Hefty Volume Offers Abundance of Wonderful Writing
In this 37th installment of Passages North, an annual publication chock full of all stripes of creative writing out of Northern Michigan University, there is quite simply, something for everyone. In this one hefty volume, one can find poetry that adheres to a specific form (two pantoums and a ghazal!), poetry that does not, long-form creative non-fiction, short hybrid essays, micro fiction, and longer works of fictional prose. Rather than weave a theme or emphasize a specific creative niche, all 259 pages of issue 37 of Passages North are dedicated to the memory of Ray Ventre, who, among others, helped take P.N. from an obscure publication to a nationally recognized undertaking at the University. There are simply too many wonderful contributors to this annual curation to name and comment on them all. Here then are a few stand-above pieces this reader finds remarkably representative of the talent contained in Passages North 37 as a whole.
Prominent in the journals first pages are award winning pieces of non-fiction and poetry. The 2015 Thomas J. Hruska Non-fiction prize, awarded to Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson for her essay, “On Nostalgia,” takes pride of place as the first creative piece. Dickinson’s prose feels to the reader the way she describes an individual’s mental and emotional traversings through a lifetime, like following multiple paths that are more like concentric circles than they are linear trajectories. This makes the piece intuitive and meditative. It’s about her history, growing up in the Appalachians, but it’s also about collective histories.
Other non-fiction contributions include pieces that fall into both traditional forms and hybrid forms. Lindsay Drager’s hybrid essay “In Defense of Anachronism: or, W.G. Sebald Interviews Me” is almost a performance, positioning death and the fleetingness (disaster) of our lives as art-machine. Death and the art it produces takes center stage in this piece, peppered throughout with black and white photos taken from the Library of Congress public domain archives. The photos are meant to have a triggering effect interspersed throughout the prose; hence anachronism. Drager channels W.G. Sebald, a German writer and academic, often concerned with memory, the loss of memory, and social and cultural decay.
Like the essay selections, the fictional content in this issue of P.N. can be divided into short-shorts and more general long-form short stories. Among the short-shorts, authors Megan Giddings and Stephanie Lenox both push the boundaries of flash prose with stunning pieces. Giddings' “Three Boyfriends” are a trio of vignettes that challenge the narrator’s sense of personal agency in each of three relationships. The piece is a little sad, but redemptive. Lenox’ three separate shorts “3.141592….,”(pi) “Ducks Redux,” and “Shameful” are quixotic and darkly humorous.
The longer story, “Saranac,” by Gabrielle Hovendon is impossibly sad. It tells the story of two young boys in a sanitarium, both to recover from a disease not named explicitly but very possibly tuberculosis. The first person narrator becomes very attached to another patient close to his age. The boys, likely hitting puberty, battle physical and emotional upheavals, which serves to cement their more-than-friendship until an ultimate farewell.
Kelsie Hahn’s “Naming the Baby” is a first person narration from a narrator more unreliable than most. The story is even structured in such a way as to cast doubt on whether or not any or all events have actually occurred. The effect is emotionally shattering.
One might arguably have to review many a slimmer publication not dedicated specifically to form poetry, to find old and honored forms such as the ghazal and the pantoum, but in Passages, there are inclusions of both. One ghazal and two pantoums, as mentioned earlier. Benjamin Golberg’s “Shoreline Ghazal” is full of creeds and capitulations. “Put a gash in something you need” reads one line. The structured piece is about putting one’s faith in experience and about hunger of memory. The same poet penned “Pantoum with Pharmaceutical Warning.” This piece is sad, and like a slow odyssey. The pantoum is perfect for this kind of itinerant poem. Richard Prins’ pantoum ”Pantoum Found in Jesus’ Son.” is both esoteric and mundane at once; God and his purposes intentionally confused with an individual’s quiet and clamorous impulses.
Among the numerous other poetry contributions, Nick Lantz “Taxidermy” poems stand out. Uses of bodies, interrogated, grappling with one’s spiritual tooling: “Oh but to hold forever/the tool of your own death,/in time even to appreciate/its balance,/its heft,/its poetry.”
A significant number of poems elsewhere in this issue deal specifically with bodies and what it means to be/have a body. Kaitlyn LaMoine Martin’s “Love Letter form the Cellar” speaks in a reincarnate, Faulknerian tone, calling up an eerily poignant necrophilia. Hannah Baggott’s “Do I have a Body or Am I a Body” plumbs conscious and subconscious processes. McKenzie Regier’s “Non Parlo” blurs the lines between spoken and bodily languages in a delightful exchange between two women from different countries.
Often, bodies perform in this issue. “Jennifer Givhan’s “Nieve in the Desert Circus” and Suzanne Parker’s “Possibly Picasso’s,” as well as Joseph Mulholland’s “Dorothea Tanning in Sedona Arizona” all enable an “acting out,” construct a performative space where individuals shapeshift and identify with “bright, dead things,” (to borrow the title from Ada Limon’s recent poetry collection, which repeated itself in this reader’s mind throughout the reading of these poems).
There is not space enough here to examine, in detail, the many, many other pieces contained in this annual. Suffice it to say that it is a well-rounded and diverse sampling of contemporary writing and experimentation. It is stated on the first introductory page, and the publication as a whole bears it out overwhelmingly, that hundreds of hours of work, largely volunteer work, enabled this production. Issue 37, dedicated to Ray Ventre, a man who hoped a literary basement project would succeed and grow, is a testament to that dream fulfilled.