Breadth of Style, Lack of Diversity in Cleveland Lit Mag
Whiskey Island is the literary magazine published by Cleveland State University and helmed by its current MFA students. They accept fiction, poetry, and essays.
All of the writing found in issue #67 is very short, which writers may want to take into consideration when submitting. The longest piece is only ten pages long (and that is with ample spacing). Nearly all contributors have previous publications to their name. Many are editors or are affiliated with MFA programs. Emerging writers should take note: like most journals, you may want to browse a few back issues to get a taste of their aesthetic and what kind of writing they’re looking for.
While there is very good female representation, there is a complete lack of racial diversity in this issue. Roughly 95 percent of contributors are white. I think this is unacceptable and I really hope the editors take note of this for future issues. Being a writer who has also helped edit several literary magazines in the past, I know there are simple ways to remedy this problem. But the process must always start with editors actually being more cognizant of what they’re publishing. “We mostly receive submissions from white writers” is a lousy excuse at this point.
Aside from this glaring problem, this particular issue is all about precision and clarity of language. It is eclectic in terms of tone and style, with pieces capturing life at a variety of different angles. There is careful attention paid to details that may go overlooked, with the writing acting as a means of magnifying. There are close-ups of animal life.
The issue opens with a flash essay about anthropomorphized insects, funnily titled, “Gateway Bugs.” Often these close-ups become meditations on mortality and the frailty of living things, as seen in Mindy Burkhardt’s “Jelly” and in Michael Sarnowski’s “Bird in a Cage.” These existential meditations are thrown into stark relief with several stories about illness and survival. “Young Man in Hospital Bed” by Sean Hickey shows us a glimpse of a hospital patient, hooked up and drugged. Kat Moore’s essay, “The Wounds,” details a malaise and an emptiness that can only be filled temporarily with drugs and alcohol. She reflects on a friend’s suicide while letting herself float in the ocean, her thoughts interspersed with parentheticals alluding to Albert Camus’ existentialist philosophy and “The Myth of Sisyphus.”
In the essay, “The Waiting Room,” by Jason M. Jones, the narrator believes he has some type of cancer and contemplates his imminent demise. How is he to use the limited time he has left? What is most precious to him in his life? How many things has he left unfinished? These rattling questions make their way to the foreground and become immediate to the reader.
Doug Paul Case’s essay, “Elegy to a Photograph Deleted,” looks outward and towards legacy, what can remain after death. We hope, as artists, that our art lives on in some form after we have passed. But everything is so naturally ephemeral and so easily destroyed, which Case elucidates through his photography project, Men in My House. His project involves inviting men from the site Grindr to pose nude for him. But photographs, especially today, are so easily gone in an instant. One click and the moment vanishes. Why these models choose to pose for him doesn’t matter. He is more interested in asking what his art, or anyone else’s, can mean or sustain.
The poetry in this issue goes more inward, although the theme of inevitable decay continues, such as with “Farewell to Yesterday’s Self” by Adam Clay. What can truly last if even our sense of self cannot? What can truly remain? This transformation through little deaths of the self is seen as a natural part of growth in “The Cut” by Maggie Smith. The narrator describes a haircut as a rite of passage after she gives birth. She watches as her hair falls to the floor, “part of me not quite alive, not quite / dead.” She has seen this partial death of herself as a stepping stone, with new life in her arms. She embraces it.
The range of voices on universal themes gives you a good sampling of what condensed writing can do. This issue lacked those longer, more traditional stories where you can immerse yourself in the lives and thoughts of the characters. Instead, this collection of fragments offers glimpses in brief spaces. There is some formal experimentation, in particular with the poetry, such as the sound poems by Janis Butler Holm and an ekphrastic poem on stained glass by Sara Biggs Chaney. The obvious diversity problem limits the cultural scope found in this issue, although the breadth of style still remains surprising.