It’s 424 pages long, weighing in at a chunky 1.75 pounds; Vlak cannot be called a little magazine. It is a literary magazine, though, launched from Prague and flashing through the reader’s consciousness like a bullet train. With works from eastern and western Europe, Australia, North Africa, and the United States (and a single nod to Brazil), the issue brings together ninety writers and visual artists.
The reader’s curiosity about how the whole thing came together remains largely unanswered: an unsigned column on the masthead page addresses the theme of the overthrow of tyranny, alluding only glancingly to the editorial mission and history of the magazine. The related web site offers a little more background (though it does not feature the translation of “vlak” from Czech into English—it means “train”). The 2011 issue is the second to be published; a third will launch in Prague on May 15, 2012.
A blog posted in October 2009 sets out the publication’s mission:
VLAK is an international curatorial project with a broad focus on contemporary poetics, art, film, philosophy, music, science, design, politics, performance, ecology, and new media.
Our global-local environment is defined by intersections, hybrids, transversals: realities that are contested, interactual and always in the process of taking new forms.
VLAK invites contributions that [. . .] explore the ramifications of contemporary culture and attempt new critical and creative methods.
VLAK stands for the drive to experiment, to synthesize, to extend—holding to the principle that a vital culture is always experimental and thus always “at a crossroads.
The theme of liberty intersects the publication on many levels. Contributor Ali Daghman, who studied in Prague, was conscripted into the Syrian Army in early 2011 and killed in Syria on August 15, 2011, an entry on the magazine’s web site indicates. His academic essay on the politics of anti-colonial resistance, “Power and Resistance,” draws lines of influence among the writings of Michel Foucault, Edward Said, and Homi Bhabha, supporting the posthumous assessment that he was “intellectually fearless and committed.”
This issue’s contents invite the reader to assess independently not only subject but also form. Contributions are not defined as poetry, fiction, or criticism. A series of nine surreal word portraits by Johan de Wit, with every appearance of prose, is followed by a prose “Statement” by the artist devoted to his views on poetry.
Black-and-white images from dozens of photographers and multi-media artists fit comfortably into the 21 cm (8.5”) square format. Color brightens the cover photograph, an untitled piece by Adam Trachtman, of a landscape containing a train sign that reads “POZOR VLAK.”
David Hayman’s memoir of Robert Motherwell provides intimate glimpses of the painter’s work and life, including conversations Hayman held with Motherwell in his studio and archive in Connecticut. We learn that Motherwell “never liked” Lee Krasner and that he could be a reckless back-road driver.
The poetry editors celebrate the fearless and the joyful in their selection of verse. While the subject matter can be somber, the thrill of shaping language to express the palpability of the intangible inspires these poets. Ania Walwicz, in “5 Sections,” pays homage to Gertrude Stein as she revels in the playground of words. From her section called “Palace of Culture” we read “to feel better bit better bitte” and “words now not so lone lone alone now I make games now rebus said n that I / work it now work me” among the series of “la”s and “o”s that punctuate the dense page of text.
Adrian Clarke’s critical appraisal of the work of Karen Mac Cormack in Quirks and Quillets (1991) contains a closing assessment that can be applied to the prose poems—actually, all the content—in this issue: “‘situated’ prose poems are clearly not locked into a formal strait-jacket, rather they create spaces hospitable to the discovery of transformative possibilities; like the mandala or Navajo sand painting they may offer an appearance of closure, but the readerly activities they encourage are expansive—to the margins and beyond.”
Vlak is published through the Centre for Critical & Cultural Theory in the Department of Anglophone & Cultures Faculty of Philosophy at Charles University in Prague. Editing reveals occasional lacunae that mar credibility, offering the opportunity to raise the quality of the publication in the upcoming issue.
This train takes the reader on an exuberant journey. The ticket to ride links us to the global exchange of ideas, challenges to the status quo, and the re-examination of concepts about art. The editors and contributors seem to enjoy breathing the rarefied air within their somewhat closed system, but their invitation to join in and help shake things up sounds the note of sincerity. Any attempt to out-revolutionize revolutionaries can be daunting, but the energy and fecundity expressed in this publication will embolden the timid and enlist the brave. The issue can be read in full online.