Epoch's anniversary will be celebrated by noted alumni from its pages

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Michael Koch
Charles Harrington/University Photography
Editor Michael Koch poses with copies of the magazine Epoch, published by the English department's creative writing program.

"Epoch magazine is the best-kept secret at Cornell," says the magazine's editor Michael Koch. "Some people are astonished to know that there's a major literary magazine being published on campus."

It shouldn't stay that way for much longer. This year marks Epoch's 50th anniversary of continuous publication, a rare feat in the world of literary journals. In conjunction with the anniversary, Koch has organized the Epoch Festival, three days of public fiction and poetry readings, today through Saturday, by distinguished guests who have published their work in Epoch.

The series begins today at 4:30 p.m. in Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium of Goldwin Smith Hall with poetry readings by A.R. Ammons, two-time winner of the National Book Award and the Goldwin Smith Professor of Poetry at Cornell; Kenneth A. McClane, the W.E.B. DuBois Professor of Literature at Cornell; C.S. Giscombe, a former editor of Epoch during the 1980s; and Phyllis Janowitz, professor of English at Cornell.

On Friday at 7:30 p.m. in David L. Call Auditorium of Kennedy Hall, internationally known novelist Don DeLillo, author of 10 novels, including White Noise and Libra, will read from his work. DeLillo's first published fiction appeared in Epoch 37 years ago. And though the publication date of DeLillo's new novel, Underworld, is Sept. 22, Koch says, "DeLillo made it clear that he wanted to benefit the magazine."

Epoch also has received public recognition as the winner of the first-ever O. Henry Award for best magazine of 1997. Larry Dark, the editor of the annual O. Henry Prize Stories anthologies, says the fiction appearing in Epoch during the reading period for the 1997 volume of Prize Stories was determined to be the best of any of the 210 magazines consulted. Four stories from Epoch will appear in Prize Stories 1997: The O. Henry Awards.

Saturday, the closing night of the Epoch Festival, beginning at 7:30 p.m. in Call Auditorium, will feature readings by three of those four prize-winning authors: Robert Morgan, the Kappa Alpha Professor of English at Cornell; Patricia Elam Ruff, a fiction writer, lawyer and commentator from Washington, D.C.; and Arthur Bradford, a former Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford. The readings will be introduced by Dark.

"It will be an exciting mix of readings," says Koch, referring to the different writers' various styles and voices. This mixture of traditional and experimental, of the established writer with the newcomer, is one of the great things about Epoch, Koch believes. "Because of the university's support and because we don't have to worry about advertising, we can take a chance, we can publish stuff that's off the wall."

Koch cites the "steady vision and influence" of Senior Editor Joe Martin and Poetry Editor Burl Barr as important to the magazine's recent success. "The whole process is very mysterious to me," he says of the dialogue among the three of them when deciding whether or not to publish a particular story or poem. "Even though I may not agree with some writer's vision," Koch says, "that vision may force me to re-think my position as editor and may expand our definition of what is possible."

The master of fine arts (MFA) graduate students from the Department of English who assist Koch supply a lot of energy and enthusiasm, he says, pointing out that some of the stories from Epoch that have been reprinted in anthologies originally were picked out of the slush pile by MFA students. "And, of course, all magazines are secretly run by the managing editors," Koch says of Heidi Marschner's work for Epoch.

Editors in the publishing industry also have high praise for Epoch. Shannon Ravenel, editor of the anthology New Stories from the South: The Year's Best and former series editor of the annual collection Best American Short Stories, is unhesitating in her assessment of Epoch. "It's the best," she says. "I've been reading literary magazines since 1978, so I really know what they're like. And Epoch is just consistently excellent. I think [the magazine] really deserves this award."

C. Michael Curtis, a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly, one of the most prestigious venues for short fiction and poetry, says that he considers Epoch "one of the top literary magazines in the country in terms of the consistent quality of the writing that appears there." Curtis has more than a passing acquaintance with Epoch, being a Cornell alumnus (Class of '56) who also worked on the magazine staff as a Cornell graduate student from 1959 to 1963.

"I'm not surprised that Epoch has won the [O. Henry] award," says Curtis, adding that he frequently advises writers to send their work to Epoch. "I'm always impressed by the table of contents in each issue, by the writers they are able to publish, especially given the [financial] rewards."

While writing short stories and poems for magazines has never been ­ with the exception of outlets such as The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker ­ a well-paying enterprise, Koch worries about the future of small-circulation magazines such as Epoch. "For eight of the last 10 years, Epoch has received support from the NEA," Koch says, "and every dollar we received went toward paying writers. Now, with the NEA's demise, we've had to cut fees to our contributors, in addition to facing rising costs."

Still, Epoch has been able to attract many well-known writers to its pages. In addition to DeLillo, Phillip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates and Thomas Pynchon published short fiction in Epoch early in their careers. Poets and writers as diverse as Annie Dillard, Stanley Elkin, Jayne Anne Phillips, Ron Hansen, Andre Dubus, Amy Hempel, Charles Simic, Leslie Scalapino, Harriet Doerr, Denis Johnson, Jorie Graham and Rick Bass have appeared in the magazine.

Koch says that creating a forum for writers is one of the editor's most important jobs. "The editor should be effaced," he says, mentioning his admiration of the William Shawn-era New Yorker, where bylines from editorial staff were few and emphasis was placed on the writing rather than the editor's savvy. However, after the Epoch Festival and the publication of Prize Stories 1997: The O. Henry Awards, Koch may find it harder to keep a low profile.