Winners of the Third Coast fiction and poetry contests are announced on the first pages of this issue, with a justification for their choices written by judges Stuart Dybek (fiction) and David Rivard (poetry). The gambler in me skipped those pages and went right into the content of the magazine hoping to suss out the winning pieces. Would anything distinguish their work from regular submissions, except they got publication and a thousand bucks for their effort? Maybe it was the frame of mind in which I read, or the preference of the editors, but there seems an element of risk, physical and spiritual, running throughout the writing in this issue.
Jim Daniel’s poem, “Last Night a Reckless Cyclist,” in which the driver almost hits a cyclist while driving his troubled teenage son home from school, is a conversation on responsibility. The speaker’s son and the cyclist merge:
My wife asks is he alright?
I don’t know, I say, I don’t know.
He didn’t have a light, I say.
Everybody has a light, she does not say.
I’ll keep trying to find it, I don’t say.
That’s a dark street, she says.
I approach literary magazines with a fear that technical sophistication will win out over the stuff of the heart when it comes to editorial choices, but the pieces in this issue show a fine blend of both. The speaker or character questions and then gracefully submits to larger forces. Technique is done well and often with stunning results. This is especially true of Jose Rivera’s play, “Yellow,” which, along with a superb essay by Beth Alvarado, reminds us there is a war on and that heaviness touches all of us.
The magazine offers a lot – four genres, book reviews, a Q & A with poet Marvin Bell, and yes those prize winners. So how did I do? I was spot on with my choice of Ashley Shelby’s story “Winter-Over.” She takes the reader to the Antarctica where her characters’ foes are not the landscapes, but themselves. This detail rich story is full of surprises and humor. I was also gunning for “A Body Running” by Josie Milliken. I liked the story’s competitive spirit and its relentless drive toward illumination.
And the poetry winner? I wanted it to be Jen McClanaghan, whose poem begins,
Joseph E. McClanaghan will no longer be driving –
This isn’t a small matter, his being dead, so I thought
you should know.
I’m his daughter.
That one struck close to home for me, but the prize winning “The Skeptic’s Prayer” by Gray Jacobik, opened up on a second read. This plea, directed to “Dear Space,” takes time to absorb. The repetitions are reminiscent of an Old Testament psalm, but it is space, not a god, who is conjured and honored:
who coats the swan’s down with lanolin;
who sculpts the snow and casts the thief
who brings fisherman back
to port and the prodigal to his knees
Judge David Rivard writes of the poem, "[W]hat kind of skeptic would address himself to a Maker whose existence seems so doubtful? One who would like to believe, in spite of himself.” That essential conundrum repeats itself in startling and satisfying forms throughout this issue of Third Coast.