Conclave is a journal that revolves around strong characters in poetry and fiction, so don’t let the lady on the cover of the latest issue scare you away. Think of her as a concierge waiting to show you to your room. But this isn’t your typical hotel. Here you will rub shoulders with guests from out of space and time. Some of these guests are (or were) real people staying for the night while others come from the imaginations of talented writers.
Some of the poetry in this issue features noteworthy characters from history. Sara Backer’s “The Nameless One (Ivan VI)” depicts the tragic life of Ivan VI of Imperial Russia. Although proclaimed Emperor of Russia as an infant, Ivan never reigned because Empress Elizabeth threw him in jail. He remained a prisoner until he was murdered by his guards. Becker does an excellent job condensing Ivan’s unhappy life into three tight stanzas. The last one was my favorite because of its play on words and the prison-like atmosphere created by the tempo:
Jailed by murderers,
murdered by jailers,
the walls of Schlusselburg
mirrored his skull confines,
his brain awash in whispering white tides.
Lenore Weiss takes us further back in time with “The Last Days of Genghis Khan.” The poem brings us to the Great Khan’s death bed surrounded by his sons. Weiss humanizes the infamous conqueror in this surprisingly moving piece where Khan confesses his failures as a father. He offers his sons pieces of warrior wisdom such as “a loose mouth leaves crumbs for the wind / to heap upon the plates of your enemy” and says that controlling pride is “more difficult to quell than a wild lion.” The ending is my favorite part of this piece: “Loyalty to family is what you have as brothers / and the only thing you will ever have / in this smoky world of dreams laced with cinnamon.” That last bit of sensory detail was a nice touch. Most people can agree that Genghis Khan was not the friendliest of persons, but this poem illustrates a side of him that we don’t see very often in the history books.
Daniel Lee’s poem “Accounts of Lucifer” is another great poem that focuses on one of the most influential characters in Western imagination. The fallen angel presents an argument to the reader in six parts about his estranged relationship with God. The language is as disturbing and hypnotizing as Lucifer himself. For example, listen to what he has to say about his war against heaven:
Be sure to know, war is not what I’ve wanted—
it is a spectacle. I prefer sane, not demented,
revolt. Nothing is more tasteless than murder.
Lee does a masterful job of writing in Satan’s voice in the tradition of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The reader feels compelled to agree with Lucifer, even though the final stanza promises damnation.
My favorite fiction piece was “Threatlessness” by Ira Sukrungruang. It is about a boy who is sent to the hospital after being attacked on his way home late at night. The boy is a social outcast and has a taste for horror fiction. His backpack bulges with Clive Barker, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Peter Straub. He has no memory of the attack. His overactive imagination convinces him that it was a monster, but the truth turns out to be more terrifying: a group of intoxicated teenagers nearly beat him to death because they were bored and because the boy had an aura of “threatlessness” around him. As the days go by and the get well cards pile up, his head injury becomes more serious, and he loses his ability to move and speak. He retreats further inside his mind as he searches for answers. His conclusion is grim: “Evil exists. It does and it needs no explanation. It needs no cause. It just happens. In a cornfield. In a graveyard. In a home, haunted or not.” We want the boy to survive, to grow up and experience the good things in life, but the ending is not kind to the boy. You don’t have to be a horror fiend (like me) to enjoy this great story.
Two interviews are included in this issue, my favorite one being with Peter S. Beagle. Beagle is one of America’s most prolific fantasy authors, and it was a genuine pleasure to hear his thoughts about the craft of writing. Since the journal is focused on characters, Savannah Thorne, the editor and interviewer, asks him about creating difficult characters. Beagle’s response is full of insight: “I’ve always felt that if your character isn’t rebelling against you then that character might not be alive at all.” I know I’m guilty of writing flat characters (what? aren’t you?) and this bit of advice should be applied to any story worth its salt.
Not only does this journal publish great writing, but it is also trying to get literary journals in inner-city schools and libraries (you can visit the website to make a donation). Go ahead and pick up a copy of Conclave today; it builds character.