Thursday, May 27, 2010

Hotel Amerika: Spring 2010

I should probably start off by saying how much I appreciate Hotel Amerika: kickass production values -including what might be the best cover art I've encountered, seen above- a wide range of styles and forms that still feel like they belong together, a solid representation across genres (worth noting that fiction is the only genre with its own editor, though you wouldn't know it from the poetry and nonfiction represented here). In short, Hotel Amerika is giving me everything I want in a literary journal, and you should probably pick up an issue when you get the chance.

While working my way through the essays (and the Transgenre section, more on this later), I noticed a strong emphasis on structure in nonfiction: Bernadette Esposito's personal essay is told through a series of plane crashes; Marcia Aldrich's essay is organized by a series of definitions, interpretations, and diagrams, Barrie Jean Borich's essay looks at Chicago and personal history through several insets; Xu Xi's essay creates a new way of structuring the calendar to look at her time in Hong Kong and the United States. Although the unusual structure isn't necessarily the best choice for every essay (For example, Xi's essay probably puts too much emphasis on its structure, which ultimately hurt the piece in this reader's opinion), I did find myself less invested in the linear personal narratives found throughout the journal. I like my essays to jump, to digress, to give me more than event and reflection.

Structure aside, I'm most interested in the labels Hotel Amerika places on the writing it presents. The Table of Contents breaks it down into Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Prose Poetry (an interesting designation because it's totally unnecessary, but I'll let it go since this is Essay Daily and not Prose Poetry Daily), and Transgenre. Transgenre is the one that irks me, mostly because it primarily consists of weirdo nonfiction (7 out of 10 of the pieces read like nonfiction, though I suppose it could be more or less). At first, this section seems to represent "experimental" or "genre pushing" types of writing, but look at the introduction to Ben Quick's essay, "The Lotus Born:"

1. A sliver of moon flickers behind leaves. A clam shell broken by chlorophyll. The dream of the lunar shattered by the darkness of the earth. Sirens carry through the center of the city, collecting. Somewhere, tragedy blooms. Blood drips from an ear to a car seat. The momentum of a forehead craters a windshield. Or, the force of a body thrown from a stolen Lexus carries it through the front window of the home of a neighbor. The gore was impossible, she said. Slices of arm on the kitchen floor. Entrails stuck to walls.

Although the imagery is both beautiful and alarming, there's nothing here that screams Transgenre other than the essay coming in the form of numbered sections, which isn't exactly a new thing. More confusing still, the essays in the "essay" section tend to be doing more transgenre work, meaning, these essays play around with existing forms in a way that's entirely their own. Here's a couple of sections from Marcia Aldrich's essay, "Sidestroke: The Mother Essay, 2.0:"

Use (1): rescue maneuvers. Recall lifesavers with one arm locked around a body on its back, limp, waterlogged, the one arm a hook that clamps drowner to swimmer, whose form is rotated to its side, a flotation device, her head up, her other arm free, lifting and pulling like the boom of a crane, laboriously rafting toward a shore. That is the sidestroke.

Aside: My grandmother saved a person from drowning using just such a stroke. In the photo in the newspaper clipping, her arm forms a bold arc like a wishbone, curving across the man's chest. Dead before I was born, she was a mystery to me, by repute a dominating being, bending people to her will. As I hold the photo of my grandmother's heroic stroke, her arm reaches out of the frame to clasp me to her.

The essay goes on to use other uses, viewpoints, histories, and sentence diagrams in a way that helps to tell the personal story through a means of definitions. Again, this feels more hybrid or cross-genre or whatever than most of the work in the transgenre section, so I'm still having a tough time deciding what its purpose could be (I suspect it goes back to the CNF review that appears before this review, that it may be the journal patting itself on the back for being edgy/experimental, which seems unnecessary when the journal is already putting out a lot of interesting writing)

I may be wrong, but I can go through Transgenre section and put my own labels on everything (some read like nonfiction, some are obviously fiction, etc). Since every reader approaches a piece of writing with their own genre expectations, I'd be more interested if: a) the difficult to define works were put in unexpected sections (a ten-page prose poem, a piece that reads like a short story appearing in the essays section, etc), or b) not putting any labels on anything and making the reader sort it out themselves. Either way, it seems better to leave things less defined. It might take away some editorial control, but it would allow for a more interesting conversation on what makes up a story, a poem, the essay.

One sentence essay reviews:
*Bernadette Esposito "If You Had Wings: A Biography in Plane Crashes"- My favorite in the issue, reminds me of Eula Biss' The Ballonists for its mix of tragedy and parents' divorce.
*Marilyn Abildskov "The Summer of Barbecues" - short memoir piece on a breakup, nothing we haven't seen before.
*Marcia Aldrich "Sidestroke: The Mother Essay, 2.0" - Unfortunate title, terrific essay.
*Barrie Jean Borich "Alabaster City's Gleam [A body map of Chicago, with insets]- Reads like a love story to Chicago, mixed in with Borich's own love story, rockin' essay.
*Kathryn Winograd "Guns, Knives, and the Amazon Warrior Princess"- What's with the titles of these essays? Clearly an excerpt from a larger work, would probably work better in that form.
*Tony Whedon "Looking For The Three-Toed Woodpecker"
*Xu Xi- B.G. The Significant Years "B.G.=Before Google, probably relies too much on the structure, especially since it doesn't add much to the essay.