Launch Party Article

ISU Student Encounters New Art at the Black Rock & Sage Launch Party

October 26, 2022
Joseph Simms, Freshman, Communications

Two students listen to a reading

Black Rock and Sage, Idaho State University’s student journal of creative works, celebrated the publication of its 2022 issue with a launch party featuring musical performances, readings, and a pop-up gallery of visual art by the magazine’s student contributors in the Pond Student Union Building on September 29.

As a new student at ISU, this was the first BR&S launch party I had ever attended. Even though there was an audience of over fifty, the celebration maintained a laid-back atmosphere. With light refreshments, live music, and readings of poetry and prose, the organizers had a pleasant evening planned for their audience.

ISU has supported a long tradition of literary magazines–from The Last Stop Before the Desert to Ethos to Black Rock & Sage, established by poet and faculty member Michael Sowder in 2002. 

Black Rock & Sage is published through the Department of English and Philosophy. When faculty member Susan Goslee began as advisor to the journal in 2007, she shifted its focus to be a campus magazine, meaning that it would only publish works by current ISU students. All senior editing positions are also held by students, and the staff’s aim is to deepen the quality and broaden the selection of art with each issue. 

When asked about the journal’s purpose, Goslee said, “Our goal is for Black Rock and Sage to publish the best student art–from literature to performance to painting to music and more–at Idaho State University each year.”

Editor-in-Chief Sarah Rick began the program with welcoming remarks and thanks to the magazine’s crucial supporters. While a few of the authors seemed to me nervous at first, they still confidently recited, with rhythm and rhyme, the words they penned.

Caleb Greenwell read his Ford Swetnam Poetry Prize winning “GG,” and Tanner Pratt read “Crocodile,” the BR&S Prose Prize Winner. Contributors E.E. Curtis, Carla Green, ​​Megan Schmid, and Angela Hayden also shared their poetry and prose. 

Artwork published in the 2022 journal, including Mariah Larson’s “Paper,” featured as this year’s book cover, were on display. The pop-up gallery also featured work by Cameron Kress, Yidan Guo, and Beauyn Nichols. Interspersed among readings were musical performances. 

The program included a ten-minute intermission, with musical background accompaniment provided by ISU music students, for attendees to converse with artists about their works.

A member of the audience, music major Sebastian Doren, explained that he was attending the event to cheer on his fellow musicians, mentioning that he also wanted to submit something for consideration in the coming year. 

At the end, Sarah Rick thanked the audience for attending and quipped, “Please buy our merchandise on your way out,” a joke that earned a few chuckles and summarized the purpose of the event: to celebrate, but also to raise awareness and support for the journal and its artists. 

As artists and audience members mingled afterwards, musicians gathered behind the piano. When I asked, they took turns listing the benefits of being featured by the journal: exposure, experience, connections, and challenge.

Claire Smedley, a singer and songwriter twice featured by BR&S, described the last benefit as a competition among music students to be the best composer and performer. With encouragement from professors, students who want to be featured push each other to create better content and higher quality art. 

Margaret Johnson, Professor of English and Director of Composition in the Department of English at ISU has taught English for 23 years. She has encouraged many of her students to submit work and several have had their pieces published. She explains the role of the journal well: “It gives students recognition as equals in the art community.”

After the party, Goslee further explained the purpose of the launch: “As ISU is such a commuter-heavy campus, an in-person launch party is an excellent way for student artists from a variety of disciplines to meet and admire each other’s work.”

After the preparation and work to produce a new creative piece, each artist must follow the submission guidelines particular for their discipline. Students can find the full submission criteria on the BR&S website, blackrockandsage.org. The website also provides an archive, the history of the journal, contact information, and a list of upcoming events. The BR&S Instagram account, @brs_isuejournal, is another great way to learn of readings and activities sponsored by the magazine. 

That evening, I met artists who told stories in all the ways of their knowing. I experienced feelings good, bad, bold and beautiful, demonstrated through sight, sound, and subtler senses of the mind. I’m glad I went to the launch, because I now feel all the more connected to this community of excellence.

Joseph Simms is a Communication major in his first semester at ISU’s Pocatello campus. 

Interview with Matthew James Babcock

We had the pleasure of talking with Writer Matthew James Babcock ahead of his poetry reading this week.  

Black Rock & Sage (BRS): What was the inspiration for this new poetry collection? Was there a specific theme you were interested in exploring?

Matthew Babcock (MB): I can’t say much about “inspiration”: I think I’m still taking my usual unpremeditated approach to writing, which for me, means writing as an ongoing dialogue, or conversation, with the most intriguing, disarming aspects I encounter in people and the world at large. This is my third poetry collection, and while I don’t see any particular themes in the collection, the four segments reflect distinct stages in my writing over the last fifteen to twenty years. The first section, “Spare Gold,” seems oriented toward free verse that favors an objective, philosophical view of the world.  The second, “Sublime Drift,” feels more serious, reflective, and meditative, and nature-oriented to me.  Clearly, “Rare Measure,” the third veers into buoyant satire, even playful cynicism at times, and the last, “First Echo,” is comprised of language experiments, wherein language, and not necessarily meaning, takes center stage. 

BRS: You have written in many different genres including nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. Do you approach each genre differently? Also, do you have one in which you consider your favorite or strongest?

MB: A colleague of mine once called me a “dabbler,” because I tend to restlessly hopscotch from genre to genre, and I don’t feel I have a strength or favorite. That title, once a criticism, I tend to wear now as a sash of distinction (in my own mind, anyway, perhaps as a means of spinning a fault into some kind of unique form of self-styled methodology). I compose prose at the keyboard, and poetry on my paper writing pad. But in every case, the technique is the same: grappling with language in order to produce meaning and vision, some kind of meaningful vision for the reader, and to make sense of my experience. It’s also a reflection of my teaching: if I’m teaching a semester of nonfiction, I tend to (but not always) write nonfiction with my students.  If it’s a poetry semester, I tend to give full way to poetry writing. Criticism: that’s an entirely different beast, and I’ve written criticism (my years of researching and writing about the life and writing of Robert Francis) only when I’ve felt an obsessive sense of mission. Francis had no book-length critical study, and I wrote that book to rectify that scholarly omission. I’m very proud of the critical scholarship I’ve produced, but it’s an extension of my job as a professor, and resides in a different category completely.

BRS: Your collection “Strange Terrain” is in four segments as well. Since you say your approach is “unpremeditated” it feels that this may be a mere coincidence rather than planned. How do you come up with the titles for your poetry collections? Is this something that takes a lot of thought or does it come easily as you are writing the poems? 

MB: I think the four sections in the two collections are merely coincidence, something I didn’t plan, certainly. The titles for the books and the sections have come, somewhat organically, from phrases in the poems themselves. “Hidden Motion” is taken from the poem titled “Hidden Motion.” I think I liked the general, evocative feel of the phrase: it seems multivalent, suggestive of various aspects of existence to which many people can relate. “Spare Gold” comes from a line in the poem “In Keeping,” in the first section. The second section, “Sublime Drift,” comes from a line in the poem “Cycle,” in that section, and “Rare Measure” was pulled from “I Realized Today.”  The last section, “First Echo,” I harvested from a line in “All Words.”  So basically, I just write the poems and hope, when I’m done, I can find some intriguing phrases to cull from the crop.  At first, I titled the manuscript, “Nameless Rain,” from a line in “On All the Park Benches,” but it sounded too cryptic and obscure, even the phrase was interesting. Ultimately, “Hidden Motion,” won out.

Dolsen Visiting Writer, Matthew James Babcock, to Hold Poetry Reading

POCATELLO, Idaho–– Idaho State University’s Department of English and Philosophy is pleased to announce that Matthew James Babcock will visit ISU as the inaugural Dolsen Visiting Writer on October 19, 2022.

At 5 p.m. in The Bengal Café (Pond Student Union Building) Babcock will give a reading from his most recent book, Hidden Motion  (Finishing Line Press, 2022), followed by a Q&A session. The reading is free and the public is encouraged to attend.

Matthew James Babcock is a professor in the English Department at BYU-Idaho and a prolific writer who has published books of nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. His awards include the Juxtaprose Poetry Prize, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Award, the AML Poetry Award, the Next Generation Indie Book Award for Short Fiction, and Winner of Press 53’s Open Awards Anthology Prize for his novella, “He Wanted to be a Cartoonist for The New Yorker.” 

Babcock’s latest book, Hidden Motion, is a poetry collection that Guggenheim-recipient David Kirby describes as a mash-up of the “driving rhythms of Sylvia Plath with the wordplay of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the jokes of Henny Youngman.” ISU Creative Writing Professor Bethany Schultz Hurst describes the poems as “wonderfully funny” with a “precise language that also makes space for sincerity and profundity.” Residents of Eastern Idaho will recognize the region in some poems, such as the Blackfoot fairgrounds (in “Taking Goethe to the Eastern Idaho State Fair”), Harriman State Park, or the parking lot of Madison Junior High School, where the speaker drops off his daughter. The poems also transport the reader to distant locations like Sligo or Lhasa, revealing humanity’s shared desire to “preserve life on a planet none of us made.”

The poetry reading will open with a brief program celebrating the creation of the Dolsen Visiting Writer Event Endowment, a fund that will support the Department of English and Philosophy in annually hosting a visiting creative writer for a public reading and educational activities. The endowment has been established by Tom Neel, an alumnus of ISU who earned his B.A. in English with minors in French and Philosophy in 1987. 

Mr. Neel established the Dolsen Visiting Writer Event Endowment to honor the mentorship, friendship, and respect between him and Professor Arthur Dolsen and his late wife, Marijana, and their daughter, Daria. Dolsen is Professor Emeritus of Languages and Literatures at Idaho State University, where he taught courses in Latin, Russian, and French.

Jessica Winston, Chair of the Department of English and Philosophy, describes the endowment as “a tremendous gift” that will “help us broaden awareness of some of the best new creative writing today” and foster for ISU students and the community, the “kinds of intellectual and social interactions that were and are so significant for Mr. Neel” and that will be “transformative for our students.”