The Foundationalist: Celebrating the Written WordBy Tom Porter
Be it fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, all submissions are welcome at The Foundationalist, as are student editors. The undergraduate literary magazine has gone from strength to strength since it was founded by Bowdoin students in 2018. The publication now features work by students at 180 institutions across the US, and beyond.
“This past semester alone, we received around 650 submissions from some ninety-six institutions,” said Lily Poppen ’22, one of magazine’s editors-in-chief, along with Kyubin Kim '22 and Rachel Yang '22. “We have established continued relationships with universities in countries such as Australia, South Africa, and China,” she added. Poppen has been involved with the magazine since her first year, following a chance encounter with English majors Aleksia Silverman and Sydney To, Class of 2019, who founded the magazine. “We became friends, and I was invited to join the magazine when they realized I was really into reading. Before I came to Bowdoin, I had no idea what a literary magazine was,” explained Poppen, “but I soon became enthralled by the whole process.”
The publication, which comes out twice a year, gets its name from the philosophical term foundationalism, an epistemological position regarding knowledge, said Poppen. “Foundationalists believe that all knowledge or justified belief rests ultimately on a foundation of certainty. Our nomenclature, however, is ironic because our literary attitude is antifoundational, anticanonical, and motivated by a wish to embrace minor literatures and more global critical positions, not necessarily founded in certainty.”
There’s no uncertainty, however, over the quality of The Foundationalist. When the magazine was founded, it was intended as a place for student writers to publish their work with no limitations on styles, genres, and word count, said Poppen. “There was little opportunity out there for them to do this until then.” Another unique characteristic of The Foundationalist, she explained, is its international presence. As well as work from colleges and universities from across the US, the Fall 2020 edition contains poetry from Israel and fiction from Canada and Australia, as well as literary criticism and an essay from students in England at the Universities of London and Cambridge.
Among the contributors was Bowdoin sophomore Jack Wellschlager, whose essay “Page Count” is a stylishly written reflection on the passage of time from the viewpoint of someone in a long-distance relationship, counting down the hours until that blissful reunion. Wellschlager is also on the editorial board of the magazine, meaning he helps read through the hundreds of submissions that are sent to The Foundationalist by young literary hopefuls. Getting published is not easy: of the 650 or so submissions for the Fall 2020 edition, only around thirty were published.
The magazine has editorial chapters at Yale and the University of Iowa as well as at Bowdoin. This is done not only to share a love of reading but also to ensure there is no bias in the process, meaning Wellschlager’s essay, for example, would be handled by students at one of those other chapters. Bowdoin’s editors meet every Tuesday evening to mull over eight to ten new submissions. “Anyone’s welcome to come along,” said Wellschlager. “We try to give constructive feedback to writers as much as possible, and work with them if we feel a piece needs revising. I like being involved in the creative work of my peers, to see what inspires them,” he added. Wellschlager said being part of the editorial process is also very useful for him as a writer. “Talking every week about written work and discussing what works and what doesn't provides valuable fodder for my writer’s toolbox.”
“It’s incredible to think this all started in a small room in Coles Tower, and that within three years, we’ve gone from only having two or three members to having three branches with diverse boards at each one." Lily Poppen 22.
Many of those involved in The Foundationalist are, like Wellschlager, English majors, but not all. Lily Poppen, for example, is majoring in German and art history and prefers to be involved in the editorial and organizational side of the magazine, rather than providing literary content. When it comes to assessing submissions, she said, the editors consider three guiding principles. “Firstly, we look at mastery of writing—how well written the piece is grammatically, the use of syntax, and so forth; secondly, we pay close attention to what moves people, what emotions the writers are connecting with; and, finally, we consider the geographic reach of the submission, because in many instances our geographies directly affect what we’re writing and the perspective we’re presenting.” The pieces are ranked according to this rubric, said Poppen, with an “A” meaning it’s acceptable “as is” and a “B” meaning it needs some revision.
“These guiding questions are critical to the process,” said Poppen, “but it’s more than a straightforward points system. They’re designed to help us closely read each work and identify certain things that speak to our readers, as well as creating channels for open discussion.”
The Foundationalist has enjoyed more than 23,000 online views since it started three years ago. Printed copies are also available (“designed and formatted completely by our student staff”). The last one ran to 120 pages, said Poppen. “It’s incredible to think this all started in a small room in Coles Tower, and that within three years, we’ve gone from only having two or three members to having three branches with diverse boards at each one. The traction gained by the magazine in that short time speaks volumes for the strength of creative writing and the excellence of the English department at Bowdoin, not to mention the commitment of those students on the editorial panel.”
As for the future? “The literary magazine industry as a whole faces a lot of challenges, often not being able to pay writers.” Poppen said this is even more of a problem for undergraduate publications like The Foundationalist, where resources are scarce. “We would love to be able to support our writers financially and will continue exploring how to make this possible someday.”
The most recent edition of The Foundationalist is a special one featuring the work of previous contributors, says Poppen. “We normally only publish biannually, but this extra issue celebrates the magazine’s alumni.” She describes the writing in this edition as “beyond genre,” meaning it features work that goes beyond just poetry, essays, and short stories.