Art, Design, Defamiliarization: A Lit Mag for the Avant-Garde
People forget what you can do with paper. Let’s be honest: most literary magazines look the same. A bright cover that when flipped open will reveal carefully, neatly laid prose and poetry, and perhaps a series of photos or drawings. Occasionally, as dedicated readers, you will encounter a lit mag with wider margins or some other editorial quirkiness. It’s what’s inside that really counts: you want the heart-breaking poems and fantastical stories, not just some cool design.
With Ninth Letter, a literary magazine produced and published by the Graduate Creative Writing Program and School of Art & Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, you can have the best of both worlds: fabulous writing and avant-garde design.
The magazine is composed of four mini-magazines. By mini, I don’t mean that these units are actually small (they are not—in fact, each mini-magazine, except the poetry magazine, is approximately the same size as a regular literary magazine), instead that they are what the greater whole is composed of. The first mini-magazine is filled with photography done in black, white, gray, and yellow. Photos of skating rinks, hands, and pure black pages with random yellow high-lighting shock and de-familiarize readers. The artists seem to be telling us to look further, examine closer. My favorite series of photos in this mini-magazine is photos within photos. In particular, we see hands holding a book with different photos (many of which we have seen earlier in the mini-magazine) pasted throughout. As my hands hold the lit mag with the picture of hands holding a lit mag, I experience a rather meta-moment.
The second mini-magazine is titled “Subliminal History of New York State Route of Progress” and is filled with “fuging tunes, odes, and instruction for participatory reading.” Yes: this section is filled with song, in addition to a few loopy drawings! I am not a musician and cannot understand the musical notes and arrangements, but there was even a set of instruction explaining music in the beginning.
Finally, the meat of it. The poetry section is a pull-out section from the fiction section; a slim volume of hot pink sheets with blue font. Matthew Dickman evokes Frank O’Hara in his set of poems titled respectively, “I Made You Dinner Bob Kaufman!” and “I Miss You Allen Ginsberg!” Employing the same direct, engaging qualities O’Hara utilizes in poems such as “Lana Turner Has Collapsed!” Dickman’s poems focus on his relationships with these Beat poets. He writes that Bob Kaufman “never called./And that’s alright/ because I never really invited you. Only you were/ gone somewhere in silent seventies/ and I was starving.” The longing and sense of hunger that Dickman demonstrates is further illuminated by the foods he chooses to serve Bob Kaufman.
The fiction section features mostly experimental stories— told almost always from a first-person point of view, employing unique narrators and forms, and mostly on the shorter side. One of my favorite stories was Benjamin Rybeck’s “Dad Stuff.” Told from the point of view of a dead son, this story examines both friendship and family. Two fathers are friends and their children become boyfriend and girlfriend. When the son dies, the story grapples with the consequences. Because it is told from the son’s point of view, the story is never morbid and often hilarious. Rybeck perfectly captures voice. Another story I enjoyed was Kevin Wilson’s exquisite flash fiction “The Human Element in the Machine Process” which discusses a family whose son’s is hooked to a machine. Inventive and imaginative, Wilson’s story, like Rybeck’s refrains from becoming melodramatic.
Ninth Letter is a fresh and avant-garde literary magazine, with delightful form and excellent content.