On a Mag Jag 

Does anyone read literary journals besides the contributors' moms?

Literary journals: It seems you can't walk a block these days without tripping over one. In addition to the heavyweights -- your Ploughshares and your Grantas -- there's a whole raft of earnest upstarts. Who's reading them? Who's writing them? All the hip (and deep-pocketed) bibliophiles already have McSweeney's on their coffee and/or bedside tables, depending on whom they're trying to impress. But what about blood-sweat-and-tears litmags like Walnut Creek's Bullfight, Berkeley's Watchword, and Alameda's Red Hills Review, all local and helmed by tireless volunteer editors who know they'll never be profitable? Not to mention online mags such as Fail Better, seemingly afloat in an endless sea of ones and zeros. Does their reach extend beyond the contributors and their mothers to the larger literate public?

Somewhat. Mainly it's the writing community that reads lit mags, agree Liz Lisle and Calvin Liu, editors of Watchword and Bullfight, respectively. Liu characterizes the scene as "a place where emerging writers gauge where they are among other emerging writers." But if you haven't noticed, a heck of a lot of writers are out there, emerging and otherwise. According to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, the number of degree-conferring programs in creative writing has risen nationwide more than eightfold in recent decades -- from 80 in 1975 to 653 in 2001. And although many contributors to these journals have or are pursuing creative-writing MFAs, you don't exactly need a degree to be a writer. Lisle says Watchword's contributors include retired police officers, tattoo artists, stay-at-home moms, and car mechanics.

Independent publishing has been getting more attention in the Bay Area lately. That's great for the little guy -- but then there's the even-littler guy, the one who isn't backed by Dave Eggers and doesn't have a fat grant (yet). Independent (and vanity) presses have made publishing more possible for more writers, but the sheer quantity of new books means it's harder than ever for authors to prove themselves. Yet success stories do emerge. This month, Harper's reprinted a story by Jay Orff that first appeared in Watchword (and credited the original publisher). And other lit-mag contributors have gone on to earn critical success: Bee Season author Myla Goldberg from Fail Better; Chasing the Sea author Tom Bissell from Bullfight, Happy Baby author Stephen Elliott -- also from Watchword.

Poetry, by contrast, hasn't been faring as well. Can you name California's poet laureate? Have you ever read anything by him? Al Young's latest book of poems, 2001's The Sound of Dreams Remembered, ranks #1,057,327 on Amazon.com as of this writing. In other lands, and in other days, poets were national heroes. American schoolchildren (we hope) still learn about Dickinson and Poe, cummings and Angelou. But most folks outside the literary community would be hard pressed to name a working American poet, no matter how many literary magazines publish poetry.

If the lit-mag community is guilty of insularity, poetry journals are the guiltiest. Even those that attempt to be the most topical often stumble. Case in point: War and Peace, an Oakland poetry journal edited by Judith Goldman and Leslie Scalapino (the "peace" part is a bit misleading). Issue #2 (2005) is full of excellent, soul-wrenching work. It's disquieting, though, to think about these poets' real roles in the current wars being waged in Afghanistan and Iraq, the larger War on Terrorism, and all the myriad conflicts it's no longer possible to enumerate. War has urged them to write, but what experience of it can they possibly have, except what they've seen on TV? These home-fronters understand suffering, loss, the dually rational and lunatic nature of war. They are expressing themselves in the way they know best. But if this work is read only by other poets, then it is a pitiful protest. It's not exactly the poets' fault that poetry is ignored: They know to question their ability to be heard. Indeed, a middle section of the journal is devoted to talks and readings from a 2004 conference at UC Santa Cruz, titled "Poetry in a Time of Crisis: Is Poetry Enough?" Unfortunately, the first talk printed here (by Scalapino) comprises incomprehensible lit-crit speak: "The reader undergoing the interior-exterior being the same and separate in a space (by reading and 'seeing') enacts the duality, rather than being interpreted by the outside, social convention of duality." If poetry is not "enough" on its own -- as these poets seem to know, or they wouldn't pose the question -- then making it even less accessible certainly won't help.

Other journals -- the local ones cited above, along with new offerings such as McSweeneyan but unpretentious Sweet Fancy Moses and toothsomely eclectic Sí Señor -- harbor a compelling mix of talent. Certainly, they can contain mediocre work. But the majority of it is first-rate: Check out Lise K. Strom's "How We Live and Die" in Watchword #7, or Graham Marshall Reed's "Remake" in Sweet Fancy Moses #2, for proof.

Of course, when you go into your local independent bookstore and crack open one of these babies with the original artwork on the cover, you aren't just hitching your wagon to one narrative -- if you don't like a piece, just flip to the next. Nor, obviously, are you relying on the propaganda juggernaut of the publishing industry, the hype machine that exists to create best-sellers, often out of exceedingly little substance. Instead, you're participating in a more modest, but still potentially thrilling, adventure -- helping to discover and support emerging writers. And then there's the marvelous feeling you get from a literary Web site like FailBetter.com, of enjoying a piece of carefully selected and edited writing -- gratis. It's pleasantly disorienting, in a world where "free" is so often taken to mean "worthless."

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