Have you ever wondered what a mirror thinks? Have you ever met someone with eyes the color of celery? Ever dealt with the aftermath of a wake by “drinking warm Pepsi and talking about death”?
The high school writers that contributed to the student-run literary magazine Polyphony HS wondered. And they took an extra step: They wrote those ideas and submitted them. The second edition of the annual magazine is hot off the press with the stories of 22 high school writers from around the country saturating its pages.
Billy Lombardo, an author and creative writing teacher who lives in Forest Park and teaches at The Latin School of Chicago, has engineered the magazine since its inception. Paige Holtzman, a Latin School student from Lincoln Park, came to him with the idea to start a fiction magazine for students in the Chicago area.
“He said, ‘Why not national?’ as if it were the most obvious question in the world,” Holtzman said. Together, Lombardo and Holtzman drummed up writers, editors and money to create what they believe is a first: a national literary magazine geared toward high school writers.
For the second edition, Holtzman contacted teachers at 1200 to 1300 high schools around the country, telling them about the magazine and urging their students to submit. At the beginning, all the editors spent hours Googling schools and finding contacts. They contacted schools in every state in the country and published work from 21 states.
Asking students to submit work online meant that they received serious pieces of fiction instead of just packets of school papers this year. “The people we draw are more diverse,” says Maddie Spiker, an editor who is from Lincoln Park and attends The Latin School. “They’re not just artsy kids, they’re actual writers.”
Beyond giving high school writers encouragement to keep on pumping out those words and giving a select few the chance to be published for the first time, Lombardo and the editors of Polyphony HS take the time to give feedback to everyone who submits work.
“It’s not from a teacher,” says Holtzman, who has been editor in chief for two years. “It’s from someone who’s just as passionate about writing as you are.”
Positive feedback can mean a lot. Remy Patrizio, the rising editor in chief and a contributor and editor for the 2006 volume, was touched when an editor from across the country complimented her work. “It means more coming from someone who has no previous opinion of you,” she says.
Lombardo still remembers the first time he was edited. One of his stories was accepted by Cicada magazine, and they took the time to do an in-house edit, give him some constructive criticism and lop 400 words off his story. He was thrilled.
“I think it’s the best way to help a writer become a better writer,” Lombardo says. “We can give them this experience that I didn’t get till I was 35 when they’re 18 or 17 or 16.”
In the real world, most magazines don’t take the time to give feedback. If there’s a mistake in the first paragraph or so, the story goes in the trash. So Polyphony HS prepares young writers to create better early drafts and shows them how to edit themselves.
Since the student editors are all writers themselves, they appreciate that it’s a risk to submit your hard work to a group of people you don’t know. Editing a person’s work is like editing them, says Holtzman. It’s delicate work.
“You can only be a good editor if you get in the mind of the writer and enhance, not alter,” Patrizio says. “You’re trying to strip it away into its most bare and essential form.”
Jenny Ordower, another editor, thinks of these stories as a peek into the authors’ minds. She has distinguished herself as an editor by writing long, involved notes exploring the feelings and motivations of each character. “I feel for the characters, I get involved,” she says. “It’s exciting to know what’s going on in other people’s heads.”
A story by a student in Montana is 180 degrees away from the manicured, stylized writing some of these editors see in Chicago. Ordower says there’s a rawness and honesty to the writers in Polyphony HS. “People are staying true to their own voices,” she says.
Although it’s important to edit, the editors always make sure that their feedback encourages. “I’m beginning to see how important this is to young writers,” Lombardo said. “Even in the weakest writing we’re able to find some things that are of value and tell them, ‘You’ve got to keep on writing.'”
Sometimes, kids can get that encouragement from their teachers. But not always. Among the submissions from more serious writers, Polyphony HS always gets a few packets of submissions where the teacher made it an assignment to submit a piece to the magazine and included one-word comments.
At least three editors read through those stories with heavy eyes, writing constructive criticism along with encouragement. “We want you to learn,” Holtzman said. “If you’ve got a teacher who just gives you ‘lovely’ and ’20 points,’ you’re not going to learn much.”
As the editors talk about their book, their pride is palpable. “This is a compilation of love,” Patrizio says, caressing the book’s colorful cover.
Next year’s mission is to get that compilation of love into more hands, Lombardo says. Currently, Polyphony is only distributed to the writers and to people who request it via the Web site, www.polyphonyhs.com. They are currently in the process of getting an ISSN number so people can buy it on Amazon.com or distribute it in bookstores.
Lombardo has started to use it to teach workshopping in his creative writing class, and he is hoping other teachers will do the same. “I can’t teach them editing skills when we’re reading Ernest Hemingway,” he says.
Above life skills, he just wants kids to be able to find their voices. “I think that one of the greatest responsibilities we have is helping people find their voices, helping them to become better communicators, helping them to become more precise and to try and get them as close as they can come to articulate this thing within,” Lombardo says.
As Patrizio says, “This is a chance for people to write without fear and let themselves truly emerge.”