Katrina Denza’s Lit Mag Roundup 3.0

The Lit Mag Roundup is a quarterly feature at Moorishgirl.com, in which North Carolina-based fiction writer Katrina Denza shares her literary discoveries of the season. Below is the summer roundup, where Katrina reviews the latest from The Pinch, Washington Square Review, Tin House, Night Train, and Ninth Letter.

One thing became clear to me as I set aside a batch of journals with the intention of reading and reviewing, if not all, at least most of the pile: there are so many quality journals publishing extraordinary work, I couldn’t possibly comment on as many as I’d hoped. And although those I did include in this summer’s column are not the only ones I’d recommend from the tall pile that sat on my desk, they certainly made enough of an impression for me to devour their contents and write about.

The first issue of The Pinch, formerly known as River City, is a strong one, with a sophisticated southern flavor. It’s named after the Pinch District, the residential area originally for Irish immigrants and Jewish merchants, which has enjoyed a resurgence of interest and has become a historical landmark. The issue is lovely with a glossy cover designed by Gary Golightly, and glossy, easy-to-read pages within. In the fiction category, Anna Baker illustrates the power of few words with her brief, but evocative piece, “Silent Couple Drinking Coffee.” In Carol J. Palay’s “Blue Plastic Bags,” a man impregnates another woman and his fiancée dreams of his baby’s death. A man and woman sort through belongings on the eve of their separation in Jim Tomlinson’s “Stainless.” Tomlinson’s ability to elicit emotion with subtle strokes makes his piece particularly powerful. I enjoyed Shellie Zacharia’s hilarious and poignant short-short, “What To Do On A Saturday Night One Week After Your Lover Announced, ‘Sayonara, Sweetheart,’ Even Though He’s Not Japanese And He Never Called You Sweetheart.” Laurel Jenkins-Crowe offers a different look at married life with her clever story, “Do It Yourself.” The unexpected is the theme in Carol Ghiglieri’s story, “Homecoming,” with both a surprise pregnancy and a surprising gesture of love. Kelly Magee writes of grief in her short-short, “New Orleans Isn’t There.” And in David B. Essinger’s “A Jar Full of Bees,” a man imagines an explosive end to a difficult life.

There are three creative non-fiction pieces: Beth Ann Fennelly writes of growing up with alcoholism and books in her moving piece “A Childhood Reader;” Vivian Wagner shares her childhood desire to survive apocalyptic annihilation in “Under The Gun;” and in her piece “Present Shame,” Gwendolyn Ashbaugh presents a glimpse of John Wilkes Booth’s family through the voice of his sister Rose.

Of the many fine pieces of poetry, “Half Perfume, Half Something Rotten,” by Stephanie Michelle Rogers caught my fancy:

…Now here/ in the home I’ve grown inside your chin,/ I sleep. Where else was I to live, corn-/ toothed, a pistil for a tongue? I rather like/ having taken root in a face-the congregation/ of cells slough off. I cling. Most of all,/ I want you to feel what it’s like to be pricked/ as my new thorn skates your skin, hoeing/ the follicles…

And Lee Sharkey’s “We Both Drink The Water; Neither Can Describe Its Taste,” is a gorgeous lament on the presence and absence of water. Three visual artists offer their work to the issue: whimsical drawings and accompanying text by Alex Stein; collage by Alice Andrews; and a traveling project by Sheryl Oring titled, “I Wish To Say.” In this project Oring poses the question “If I were the President of the United States, what would you want to say to me?”

There’s an interview with one of my favorite short story writers, Jill McCorkle, in which she shares aspects of her craft. Lastly, there’s a bonus section near the back featuring the 2005 River City Writing Awards in fiction and poetry. A jilted wife and her stepson seek comfort in Jill Rosenberg’s prizewinning story, “Simon Says Or When Lily Forgot To Fill Her Time.” Hal Ackerman’s “Maidens,” a story of unrequited love and friendship was awarded second place. Ciaran Cooper’s “Falling Down,” a story about a boy and his brother who witness their father’s transgressions during a weekend ski trip was awarded third place. Richard Fox won first place in poetry with his poem “Mr. Wilson,” and Karen Pittleman’s poem “Jonah At Wounded Knee, South Dakota,” was awarded second place.

The Summer Issue of Washington Square is their Inaugural International Edition which begins with letters from Editor-in-Chief Brandon Wyant and International Editor Maaza Mengiste outlining their intentions upon searching for international work. Wyant says in his letter: “The work in this edition brings together writings from authors both known and unknown to a larger American audience, whether they live in Nebraska or India.” Larger questions are posed when a wealthy man trades places with his chauffeur in Murzban F. Shroff’s “Mind Over Matter.” Mallory Tarses was the Fiction Winner of the 2006 Washington Square ReviewPrize with her humorous and delightful story, “Shipditchers,” about a boy and his family during the month of his mother’s absence. Words on the page become art in John Cleary’s epistolatory piece, “Dear Jack.” Zoya Marincheva has translated three gorgeous excerpts from Bulgarian writer Nikolay Rainov’s “Tales of the Sun.” A woman and her mother bond at a retreat in “Lunch In The Labyrinth,” by Courtney Zoffness. Yoko Tawada offers a surreal tale of a woman in her lyrical piece, “Pomona,” translated by Susan Bernofsky.

The poetry is consistently strong, still, I had my favorites. “The Whale” by Zachary Schomburg is a gorgeous piece of grief and love:

…I can swallow a whole bird/ One time I swallowed beach glass.// I would’ve put a lion’s head/ in my mouth. I would’ve swallowed/ the whole ocean/ to get to the bottom of it.

And Stephanie Lenox writes of loss in her jazzy “Bring Back The Spoons:

You have taken the jangle/ from my drawer./ The fork’s subtle mate,/ absconded, the cup’s companion,/ gone. Look what you’ve done./ Even the knives are on edge…

This was the first time I’d read this slender, elegant journal. I’m glad I did.

And to continue in an international vein, the latest issue of Tin House is titled “The International Issue.” Rob Spillman, in his Editor’s Note says, “Many international writers seem to be taking on more complex stylistic and emotional terrain than their American counterparts.” Before each piece, there’s a map illustrating where in the world the writer or poet lives. At first I wondered why not just write the name of the country, but I must admit it was interesting and unusual to see the information, and except for the occasional frustration with the small, pointillist map, it worked.

Portuguese writer JoséSaramago offers a voting poll mystery with an excerpt from his novel, “Seeing.” With Romanian writer Dumitru Tsepeneag’s piece, excerpted from “The Vain Art of the Fugue,” readers can understand the kind of stylistic and emotional complexities to which Rob Spillman was referring. This moody piece is a puzzle, and more is understood with each reading. What I particularly liked were the narrator’s flights of imagination woven so seamlessly into the narrative. In “Whakatane Calling,” by German author Bernd Lichtenberg, a man reaches back into his childhood to recall his father’s last week. A woman is visited by an old tenant looking for things he left behind in Danish writer Helle Helle’s “Pheasants.” An architect is asked to transform a cathedral into a mosque in Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare’s “Hagia Sophia, A Wall Painting.” In Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s “All Other Things Remaining Equal,” a young girl takes note of the changes in both her country and her family. A woman gives up her marriage to save her husband in “Another Love Story,” by Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie. Bolivian writer Edmundo Paz-Soldán offers a moving story about an anthropologist at the mass grave of Cerska. In Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s “Maurucio (‘The Eye’) Silva,” the narrator tells the reader about his friend and a good deed.

There is an urgency to the poetry in this issue. A call for readers to heed their warnings and lamentations. Spanish poet Federico García Lorca’s “New York: Office and Denunciation” speaks eloquently of the loss of nature; Kenyan poet Mukoma wa Ngugi’s “Recipe: How To Become An Immigrant And An Exile,” haunts with its sense of loss:

…Commit sins of transportation. Bite the past. Spit broken teeth/ and colored blood that will chart global awareness. Learn/ to say fuck without flinching. Seduce anarchy of the mind and try/ to order schizophrenia in realms just outside the touch of your black/ hand…

Perhaps my favorite of all is “It Seems I Inherit The Dead,’ by Egyptian poet Iman Mersal which ends:

…It seems I inherit the dead./ One day/ after the death of all those I love,/ I will sit alone at a café/ without any sense of loss,/ because my body is a huge basket/ where all those who leave/ drop things/ that bear their traces.

Also in this issue are interviews with translator and author Lydia Davis; Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina; and Indian author Anita Desai. In the “Lost and Found” section, Ann Gelder, Francine Prose, and Austin Merrill write of their love of works by Yuri Olesha, Andrei Platonov, and Ahmadou Kourouma, respectively. Dominique Parent-Altier writes about France’s literary prizes and Francine Prose has another piece, this time on Prague’s Becherovka. The issue ends with a witty “International Personals” section.

The latest issue of Night Train, sponsored by Normal, Illinois, isn’t officially an international issue, though it has the feel of one. Comprised of mostly fiction-all excellent picks-the issue also has an interview with award-winning Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and an essay on Normal, Illinois by Mike Lockett.

In Richard Madelin’s story, “Adding Up and Taking Away,” a woman transcribes deaths in a ledger for her volatile husband. “Homefront” is a set of three short pieces by Bruce Holland Rogers connected by a war theme. A dissatisfied wife of a musician plays a game of imagination in Cris Mazza’s “What If.” A man on disability hopes to buy love in Jon Papernick’s “My Darling Sweetheart Baby.” In Kirsten Culbertson’s “The Last Word,” a young woman, on her wedding day, learns of her sister’s death. An American of Romanian descent, working as a translator interrogates a defector from the same part of Romania his ancestors lived in William Reese Hamilton’s “Mihai.” A robbery goes wrong for Laura Payne Butler’s colorful characters in “Ruby Red.” Daphne Buter’s haunting “Now That I Am Sober” is a story of a man and his one-night stand. Buter’s piece is stunning with its rich language and multi-faceted narrative. With “How To Break An Iraqi,” Gemini Wahhaj offers an exquisitely written story about a young girl and her tormentor–the end transports the reader beyond the boundaries of the story with its beautifully rendered plea for forgiveness. A young, unwed woman tells her friends she’s pregnant in Kathy Fish’s short-short, “What Kind of Person Gives Secrets To The Sky?” The strength of the piece is Fish’s ability to include humor, longing, pain, acceptance, and love in such few, fined-tuned sentences. In Mintzer Krotzer’s “The Black El Camino,” a young woman’s Thanksgiving is filled with mishaps and romantic intrigue. An alcoholic connects with his troubled son in Jim Nichols’ clever story, “The Plinktonians.” A mother helps her grieving son in M. Allen Cunningham’s moving piece, “Windmills.” In Ron MacLean’s “Last Seen, Hank’s Grille,” a scientist, on the verge of an important breakthrough, disappears on a road trip with his friend and benefactor. In Steve Almond’s “Boo-Man,” a man’s ego makes him complicit as he faces his killer. An ambivalent mother encounters a powerful woman and another plane of pleasure in Terri Brown-Davidson’s atmospheric story, “The Dance Teacher.” A young girl finds a way out of a non-authentic life in Rachel May’s “Owl.” A woman meets interesting characters while riding a bus in Nadine Darling’s gorgeously written, “He Lives In My Mouth.” In Grant Bailie’s hilarious “You Are One Click Away From Pictures Of Naked Girls,” a man tries to discover the source of his clumsiness in the bedroom. Ray Vukcevich’s “Duck” imagines what might happen if an alien met a duck. And lastly, “Cut Lip” is Larry Fondation’s fabulous short-short inspired by word-drawings by Ed Ruscha.

I’m excited by my recent discovery of the journal, Ninth Letter. I pulled the following portion of an editor’s description from their website:

…Ninth Letter, the magazine, seeks to merge literature with various fields of creative and intellectual life, such as visual arts, journalistic arts, science, history, and cultural studies. We seek these intersections not only in the creative content we accept, but also in the overall design and form of the magazine itself. In this sense, we view the magazine as an organic work of art: the overall interaction among the components is as important as the discrete objects within the content.

The journal is beautiful visually, as well as significantly larger than most. It’s published semi-annually by the University of Illinois. It has a body of editors, designers, art directors and assistants. My only complaint, and it’s a small one, is the difficulty I had reading white text on a dark background. Fortunately, I ran into that problem with only two of the stories.

What happens when a cowardly man goes Bungee-jumping and loses his soul? Steve Stern offers an answer in his wildly imaginative, darkly humorous, “Legend of the Lost,” the first story in the issue. Todd Dodson explores the veracity of non-fiction and the power of story with his hilarious “This Is Not Fiction.” A man who believes himself to be the guardian of saintly bones is betrayed by his son in Robin Hemley’s “The Warehouse of Saints.” At a New Kids on the Block concert, a photographer and a mother both do things they wouldn’t normally in “Hundreds Of Thousands Of Flashes Of Light,” a story by Elizabeth Ames. For career day a writer speaks to a group of high-schoolers in a hilarious story by Tom House, “The L and the C.” A fiery spirit haunts the people of Point-à-Pitre in Gisèle Pineau’s “The Woman in Flames.” A woman tallies her annoyances in excerpts from “Living Together,” by Lydie Salvayre. “God’s Inbox” by Ronald F. Currie Jr. is brilliant on both the sentence level and for its broader philosophical premise.

The poetry is strong with surprising rich imagery and large themes. I enjoyed every one but perhaps my favorites were those by L.S. Asekoff. From his “Farragio: An Aria”:

…I agree, ‘In the maternity ward of the stars/ the Unknown is born out of Nothing.’ / No is the mother of Yes,/ & yet nothing can explain runaway sexual selection,/ the sun’s slight preference for red,/ the tyranny of outcomes that leads us to/ radiator as wings, clockwork cicadas, locusts in their primes,/ the inventor of tone-rows’s fear of 13.

And from his “The Winter Master”:

As when winter blizzards/ wind about the shape of things/ sheets of whiteness/ making still statuary of a world–/shrouded absence-blind shadows/ of no thing, I watched night/ spread over everything/ its formless mystery-the white caul.

Eula Biss weaves historical facts with the personal in her moving essay “All Apologies.” Sheryl St. Germain remembers her late brother and New Orleans in her heart-breaking non-fiction piece “After the Flood.” David McGlynn writes frankly of his mother’s on and off blindness and of familial troubles and legacies in his memoir “Detachment.” Vanessa Carlisle shares her experiences as a Dame for the Toledo Show in her fascinating piece “Forever a Dame.” “A Cheat Sheet Memoir,” by Seth Sawyers, is a quick glimpse into the curious and sensitive mind of a boy and his journey into adulthood. Genine Lentine shares her reflections on beauty that arise during a drawing session in her essay “Roses.”

Mention video games to me and my first impulse is to roll my eyes, but “Only a Game,” an essay by Joseph Squier and Nan Goggin, illustrates how writers and artists can change the face of traditional gaming and take it to a more literary, artful level. Even I was intrigued by the possibilities. Finally, near the end of the issue is a section called “Where We’re @.” In this section, Leslie Singleton writes of the virtues of Joseph-Beth Booksellers a successful independent; Christine Bryant Cohen writes about Laclede’s Landing a wax museum in Saint Louis, Missouri; Laura Koritz explains why the tap water of Champaign Illinois is so good; and Jodee Stanley writes about the town in which Walt Disney grew up: Marceline, Missouri.

I asked the editor what special quality a submission to Ninth Letter would need to have and this was Jodee’s answer: “The one quality that we look for in every submission to Ninth Letter, be it a story, poem, or essay, is emotional investment. We aren’t interested in experiment for experiment’s sake, or craft for craft’s sake. The writing needs to live, and all the technical skill in the world won’t breathe life into a work–the writer needs to believe in it, and then we will, too.” Ninth letter is an innovative journal and one I’ll be subscribing to for a long time.


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