A Blend of Timeless and Contemporary in Boston Lit Mag
“I’m writing this on Election Day, November 8th 2016, at midday, the results as yet unknown,” writes Salamander’s Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Barber in her Editor’s Note for issue #43. The following pages read like a relic from a (relatively) more peaceful time, a calm before the storm. Many of the pieces in Salamander, especially the poetry, depict scenes of nature, provincial churches and steeples, small towns in the Midwest or as far as Wales. Rivers and wisteria and certain slants of light populate the pages as characters. This is a world where “tulips grow out of chimneys,” as in Austin Sanchez-Moran’s “Instructional Poem.” This is a place where “crickets tell what they know of the night,” as in Ryan Paradiso’s “Ohio Hills,” where we go to find “all the sounds of the universe” as in Douglas Luman’s “Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.” Welcome to Salamander.
Salamander Magazine, published twice yearly, was in founded in 1992 by Barber, Scholar-In-Residence at Suffolk University, with “the aim of publishing a generation of writers reaching artistic maturity and deserving of a wider audience alongside new work by established writers,” as the magazine’s website reads.
Salamander itself is an unassuming book, largely substance over style. The only art and color appears on the cover. While the content, formatted in an elegant font, is a visually pleasant reading experience, Salamander might consider an updated design to its front matter, spine, and back cover. While flashiness is certainly not everything, the book feels a bit antiquated. And it never hurts for a journal to be more eye-catching -- the more people who pick it up, the better.
A glance at the contributor’s notes reveals impressive accomplishments -- many have published books (usually by independent or university presses), have completed MFAs, and/or work as professors. They have published work in journals ranging from Prairie Schooner to Electric Literature to Virginia Quarterly Review, to The Paris Review. A large portion of the contributors live and work in the Boston area, giving a cozy, but not exclusive, feel to Salamander. In the same way that certain authors can be described as “writers' writers,” I would imagine that Salamander is a more of writer’s journal, largely serving a certain Boston literary community. However, I’m sure it would also appeal to any person with an interest in nature and thoughtful writing.
Issue #43 is heavy on the poetry, with five short stories interspersed throughout (one an award winner and one a runner-up), and four eclectic reviews of two books from university presses, and two books from larger publishing houses.
On the whole, the poems in this issue of Salamander are imagistic, portraits of ephemeral moments in time: a freezing pond, a winter Thursday, an Ohio evening. Epiphanies seems besides the point. Poems are usually no longer than a page, and often conducted in simple free-verse. There’s lots to love here: Ellen Kaufman’s “The Ice Pond” and “The Cherries of Kenwood," Monica Rose Burchfield’s “Toledo” and Becky Kennedy’s “Birthday” were some of my favorites. However, I found that after reading so many of these types of poems in such a quick succession, they tended to blur together and began to seem formulaic. For a roster of such established writers, it was rare for a poem in this issue to achieve a new height, to really make me stop and think.
The poems that broke this form were automatically more striking: Natalie Homer’s “Montana” was that rare piece that stunned me. The prose poem took the form of an encyclopedia entry, a form Homer certainly didn’t invent, but one that she expertly bends to her will. The last section, “Culture,” carried most of the poem’s weight, but it was strong enough to do so: “How only you can prevent forest fires. You, like the crystals I dug up and kept for years on my dresser. In the sunlight on a mountainside, you are brilliant. Under fluorescence, you dull and one afternoon I will find that I’ve lost you.”
Ben Berman’s three consecutive prose poems -- “Compounds,” “Sides” and “Fronts” -- added another dose of flavor. And Tara Skurtu’s “Postscript, Vermeer” took familiar themes (light, dark, magnolia) and breathed new life into them in a form that broke the one-page, free verse boundary. It centered around a painting (presumably by Vermeer) and a viewer’s response to it, which, again, was refreshing after pages of nature scenes.
While on the whole, the poetry felt timeless, (a notable exception being Elizabeth Ferry’s “Ode to My IUD,” an excellent piece but one that seemed like an outlier in Salamander, perhaps better suited to a more modern, political journal) the fiction felt more contemporary. For one, the stories were littered with elements every day life in 2017 that were largely absent in the poetry: texts, e-books, selfies, and slang, some of these taking a mildly important role in the plot itself. Characters in the fiction also tended to be younger than (the few) characters in the poetry and were more apt to grapple with transient issues of identity, rather than the depths of age and time.
J.L. Montavon’s “Recursions,” the story of three roommates and a strange snake that appears to be eating itself whole inside their house, is the fiction prizewinner.
Its first appearance was at the start of spring. Ellen was in the bathroom, about to shower. She pulled back the curtain and there it was, filling the bathtub, folded in figure eights. We argued its origins on the refrigerator:
JIM FOR GOD’S SAKE KEEP THE SNAKE IN YOUR ROOM
ELLEN - IT’S NOT MINE!!!! JIM
NOT MINE EITHER. JAKE
The snake didn’t care. It took up residence under the breakfast table. This was the first recursion.
I enjoyed this piece, but its presence also confused me in a few ways. Incidentally, this is the piece that begins the issue. Its inherent quirkiness and offbeat nature sets a tone that isn’t matched by the rest of the content. Also, while certainly fresh and unique, I did not think it was actually the strongest piece of fiction in this issue and seemed like it could have benefitted from some additional editing; a few sections could have been omitted for a much tighter story overall.
My vote for fiction prize winner would have gone to Sonya Larson’s “Gabe Dove” or Andrea Uptmor’s incredible “Little Grief.”
“I met Gabe Dove at a time when I was sad and attracting men who liked me sad,” the narrator begins “Gabe Dove.” While grappling with the loss of a previous boyfriend, referred to only as Ex, a co-worker sets the narrator, Chuntao, up with the titular Gabe Dove. “He was Asian. Did Angela pick him because of that? Maybe she had that on her mind. Maybe like that would make us more compatible. But what about the rest of me, Angela? What about all of that?” The story’s strong sense of voice pulls the reader along as Chuntao explores her identity, both cultural and interior.
“Little Grief” is the story of a lesbian couple reeling in the immediate aftermath of a miscarriage, and their weekend trip to a renovated prairie church, owned by a woman who tells them to “be glad” of their misfortune, that “everything happens for a reason.” The characters are vivid, the prose is excellent, and the story itself is heartbreaking and hopeful in all the right places.
It’s hard to tell if the juxtaposition of styles between the poetry and prose was purposeful, but it does seem to widen the pool of writers that should submit to Salamander. If you are a more contemporary fiction writer, don’t be dissuaded by the poetry selections -- your work could very well find a home in Salamander.