Curated Cosmopolitanism: New Online Lit Mag Explores International Boundaries
For eleven years now, Bookslut.com has been bringing attention to books that don’t get the spotlight anywhere else. It’s the place to go for discussion of central European literature in translation and vintage travel memoirs just brought back into print. This spring, the Bookslut team, led by editor-in-chief Jessa Crispin, has gone into publishing new work in a monthly online literary magazine called Spolia. Publishing art, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, Spolia is available in PDF, MOBI, and EPUB versions, ready for any portable device.
I started reading the inaugural Spolia by loading it onto my Nook, a device I got secondhand and seldom use. I include this information as a disclaimer, because it is potentially my fault that I was not able to find a way to read Spolia on the Nook that made any sense. There is a great deal of art in this issue, both in a portfolio section and incorporated into one of the essays, and it needs to be viewed in color instead of e-ink’s black and white. In addition, the first piece in the issue, Daphne Gottlieb’s short story “Bess,” is laid out on the page in a complex way, with footnotes and two styles of body text, and there was no setting for font or size in the Nook that didn’t render the story a mess. I gave it a valiant effort, but finally I apologized to the trees and printed out the PDF.
Once those questions of format were set aside, I was able to settle into the art and writing in the magazine, and it is a sophisticated, ambitious body of work. This inaugural issue is named “Ballets Russes,” after the ballet company started by Russian director Sergei Diaghilev in the early twentieth century. This theme comes together at the midpoint of the issue with an interview with Jane Pritchard, who has written books about Diaghilev and Anna Pavlova; an essay by Leah Triplett about the work of Natalya Goncharova, who moved from Russia to Paris and then Switzerland to collaborate with Diaghilev; a portfolio of Goncharova’s work; and “A Natalia Goncharova Catalog” by Greer Mansfield, a spare prose description of the artwork that ties together some of its themes and recurring images.
This sequence of pieces suggests the rationale for the issue’s focus. Jessa Crispin introduces the Pritchard interview by saying, “In an age where everyone has their specialty, their subculture, their specially honed identity, it is time for a Ballets Russes revival.” The pieces selected for this theme have a slightly tacked-together quality—the Triplett essay, in particular, feels a little technical and oddly focused on the posthumous sales, bequests, and travels of Goncharova’s artwork. An essay about the art itself might have been more helpful to a general-interest audience.
It’s up to the nonfiction and art to carry the theme, as the fiction and poetry selections here have no clear literal connection to Diaghilev or the Ballets Russes. There are two short stories: one, “Bess,” leads off the issue, with its footnotes and its layering of voices, and the other comes near the end. “Bess” sets the tone with its marriage of formal ambition and social concern. I’m hesitant to call the piece “innovative,” a word that can easily be cheapened—what is important here is how Gottlieb bends the form to express her narrator’s difficult position stuck between official duties and personal compassion, between being a part of the social services system and despairing at the possibility of any meaningful services being given.
“Bess” is followed by a long work of journalistic nonfiction by Peter Vermeersch called “Gone,” about tracing the steps of Kosovo human rights activist Enver Hadri. Vermeersch met with Hadri’s children and widow in Brussels and then traveled to Kosovo in an attempt to puzzle out Hadri’s legacy and the appropriate language for talking about it: “Place names in Kosovo: a sensitive matter, often a code to talk about the conflict. Was it Priština or Prishtinë? Trepça or Trepa? Peć or Pejë? Peć is the Serbian name. The city traditionally was the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate, and that connection is why Serbians attach great importance to the city. Now hardly any Serbians live there, but the name is still in use and that’s not illogical: Kosovo officially remains a multilingual country. Kosovo? Wait, maybe I should say Kosovë, the Albanian version of the name? And is it actually a country?”
Of the six pieces of nonfiction in this issue, “Gone” is the longest, and perhaps the most exemplary of the genre’s purpose in this particular magazine. This is nonfiction that provides researched, factual information, that aims to teach its readers something or to expand their reading of the fiction and poetry published next to it. There are two memoir-essays in the mix, One, Lightsey Darst’s “Living With Art,” is an exploration of the artwork in the author’s home, and the other, Mikhail Shishkin’s “Of Saucepans and Star-Showers,” is a personal-historical reflection on the author’s deceased relatives, presented here in translation from the original Russian. There is no lyric nonfiction and no straight memoir included, and either one (particularly memoir) would be a little out of place in the global milieu of the issue.
Alan DeNiro’s short story “A Rendition” is an interesting example of a work concerned with violence but not interested in portraying it directly. It follows a group of young people, apparently college students, who exact revenge against a professor who (according to them) wrote legal memos that helped to justify torture. The students claim, “The point of this exercise is to, you know, gather relevant information about what he knows,” but they never get around to asking any questions, nor does it seem they would know what to do with any sensitive information. Instead, their attempted revenge becomes a weight bearing them into the earth. The contemporary relevance of this story looms so large that DeNiro never needs to look directly at it. No politicians, wars, or even countries are named, and despite the students’ show of political anger, none of them show political allegiance. Instead of allegory we get a flesh-crawlingly creepy horror story, a portrait of vengeance that could be said to “go sour” if it didn’t have such a bad taste from the very start.
The poetry selections are cosmopolitan, including Phil Sorenson’s renditions of four poems by the nineteenth-century French poet Alfred de Musset. These are not simple translations but have been through “an occult process of translation, interpretation, and mutilation.” The four poems included here start with a kind of allusive, elusive prose poetry and progress toward a more versified and more direct form. None of them are the least bit Victorian. There are also four poems by Olivia Cronk, which in their boldness and fragmentary brevity feel like coals crumbling out of a mysterious fire, and four more leisurely and landscape-driven poems by Hoa Nguyen.
So, then: is this the magazine to deliver the Ballets Russes revival we need, to bridge our subcultures and specialties? Perhaps, perhaps. What I take the Ballets Russes to represent in this context is not a broad, all-inclusive generalism but a curated cosmopolitanism. Spolia is currently not accepting unsolicited submissions, which means it is operating a little like Diaghilev’s company: you might get invited to participate if you have already published some work that catches an editor’s eye. The themed elements are a little too expert—the essay about the tricky Goncharova art bequest instead of about the art, the interview that says less about Diaghilev than about what it was like to curate an exhibit about Diaghilev. These could have benefited from a broader focus.
The second issue has a “Black Magic” theme, which should be well suited to a focus on the obscure, and perhaps this is what Spolia will prove itself to be for: a place for more intricate explorations of a broader array of subjects than most publications try to provide. If Spolia continues to run to one hundred pages per issue and will be published monthly, then it may well become a prominent and important voice in the lit mag scene. I am eager to see how well it upholds the Ballets Russes ideals set out by its inaugural issue.