Literary Magazine Reviews

Posted 16 April 2012

Able Muse :: Bacopa :: Black Warrior Review :: Bombay Gin :: Carbon Copy Magazine :: Clover :: Cream City Review :: Creative Nonfiction :: Fractured West :: The Georgia Review :: Gulf Coast :: The Iowa Review :: The MacGuffin :: Mid-American Review :: New Letters :: Ninth Letter :: Ploughshares :: The Quotable :: Ruminate :: Saranac Review :: The Sewanee Review :: The Southeast Review :: Sou'wester :: Subtropics :: Tampa Review :: Tar River Poetry Review :: Third Coast :: The Threepenny Review :: West Branch

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Able Muse coverAble Muse

Number 12

Winter 2011

Biannual

Review by Tanya Angell Allen

Although it’s slightly twee, David J. Rothman’s Able Muse conversation with poet David Mason exemplifies the sort of experimentation that makes the magazine well worth reading. Rothman plays with the interview format by occasionally posing questions in poetry, wondering why “prose is what we have to use when we / Decide to have a conversation on / Why we write verse?”

Mason replies “Should interviews be very funny? / Should noses like mine be so runny?” He later writes of how “forms / of the articulate are what / we reach for / in our happiness and pain.”

Because the approach is intriguing, one wishes for more information on Rothman’s thought-process and whether answering questions in verse helped Mason reach conclusions he might not otherwise have. Notes like these would not be out of place in Able Muse, which primarily publishes pieces that play with form or teach about craft, and whose main audience seems to be others who play with it as well. Perhaps Editor Alexander Pepple could address these matters and his interesting editorial choices in his introductions. Why is there less light verse in the Winter issue than in the previous print editions? How has readership changed since the magazine changed from on-line to print? Such transparency about his editorial craft would be welcome, making the magazine even more of a muse to other writers and editors.

Elsewhere in this issue, Andrew Frisardi introduces his excerpt of Dante’s “Vita nova” by talking of the specific literary choices he made in translating it. Seree Cohen Zohar breaks down the format of psalm sequences. A series of waterscape photographs by the excellent Alper Çukur is prefaced by an interview by Sharon Passmore about his cameras and use of long exposure.

Although they advertise that they’re open to both metrical and free verse, Able Muse shows a definite preference for formal poems. For instance, the first in the magazine, Suzanne J. Doyle’s “Dakota,” is in quatrains of rhyming couplets. The second is a villanelle by Midge Goldberg. The winner of this year’s Able Muse poetry contest is a sonnet sequence by Jean L. Kreiling. There are free verse poems in the magazine too, including two by Lyn Lifshin, but Lifshin is known for writing a certain sort of metrical-sounding, long, skinny free verse poem so often that a case could be made that she’s writing in form—i.e. the “Lyn Lifshin form.”

This issue also contains the well-deserved winner of the Able Muse fiction contest—Douglas Campbell’s “Sunflowers, Rivers”—in which a boy first recognizes his mother as a sexual being. Elsewhere, Stephen Collington experiments with the book review format, beginning a discussion of Michael O’Siadhail’s Tongues with a picture of Edgar Allan Poe next to a picture of a tree to represent the word “poetry.” And then there’s the lovely “Street Song” by William Conelly, with the refrain “Fortune save you, Brother Crow.” It’s a poem that, like the best parts of Able Muse, is serious, playful, and a potential muse for those who wish to write well.
[www.ablemuse.com]

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Bacopa coverBacopa

A Literary Review

2011

Annual

Review by Jeff Tigchelaar

Strong first lines. That’s the highly enviable trait shared by several of the pieces in Bacopa, the Writers Alliance of Gainesville-produced journal named after a family of aquatic plants with medicinal strength.

First, just daring us to not read on in her story “Guilty Creatures,” there’s Stephanie Barbé Hammer’s first line, “I tell Cassandra I can’t train for rocks and stones after journalism because I have to go home and kill my parents.”

Then we’ve got James O’Brien, in his poem “I Concede the Nature of the Film,” leading with, “You were, in almost every respect, the critical mistake of my life.”

And in the nonfiction category, Wanda Legend begins her piece “N-word” with this: “Not for amateurs, small-town chat is a craft masterful as tractor repair or canning.”

Taking the cake, however, is Ed McCourt with the intro paragraph to his essay “Watching Rocco,” which garnered an Honorable Mention in nonfiction for the 2011 Bacopa Literary Review Prizes:

I am watching Rocco. He is playing the drums and walking on a treadmill. I’ll elaborate: he is wearing spandex shorts that extend no lower than his groin, a radiant, spaghetti-strapped tank hanging loosely around his orange stomach, and a bandana knotted circuitously around his sunglasses; walking backwards on the only treadmill of the condo’s undersized gym; and with unflinching ferocity, pounding a snare drum that has been mounted across his chest.

The next paragraph begins: “I dislike condos.” (If you want the rest of the story—and this is nonfiction, remember—buy Bacopa.)

Speaking of pieces worth seeking out this journal for, Amanda Skelton’s “Warding Off the Monkey” (First Place, nonfiction) left me hoping the author has a lot more work—perhaps a forthcoming book? (Please?) Her piece in Bacopa is a mother’s account of her 12-year-old son’s battle with anorexia, which inevitably becomes the mother’s battle as well: “When anorexia has inserted its lying, chattering voice into your son’s head, you will go to great lengths to drown it out.”

Skelton details “my pursuit of his happiness”—her attempt to fill the minutes, all 10,080 of them, of each day, beginning at 4 a.m. with the first of five meticulously prepared protein shakes, to five therapy sessions a week, Tai Chi classes, daily trips to a Games Workshop, and on and on. “There is nothing quick about those minutes,” Skelton writes, but she needed to fill them because left to its own devices, her mind filled with self-flagellating thoughts derived from books on anorexia she’d read:

Dysfunctional families, the books said, caused anorexia. I was yet to find the latest research that let parents off the hook by confirming anorexia as a biological brain disorder and pointing to an underlying genetic component. Science turned out to be more full of grace than Mary.

In addition to five nonfiction pieces, this issue of Bacopa features thirteen short stories. Kathleen Alcalá’s “Jonah,” a ghost tale of sorts, contains this wonder-full exchange:

One night, when Jonah was seven, he woke to find a giant bird perched at the head of his bed. The window was wide open, and the moon shone hollowly, like a giant bowl in the sky.
Jonah sat up to look at the bird. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I have come to take you to meet your fate.”
“Already? I’m only seven.”
“You don’t have to stay with your fate,” said the bird, “just meet it.”

“The Rice Thief” by Edward Black also has its share of memorable moments, including a perfectly absurd exchange between a police clerk and the old woman calling to report stolen rice. The clerk, Ato, has just asked for a description of the missing items:

“What do you mean?” Miwa said.
“The rice,” he said. “What did it look like?”
“White.”
Ato filled in the blank. “How many?”
“What?”
“We can’t leave a blank,” he said.

For personal reasons, the first piece I read in this issue was Keith Moul’s poem “Taking Himself Too Seriously,” which employs the lines “I am not so serious / that I forget the wonder— / of making amends and love.”

Next, because it was blatantly shaped like a tree, I read Tad Karmazyn’s poem “Conversation with a Tree,” which I was certain I’d dislike, but could find no fault with. The content (“Spring comes with certitude and blossoms”) stood up with the form.

Of the journal’s 22 poems, though, the one that struck me the most was Erika Brumett’s “Fight Overheard in Sign Language” (Second Place, poetry), wherein a couple is observed in passionate, wordless debate. This transcript includes

      a pouring motion.
An empty overflowing.
A mournful armful of
this-is-all-I-have,
that spilled onto the street
and her shoes which kept walking.
The man held out the cracks of his palms,
where she couldn’t get a word in.

[writersalliance.org/bacopa]

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Black Warrior Review coverBlack Warrior Review

Volume 38 Number 1

Fall/Winter 2011

Biannual

Review by Kevin Larsen

After thumbing through, then devouring, the 2011 Fall/Winter issue of Black Warrior Review, I’m convinced that this publication is one I need to keep my eye on. Reading work from nearly thirty different writers and poets has simply impressed me with not only the quantity but also the quality, the originality, and the freshness of the prose and poetry in this magazine.

This issue has three sections. The first section contains a mix of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and even a couple of comic strips; the second section is the feature section, a cohesive collection of writing centered on the theme, “Interruption”; and the third section is a chapbook from poet Joyelle McSweeney.

The opening story, “[the fifth house]” by J.A. Tyler, sets a somewhat somber mood for the entire magazine. I thought it was an interesting choice to be placed at the beginning, but ultimately a smart one. Tyler’s story definitely comes from an experimental vein, favoring descriptive tones and a powerful voice rather than narrative detail, aspects that help showcase the other pieces in this issue. “[the fifth house]” is an odd story—third sentence: “I was a deer again, as my brother and I had been when we were young, when we had antlers, when we lowered our necks”—but it is also evocative with powerful images and rhythmic prose.

The remainder of the first section, a decent seventy pages or so, is a captivating read. In a nonfiction piece, “Operation Toe Breaker,” Brandon Davis Jennings channels Tim O’Brien, referencing and clearly paying homage to The Things They Carried. Jennings tells his own war story, pointing out that “Real war stories aren’t about excitement and adventure; they’re about facts. Shitty, blood-caked facts.”

In another piece involving war, this one a short story titled “Love is Such an Old-fashioned Word,” Blair Bourassa writes about two linguists and their indirect attempts to define their love for each other while war in Europe erupts around them. “Love Letter 32,” a poem by Esvie Coemish, subtitled “Snapshots from the Honeymoon of Our Long Germination,” rounds out the first section with contemplations of evolution and love.

The real star here is the feature section, “Interruption.” In a letter to the readers, the editors explain the theme as “a moment of un-being—an arrest or hindrance of the continuity or uniformity of act, thought, writing, conversation or other discourse.” Despite the discontinuous nature of the theme, the feature really is best referenced as a whole, as each of the twenty-odd pieces resonate together to create a sense of abruptness.

“Interruption,” and really the entire issue, can be summarized best by the editors’ words: a “liminal space between thought, word and utterance, [where] we felt writers and readers would be encouraged to reformulate, reconceive and reorient in thought and speech to the world, each other and as selves.”
[www.bwr.ua.edu]

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Bombay Gin coverBombay Gin

Volume 37 Number 2

Fall 2011

Biannual

Review by Joseph Bradbury

Bombay Gin, the product of The Naropa Press and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, continues its legacy of eclecticism and experimental genre-bending in the Fall 2011 publication. Before a word of text is displayed, there is a black and white photo of a woman, handsome in a neck tie delightfully draping dreadlocks. Friends and former colleagues at Naropa and the world of poetry lost Akilah Oliver in 2011. Eleni Sikelianos reflects on the memory of her friend, “She never settled on an identity handed to her, be it her name, her gender, her genre, her theories, her performances, her race—she made herself, from scratch.”

Bombay Gin, and this issue of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, hybrid text, translations, and reviews, is much like Sikelianos’s memory of Oliver. It is difficult to pin down an identity of each piece and, perhaps more so, the collection as a whole.

Early in the section of “New Writing,” poet Kathryn Cowles takes flight with her precision and her pithy observations in “I am on a plane.” Cowles reveals the beauty in simplicity, the loveliness of the uncanny: “I see the moon halved / in the sky in the late / afternoon the same day.” The position of this piece in the journal informs us that we are going to be traveling, perhaps in a plane, perhaps to a location without space or time, a dimension where experience is our impetus.

Sara Veglahn’s excerpt from her forthcoming book, The Ladies, suggests silence with gaping half-pages of white space, each section dedicated to its own page. After any break, the story, or poem, may end, doesn’t, then does, inspiring introspection and re-reading. But the reader is drawn to the chase, seeks out the white and words. “In the empty space between sound and color we ran reckless through the prospect.” The opening line of the piece is, again, a clever signifier for us as readers; we are going somewhere far away, some place familiar.

To accompany the text on this journey, the “New Writings” are bisected with original art by Allie McDowell and black and white photos by Theresa Karsner. One of the photos in particular, “Cycle of a Deer,” a dead fawn in a thicket of five-leafed ivy, head bent toward spine, prepares the reader for Sasha Steensen’s speculative tale of a girl raised by a deer mother, “The Girl & The Deer.” Steensen delivers a character born of nature, her mother made pregnant by the Sun-Father. After the baby’s birth, the mother “placed the baby in [a] hole, atop the bed. She washed herself and her clothes in the creek, and she followed the creek back to the fields, and the fields back to her home.” Steensen’s concise prose has a muscular, yet tender, quality.

Travis MacDonald, in his conceptual poem, “342117067982148086513282306647,” addresses, body, form, God, and infinity. Perhaps just as interesting as the poem is the method by which he derived the text: “The text is composed solely of language borrowed directly and in strict numerical sequence from The Book of Genesis, The Origin of Species (Chapter 8 - Hybridism) and Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. Each selection is comprised of individual lines whose word count corresponds directly with a relative decimal point of pi to its first thousand places.” The language of explanation is nicely juxtaposed to a twenty-seven line poem with such oddities as:

   If, in pursuance of our habit of
order, to show that there is
any degree of sterility, He
bring
forth the living
number of
his kind: cattle, and creeping thing, and beast
of the
hybrid offspring, with
kind.

Bombay Gin is like wandering in a foreign city, a distant place between unfamiliarity and home. The hybrid genres and experimental prose forces the reader to explore their understanding of tradition. The strength in the language reminds us that all writing, no matter its shape, should be compelling, exciting and, simply, good.
[naropa.edu/bombaygin]

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Carbon Copy coverCarbon Copy Magazine

Issue 1

2011

Review by Jeff Tigchelaar

At a time when so many publications are folding or going paperless, here comes Carbon Copy, all bright and bold and glossy. All chock full of art, stories, essays, plays and poetry. All bursting at the seams with Jim Daniels, Denise Duhamel, Charles Harper Webb, and David Trinidad.

And by magazine, they mean magazine: as in 8-by-11-ish with staples—like the kind you buy at newsstands, weekly or monthly.

This, though, is much more fun.

The editors, Matt Zambito and Abby Blank, note they seek work that “engages, mentions, highlights, and/or celebrates pop culture in any way.” “We’re not,” they emphasize, “interested in pop culture critiques. Be positive, baby.”

They go on in their editors’ note: “Pop can be fun. Pop can be emotive. Pop can kindle fires in our brains. We believe in Pop.”

How fitting, then, that the issue starts off with the lines, “I learned to pray by believing / God was Marilyn Monroe” in the poem “Unfinished” by Kelli Russell Agodon. In her next poem, “Because I’m John Stamos,” Agodon speaks of John Stamos, the Olson twins, Cher, Travolta, Anna Nicole Smith, and even Oz.

Webb, in his poem “He Bangs,” celebrates the spirit of William Hung, who famously—and nobly—failed on American Idol:

Slapped with unanimous Nos, Will doesn’t whine,
rage, beg, or cry. “I have no training at singing,”
he declares, unfazed by Simon’s wry, “I don’t believe it.”
“I gave my best, and thus have no regrets,”
the Hungster states, and marches off, proud
to be a future engineer, his good heart beneath his blue
back-pack, banging.

The speaker in Jim Daniels’s poem “You Ever Have the Chuckling Abe Lincoln Dream” wonders too if we’ve ever had the one where “[Lincoln] and Bob Marley / are sharing a giant spliff and harmonizing / on ‘Redemption Song’?”:

Abe fucking Lincoln would’ve dug reggae.
You ever stare at a five dollar bill
and wonder if Abe ever got a blow job?

In Joe Bonomo’s essay “Look at You,” the You he’s looking at is not only Joe Bonomo the writer (“Look at you, reading The Strongman by Joe Bonomo”), but also another—the other—Joe Bonomo, the New York weightlifter and stuntman (b. 1901). It’s also, fittingly, an exploration of “You” as rhetorical tool, as second-person point-of-view.

Sonya Huber also offers up some entertaining and educational nonfiction in “I <3 BTR,” an account of a mother’s coming to terms with her young son’s obsession first with SpongeBob—and then with a boy-band television show. At first Huber is pretty harsh in her sentiments surrounding the talking sponge and “Big Time Rush.”

But since such negativity would violate this magazine’s mandate, it was no surprise when she came around. “I wanted to hate it so badly,” Huber states, after admitting, “I’m not very open-minded but I like to pretend to be,” and before sitting down to watch the show. “I gagged a little at the choreographed dance routines,” she notes, but then “two difficult things happened. First of all, the songs were catchy. Second of all, my son started jigging his arms and legs around and singing the songs.” The show, especially the music, makes her son happy—a truth Huber realizes around the same time it dawns on her that she used to love the Monkees.

In addition to stunning full-color paper artwork by Ashley Gierke and paintings by street artist MACHINE, plus a bold, cubist-esque black-on-white drawing by Todd Marrone (“Soul Date”), there’s the litter-turned-art photography of James B. Robinson (think McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts meets the Adirondacks), the “After The End” photo series by Catherine Jackson (think Dorothy, Alice, and Little Red Riding Hood meeting a modern fashion photo-shoot, sort of), and even a comics spread, featuring Cory Stauffer’s “Harold the Astronaut.”

Carbon Copy’s final page is a Classifieds section, giving each author/artist an opportunity to plug a book or website, or make a final statement (Catherine Jackson: “In love? Knocked up? I want to photograph you.”) or request (Patrick Culliton: “I will pay you to produce a carnival-quality caricature drawing of me sliding across the hood of the General Lee”).

Also, this review couldn’t possibly be complete without mentioning that Lisa Lewis, in her poem “What to Wear,” rhymes—unprecedentedly, to my knowledge—the words Internet and bunionette.
[carboncopymagazine.com]

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Clover coverClover

A Literary Rag

Volume 2

Fall 2011

Annual

Review by Aimee Nicole

At first glance, Clover has a unique style and appeal. Rather than a typical paperback literary magazine, this rag has a letterpress cover; pea soup green border with plum purple lettering. The cover drew me into the magazine, and I dove in, ready to dig up some kind of treasure. Although the beginning of the magazine is rather bland, it works up momentum to about the middle where it just explodes.

So let’s dig in. Larry Crist brings us an action poem titled “French Quarter, Fat Tuesday, 2009.” Rarely do I come across this type of poem; the first stanza sets up the scene and really allows you to picture the setting right before taking you on an adventure that starts in the second stanza:

A plump girl in a tight purple dress and heels ran past us
pursued by a greasy young man,
lanky, dark, unctuous, a mustache
looked like he pumped gas for a living
She was blond, made up, pissed off
stopped beside the building before us
She had been crying
He grabbed her, tried to kiss her
She clocked him
They fell back into a doorway of a business not open

The reader is able to see the poem unfold as the narrator observes it. This allows the reader to become an active agent in the poem, a style I really enjoy. The poem continues to follow the argument and its resolution. The narrator reveals a sly jealousy of the young couple, of their youthful emotions that age eventually forces each of us out of.

Libby Garcia was named Clover’s contest winner. Her poem “One Man’s Nest” lands in the middle of the issue with its poignant images centered on grief. For example, “Grief is palpable here / settled in heavy blue-gray layers / a low-lying mist nearly visible from the street.” Grief is a universal emotion that brings people together; however, Garcia takes a different approach. She gives the person who is dying a voice that carries over the pages following this piece, making it one the reader cannot seem to forget.

Stephanie Cosky Hopkinson includes an excerpt from the “best book on living with Bipolar/ADHD [she’s] ever almost finished writing” she has titled Being Wacko. It is humorous, fun, and light, in addition to also being adventurous, deep, and sensitive. Each part of the story is fantastic writing, and it captures your attention with a vice grip. This excerpt highlights a trip to the supermarket where, after she mentally checks off a dozen or so precautions, she braces herself to enter the store:

The battlefield lies beyond the sliding doors. It changes little week to week—fixtures high overhead emit an unreal light that makes everything look a little far away and foreign, just the way the whole world looks when an anxiety attack is trying to overwhelm me. Music drops from hidden speakers, sudden pitch changes like tiny grenades exploding my ears, add to the disorientation. Every item becomes a distraction and leads me to indecision, trains of thought that go nowhere, forgotten items.

Without making the reader feel uncomfortable or chastised, Hopkinson takes us along for the wild ride she calls life. I am aching for her to finish writing the book Being Wacko, and am certain it will be met with positive reviews and hype.

There are many more fabulous writers included in this issue of Clover which I encourage you to seek for yourself. Go have “A Farewell Drink” with Michael Yeager or enter the doors of “School, 1969” with Janet Bergstrom. It left me so satisfied that I sat back, placed the book gently on the table, and took a few conscious breaths before getting back to the daily grind.
[independentwritersstudio.com]

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Cream City Review coverCream City Review

Volume 35 Number 1

Spring/Summer 2011

Biannual

Review by Ryan Price

Cream City Review’s glossy cover design first caught my eye. Alerting readers to this issue’s focus on local events, the cover features an outline of the state of Wisconsin and contains a photograph taken during the 2011 protests against the Budget Repair Bill. Complementing the cover’s theme, an entire section, called “Voices from the Front,” is dedicated to nine creative works that speak to the state’s protests.

Perhaps one of my favorite pieces comes from Brenda Cárdenas. She conveys a brutally honest, yet artful portrayal of working with community members against the Budget Repair Bill. Cárdenas invites readers into the middle of a crowd of over 100,000 protesters. She writes, “In a surreal moment, thousands of ‘Shhhhh’s’ flew across the rotunda like a flock of swallows.” Cárdenas’s writing exemplifies the “cream” or, if the pun muddles the meaning, the best of what the Cream City Review has to offer. She offers readers a final analogy, “it is so dark there / here—a cavernous dark to which the eyes never adjust—that I can only manage to write today about the lights I remember.”

This issue includes seven works of fiction, seven works of nonfiction, thirty-seven poems, and, as an annual special, the winners of the review’s annual literary prize. These award-winning pieces showcase the best of what Cream City Review seeks to publish.

Award winner, Wayne Lee Gay’s, “Bird of Prey” is one of my favorites. Writing about growing up in a small town on the Oklahoma countryside, Gay says, “In our town, there was a strong sense of the way things should be. . . . Everyone knew the pledge to the flag and stood up for the national anthem.” Moving from scene to scene, using edgy metaphors and vivid descriptions, the story examines the cruelty of humanity and the inner strength necessary to choose one’s own path. For example, Gay bluntly describes one his main characters, Lila Begley: “Her reddish-orange hair, the color of the bird-of-paradise pod, had been carefully curled in a style that had gone out of fashion several decades earlier, when Shirley Temple reached puberty.” Gay proves himself worthy of the David B. Saunders Prize for Creative nonfiction in nearly every sentence. His lyrical style flows with rhythm and imagery. He writes, “Her smile sagged as she realized she was being physically shunned and avoided. . . . No one said anything—no teacher or churchgoing child offered comfort or friendship.”

Cream City Review is one of the better journals on the market for those readers who want writing that is poetic, honest, and edgy. The journal cast its line, and after one issue, I’m hooked.
[www.creamcityreview.org]

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Creative Nonfiction coverCreative Nonfiction

Issue 43

Fall/Winter 2011

Quarterly

Review by Sarah Gorman

The 43rd issue of this award-winning publication packs a punch: not just because of the bold graphic of an automatic pistol on its orange cover or its special section on anger and revenge, but because of the high quality of the writing, the fun with 130-character tweets, and the straight-ahead editorial approach. With the confidence attending decades of success, an enviable reputation, and a star-studded editorial advisory board, the publication rewards the reader by delivering on its promise: “True stories, well told.”

The editors’ decision to feature essays on anger and revenge inspired six talented writers, including Bindu Wiles, in her first published work “Sequelae: The Inner War.” Wiles, who has practiced Buddhism for 20 years, explores the effects of repeated fear and shock on the parasympathetic nervous systems of soldiers.

Sonya Huber, in “Breastfeeding Dick Cheney,” writes about the misuse of power, with Dick Cheney as her poster child. “This is not directly about politics,” she writes. “It is about that fearsome wave of hate.” Other writers focus their outrage on war, rape, abuse, and divorce. As editor Lee Gutkind observes in his column, “there’s a lot to be angry about in our world.”

Seven black, grayscale and orange images illustrate the essays on anger and revenge. In a counterpoint to the theme, a graphic insert with the letters LOVE breaks the text format in an essay on divorce—but wait. The “L” is actually that same automatic pistol illustrating the cover.

The image of a female figure with a ball of flame instead of a head accompanies Mardi Jo Link’s hilarious reminiscence about the end of a 20-year marriage, “Rebecca vs. Mr. Wonderful.” The illustration slyly recalls the dismissive and misogynistic phrase, “a woman with her hair on fire.”

Featured artist Michael Lotenero says that he wanted to make his works in this issue “as physical and emotional as the words that were written”:

I created the bloodlike spatters by throwing paint and coffee- and paint-soaked rags at the canvasses, then I studied the shapes, painting around the textures and marks to form the subjects, making sense and shape of the initial damage.

The last phrase of the artist’s statement provides an apt description of the accomplishment of the writers themselves. Their fluent, precise, and honest explorations of material that most of us would prefer to avoid thinking about both challenge and delight.

Outside the anger and revenge theme, short takes include an article by Ned Stuckey-French which recommends one outstanding essay from each decade of the 20th century. There is also a reprint of winners in the magazine’s daily @cnftweet contest. These charmers include: “No pants on, hollers the 86-year-old landlord to his tenant from the faded blue La-Z-Boy, ‘Just leave the check at the door.’” And “Before the storm we bathe, wash clothes and dishes, cleansing our lives in anticipation of a water shortage—or the rapture, I guess.”

An interview by Lee Gutkind reveals a theme of anger and revenge with Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team and A Dream which inspired the award winning television show. He is also the author of “Shattered Glass,” an article in Vanity Fair that exposed Stephen Glass’s fraud as a “journalist.” In the interview, Bissinger admits that because of his outspoken interviews and tweets “people do run from [him].” Nevertheless, Bissinger says he likes being outspoken: “I think that’s the way you should do it. I can be excessive. I know that. But more, in my mind, is always better than less as long as it is honest and from the heart, not some TMZ gotcha.”

Bissinger acknowledges that he suffers from the self-doubt and loneliness that can plague the writing process, and that he has “always been haunted and fascinated by people who have had early success [referencing Friday Night Lights] and then don’t have second acts.” Bissinger is morally outraged by writers who game the system, taking satisfaction in exposing Glass and Augusten Burroughs. He is angered by nonfiction writers and journalists who make stuff up, eluding the fact-checkers and publishers who don’t want to know the truth because they are looking ahead to big sales. Gutkind doesn’t ask Bissinger to compare himself to Jonathan Swift, but a pleasantly sulphurou air of the Swiftian hovers over this interview.

Philip Lopate contributes a thoughtful piece about doing research called “Show and Tell.” Lopate says that even memoirs and personal essays may require the writer to engage in research at some point but not to think of it as drudgery. Research, he says, “can bring a broader significance to your personal story” and “helps you break out of self-absorption and understand that you are not the only one who has passed down this road.” Lopate suggests that you don’t have to become a specialist in your research, you just need to learn enough to make your writing interesting.

The 14-member editorial advisory board includes Annie Dillard, Dave Eggers, Edwidge Danticat, Jonathan Franzen, Susan Orlean, Gay Talese, and Francine Prose. What else do you need to know about Creative Nonfiction?
[www.creativenonfiction.org]

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Fractured West coverFractured West

Number 3

2011

Review by Shannon Smith

Fractured West is a new, innovative journal for flash fiction. Although sponsored in part by a grant from Creative Scotland, it features writers from all over. Fractured West’s editor says, “We want readers to see things in a different way. For this, we need writers who write things in a different way,” and the intricate, precise prose found in this sleight journal, in a pocket-sized, compact format, proves that they have found writers who present different delight after different delight.

This issue of Fractured West is subtitled “the pull of distance,” and while that theme haunts the issue, it is interpreted in myriad ways and proves to be more of a loose connection than a strict theme. The editorial statement that opens the journal reads, “Issue 3 is made of bees and cookies and thunderclaps, bra straps and gastropods and fire.” That twee tone also afflicts many of the pieces in this issue, but because they are flash fictions, and thus short, the tone never quite sits around long enough to become too annoying, or too cloying.

There are just over 20 pieces of flash fiction in this issue, and it would be impossible to make wide generalizations about them, for, aside from all being short, they are quite varied. Many of them, however, do share a fondness for wordplay and a deep consciousness of word choice and use. Jonathan Mack’s “Big Help,” one of the earlier pieces in the journal, showcases this, telling a story about a woman who does not want any sort of help—not generic, “modest help,” like going out for coffee lending someone grocery money. Instead, she wants “big help . . . massive, major and gigantic help.”

“Jack,” by Phillip English, features the twisted sense of humor that flash fiction often delves into. Shortly after giving birth, a mother is handed her baby to hold. The mother thinks, “I close my eyes and explore the topology of his precious head with my fingers, gliding over the subtle bumps and ridges as I note the most prominent areas.” She imagines him becoming a soldier and thinks that is not fitting, and so she begins to “work the soft skull of [her] newborn like clay. Under the harsh hospital lights [she is] a sculptor, gently kneading [her] son’s future” into “the skull of a jack-of-all-trades.” The baby begins to cry, and is taken away from her; it seems that the baby is not harmed, as the mother cannot detect even the impression of her fingernails upon his skull, but the story shows the flights of fancy and hope that new mothers have for their children. This jumping between the real and unreal is pervasive in this issue.

The titles of the pieces also stand out, with one of my favorites being “Avoidance Behaviour” by Lam Pham. It’s a very strong, emotionally charged, but understated, fiction piece about a woman who hears a man tapping at her fire escape. She refuses to answer, instead pretending she is deaf and looking into purchasing blinds for her windows. She does, however, choose to answer a knock at her door and, not to give away the ending entirely, opens it to find two men from the police department.

Perhaps the most formally innovative piece in this issue is “Exhibit A,” by Kenny Mooney. “Exhibit A” is a list of library books and the dates they were borrowed, checked out by Clive Marchmont and obtained by Court Order now that the disappearance of his wife and children is being investigated. The books add up to suspicion—books on poisons and landscape gardening—but there are a few more innocuous books scattered in between to make an incomplete puzzle.

Overall, Fractured West, with its focus on short fiction, is a welcome new journal. The pieces veer from serious to kooky and are generally quite surprising and pleasing.
[www.fracturedwest.com]

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The Georgia Review coverThe Georgia Review

Volume 65 Number 4

Winter 2011

Quarterly

Review by Ken Brosky

The Winter 2011 issue is something of a special one, special in two ways, actually. First, there’s the actual content, which is anchored by a nonfiction piece and a fiction piece by Harry Crews The opportunity for connection was too great to pass up, and rightfully so: the editors of The Georgia Review were able to treat readers with an excerpt from Crews’s novel The Gospel Singer, featuring a character inspired by the very events in Crews’s nonfiction piece.

The other way in which this issue is special is my own reading circumstance. I happened to read the journal on an airplane sitting next to a very grumpy woman who was making far more notes in her copy of a trashy romance novel than I was in this fine literary journal (her notes, I noticed, were hardly of the intellectual sort). But because I was reading on an airplane, it got me thinking along a very morbid line: which of the works featured in The Georgia Review would I continue reading should the airplane find itself in a precipitous freefall?

The first poem that truly struck me was “Got to Stop” by Coleman Barks. The slick rhythm and distinct images are what really stands out: “This existing has got to stop. / This assuming of an audience. This taking of medicines.” Lines like these had my eyes jumping downward almost too quickly.

Likewise, Carol Frost’s poem “Muse” invokes a feeling of warmth and her lines roll off the tongue: “when cat purr was no poorer than word to form / what mind realizes of the world under the world.”

Ann Pancake’s “Mouseskull” is a fantastic short story about a young girl who wears a mouse skull necklace and is on the precipice of learning something new about her grandfather’s death. She interacts with a drunk named Ham who knew her grandfather, and, as they interact more, you sense that the narrator feels out of place, maybe because things are deliberately kept from her or maybe because death simply isn’t talked about in an open sort of way. As a result, the narrator and the other kids inhabiting the story seem lost in a third place, a place where death is determined by Ouija Boards and other destinies. This story is an incredibly enjoyable first-person piece of prose that methodically draws out its story in a way that complements the narrator’s adolescence.

Eugenie Torgerson’s artwork is the centerpiece of the issue and shines especially in “Sign of the Season” and “The Horizon Presents Itself,” two digital composites that combine destination with scene and use autumn colors that felt so dry I wanted to ask the flight attendant for a second little cup of water. I was drawn to these pieces specifically because, like the cover picture, Torgerson invokes a sense of the known-unknown . . . are we lost in this scene, or have we found it? The map seems almost hidden away, and yet the moment you start staring at it, it threatens to become the foreground.

The works by Harry Crews are a mixed bag, depending on one’s preference. I personally enjoy reading about authors’ inspirations for their fictional works, and so Crews’s nonfiction piece about a stay at the YMCA after a long bike ride had a special place in my heart. In, “We Are All of Us Passing Through,” Crews writes in a conversational tone, with descriptive prose that jumps off the page at times (“It made me feel good, invincible, to limp down a sidewalk with that left boot shooting a few sparks and making a loud and unseemly noise.”). Other times, Crews pulls it back into something you might expect someone to say over a beer (“The worst thing that could happen to you at the YMCA was that you’d get sucked off.”). This combination works perfectly for the story he tells.

For those who would rather immerse themselves in the fiction and avoid the author’s motivations, inspirations, and all the other baggage along with it, I would recommend skipping over to Crews’s excerpt from The Gospel Singer. In this, a “pious” man debates skirmishing with a hungry dog and recounts the somewhat devilish events that have led him to be the manager for the Gospel Singer. The man is a fantastic character, made even more interesting when considering the familiarities with the nonfiction character Crews wrote about in his essay. It shows how real life experience can influence fiction writing. In one passage, the manager justifies murder:

That was what Mr. Keene, the Gospel Singer’s former business manager, had never understood. He could not understand the necessity for penance, for the obligation to direct and control the Gospel Singer’s soul, and therefore Mr. Keene could not understand why he, Didymus, had to have Mr. Keene’s job as business manager to the Gospel Singer. The only thing to do had been to kill him.

The passage made me want to check out Crews’s book, as well as the short documentary on him that’s available through Indieflix.

There’s more, too, good enough to keep me glued to the journal even if the plane were to take a less fortuitous path to the ground. Poetry by Elton Glaser and Albert Goldbarth. Marguerite W. Sullivan’s story “Notes from a Domestic Scene,” in which a wife begins to take studious notes on her husband as if he’s the subject of an experiment (one of the end goals, perhaps, is to determine an accurate measurement of her commitment). Topping it off is a review by Baynard Woods, on two science books, that’s easy to read and incredibly fascinating. Woods has a way with writing that makes his words feel inviting.
[thegeorgiareview.com]

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Gulf Coast coverGulf Coast

Volume 24 Issue 1

Winter/Spring 2012

Biannual

Review by Joseph Bradbury

The Winter/Spring issue of Gulf Coast is a pearl. This issue contains the 2011 Gulf Coast Prizes awarded to Brian Van Reet (fiction), Arianne Zwartjes (nonfiction), and Amaranth Borsuk (poetry), not to mention dozens of other poets, six other short fiction stories, and six nonfiction essays. This tome-azine also includes four interviews, seven translations, two reviews, and a collection of high-gloss color photographs including a centerfold of Cy Twombly work, which is also featured on the cover.

With the plethora of work in this issue, it’s difficult to decide what to zero in on, so I chose some with the coolest titles.

In “Live Nude Essay!” by Joe Bonomo, his medium becomes the message when he imagines the autobiographical essay like a thirteen-year-old boy adoring his older sister’s best friend: “I’m thinking of the clothed essay versus the nude essay. The clothed essay prizes craft and subtlety, evocation and song . . . The nude essay spreads its legs and the gesture of seeming confession is mistaken for content.” While Bonomo condemns the nude essay, he uses a section of the piece (a 20-line sentence) to demonstrate what he could have written about, from his first erection to fantasizing about his sister. By negating what he could have written, he shows us how the nude essay exposes but doesn’t reveal, bares but doesn’t disclose. It’s as if someone put E.M. Forster and a Hustler magazine in a blender and hit purée.

Graham Foust continues the strange in “OK Full Professor,” which will resonate with every graduate student this time of year. It begins: “I don’t mind your boring the fuck out of me. Backbone tucked behind the curtain of my lungs,” and ends with the beleaguered student gazing out the window at the spring trees.

We have all stared at leaves twisting in the wind, but Foust implores us to look differently, to manage the depth. Foust has two poems in the collection. The second piece, “Vicarious,” examines his thoughts on having children, and the inherent pain of responsibility.

In her personal essay “Sugar,” Chidelia Edochie takes the reader deep into her past, weaving between her father’s suicide and her online-dating-prostitution while attending NYU. She moves from sugar daddy to sugar daddy while examining her own obsession with money and her resentment for her neglectful father. “People don’t believe me when I say I did it purely for the money . . . We are not allowed to simply like money, not allowed to be willing to do whatever it takes to get some . . . without it being some character flaw.” Her prose is honest without implying guilt. Edochie informs the reader, matter-of-factly, and reaches her revelations with us. We don’t condemn her for her unsavory past but rather examine the price we pay for money, for love, for sex, for comfort.

This is more than just a solid lit mag, Gulf Coast reminds us that not only is the writing community in America alive, it’s thriving.
[www.gulfcoastmag.org]

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The Iowa Review coverThe Iowa Review

Volume 41 Number 3

Winter 2011/2012

Triannual

Review by Shannon Smith

The Iowa Review is one of the longer running literary journals in the U.S. It continually puts out excellent issues, and this edition is no exception. The editor’s note starts with a musing about St. Basil’s Cathedral and how its construction can be a metaphor for constructing each issue of the journal. That is, the people who do the shaping (editors, etc.) are kept in the background, but if a viewer scuttles close to the wall (or, a reader, the interior of the journal), its structure becomes palpable and its “shapes and colors” are made “that much sharper.” It seems that if one scuttles up close to the construction of this issue, two superb stories with a certain theme connected to misplaced or misunderstood sex become apparent.

The first is the opening story, Bradley Bazzle’s “Magellan,” which utilizes real characters from one of Magellan’s journeys on the Trinidad. There is Pigafetta, who is keeping a journal of the journey, and a former slave turned interpreter whom Magellan calls “Henrique.” Magellan is portrayed as a cruel master, and the condition of people on the ship is poor, with the few who are still alive barely hanging on to life. Near the end of the story, the crew strikes land, and Magellan brings Henrique to the island as a translator. Henrique takes advantage of the opportunity, leading Magellan to reveal his penis and ultimately end in his death. Henrique returns to the ship with food, and Pigafetta amends his journal, removing references to Henrique as inhumane. “Magellan,” which ranges from bleak to humorous, is a creative meditation on what is contained and what is erased from the historical record.

The other stand-out story is Chris Offutt’s “Eclipse.” This issue also contains an extended interview with Offutt, in which he is revealed to be a talkative interviewee with strong opinions on many subjects, including writing workshops and revision. “Eclipse” is a story with masterfully constructed asides that takes an unusual shape, running from the surreal to the more normal. More often, stories tend to begin in the less surreal and then grow more surreal as they progress; this story proceeds in the opposite direction.

The narrator, a man five years into his marriage, returns home from a trip to the hardware to store to find his wife, Carol, baking and wearing an extremely large and lifelike black dildo that he believes is much bigger than his own penis. In a careful detail, the narrator wonders first, not about the dildo, but about why the “color black always seem[s] to flare white in the sun.” It then hits him that he’s “wondering about the physics of light instead of the obvious”—that is, that he has no idea where the dildo came from or why his wife is wearing it. It is small details and observations like that one—observations that run counter to the reader’s expectations—that make this story an intricate, offbeat read. This story is a ride on a bender into uncertainty, a story that never loses its footing, but never allows the readers to believe that they know what will come next.

In addition to those two stand-out stories, there are a few other notable features of this issue; primarily the work of the winners of the 2011 Iowa Review Awards: John Van Kirk (fiction), Emily Van Kley (poetry) and Helen Phillips (nonfiction). None of these pieces are what one might call simply “easy reading”; they are sharp, astute and interesting.

Van Kirk’s story, “Landscape with Boys,” is an emotional piece about boys and the trouble they get into as well as the trouble they avoid. Its setting is timeless and haunting. Helen Phillips’s challenging “Life Care Center” explores the narrator’s complex reaction to visiting her sister, who “may or may not be dying” in a “Life Care Center.” The piece is dark, but not barren or devoid of hope.

Emily Van Kley’s poetry is deeply idiosyncratic and explorative. My favorite of hers, “Premises,” starts off, “She drove a truck. It wasn’t / a question.” It’s a nonjudgmental, descriptive piece about a woman who seems to be security guard at Kmart, a woman who bags Bud Light cans for deposit money when she’s not working. Van Kley’s imagery is precise and even-keeled. Her writing explores segments of society often left underexposed.

The runner-up nonfiction piece for the 2011 Iowa Review Awards, Maria Rapoport’s “City by the Woods,” explores a youngster’s early life in Russia and an emigration that her parents didn’t tell her about until the move was on, or nearly over. The essay evokes and explores the power of a hazy memory and the effect of trying to recreate a past with only photographs as a guide.

Overall, this issue of The Iowa Review contains all sorts of facets, a building with many sides, as the editors allude to; but all told, together it holds up marvelously.
[iowareview.uiowa.edu]

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The MacGuffin coverThe MacGuffin

Volume 28 Number 2

Winter 2012

Triannual

Review by John Palen

A short story, a piece of flash fiction, and the winners of the magazine’s 16th National Poet Hunt are the cream of the crop in this issue of The MacGuffin, which comes out three times a year at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan.

The short story is Guinotte Wise’s “Cold Beer,” a perfectly realized tale of a self-absorbed 15-year-old boy’s scary introduction to the real world. Jeff starts the day digging a hole for a septic tank at his uncle’s farm. A sexy young woman walks into his life, and they get drunk together. But before he can properly sober up, she’s gone. Maybe she’s at the bottom of that hole he dug, now suspiciously filled. Maybe his uncle killed her. In any case, I’ll be keeping an eye out for more work by Wise, a Kansas City-area writer, welded-steel sculptor and advertising creative director.

My favorite of several flash fiction pieces is Christine Kramer’s “Letting It Fly.” Less than a week after the death of their father, Linda realizes that brother Richie plans to turn Papa’s beloved tomato greenhouse into a marijuana farm. She finds a sledgehammer in the tool shed and sets out to prevent the desecration. In less than a thousand words, we learn all we need to know about this scarred family and the strength that enables Linda to settle scores and move on from her violent, lying, abusive, whiskey-smelling brother. Kramer, in addition to writing well, runs an online gallery that spotlights Central Ohio artists.

Retired community college teacher Barbara Saunier began writing poetry only in 2005. The speaker of her winning poem, “My Body, This Aging Cheese,” is Gaugin’s model for a painting once criticized as “homely and vulgar.” The poem’s strengths are its fidelity to the physicality of its subject, and its refusal of sentimentality. Looking out of the canvas at her critics, the model says:

This curdled lap,
these clotted breasts slough
their tuts and rancid glances.
If our intent had been a pose, I’d have
sat this unmade bed like a throne.

Saunier is represented by a second fine poem, “When the Same Christmas Card Arrives From the Same Friend Two Years Running.” Honorable Mentions are “The Color of Pleasure” by Liza Young, and “Hunger Moon” by Sharron Singleton all selected by Michigan poet Terry Blackhawk, judge.

Other notable work in this issue includes short stories by Vishwas R. Gaitonde, “The Lady Who Drank Mouthwash,” and Lawrence F. Farrar, “Sunshine and a Bit Warmer”; poems “Dixie” by Camille Stranger, and “The Sixth Floor” by Jennifer Dorfman;” and Angie Pickman’s cut-paper art on the cover and inside.
[www.schoolcraft.edu/macguffin/]

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Mid-American Review coverMid-American Review

Volume 31 Number 2

Biannual

Review by Kristin Ladd

The Mid-American Review’s most recent volume seems to catch the reader in that moment between sleeping and waking, grieving and surviving, forgetting and knowing. A dream-like quality pervades the fiction, nonfiction, and poetry chosen by its editors, who claim to be “on the lookout for work that has the power to move and astonish us while displaying the highest level of craft.” Faculty and Masters students from Bowling Green State University’s MFA program in Ohio weave together each piece to create a state of reverie from the very first pages.

Mark Mayer, a featured fiction writer, captures the elusive character of the volume with the first lines of his short story, “The Evasive Magnolio.” Mayer writes, “the thought came to Stony [a circus veterinarian] that maybe the elephant wasn’t truly and fully dead. A little dead, but not the whole way through.” The reader is taken into the world of Goodland, a town encumbered by dust, drought, and famine but that still attempts to survive. The town, fueled by its cannibalistic children and their fascination with ghosts, draws the reader into a world that is hollow and frightening. Though nightmarish, we are drawn to keep reading till the very last rise of dust, “the dust that rose was far too think and far too fast encroaching” for the any being, even an elephant, to hide from.

The alarming quality of Mayer’s piece sets the tone for the rest of the volume. Expressed perfectly by the volume’s featured poet, Tarfia Faizullah, in “Interviewer’s Note,” when she asks, “It is possible to live without / memory Nietzsche said but / is it possible to live with it?” This question, in reference to her poetry that highlights Faizullah’s Fulbright research in Bangladesh, seems to have been created for other pieces in the volume. She quotes Paul Célan in the introduction to her collection, “Everything is near and unforgotten,” as if to shake the reader into reading between the lines. She wants the reader to discover the pain of her poetry and, by extension, the distress in the essays and poetry the rest of the volume generously offers.

M. Ann Hull’s nonfiction piece, “Sound is a wave of pressure,” speaks to this question most acutely. What at first appears to be a study on sound gradually moves into a powerful lyric work on living with memories of domestic abuse. “Normal conversation,” she writes, “measures up to 65 dB. I’m an adult who tells her husband: A violent home has its volume turned up . . . A prayer, if whispered, measures 30 dB.” In reading, we hear in her words that same desire to shake the reader from their dream or understanding of reality into a deeper understanding of self and truth.

A curious and attractive compilation that results in a fine display of the written word, this volume of the Mid-American Review interweaves interesting pieces that will cause you to critically reflect on reality. It will make you face some of the seedier and twisted aspects of the human mind and human capability in a way you never thought you’d like, but do. It’s as if the words from the 2010-2011 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award First Prize winner, Lydia Fitzpatrick’s, piece “Flood Lines” were written to express exactly how you will feel after finishing the volume: “We screamed at each other, felt our mouths fill, felt suddenly the way you can melt into the world.” You will not be burnt out by the struggles the pieces express, but ignited, ready to “melt into the world” of Mid-American Review.
[bgsu.edu/midamericanreview]

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New Letters coverNew Letters

Volume 78 Number 1

Fall 2011

Quarterly

Review by Diantha Smith

In his editor’s note, Robert Stewart reveals that this most recent issue of New Letters may “expose idealists among us.” Those idealists certainly include the martyr poet Jose Domingo Gomez Rojas. His poetry inspired Pablo Neruda and, more recently, New Letters contributors Thomas E. Kennedy and Raymond B. Craib. Through their fiction, essays, and translation of Rojas’s poems, Kennedy and Craib give us the opportunity to hear the voice Chile’s prisons could not silence, the “tender cry that still beats in cradles, / Of the divine voices that vibrate in the pure / sky beneath the light of virgin moons.”

Of course, idealists are not limited to revolutionaries from Chile. As the editor explains, New Letters authors and artists from around the world share their dreams “as aspirants, mostly, unsure and often humble.” This combination of hope and insecurity is especially evident in the memoir written by Clarissa Hay titled “Queens of Pain.” As Hay tells her story, we simultaneously learn about her complicated journey toward identity and the world of women’s roller derbies in New York. According to Hay, roller derbies have become the outlet for women who want to be both tomboys and princesses: a place to “hit other women . . . play dress up, [and] be a rock star.” At the end of Hay’s narrative, I found myself wanting to cheer, not just because it’s another underdog story, but because becoming one of the Queens of Pain—a path anyone who’s endured the rocky road to womanhood can relate to—led her to a re-imagine her ideal self and find “pure, unadulterated bliss.”

Other idealists’ struggles are represented in poems, fiction and artwork throughout the volume. Some of the best include Albert Goldbarth’s “Earth” and “Diminutive for Grand” where Goldbarth reminds us of the paradox between our insignificance and our power to change the world in a moment of “sheer bullheaded decency.”

Another side of human nature is explored in Phong Nguyen’s short fiction story “My Hand Is My Cup.” Nguyen reminds us how war can crush idealism, even long after the blood has dried and the fighting has finished. The issue of conflict can also be found in Margo Berdeshevsky’s collection of photographs from the series Occupy Paris. One of her most striking photos is the negative image titled “Ideas + Dreams.” The reverse of light and dark gives each person’s face an eerie quality that suggests the dystopian societies found in science fiction novels like 1984 and Brave New World. Berdeshevesky’s choice to flip the image allows the photo to become a metaphor for the lower class’ desire to reverse their economic situation and close the gap between the very wealthy and the very poor.

Whether their messages are haunting or hopeful, the writers and artists in this edition of New Letters reveal both the joy and pain of humanity’s struggle for the ideal in a far from ideal world.
[www.newletters.org]

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Ninth Letter coverNinth Letter

Volume 8 Number 2

Fall/Winter 2011−2012

Biannual

Review by Hazel Foster

Ninth Letter has a reputation. It’s the exuberant, popular-as-a-result-of-being-odd kid on this gigantic playground of literary magazines. It’s the kid you want to camp out with, eating cheese puffs and limeade, snorting over politically fueled fart jokes that are at the same time above your understanding and hilarious. The front and back covers offer photographic evidence of what this kid might look like at his senior prom, ironically carrying an orchid and non-ironically wearing a glittered turtleneck under a glittered blazer. But once you get past this exterior, this metaphorical playground persona, the brilliance of the work inside dominates all reputation. The fiction, nonfiction, poetry, art are some of the finest I have experienced all year. I read each piece with energy and took each one as inspiration and aspiration.

I must say that each and every piece in this issue is worth reading. “Tethers” by Logan Adams appeals to the Winter’s Bone lovers with its grim story of two boys who run away after the death of their mother. Michele Morano’s essay “Crushed” explores the tensions of adult-child crushes through the complexity of her attentions to a young student. “The Ascendants” by Joe B. Sills, a simple older brother-younger brother tale, experiments with craft and absurdity, stringing out a seemingly endless list of older brothers with A names—Anthony, Archie, Abe, Alex, Arthur—coupled with a plural first person point of view. “Safelight” by E.B. Vandiver, “Take Her to a Place She Knows” by Jesse Damiani, “Arranged Marriage, As Coffee Field” by Jehanne Dubrow, and “Self-Portrait As Love in Mississippi” by Roger Reeves are all expertly crafted pieces that I enjoyed beyond expression.

Above all, though, you must read Theodore Kitaif’s “Pictures,” a blend of nonfiction and fiction, delving into the fascinating back-story of Oskar Kokoschka’s painting Woman in Blue. As revealed in this narrative essay, the artist commissioned a life-sized doll to serve both as inspiration for the painting and as replacement for lost loves. Kokoschka writes to the doll-maker:

Yesterday I sent you a life-size picture of my beloved one, which I beg you to imitate nicely, and, mobilizing all your patience and sensuality, to transport it into reality. Please make it possible for the touch to enjoy those parts where fat or muscles suddenly give way to sinews, and where the bone penetrates to the surface, like the shinbone.

Kokoschka’s letters become increasingly bizarre in their wish for intimacy with the doll and its creation. Over this historical oddity, Kitaif finesses a layer of fiction; he invents an American filmmaker who investigates the doll and Kokoschka and imagines a movie he might make based on his findings. The filmmaker details scenes in the movie that speak of reality, such as Kokoschka’s reaction when he first viewed the doll. The filmmaker also muses on the back story of artistic works in general, relaying the underlying concept of the piece. And of course, there is yet another layer, the reader will wonder about Theodore Kitaif in a similar way. The essay is printed as photographs of the actual manuscript pages sent to Ninth Letter. The editors explain that Kitaif is elusive, without email, using a post office box for correspondence, but that neither this, nor the hand-corrected typed pages were the reasons for publishing it:

Ultimately, it was the story’s push towards creation—of breathing life into a thing that once had none—and the many ways in which artists might fail in that endeavor (and the irony that Mr. Kitaif does not fail in his own creative endeavor) that we decided that this story deserved a greater audience.

These editorial asides populate the issue. The editors explain that they’re “pulling back the curtain just a bit, to give you a peek at how the collective mind of 9L works when [they] put an issue together.” These “peeks” make the issue more intimate, displaying the minds behind the issue.

The level of work, the attention to layout and design, the overall sense that the editors invested more than just time into the creation of a reading experience, all speaks to the beauty and magnitude that is Ninth Letter.
[www.ninthletter.com]

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Ploughshares coverPloughshares

Volume 37 Number 4

Winter 2011-2012

Triannual

Review by Kenneth Nichols

Ploughshares is one of the most prominent literary journals on the market because of its long tradition of quality and ability to publish and discover leading writers. The journal is also notable for its practice of working with guest editors for each issue. Alice Hoffman, the editor, has taken the reins of this issue and presents work unified by a simple but powerful theme: the glorification of the storyteller present inside each of us.

Hoffman begins her issue with an introduction in which she rejects the common adage that a writer must chronicle what he or she knows. Those who put pen to paper “take the world we know and we reshape it. In doing so we see behind veils, beneath doors, through the dark glass of the past. What we are left with is a circle of shining light, a creation that is both the miracle and the charm, something one must share to give it any worth at all, a story.”

When he is not chasing Spider-man around New York City or adding some gusto to the daytime soap opera, James Franco puts his extensive education in literature and creative writing to good use. The first-person narrator of “The Deer” employs appropriately simple sentences to tell a story upon which he, as a young man, may not be able to deeply reflect. (A level of self-understanding common to most teenagers, as I recall.) In third-period biology, he dissects a piglet:

It was sick. My partner was Meena Cohen. She screeched when I cut open the piglet. I cut off the pig’s head, even though I wasn’t supposed to, and she screeched a whole bunch more. There were a lot of screeches all over the room, so Meena wasn’t alone.

The resolution of the story seems to indicate that Franco is considering the timeless relationship between young men and the violence their maturing bodies are able to visit upon the world.

Philip Schultz’s poem “Hitting and Getting Hit” explores a similar theme: man’s unbroken cycle of violence and his inhumanity to those around him. The narrator, a Jewish man looking back on his childhood, describes the trouble he had with bullies, anti-Semitic and otherwise. At various times, his peers made fun of his stutter, hung him from trees, and scrawled an epithet on his forehead in black lipstick. His father, a man who struck back against religious persecution, gave good advice: “Know who to be afraid of, son.” Schultz manipulates his lines in a powerful way; they begin short and somewhat calm, building in intensity, emotion, and length until he depicts his narrator at the breaking point.

Alexandra Marshall’s thoughtful profile of Alice Hoffman isolates some of the themes that motivate the author’s work. In addition to investing herself deeply in her characters, Hoffman “is concerned with the urgent need of women and girls to become independent” and “is about resisting a set of fixed limitations.” Through her characters, Hoffman considers escape from dire external threats as well as counterproductive internal motivations.

These themes can also be found in much of the work Hoffman chose; Ruth Blank’s “Tomato Season” tells the story of a recent widow who struggles to reassert control after she moves in with her married daughter. In “Girl Skipping Rope,” Wally Lamb presents the brief but potent autobiography of a man who dreamt of being an artist in spite of his humble immigrant upbringing.

This issue of Ploughshares concludes with material that is quite valuable to our writing community: a reprint and restoration of George Starbuck’s late-1970s interview with Elizabeth Bishop and reviews of several books, including the latest efforts from Susan Conley and Denis Johnson. Ploughshares seems to recognize and accept its place in the writing community. In addition to presenting new works and new authors, the journal also takes the time (and devotes page space) to putting contemporary literature into its proper context.
[www.pshares.org]

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The Quotable coverThe Quotable

Issue 4

Winter 2012

Quarterly

Review by Denise Hill

Themed “Beginnings & Endings,” this is a slim but tightly packed journal. Though fiction takes precedence, the overarching editorial preference is for strong character development, regardless of genre. This also lends itself to exploring relationships, but thankfully, the theme does not draw upon clichéd beginnings and endings. Instead, editors have selected works that blur these boundaries, reach for them but fall uncomfortably short, and force the reader to accept that there are rarely clean starts and finishes in life.

Of the fiction, once I turned the final page, my memory immediately returned to the opening short, Dave Rudden’s “Pandora.” This succinct work chronicles the “punishment” of Pandora for having opened the box—where she is now entombed. Since hers is an immortal life, any longing for beginnings and endings is lost, leaving the reader as much in limbo as her predicament.

The next I was most drawn into were the two final stories: “A Writer’s Masterpiece” by Alexander N. Tan Jr., set in his native city of Manila, and “excerpt from Sandino’s Bones,” which takes place amid the sugar fields of Nicaragua where author Matthew Hutchinson has lived and worked. Tan’s piece jump cuts from Ernesto’s impoverished youth from which he seeks escape to his post-war return home where he finds the effects of war have taken a chilling turn on the mental health of his extended family. Manila’s piece is another which explores the psychology of impoverished living and the abuses of a nation on its people. Both narratives cross between realism and surreal, in the same way the minds of their characters must also have to cross lines simply to survive their daily lives.

The Quotable provides space for both the long and the short when it comes to stories. On the long side, “Can’t See the Fence for the Weeds” by Tarah Gibbs is given a dozen pages to develop the strained and uncomfortable relationship between the cool kid character, Jimmy, and his nemesis, the mental impaired adult. Though I thought I knew where this story was going, I was pleasantly let down by the awkward ending Jimmy has to experience—providing no resolution, no clean ending. And why should there be?

To the shorter end of the spectrum, “The Foreign Film” by Lennart Lundh is one of those enjoyable rare glimpses I have sometimes seen in my adolescent male students’ writing, when the character/author shows the emotional capacity so often obscured by social expectations of masculinity. Out on a first date, the male character relishes in small touches—“That simple touch electrified my body and drove the cold out of my bones.”—and gentle sensuality—“I forgot about the world beyond her lips and the press of her body to mine.” It’s just so damn sweet and real, that in a page and a half, I wanted this guy to get the girl because she’d be so lucky to have him. Alas.

And then, immediately following (nice editorial choice), is Tammie Elliott’s subtle yet heart wrenching “The Last Knife,” in which the wife character seeks drastic release from her married life, from her husband who “climb[s] on top of her Saturday nights, his beer breath and sweaty skin making it difficult for her to breathe.” And so she vows, as she washes the dishes: “If it’s here, if the knife is still in the water, today will be the day.” Alas.

The overall sense of this issue was dark, pensive. Even Eirik Gumeny’s “Twenty Minutes,” a playfully curious story, built upon the premise of the first line: “Every twenty minutes I die.” It would be funnier if it wasn’t also so frightening to consider, which, of course, combines for pure delight in such lives as:

This other time, I was born directly in the path of a bus. One second of fear, one second of panic, then nineteen minutes and fifty-eight seconds laying in a crosswalk in excruciating agony.
I was born in a tiger cage once, too. Ended pretty much the same way. Except for the crosswalk part.

Of the poetry, I wish I could say more. The offerings were few in number, but great in impact. Kirby Wright’s “The Widow from Lake Bled, Slovenia,” imparts clear imagery and emotion that spans the time associated with war and loss, ending with “She remembers midnights with him / In a world erasing shadows.” Kevin J.B. O’Connor’s “Kitchen Flight,” which is dedicated “after Melville,” will clearly be a hit with Melville fans who will appreciate references to Starbuck, the Pequod, Queequeg, and of course, Ishmael, as they find themselves unwittingly rapt in the “deranged plan” of Captain Ahab. Lastly, Janet Butler’s “The End of the Affair” finishes out the poetry offerings with a sober consideration of exactly what the title indicates.
[thequotablelit.com]

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Ruminate coverRuminate

Issue 22

Winter 2011–12

Quarterly

Review by Diantha Smith

Although I had read some of well-known Christian author C.S. Lewis’s books, I didn’t realize until I watched the movie Shadowlands that Lewis wasn’t always a believer. The movie captures part of his struggle with faith in a simple, but striking quote: “I have no answers anymore: only the life I have lived.” The contributors to Ruminate come from a variety of Christian denominations, but their messages in the Winter 2011–12 issue all seem to resonate with this quote from Shadowlands. Whether they choose to address the magazine’s theme “Up in the Air” literally or figuratively, they rely on the authenticity of their experience rather than the authority of scripture to explain their devotion. Instead of offering answers, they offer us glimpses into every day, uncertain, and often uneasy lives.

One of the most literal approaches to exploring lives that are “Up in the Air” is represented throughout the magazine in the paintings of Micah Bloom. On the cover, two angels reach out to grab a small child who is not only in the air, but also upside down as he falls down a staircase. As Bloom explains in the artist’s note, his work focuses on “the interaction between the corporeal and spiritual, the natural and the supernatural.” While most angels are typically depicted among clouds, Bloom’s angels rush to avert crisis in a suburban living room, a farmer’s field, and other ordinary locations. None of the people in the paintings react to the angels’ presence, nor do we see proof that everything turns out well in the end. However, Bloom’s work seems to reflect the idea that our lives, particularly our disasters, may be far closer to divinity than we think.

Other depictions of divinity in an uncertain world come from the variety of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in Ruminate’s pages. Amanda Leigh Rogers describes her “Up in the Air” moment in the poem “April Snow”: “Looking up into the sifting / I lost my feel for gravity / and almost drifted up.” Her simple lines capture her struggle to deal with the unexpected, particularly when the unexpected replaces something else that she had been hoping for: spring after a long winter.

This theme of broken expectations is echoed in the nonfiction essay “Virgin” by Deja Earley. When getting married and having children takes longer than expected, Earley finds it harder and harder to justify her decision to remain a virgin. Sprinkling in equal parts of humor and heartbreak, Earley takes us past the issue of morality and makes it clear that being a virgin is a simple decision with very complicated results. Like C.S. Lewis, this author cannot give us any easy answers, only the life she has lived.

Ruminate’s subtitle—“chewing on life, faith, and art”—sums up the reason why it can appeal to a wide audience. Readers who chew through its pages will find that this magazine includes, as the editor puts it, just as many “grappling pleas” as “quiet assurances of hope.” The universality of our struggle to survive lives that are “Up in the Air” ensures readers will enjoy this issue, regardless of whether their regular diets are kosher, halal or simply depend on the menu of the local diner.
[www.ruminatemagazine.com]

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Saranac Review coverSaranac Review

Issue 7

2011

Annual

Review by Kenneth Nichols

The image on the cover of this issue of Saranac Review is arresting: a full-bleed shot of moldering books, their pages waterlogged and swollen, their fore edges painted green and brown with several kinds of mold. In an opening note, Editor J.L. Torres points out that the image is taken from an interesting work of art by Steven Daiber, who built a wall of books in a forest in the year 2000 and has been chronicling the books’ decay and slow transformation into compost. The installation begs several questions regarding the relationship between print and digital media. Torres invokes the ideas of Walter Fischer, “a rhetorician who argued that the human species should be called homo narans rather than homo sapiens: narrating man.” Mankind is above all a storytelling creature; the medium may change, but the instinct will not.

The storytellers in this volume often invoke characters that are concerned with the desire to escape. Whether they live in suburbia, Nigeria’s Nkisi River valley, Cairo, or America’s flyover states, these characters inhabit somewhat restrictive worlds that stifle the protagonists’ repeated attempts to create a pleasing self-identity. In her nonfiction piece “Conversations with Samar,” Madeleine Stein describes her long-term friendship with a young Egyptian woman working her way through adolescence. Stein serves as a kind of mentor to Samar for six years, serving as an example of what a bright young woman can become when she defines herself on her own terms. The relationship is rendered in a calm tone that nonetheless reveals Stein’s affection for Samar and her regret at the way the two drifted apart.

Josh Peterson’s short story “Air Supply” immerses the reader in the malaise felt by many Americans in the country’s unofficial lower middle class. The story’s first-person narrator works for an inventory retail company; he meanders through identical Midwestern cities to count products on a never-ending maze of identical shelves. Peterson’s narrator seems numb on the surface, but a torrent of emotion flows underneath, betrayed by the series of childhood memories that frequently come to his mind. Peterson’s story describes the process many men must go through in order to understand their sins and what they must do to atone.

It has long seemed to me that there is a lot of pathos in the literary character of Barabbas: the thief whose sentence of crucifixion was commuted by those gathered at Golgotha. What must it be like to hear Pilate make his offer to the crowd, only to watch Jesus Christ put to death in your place? Even non-believers can appreciate the drama in John F. Buckley’s poem “Ode to Barabbas.” I have to admit that I am partial to rhyme and meter in poetry in addition to the story of Barabbas, so the poem hit the spot. Buckley wonders:

   Do you ever reflect on your
fortune and trickle some drink on the ground, saying,
“Sorry, bro, better you, better than I?” What or whom do you
wrestle, Barabbas, what or who will attend when you die?”

Faith Shearin’s poetry is similarly accessible and entertaining. In “Three Dog Night,” Shearin remembers fondly “the old days, before houses were warm, / people did not sleep alone.” The poem evokes an older and perhaps better time in which humans used fire instead of furnaces to keep themselves comfortable. Her poem “Shade” invites the reader into her parents’ yard where they “let the forest grow wild around their house / so the trees bent protectively over the roof and the ivy / licked the mailbox like flames.” Would it really be so bad if nature reasserts itself in such a way?

In all, the Saranac Review seems proud to offer a way forward for the literary-minded and layman alike. Perhaps most interesting of all, the journal happily acknowledges that, while the American experience is important to an American journal, the human experience spans geographic and political boundaries.
[Plattsburg.edu/saranacreview]

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The Sewanee Review coverThe Sewanee Review

Volume 120 Number 1

Winter 2012

Quarterly

Review by Patrick James Dunagan

William E. Engel’s compliment to J.D. McClatchy’s critical comments included in his Seven Mozart Librettos: A Verse Translation holds true for this issue of the Sewanee Review itself as a whole: “Written in an easygoing prose style, there is something in each section for every kind of reader.” George Bornstein adroitly reminds us readers in his essay on W.B. Yeats the irrevocable delicacy of the fact that “in poetry how something is said is what is said.” And throughout this issue all the writing explores and expounds upon this basic principle further demonstrated by Ben Howard in “Firewood and Ashes”:

whether what you heard
was a clear well-chosen word
or, sometimes, a log
falling with a thud.

In a personal essay Robert Lacy remembers a time when country music “was music to live by.” In the essay, he says, “The music of the underclass had finally arrived, but in the process it had disappeared, having been swallowed up by the great autonomic mulching machine that is American consumer culture. This country has a genius for that.” Lacy’s lament rings notably true and in tandem with Dawn Potter’s claim in her essay on craft that “today poetry has become a career rather than a vocation.” The more poets are drawn into the leveling out of society, the further they get away from the discovery that’s necessary for poems. As Potter declares: “great art grows from the intensity of an artist’s interaction with his or her own life.” Anything less is a backing away, which fails to match the honesty that’s required of a life given over to art: “the artist must make long acquaintance with her days.”

Not everybody finds writing such cozy occupation. Russell Fraser claims Samuel Johnson “wrote to drive away his demons.” While Richard Buffington, in an aside, reports about Allen Tate writing “The Vigil of Venus,” a translation of the late Latin poem Pervigilium Veneris: “It was, like ‘most verse,’ he wrote, introducing the translation, ‘written accidentally.’” And as Jennifer Davis Michael, in her review of Fred Parker’s The Devil as Muse, reminds us, there’s a “perennial and peculiar affinity between the artist and the Devil. By the sheer act of creation, the artist treads dangerously close to Lucifer’s challenge of divine authority.” It is “how poets make use of this adversarial muse” which absorbs Parker’s study and leaves Michael to admit that “The suggestion that a writer who has encountered the Devil thereafter ‘lives between two worlds’ is provocative.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise so many writers are haunted in one way or another and entertain favorable feelings toward the occult and mysterious. Henry Hart shares that Ted Hughes saw “rituals, the machinery of religion” as a means to maintain control over his work. Ann E. Berthoff keys readers in on the friendship of Kathleen Raine and Margarett Fay Shaw as being spurred on by “a fervent interest in the occult” and that “at least a third of their correspondence” is taken up with “cats—their names and antics, injuries and progeny, but most of all their role as beast-companions.” Being “women of imagination; each had invented a life” and recognized in each other attributes of an admirable artist. Similarly, Hart reports that Seamus Heaney says of Hughes, “I’m a different kind of animal from Ted,” and yet acknowledges he feels “secured by his work and his way of being in the world.” And “Heaney was as aware as Hughes that wounds can be dangerous muses, destroying as well as stimulating creativity.”

In a short review, Robert Lacy covers Alexandra Styron’s memoir of her father, the novelist William Styron, and recalls, “‘My father used to scare the crap out of me,’ she told the mourners at a memorial service for him in 2007, and then she related how he used to come into her room at night and tell her stories about ghosts and demons.” And David Yezzi establishes “a disparity between seeing ‘things’ and seeing beyond them” in his analysis of Louise Gluck’s poetry and notes: “How a visionary poet responds to this disparity between the material world and the eternal often becomes their defining feature, informing both their worldview and even their style.” Thus echoing Bornstein’s description of how Yeats came to find his early poems as “almost all a flight into fairy land, from the real world” and in his later work felt he must force himself into “a movement downwards upon life, not upwards out of life.” Of course, maintaining one’s own relation to “life” is essential less the poet falls into what Fraser notes as being Johnson’s measure of Milton that “he lacked the vast experience of the physical world that empowered the ancient epic poets. He lacked ‘human interest.’” One thing the Sewanee Review does not lack.
[www.sewanee.edu/sewanee_review]

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The Southeast Review coverThe Southeast Review

Volume 30 Number 1

2012

Biannual

Review by Mary Florio

I grew up on the classics and consequently nursed a bias that minimalism restrained the imagination. Then, I read the most recent Southeast Review where minimalism is done so well that the volume became, to me, a classic itself. I was especially floored when I read Maria Kuznetsova’s short story “Before and After.” The language was certainly careful and restrained, but she mastered the best parts of modern craft while telling at least three mesmerizing stories about innocence, growing up, and the spectrum of emotions that, collectively, we call love. While there is only one narrator, the possibilities of interpretation and meaning explode like a rash of fireflies.

Kuznetsova is joined in this issue with a cohort of champions. Ashley Wurzbacher’s short story, “What You See When You Look Close Enough,” demonstrates an effective execution of voice and point-of-view with the utmost grace. The narrator weaves a second-person close-up in between the third-person narration in a surreal wave as a family makes a trip to New Jersey to see a phenomenon appearance of the Virgin Mary in a bleach stain. The alternating narrators foster this strange holy haze so that you, the reader (and maybe “you” the second-person young boy), are likewise suspended in disbelief. Here is an example of the two speakers intertwined:

It’s amazing how many things can be in your mind at one time, especially when you’re drowning. Under the water, in the dark, Joey knew everything. He knew why he threw the rock at Cody . . . He was sorry, sorry, sorry.

The feelings in this story surge and recede like the world of water the characters occupy—and it is this kind of insecure symmetry that justifies the language’s ebb and tide with speaker and the closeness that the author permits the reader to the feelings of Joey. Sometimes I am not sure that there is not another character in this story, an unnamed observer—a spirit that infuses the boys’ games of life and death at a Lord of the Flies kind of dance, kind of microcosmic climax.

Author Linda Yuknavitch shared many compelling insights, in her interview by Caleb Powell, which web back with a silver thread to the subject matter in the narrative nonfiction first place essay by Jacob M. Appel (“Livery”). Appel explores a host of medical ethics issues in the inverse of a PubMed entry; the story of a forgetful nonagenarian asking for a “suicide pill” describes all of the formulaic functions to keep him safe, while Appel, a physician, extracts a compelling message from the situation that transcends the idiosyncrasies of geriatric medicine. For the minute that you are immersed in the madcap approach to springing the man—and the tone provides this moment of idyllic levity—Appel strips the popular terror of declining cognitive abilities with age straight off the list; salve itself.

Appel keeps good company in the nonfiction section; finalists Carol J. Clouse and Barbara W. Sands bravely capture exquisite worlds while managing to entertain and inspire—and to teach. Clouse’s essay, “The Luck We Spent,” exhibits clarity and vision about a deeply personal struggle—conception in the context of age and extraordinary desire.

As for the poetry, there is so much to note, recite, keep. They are not always “accessible” per se; you could not exactly submit all of them to a court of law or a psychology text analyzer for any kind of clear admission, but the writers achieve an essential feeling—and it emerges gracefully from the page. Keverlee Burchett starts the journal with a poem titled “EF5” that initiates us into the volume so simply and sweetly: “Woke up with almonds / or honey at the back of the throat, / inconsolable.” Notable also is Clay Matthews’s poem, “Syllables, Child, Are Made of Air,” as it creates an arresting subtext for the Values.com Motivational Posters and elevates their message to one that is both personal and elemental.

This issue also salutes what the magazine titles, “World’s Best Short-Short Story Contest 2011, Judged by Robert Olen Butler.” Flash fiction has been on the rise for years now, and these seven finalists and winner Kim Henderson do a terrific job of creating compelling story lines in a fraction of the space.

I especially liked Niloo Sarabi’s “Abba” and Henderson’s “A Brookside Park Sunburn”; each does a masterful job of connecting a very large world with a personal incantation. I wonder if flash fiction works best when some of the elements of narration or features are embedded. I brought with me a strong frame of reference for Sarabi’s piece, so her devotion to elements other than those I knew allowed me a richer experience, a reduction of variables that allowed me to focus on characters and elements I immediately cared about.

The magazine supplemented the text with cutting-edge photographs of an art installation and an engaging comic strip. Fans of electronic readers will note that the writing, art and feel of this magazine is worth keeping for a long time in its print form, right next to volumes of Dostoevsky, Faulkner and yes, someone as recent as Rushdie, sparse as Carver.
[www.southeastreview.org]

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Sou'wester coverSou’wester

Volume 40 Number 1

Fall 2011

Biannual

Review by Mary Florio

Published by Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (not to be confused with The Southwest Review published by Southern Methodist University), Sou’wester celebrated its fiftieth anniversary edition in 2011 and succeeds in the commemorative issue in creating a balanced fugue of themes, style and subject.

Regarding this Fiftieth Anniversary issue, I struck editorial gold in the work at the center of the magazine, where poets Sean Singer and Erika Meitner book-end “Tiger, Tiger,” a short story by Leyna Krow. What makes this journal outstanding is captured in this sample—experimentation in Singer’s work is complemented by the gentle lyricism in Meitner’s poems, and Krow’s clean prose exudes incisive social commentary while telling what seems like a simple story about a neighborhood mystery about what seems to be.

I liked “Tiger, Tiger” because it is an achievement in the arc of the storyline that is chiseled and runs parallel to the underlying theoretical plot with admirable discipline. “Tiger, Tiger” could be construed to be about, on the surface, the story of four neighbors trying to discern if another neighbor has captured a wild animal on his property and whether or not he runs a meth lab. The use of tiger as a symbol is hugely rich with many celebrated recent incantations, political and literary, to reference a few. (However, the treatment is more “Rear Window” or “Bart of Darkness” than “La Dolce Vita.”) But the emotional layering—unemployment, the fragility of a marriage for a couple just past a miscarriage—raises another plot, and the two weave together to a powerfully orchestrated conclusion that is both an epiphany and an allusion to a Yeatsian longing: ”the presence of the alleged tiger has never really left me. . . . I feel it most acutely in the thin hours of the morning . . . Everywhere I go, something is amiss.”

Sean Singer’s poems “Afrofutrism,” “Ars Poetica,” and “Roundhouse Kick to the Solar Plexus” are radically different in style, subject matter and theory from Erika Meitner’s “Bedtime” and “Maple Ridge,” and this diversity is a precise achievement. Sou’wester brings together poets who stand on their own, each with unique timbers but can invoke John Ashbery and Billy Collins in one book. I love Meitner’s classic Americana Halloween imagery in “Maple Ridge”: “We can count on the neighbor’s cigarette / and children like our street, sweet things. / We don’t turn anyone away.”

And this juxtaposition of different styles is a great gift—I enjoy the Meitner even though I’d select Stevens over Sexton any day.

From “Ars Poetica”:

If poetry is the essence
Of thinking, then the fourth dimension of time
In music is swing. If the fourth
Dimension is swing, then obstacles are transformed
Into openings

Singer reveals more “keys” than, say, later Ashbery work (I’m thinking of Can You Hear, Bird [1995]), but you still need to focus on the details and deconstruct the eerie poem with full post-fledgling effort. I read it with a ruler to slow down the lines; the meaning is rich and well worth the time in discovering it, or at least worth the time in discovering your own meaning and interpretation in the words.

The prose in this volume also kicked open a door for considerable examination. “The Man who was Cast into the Void” was a futuristic-folk art meditation that challenges the legacy of Italo Calvino and Washington Irving in a brilliant escape from the kind of philosophical narration usually employed to seize the big contemplations of meaning in “the void.”

Creating a tremendous lyric in the early part of the journal Makalani Bandele provides “Souls of Black Folks Boogie Woogie,” “The Three Faces of an Elvin Jones Solo,” and “Cornet Chop Suey,” poems that were bold and innovative with form and a trove of allusion.

The journal is ended with the cadences of Marc McKee. From “A Moment in Fill-In-the-Blank City,” the ending strikes me as a lovely way to start to close a strong book of literature:

Let’s not stop
making maps and letting maps help make us
even as the burning cities seem,
for a moment, like mirrors

In sum, Sou’wester is a bright, energetic publication that can be read in pajamas—or pantsuits that is, on many different levels that all seem to work well and function cohesively. The writers in this journal are uniformly excellent and marry diverse styles and content in a triumphant read.
[souwester.org]

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Subtropics coverSubtropics

Issue 13

Winter/Spring 2012

Triannual

Review by Shannon Smith

Subtropics is the literary journal from the English Department of the University of Florida, and this issue is a true mix of fiction, poetry, essay and translation. The journal is hard to define and doesn’t offer a clear editorial or mission statement to go by. One can assume, though, that they are dedicated to publishing “the best” (as the submission guidelines on their website states) as this issue offers a mix of exceptionally strong writing.

Perhaps meant to be the most provoking piece is an essay that outlines ten steps for writers and literary critics to grow toward and adhere to, Anis Shivani’s “What Should Be the Function of Criticism Today?” Shivani suggests such guidelines as “overcome specialization” and “merge disciplines,” that are buzz words in the academia today but then expands on such topics to bring them beyond being just buzzwords. Two of his most controversial suggestions are “argue from personality” and “downplay politicization.” While Shivani’s argument is too broad and detailed to quickly sum up, let it say that he believes that to rethink criticism is to rethink writing and that he is not offering up trite or easy suggestions about how to approach change.

One of the stories in this issue with the strongest emotional punch, albeit, a bitter, morose one, is Emmett Shepard’s “Two Down,” which is about a forty-year-old man who lives at home with his mother, who can’t keep a job, and who, by his own admission, has nothing except his dog. The story begins with a few laments from the man about his most recent job loss, moves through some insulting, bickering scenes between him and his mother, and then ends with him outside the house, thinking that “Tomorrow will be the same as today.” The story is, yes, depressing, but also compact (three pages), moving, and effective.

Another story in this issue, also about dissolving relationships, is Timothy Cook’s “Champagne Suburban.” The story follows an unhappy couple who are taking a ferry to meet some friends they don’t want to see. The man has a near escapade that his wife makes more of than actually happened. They fight, and he’s left thinking about the difference in the colors beige and champagne of the cars on the ferry, noting that champagne has a “little sparkle to it.” Beige, the color of their car, however, does not. This is a poignant way to end a terse story, with cars as an obvious substitute for their relationship.

Allegra Goodman’s “Sheba” provides another sympathetic look at unraveling human relationships, though it also includes and revolves around the relationship of the main character, Jaime, and a dog named Sheba that she walks for her job. At one point in the story, Jaime loses the dog, that is not hers, and feels as if she’s lost everything. The story also tracks her burgeoning relationship with a young man named Simon, but at the end of the story, it’s really Sheba that Jaime is worried about (or displacing her worry onto). The story closes with all relationships left ambiguously, but devastatingly, explored.

In addition to those stand-out stories, this issue of Subtropics also contains a number of excellent poems. One of my favorites is Bruce Bond’s “The Enlightenment,” which explores the emotions of a narrator who years ago dissected a frog. That perhaps sounds a bit clinical, but the poem carries a sharp emotional crunch.

This issue of Subtropics is diverse, and the pieces in it explore a wide emotional range and broad themes. For the most part, the writing is sharp and excellent. There is no clear, pat summary for this issue, aside from the fact that the pieces are compelling.
[www.english.ufl.edu/subtropics]

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Tampa Review coverTampa Review

Number 42

2011

Biannual

Review by Mary Florio

Tampa Review is a literary magazine published with glossy pages and hardcover binding. Elegant, but not exclusive, connections to the Tampa Bay region in Florida emerge. You can hear the brackish river boiling up in the valley in some of the poems, and taste the mist of the Gulf of Mexico estuary in some of the raw fiction. As for presentation, as the old joke goes about Playboy, “I read it for the articles,” but found the art to reflect a certain careful sensibility, an allegiance to the editorial insofar that there was a basic realism bearing with it the promise of extended interpretation.

When I read the short fiction piece, “The Suit,” by Steve Cushman, I cried. It exuded hope against loss and a love that simply crushes it—a passionate moment against the storms of cancer.

When I read “Karaoke Night at the Corazon Disco Lounge,” a short fiction by Kathy Flann, I marveled at the writer’s ability to meld disparate spirits while telling a “post-love love story” with a powerful conclusion in the gentlest of words and most relentless of philosophy. In Edmund de Chasca’s “An Act of Faith,” which detailed the flagging faith of a protagonist religious sister in crisis, I really wanted to know how the author achieved that insight and captured a life so clearly when such a particular sentiment is atypically explored. There is a subversive genius to many of the pieces—pageants of unexpected insight that characterize the volume.

I was fascinated by Diane Wakoski’s elucidation in “Persephone’s Soliloquy: I Watched You Sleeping, Blue Flowers.” Her three paragraph note on the poem provided insight and context that I loved, but to marry considerable explanation (the word count of the explanation exceeds the word count of the stanzas) with the poem strikes me as devilishly experimental.

While I know that certain poets have chosen to use considerable identifiers in their work, Wakoski remembers her Berkeley professor Thom Gunn, Black Mountain poetics, and an elusive reference to blue flowers in a mythological re-setting. It is not clear that she is clarifying or providing necessary clues or keys—she’s just telling a story along with the poem, like BB King narrating histories between songs in a performance. I love the departure from common form of DIY analysis.

Heather Sappenfield won the journal’s fiction prize for a story that opens the issue. “Indian Prayer” tells the story of a sacred tradition of commemorating loss in the context of the impact of divorce on a young family. Sappenfield navigates this emotional terrain well, sweeping past the potential for sentimentality while hitting the emotional travails right out of the park. I’ve noticed a trend in children’s voices to maintain simplicity at the expense of virtuosity in terms of expression, but this story requires a child’s crucible, and it is moving.

For the nonfiction, I dare you to read the essays without differentiating what is nonfiction and what is fiction—the genre is not identified as such on the page or segregated, although you can check your answers in the table of contents or the back jacket cover. I have to spoil the analysis by pointing out that Caroline Sutton’s essay “Slippery as a Salamander, Shifty as Light,” that is funny, tough and brave—brave not in the disclosure alone, but in her method of memoir. The narrative is as slippery as a salamander as she sketches out a hard-won life philosophy, a theoretical coming of age. The mood shines through the narration with a self-referenced irony, the language appropriately shifty as light—like looking with Proust’s eyes through Hunter S. Thompson sunglasses:

I spent most of college trying to figure out whether the “thing” out there existed at all, or relied on my perception of it, which resulted in a sort of artsy pomposity . . . Then I found out it had to do with belief, or maybe sex.

Sutton cuts through place and time and all of the props we enlist as writers to ground our reader, dispensing with everything but the sturdy chain of ideas, achieving an autobiography of life philosophy, a methodology of thought.

When I read, it is with pen in hand, to excavate the best phrases and expressions for use in the review. By the seventh page, the journal was awash in blue ink—the language used is clearly an object of editorial evaluation. As I read, I discovered that there were too many good lines, too many compelling stanzas to try and highlight them all.
[tampareview.ut.edu]

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Tar River Poetry coverTar River Poetry

Volume 51 Number 1

Fall 2011

Biannual

Review by Lesley Dame

I’m the type of girl who crushes on poets, hard. If Robert Frost was still kicking, I’d be tripping through his shrubbery as we speak. So I was pretty excited to open the Fall 2011 issue of Tar River Poetry (TRP) and see Sherman Alexie hanging out in the contents. Yes, please, I thought. Little did I know I’d close this magazine with a handful of new love interests. Yup, I’m that girl.

TRP has been around for thirty years and boasts lots of awards and honors. This should be enough to perk your interest. But we all know from contemporary movie awards shows that the good guys and girls aren’t always the winners, so we’re wary of these titles. Place your fears in a cozy padded envelope and listen up. TRP is unassuming, a slim volume with a simple, pretty cover. While not every poem in this issue has me swooning, there are several that make me pine for more.

The style of poetry in TRP is diverse. Short poems. Long poems. Image-driven poems. Narrative-like poems. Mysterious poems. Poems that tell you exactly what they want to say. For me, I am most drawn to poems that use everyday language (not hoity-toity) and poignant images. For instance, “Night on Your Sailboat” by Debra Shirley is a fifteen line poem with gorgeous images. And let me tell you, the sailboat is not a sailboat. Shirley doesn’t have to tell us what she’s talking about (she’s talking about sex, or not having sex). She just has to say “Our longings pitch, / starboard to port, / loose marbles.” The desire and longing captured in this one short stanza is phenomenal. When a poet tells you without telling you, you know you’ve stumbled onto something good.

Shirley is an excellent poet, but I want a date with this guy: Adam Houle. His two poems, “The Garden Envies the Lot” and “A Sapling on the Plains,” appear mid-journal and are clever and thought-provoking. In both poems, the speaker addresses non-human objects, an empty lot in the first and a bird in the second. Line one of the second poem has me chuckling and envious of this dude’s poetic prowess. “Bad place for a nest, bird.” I think this can be read in so many ways: sarcastic, worried, indifferent. And then Houle goes on to council the bird about what to watch out for:

watch you aren’t plucked
from flight and impaled
on a gaunt picket, your birdy guts
bleeding down the grimed paint.

You want to say eewww, but really, “birdy guts”? You have to laugh. Lastly, Houle advises the bird to emulate smarter birds and ends the poem with this mysterious line: “Stay, and your song will lose its mind.” I think some might write-off this poem as being simply light, quirky, and humorous, but don’t. This is one of those poems that you will want to read many times. Ponder the possibilities.

Okay, you knew it was coming. Sherman Alexie’s poem rocked my world. It’s called “Interstate 5,” and it is broken up into four smaller sections titled “Fog Blind,” “Snow Blind,” “Sun Blind,” and “Window Blind.” It is driven by intense, mysterious images, like:

The drivers abandon their cars
And walk home, but leave their headlights
Burning and howling like wolf stars
Who know they won’t survive the night.

I’m not sure what a wolf star is, but I’m totally there. I see wondrous beings of light in the shapes of wolves, howling. And I’m okay with that. There’s a passion here that defies logic, and he ends the poem with: “How can it be so goddamn glorious and surprising / Every time that volcano appears on the horizon?” This poem takes an ordinary, usually tedious and boring event (driving on the highway) and turns it into a wild and magical appreciation of life and nature. Alexie blinds us with his language until we are star-struck and elated.

After closing the Fall 2011 issue of TRP, I’m ready for another date.
[tarriverpoetry.com]

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Third Coast coverThird Coast

Fall 2011

Biannual

Review by Kristin Ladd

Third Coast, “founded in 1995 by graduate students of the Western Michigan University English department,” invites its readers into personal narratives, imaginative lyricism, and in-depth interviews for its Fall 2011 publication. Editor Emily J. Stinson compiled a collection of creative poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, drama, an interview, and reviews that resulted in an experience that takes us through the fire of creative minds. Its features fiction first-place winner, Sarah Elizabeth Schantz, first-place poetry winner, Jennifer Perrine, and thirty-two other polished writers who leave the reader feeling closer to understanding the depth, cruelty, and beauty of human nature.

The issue begins with a short fiction piece about a teen whose mother has etched the word “wuss” on her neck with the point of a white hot needle. “Wuss,” by Jordan Sullivan, takes us on a journey with Dana, the abused teen, who understands more about a child’s love than many of us may ever want to. The text’s disjointed form aptly reflects the experience of the young woman. She attempts a journey to California to find her father, but instead discovers how the complexities of abuse only serve to underline her unconditional love for her mother, who Dana says, “dragged the red-hot tip across the nape of my neck. . . Her voice was the only sound in the whole world. I hate you, she muttered.” Sullivan draws us into the issue with a hot fire of truth that many readers are often too afraid to touch.

The mother-daughter relationship is further explored in piece from the issue’s fiction winner, Sarah Elizabeth Schantz. Also written in fragmented prose, her piece, “The Sound of Crying Sheep,” uses the art of the lyric essay to illustrate a young woman’s simultaneous desire and fear of developing her mother’s schizophrenia. Ingeniously drawing on the metaphors of Adam’s rib, the hunter in Little Red Riding Hood that cuts open a wolf to release Red’s grandmother, and the desperate crying of lambs as they are weaned, Schantz develops memorable imagery for the relationship at its heart. It is a C-section that ultimately becomes the perfect metaphor for the mother-daughter relationship slowly tearing at the seams. Schantz’s ability to achieve painful and magnetic creative-realism proves she deserves her prize and why she has moved on to win recognition in the New Stories from the Midwest 2012 anthology.

Third Coast’s editors continue to prove their aptness for choosing winners. The other featured piece in the issue, a poem by Jennifer Perrine titled “On Fallibility,” is also worthy of its accolade. Following a common theme of death and rebirth through fire in the issue, we take a glimpse into a pope’s fascination with the mythical phoenix:

firebird
at four hundred and ninety-nine, beak blunt,
tail feathers faded to a patina,
crying in her sepulcher, her cradle

Though it comes early in the issue, it seems to tie in several pieces in a short symphonic study. It is beautiful in its hope and its sadness.

This issue is art. Each piece stands strong in its own right while seamlessly weaving together with the other works featured. Natural, complex, and refreshing, Third Coast chooses only the finest works from the middle of the country.
[www.thirdcoastmagazine.com]

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The Threepenny Review coverThe Threepenny Review

Issue 129

Spring 2012

Quarterly

Review by John Palen

This issue continues the quarterly magazine’s tradition of intelligent, accessible writing over a wide range of topics in the arts and literature, in addition to high-quality poetry and fiction. As a previous NewPages reviewer commented, “It’s a bit like the New Yorker, only without the self-importance and the umlauts.”

Whether in response or not, the editors have added umlauts (for example, in Alberto Manguel’s short essay on Hungarian writer László Földenyi). But the modesty survives, along with several New Yorker-like features.

“Table Talk,” a series of terse, interesting essays similar to “Talk of the Town,” includes the Manguel piece as well as Mindy Aloff writing about an upside-down night-sky installation in the Hudson River, and Robert Eldridge’s reflections on epigrams. There are also knowledgeable, probing reviews of books, plays, music, and the reopening of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre.

Another regular feature of The Threepenny Review is a symposium on a selected topic. This issue’s focus is architecture, with ruminations by writers with and without formal training in the discipline. Two of them made me look at my own Midwestern ranch house with fresh eyes—Thomas Laqueur’s memoir of his neo-Bauhaus cottage in the Shenandoah Mountains and Katharine Michaels’s recounting of how she went to Italy to escape a bad love affair and found her life’s work restoring antique stone farmhouses.

Also memorable is a short story by Gloria L. Huang in which the central character feels her life spinning out of control with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. She seems to regain a toe-hold, however, when she starts getting text messages—from her tumor.

Poets in this issue, each with well-crafted, moving verse, are Louis Glück and Kay Ryan (both consulting editors to the magazine), Dean Young, Andrea Cohen, Daisy Fried, Ciaran Berry, Julie Dunlop, Paul McMahon, and Nate Klug.

Published in Berkeley, the magazine’s previously apparent Bay Area focus seems to have diminished. The current issue reviews music performances in New York City and Moscow, plays from London, and the work of Romanian novelist Norman Manea.

The West Coast hasn’t disappeared entirely, however. The newspaper-style product has text in four columns, with visual relief provided by text boxes, ads from publishers and writing programs, and striking black-and-white 19th-century photos provided by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
[www.threepennyreview.com]

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West Branch coverWest Branch

Number 69

Fall/Winter 2011
Biannual

Review by Bryan Johnson

West Branch, the semiannual publication from Bucknell University’s Stadler Center for Poetry, features twenty of today’s hottest writers in its Fall/Winter 2011 issue. The literary journal “takes pride in its openness to a wide range of literary styles and in its pairing of new and established voices,” and this issue is no exception. Featured within are nineteen poems, four short stories, one nonfiction piece, and one translated work, all showcasing the publication’s literary range. Also included are eleven book reviews and recommendations from the editors, a regular feature of West Branch.

The issue begins with “Safe as Houses,” an imaginative short story by Marie-Helene Bertino. The narrative follows an elderly man who goes by the alias “Pluto” as he and his newly-acquired teenage accomplice, Mars, ransack a home. They are a pair of unconventional burglars, attempting to only steal items of true personal worth. “We leave the crumpled fifty, the coins in the dish. We steal the dish, a ceramic art-class concoction that brags: Daddy.” “Safe as Houses” is fun and fresh, and Bertino keeps readers interested in her quirky protagonist by seamlessly weaving the man’s troubled past into the narrative, enticing readers to continue on into West Branch and discover what other inspired writing lies within.

As readers continue, they are sure to pause at the powerful collection of poetry from Mark Jay Brewin, Jr., an MFA graduate from Southern Illinois University–Carbondale. Three poems from Brewin are featured: “Marriage,” “The Same Idea,” and “Drinking Stories.” The third, “Drinking Stories,” is a striking prose-poem wherein the speaker muses on the growing dementia of his grandfather while they drink beers. At the same time, the grandfather muses on times past and soon to be forgotten. “Just as a bullet shot into the air, the clear memory peaks and begins its quick drop, your keen gaze fades, and the story stalls . . . I would pour you anything as long as I could follow you across the withering tract of your crisp lore.” The poem’s form accurately portrays the progression of a casual conversation with one’s grandparent while keeping the language commanding and lyric, making this poem particularly noteworthy.

Also worth noting is the short story by Sam J. Miller entitled “The Plot to Assassinate Oprah.” The story weaves together the different identities of a young man named Isaac. Isaac is a caring son, supporting his mother as she attempts to create a sympathetic documentary of Ethelene Garrett, a woman who attempted to kill Oprah Winfrey. He also struggles with his parents’ recent divorce and his father’s unexplained absence in his life. Isaac leads a double life, though, as a homosexual teen with masochistic desires, chatting with older gay men on the internet in hopes of finding a way to fulfill his violent sexual urges, despite the multiple warnings from his friend Darryl. The raw exploration of Isaac’s dark yearnings balances surprisingly well with his mother’s exploration of the failed assassination on Oprah, showcasing Miller’s uncanny ability to tackle subjects that could easily be portrayed distastefully under the penmanship of a less experienced author.

West Branch solely accepts unsolicited submissions, and this issue truly showcases the highly varied yet equally engaging talents of today’s writers in a way that keeps readers enthralled throughout.
[www.bucknell.edu/westbranch]

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