Original Sins

Her peers’ poetry and short stories scattered across the carpet of a tiny campus office, Alissar Langworthy leafed through each piece of creative work in search of the best writing, all while trying not to step on her friends in the process. With only two pieces of furniture to seat six bodies in such close quarters, Langworthy and the rest of the inaugural student editorial staff of SVSU’s literary-arts magazine were organizing the first issue of Cardinal Sins in 1981 literally from the ground-floor level. Later, typing the selected writings on legal paper, the staff created copies and bound each edition themselves. Using staples.

It was a rudimentary operation, to be sure, but it led to a final product they shared proudly with their classmates and campus — and that’s what mattered most to the publication’s ambitious architects.

“When you’re young, there are no barriers and no obstacles,” said Langworthy, who was one of Cardinal Sins’ driving forces nearly 40 years ago.

“We wanted to do it, so we did.”

That appetite for creation kept the publication alive during those embryonic years, allowing it to thrive in the generations since. These days, the journal is considered among the nation’s elite college literary-art magazines. The American Scholastic Press Association presented Cardinal Sins with the Most Outstanding University Literary-Art Magazine award for the second consecutive year in January 2018. It was one of two magazines in the U.S. to earn such distinction.

Through the poetry, short stories, photography, graphic design and other forms of art presented on paper, over the decades Cardinal Sins has served as a canvas for hundreds of SVSU students, most of them studying within SVSU’s College of Arts & Behavioral Sciences.

The evolution of the magazine has been guided by editors and advisers alike. Among the influential figures in the magazine’s history were Langworthy; Melissa Seitz, a former adviser who turned the magazine’s fortunes around more than a decade ago; and Victoria Phelps, a recently graduated editor who helped put the publication on the map nationally. Their story is the story of Cardinal Sins.

Michael Langworthy planted the seed for the magazine when he sat down with Gary Thompson — an English professor still on the faculty today — to discuss the possibilities of producing an on-campus publication featuring pieces of creative writing by fellow students.

Thompson became a mentor on the project and Langworthy’s enthusiasm and drive for the publication helped launch an idea he first scribbled on a notepad in a coffee shop.

Once he acquired the $500 grant needed to purchase resources to launch the publication, Langworthy began his search for an editorial staff. The most obvious first choice was his girlfriend (a woman he would later marry) Alissar Langworthy, then known as Alissar Fouzi Najd. Although she was an international student from Lebanon and English was not her first language, she understood its mechanisms better than anyone else Michael Langworthy knew.

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Michael and Alissar Langworthy

And so the two began their makeshift operation along with five other students. Alissar Langworthy remembered that first production cycle as being a labor of true love.

“Everyone on the team believed in the publication,” she said. “We all wanted to see it succeed.”

And succeed it did. The campus community loved it, she recalled, and the staff soon saw a flood of literary submissions for the next edition. Cardinal Sins evolved quickly, adding illustrations to its written content in the second issue. The fourth issue featured the publication’s first cover art — two cardinals gathering near an apple, bitten to the core — drawn by Langworthy herself. Photography and graphic design submissions appeared in later volumes.

The discussions about whether a piece should be published could get pretty lively at times, she recalled. Especially when their office space felt more like a cubby than an actual room. However, the staff used these close quarters to their advantage.

“It was all very invigorating,” she said. “Everyone threw their own expressions and experiences into the mix. Even when we disagreed about certain aspects, it really was a collaborative effort.”

However, love could take the publication only so far. When then-student Melissa Seitz joined the magazine’s staff in 1994, funding remained a challenge. The black-and-white magazine was still bound by staples.

Seitz recalled much of her time with the magazine as a student advocating for submissions. The success of the original staff had plateaued, and the journal was struggling to expand, she said.

After Seitz completed her bachelor’s degree in English literature in 1994 and later a master’s degree in creative writing at Michigan State University, she returned to SVSU as an adjunct faculty member and to Cardinal Sins as its faculty adviser. She held this role for six years, longer than any of her predecessors or successors.

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Melissa Seitz

“I saw Cardinal Sins — something I had been passionate about as a student — not doing anything different or new,” she said, “and I sort of just fell back into it.”

Seitz made it her mission to find funding to replace the staples with a proper book binding.

“People were afraid to see me coming,” she said. “They knew I was going to ask for funding.”

However, her father-in-law, Carl Seitz, knew how passionate she was about the magazine. When he died in 2004, a large chunk of his memorial fund was gifted to Cardinal Sins. She also founded a creative writing scholarship in his name using another portion of his donation.

This development became a turning point for the magazine. It was when the entire publication started growing and transforming, Seitz said. The budget was able to support printing costs for the publication to be bound like high-standard magazines sold in bookstores. The added funds helped purchase the resources needed to launch the magazine online.

While Cardinal Sins advanced aesthetically as a magazine, Seitz said the students’ creative passion remained at the core of publication. Watching their love of creating provided some of her most cherished memories as adviser.

“At the receptions at the end of each year, students would read their work — some for the first time in front of other people,” she said.

“Seeing the joy on their faces as they read their work to their family, friends and strangers was really rewarding. Seeing that pride on their faces was my favorite part of the whole process.

The dedicated work ethic — established by the Langworthys and reinforced by Seitz — was adopted by later generations of Cardinal Sins staff members.

Victoria Phelps, who received her bachelor’s degree in English literature in May 2018, is among those successors. Before graduating, she served as the magazine’s editor-in-chief during its two-year run as Most Outstanding University Literary-Art Magazine.

These days, the editorial staff does not spread themselves across the floor of a cramped office space to design their next issue. Instead, most of the work is created via computer, but the process is still conducted in close quarters in the publication’s office in Curtiss Hall.

However, Phelps and her team operate with the same gritty determination as the original editorial staff. The small space is used to capture the creative spirit of Cardinal Sins, just as it had back in 1981.

Phelps attributed Cardinal Sins’ success to the quality of work submitted and to the current editorial staff.

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Victoria Phelps served as Cardinal Sins editor for two years.

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