The Northwest Institute for the Literary Arts (NILA) is a community of writers on Whidbey Island (Washington state) which supports, teaches, and guides upcoming writers by means of a freestanding low-residency MFA program, an annual conference, and this publication, Soundings Review. This was the last issue to be produced under the direction of founding editor Marian Blue. Subsequent issues will be produced by students and faculty in the Whidbey Writers Workshop, the Institute’s MFA program, where, according to the website, production of the Review is to become an aspect of the proposed MFA in Publishing and Editing. It’s apparent from the bionotes of the journal that much of the work published in Soundings comes from within the NILA community—but that doesn’t mean it’s local, or even regional. It especially doesn’t mean that it’s anything but “high quality poetry, fiction, and nonfiction” by writers whose deepest value is to create community and contribute to the field of writing. The institute’s website is emphatic about this; I find it very exciting.
Three contests are showcased in this issue of Soundings. “The Queen of Roar,” a strong piece of literary journalism by accomplished educator-turned-writer Phyl Manning, won this year’s Founders Circle award. In anecdote and exposition, it chronicles the misfortunes and redemption of Nyla (an apt name!), a Sumatran tiger born and bred to work in Hollywood films. The piece begins with a mauling incident that nearly cost Nyla everything. But a particularly sensitive owner and an equally skilled trainer in northern California save her from execution, and she finds a home among other trained cats. Manning concludes with an engaging vignette in which she herself interacts live with Nyla, in such a concrete way that we understand fully Nyla’s appeal, while we respect fully her tiger nature. Good research makes good writing here. The piece is concise, informative, and engaging.
The First Publication Contest award winner “Cat Fights” is a hilarious short story by Whidbey resident Chris Spencer. And there’s a third contest, a Readers’ Choice, with a ballot in the magazine so that readers can vote for the piece they like best in the issue.
Will voters choose from among the MFA program’s students? Janet Buttenweiser’s incisive “Take A Deep Breath In,” a second-person essay to all who must proceed from Stage One waiting rooms to Stage Two and beyond, contending with ever-more-familiar radiology labs and machinery, ominous obstacles on the path to the final diagnosis? “Last Day at Alpha,” Jeff Suwak’s anguished account of a “retreat” from bitter war experience, from which kind and eminently desirable “retreat,” finally, he runs in terror? Ann Gerike’s sweet “Reading Alice Munro,” whose first-person narrator discovers the titular writer in his quest to become a writer himself, and finds his world remade?
The student poets are equally good. Jeremiah O’Hagan’s “When The Clock Struck Midnight on December 31, 2010” tells the awful story (maybe you’ve heard it) of the night when thousands of red-winged blackbirds fell from the sky in Beebe, Arkansas. “I wonder / what the birds thought, exploding / into flight, mad hearts churning / frenzies . . . / [When] they died did they think they’d arrived, / millions of wing flaps after they started, at beauty?”
Jill Burkey’s “White Space” begins and ends with “the silence” that happens when “the last line [of a poem, or of a life] is read.” Her “Visitor” to a cemetery points to “[so] much history in too little ground / . . . mingling / at a permanent cocktail party . . . // a tall dandelion the groundskeepers missed / now an arm waving to you out the window.” I might vote for Burkey.
Marie Hartung describes the strange, too-cheerful response of the medical community “One Hour after the Rorschach and Other Tests” when the on-the-spectrum diagnosis is finally undeniable. “Losing the Sense of Sound” may never have been so heartbreakingly evoked as in Joanne M. Clarkson’s poem of that name, and Donna Pucciani gives delightfully alimentary metaphors to “Learning the Parts of Speech in Italian.” It would be hard, I confess, to choose from among all these selections.
There are also a number of impressive non-student offerings. John Cravens’s skillful story “Grief” might win my vote for its complex attention, in one small episode, to the ravages of war on generations of men and women. “Elsie—At An Outside Table,” a prose poem (or is it a lyric essay? a piece of sudden fiction?) by Teddy Norris, lets the resigned solitude of age flash into my awareness. These and other strong works assure us that the mission of NILA, and of Soundings Review, is admirably and certainly being fulfilled.