A Call for Boundary-Breaking Writers and Other Challengers of Form
Published by the Department of English at
Formal boundary breakers, take note: this may be a journal to add to your submission list. In particular, several short pieces of “prosetry” (my own term) by Sarah Ciston inhabit that space between “prose” and “poetry” currently all-the-rage in literary journal-dom. Although I can certainly appreciate such experimentation, I am drawn most to the more “traditional” writing in the issue—especially short stories like Lizárraga’s, which—while “narrative,” “linear,” and much more predictable than Ciston’s—are also very accessible. I come away from stories like Jonathan Bohr’s “Trying” and Malena Watrous’s “The Miniature Circus” feeling spoken to directly by distinct, present, emotional human voices that compel me to keep turning the page.
Lines like “For us to learn lessons by / My doctor has incomplete fingers / Three of them, they stop at the knuckle / Or maybe it’s two and a third just wishes it would / When I look at them, and believe me” from Octavio Solis’s poem “People Are Not There” are a bit too disjointed for my own taste. Much of the issue’s poetry takes a similarly surreal aesthetic approach. I have a hard time focusing on and appreciating much of it due to my own narrative, place-based aesthetic bias. The fact that I haven’t been pulled in, however, is by no means a condemnation—merely an honest observation.
In keeping with Arroyo’s West Coast roots, much of this issue’s poetry aligns closely with the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E movement. (To reiterate: I am not a L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poet and do not identify with the school, which makes me feel like an unaddressed outsider at times.) While most of the poetry isn’t especially “experimental” in terms of its spacing on the page, the overall aesthetic of included work is one of misdirection, intentional confusion, and meandering for meandering’s sake—a relishing of sound-based exploration in the pursuit of play and creative flair. Poets who pick up a copy will most likely 1) enjoy this editorial decision and submit work in the same vein 2) immediately close the journal and move on to something else more interesting to them or 3) wonder, as I do, whether or not a commitment to some place-based California poetry in the vein of Larry Levis, Philip Levine, or Dorianne Laux might help balance the issue out (again, personal preference).
That said, there is a very interesting (and accessible) translation of Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge” (“Deathfugue” in the English) by scholar John Felstiner that caps off the issue and helps it close with a proverbial “bang” rather than “a whimper.” An interview with Felstiner also considers whether or not poetry can save humanity from environmental cataclysm, which might interest writers whose work is directly linked to questions of environmentalism.
My favorite selections in Arroyo are probably Ye Chun, Melissa Tuckey, and Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s translations of contemporary Chinese poet Yang Zi. Stanzas like “No, I never oppose life. / In the world’s tedious and unexciting drama, / you won’t hear / my passionate soliloquy” are hard to forget—and feel fresh and direct even in translated form. Chun, Tuckey, and Sze-Lorrain should be commended for helping make Zi’s work accessible to an American audience. I certainly hope to read/find more of it in the future and hope they complete similar Chinese-to-English translation projects down the line.
After reading hundreds of journals the past few years, I place this issue of Arroyo in the “moderately-to-mostly-interesting” range. At times the writing is crisp, energetic, and urgent—while at others a bit disjointed, confusing, and potentially alienating to readers not well-versed or comfortable with experimentation for experimentation’s sake. That said, I think writers with a variety of styles and aesthetic concerns could easily find a home for their work here—and that the location of this journal, while not yet fully maximized, could help make it a real geographically-oriented gem with a commitment to including more diverse poetry (i.e., less block-text poems about dreams with esoteric diction and syntax—or, at the very least, a balance of surreal L-A-N-G-U-A-N-G-E poetry alongside other more concrete, narrative-based aesthetic schools.)