Speaking in this issue’s long-form interview with upstreet editor Vivian Dorsel, Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer Robert Olen Butler had this to say about the special problems the writer’s medium presents: “The medium for a writer is words, and the words make sounds, but those sounds are immediately overwhelmed by meaning. We are the only artists whose medium is not innately and irreducibly sensual, and yet, as artists, we try to create sensual objects from it. Our medium is constantly struggling with us, to drag us into our heads.”
Speaking in this issue’s long-form interview with upstreet editor Vivian Dorsel, Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer Robert Olen Butler had this to say about the special problems the writer’s medium presents:
The medium for a writer is words, and the words make sounds, but those sounds are immediately overwhelmed by meaning. We are the only artists whose medium is not innately and irreducibly sensual, and yet, as artists, we try to create sensual objects from it. Our medium is constantly struggling with us, to drag us into our heads.
For their part, the writers whose work fills the pages of upstreet’s latest issue struggle valiantly to stay out of their heads and make themselves felt rather than simply understood. Eschewing the book reviews, artist portfolios, and confining themes that have become de rigueur for literary magazines in favor of a sleek design that throws the focus squarely on the poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction of an impressive array of established writers, upstreet offers engrossing entertainment punctuated by visceral moments where everything just makes . . . well. . . sense.
Ellen Bass expertly conjures the senses in her poem “Sleep” in which the speaker ruminates on the equalizing power of physical exhaustion, recalling a layover in Madrid spent dozing on her coat on the airport’s tile floor. Bass deftly captures the brain fog accompanying all-consuming exhaustion in the first part of her poem through her purposeful use of hyperbolic and tiredly cliché description, mentioning how the travelers constituted “a hum of insects” and the flight announcer sounded like the “voice of a god.” This overwrought description, which leads up to the actual surrender to sleep she recalls mid-poem, makes the speaker’s vulnerability palpable, and, in turn, make the conclusions she draws about exhaustion’s ability to humble and force us to relinquish control all the more poignant. The universality of this feeling is expressed beautifully in the catalogue of exhausted humanity that comes at the end of Bass’s poem, in which the speaker likens herself to:
[. . .] Whitman crossing Brooklyn Ferry
in love with everyone, the man
curled on cardboard in the doorway,
a waitress leaning against the dark
window of the bus, her hair
smelling of sugar and grease, the sparrow
on the telephone wire, the drunk
with his head on the beer-sticky table of the pub.
The world was mine. I could trust it.
I could throw myself down on its breast.
One of the issue’s most instantly likable and enigmatic stories comes from Canadian author and cartoonist, Rolli. His short story “Mr. Penny Saw Red,” which strikes a tone that is equal parts children’s bedtime story and Samuel Beckett novel, tells the tale of Mr. Penny, a character who’s presumably been transported to the hospital by ambulance after being struck by a van. However, after Mr. Penny recalls the ambulance stopping at the local library on the way to the hospital in order to let him peruse the old books, the reliability of Mr. Penny’s memory is thrown into question. Rolli creates a quixotic character whose history consists primarily of the advice he has received and whose current emergency has turned his present into a strange amalgam of dream and delusion. Regardless of interpretation, the advice regarding memory that’s related to the reader at the beginning of the story looms large:
It’s good to be truthful, even to yourself, but a brain will fill things in. Someone had told him that, once. It’s like doing a hard crossword puzzle and plugging something in, like ‘grassicle,’ just to finish it. Mr. Penny had been guilty of that once or twice, as well.
Another standout from the issue’s fiction was Cathy Adams’s rollicking short story “Asphalt Chiefs,” in which the proprietors of competing Native American-themed souvenir stands slowly descend into open warfare as they reluctantly pander for the business of mouth-breathing tourists bent on seeing real Indians. With their competitive urges and old animosities having long ago trumped any concerns regarding their own exploitation, Chief Talks to Hawks, a pure Cherokee, and Chief Bear Runner, a.k.a. the less-than-pure-blooded Roy Wayne Lincoln, the chaotic relationship between them reaches a new level in Adams’s irreverent story. Think Grumpy Old Men with a deliberately cringe-worthy amount of meta-commentary about race and you won’t be far off.
Another favorite was Douglas Light’s “Amateurs,” which is ostensibly a creative-nonfiction piece about his auditioning for Amateur Night at the Apollo as a joke. However, the piece gradually turns into a larger meditation on the “dangers of hope” and the existential reasons why people feel the need to have their purpose and meaning clarified or judged by others. With his astute ear for dialogue, Light captures the desperation and humor of the shrill wannabes surrounding him in line and gives weight to his musings about the line between true art and sublimation.
As for this latest issue of upstreet, there is a decided lack of wannabes, and any reader looking for immersive literary art that transports and entertains should give it an audition.