Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On Burnside


Connections between form and content seem to carry more prominence in the art magazine world than in other literary productions. When we shop instead for books, we mostly look for the spine bearing an author's name or an intriguing title. Though books, too, are very often intricately and carefully designed (see Alvin Lustig's gorgeous covers for New Directions books or nearly anything by McSweeney's press). But in the magazine world, design is a greater portion of the product. Not that content relies on form--good writing can and does come in ugly packages--but it is the care and detail taken with the design and production of a literary magazine which carries a great amount of the (at least initial) attraction when perusing the literary newsstand.

The latest issue of Burnside Review (vol. 3 no. 2), a small literary magazine from Portland, Oregon, is approximately the shape of a CD case, with cover artwork resembling a Beatles or Doors record (see image of the magazine's back cover above). The cover has an antique look, faded and sepia-tinted, giving the impression the magazine wasn't found in the new bookstore down the street, but in the dusty bin of a secondhand store, shoved between books without covers and a pair of pleather boots. The production is simply done and beautiful throughout, something both intriguing to look at and easy to handle, satisfyingly combining art for the wall with the literary container of a magazine. And the small size of the issue makes it easy for carrying on the subway or bus, as well as a nice portable shape for the movable readers of the world, those who see bumping into things as hardly an obstacle for the opportunity to read while walking.

And the writing inside this issue is, again like the overall design, a subtle, simple-seeming surprise. Overall, the magazine has a somber tone, like a rock song you listen to alone in the car at two in the morning after dropping all your friends off at their houses, you sitting outside your own dark house, the car running, the song playing on the radio, and it seems you are the only person awake in the world, and though you know the song will end, somehow it seems like it won't, like it'll go on forever. There are powerful new pieces in here by the always fascinating writers Alberto Rios and Ben Lerner, moving work by newer authors such as James Capozzi and Anne Heide, and some alluring prose by young writer-to-keep-an-eye-on Leslie Jamison, who had one of her stories released by Burnside Review as the chapbook The Wintering Barn earlier this year. Though like most literary magazines some of the work in this issue is considerably more powerful than the rest, due to the smallness of Burnside Review's project for this publication--only 74 pages in all, hardly any pieces over two pages long, most of it poetry--there is not really the urge to skip forward. Nothing is rushed.

Instead of quoting at length from many pieces, here is an excerpt of Ben Lerner's stunning prose poem "Ars Poetica" from the issue, a poem strong enough to keep you in the car till the song is over, even in an Oregon January, stuck in the snow in a 1976 VW Rabbit with a busted heater, even then: "A famous novel, difficult to avoid. Its author, now very old, has for many years sequestered himself in a French village, refused all visitors, returned all letters. All my life I have seen people reading this novel. On subways and airplanes, in hotels and hospitals. My wife recently read it in our bed. At first, when people asked what I thought of the novel, I admitted I hadn't read it. Nobody believed me..."

[Click here to see the table of contents and read excerpts of vol. 3 no. 2 on the Burnside Review website.]

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