Seven Great Lit Mags from 2011
Best of lists are by definition failures. They are subjective and, in most cases, arbitrary. But they can be useful for the conversations they create (often born from disagreement) and their recognition of quality; they bring attention to things. Though the media is awash with similar lists for albums, books, film, restaurants, and much else, I can’t recall ever seeing an annual one for the literary magazine—and 2011 was a great year for these magazines. What follows are seven literary magazine successes of 2011, in no particular order. Why seven? Lack of time, only. Many are missing from this list. Please add your comments; quality deserves recognition at the very least.
Without a doubt, Triple Canopy is one the most adept publishers at using the Internet as a unique medium with its own rules and possibilities (each issue brings with it an original online reading experience)—and TC also manages to be one of the best avant garde publications running in any medium. Issue 14, their “Counterfactuals” issue, is their self-proclaimed “first literary, or not not literary, issue,” and like most things put out by TC it is a mind bomb. The theme is summed up by Lucy Ives & Co. as “a sensibility both within and without form, genre, medium”—which includes diagram poems, performance pieces, semi-autobiographical surreal theater from Mina Loy, aphorisms from Sam Moyer, anthropology from Tan Lin, and more work way outside the box/screen.
Thanks to the efforts of translator Ted Goossen and the editors of A Public Space, 2011 readers were introduced to the acclaimed Japanese literary magazine Monkey Business, edited by Motoyuki Shibata (curator, along with Roland Kelts, of the Focus: Japan portfolio in APS 1). According to Stuart Dybek’s letter inserted into the issue, “Each year, a magazine of highlights from issues of Monkey Business will appear in English translation via A Public Space…. The first issue features poetry, manga, a wide-ranging, in-depth interview with Haruki Murakami, fiction from Hideo Furukawa, a beautiful sequence of vignettes by Hiromi Kawakami, and much more.” The extensive, 50+ page interview with Murakami by Furukawa is enough in itself to make the issue a must-read. Adding Furukawa’s own story “Monsters,” Yoko Ogawa’s mesmerizing and disturbing “The Tale of the House of Physics,” and a manga comic based on Kafka’s “The Country Doctor,” sends the issue into the stratosphere.
With TriQuarterly gone from the print world, Bradford Morrow’s Conjunctions is probably the biggest doorstop of a literary magazine around, and for good reason. Morrow is one of the best editor/curators of literary magic working in periodicals, and issue 56 of Conjunctions exhibits these talents, offering a kind of literary richness found little elsewhere. The issue reads like walking into a Cirque de Soleil tent, or making a film with Julie Taymor; everything pushes to (sometimes beyond) the edge of the extraordinary. The opening story—Benjamin Hale’s “The Minus World”—explores the lower depths, and sent me enthusiastically back to Mario Bros. video games after a decades-long hiatus, and Charles Bernstein’s manifesto-like “Recalculating” somehow represents both voice and anti-voice, entropy and container. Then there is Susan Steinberg underwater, Kleeman’s “Brief History of Weather,” G.C. Waldrep’s discretions, Coover, Straub, Marche, Swenson… I can honestly say I haven’t read the entire 380-page issue, but neither has it left my desk since it arrived six months ago. I dip in and out, as I would A Thousand Plateaus or The Arcades Project, and, as with those books, am consistently rewarded.
Certainly there are an increasing number of poetry magazines online, but few of them give such a pleasurable reading experience as Octopus, whose 14th issue is yet again one of the most fascinating collections of verse around. (The reviews in the issue are also fine, and the “Recovery Projects” of older texts very admirable.) The work in this issue almost to a poem seems strikingly in line with the hybrid, rhizomatic poetry described by Swenson/St. John in 2009 (and very influenced by the New York School). But for me, this issue simply contains some of the most engaging, invigorating poetry around—for example. the following excerpt from the long poem, “A Geography of Pleasure,” by Amy King, without a doubt one of the best poems of the year:
…I have never had anything
to say in the face of such prisons. I’m open. My conversation
is a play on the stage of vanity, the who I fuck
and the why I am no boy, how I erase the space
of his mouth’s residence from my skin, how I was never
a room to his marriage plans. I meticulously color out
the ease of nonchalance, the temptation to settle
into permanent housing. Good fences make good cages
and good cages teach patience. Or so the ides of childhood
sell those skeletal portals. I always wanted
escape into dwelling but never held the map’s location.
I beheld the misprints. And ate that choreography…
After threatening to for a couple years, ZYZZYVA founding editor and publisher Howard Junker finally stepped down at the beginning of 2011, handing over the reigns to former managing editor Laura Cogan (Oscar Villalon from McSweeney’s and San Francisco Chronicle took over Cogan’s former position). Issue 92 was Cogan and Villalon’s first issue. Though Junker did so much for West Coast writing and publishing, running an accomplished magazine with one of the most successful literary magazine business models around, with her first two issues in 2011, Cogan has brought out one of the most accomplished literary magazines in content and design I remember seeing in recent years; like a new editor arguably should, Cogan has put her stamp on ZYZZYVA, carrying the magazine to a new level of publishing. Wrapped inside some of some stunning new design work from Three Steps Ahead (I’m a pushover for nice endpapers and french flaps), the issue includes hilarious fiction from Tom Bissell, a band story by Will Boast eerily reminiscent of my time living in NW PDX, alongside more fiction, the usual fine art, and poetry—such as Heather Altfield’s “Houdini at 40″: “There is nothing / that disarms me like milk-cans full of pennies.”
Ezra Pound defined lit mags as the home of the avant garde. 1913: A Journal of Forms, published by Sandra & Ben Doller (aka Miller & Doyle), is the journal that seems to be most successfully following that tradition. The magazine is a reading experience, one that admittedly takes time to settle into, time rewarded a hundred times over. (I personally set this no table of contents, no page numbers mass of texts aside for months before reading it.) Intentionally or not, this issue of 1913 feels like one solid unit, a mass of boundary pushing, of pressing words into new forms, of writers so obviously invigorated by language, both its beauty and complexity: Downing, Bernstein, Ives, Mohammad, etc. Reaching again into lit mag past, this issue feels like what Margaret Anderson was trying to create a century ago: If I had a magazine I could spend my time filling it up with the best conversation the world has to offer.
Some publications have a great year, with a consistency (and schedule) that make it difficult to isolate one specific moment. Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics, publishes continually fascinating issues twice monthly. Once every two weeks last year, I would lose 2-3 hours in the morning reading through interviews with Craig Thompson and David Simon, fiction from Jess Row and Laura van den Berg, poetry from Limón and Cortázar—not to mention new essays from Slavoj Žižek, Deb Olin Unferth, and John Berger. I began not opening emails from Guernica, not wanting to get lost in the texts, sending links into cyberspace. Sure, their staff has grown over the years, but it’s sill amazing this online publication could cover so much of the globe consistently so well—its literature, art, and politics—and offer it all up for free (with essentially no ads) is impressive, and deserving of more than just recognition: it deserves a wealth of readers.