Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Espresso and Absinthe in Modern Russia


The following is an excerpt of Josip Novakovich's piece from the latest issue of The Republic of Letters--which, along with other excerpts from the issue, can be found on the TroL website (excerpts which Luna Park is happy to disseminate because the TroL editors so kindly wrote this). TroL is the third literary magazine co-founded and edited by Keith Botsford and the late Saul Bellow. Begun in 1997 in broadsheet and in bound format in 2003, TroL has released just 17 issues in the past decade, because, according to the editors, the magazine is published "at irregular intervals--that is, when sufficient material of quality is available." Like their earlier collaborative publication, The Noble Savage, Bellow and Botsford have financed TroL themselves in order to allow them editorial freedom and the generosity they see as a necessary part of the literary magazine endeavor. In 1999, Bellow wrote a New York Times piece explaining his reasons for beginning TroL. Issues of TroL can be ordered from your local bookseller or purchased directly from Toby Press.

Five Easy Pieces

By Josip Novakovich

Most Russians don’t get up early. The shops in St. Petersburg open at ten in the morning, and that holds true even of coffee shops. Perhaps the notion of coffee as wake-up drug in Russia hasn’t filtered through the haze of the inimical climates and histories. Sometimes when the coffee shop opens, you can see jaded-looking men and women, literally jaded, a little green and sallow, drinking absinthe. Now that is a way to start the day—(no wonder there is a secretion of the liver contributing to the skin color). You may ask for coffee at 10 AM and the counter clerk, most likely, will look astonished, and ask, Espressa? They tend to turn their o’s into ‘ah’ sounds. Now it may take them half an hour to get the machine working, and in the finest St. Petersburg shop, the espresso machine didn’t work for two weeks during my stay there. But this is not the story of St. Petersburg but Moscow, which though more business-oriented and energetic, still has that late-to-bed, late-to-rise rhythm, and the train schedule seems to reflect that. The express trains from Moscow to St. Petersburg were scheduled to depart between one AM and two. I got the tickets for the two AM, and since I was indoctrinated by the American airport schedules, which in this era of security, demand that the passengers be early and planes late, I wanted to get to the station an hour before departure—to give ourselves margin in case we didn’t get a large cab easily. We were four, the whole family, with an additional member, the cello, with its huge case. We went out with our luggage and stood on the curb, next to an all-night kiosk. A few drunks leaned against the kiosk and drank from cans of beer. A small Zhiguli police car was parked nearby, bestowing the air of security on the block. I don’t know where the name Zhiguli comes from, whether it’s a play on the Italian gigolo, and whether the car is a copy of a Fiat, but there is definitely a second-hand air even in a new Zhiguli, and the cops looked a little second-hand and disinterested. In fact, they drove off. First a small car stopped, and a mustachioed man stepped out and insisted that all of us, luggage and passengers, could fit, and was mightily offended when I said we could not fit. He would not charge much, only one hundred and fifty rubles to the train station. Maybe our luggage would fit sans us. Maybe that was the plan, load up the car and drive off. After a decent amount of shouting, the man left.

Now another mustachioed man stopped with a larger car, a Lada coupe. We all fit, although it was not easy. He had some metal pipes and boxes in the trunk which he took a few minutes to rearrange.

I knew the direct way to the train station, having walked it. Down Koltze, turn left, up a huge boulevard, and that is that, a simple L trip, but apparently, for this man there was no such thing as a simple line. He drove us up Chapin, and there turned right, into a dark and bumpy street. His gas gauge kept beeping. Nice, he’s driving on empty. Maybe there’s a gas station here? Maybe he knows how to time everything? That might be a good scenario, to be out of gas, or to pretend to be, and to stop in an alley where his assistants could take our luggage and work us over. No doubt, such things have happened.

The cobbles of the street made the tires purr in their loud way.

At the traffic light, the man turned off the car, until the green light came back on, and then he cranked on the ignition. “Oh no,” Jeanette said. But the ignition caught. Maybe the corner was not dark enough. On the other side of the corner, diagonally, there was another Zhiguli with policemen. At the next corner there was another police car and a couple of policemen standing outside of it.

“All this police!” shouted our driver. “On every street corner. That is too much.”

And true, wherever we looked there were police cars. For what, I wondered? I hadn’t seen so many police even in NYC after 9/11, and this may have been related, a terror pre-emptive measure.

Our driver was getting more and more incensed at the sight of the police. Why should the police bother him? His being terrified of the police made him suspect. On the other hand, I was never particularly fond of them either, in any country, so his displeasure with the arbitrary executors of the law didn’t incriminate him in my eyes.

Anyhow, he made it to the train station, and I gave him two hundred rubles, as much as he had asked, and it wasn’t that much, six dollars, and he opened up the trunk but didn’t help me unload.

At the curb, a young man with a flatbed wooden pushcart offered to take the luggage for one hundred rubles.

“That’s a lot,” said Jeanette. “If the cab is only two hundred, this should be less.”

“That’s all right,” I said. “He probably needs the money.”

We loaded a large suitcase, and four smaller ones, and Jeanette carried Joseph’s cello.

The porter wasn’t officially attired. He didn’t have the cap. He was a young, somewhat Asiatic-looking man, perhaps from southern Siberia, if there is such a thing. Such a huge region should have a south as well, not only an east. He had a black blazer as though he were a waiter at a fancy hotel and black thin-soled leather shoes which didn’t give him much traction, so as he pushed he slid backward, but he progressed. He didn’t go to the side, where he could avoid the stairs, but directly forward. He couldn’t lift the pushcart over the stairs, and he needed my help. I got the lower, heavier end, but I didn’t mind. It entertained me to see him at work. He huffed and puffed as though his job were horrifyingly hard.

“He’s putting on a show of labor for us,” I said.

“Why, it must be hard work,” Jeanette retorted.

[To read the rest of "Five Easy Pieces" purchase or pick up issue 17 of TroL.]

Friday, October 19, 2007

These Young People Today


Journals where these writers' works can be found:
Glimmer Train no. 64
Ploughshares vol. 32 no. 1
The Antioch Review vol. 65 no. 3
The Missouri Review vol. 30 no. 2
The Paris Review no. 180
Tin House no. 31
Salt Hill no. 19

One of the most recognized roles of literary magazines is as publishing venues for new writers. This has been true since at least the beginning of the 20th century, when magazines like Poetry and The Double Dealer were dedicated to locating new talent--which they did in spades, publishing the early writing of such then unknowns as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Thonrton Wilder, T.S. Eliot, Jean Toomer, H. D., and numerous more. Their position as discoverers of new writers is a portion of their job that literary magazines take much pride in; it is one of the main editorial distinctions separating them from the better circulated and more financially lucrative glossy magazines, who most often cannot risk print space on writers or forms of writing that have not yet proven their audience appeal. Still the literary magazine world's role in the careers of American writers seems a little publicly realized fact (though one much mentioned in these pages). One might wonder, for instance, what number of the many readers of Jeffrey Eugenides Pulitzer Prize winning and best-selling novel Middlesex have even heard of The Gettysburg Review, where Eugenides published his first story. The same question could be posed about the first publications of such authors as Claire Messud, Sara Gruen, Junot Diaz, or Philip Roth. Certainly the literary magazine publishing complex doesn't have the cultural power it had during the height of modernism, with such things as television, the internet, and the general glut of contemporary publishing to compete with, but there are still, in the thousand plus literary magazines out there, much wonderful and powerful writing constantly being discovered and published.

Like in nearly everything, some works stand out above others. There are, at various times, writers whose works are being almost universally acknowledged by editors across the spectrum, everyone seemingly at once becoming aware of a new and exciting artistic talent. Recently, the writing of two stunning and amazingly talented writers appears in just about every literary magazine a reader might pick up (and even some wider ranging, glossier publications): 28-year-old short story writer Benjamin Percy and 36-year-old poet Victoria Chang.

1. The Short Story Writer.

"The blood in his ears buzzes, like a wasp loose in his skull. The rifle kicks against his shoulder. The gunshot fills the world." -from "Somebody Is Going to Have to Pay for This," originally published in The Paris Review no. 180

Benjamin Percy is undeniably the real thing. His stories are some of the most emotionally charged and gorgeously understated pieces found in print today; they seem filled with a barely controlled passion vibrating below the surface of each sentence, like the desperate shaking of a tornado shelter door as the twister passes directly overhead. Like a good Raymond Carver story (whose influence runs through Percy's writing), the emotional climaxes of Percy's stories are never sentimentalized or brooded upon, they simply happen, like things do in this world, and we move on beyond them changed, but as yet uncertain as to how. And aside from Percy's talent for moving character and plot, his language is as nuanced and delicate as the many interlocking gears of an enormous clock, each piece perfectly balancing against another. And his eye for detail is seductive in its selectivity. Here is a brief description of a couple spelunking in an opening beneath their house in Percy's story "The Caves in Oregon" from Glimmer Train no. 64: "Sometimes the ceiling would come loose with a click of stone, a hiss of dirt, nearly noiseless in its descent, but when it impacted, when it slammed to the cave floor, it roared and displaced a big block of air that made them cry out and clutch each other in a happy sort of terror." A silent falling piece of rock nearly crushes them and they cry out in a happy sort of terror, as we all do when we are scared and in love.

Nearly all of Percy's stories are an inspection of working class Oregon, a fertile ground for fiction, covered most memorably in the short stories of Carver and Charles D'Ambrosio. But it isn't only the frontier wilderness of Oregon that Percy depicts in his stories; the enduring theme of all his stories is what repressed pain does to someone, how in keeping our hurts and fears from others in an effort to protect ourselves from further injury, we are also changing ourselves, distorting, sometimes even crippling, our behaviors, perceptions, and desires. Not that Percy seems to argue that this isn't the way we should behave; he simply shows us that, in today's war-torn landscape where the gap between the rich and poor is widening every moment, this is how we live: in a forced repression of violence and fear, seeking (sometimes finding) some love and companionship to remind us we can be happy.

In each of Percy's stories there are elements of violence, either directly acted or only haunting the scenery. In some even, violence is the world's main form of currency, such as in Percy's Plimpton Prize winning story, "Refresh, Refresh," where two boys beat each other bloody every day in order to toughen themselves and make their fathers proud. Even in "The Caves of Oregon," arguably one of Percy's least violent stories, focusing around a couple dealing with a recent miscarriage, Percy begins the piece with a grotesque scene of a couple opening a meat-stocked freezer after a power outage earlier that day: "The sight of it reminds Kevin of the time he had his wisdom teeth removed. His dentist had given him an irrigator, a plastic syringe. Twice a day he filled it with salt water and placed its needle into the craters at the back of his mouth--and from them, in a pink rush, came scabs, bits of food. That is what the freezer looks like when its door opens and the blood surges from it--all down the front of the fridge, dampening their photos, glossing over their magnets, until the front of the fridge has more red on it than white." After seeing this, Kevin's wife, "makes a noise like a wounded bird....A tremble races through her body and then she goes perfectly still."

But, amidst all the violence and hurt in Percy's fiction, there is a constant desire by the characters for some undefined connection with others and an understanding of the self. This is not a conscious need, but instead it is a need the characters haven't conceptualized but just know they want, like an itch. And it is this need for others which drives the stories, this constant struggle of human needs against a violent world. The endings are usually unhappy. Sometimes the characters are allowed to see the calm surface of the world, such as in "In the Rough" from The Antioch Review vol. 65 no. 3: "He imagines he is sitting at the bottom of a pond, his pockets weighed down by golf balls, his words escaping his mouth, buoyant and drifting to the surface where everything is blue and full of sunlight." Other times, the characters aren't even than lucky, and the calm world does not even exist in the life of the imagination. In Percy's enthralling mystery tale "Dial Tone" from The Missouri Review vol. 30 no. 2, we are left only with the stark image of, "The hissing of radio frequencies, the voices of so many others coming together into one voice that coursed through you in dark conversations."

2. The Poetess.

"I wake the next morning, pretending
nothing happened. Pretending this life, this era,
with its cheap housing projects, music that makes
cars vibrate, men pouring concrete and snipping
hedges into shapes of animals, pretending."
-from "The Dislocated Theater," originally published in Salt Hill no. 19

Victoria Chang is making a great success as one of the most prodigious and continually intriguing poets around. But it is not mere ubiquity that makes readers and editors pay special attention to her work. The oeuvre of Chang's poetry asserts its importance through each individual poem's presence--like a loud fingerprint from another planet you can't help but recognize as one of your own. And, like all fingerprints, it is the zeitgeist, the roaming camera, the caffeinated, sound-bite-addled monologue in our heads.

Many of Chang's poems are unbelievably expedient in their delivery, coming at you with the speed of the contemporary, like an email made of sparkling quartz. "Each morning," her recent poem "How Much" from Paris Review no 180 begins, "I put on those shoes, legs,/ nylons, sex, black briefs with texts. Each/ dusk, there were martinis, drinks that said/ Cocktail! No choice." We are thrust immediately into the high sensual moment at Autobahn speeds.

In a recent review on Blackbird, Susan Settlemyre Williams nicely describes Chang's poetry as that which "thinks big, that harbors the best sort of ambitions, not to be acclaimed, but to stretch itself." Chang's poems are not meditations on an abandoned lover or ruminations of a single orchid on a battle-torn embankment; they seem to strive against these singular notions of the contemporary. Chang's poems resemble a sort of string theory of the poetic world, burning with a fever of multiple desires and personalities, with their hands in a variety of ages. In "How Much," the speaker of the poem is not only the victim of a lightning quick mind, absorbing a thousand sensory experiences in a New York minute, but, like ill-fated Cassandra, she can also see into the future. The narration in the poem shifts from place to place (apartments, cars, dinners) and voice to voice (answering machines, excited voices, chilling proclamations), moving from one worm hole to the next until we finally arrive at a less chaotic, taxi-cab- and cell-phone-free future, where "Somewhere in a kitchen, a mother will watch/ the last piece of beef fall off a bone." Beneath the demanding shimmering chaos forever remains the world of meat.

In her two poems from Tin House vol. 8 no. 3, "Seven Infidelities" and "Dear Professor," we again see Chang's amazing ability as a writer to leap about in a myriad of locations/events/voices/ideas in her poems, much as one would flip television channels or surf the net. Yet, just as websites and television channels are all part of one large, complex system, we never feel Chang is not weaving some intricate and important pattern with her imaginative bursts. "Seven Infidelities" discourses on a number of seemingly isolated instances of occasional want and deviance, but in the end everything converges into a thrusting violence as "houses fall into the ocean with all the people/ bumping into sofas" and "the snow falls in the shape of men and women,/ and they collide randomly in the dark." In a nearly opposite poetic representation of isolation in chaos, the landscape of Chang's poem "Dear Professor" is not the world, but the narrator's frictive mind, within which we roam between jolts of memory and ironic assertion: "Drugs are like running, someone said, when I didn't get it./ Never got it. You mean raining. Ruining. Like,/ like, like, not quite. Williams hated similes." Finally, our Chinese Emeritus narrator seems through being the conception of another's desire (the professors?) and
wants "to be Emeritus only,/ so the bullet in another chest does not hurt. So I can sink/ my mouth in, come out with it between my teeth./ So I win. So good enough."

But not all of Chang's poems have this same quality of order in randomness. One of her most powerful poems is also her quietest. "Proof," originally published in Ploughshares vol. 32 no. 1, is a subtle evocation of the almost mathematically precise weave of connections that makes up human civilization, and which seems to be a very common notion of our communal fate: now that the communication and travel have been simplified, we can no longer ignore our relations, no matter how distant, historical, or unexplained. But, if this is the case, that all our fates are linked, what happens to our individuality? Where, in this miasma of unity, is the I to be unified with? "Proof" explores the resemblances between a great-uncle who was killed in China and the narrator who is "standing in the dirt in La Jolla." Though this idea of worldwide interconnectedness is not new, Chang is able to make it intensely unique with a subtle shift from the idea connection to one of parallelity, our lives not as one, but running in pace alongside one another. And so "Our angles are equal, therefore we are parallel./ Then there must be two birds, two shores, two deaths."

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Job


"He could imagine us rushing around Manhattan in our suits and attache cases."
-from Hammond's introduction for
NYQ 63

From the outside, the world of literary publishing can seem rakish and cruel: a world of delays, unending rejection slips, and minuscule monetary rewards, if any at all. On the other hand--usually after reading a magical story or mind-altering book of poems--the same world can seem mysterious and wonderful, the sort of place where you would love to hang out if only you knew the right people, talked the right way, understood how they made such amazing things, how you could maybe get them to let you help.

The world of the literary object is a mysterious place for the uninitiated, which we all were at one time (excepting the occasional Waugh or Amis, of course). In many ways, this uninitiated world is inescapable even for the most seasoned publishing veteran. The power of fiction and poetry, though to some extent comprehensible, always slips just beyond our rational grasp. Language moves us, we know, and the language we call literature (from comics to Shakespeare to slam poetry) is that which moves us to the greatest extent; it is that which moves us inexplicably. There is a type of secular magic at work in literature (for more on secular magic, see our previous review of Cabinet magazine), and it can almost seem like the people who publish literature are, like people who work at Apple or on Hollywood films, living a life surrounded by this magic. That they are allowed the privilege. That they have a power the rest of us do not, one filled with music filled parties, lunches with artists, and an unending flow of cappuccinos. And that it is the duty of those with such privilege to share their glory, and that it is our right to censure them if they do not.

But, of course, anyone who has worked a real job or takes a few minutes to consider the world, will realize that no such publishing world exists--unless you replace parties with nights alone at the computer, lunches with tuna fish sandwiches at a desk (again alone), and cappuccinos with Folgers. The real world of publishing is filled with papercuts, deadlines, and the same uncertainty and apprehension as anywhere else. And still those who work in it are lucky, though their days be overloaded with work, bills, and more work.

Editor Raymond Hammond discusses this constant relationship between the unending work and the rewards of literary magazine publishing in a refreshingly sincere and engaging introduction to New York Quarterly's most recent issue, number 63. As self-congratulating as such a piece could easily be, Hammond's piece comes off as an immensely readable and unpretentious view of what goes on behind the masthead of one of the nation's top poetry journals.

Hammond wrote his introduction in response to a letter NYQ received from an author whose poems their editors had rejected: "In the letter, the writer was upset that we had not accepted any of his work and added that he was further insulted by the fact that he could imagine us rushing around Manhattan in our suits and ties with attache cases making arbitrary decisions about who gets in the magazine and who doesn't." The great "umbrage" Hammond takes with the letter is not that the writer was upset because his work was not accepted. Instead, what bugged Hammond and drove him to dedicate five pages to illuminating the world of what his job as editor consists of was that the man imagined Hammond and his staff "rushing around Manhattan" in suits making off-the-cuff decisions about NYQ content and, one might infer, having a simply gay old time doing it.

The reality, as one might assume, is quite the opposite. Hammond is hardly the corduroy jacketed literary aesthete one might imagine sitting behind the editor's desk of a literary magazine, but he is most likely closer to the norm than many readers might expect.
In his "other life," Hammond is a Federal Law Enforcement Park Ranger at the Statue of Liberty (here is a link to a picture of Hammond "on the job," as it were). Not the job one would expect for a lit mag editor? As Hammond himself puts it, "All of your editors have regular jobs, most of which do not pay very well and most, if not all, of which have nothing to do with magazines, academia, or the arts." Well, maybe he is painting the lit mag world in too broad a blue-collar tone, as some editors jobs are with the academy or the arts, and a few even work full-time as magazine editors, but his point is made. The majority of the work done on lit mags is from the heart and done for little or no pay--some even pay for the opportunity, shelling out money from their own checking accounts to keep the magazine going. (True: some people working in publishing did go to Ivy League schools, were rich, and may have got their positions because they knew someone at the company--but one can rest assured that this is very rarely the case for literary magazines, if ever. It is a more blue collar world down there, as Hammond's piece shows.)

And the introduction to NYQ 63--where Hammond shows us his early poetic career and befriending former editor William Packard (pictured at left)--is only the first section, as we are told that the story of Hammond's "becoming editor will continue in issue 64." If there are more sensitive descriptions of working class New York poets and portraits of the late Packard like the following, then the sequel will definitely be worth the wait: "Afterwards we met up with Bill who was elated that Anna had come. They had not seen each other in years. We walked towards the subway, Doug and I up front, Bill and Anna lagging behind lost in conversation about poetry. I have a vivid image of the night in my mind, the snow had begun to lightly fall through the light of the streetlights overhead and settle on their shoulders as they walked and talked behind us. At the end of the block, Doug and Anna parted and Bill and I decided to sit on the corner pizza parlor and have coffee. He said that he had lost a friend that day. It was January 19, 1997, and I had heard on the news that James Dickey had died. We talked for an hour probably even longer but the time always flew by, as Bill shared memories of James Dickey. When we parted, I ducked into the subway as Bill walked off into the lighted snow. Little did I know that this would be one of my last vivid memories of seeing Bill walk."

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Real Illusion


"Cabinet is my kind of magazine; ferociously intelligent, ridiculously funny, absurdly innovative, rapaciously curious. Cabinet's mission is to breathe life back into non-academic intellectual life. Compared to it, every other magazine is a walking zombie."
-Slavoj Zizek, philosopher

One possible regret regarding the vast number of literary and little magazines published today is that individual bright stars could be overlooked due to the overall luminescence, and so not get the attention they so obviously deserve. It would seem all editors need admit that there are a few little magazines out there on the newsstands that are a bit more fantastic, a bit more wow than all the rest (and, in the end, wow is what everyone in the magazine world is going for, even if it is of the more conservative or ruminative kind). When such gems are stumbled across in the little magazine world, they are perhaps more precious than in other areas of publishing because of how few issues of these magazines are produced, how poorly most are distributed, and how short of a life span these magazines tend to have. When one is found that not only seems able to bring more attention and appreciation to itself but also to the general efforts of small artistic magazine production, a reviewer can't help but be a little ebullient.

Cabinet magazine is one of the sharpest little magazines out there, captivating for the most part due to its stunning originality. An issue of Cabinet is similar to a Basquiat or Twombly painting; like these painters who seemingly couldn't paint a boring line, the editors of Cabinet seem unable to produce an issue that isn't unique as a fingerprint. They take great effort to work beyond what is expected of them as a small arts magazine, pushing past the barriers of the newsstand to success in other publishing and performative venues. As a publisher, Cabinet is as diverse as its editorial content. Individual issues of Cabinet are divided into three sections:--columns, main, and a themed section--each issue then structured like a museum, where a reader moves from room to room. Also, in order to reach the maximum amount of readers and bookstores, Cabinet prints and distributes the same exact issues as both magazines and books (British lit mag Granta is another publisher who has successfully done this). Cabinet also publishes actual books on a variety of subjects and they put on Cabinet sponsored events around the globe.

For anyone interested in, well, interesting things, Cabinet magazine is one not to miss--and the entire run is not to be missed (excerpts are available on their website), not just this issue. The first 25 issues of the magazine cover a range of frightfully interesting topics largely unique to the world of little magazines, such as invented languages, pharmacopia, doubles, laughter, and ruins. Cabinet's last issue (26, pictured above and reviewed here) is, among a myriad other things, an eclectic study of magic in our political and social lives. Like a novelist always trying to trump their last work, the editors of Cabinet are not to be outdone by previous releases, but continue with each issue to impress with renewed creative vigor. (The next issue of Cabinet, which shipped to subscribers October 3, contains a themed section on, of all things, mountains--which, like everything else, the editors and writers at Cabinet have been able to make seem absolutely fascinating and original. They have taken Pound's maxim "make it new" more than to heart; they have made it their DNA. The coming issue contains the intriguingly titled articles "Mont Blanc Montage: Up the mountains, in fiction and fact" and "Making Sense at the Movies: Habit and memory by light of the silver screen.")

The subject of the last issue, magic, is a very popular one today on both sides of the Atlantic. True, most thanks goes to the billion-dollar industry of Harry Potter and his fictional magic, but there has also been a Hollywood resurgence in stage magic in the recent films "The Illusionist" and "The Prestige," both originally works of prose fiction. It is this type of magic which is the focus of the Cabinet issue--that is, the illusory magic of the sleight of hand, the levitating body, the woman sawed in half. This magic not of sorcery but of illusion is defined in the issue by Johns Hopkins professor Simon During as secular magic, or "magic that makes no claim to be in contact with the supernatural--it's not calling on hidden powers to act on the world." The same of course cannot be said of Rowling's Potter, whose magic comes from something Potter cannot fully understand or control, bringing about much of the amazement and drama of the story.

The enchantment of stage or secular magic is that it is "dealing with known unknowns....And by displaying the trick honestly, the audience's consciousness of the changeability of the world is reinforced." This definition is excerpted from Ian Saville and Sally O' Reilly's faux interview exploration into the Marxist implications and uses of the secular magic world, "I Can See Your Ideology Moving" (the picture of the ventriloquised Karl Marx is at right). Like many of the writings in the issues, "I Can See Your Ideology Moving" is very postmodern. It is a stylized play script which runs the gamut from a local British festival, to a ventriloquist acting as Brecht and Marx, to questioning the text as performance, to, finally, an argument for magic as a healthy defense against the persuasive ideologies of capitalism. It's a deft, nicely argued, and very humorous work, emblematic of the best pieces published in the issue--they all walk the line between funny and serious, expressive and representational. Form equals content for works published in Cabinet, resulting very often in strikingly illuminating views on previously less complex subjects.

The issue is a salmagundi (also name of one of the original American lit mags) of ideas and art, a well organized grab bag of insight. One can flip open the issue at any page and be impressed, caught off guard. The first article, "Talk to the Hand," is a revealing look at the history and scholarship of gesture, which once had, like composition, its own rules of rhetoric. Next is "A Minor History of Aquatic Ambulism," a timeline of human attempts of walking on water, with the occasional successes. In the middle of the issue is Cabinet's third installment of their collaboration with the London-based magazine, Implicasphere, described as a "unique theme-based periodical." The theme of this installment is stripes (previously they have been nose and salt & pepper). The installment begins, "Stripes appear bold, strident even, wearing their intentions on their sleeve. And yet they are sly shape-shifters that trick the eye," and the issue then continues on to explicate and illuminate the world of stripes, ranging from looks into the New Orleans' red light district, the stories of Rudyard Kipling, skunk stripes, and many more striped exhibits, texts, and occurrences in the natural world.

Like the famous 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica or seventeenth century cabinets of curiosities (of which Cabinet's own name seems to derive), issue 26 is yet another of Cabinet's disarming exhibitions into the magic of the world's minutae--only this time, they rove not only into the magic of the world, but the world of magic. A world, we come to see, both under appreciated and a part of our everyday lives--from President Bush's photo ops to our television addictions. "At some time or other we have all decided that life is one long disillusionment," wrote magician David Devant in a 1935 essay. "It is a platitude," he continues, "and like all platitudes it seems that each of us discovers it anew." Devant was one of the most popular magicians of his time, and, somewhat ironically, was also the first person to exhibit films in London, and so helped bring about the new dominant medium of the magician: the cinema.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Voices from the Masthead: Editor Joseph Levens On Why He Began Summerset Review

The Summerset Review is published online quarterly and in print form periodically. This fall, the literary journal is celebrating its fifth-year anniversary and has introduced features believed to be new to literary magazines: Readers are compensated based upon critical comments they contribute. The journal is hoping that this will increase the awareness and penetration of literary magazines in our world and culture.

Joseph Levens is founder and editor of
The Summerset Review. His fiction has appeared in Florida Review (Fall 2007), New Orleans Review, AGNI, Other Voices, Sou’wester, Swink, and elsewhere. We asked Joseph why he does what he does. This is what he said.


For the past twenty years, it has happened all too often: I’d start reading a story in a literary magazine, and within a hundred words whisper to myself: This is going to be good. Three or five or eight thousand words later, after other whispers and gasps and sighs along the way – Wow, Damn, God – I’d be left with a tear in my eye, knocked dizzy with emotion. I’ve missed train stations, had meals run cold, and been late for a variety of engagements because of stories like these.

A piece causing all this trouble won’t always be one that is terribly heart-wrenching. No, it could have been a happy story, and very often is. The prose is what usually gets me, the little things, those that make you stop dead, think, think of some aspect of life, lives like mine or very unlike mine, places I’ve been to, places I never knew existed, objects, an orange sapphire (weren’t all sapphires blue?), a piano in perfect tune and tone never played by its owner. It’s like ankles in ice skates; it’s like eating peas off a knife.

There’s no anticipating how I am going to react, what I will like, what I won’t, when I open a literary magazine. Things just happen. I’m a sensitive reader and allow myself to be easily manipulated, suspending my disbelief as if it were a helium balloon, floating, hovering, teetering. Almost always, the stories that have the most impact on me are penned by writers I’ve never heard of. They magically appear in these journals for reasons traveling well beyond scientific analysis. How the story got on the page, how the book got into my hands, how the connection is made in my head, these are all things that cannot be explained.

I do what I do because after this happens to you time and time again, you begin to conceive ways of getting more of these stories out there. I’m left thinking that, for every piece having a great effect on a reader, chances are likely another five, ten, twenty stories are waiting, waiting, waiting, never to be set on a page and exposed on a global stage. Why not? That, I suppose, is for another essay, likely to be a bit ugly.

In addition to my role as editor of The Summerset Review, I am a writer myself. My objective, in my writing, is to reach out and provoke that tear I myself have experienced, in as little as one or two readers who may have innocently stumbled across my work, persons I do not know. To the chagrin of some I am sure, the matter is not at all about money. I am assuming I may not be the only writer out there with this sentiment, and so I thought to do my part and create a vehicle others may use to meet similar desires.

This vehicle comes at a cost. The journal receives an average of five submissions a day and we do not solicit. We run no marketing or advertising campaigns because our humble staff of two (including myself) barely have time to give each story a fair shake (sometimes two or three shakes), edit, correspond, copy-edit, and do everything else, all so that we can put out what we believe are five quality pieces each quarter, chosen from the heart. We pay contributors a nominal fee and never look at the magazine as a revenue-generating source; the focus is elsewhere. (It would be remiss of me to not mention the CLMP, an organization I believe truly cares about literary magazines, and does their best to support them.)

I don’t know exactly how well it is working. It’s not the kind of thing you can read all about the next morning in the newspapers. Once in a while I will come across that shining submission, though, a story that would be like one I read in another magazine, ankles in ice skates, peas on a knife, and realize that, no, wait a minute, hold on; I am not reading another magazine. The writer is sending the story to me, understands what I am talking about, has had similar things happen on the train, gotten in trouble just as deeply and as often.

The real reason I do what I do, if you’ve stuck with me this far, is revenge, actually. I’m tired of cold meals, tired of missing my station, once again late for an evening of whatever else. It’s about time this happen to more people. I’m doing my best to see to that.