It was William Butler Yeats who, in 1928, wrote of “the holy city of Byzantium” — a fictitious, shining haven where fantasies and mythology came together to form an artist’s reality.
Decades later, Cal Poly students would strive to carve out a Byzantium of their own through a literary journal of the same name.
The collection of anonymously submitted works has been put together for the past 26 years by a team of two English seniors who became co-editors of the work for their senior project, and an art and design major who designs the book.
Separate panels of English professors vote on winners in poetry and short story categories, and the editors then choose several additional works to add to the journal.
“They’re almost like honorable mentions,” said English senior Stephanie Narlesky, one of this year’s “Byzantium” co-editors, on the editor’s picks.
There was no prompt, just a length limit: 500 lines for poetry and 30 pages for short stories, according to Narlesky. And in general, the judges and editors were looking for works that took unique spins on subjects that could otherwise be cliche.
Narlesky added that personally, during the judging process, she resounded most with “works that talked about love in a fresh, innovative way. One of the winners that we chose for editor’s choice was a haiku about how the sun loves the moon even though they’re both girls.”
The poem is one of the very few haikus ever to be published in “Byzantium.”
“(Haikus are) so short that it kind of makes sense to put out something more than three lines,” Narlesky said. “But we loved it, and thought it was so cool.”
Co-editor of “Byzantium” and English senior Marley McCaughey said she gravitated toward “Photosynthesis” by English senior Taylor Steinbeck during the selection process.
“It was just really, subtly addressed,” McCaughey said. “It’s a story where you begin to read it and you don’t catch on to the main focus of the story … It’s just a really nice way of subtly promoting ideals without being in your face.”
But the judging process wasn’t always clear.
The English professors on both panels had varying tastes, and what they were looking for in submissions was sometimes very different, according to Narlesky. When one of the short stories proved to be explicit, the panel had to make a tough call.
“It kind of reminded me of the poem ‘Howl’ (by Allen Ginsberg),” Narlesky said. “When it first came out, critics hated it … So we were kind of trying to figure out if we could put this in the journal and have readers not lose it.”
The work sparked debate among the short story panel, which had to decide whether the realist quality of the story was enough to carry it as a whole.
Eventually, the panel decided other works rose a little closer to the top.
McCaughey added that she and Narlesky were largely on the same page as the judges as far as which works stood out.
“We were a little afraid we weren’t going to have enough (submissions),” McCaughey said, adding that they had even considered extending the deadline so people would have more time to submit their works. “And of course everybody waited until the last day to enter … Then we had hundreds of entries.”
By the final day, the editing team had 135 poems and 35 short story pieces to sift through.
With English professor Krista Kauffman taking over advising “Byzantium” for the first time, the editing team saw an opportunity to make something different with this edition.
Narlesky said that they largely changed elements of the submission process in hopes of making it easier for students working on “Byzantium” in the future.
“We were able to implement a few different things because we are coming at it with a different perspective and not having someone saying, ‘This is how it’s always been done,’” she said.
Art and design senior Lena Choi, who designed and formatted “Byzantium,” also wanted to implement something new with this year’s edition. The journal has seen typewriter and nautical motifs in recent years, often with ornate stylings. Choi decided to go in the opposite direction.
“I kind of wanted to show the whole aspect of the architecture during that time,” she said. “Kind of like, a very 2-D look … A lot of line work, very simple and crisp looking.”
Ideally, she said she wants the reader “to look at the cover and be somewhat curious about the book. The design is basically the outside of a building. And I wanted to … invite the reader to see inside.”
Choi said the process has given her the opportunity to experiment with something she has a passion for while she’s at Cal Poly: book design.
“I like to go to bookstores and stuff and look at the covers,” she said. “I don’t really go there to buy books, but looking at the covers makes me happy. And I would totally buy a book just for its cover — not even to read it, just because it looks nice.”
While it was difficult, Choi said it was rewarding to create something that she would get a tangible copy of in the end.
McCaughey added that the editing side has strengthened her appreciation for literature, and that the overall work should stand as a testament to her fellow students’ talent.
“Anyone can produce these wonderful works,” she said. “Everyone has an author inside of them, everyone has that ability to express themselves.”
The 26th edition of “Byzantium” is scheduled to be unveiled at Steynberg Gallery May 23 from 7-9 p.m. Students featured in the journal will have the opportunity to read their works aloud.