Hefty Online Journal Features Many Genres and Some Advice for Writers
One thing that’s difficult to gauge about an online journal is how much material there is. You can’t pick it up and get a sense of its size by hefting it around a bit. Let me assure you that the Fall 2014 issue of Compose Journal is BIG.
Compose is a multi-genre affair with six stories, five pieces of creative nonfiction, two “features” on different aspects of the writing life, fifteen works of visual art, an interview, and over twenty poems. With this much material, there are plenty of bright spots.
“In Retail,” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, is a finely-tuned short story with a poignant and well-earned moral about community and connection. “Byrdie Draws Birds” by Carol Ann Tyx is a moving but clear-eyed nonfiction piece about Asperger’s syndrome that conveys the love and empathy that allows people to connect despite their different ways of interacting with the world. Tyx describes the complicated mixture of care and concern for her grandson, as well as the wonder and joy that become possible by valuing his enthusiasm for drawing birds. “Tart” by Rowan Beaird is a tightly-packed short story in which fear and reverie travel two separate tracks until they abruptly run into each other.
The artworks in Compose are particularly accomplished and compelling. The paintings of Andi Tomassi challenge the viewer to reconceptualize the human form, as Tomassi’s figures are stretched into long, drooping bodies that seem to be pale trails of themselves against the darkness. Her most defined image of the human being appears in “Conforming to the Human Construct (Which Should Never Be Done),” but this form is also the least real; he is delicately being put together by shadowy figures at the bottom of the painting with long, bent tools. Tomassi’s work powerfully captures the difficulty of human emotion. Whether it is the lone figure that bellows into the night sky or the lover’s drooping head that rests to comfort another, each represents a moment in which simply being human is a defeating endeavor.
Thomas Gillaspy’s stark photographs also challenge the viewer to see what is ordinary in extraordinary ways, this time by means of light and shadow. In one, a white bench on a sidewalk stands out with glaring simplicity against sharp lines of dark grass. The dichotomy between light and shadow makes you ask whether an object is most itself when it can be seen most clearly, or whether it is most fully realized when one notices its effects, as in the shadows that light just the right side of an arched doorway.
The depth of possibility in the artwork in Compose—their striking compression of feeling—is not always matched by the poems. While several of the poems are rich and thoughtful, there are at least as many that seem wayward and contradictory. Ian Khadan’s “Mourning the Lost,” for example, opens with a couplet of contradictions: “You know your former self like a tooth spinning / in its own blood; its clawlike root is another weapon.” It is difficult to picture the image of the tooth spinning, and the metaphor of the tooth’s roots as a weapon is so bewildering (without the benefit of being simultaneously provocative) as to stop the reader cold. Many of the poems feel as if they are a draft or two shy of finished and would be more suitable after the logic of each line is made to serve the whole—or the poem’s illogic is presented as a perfect likeness of the unexplainable reality around us.
The “Features” in the Fall 2014 issue of Compose are especially good reading for those readers who are also writers. In “What Good Editors Do and How to Find One,” Betty Kelly Sargent methodically and helpfully delivers on the promise of her title. Dan Blank’s “On Risk in Writing” is an invigorating pep talk but also intently realistic about the challenges of writing and entrepreneurship. Just as importantly, it is an engaging and assured piece of writing that goes down so smooth that you reach the bottom and immediately want someone to pour another.
The interview with Jane Eaton Hamilton is another fine slice of the writing life. Hamilton discusses her writing habits and process in a way that feels both true and encouraging, as when she says, “I don’t know where ideas come from. The day I sat down to write ‘Smiley’ I really didn’t have any.” The issue also includes Hamilton’s, “Fat Ankles,” a compelling and closely-observed story that tackles a bit of death and life and love—but all through dialogue and minute human interaction. You just know when someone’s a pro. You don’t hear creaks; you don’t look at your watch; you just enter the story and listen to real voices. And when it ends you are well-rewarded by its finely-crafted closure at the same time you feel a pang of loss that it’s over.
Compose Journal brings together a wide variety of different genres—and is a bit uneven in places—but it is well worth visiting and exploring widely.