Book Review: Goldfish Tears

Goldfish Tears
Written by Curtis Ackie
Pouting Bear, 2012
ISBN 9781471086861


Curtis AckieCurtis Ackie
’s short story collection, Goldfish Tears, transports readers into surrealist landscapes painted with mostly stunning detail.  While there are some nominal flubs that take the reader back to reality, most of the collection keeps the reader believing in Ackie’s world—a world where the sun forgets to rise one day, a husband builds a machine to “correct” his wife’s appearance, and a woman wakes to find that her stoop has dissolved into absolute nothingness.  The premises of Ackie’s stories are wrought with potential.  The climaxes aren’t always grand—which is a good choice that keeps the stories grounded, despite their bizarre beginnings.  The endings are not always as succinctly approached as I’d prefer, but they are satisfying nonetheless.  The book also contains a series of illustrations from Lorena Matić, complimenting the book’s tone with snapshots of individual scenes.

Most of the stories are written in present tense, hurtling the reader directly into the inciting incident.  From a linguistic standpoint, you can tell that Ackie is fresh off a poetry collection as he writes these stories, inserting a number of poetic devices into his prose—alliteration pops up everywhere and some pieces have a distinct lyrical quality.  His environments are clear and he finds precise ways to describe otherworldly occurrences.  For example, in handling the surrealist elements in “The Colour of Nothingness,” Ackie writes these vivid lines:Goldfish Tears“She runs her hand along the doorframe and then sticks the left one out.  Gobbled up by the colourless nothing, the digital pentad ghosts out of sight, but the sensation in her wrist suggests the invisible appendage still exists.  Unnerved, she pulls her hand back in and waggles her fingers about in front of her face to make sure all is in order; four and a thumb, normality.”

This simple scene helps depict that which is literally undepictable—Ackie describes the look of “nothing” through a character’s curiosity about the blank void on her porch.  Her sensation is captured by the description of a phantom limb, but it isn’t overdone.  And rather than bluntly describing her worry with some overused platitudes, Ackie shows the character’s somewhat vexed thoughts through her actions.  The character counts her fingers to make sure they are all there, and this simple action clues the reader into her state of mind.  Ackie does this all with active text and a keen awareness of how his character is behaving.  He lets his characters make choices within their worlds rather than simply having the worlds exist around them.

However, there are a few moments when this breaks down.  In some instances of character action, Ackie loses his bead on the character’s motives and they come off as detached character sketches.  The characters are occasionally said to “see” the environment or “hear” a sound in a generic, explanatory way.  This takes the reader back to a place of observance rather than engagement with the world.  These simple phrases tend to damage the beautiful language highlighted in “The Colour of Nothingness.”  In some settings, these descriptors are useful in conveying a character, but in Ackie’s surrealist realm, I think it pulls the reader too far out.  In these instances, the reader is aware that this is just a story on a page—it shatters Ackie’s otherwise adept world-building.  But that is a picky thing to gripe about, since a lot of the stories retain the active presence that Ackie’s tales demand.  The immediacy of his present tense POV and the penchant for lyricism across the book keeps Ackie’s stories connected to the reader.  Goldfish Tears is a solid collection of short stories from this poet and novelist.

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Chapbook Review: Visiting Writers

Visiting Writers
Written by Ravi Mangla
Uncanny Valley Press, 2011

Ravi Mangla’s chapbook, Visiting Writers (Uncanny Valley Press, 2011), consists of 23 pieces of flash fiction.  These pieces each describe a chance encounter with a famous writer—removed from the trappings of academia or pop-culture consumption, these slices of life peer into the characters of Flannery O’Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, Charles Bukowski, Grace Paley, and other notables.  Mangla’s chapbook wants to provide fun little glimpses into humanizing moments—in the candid space, the writers behave in ways that give sly glances into the idiosyncratic quirks that may or may not have shaped their own writings.  It attempts to link art and artist.  Unfortunately, in many of the pieces, it comes off as too obvious.  I appreciate that each piece is resolute in its brevity, but ultimately these short visits into the lives of famous authors don’t use their few phrases to any advantage.  The journey comes off as somewhat contrived, as each reference to a new author reads more like a library manifest than a story.

That said, I also appreciate the way Mangla tries to keep things low-key despite the misplaced high-brow platitudes.  Bits of humor keep things light, such as the following two-sentence piece: “At the DMV I waited in line behind Gordon Lish.  He wanted a custom license plate but couldn’t settle on the right combination of letters.”  It’s a neat little nod to Lish’s reputation as a meticulous wordsmith.  The collection is full of these inside jokes for well-read audiences, but the end result of these little gems doesn’t have staying power—it just reads like a laundry list of winks from Mangla that become almost expected and anticipated by the end of the chapbook.

This first chapbook from Ravi Mangla has an ambitious premise, but it doesn’t meet expectations.  However, Visiting Writers represents a step toward a more cohesive authorial voice for Mangla.  There is evidence of Mangla’s attention to detail throughout the chapbook, and even if the chapbook fell flat for me, I imagine that some of Mangla’s stylistic choices will evolve and serve him better in his next collection.  All writers grow and learn as they revise their work, listen to critics (or ignore them as necessary), and reflect on past projects.  I sometimes wretch when looking back at my work from five years or even five minutes ago; Ravi Mangla’s piece is fine-tuned enough that it doesn’t force this gag reflect, but it still misses the mark.  So this brutal review aside, Mangla may be an author to watch.  Visiting Writers was contrived, and it almost used its premise as a crutch—hiding behind its literary references while failing to impress on its own merits—but when Mangla steps into his next project, the undercurrents of craft in Visiting Writers could come to the surface in an amazing way.

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Chapbook Review: Dream-Clung, Gone

Dream-Clung, Gone
Written by Lauren Russell
Brooklyn Arts Press, 2012
ISBN 9781936767120

Lauren Russell’s Dream-Clung, Gone spends many of its lines transporting the reader to specific instances in time, ruminating on the details and underscoring bizarre observations that still seem natural when paired with their realistic counterparts.  Her observations are uncanny and relatable—some on a general level and others on a region-specific level that speaks directly to New Yorkers.  But the dreamscape of Lauren Russell’s Dream-Clung, Goneisn’t one of flowery ostentation; her tone is grungy, and her word choice flirts with the vernacular.  She uses lean images, opting for a swift uppercut of quick images rather than a drawn-out ballet fit only for a sesquipedalian.

Dream-Clung Gone

Some of Russell’s images are deliberately caught in the haze typical of post-dream remembrance, solidified as a theme early on with her poem “Fame,” wherein the speaker proclaims “Fame is to wake up and find your dream transcribed on Wikipedia.”  The poem continues to circle this hilarious thought, but her levity becomes stoic at the end, as the dreamer’s remembrance destroys its own core: “In the dream called Fame, there are a hundred and nine contributors. / If the dreamer weights in, it is always at the risk of awaking.— / OneHundredandTen 15:34, 11 Apr 2011 (UTC)”  And thus the poem ends, characteristic of Russell’s style: both witty and mundane, fun and bleak.

Other poems talk—or shout—at other recognizable moments from the life of every poet, or dreamer, or human being.  As aforementioned, you won’t find flowery bits with their lofty venerations: the other poems range from a clever look at the lover as “artifact,” to complaints about supposed-smooth-talking guys on the subway, to a prose poem that plumbs the depths of what black coffee can teach us about personality.

Lauren Russell has an eye for life; she sees little things throughout New York, finds their beating, oozy, sticky hearts, and renders them crisply.  Dream-Clung, Gone isn’t overdone, nor is it underdone.  Lauren Russell’s poems show us the sidewalk with as much uncommon wonder as the Ben Katchor’s drawings in Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, but she does it entirely with words.  Her writing provides a vivid, smart mock-up of 21st century urban life, complete with all its fraying edges and occasional non sequiturs.

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Book Review: Glimpses

Glimpses
Written by Neila Mezynski
Scrambler Books, 2011
ISBN 9780578081410

GlimpsesNeila Mezynski’s recent book, Glimpses, pre-dates her chapbook Yellow Fringe Dress (which I reviewed last month).  It was released in 2011 by Scrambler Books, so its publication date isn’t exactly ancient, but the book itself contains a blend of old and new work from this prolific poet.Yellow Fringe Dress, by contrast, contains more new material, and its ebb is collective in nature.  Glimpses is a hodgepodge of different selections—but this isn’t a major problem throughout most of the book.  Mezynski told me that the older pieces were left in because they are “sincere work, which seems to make a difference.”  She added “[the poems] are my kids”—a sentiment that most writers can appreciate.  Still, in some cases the old and new clash—there are two distinct tones running through this book, and they don’t always gel.

So, when it is gelling, what does Glimpses do as a collection?  It doesn’t have the same extended narrative arc as Mezynski’s newest book, but it approaches the thin (or perhaps thick) line between poetry and prose with Mezynski’s usual prowess.  This collection seeks to infuse poetics into fragmentary, micro-fictions.  It is a hybrid piece from a poet who thrives in this arena.  Unlike some of her other works, this book contains almost no deliberate structure.  It represents prose poetry in its true form—playing with syntax and diction within the confines of a paragraphed structure.  It’s an interesting experiment that pays off through the breadth of Glimpses.

Though Glimoses doesn’t have the unified arc that I enjoyed in Yellow Fringe Dress, it doesn’t need it most of the time.  This book achieves what it sets out to do.  It provides a good overview of Mezynski’s style, and it offers a series of individualized poems that let the reader pick up this book for a lengthy read or a single-page exploration.  There are minimalistic forays into microcosmic characters—like the allegorical poem “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Stay.”  And there are lengthier narratives that appeal to the fiction-lovers among us—like “The St. Francis,” a story detailing the eclectic, glib, and somewhat comical happenings of the title hotel.

It has a little something for everyone. Occasional fumbles in flow are overlookable in this installment of Mezynski’s work, since most of the individual pieces can stand on their own.  Glimpses is still available from Scrambler Books.

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Chapbook Review: Yellow Fringe Dress

Yellow Fringe Dress
Written by Neila Mezynski
Radioactive Moat Press, 2012

Neila Mezynski’s chapbook, Yellow Fringe Dress, was released January 9th, 2012. It’s the latest electronic chapbook from Radioactive Moat Press.

Aesthetically, Radioactive Moat Press’ electronic treatment of Yellow Fringe Dress is fitting.  The chapbook is well-designed with interesting typography and a gorgeous cover.  It fits the fractured fantasy-esque dreamscape vibe of Mezynski’s poetry, and it showcases the potential of electronic publishing.  While I love print media, electronic publication has its own unique place too, and it can be an art form unto itself (when done properly—and Radioactive Moat Press consistently does it properly).  Though Mezynski’s syntax is experimental, the chapbook’s inviting aesthetic makes it easy to read.  The layout compliments the flow rather than hindering it; I wish more e-books featured this attention to presentational quality.

But enough about the design notes for this digital chap; what about Mezynski’s work?  The text is arranged in a hybrid prose poem state.  There is attention to structure, but many of the passages opt for less overt poetic structure in favor of a hybrid prose poem appearance—her work is one of the few examples of a true prose poem: lyricism embedded into prose.  There seems to be an overabundance of books/chapbooks that call anything short prose piece a “poem”–Yellow Fringe Dress is not one of these.  The collection is well-crafted, and it’s subtle arrangement ads minute layers of meaning to poetry that derives most of its purpose from syntactical variance and interesting word choice.

The chapbook’s plot is a postmodern type of anti-bildungsroman, with several instances of twisting plotlines that test the reader’s perception of what a coming of age story really can be and do.  The chapbook only stumbles moderately in its slow beginning.  If you can push through the first few pages, the latter half of Mezynski’s chapbook will surprise you.  Early on, there feels like a lack of movement, where the same themes are repeated.  Mezynski does this for thematic emphasis, yet it bogs down the reader slightly.  Once Yellow Fringe Dress picks up the pace, it hurtles at breakneck speed with vivid imagery and carefully planted sensory details.

Yellow Fringe DressThe experimental style may be hard for some readers to swallow, but the general storyline of Yellow Fringe Dress is beautifully summed up in the ending section.  The breadth of Mezynski’s piece is distilled in a minimalistic recap that can be transposed over all the preceding sections.  If you get bored or annoyed with the chapbook’s other experiments, just flip to part VIII as a cheat sheet.  You’ll miss all the detailed bridges between these fragmented, wispy little descriptors, but it’ll help you understand the central theme easier.  It’s a nice device that provides framing and closure to Mezynski’s well-told story.

At times, the text is wordy and could use some paring down to the bare poetic essentials.  But overall the piece is well-written, and Mezynski’s Yellow Fringe Dress provides a manageable foray into experimentalist syntax and imagery for audiences who might be new to this type of writing.  It is an accessible piece that gets you ready for more work by Neila Mezynski or similar writers—and after you read Yellow Fringe Dress, you’ll definitely want more.

You can find Yellow Fringe Dress at the following URL for free:
http://issuu.com/radioactivemoat/docs/yellow_fringe_dress

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Journal Review: Anobium 1

Anobium
Vol. 1
Anobium Books
ISBN 9780615501062

Origin of Species

Anobium Vol. 1 is the schizophrenic brainchild of Benjamin Van Loon—and the schizophrenia thing is rather literal, seeing as the issue is officially headed by Mary J. Levine, a fictitious product of committee thinking.  Yes, the masthead lists an imagined entity.  Intrigued?  This simple quirk acts as a benchmark for Anobium’s ideology—the volume simultaneously takes itself seriously and has a good laugh. Think about it: a fake editor seems like an off-kilter joke for any self-respecting literary magazine, but in actuality it represents dedication to creativity and literary craft.  The masthead itself is a testament to Anobium’s charm—character development exists across every page, even “boring” credit pages.With Friend, Chimp in Lab CoatAnobium Vol. 1The first volume is wrought with humor, but it’s also enveloped in poignancy, incredibly well-designed, and meticulously edited.  The journal is able to successfully present a wide range of voices without losing the editorial tone, because it artfully shapes its tone as both the class clown and the chess club geek. Anobium reaches out to two extreme ends of the literary spectrum, and it does so brilliantly and without second-guessing itself.

Susan Yount’s “Hyperbolic Umbilic Catastrophe” and “Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking” present narratives as theorems.  Meanwhile, Stephanie Plenner’s “Instructionals” provides advice for literally burning bridges, cutting ties, and other idioms.  Plenner’s piece provides a smart, linguistic look at everyday human experiences through an intentionally flat affect.  It seeks to be staunchly rigid and serious as it deconstructs these idioms, and it does so in such a way that you can’t help but laugh (in a good way) and introspect.  Such experimental pieces abound inAnobium.

A series of pieces from Jonathan Greenhause hint at the contents of Sebastian’s Relativity, the first chapbook by Anobium Books, released this past November.  In these excerpts, Sebastian is tied to a restraint table by chimpanzee surgeons, watches visible syllables land in heaps on the subway floor, and more.  The magic realism of the pieces is intriguing, and each page-long entry has a distinct, microcosmic story arc.  Without having read Sebastian’s Relativity yet, I wonder if Greenhause successfully pulls these micro-fictions into a larger arc—as stand-alone pieces, these work marvelously, but even collections of stand-alone masterpieces need to  have a sense of continual movement through the pages.  I will say this: the teasers in Anobium Vol. 1 are enough to make me want to find out.

Anobium Vol. 1 is full of similarly dissimilar stories and poems, born from a contemporary, gritty version of The Twilight Zone on steroids with a Mensa IQ. Many pieces are remarkable in their uniqueness, yet they coalesce nicely as a collection.  Concerning the aforementioned need for a “larger arc,” Anobium has it in spades.  The selections and arrangements move through Anobium seamlessly, creating an even tenor to Benjamin Van Loon’s madhouse of literature.

With Family, Genetically Abnormal Deviant

However, the Managing Editor (and his Associate Editor cronies) can’t take all the credit.  A big part of what brings these different threads together is the volume’s artwork, designed by Benjamin Van Loon’s brother, Jacob Van Loon.  Think Coen brothers meet [insert more obscure brother duo here].

Anobium’s artwork isn’t just random flare pinned to the pages; it’s part of the main show.  Though Anobium bills itself as primarily a literature rag, it is fundamentally both a lit and art journal.  Each page of Anobium fits seamlessly together.  Big blocks of irreverent text sections off various elements of the issue, while black and white illustrations pop from the inner folds.  Anobium achieves an aesthetic more refined in its B&W pages than I’ve seen in some full-color journals.

And the Brooding Offspring

Anobium achieves excellence in its inaugural issue.  The literature is witty, and a large chunk of the writing pairs this with humor.  The artwork blends well and works as an actual, integrated part of the volume, rather than a tacked on extra. Essentially, it’s damn good.  Copies of Anobium Vol. 1 and Sebastian’s Relativityare still available.  Pre-orders are currently available for Anobium Vol. 2, releasing on January 31st, 2012.


Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2011, All Rights Reserved

Journal Review: Eunoia Review

Eunoia Review

Eunoia Review provides a twist on the usual electronic literary publication.  This website doesn’t serialize its offerings; instead, two new pieces of writing are posted every day.  As such, I can’t offer a review of a specific Eunoia Review issue or volume.  The entire publication is one long, continuous edition.  What I can offer, is an overview of the publication concept and a cursory review of the site’s literary work.This is hardly the first time the “story-a-day” or “poem-a-day” concept has been utilized, but this website stands apart from imitators (or forerunners) through its timely, well-organized editor.  Ian Chung is the architect of this project, and he provides a sleek site without the constant self-promotional clutter of some projects run by a single editor.  He isn’t doing this for recognition or propagation; Ian Chung just wants to read, review, and perhaps publish your writing.  In his 2011 Duotrope interview, Chung says that on most days, he checks for new submissions right after rolling out of bed.  This guy is dedicated.

The editor of this project genuinely wants to read your writing; he cares, he’s interested in craft, and he’s busting his ass to put out new work every day.  This makes Eonioa Review very approachable.  Duotrope’s submission tracker reports just over a 50% acceptance ratio as of November 21, 2011.  Among the Eunoia Review archives, there are hundreds of excellent literary works.  However, a several published pieces could use polish here and there, but that’s okay because Chung’s publication gives new authors a fighting chance.  I’m not going to beat down a journal that has so many good vibes coming from its concept, editor, and writers.  Chung’s approachability and speedy response times to most submissions make this electronic publication is the ideal market for any emerging author.

Eunoia Review’s wide tent is perfect for almost anyone.  Beginners and seasoned hands will find an inviting atmosphere around the site and its cordial editor.  Additionally, avid readers will revel in its daily approach to publishing.  Each time you slide open that laptop lid, you are greeted by two new daily poems or stories. It’s a good concept, and it comes together seamlessly at Eunoia Review.

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2011, All Rights Reserved

Journal Preview: Line Zero 2.1

Line Zero
Vol. 2. No. 1
Pink Fish Press, 2011
ISBN 9781453876886

The Skinny
I have my mitts on an advanced proof of Line Zero’s fifth issue (vol. 2, no. 1).  The issue releases on November 22nd, 2011.  In a word: it’s good.  Pre-order quantities are still available for purchase at The Pink Fish Press store.

The Sinew

Line Zero CoverThe editorial and journalistic content is useful for writers everywhere.  Pieces like Nathan Everett’s “Publish or Perish: Organizing the Author Tour” give practical advice on the economics of writing and book promoting, while other pieces delve into elements of craft.  While most of the editorial articles target the writerly community, some pieces are more broadly relatable to different demographics.  Appealing to other readership cliques are book reviews, album reviews, and a reprinting of the Virginia Woolf piece “Professions for Women.”  Line Zero seems somewhat confused as to who its core audience is at times, but most of the content meshes well enough.

The Membrane

I tend to think of the poetry and prose as the guts of a literary magazine, but Line Zero is one of those publications that pairs literature with artwork.  So maybe the artwork is the membrane surrounding the vital organs?  A cheerful image for the artists in the issue to contemplate.  I mean no disrespect from one body part to another.

Unlike some of Line Zero’s contemporaries, the images are relegated to a separate section.  This design a good choice considering Line Zero‘s full page spreads.  By separating the images into their own little area, it doesn’t create flow issues elsewhere.

I have mixed feelings about a few pieces artwork in the issue, but most pieces shine. Sarah Page has a downright outstanding photograph on page 81.  However, her image on page 80 seems under-exposed and lacking compositional direction.

So goes the artistic content as a whole: there are a couple other pieces that seem a little rough, but most are amazing, and I recognize and appreciate the raw artistic effort that went into these more experimental pieces.  As aforementioned, the artwork blends well with the magazine’s design scheme, and it feels at home among the eclectic poetry and fiction of the issue.

The Guts

On to the guts, or perhaps—out of solidarity to Line Zero’s literature contest winner—the bones.

Bryan Berge’s “Ribcage” took the prize this time around.  Over Line Zero’s 180 pages, there are plenty of stories and poems to look at, but I can’t touch on them all in this preview.  Suffice to say, the editors made a good choice in selecting this finalist for the fiction crown.

The single-sentence teaser for this piece might read: a boy with an odd cellular condition has the capability to grow an embryo.  Yes, the main character has some sort of totipotency condition that causes his cells to split and grow into the elements of human life.  But there is more to it than that—the protagonist has his own set of struggles and situational conflicts operating outside of this delightful and bizarre premise.  Hopefully the teaser is enough to hook you, because I am not in the habit of divulging plot points during reviews.

From a craft perspective, “Ribcage” has disjointed ebb to it, but it seems purposeful and works most of the time.  The author has woven snapshots of the character’s life seamlessly into a deliberately fragmented story arc.  As I said, this is a deliberate device, and it works—most of the time.  The flow does break from its cadence occasionally when seemingly important events are only given a quick glance, but then addressed later with royal carpet treatment.  It seems a little incongruent—but only during a small number of sentences—most of the story has a near-perfect flow.

Here’s how Berge’s flow works: there are many scenes where the precursive dialogue builds to only a short description of a larger event.  These short descriptions act like punctuation on the rising action, giving a unique twist on the typical rise, crest, and falling action of a story.  In theory, this is an excellent approach for Berge’s fiction.  But as mentioned, there are a few times when it doesn’t work.  The intense scenes work well as a minimalistic stopping point if the author moves past them, letting the brevity of the situation fuel the infinite possibilities brewing inside in a reader’s head.  Berge achieves this throughout the story, but there are a few minor instances when the prior events are referenced chunkily.  For example, in the case of a minimalistically defined tragedy, a later paragraph recalls the event, discussing “grief.”  Using “grief” as an emotional descriptor only works if the reader has felt the grief.  If the minimalistic closing lines are intended to give way to a deeper visceral response, the author needs to build from description to emotion.  In short, the story sometimes breaks from that beloved adage: show, don’t tell.  Then again, instances of this disruption are negligible.  This is a good story.  And this is a good edition of Line Zero.

When “Ribcage” stumbles, it is only briefly, and only a picky reviewer like yours truly would care.  It is well-written, and it explores new structural ground.  While the syntax is classical, the subject matter is inventive and the narrative arc is interesting.  The story treads new literary ground, for an inviting and thoughtful read.

On the whole, the issue is full of similar well-written pieces of fiction and poetry, and resonating with the level of quality exhibited throughout Line Zero vol. 2, no. 1.  There will likely be one or two small sections that irk you or seem too overtly targeted at the wrong audience, but the bulk of Line Zero is a work of universally applicable art that writers and readers are bound to enjoy.

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2011, All Rights Reserved

Journal Preview: The Portland Review Fall Film and Video Issue

The Portland Review Fall Film and Video Issue
Sneak Preview Edition

I hold in my hands a sneak preview of The Portland Review’s “Fall Film and Video” issue, distributed to readers and reviewers at last month’s Wordstock festival.  It contains a smattering of prose and poetry by Rochelle Hurt, Dennis Hinrichsen, Sean Bernard, and J. Bowers.

The Physical Construction: Delinquently DIY
The advanced preview of this fall’s issue is understandably low-budget, which is fine; I don’t mind a low-budget.  Our small press is no stranger to limited coffers.  And in previous small press gigs, I worked on plenty of stapled zines made from cardstock and pilfered library printer paper.The sneak preview is basically a saddle stapled zine with 14 pages of internal content to choose from.  Unfortunately, as far as zines go, it’s not that well constructed—unaligned pages, copy grade paper cover, and a single staple with teeth facing outward for a nasty prick to the fingers.  But then again, it’s a promo piece, and I have to give them props for making use of the centerfold pages for a large, landscape piece of black and white artwork.But enough about the physical appearance—the final Portland Review issues are always beautifully assembled, with great artwork, perfect binding, and attention to detail.  I just like to address the volume’s physical quality, because layout and design is an important part of book production, even if it’s DIY-style.  DIY books can be beautiful when done with care and craft; I’ve seen other low-budget zines do a lot more with lot less.

The Writing: Humor and Humor Attempted

So let’s talk about the innards.  The preview issue opens strong with a delightful poem by Rochelle Hurt.  Her work is subtle, makes good use of perception shift, and has touches of humor.  I’d highly recommend finding additional work on her website.

After this strong opening, the preview takes a bit of a nosedive.  The Sean Bernard piece adopts a relatively unique tone, indicative of strong writing, but this excerpt from California doesn’t work well as a standalone piece—cleaved from its whole, the excerpt lacks decisive purpose or direction, and it feels unfinished.  Of course, excerpting can often lead to a feeling of absence, but a well-selected excerpt should generate some of its own gusto even in isolation.

The interview with Mike Grey, star of the Comedy Cellar Network show The Troupe, falls a bit flat too.  The interview has a punch line that tries to incorporate some humorous existentialist remarks, all swirled around repeatedly asking if it’s okay to light up a cigarette.  This premise sounds nice, but the entire exchange feels like a failed Abbot and Costello routine.  The Troupe may be a laugh riot, but this interview just didn’t do it.

Other selections in the preview were also okay, but lacked the “oomph” of Rochelle Hurt’s opening piece.  In the few days prior to reading this preview edition, I had found a better assortment of outstanding work on The Portland Review’s poetry blog, though most of these poems were obviously not suited for a “Film and Video” themed issue.  Regardless, The Portland Review has better writing currently relegated to the blog burner.

Overall, the preview has some polished text, but not much of a wow factor.  I wasn’t as impressed with this preview compared to what I know The Portland Review can deliver.  However, maybe I’ll still head to Powell’s and page through the full issue; maybe some more pieces like Rochelle Hurt’s great opener will find their way into the finished product—the poetry blog gives me hope.

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2011, All Rights Reserved