An Online Journal With Some Hits and Misses
You know that delightful feeling you get when you find an old children’s book – when you look at frayed pages and woodcut prints from another time? That’s the feeling I got when I first clicked on Devil's Lake. This online journal is designed to resemble yellowed parchment pages. On the landing page, an antique image of a young girl and soaring birds was placed in one corner. Seeing all this, I dove into the journal, as excited as my 10-year-old self was every time she checked out another library book.
Even though Devil’s Lake has been published since 2010, the journal’s Spring 2012 issue still bills itself as “A New Literary Journal from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.” This issue featured two fiction offerings, one nonfiction piece, nine poems, and even a comics selection.
The fiction section – the first section in the book, and usually my favorite part of any journal – disappointed me. I wanted to like Susanna Kwan’s “Up, Apart, Away,” a very short story with sci-fi flavoring; but by the end, it had traveled from intriguingly vague to almost indecipherable. On the other end of the length spectrum was “Lillia” by Sarah Sarai, a piece that attempted to take the reader aside with a clever and knowing air, but came off as patronizing and dated instead. Not helping it: a procession of clunky sentences like, “Her eyes, which could have been hard to look at given obvious sensitivity and intelligence, were riveting in their dulled concentration.”
However, B.J. Hollars’ nonfiction piece “The Longest Wait,” about anticipating the birth of his child, won me over. Even though the ending was a little weak, the piece’s vivid descriptions – especially about surviving a tornado – stuck with me long after I read it. It was sweet and emotional without veering into schmaltzy territory.
Next up was the sizable poetry section. Some of the works really impressed me. “The One About All Ye Know on Earth” by Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney took the tired “A blank walks into a bar” joke format and turned it into a philosophical debate with rich imagery. The wonderful “Factoryville Eclogue” by Gregory Lawless followed a couple’s banter as it alternated between barbs and affection, all while the landscape around them endured winter’s mixed blessings. And “Ithaka” by Caroline Manring, with the subhead “for Martha, the last known Passenger Pigeon, d. Sept. 1st, 1914”, was starkly, heartbreakingly beautiful. None of the other poems struck me as remarkable, but they were inoffensive – except for “Tongue Twister” by Laurel Kallen and “Everyday Is Fucking Perfect” by B.J. Love, both of which veered too far from introspection and too close to navel gazing.
The comics selection – “Foreward,” by Laura Grover – wandered through the author's charming nostalgia for her hometown without ever becoming saccharine. Grover’s style reminded me a lot of Lynda Barry and Roz Chast, perhaps a little too much; but “Foreward” was a lovely way to end the issue.
By the time I finished all the selections in “Devil’s Lake,” my thoughts on the journal’s layout had shifted. Navigating through the publication was easy if you wanted to read its pieces in chronological order. Arrows at the top guided you forward and backward. Each piece got one page, with the work itself prominently featured on the left side while the author's headshot and bio were located on the right. As I mentioned at the start of this review, I dug the parchment-like appearance of each page. But having the authors’ photos and bios at the same eye level as the pieces themselves was a little off-putting. It reminded me of those uncomfortable moments when a friend gives you something to critique and then stands there, waiting for you to say something positive. However, other readers may find it refreshing to immediately put a face to the words before them.
Alas, this journal had one inexcusable problem: typos. I understand having a missed comma or two in a printed book; nobody’s perfect. But typos in a digital work that’s been online for months demonstrate carelessness, not just human error. Extra spaces in a prose section? Duplicating periods in an author’s bio? Someone – an editor, an author, even a reader – should’ve caught these long before a reviewer did.
Ultimately, the Spring 2012 issue of Devil’s Lake had a few notable works, and literary journal devotees and poetry enthusiasts might really enjoy it. But it wouldn't be first on my list of must-reads for friends and family members. There were too many points where reading further felt like a chore, and too many pieces that seemed unfinished. It’s a shame, considering that the rest of the journal’s website contained some great interviews and well-written reviews of other publications. Just skimming through the archives brought up several pieces that shone in comparison to weaker parts of the Spring 2012 issue. Hopefully this issue is an anomaly, and Fall 2012 will see Devil’s Lake returning to a more polished and sparkling ground state.