Ninth Letter is part literary journal, part coffee-table book – the kind of coffee-table book you go back to again and again, admiring the gorgeous artwork and spectacularly designed pages each time with the same sense of awe, surprise, and delight. You’re proud to display it in your living room, you want to show it to everyone who visits. You find something new you’ve never seen before every time you look at it. It’s big, heavy, substantial, hard to hold, and harder to put down.
From the color-coded Table of Contents, seamlessly integrated into the graphic of the opening pages, to the special pull-out “Music Feature” – a journal within the journal – Ninth Letter is breathtaking, overwhelming. While there are some quiet, more conventional poems, stories, and essays here, most quite satisfying, it’s hard not to have one’s attention diverted by the flashier, riskier pieces, such as Katori Hall’s “Oreo Girl: The Miscegenation of Miss Emma Brown.” Acts I and II presented here are apparently excerpts of a longer work (though this is not entirely clear). A play about a young girl “on a quest to find the meaning of blackness on her own terms,” “Oreo Girl” is not meant to be staged, it seems, given the significance of the graphic elements, but to be read (or even simply stared at on the page, at least to figure out a way into it). The piece is a word collage, composed of text of various sizes, reverse type, blocks of text sitting on its side on the page, boxed segments, and other graphic treatments. The collage construction applies, as well, to content, which includes quotations from signs and posters, references to song lyrics and titles, news reports, the speech of the play’s characters (Emma, her mother, her sister, her best friend at Columbia University, her boyfriend, a bus driver, and others). One of Emma’s professors tells her, “You have to go catch the revolution on the street, darling.” Or between the covers of a magazine.
The Music Feature, separated from the larger volume by its uncoated, rather than coated paper, and two, rather than four-color print, contains poems selected in response to Ninth Letter’s call for work “interpreting music.” The poems by Curtis Crisler, Patricia Smith, Ed Pavlic, Joseph Campana, Tara Betts and others, are as eclectic in tone, style, and in their sense of what it means to create an interpretation as the musical genres with which they engage (country western, jazz, soul, folk, salsa).
It’s difficult to describe the relationship of the visual to the textual in Ninth Letter, you’ve got to see it to believe it, and I’ve only barely touched on what this issue contains. But, I would be remiss if I didn’t call attention, at least briefly, to some of the exceptional writing in more conventional forms, poems by Christopher Dwerse for example, from “The Confessions” (“I was a wagon train / lost between persecutions / and a better west”); and another by Ryo Yamaguch, “Pilot,” all the more striking in these post-landing-in-the-Hudson weeks; and Naton Leslie’s essay about his father “Listening to Johnny Cash.”
Contributors’ notes include the writers’ response to the question, “What music do you listen to when you write – or do you prefer silence.” It’s not surprising that many of the writers find music a distraction when they’re doing their own composing; “I listen to the music of silence,” writes Katori Hall.