Saturday, July 02, 2005

Ninth Letter

While I've been sick and unable to do anything but lay around, I've had the chance to read some of the lit mags stacked beside my bed. Here's one that really sticks in my mind:

At 11 1/2 by 9 inches, Ninth Letter is the biggest literary magazine I've ever seen. This thing has heft in your hands, an anticipation of real substance in its full-color pages and thick paper. Overall, the content does not disappoint.

Ninth Letter is all about experimentation, both in the writing itself and in its presentation. As the editor's note at the beginning of this issue (Volume One, Number Two) states: "Our mission above all is to refuse to succumb to the comfort of an established, test-driven format or to confine ourselves to a single definition of literature."

With a nonfiction piece presented only on microfiche (Ander Monson's Failure: Another Iteration), a short story covering four fold-out pages that must be followed via a collage of numbered paragraphs (Roy Kesey's Fontanel), a pull-out poster, the incorporation of illustrations on neary every page, and a very generous use of white space throughout, there is no doubt that this magazine has succeeded in its goal of stretching the boundaries of format.

The content is equally challenging, with stories and poems that play with our ideas of just what literature is. For the most part, the poems are narrative in nature, ranging from stories about a girl who loves a fish and a black family's journey out of the South (The Girl Who Loved a Fish, An African Folktale;Traveler by Janice N. Harrington), to a poet's thoughts in those uncertain moments while a loved one is in surgery (Waiting for My Foot to Ring by Bob Hicok), to scenes from not-so-beautiful lives (My Cousin;Terra Firma by Amy Lingafelter).

Of the stories, two have stayed with me since reading this magazine. The first is Marguerite's Cat by John Haskell, a strange tale about straddling the divide between two worlds, the world of death and the world of life. This is the kind of story that is less story and more question - questions about living with the knowledge of death, about keeping your feet in this world when your head is in the other one. I can't say it was satisfying, in terms of a traditional narrative, because there's no real beginning, middle, and end as such, but I can't shake the images of this story and the things it has made me consider.

The second story is Roy Kesey's Fontanel. I'll admit, at first I was a bit annoyed at the format, having to piece together the story by following winding arrows from one section of the collage to the next. By the time I got to the fifth paragraph, however, ("This is the gas station attendant who is friendly and serviceable and pretends not to notice the wife's screams.") I was hooked and couldn't read on fast enough. This story of a birth, from beginning to end, including side-stories on many of the actors (the cab driver, doctor, nurse, anesthesiologist) is incredibly vivid and the voice is irresistible. There is also a huge sense of tension, mounting ever higher as the story goes on. This is one piece that will be with me for a long time.

Ron Carlson's nonfiction piece Oh America is presented on a pull-out poster designed like an American flag and gives a bittersweet, wry, and sarcastic (yes, all at once) look at our country today. This piece made me want to stand up and cheer for Carlson's eloquence and humor, while at the same time I felt like laying down and crying for the truth of his message.

As with any lit mag, I did not like all of the stories and essays in Ninth Letter. A few seemed contrived, just plain boring or pointless, or simply mundane. Some of the poems bordered on pretentious (though not nearly as many as in other lit mags I've read) and obscure.

Ninth Letter is experimental - some of the experiments work and some don't, but this magazine is so fresh and original, I will definitely be picking up another copy. You might want to get your hands on one too.


Anonymous said...

I'll be checking out Ninth letter soon. I'm always looking for new, quality writing.

Anonymous said...

I'll be checking out Ninth letter soon. I'm always looking for new, quality writing.

Anonymous said...

I'll be checking out Ninth letter soon. I'm always looking for new, quality writing.

katrina said...

Thanks for the review, Sharon.