A Lit Mag Filled With Unique Voices
Feel free to take my rating with a grain of salt. There was a lot I loved about Palooka, but some aspects of the magazine didn’t connect with me.
Palooka’s mission, to solicit nothing and read submissions blind, is admirable. As a result, the magazine is full of writers who aren’t necessarily armed with the baggage and slant of MFA culture. This issue was truly full of unique voices whose work surprised me. I enjoyed turning to the next piece and not knowing what to expect.
All the authors in this issue of Palooka have a bright writing future ahead of them, including the authors who are starting their careers later in life. It was heartening to see a wide age range among contributors (which was easy to spot because the Contributors page helpfully included a picture of each author). They all seem like really interesting people who have done more with their lives than hang out in an MFA program (like yours truly). For example, in addition to their writing careers — Bill Schillaci is a carpenter, Jim Ross worked as a public health researcher, Kevin Lichty has an adorable kid, and Joe Ponepinto has an adorable dog who drinks coffee. These bios felt candid rather than artfully artistic, which is unique in a literary journal. That freshness of perspective is reflected in their work.
Now, it’s true that almost all the contributors to this issue are white men. Is that a problem? In my opinion, not necessarily. If all journals were only full of white men (and at times that has seemed to be the case), that would be a HUGE problem. Fortunately, more journals are including a wider variety of writers that engage a wider variety of readers. Every issue of every lit mag doesn’t have to be about that, but one of many benefits of diversity is engaging a wider readership. At any rate, a lack of diversity is not always the case for Palooka. Perusing theirwebsite showed me they have had an even gender balance in past issues and books released through Palooka Press (though of course, I couldn’t tell whether there was POC diversity, too).
One reason I appreciate seeing more female authors in literary journals is for selfish reasons as a reader – I often find it easier to connect with characters written by women. I’m sure that lack affected my personal enjoyment of this particular issue.
Because the issue is a manageable size, I can cover all the authors and artists. In brief, here are the authors and works in Palooka Issue:
Andrew Steiner’s short story “Perhaps You Will Be Sheltered”:
This is about three buddies who rob and kill people while converting them to their cult. It seems outlandish, comic and surreal at first, with the gang (two guys and a girl) loving their crazy lives as murderer-evangelists. Then the leader of the gang is psychoanalyzed by a doctor whose treatment they need (and force at gunpoint), and it turns out he has some serious daddy issues. This causes the story to take a serious turn into the consequences of childhood sexual abuse. I didn’t love how the story made me feel, but it makes some truly interesting observations about religion, abuse, and the role of justice (both divine and human).
Frank Weisberg’s comic The Afterlife:
Interesting premise for a comic – ghosts making puns in what looks like Purgatory. For example, one strip features ghost General Custer giving two other ghosts directions, which the ghosts are unable to follow because “Custer’s too general.” Is this just about puns, or something deeper? The ghosts sometimes chat in front of houses and mailboxes. Spiders are in the afterlife, and so is Dracula. These and other Intriguing details spurred me to think more deeply about the details of my own conception of the afterlife. Also, the comic definitely makes me want to avoid this particular afterlife, because I hate puns.
John Sibley Williams’ five poems – “Dear Doctor Frankenstein” “I Dream My Grandfather an Alaskan Trucker” “When We Slept Together Beneath the Covers with a Flashlight” “The Length of the Field” “This is Language Too”
These are disturbing, mysterious, beautiful, haunting poems about young love and young death. I’ll let them speak for themselves in two chosen hunks.
In some versions I am victim
while in others I cannot help
but add my torch to the burning
house. It’s a mistake when I say
this is not my house.
-from “Dear Doctor Frankenstein”
My sister was born with a river
in her skull and these never-ending latitudes
of white ash and hickory. I keep coming back to
the translucent flesh of her legs
splayed over stone
-from “The Length of the Field”
Joe Ponepinto’s “The Day of False Spring”
Interesting premise involving a guy named Mason whose suburban housing complex has erected a wall to keep out bad dudes (or more likely, “bad hombres”). Point taken about the absurdity of walls, and about the mundanity of suburban life where all you do is manicure your lawn and complain about trivialities. There are familiar tropes here – the abusive jock husband, the bored and wandering wife, the rebel. The rebel realizes the bored wife wants out of her suburban paradise and has a thing for him (as he is the resident bad boy), but he realizes he can’t force her to leave her suburban comfort. Otherwise, he’ll be just like his insensitive suburban dude counterparts. He has to wait for the woman to decide whether she wants to reject the bourgeoisie patriarchy and escape from behind the wall. This is perhaps a commentary on the fact that white middle-class women helped elect Trump, and again, fair point. I personally wish there were more nuanced portrayals of people on all parts of the political spectrum in post-Trump America in the literary community. But that’s not this author’s problem. He wrote an interesting story here.
Admittedly, it did kind of gross me out the female character’s first real expression of her own rebellion was to kiss Mason, the rebel character. Ew! You wish, Mason!
Susan Spanberg’s artwork – Id, Nine Lives, Self-Portrait with Sand, Self-Portrait as Hulk, Self-Portrait Hair, Woman in Chains, Woman on Fire, Death Drive
This artwork blew me away. There is a great combination of humor and terror in her Freud paintings (Id and Death Drive) and in paintings like Self-Portrait as Hulk, which is exactly what it sounds like. Woman in Chains and Woman on Fire in particular are so beautiful. Check out her artwork on her website (of course I googled her after I saw these paintings): www.susanspangenberg.com.
Bill Schillaci’s short story “Faith in Engineering”
Another interesting premise here – a story about a kid whose mom dies in a fiery accident while a kid at school is taunting him for having a mom who builds big bombs. Does his mom build big bombs? Kind of. Look, I didn’t really understand what this story was about. But there were some interesting descriptions and characters, and it was interesting to root for a character whose mom was probably a maker of giant bombs as he faces off against a bully wearing a “No Nukes” button.
Harry Wilson’s photographs – Ad, Zadar; Eiffel Tower, Paris; Self, Rhodes; Window, Kitzbuhel; Table, Greek Ship; Self & Bus, San Francisco; Hotel, San Francisco; Mannequin #2, San Francisco; Merry-go-round, Playland, San Francisco; Playland #1, San Francisco
Loved these photographs! These are black-and-white photos from Harry Wilson’s international travels in the 60s and 70s, and together they form a wonderful, trippy travelogue. Again, do yourself a favor and check out more of Wilson’s work at www.harrywilsonphoto.com.
Kevin Lichty’s short shorts – “Invention of a Galaxy” “The Closeness of Everything” “Their Velvet Lips”
These three very short lyric stories tell a larger story about a kid who travels to carnivals with his dad to make funnel cakes. They are quite lovely. I will say, my enjoyment of these stories was lessened by the fact that I feel like I’ve seen a lot of movies and shows in my life related to carnivals and carnival performers despite the fact that no one really goes to carnivals anymore. Creative types are really fascinated by carnivals…maybe because it gives them the opportunity to get out their angst about artistic performance? Or maybe carnivals capture our collective imaginations because they’re so creepy and weird, and freak shows were like early versions of reality TV shows where ordinary, upright people got to be voyeurs? I don’t know. All I know is, these stories featured fantastic descriptions and made me hungry for funnel cake.
Jim Ross’ essay “The Day the Music Died”
This is an evocative history of the author’s mysterious family friend nicknamed “Uncle Sam” who taught the author to play the accordion. One day Uncle Sam told the author he had no talent and that Sam couldn’t give him lessons anymore. The author blamed himself for years until he began to investigate what Uncle Sam meant to his family. This essay is an attempt to piece the story together from fragments and letters. It’s a moving story, particularly as a portrait of a mom through the eyes of her son. It’s an essay that makes you want to get out old boxes of letters and piece together your own family mysteries. Very compelling.
Max Eevi’s poem “The South Pole”
This is called a poem, though it blurs genre boundaries as it is written in letter form in paragraphs. “South Pole” is a beautiful, strange piece about the need to explore and leave the mundane world behind. This author’s bio is a little cryptic poem as well. This piece offers further evidence that Palooka is open to both straightforward realist fiction and genre-bending surrealism. Other journals could stand to adopt the same open philosophy towards submissions so they don’t miss the beauty of weird little pieces like “The South Pole.”
Cesar Valtierra’s cover art, Smoking
The cover features an intense woman smoking a cigarette, in mid-puff, drawn in shades of black and pink in cool, comic-book-style pop art. This cover image definitely helps showcase the irreverent and modern feel of Palooka.
Finally and again, there is a lot to praise about this issue of Palooka and its authors. It’s good to shake up the lit mag world whenever possible, even if the work doesn’t land the same with all possible readers.