A Literary Juggling Act
As the title of this publication suggests, The Literary Review: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing (TLR) is a whopper. At first glance, this mega-journal can be summed up in one word: INTIMIDATING. Yes, TLR is a behemoth. It’s thick and heavy in your hand. It’s expertly and beautifully bound and professionally laid out. My first thought was “Whoa, I have to read this?” My second thought was “Whoa, I get to read this for free and write about it? Cool.” Remember that with intimidation comes a mixture of anticipation and excitement. After I recovered from my fear-induced procrastination phase, I sat down and read.
Many days later: When I closed TLR, I had mixed emotions. Much of the work is very well done, creative, and fresh. But there were some pieces I just didn’t like, especially in the poetry. I felt like I had just witnessed a juggler on a unicycle. A juggler with many balls (TLR publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, interviews, and book reviews.). If done with perfect care and skill, you will have pure entertainment, wonder, and awe. If any one thing is amiss, you run the risk of falling flat. Many forward-thinking magazines run this risk. The “contemporary” in the journal’s title adds a lot of pressure to perform. In TLR’s case, it manifests itself in many ways, including nods to current politics, cell phones, and recent sainthood canonizations, without being too out-there. TLR doesn’t fall flat, but there is always room for more practice. However, its best work keeps its wheel balanced and spinning.
Like I said, there were some poems that I didn’t get. I’m aware that this has much to do with my own aesthetic preference. The poems in question are certainly well-written, as is everything in TLR, but I felt they lacked emotional truth. For example, several poems had strange or illogical images, like giving feelings to a matchbook. Many lacked a definite speaker. These are not bad things, but I am slow to find meaning in them. For those of you who are drawn to this type of poetry, you will definitely enjoy this collection.
There are, however, many poems that redeemed any issues I may have had. Sherman Alexie? No need to say more. Another poet I admired is Cody Todd, whose poem “Epistles from the Guild of Lost Angels” is ambitious, contemporary, mysterious, and masterfully done. It begins:
Degenerates sleep alone in cars, but we,
we, with gods, with stars,
with our wishes, with the fishes.
Okay, this is bizarre, right? You want to hate it because it rhymes and uses extra spaces, all that flash I’m not usually into, but you can’t. First, the speaker is an angel. Sweet. Second, the poem, which starts in a somewhat silly, albeit awesome, manner, goes on in sadness and loneliness. Todd takes these mythical subjects, lost angels, and humanizes them. The lost angels are not only longing for heaven, they are humans longing for touch, for love. It ends:
My Dear, I would love you on the sand,
beneath the pelicans and the wooden moon,
until his heart breaks open,
a bag of flowers
strewn along the freeway.
Such a beautiful, tragic ending. This poem is the kind that throws all the balls into the air and catches each one with grace. Other poets of note in this issue are Danielle Blau, D. Foy, and Joshua Diamond (An MFA candidate! This should give your confidence a boost when apprehensive about submitting.).
For me, the fiction in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of TLR is the main attraction. A foreign albino woman’s sister is molested by their father, and the mother’s language barrier prevents her from understanding. A strange surreal collections agency in Alaska, full of arbitrary committees and titles, speaks to the monotony of corporate work. A tragic accident involving a teenage girl and a homeless man; the two people see each other’s lives flash before their eyes.
The stories are rich, diverse, and soulful. They are routed deep in the human condition. My favorite is “Ice Cream” by James Allerdice. A man, his pregnant wife, and his young son are driving to a Fourth of July barbeque. They are laughing and bantering, but you just know something awful is going to happen. The man’s memory of the rest of the day is blurred, and in time you learn that he drank more than the one beer he promised his wife. Every night, the man tries to remember the drive home from the barbeque, but he can’t. Allerdice doesn’t come out and answer the reader’s questions. He never says yes, the dad was drunk. Yes, the baby was lost. Yes, the guy in the courtroom who gets punished for the accident was not the one at fault. He doesn’t have to say it. Through all the mystery of the story, the answers are loud and clear. And sad.
While the stories are sad, the one essay is not. “On Saints and Miracles” by Judy Rowley is about watching her daughter go through radiation for a brain tumor. At the same time, Rowley talks about Mary MacKillop and her road to sainthood. It’s a contemplative piece that mixes history, faith, and the personal. It’s not sad, but hopeful. By the end of the essay, Rowley’s daughter is doing well, and the reader is left to ponder everyday miracles.
My only criticism here: there’s only one nonfiction essay, and although good it is fairly conventional in form. I would have liked to have seen more.
Lastly, the issue ends with one interview and several book reviews. Interesting and helpful, but I wonder if so many book reviews are necessary. Again, it’s all about preference, but I think more nonfiction and less reviews would have rounded out the issue nicely.
In conclusion, TLR is a giant juggler. The pros: some new, fresh, exciting work. The cons: some creative and ambitious misses, little nonfiction. Overall, no one can deny that this magazine is put together with care. The work is well-written, despite some of my biases. I think that’s an important distinction. None of the work is poor quality. So, if you’re thinking of submitting, send your best stuff.
And, consider submitting to TLR if:
1. You are an emerging or established writer.
2. You are a damn good writer.
3. You like to write about old (joy and pain, all the stuff in between) things in new ways.
4. Your work focuses or incorporates some contemporary stuff (current events, I-pads & other technologies, media, etc.).
5. You are playful and creative.
6. You are a free-verse poet or write stories/essays that explore narrative boundaries (although traditional writing is also good, too – quality is your top priority).
7. You are somewhat mysterious.
8. You’ve read TLR and love it. Go for it!