertov who published in this journal in the 50s and 60s. In the early 70s, we have people like Joyce Carol Oates in the journal. The word spread around Texas and throughout the world thanks to Colquitt’s efforts.

How many submissions does descant get every year?
In the last couple of years, we’ve approached 4,000 poems and about 400 to 500 short stories per year – that’s quite a lot. I think one reason we get a lot of submissions is because we have a generous awards system and no submission fees and no reading fees. Right now we’re giving $750 in fiction awards per year and $750 in poetry awards per year including a $500 poetry prize, that’s pretty good money for a poem.

How did you choose what made it into the anthology?
“I went to the library and read every one of the 50 issues and obviously I was looking for beginning writers who went on the have national careers because I thought that would reflect how the journal had, over the years, encouraged emerging writers.

I went back and read everything, of course certain names stuck out – Robert Penn Warren, Karl Shapiro, Charles Bukowski, Joyce Carol Oates. I wanted to include those works to show that from humble beginnings these folks who had published in small literary journals had gone on to national and international recognition. But I also just published stuff I thought was good. I’m sure very few people are familiar with an Arkansas poet named Edsel Ford, not named for the car, but I liked his poems so much I put them in there. Some of these people were long forgotten until I read them again.”

What’s your hope for the future of descant?
“It’s pretty clear we’ve attracted national attention due to the four money awards that we give and the fact that some of our writers continue to be anthologized in things such as Best American Short stories we’ve also had a number of poems in the last few years nominated for Pushcart Prizes. I’m hoping we continue to gain a larger readership, a larger subscriber base and to attract outstanding manuscripts.”