Saturday, November 27, 2010

Things I'm fond of that can be found in a review of the South Loop: the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Russian Tea Time, Soldier Field, ColumbiaCollege

The cover of the latest South Loop Review: Creative Nonfiction + Art is kind of sexy. I feel a slight twinge of I don’t know what (guilt, self-loathing, anticipation of reprisals) saying this—seeing as how the cover art is a drawing of a stripteuse in a very burlesque cat woman outfit, pulled from a graphic essay which I’m pretty sure is a condemnation (or at least a critique) of strip culture, the (wo)men who perpetuate it, and the ensuing degradation of the women being objectified—but I’m going to say it anyway. It is sexy. Sexy and provocative (as in thought-provoking): not only do I immediately want to pick the journal up and look through it, but after that first flip through the corresponding graphic essay, seeing it in its entirety, as I turn back to the cover once more for one more look, I also cannot help but question (and feel slightly uncomfortable by) my initial attraction to the artwork. A successful essay, maybe. A successful cover definitely.

Of course the cover’s allure also comes from the fact that the background is a cool blue the exact tone of a dusky November sky, much of the lettering is the pastel yellow of happy spring flowers, and the smooth mat finish feels so good to my fingers.

That said, I am now going to take a measured step back from the actual journal—volume 12—that I’ve been looking at.

SLR: Creative Nonfiction + Art is relatively young. The journal was born in 1987, but prior to 2003 it featured only the work of students in the nonfiction and literature programs at Columbia College. Today, each SLR volume includes work from established and emerging authors, from folks who have MFAs, who teach in MFA programs, who have published books and won awards, but also from a number of people who appear mysteriously disconnected from the MFA world, and also, interestingly, each volume continues to include work from a handful of Columbia College undergraduates. And the undergraduate work is actually pretty good.

(Yes, I do feel a bit catty saying that, but surely I can’t be the only one preyed by the notion that undergrad work inherently equals less than stellar, and so here, where the work is fairly stellar, I feel the need to say so, though that is not to say the doubt never resurfaces. At one point while reading Volume 12 I may have cried out "What kind of writer quotes Sartre in an essay about despair!?—how jejeune!” But then of course, at the end of the day, when I take off my beret and have a beer and stop being such a pugnacious ninny, I actually really enjoy the essay in question—its calm, and how altogether together it feels. Yes, the references might give the impression that the writer just crammed for the final in a survey course on existentialism, but who really cares?—Sententious references aside, the poise displayed throughout speaks to a greater maturity than maybe I myself can claim.)

Actually, generally speaking, everything I’ve read in the last three volumes of SLR has been pretty good. Goodness seems to be the central (though by no means the only) criterion for inclusion; SLR also wants the work it publishes to hit hard, and to support their mission of giving us “strong, compelling, resonant voices that give insight into contemporary experience, and cultural phenomenon…to present artists and writers who…engage audiences and motivate thought,” and who actively “investigate ways of being in the world.” (This last line is actually ripped from a really fine essay in Volume 12, Deer Come to the City, by Stephanie Dickinson.)

I like words like engage and motivate and being and world, and I like writing that digs deep for some resonant sense of significance, and for the most part SLR seems adept at meeting its mission and giving us just that, which is commendable, very commendable.

Of course goodness and digging deep for significance are only 2/3 of the SLR recipe. The final, important ingredient (imagine a dirty martini without the dirty) is some kind of inspired genre-blending, supra-artistic style. (Or at least some good non-linear narrative denoted by a lot of section breaks.) Anything of that sort, really, seems to be fair game.

SLR features nonfiction (+ art) presented as memoir, poem, as montage, prints of paintings, narrative photos, photos with internal captions, graphic essay, mixed media, as a craft-art project, and of course as the more traditional (blended-genre, non-linear, funktified-in-some-crafty-way) narrative/lyrical essay.

Truth be told, I am totally enamored by the craft-art-project-as-essay thing (Volume 12, page 91), or at least with the idea of it.

The piece bears a title, Untitled, comes with an explanatory epigraph, and “directions for younger readers,” followed by a list of needed materials, said instructions, and an illustration of the final product should one undertake this endeavor. It’s great. What’s not to love? Actually, of course, there is something not to love, and I’ll tell you what it is. Yes, this page-long piece is quirky, and entertaining, and is kind of enjoyably profound in a one-page kind of way, but overall, I wish it did more. I want it to do more. For starters I want all readers (not just the younger ones) to be encouraged to participate. And I want it to instruct me to use my favorite Crayola-color markers, and my favorite color of construction paper—or at least I want the page it’s printed on to be made in such a way that I can use its space for this project. I want the page designed in a way that begs me to actually follow these instructions, to involve myself in the piece. I want the piece to expect me to take part in it.

The piece—as it is presented—doesn’t seem to take itself seriously as the art project it claims to be, and seriously, I love the idea of essay-as-art project enough that I wish it did. I wish it didn’t just help me “investigate ways of being in the world,” but could actually become part of my world. I wish it were made in such a way that I could cut it out and magnet it to my fridge. I wish I were expected to do so.

So enamored by this thing was I, that I contacted its creator, Priscilla Kinter, to see if I could get some insight into the idea behind it, and to ask about the mysterious editorial choices that leave me wanting more from it. She was kind enough to respond, and it seems SLR only published the first of two parts of the piece, and yes, Ms. Kinter does “see the complete piece as an actual construction project…The second part of the essay builds a man, from brown wrapping paper and hide glue, in steps that are meant to reveal the man, but even more so the narrator (which would be me), and/or things about the relationship. Because I made the essay, I have a hard time seeing how either half can stand alone without the other in that each half works to explain, in some way, the remainder.”—and thus I now feel warranted in my reaction to the piece as presented here: Pleasantly enamored, but wanting more, wanting more because apparently there is more to be had.

And thus we begin the inevitable critique of this journal (which I do—keep in mind—really, really like). Here it is: at times, SLR seems more interested in sustaining its eclecticism than with its actual content; they seem to emphasize the variety of its content (at times) at the expense of its content’s artistic concepts (most notably when it comes to truncating longer graphic works).

Yes, there is a super-cool art-project-essay-thing, but no, as it is presented here, it does not actually function as an art project. Yes, there are several wonderful graphic essays (including a spectacular visual rendering of an Argentinean poem in translation), but there are also several presented as excerpts with little or no context, and which end abruptly just when the narrative seems to be really taking off. Yes, there is some stunning photography, but it is only shown in (oh God no!) black and white. I don’t know. This might just be what happens when you only publish once a year, when you cram 32 pieces into 116 pages. Try to fit too much in, in too short a space, and something is lost in the process.

Of course, I understand that every journal operates with certain goals, and within certain limitations. And I appreciate that SLR isn’t boring, not at all. I like that they focus on nonfiction (+ art). I like that they want to publish alternative forms of the essay, and I like the breadth and quality of work they present to us, I do. But still, I hanker—I want the journal to be my idea of perfect. I want it to be A+, and instead, as it is, I think it might be an A-.

Take note, SLR: In the future, I would like to be given art projects I can cutout and tout; I want all graphic essays to be packaged with context, and a beginning, middle, and end; I want color for all photos, and all photos should be printed on glossified paper; I want twelve issues a year instead of one, with dollar bills stapled into the binding throughout; I want pheasant-flavored treats for my dog; I want a free grande latte every Friday; And I could use a shoulder rub.

SLR, I’m not asking for much, just more of the best of what you already give us.

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