Exceptionally Strong Poetry-Oriented Mag Makes a Comeback
This issue of Copper Nickel marks the return of a literary journal originally founded by Jake Adam York. It had ceased publication in 2012 after his sudden death. Based at the University of Colorado Denver, it is published twice a year, in March and September.
York was a poet, and Copper Nickel is mostly poetry. This issue contains forty-two poems from thirty-three poets. With just four fiction pieces and three nonfiction essays, this very much feels like a serious poetry journal with a side of prose. There is no art except for the lovely cover, an arresting picture of two bodies in an empty room. As a print journal it is attractive and well made, small enough to read comfortably on the bus, and sturdy enough to withstand being hauled around in my bag for a couple weeks.
As a showcase for poetry, Copper Nickel is exceptionally strong. There are lots of established and working poets in these pages and a nice variety in the poems, though the content leans toward the academic. The poets here have published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares among other prestigious venues. Many list MFAs and teach English and creative writing and various colleges and universities. I would say this issue does have a bit of an ivory tower feel to it but, I don’t necessarily consider that a negative. The writing is often layered, sometimes challenging, but overall, quite approachable. To my eye, this volume is an excellent overview of contemporary poetry, especially that which is coming out of academia.
There is much to enjoy in these pages, a few poems in particular stood out for me.
“How to Live” by Michelle Oakes, starts with a terrible accident involving falling, moves to circus aerialists’ attempts to fly, and then on to a bird’s natural ability. It uses the continuum of falling to flying as a way to investigate how we find ways to control our life, or not. The events and images in this poem are supported by the loose arrangement of lines and line breaks that give the poem an open feel that is both playful and serious.
Here, now, a blue jay seems to fall,
Over and over
Out of the tree branch over my head.
I feed it Pistachios.
Michael Bazzett’s “The Taxidermist & the Cloud,” is a conversation between a drifting cumulus cloud and the taxidermist who would preserve it for all time. Both characters come to life with a sly humor that recalls fable, and the poem captures some of a fable’s universal and timeless qualities.
“The Antique Blacks” by Adrian Matejka’s, was one of my favorites. It is perhaps the longest poem in the issue, and it feels joyously maximalist. The poem moves easily through a variety of different forms as the poet compares the vastness of space, and our exploration of it, with intensely personal experience of growing up African-American in Indiana. It opens with:
In Richard Pryor’s origin myth of black
size, the two most magnanimous black men
in the world are peeing off the 30th Street Bridge
into the White River’s busted up water. & above,
constellations in the sky’s pat afro seem
as indiscriminant as the lint in hair & more mundane
The poem moves easily from couplets and quatrains to dense prose blocks. It swings between intimate personal experience and the larger canvas of history, incorporating the moon, Saturn, and voyager leaving the solar system with references to Sun Ra, jerry curls, and The Little Rascals, all with a feeling of effortless jazz improvisation. Even when he turns his attention to the vastness of space, it feels intimate:
…It includes nickel plating four-fingered
rings, fast-picking Cassinis, one-dropping
codes again. Pacers’ caps tilting toward Saturn
on their own volition. All things interstellar
are black & white through a telescope –
Conversely, when Matejka references intimate experiences they feel universal. This is a poem that requires rereading, and rewards the exercise. In the end, this poem, by its great breadth and inclusiveness reflects a deep and true humanity, one that acknowledges human cruelty.
Heather Altfeld’s “Faberge in Lausanne” is a dense and gorgeous portrait of an aging artist, and his memories of a long-gone world and of the Tzarina who inhabited his heart. Like the eggs it refers to, this poem is a kind of finely crafted object. It is a world inside the world, where images and ideas are cast as jewel-like miniatures by a speaker who is still deeply in love after all these years: "he would have cracked his own sternum/if his heart had been the rubied surprise inside.”
Copper Nickel also features two translation folios. It is refreshing, and I think essential, to have the opportunity to read poetry outside of the English-speaking experiences. David Keplinger translates five poems by Jan Wagner, a German poet. Daniel Hahn and Sean O’Brien translate five poems by Corsino Fortes, a poet from Cape Verde who writes in both Portuguese and Creole. The inclusion of two sets of translated poems adds much needed depth to the poetry landscape, and I hope they will continue to feature translated works – and the translators who bring these works to a wider audience.
I found the fiction and essays to be weaker categories, but with only three essays and four fiction pieces, it’s a bit of a crapshoot as far as what will land with a particular reader.
The nonfiction essay, “In a Large Coastal City” by Donovan Ortega, won the editor’s prize and was the strongest in my eyes, too. The personal and confessional tone and short paragraphs with lots of intervening whitespace, lent the subject matter of homelessness and recovery from addiction an empty, outdoorsy feeling. There is a sense of timeless days and nights marked only by moving from shelters to park benches to group sessions. Told in second person (which can so often feel affected or just not come off), it worked here beautifully here, making the piece poignant, immediate and emotionally affecting.
In fiction, “The Ease of the Explorer” by Mark Brazaitis, was the standout for me. A coming of age story set in exotic places that focuses on the character’s struggle for a deeper understanding of himself in light of his actions; and one the proves the aphorism that, no matter how far you go, there you are.
This being a kind of inaugural issue, it is hard to say how open they will be to new talent but they promise relatively brief (eight week) turn around time and also allow simultaneous submissions. These generous policies would seem to encourage both newer and more established writers to send in their work.