By Hanna DeLange '18, M.A.
No one knows quite when it got its start, but that doesn’t diminish the significance the Vermillion Literary Project (VLP) holds for the University of South Dakota and the Vermillion community.
The VLP is the only student literary and creative writing organization on USD’s campus, and the only one that produces a literary journal curated and crafted entirely by students. In addition to the journal, the VLP hosts public readings, short story contests and the Writers’ Festival. They also sponsor the Vermillion Community Writers Group, a small, relaxed writing group, open to all, that meets at the Vermillion Public Library twice a month.
The VLP’s journal, the Red Coyote, is an anthology of fiction, poetry and artwork published annually for over 30 years, featuring works by local, national and worldwide writers and artists. Marcella Remund ’92 B.A., ’94 M.A., the VLP advisor and instructor in the Department of English, got her start in the VLP when she was a USD student in the 1980s, submitting works to the Red Coyote.
“We know the magazine got started in the 1960s, and as far as we know, it was originally English majors who wanted to put out a literary magazine for the university,” Remund said. “Their first publication was called VLP Magazine, and it was very informal, produced in-house and it only published works by faculty and students—with a few works by Vermillion community members.”
Remund noted it was in the 1980s when people started to get more serious about having a student-produced literary
journal published every year. It was still called VLP Magazine, but submissions were requested by mail, posters, news releases in local and regional papers and word of mouth.
“That’s when I was submitting work as a student. It’s kind of interesting that I’m the faculty advisor now,” Remund said with a laugh.
From then on, the VLP continued to publish the magazine annually. Throughout the years, editors kept the VLP Magazine title, but some added subtitles. Three years ago, Remund decided the magazine needed a new name, and the Red Coyote became what it is today.
Though it used to receive submissions by mail, the Red Coyote now uses an online submission service called Submittable. Where they once strictly received works by local writers and artists, they now receive submissions from across the country—even from across the world.
Contributors may submit up to two short stories or creative non-fiction essays, up to five poems and/or up to five black and white drawings or photographs with no entry fee. The VLP staff uses a blind submission process, so they don’t know who submitted the work until it has been accepted for publication.
Students are involved in every step of the publication process. Each submission is read by student editors, who proofread and edit, and the editor-in-chief designs the cover and layout. Once produced, the students help promote and sell the journal.
“It really gives students hands-on experience with publishing,” said Remund.
Carson Sehr, a rising junior English major from Rapid City, South Dakota, and this year’s Red Coyote editor-in-chief, said the organization received 161 submissions containing over 400 individual pieces for the upcoming publication.
Though the work of going through hundreds of submissions is arduous, Sehr said the experience is invaluable and fits in perfectly with his interests.
“I’ve been involved with the VLP since the winter of my freshman year,” said Sehr. “When I saw a poster for them, I thought to myself, ‘How have I not heard of this? It’s right up my alley.’”
The VLP events are known to be fun and exuberant, yet at times, serious. Rooms and basements are filled with writers who are just getting started, published authors and those who are there to just appreciate art and literature. It doesn’t matter where one sits—what matters is that the VLP has brought many together throughout USD and Vermillion to share and grow as one literary community.
One of the events they host is fondly named “LiTrash,” which is held in the basement of the Varsity Pub in downtown Vermillion every last Thursday of the month during the school year.
“The location is very beatnik-like,” said Remund. “We love that.”
The VLP members plan themed activities or writing games, and around Halloween, they encourage costumes. LiTrash is open to students, faculty, staff, community members and more. Anyone can attend, and Remund said it’s one of their most popular events.
The night will often feature a reader to start the event, then the floor is open to anyone who wants to read their original creative writing, whether that’s poetry, short stories or creative non-fiction. All they have to do is put their name on the sign-up sheet.
The “open mic” format provides space and a supportive environment to all readers, even if some require more encouragement from the crowd. Whether it’s a reader’s first time or the hundredth time sharing their work with others, the person on the stage is emboldened by the nodding heads and hearty cheers of the audience.
“Students often don’t know what to think when they come to a VLP event the first time,” said Remund. “Once they’re in, though, they love it. Our events are surprising to students because poetry, in general, gets a bad reputation as being old, stuffy and stale, but students are surprised at how much fun they have when they come to the LiTrash and how much they love the writing they hear.”
Molly Cameron, a graduate student in the Department of English, regularly reads at and hosts LiTrash events. Cameron said being in front of an audience and putting her creative work out there can be intimidating, but also validating and uplifting.
“You become hyper aware of your breathing, and every mistake feels magnified. After a few moments, though, those anxieties melt away,” said Cameron. “The audience snaps, cheers, cries and rides the emotion of the piece with you. More often than not, people come up to readers at the end of the night to congratulate and ask questions, which is an incredible feeling as a writer.”
Cameron came to USD after receiving her bachelor’s degree from Western Illinois University. She was drawn to become a member of the VLP because of the events they host as well as the opportunity to read at LiTrash.
“As someone who loves the spotlight and wants to be part of a literary community, reading at a community-focused open mic seemed like the perfect opportunity to share with a supportive audience in a low-pressure environment,” said Cameron. “There is such a sense of camaraderie there between the English graduate students, the faculty, undergraduate students and community members who come together for the event.”
The VLP also occasionally hosts poetry slams, competitions that are judged by a panel, and winners receive prize money and a chance to wear the championship black leather belt with “VLP” studded in silver rhinestones.
Doug Murano ’04, ’08 had the chance to sport the slam belt and went on to serve as slam master when he was a student at USD. Though Murano didn’t pursue a career in poetry, he said the VLP allowed him to be himself and showed him he could have fun with literature outside the classroom.
“The VLP gave me a place to geek out with other writers without worrying about genre or academic posturing,” said Murano. “I received outstanding classroom instruction while at USD, but I think it was just as important to be able to let my hair down and just get excited about art without worrying whether I’d be taken seriously or not. The VLP helped me do that, and I’m forever grateful.”
Murano said the VLP and its poetry slams taught him to get comfortable with public speaking and ad-libbing.
“Despite my rather introverted nature, I served as slam master, which not only gave me a front-row seat to a number of amazing performances, it challenged me to develop greater comfort with public speaking and sharpened my ability to banter—which, it turns out, have been invaluable tools in my professional life.”
Today, Murano is a senior communications specialist at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls and an editor and anthologist in the horror genre. One of the anthologies Murano edited, Behold! Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders, received the Bram Stoker Award, horror literature’s highest honor. The VLP, Murano said, prepared him for his work as a writer and editor.
“Doing public readings and serving as slam master at VLP events helped me develop the first layers of the rhino-thick skin it takes to make it as a professional writer and editor,” explained Murano. “If you start to lose the crowd, they let you know pretty quickly—and in real time! You can either get upset about it and quit, or you can have a little fun with it. I chose fun. Ultimately, in any creative endeavor, you realize there’s a balance between pushing stubbornly ahead, adjusting on the fly and developing the ability to shrug off the opinions of others. Developing this balance is the most important skill you can nurture early on when you’re a writer and an editor.”
The VLP Writers’ Festival, the Vermillion Community Writers Group and the short story writing contest are also popular events hosted by the organization. Like the Red Coyote, students in the VLP are tasked with the responsibility of planning their events.
"It allows VLP members to practice event organization, planning and community outreach-- things students wouldn’t typically get in the classroom setting or possibly in another student organization,” Remund said. “The VLP provides students with a broad, well-rounded experience.”
What’s special about the VLP events is how they connect USD students with the Vermillion community. Students form relationships and have opportunities to find mentors and they learn they are part of a bigger community outside USD.
“It combines literature with student life, fun and community,” said Remund. “It’s not a dry subject you’re studying in isolation. That’s what keeps students coming back. It’s a community of people who share their interests.”
Remund has found that the events draw a diverse crowd. They’re not just for creative writers or English majors—they’re for everyone.
“Part of the reason why we host the VLP events is to foster an appreciation for creative writing and literature. It’s not confined or constricted to one group of people,” explained Remund. “We want everyone to appreciate it.”
To order a copy of the Red Coyote, or to submit original, previously unpublished works for consideration for inclusion in the publication, please visit visit http://sites.usd.edu/projlit/. Cost is $10 plus shipping and handling.