Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ongoing notes: some Canadian journals

The New Quarterly #109: Despite my hesitations on much of the poetry they regularly publish (which I think more stylistic than anything else), I’ve been very taken with what The New Quarterly has been doing over the past couple of years, reveling in their new format, and watching their development through increased non-fiction features (that I’ve increasingly enjoyed, with each issue), from the short pieces on early magazine reading that changed a particular writer’s life, to the ongoing “falling in love with poetry” feature [see my own version here] that started with the original piece, written by Montreal writer Robyn Sarah. Thanks to a friend’s loaned copy some months ago, for example, I was able to read the Montreal issue, including perhaps the finest poem I’ve ever seen from Montreal writer Stephanie Bolster, one that also appeared on their website (I still don’t own a copy of that issue). With the six cities issue that The Capilano Review did a couple of years back and Montreal featured in TNQ, when does some print journal start featuring some of the writers in Ottawa?

Night Zoo

Dogs ravaged the yard where yesterday
rabbits and toads. The dead
fed to the cages and the dark.
The mouth of the mouth.
Plants dangled from pegs
beside padlocks. Reaching,
though they weren’t.
A dark stain on concrete.
A little water.
Let’s go, I said,
meaning stay

And, as I found out recently, The New Quarterly will be in Ottawa as part of the ottawa small press book fair on June 20; be sure to save your money for back issues or a subscription.

Descant #143: What’s really made Toronto journal Descant for me over the past few years have to be the “Contributing Editor’s Column,” with Alberto Manguel and Mark Kingwell taking turns, and alone worth the price of the journal. This most recent issue is themed on “cats,” which I admit, I prefer over dogs, but much of the content leaves me cold, but for the rare piece here and there (I think this is, again, stylistic). I would have liked to have, say, seen more pieces working around stories and mythologies of cats, instead of furthering the domestic bliss of wayward wild beasts roaming kitchen and living room floors. But there were interesting exceptions, whether parts of Betsy Struthers' poem “Frost Moon: November,” the photographs of barn cats (being from a dairy farm, I know these well), or this short piece by Ottawa writer F.G. Foley (who is this person?):


midnight soprano
with a memory of jungles
green in your eyes

with Egyptian mysteries
in the arch of your back

I watch in wonder
your exquisite attention
to a blade of grass

your fastidious mouth
of petals on a moth

your immaculate cruelty
does honour to old gods

Really, I found the editor and guest-editor columns most entertaining this time around; this is one of the few journals I’ve seen that let those who help make the issue, whether editorial or production or all of the above, write regularly in each issue, and the only place that I think I’ve seen it work, with each piece adding instead of taking away. How can you not love a piece written by Michael Mitchell, guest editor for the issue, on when he once owned a tiger? As he writes in his piece:

Sometimes we put our hearts before our heads and do dumb things. I began to negotiate for that little animal. Three mescals and twenty dollars later I was the owner of a baby wildcat.

And a lot of trouble.
But I’ll let you read the rest for yourself. I can only tell you that it’s worth it. And I’ll leave the last words to Manguel, from his column, “The Mind as Siberia,” where he writes:

What we call history is that ongoing story which we pretend to decipher as we make it up. This Dostoyevsky fully understood when he said that, if our belief in immortality were destroyed, “everything would be permissible.” Like history, immortality need not be true for us to believe it.
Riddle Fence: A Journal of Arts & Culture #2: When I first saw the call for submissions, I was intrigued by this new journal out of St. John’s, Newfoundland. There is so much happening in that east that simply never seems to get out, whether this, or the Running the Goat [see my note on such here], unfortunately a press I never saw works from after my initial package (the problems with a country so regional). A glossy, bound journal of “high quality fiction, non-fiction, poetry, artwork, anything else that fits on paper and punches above its own artistic weight,” Riddle Fence is fixed in that eastern place that we in the (so-called) centre can only dream about, but interested in the larger world, working on a poetry, at least, that holds to straighter narratives, publishing the works of John Steffler, David B. Hickey, David O’Meara (from his recent third poetry collection [see my review of such here]), Elise Partridge and Leslie Vryenhock. Not only the second issue, but the first issue that you weren’t expecting (apparently), as editor Mark Callanan begins his introduction (“On the Fence”):

Here’s the thing: We haven’t been entirely honest with you. While we (not the majestic plural but the collective behind the publication of Riddle Fence) may have let on that the first issue of Riddle Fence was a one-off celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador, we had other things in our devious little minds. It was always our intent, if possible, to keep Riddle Fence going on something approximating a regular publishing schedule. Arts funding being what it is these days (something of a mythical creature composed of various borrowed parts: the public grin of a politician, the red-rimmed eyes of an arts administrator, and the sunken cheeks of a poet), we weren’t certain we could pull it off. New literary journals are notoriously short-lived; high on ambition and low on money, they often march onto the scene with a fanfare of trumpets, only to duck into a narrow side street partway through the celebratory parade—disappearing into some dingy bar, maybe, where they spend the rest of their days begging beer to anaesthetize the failure of having had great ideas that no one would invest in.
In this second issue (I do hope there are more), I’m intrigued by these long lines of Tonja Gunvaldsen Klaasen, and always like to see poems by Steve McOrmond. There’s a worthy feature on the works of Tom Dawe and Gerald Squires introduced by the underappreciated, understated and brilliant Stan Dragland which makes me wonder why more writers aren’t doing more to help engage with their communities with such knowledge and generosity. It’s important for journals such as this to exist, to celebrate and promote their regions and to link them up with the further world, for the sake of the locals and outsiders alike (much like, say, the recent British Columbia journal LAKE: a journal of arts and environment I talked about a while back), and can only hope that such a journal keeps going.

A man’s footsteps in the stairwell, slow and heavy.
The desperate ones always show up late and alone.
I brace myself for the weight of withholding.
Nobody wants a bad fortune. Shy, awkward,
his gaze keeps darting into corners.
He is young, tall and very, very thin.
It doesn’t take any special powers to know
what his red bandanna is meant to conceal.
Not everyone grows old. I’m sorry, dear,
I was just about to close. Tonight, the cards
are unhappy, the tea leaves aren’t talking,
at least not to me. He stands, shakily,
like a man balancing on stilts and without a word
descends the noisy steps to the street.
Sometimes, despite myself, I do see. (Steve McOrmond, “The Fortune Teller,” pt. 3)

For more information, you can find them online, or c/o po box 7092, St. John’s, NL, A1E 3Y3.

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