“A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., The Professor at the Breakfast-Table
The Alaska Quarterly Review comes with an impressive, perhaps even intimidating, array of credentials to easily place it among the top literary journals in America. Going into its 20th year of continuous publication, its editor-in-chief, Ronald Spatz, comes with a powerful set of academic and creative credits of his own. One of its contributing editors is Billy Collins, the current Poet Laureate of the US. A glance at the rest of masthead is enough to make the jaw of even the most blase reader drop as one encounters a veritable Who’s Who of contemporary literature. Over the years, the journal has published so many notable writers that to list them would sound like shameless literary name-dropping. Works from the journal regularly grace the most distinguished anthologies, such as The Best of the Small Presses, Best American Essays and Best American Poetry, and walk off with Pushcart Prizes and O. Henry Awards.
Obviously, this is no literary lightweight or piece of publishing fluff. Nothing succeeds like success, as the old saying goes, but it is also true that nothing corrupts so quickly as success. For literary journals, this means the danger that marketing strategy will replace artistic mission and creative integrity. The indescribable Zen-like frame of mind that blesses an editor as he pans through the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts in search of a nugget of pure gold becomes a matter of nuts-and-bolts formula. Recognizable “names” replace the literary unknowns on the table of contents, and aspiring writers of merit find yet one more journal door slammed in their faces. These are publishing pitfalls — and publishing realities — in a market with more and more writers, and fewer and fewer magazines managing to negotiate the rough economic waters and keep their boats afloat.
The good news is that Alaska Quarterly Review is holding its creative course and staying true to its original vision of promoting new writers and giving a home to fresh voices on the writing scene. “We cast our literary nets as widely as we can. I look for voices our readers … who have something important to tell,” says Spatz..
In a field that has a well-earned reputation for being an insider’s club, this remarkable journal remains fiercely egalitarian. “At AQR our rule is to treat everyone with respect,” says Spatz. A quick perusal of authors’ notes reveals more unfamiliar names than familiar ones, and biographies that are refreshingly free of the usual self-aggrandizements. Spatz’s dedication to honoring new and underpublished writers is never at the expense of quality. The writing in AQR is clean, crisp, and unpretentious, finely crafted and gimmick-free, offering subtle insights rather than literary “special effects.” In Spatz’s words, “If the works we publish have certain qualities, they are freshness, honesty and a compelling subject.” This aesthetic sensibility shines through in most, if not all, AQR’s prose and poetry.
You won’t find any sensationalism here or the predictable mix of topics and themes that so often makes a journal seem as if the editor read submissions with a specific recipe foremost in his mind: “Take one coming-of-age story, mix with a coming-out-of-the-closet piece and four multicultural works, add one blue collar essay and one white collar poem.” AQR‘s eclecticism is pronounced, but it’s clear that quality, rather than pre-decided subject matter, dictates what makes it into each issue of the magazine. The result is an utterly natural, uncontrived blend of material in each issue. The editors plainly approach submissions the way a good chef approaches a meal: creating a menu around the best of what’s available, whatever it happens to be.
It may not be what everyone was expecting, but it’s bound to be fresh and good, put together without using shortcuts or filler, and likely to contain some refreshing surprises.
Spatz’s passionate determination to not rest on the journal’s laurels keeps AQR’s quality high. He is not averse to risk-taking, either. “I will, without hesitation, champion a piece that may be less polished or stylistically sophisticated, if it engages me, surprises me, resonates for me. Technical perfection is great, but we’re willing to take a couple of grams of imperfection if the voice is authentic and the piece has a revelatory quality and uniqueness of vision.”
If there is a defining characteristic of the fiction in AQR, it would be its subtle depth of insight. The answer to the classic question, “What’s it about?” is not a simple one when analyzing the multi-layered, thought-provoking stories in this journal. This is storytelling at its finest, the deft recounting of small moments in different lives that unexpectedly and serendipitously reveal more than the reader ever imagined possible. In the best tradition of the master of the short story form, O. Henry, much of the fiction in AQR has small, but gut-wrenching, twists.
For example, in Jean Hanson’s poignant “Soup,” (Vol. 19, 1&2), the act of preparing a meal is the catalyst for an aging college professor’s moment of illusion-shattering realization. As he makes vegetable soup for his ailing wife, who no longer “looks like herself” and lies in bed “naked, uncovered … like a small deer hit by a car”, he reminisces about a female student much younger than himself to whom he was attracted three decades earlier. But reality, like a slap in the face, cuts short his fantasy of the possibilities of a better life, had he only made different choices:
You’re thinking if had you chosen Melanie instead of Edith, you would still have a wife who was healthy, not old. You’d have a wife who would chop celery beside you, dance around the kitchen, perhaps taunt you since, as an older man, you’ve always been too shy or too dignified or too hobbled to dance with her.
In the beautifully crafted “One Quick Turn,” (Vol. 19, 3&4), Fred Cooksey tells a deceptively simple tale of a father and young daughter taking a walk in the country and discovering a dead rabbit in the road they have to cross. In that short crossing of the road — and in a story that consists of only two and a half pages — the mysteries of life and death, the loss of innocence, the protectiveness of love, and the imperiousness of the human will are laid as bare for us to examine as the carcass of the rabbit, ironically the pivotal character in this haunting piece of work.
There are many remarkable stories to be found in One Blood: The Narrative Impulse, a collection of short fiction told in the first person, all of which reflect the distinctive aesthetic sensibilities that characterize the work in AQR. Like the intriguing names of truffles in a Godiva chocolate box, the titles of the stories are, in themselves, inviting: “I Was Evel Knievel”, “Motels of the Northwest: A Guidebook”, “Darwin’s Kitchen”, “Hannah: Brought to You by the Makers of One-Calorie Tab”, “The Father, the Son, and the Horse’s Ghost”, “The Book of Saints and Martyrs”. As any fiction writer will tell you, creating a good title for a story is more than half the battle of telling a tale, whatever it may be.
Out of the collection, though, two works stand out as epitomizing the ineffable essence of AQR’s fiction. In “Ice Chest”, Claire Tristam serves up a slice of unadulterated truth as she examines the delicate balance of family relationships, the toxicity of envy, and the myth of childhood’s “golden years” in a grimly realistic Darwinian light:
We laugh about it now, you and I, and I have never told you the truth. Sister of mine! Childhood is not a garden. It is a wasteland, cold, bleak, and vast, where the strong survive only by devouring the weak. And now that we are grown … and are what one might even call a close family, I can see that same murderous will to survive in my own daughters … each is an obstacle to the other’s survival. Each, is for the other, hardly human at all.
While watching the casual cruelties and struggles for dominance between her own and her sister’s children, the narrator recalls a disturbing incident from her own childhood where, in a classic “accidentally-on-purpose” scenario, she almost succeeded in murdering her sister. In elegantly detached but powerful prose, the writer tells a tale with which every reader can identify, either as the devourer — or the devoured.
Sisters are again the subject of “Salt Lick”. In this memorably quirky and clever tale of sex, siblings, and small town life, nothing is as it seems and you can’t believe anything you hear. Alison Dunavan Clement creates the quintessential unreliable narrator in the character of Lucy Bybee, lifelong resident of a sleepy Southern village called Palmyra, who opens the story with the pronouncement:
My sister, Evaline Fooshee, is an old maid and old maids are not like other women. Old maids think about sex all the time — from lack of sex, they think about nothing else and thinking of nothing else, they notice it even if it ain’t there and if it is there, why they smell it out, like dogs, with their noses in the air. Sniff, sniff. And Evaline, from lack of sex … has turned secretly mean. Nobody can see it but me.
As the story progresses, the growing discrepancy between reality and the loquacious narrator’s version of it becomes apparent. Lucy’s emphatic declarations are like pebbles dropped into a pond, creating ever-widening circles of ambiguity and doubt in the reader’s mind. Clement accomplishes this difficult feat of psychological storytelling with a masterful deftness and a sure touch, and infuses the piece with a sexual tension as steamy as its Deep South setting. “The poet is someone who suddenly opens a door, walks in the room, makes some vivid comment on life and death, and then closes the door and disappears. And it’s kind of, who was that masked man? And that kind of sudden, vocal moment or articulation, I think…,” says Billy Collins
In keeping with this delightful insight into the job of the poet by the Poet Laureate of the United States, who is also a contributing editor at AQR, the poems in this journal have a freshness and immediacy that is arresting. As a reader with a strong personal preference for prose (and who is prone to skip over most verse found in most literary magazines), this reviewer was pleasantly surprised to find herself reading the poetry section as thoroughly as the fiction section and discovering many “vivid comments on life and death” made by a host of masked men and women with authentic voices and universal appeal.
There’s Walt McDonald’s “Taking the Keys From Mother,” about the inevitable end of an elderly woman’s driving days and the poignant reversal of roles that old age brings to parents and children: “Now, how to take metal from Mother’s fist/ and expect kisses? … but Mama, it’s time, don’t hate us, please/ give up freedom for safety, for the sake/ of your brittle bones, a good night’s sleep.”
In Julia Kasdorf’s haunting “Gravity Hill” a grown daughter comes to grips with her mother’s mortality as they visit a bizarre tourist attraction, where cars in neutral gear roll up a hill, not down. Her mother insists they turn the car around and roll up the hill backward: ” … Mom just laughed and said she prefers/ going up backward, the way women used to foxtrot/ across dance floors, propelled by handsome men”. They proceed on to a foray into antique shops, where the aging mother buys much. The daughter buys nothing but comes away with a startling insight: “By the end of the day I had nothing/ to show for myself except this image/ of how she will die: going backward, happy / with wide-open eyes.”
Maurya Simon offers knife-edged insights into male/female relationships in “Variations on a Theme”: “Sometimes men are so distant/We watch them, we women,/ as they tend their worries,/ as they walk in angry shoes/ to do battle/ .. They will say,/ We had a reason for everything.,/ as if reasons were answers./ When we look in their mirrors/ we’re virgins again, or mothers /” The poem goes on to cut to the quick of the eternally dicey interaction between partners: “We open doors to them/ even when our shelves are empty./ Their voices ripen in our mouths./ Men are a catch in our throats./ That’s why when women whisper,/ men tremble, imperceptibly.”
Volume 19, 3&4 offers a special section on Billy Collins, featuring a selection of his current poetry and an interview that is every bit as perceptive, honest and charming as his verse. For example, in response to a question about the process of poem-writing, he replies:
I don’t get started until I have a first line. I don’t have an idea, I don’t have an emotion, I basically start with first line or sentence or phrase . . . Like any writer, if I knew where I was going, I wouldn’t bother going there. There’d be no surprise for me. I try to keep the poem open and control the direction of the poem only lightly … At some point, the poem starts telling me where it wants to go and that’s the point at which I have to stop being willful.
On the subject of his fame (after a late start, in his forties, as a poet):
It’s very unexpected. It’s all gravy … something added to the gratification of being able to write and to have even a small audience. I think the most gratifying part of it is that I hear from people who don’t read poetry, or don’t like poetry or haven’t visited poetry in awhile, that my poems are bringing them back to poetry. I didn’t set out to convert anybody … but it’s very gratifying to hear that people’s fears about poetry … are alleviated by poems that are reader-friendly
Not only does this remark apply to Collins’s own marvelous poetry, but in fact, to all the creative work found within the pages of AQR.
“Accessibility”, in terms of literature, is something of a controversy, and the word can be used as both a compliment and a criticism. On one hand, it typifies a welcome trend away from the heavy intellectualism and scholarly elitism that characterized many literary journals in the past and kept many perfectly intelligent readers from sampling their pages. On the other hand, it has also come to be synonymous, in some literary circles, with “dumbed down” writing, aimed at a public deemed so busy and so accustomed to passive forms of media entertainment that they are presumed unable to tackle anything weighty, or read anything too long or too complex or containing words of more than two syllables.
Alaska Quarterly Review definitively shows the literary world how to do “accessible” and do it right. Without sacrificing quality of writing or richness of expression or depth of theme or timelessness of meaning, this admirable journal takes works guaranteed to resonate with the contemporary reader, packages them with the most eye-satisfying covers I’ve seen on a literary journal in a long time — spectacular photographs of Alaskan wilderness in all its pristine beauty — and sells them at a virtually bargain-basement price — $10 for a year’s subscription, $6 for a sample copy.
How this creative and economic alchemy works, I don’t know, but I wish AQR many more years of gloriously uncorrupted success.