Contributor's copies: Subtropics 11/12, The Southern Review 47.2
The Southern Review's Spring 2011 issue is devoted to Americana, and it turned out to be the last issue edited by Jeanne M. Leiby, who died in a car accident in April. A really, really sad thing, and a real loss to the American literary world. She was, by all accounts, a terrific person and talented, inspiring editor. (I did not know her personally, aside from a brief e-mail correspondence when she accepted a poem for this issue of TSR; I wish I had known her.)
At the beginning of this issue, Jeanne and Jen McClanaghan have a Q&A about the assembling of the issue and about the nature of Americana. It closes with these words from Jeanne:
"Maybe this sounds odd, but what you just said about Americana is an almost perfect articulation of what a literary magazine can be, what I hope The Southern Review is, and what I hope our readers will experience with this and with every issue -- a landscape continually resettled and redefined."
It's a great way to think about a magazine, about literature in general. And this is a terrific issue. "Americana" as a theme could easily lend itself to cliche, or at least an overabundance of familiarity. But it doesn't happen. The stories and poems and essays and photographs in this issue are unsettling, surprising, provocative. They are familiar only in the sense that once you've read them you realize they've revealed something about the world around you that maybe you've always known (or should have known) but never said aloud.
Some of the highlights in the issue are Jake Adam York's poem "Letter Written on a Record Sleeve"; Jane Springer's series of, I guess, unusual definitions for phrases like "Looks the Hound Who Caught the Car" and "Don't Know a Stranger"; Michael Garriga's awesomely titled story "Custody Battle for Chelsea Tammy: At the Toys R Us, Aisle 6, in a Suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, December 24, 1983"; and David Kirby's poem "Roy G. Biv." Rodney Jones has a killer poem called "The End of Practice," which I wish I'd written, about the bittersweetness of youth and competition and confidence: "I had the male dream. If I did not rise above the field, I would be eaten." Pat Jordan's essay about a haircut is a nice read, as is Bonnie Jo Campbell's story "What There Was." Edward Keating's black and white photographs are beautiful; my favorite among them is called "Stripper on Break, Amarillo, Texas, 2o00."
But my most favorite favorite thing in the issue is a sprawling, brilliant, multipart poem by David Wojahn called "Watching Fox News on the Holiday of Martin Luther King Jr." It's political, it's smart, it opens with an epigraph by Blind Willie Johnson, it's funny and sad and a little scary. It is a serious goddamn piece of Americana, is what it is.
The Southern Review has long been a top-tier journal; even so it is, I suspect, much the better off for Jeanne Leiby's stewardship. So far as this issue represents her legacy, her ideas about resettling and redefining the landscape, that legacy is indeed a fine one.
Like TSR (though younger), Subtropics stands as one of the most consistently impressive journals around. Always plenty of good things to read in here, and the Winter/Spring 2011 issue is no exception. The issue has two covers; reading from one end, you get prose; flip the journal over and you get the poetry.
There are only four prose pieces, but man are they good. Edna O'Brien has a poignant story called "Inner Cowboy." Erik Reece has an essay memorializing Guy Davenport, whom I'm ashamed to say I hadn't heard of, especially inexcusable since he was at the University of Kentucky and I lived in Lexington for three years. Davenport was an interesting and complicated artist, and Reece's essay is illuminating. Lauren Groff's "Eyewall" and John Weir's "Katherine Mansfield" round out the prose side of the journal.
On the poetry side, there are plenty of poems by poets you've heard of, of course. Billy Collins is in here, as are D.A. Powell and G.C. Waldrep. Travis Marsotti's "Trivial Pursuit" stands out, as does Corey Ginsburg's "A Follow-Up Poem to Sex with My Ex." Elizabeth Langemak's "Your Laugh" is a really great piece in five couplets, ending by comparing the laughter to "an airplane / returned from a bright, dusty country" that "gooses the runway and then touches / down, bounces, and skips on the strip."
Kyle Dargan's "Reverence in the Atomic Age" is sexy and science-y. Erin Murphy's "Dear Fringe" and "Dear Winged" are also seductive. Jeffrey Thomson's "Jokes" is another highlight, smart and funny and structured around farmers and bartenders and guys and ducks walking into bars. It's the kind of poem that when you've finished reading it, you think maybe you understand the human condition a little better, even if you're not sure quite why.