Brackish Terrain/Literary Experimentation
The field is large
And there never is a pony.
This first line, from the second poem in Salt Hill, Issue 28, John Gallaher’s “Anecdote of the Pony,” doesn’t exactly describe the issue. There are a few ponies in it, but the field is indeed large.
Salt Hill is “published by a group of writers affiliated with the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University,” and “funded in part by the College of Arts & Sciences and the Graduate Student Organization of Syracuse University.” Issue 28 showcases the program’s faculty and alumnae, interviewing Writing Program faculty Mary Caponegro and Dana Spiotta, and alumna Maile Chapman. Work by Chapman and another alumna, Bridget Lowe, also appears. Doesn’t seem cricket, somehow.
The magazine trends toward the academic generally: twelve of this issue’s twenty-five poets and writers teach at colleges or universities or edit literary magazines; two more are students. Almost all have published books or chapbooks, though almost all are early in their careers. Salt Hill’s clubby attitude and self-consciously experimental notions nudge it toward the cliquish, the ironic, and the distant—the strong feelings here belong mainly to the writers, who don’t necessarily aim to evoke such feelings in readers.
The editors’ letter murkily notes that “each of us is contained by and immersed in personal experience, our brackish travels of the past and their briny apparitions in the present.” Among the titles meant to contain and immerse:
• “Because Thought Isn’t Prayer” (poem, John Gallaher)
• “For You Out of Soft Materials” (poem, Laura Eve Engel)
• “if you do not have a face because your face is a television then your father is probably mowing a piece of the suburbs” (prose, Mark Baumer)
• “Sgt. Slaughter” (prose, Casey Wiley)
• “Falling in Love with the Death Thought” (poem, Zachary Schomburg)
• “My soul sometimes floats out of my body. I don’t listen to the radio while driving.” (poem, Tony Trigilio)
The editors further comment that “the stories, poems, interviews, and art in our 28th issue are reminders of the inspiration that comes with encapsulation; if we are living in a body, we are writing. From how we persist together to how we perish.”
The poetry and prose, with a few exceptions, combine the surrealist language of un cadavre exquis with an anti-narrative nonlinearity or randomness. Flat declarative sentences seem to be the rule, as in these first lines of poetry and prose:
• “It’s summer and the bodies fling sweat at each other.” (“For You Out of Soft Materials”)
• “The boy in the labyrinth carves a rose on his thigh. The demands of the
carving, elaborate, like the composition of stadium rows viewed from
above or the tiers of petals suggesting a function.” (“Labyrinth 18,” poem, Oliver de la Paz)
• “There was an ad on the back of a comic book to call Mr. T, so we did.” (“Sgt. Slaughter”)
• “The people here have all fallen in love with
their own meaninglessness, but I’m not sure what that means.” (“The Wild Meaninglessness,” poem, Zachary Schomburg)
• “I drew a picture of an orphan.
She looked like a little girl.” (from “Ezekiel,” poem, Brett DeFries)
Exceptions include John Skoyles’s lovely elegy, “Friday Night with My Dead Friends,” in which he remembers drinking with poets Michael Sheridan, Jason Shinder, Larry Levis, Alan Dugan, and a friend named Sara:
. . . singing We’re in the Money. . .
in pig latin, not church latin,
not that latin of the god
who spoke so little to so many,
but the one who wrote
the music of the spheres
and, secondhand, the symphony
that tingles the bones
of the dead in the living room
of their understudy.
James Robison’s darkly humorous “Zurich” is also notable, along with Maile Chapman’s “Foreign Wedding,” despite its clunky and unnecessary opening paragraph. They also keep us at a significant emotional distance, however, especially “Foreign Wedding”:
I pulled off my blouse but not my bra and not my skirt, and he fucked me from behind on the bed roughly but without disarranging the bedspread and in a way that was just fine with me.
On the other hand, the language in John Madera’s e-mail interview of Mary Caponegro is certainly not flat. Madera calls Caponegro’s collection, All Fall Down, “syntactically baroque, expansively philosophical, and darkly comic,” and Caponegro herself “a virtuoso.”
She doesn’t disagree. “I always say I’d rather be taught than bought, and I’ve been lucky to be taught in the experimental ‘canon’ and to fill a niche in the Italian-American one . . . . I have no illusions about my demanding, esoteric work generating some huge readership,” she comments. She also recalls her influences and helpers, especially John Hawkes, as well as Robert Kelly, William Gaddis, and Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, and discusses her process.
Rachel Abelson, one of Salt Hill’s two editors-in-chief, interviews Dana Spiotta, author of Stone Arabia, Eat the Document, and Lightning Fields, who confides that she “moved around a lot as a child, and that may have given me a precociously self-reflexive sense of the flimsy constructs that make up our identities. Each move was a chance to try another version of myself . . . [but] each version of myself totally failed to make the impression I wanted. . . . I was a lonely kid.” Further on, she notes that “all writing is an exercise in masochistic ambition.”
“Where would you like to see American literature heading?” Salt Hill asked Maile Chapman. Her reply is illuminating: “Feeling entitled to speak one’s mind is a very American trait, and I’m so glad I grew up with the absolute right to express myself. But the flip side is that I’ve had to learn that not everything I say or write is automatically of interest or importance to others. And now I ask myself, when I’m writing: why should someone take the time to read this story or novel or whatever? Sometimes I feel like literary fiction avoids that question . . . .”
That question is the essential one. To my mind, this issue of Salt Hill doesn’t quite answer it.