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The art and design of the Ninth Letter: a look at the Winter 2018/2019 issue and beyond

If you’re a lit geek like me, the arrivial of the Ninth Letter in the mail is even better than the coming of the most luxe offerings from any monthly subscription service. You begin with the ritual opening of the box to uncover this month’s creative packaging.  You lay out each of the gifts inside. You take in the color palette, the cover art, you run your fingers across the paper. Call me a Luddite, but as much as I consume daily information, news, and even art in its digital format, there is nothing like the feel of paper.  And in the case of the the Ninth Letter, it’s the covers. 

From here, there are many ways to proceed.  Linearly, from one book to the next in proper fashion.  A quick scan through each book, finding the story, poem, essay, or image that speaks loudest to you at that very moment—my usual strategy, I admit.  But however, or wherever you begin, this will be a journey of the mind, the emotions, and the senses.  You may even find yourself inspired to pick up a pen (or mouse) and explore the writing process yourself. Writing and art this fine, and presented this beautifully, is bound to haunt you for weeks or maybe longer. 

Though the lit major in me was tempted to fill this space with my own readings of the work, my goal here is to inspire you to experience this issue (and others from the Ninth Letter archive) on your own terms. So instead, let’s go deeper into the Ninth Letter’s collaborative process, and the go full-on meta with a look at this publication (in both its print and web formats) remains such an important part of our creative community. 

Let’s start at the beginning.  For any Ninth Letter virgins out there, here’s what you need to know.  

Ninth Letter is a collaborative arts and literary project produced by the Creative Writing Program and School of Art & Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Edited and designed by faculty and students as part of the core curricula of both programs, the journal’s mission is to present original literary writing of exceptional quality, illuminated by cutting-edge graphic design.

The Ninth Letter, which if you know your abc’s is “I,” is both deeply local in its roots and widely global in its perspective and its reach. As its mission (stated above) clearly lays out, Ninth Letter is a collaboration between the University of Illinois Creative Writing and Art + Design departments. Students register for the Ninth Letter course, and here, under the guidance of their respective faculty members, is where the magic happens. The process starts with the words —poems, short stories, works of creative non-fiction and even interviews (check out the spread of the Q&A with Risograph artist Matt Davis below). Creative writing students get real-word experience editing and constructing a well-balanced mix of work. 

And while I am a word nerd, for me, words are best enjoyed when served up with artful typography and images that enhance and expand the message behind them. This is where the Art + Design students come in. This interplay between writer and designer/illustrator is the secret sauce. As you read, imagine the words and images as a conversation between various artists all contributing their unique takes on a given theme, message, or memory.  In the arts, just like in our communities, together we are more than the sum of our parts. 

For those who might argue that the pursuit of advanced arts degrees in today’s socio-economic climate is risky, if not downright irresponsible, I offer this. The University of Illinois’ support of the Ninth Letter curriculum does give students the types of experience that do translate into “real world” skills and potential internships and, perhaps even, jobs in publishing and design. 

Take a few moments to enjoy these dynamic spreads and explore the connections between word and image. The layouts are fresh, energetic, and brilliantly manage to highlight the type and the images. The illustrations are clever and well-done.  The photo manipulation is purposeful and rich in meaning. 




I couldn’t resist including this fantastic spread introducing the creative non-fiction section. The delicate bits of nature emerging from the rubble of man-made constructs serves as a delightfully surprising introduction to this still emerging and often misunderstood genre. 

Ninth Letter’s contiunued success is a serious pride point for our commuity. Works originally published in Ninth Letter have been selected award anthologies, such as  Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories, Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Best Creative Nonfiction, Best New Fantasy, Best New Poets, Best of the Net, and New Stories from the Midwest. The national and international graphic design communities have recognized Ninth Letter with features in the design awards annuals of both STEP Inside Design and HOW Magazine. 

So next time some one tells you print is dead and no one reads anymore, you can tell them where to go — to the Ninth Letter website

And speaking of their website, Ninth Letter curates so much good writing and art it can’t begin to fit it all inside four seasonal print editions. Thus emerged the web edition — a supplement to, and not a substitute for, it’s beloved print edition. Each web edition is built around a particular theme.  For the most recent issue, the theme was “haunting.”  Check it out.  You’ll be glad you did. 

If reading Ninth Letter online or in print wakes up your inner writer, here’s the good news. Ninth Letter currently has two open calls for submissions.  Find out more here

Don’t miss the opportunity to meet members of the Ninth Letter staff at Small Press Fest, on April 13. 

Print issues of the Ninth Letter (current and past) can be ordered online

The first second and final photos are from the Ninth Letter website.  Additional photos of the Winter 2018/2019 spreads were taken by Debra Domal . 

Arts Editor

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