Inspired by owner and chef Dennis Leary’s Canteen restaurant in San Francisco, which has hosted a number of “literary dinners,” “Canteen aims to engage readers with both the arts and the creative process,” say publisher Stephen Pierson and editor-in-chief Sean Finney. A prominent example of this intent is the poem “Song” and its accompanying close reading and reflective essay by Julie Orringer and Ryan Harty. I knew that it was only a matter of time before the words from the Magnetic Poetry Kit jumped off refrigerator doors and other metal surfaces to land – where? Here? In analyzing their process of cutting and sticking these dozen lines and photographing them, Orringer and Harty demonstrate and evaluate one experience of this gimmick’s effect on word choice and syntax. I’ve played this “poetry game” in several languages, but never have I believed that the restrictions it imposes are worthy of serious effort. Now I know why. Conversely, Katie Ford’s poem “The Vessel Bends the Water” deserves the reader’s attention for its pure beauty and, I think, perfect slipperiness.
Leary projects a serrated voice in his essay “Prologomena to a Future Restaurant,” an illustrated “theatre of restaurants” that numbers Cicada, My Pets, Paycock, Homtownehouse, and Being among its stars. On a more serious note, Garth Risk Hallberg’s fiction “A Light that Never Goes Out” successfully draws readers deeply into the Pakistani protagonist’s complex life and epiphany during an emergency lock-down at his private high school in Georgetown. I particularly enjoyed Hallberg’s refreshing yet understandable imagery, for instance: “My brain was a radio tuned to too many stations at once.” Another tasty canteen of imagery and memory is Andrew Sean Greer’s “The Museum of My Beginnings,” a memoir of those par-cooked literary works that never make it to the table. I’m certain that all “successfully published” writers have such half-baked works, stuffed on the pantry shelves (and in old recipe boxes) of memory. Another take on craft is Po Bronson’s approachable essay, “Knowing Your Audience,” in which he ponders, as have many writers, the power that stories do have on peoples’ lives. Moreover, he looks pointedly at the particularly troublesome problem of “the gap between artsy literary technique (a language of its own), the blunt way real people tell stories, and whether that gap helps or hurts the power of art.”
A la carte, on the menu, or hiking a forested trail, this debut issue lives up to its name, if canteen means 1. a small container used to hold refreshment; 2. an eatery where delicious meals are served; or 3. a box for cutlery (British-ism).