Let It Be This One: A Lit Mag That Rises Above the Din
If you’re like me, then you probably have friends who have barely heard of literary magazines, who give you a puzzled look when you tell them what you’ve been reading or where you’ve been published. So perhaps you’re looking for an example to show them, an exemplar of its kind to educate them. Let it be this one. Booth Four, the literary journal produced by fellows and students of the Butler University MFA program, is an impressive collection of stories, poetry, non-fiction and comics. It is a beautiful journal to hold, with its quirky cover illustration and snappy design, and a moving journal to read. Just the thing to convert anyone into a literary magazine enthusiast.
And Booth knows how to make an entrance. It begins, appropriately enough, with Aubrey Ryan’s beautiful, award-winning piece, ‘How to Make a Beginning.’ The poem begins, “Wedding gowns are hard to sink/in creeks. They float downstream/like bloated geese.” From there this poem flows melodiously to its haunting conclusion.
The other poems included in this issue are all of a similar high caliber, though the styles and subject matter vary. One of my favourites is Claire Kiefer’s “Travelogue”, which describes part of a woman’s journey through China.
[…] I try to show the driver your address But when I reach into my bag I pull out my plane ticket. The date is blurred with undrinkable water. If I’m sick enough I won’t be able to fly. Teach me the word for hospital. Which road grows the wild jasmine? Which road To the restaurant with the red velvet curtains? The taxi pulls into the airport and I can’t think of the word For no. I don’t know how to say my wisdom teeth hurt Too badly. I don’t know how to say I can’t leave him In that village.
The short stories without exception present moving characters that even at their most outlandish are utterly relatable, from the quiet heartbreak of Kelcey Palmer's “Limberlost” to John McNally's raucous novel-excerpt “Lord of the Ralphs”. Then there is the hilarious “Phys. Ed. 112 Syllabus: You and Your Apocalypse” by Alexander Lumans, whose instructors include Richard Branson, Ernest Shackleton and Cormac McCarthy, and which promises that “if you’ve managed to somehow survive total devastation with at least half of your original limb count, then you have options. This course will teach you to hone those options into life-saving (or -damning) skills.”
Deserving special mention is the section ‘Winesburg, Indiana’. Here, in homage to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, are four stories, each one focused on a single character and his or her struggle to overcome loneliness and isolation. There is Edward Porter’s “Howard Garfield, Balladeer”, an affecting story of a singer of dubious talent and his fruitless attempts to connect with others through his folk music. Then there is Roxane Gay’s “Tara Jenkins”, which recounts the difficult love story of Tara and Melissa. But my favourite is “Constance H. Wootin” by Michael Martone, in which Constance tries to complete the unfinished mural in the town’s main post office, but because she details each resident of Winesburg and updates their appearance as they age, the task is unending. These stories are by turns funny, tender and poignant and all skillfully written.
The magazine is a little light on non-fiction, with just one interview and one essay included, though perhaps this is simply due to a lack of submissions. The Booth website certainly indicates this is an area where they would be happy to consider more examples. Perhaps they were trying to compensate for the lack with Mick Powers’ interview with Joe Blair, author of the memoir By the Iowa Sea. The interview gives an interesting glimpse into Blair’s writing process, but, at fifteen pages, it is longer than any other entry in the magazine.
Unlike previous issues of Booth, you will find no photography within these pages. But you will discover the art and comics of Dustin Harbin, who also contributed the cover illustration. These are sometimes whimsical and always thought-provoking and provide the perfect complement to the poetry and prose within. There are no newcomers to writing represented in this issue. Most contributors have or are in the middle of pursuing an MFA, many have impressive publication credits to their names.
A reader should have no qualms about being in untried hands. A submitter might be a little intimidated to be considered alongside these talents. There is plenty in this issue of Booth to admire and engage. Certainly, it’s an issue I’ll be sharing with others as often as I can.