A Journal of Epic Excellence
When I picked up the Summer 2012 issue of Indiana Review (a literary magazine out of Indiana University), my first thought was that I’d be reading a fantasy edition, the cover a mythical, spear-wielding god flying along on an eight-legged horse and battling a rabid wolf. Thankfully (for my taste) that wasn’t the case, but I can imagine for the staff of IR it felt like a mythical conquest finally releasing this beast of an issue after nine months in the making. Volume 34, Number 1 punches in at 150-plus pages (or about a pound) of nearly cover-to-cover text with dozens of hands in its creation, from a sizable editorial staff to several readers and interns. The hard work shows, as the presentation is flawless.
While not full-on fantastical, many of the pieces are indeed quite eccentric in form and subject matter. There’s little here that’s been done before. The works are all easily digested, though, flirting with the unbelievable without veering too far off the path. There are lively pieces of epic love and fatal love, of would-be heroes and fallen heroes (from mom and dad to NASCAR drivers). Yes, there’s even a story about a massive cake made in the image of Atlantis (“…this sweet-treat city was a work of many modes, elegiac as well as epic, lyric as well as heroic.”).
The issue offers a heavy dose of fiction, fourteen stories in all, ranging in length from under a page to twelve. The writers are predominantly female and give us a mix of styles from literary to mainstream to experimental. Several pieces shine. One of my favorites is Delphine Coulin’s “The Drops Falling from the Sheets” (written in French and translated by Paul Daw). The story, alternating point of view between characters, is about two women living on opposite balconies in an unnamed city, one convinced the other played a part in the disappearance of her son (presumably killed by the police or military). It’s a poignant and masterfully executed story with subtle but commanding language. Coulin describes one of the boy’s shirts hanging from a clothesline “for a long time, for weeks on end, opposite Luz Lynarz’s windows, like an accusation” and garments that have been set free by the ocean’s wind as “an army of missing people…risen up.”
Polly Rosenwaike’s “Grow Your Eyelashes,” is a much different story – lighter, wittier, with more of a mainstream bent – but equally engaging. It’s about a young woman struggling to have a child with her “not especially handsome” husband, and her imaginary relationship with a dad and baby she rides the bus with. Rosenwaike writes, “Despite the gold ring on the cute father’s finger, I pretend that he’s on his own, a single parent. Not knowing his name, I think of him as Javier. What happened to the woman who bore Javier’s adorable child? She loves Uraguay more, with its rolling planes and ample rivers and her whole family there.” Other pieces worthy of mention include “Covenants” by Dana Fitz Gale, “Sidewinder” by L. Annette Binder, and “Presidents” by Elise Winn (the 2011 IR Fiction Prize Winner).
The poetry (33 pages worth from 22 poets) is fresh, often delving into uncharted terrain: Adam (as in Adam and Eve) discovering his immortality, a meditation on a television crime series, and an ABBA song “looping” through someone’s head. In fact, overall, the poetry section is probably my favorite. So much of the language is bold. Sean Bishop’s “Adam Explains His Implications,” begins:
There’s a hole in your tin pail, that’s what I mean.
I mean you wear it; I mean you’re a breakable
mini-anyone, playing soldier, squinting through it
at your father whom you hate.
What I mean is that’s you at the barbeque,
burning the burgers. That’s you
mowing the wet lawn, choking the blade.
Other pieces are more delicate, requiring closer reading and then rewarding it. In Sara Gelston’s “In the Other World,” seemingly referencing how similar all our lives really are, she writes: “Sometimes this is the only difference. Pronunciation / perspective maybe, which is to say the difference is nothing / more than looking at the sun from two different points, / calling it sun and calling it solsken.” There are a number of pieces with beautiful rhythm and musicality. In “Accidental Pastoral” by Maggie Smith, the speaker recalls passing through Main Street in a small Ohio town:
When I was small, I sat on a curb
only a dozen miles from here, my feet
in the ashtray-dirty gutter, and watched
stars-and-stripes girls wheeling
their batons, slicing the sun-dumb
air into streamers. I can still hear
the click of cellophane candies
The list goes on.
The five nonfiction selections are solid. “Farsi Nights” by Karen Holmberg is a stand-out, a story with significance beyond the world of the writer. In it, Holmberg, a true-blooded American, chronicles the difficulty “merging” lives with her strict Persian in-laws and her in-laws’ struggle to come to terms with leaving their native land and transplanting in L.A. Holmberg writes: “Surrounded by the Persian community, they hardly would have to speak English at all, were it not for me. I confront them with the permanence of their exile.” Holmberg also weaves in the story of the 2009 Iranian election protests and the death of Neda Agha Soltan, capturing the helplessness of witnessing such events at home while living thousands of miles away and the uncertainty of how to respond as a foreign wife. “Farsi Nights” is an engrossing piece, the kind I hoped to come across in a journal with IR’s rich history and reputation.
There are several pages devoted to reviews of short story and poetry collections. Typically slim on artwork, Jen Mundy’s cover, “Ragnarok'n'Roll,” is the only art in the current issue (which is really a fine piece with brilliant colors). The previous two issues had three pieces each.
IR prints semiannually. The price tag is a touch steep at $12 for a single issue and $20 for a two-issue subscription. The good news for writers is there are no fees for regular submissions and there is payment for publication ($5 per page and $10 minimum), as well as two contributor’s copies and the remainder of a year’s subscription. Having said that, less than 1% of submissions are accepted. Fiction, nonfiction, poems, and visual art are considered. As is often the case with journals of creative writing programs, most of the contributors in the current issue are MFAs and professors.
There are plenty of gems in IR’s Summer 2012 release. But there were also some pieces that, despite being well-written, fell a bit flat. I found them difficult to connect with, emotionally or intellectually. Though IR routinely pumps out hearty issues, sometimes less is more, and if this issue were a little trimmer, a little tighter, I have to believe it would have packed a bigger punch. Still, while perhaps short of legendary as a whole for me, it is a success. The better pieces are first-class and shouldn’t be missed. If you’re game for the journey, you won’t be disappointed.