Slipstream, Satire, and Mainstream: An Online Journal With Many Offerings
It may be virtual, but Prime Number Magazine feels solid; it’s published by small North Carolina publisher Press 53, and the magazine has established a rhythm of four online issues a year, monthly online updates, and a print annual. The magazine’s name ties it to Press 53 (53, a prime number, get it?), and prime numbers identify each issue. The most recent issue, 17 (in reality the seventh issue), offers a balance of short stories, creative nonfiction, and poetry. A brief Q-and-A with each writer follows each piece.
As to fiction, Brandon Patterson’s memorable “At the Edge of the Earth” describes the last voyage of Italian explorer John Cabot (Giovanni Cabato), a mix of historical fiction and fantasy. It’s a story with a lot of detail, and a lot of heart: “His men row out to pods of whales in the manner of the Basque fishers. With a spear made of a gaffe bound to a split oar, they take a whale and butcher it for fat and meat. Oil is made from the blubber for the warming pots strung belowdecks like lanterns. From the whale’s mouth protrudes a great tusk; it strikes Caboto as so strange that it saddens him to watch the beast die.” The story’s surprising end evokes a little of both Borges and C.S. Lewis.
John Carr Walker’s story “Grandeur” details a man’s breakdown and the end of a relationship during a West Nile virus outbreak. Pet, the narrator, collects dead birds for lab examination: The “dead birds became such a common sight people stopped making reports. I’d be driving home and see them littering the highway like a load spilled off a truck. I blocked traffic bagging and tagging, horns blasting behind me…. I was called names, considered crazy. Me, the fine line separating public health from an epidemic, called crazy.” “Grandeur” has a slipstream feel to it, with a lovely, seemingly inevitable ending.
Daniel Meltzer’s satirical “Minutes of the Last Meeting” captures the tedium and silliness of committee meetings, in this case, the Committee on Committees. And Gleah Powers’ “Art Lessons” is strong on its Southwest setting and on characterizing the narrator’s infamous old art teacher, but reads a little more like a memoir than a story.
As to issue 17’s poetry, Brian Simoneau’s three poems beautifully evoke their New England mill-town setting. One narrator surveys the end of the day from inside his gas station:
“He’s always liked /the smell of gas, how it stings his nose, stays /in his clothes, soaks his skin. How easily he’d light—/sparks from a dragging tailpipe, a flicked cigarette—/how high the flare, how quickly he’d burn up.”
Katherine Young’s two poems look at the moments after a woman’s been hit by her abusive boyfriend. “Soul Food” offers straightforward but remarkable couplets:
“You say it’s all my fault: / I ask too much, love //too deep. Don’t make me do it / again, you say. I know / you mean it. Like you mean / this next thing: when we’ve split // the last crumb of cornbread, made /our exit past the catfish //gazing lugubrious in/his tank…”
The issue’s nonfiction takes on a range of topics. Ellen Kirchner’s impressionistic “Confirmation” looks back to the late 1960s, to the narrator’s “year of death” when two high-school classmates die, and then a third death leads her to see her father differently. The piece is grounded in its Reform-Jewish Riverdale, NY, setting, but I wished for more sympathy from the narrator toward her parents – to see them not only through the eyes of a teenager, but of the middle-aged parent she’s become.
Kathryn Rhett’s brief “Sanguine” shows a woman getting a low-cost blood screening, more of a moment than an essay. Mary Alice Hostetter’s “The Road to the Correctional Center” describes in vivid detail a visit with a young man imprisoned for murdering his father. It’s an unsettling essay, with many unanswered questions. And Jessica Erica Hahn-Taylor’s “Chop Wood, Carry Water” describes her family’s stay in the Andrews Forest in the Oregon Cascades, focusing on an incident with an ax. It feels part travel piece, part meditation on the esoteric, such as axes’ place in myth and culture.
Prime Number also includes a book-review section and a craft essay – Buzz Mauro’s “Expanding the Powers of First-Person Narration.” I wish more literary magazines ran accessible craft essays like this one. With rule-breaking examples from Melville, Flaubert, and contemporary writers, Mauro shows us the inventiveness of expanded, sometimes even omniscient, first-person narration.
If you’re thinking of submitting, Prime Number editor Cliff Garstang says that he and the magazine’s other editors aren’t consciously looking for particular prose or poetry styles. “We just want the work to stand out,” he says. “Sometimes it’s about language or setting; sometimes it’s just a new way of telling an old story.”
A few submission tips from Garstang:
-- Proofread your work before you submit! Half the battle is won if the manuscript is really clean.
-- Make the opening clear and strong. Too many good stories are spoiled by lifeless openings that confuse the reader, even if the confusion is cleared up on page two.
-- Double space prose (and put the word count on the first page).
-- Don’t put a lot of energy into the cover letter – keep it simple.