Multilayered Reading: A Journal that Blends Classic with Contemporary
Picture yourself strolling down a wide avenue in Europe. The Champs-Elysses in Paris or Gran Via in Madrid. Look up and you can see intricately articulated stone moldings, beveled windowpanes, walls aged from winter storms, summer heat, civil war and military occupation. Meanwhile, along the sidewalks bright lights, fashionable stores and bustling commerce offer all the pleasures and trappings of modern life.
If you have envisioned this broad and multilayered street, then you have also just envisioned the latest issue of Boulevard, the triannually-published literary magazine out of Saint Louis University, founded by prolific writer Richard Burgin. The university itself is located on Lindell Boulevard (hence the journal’s name) just outside St. Louis Missouri.
Two of the essays here concern the artwork of European masters. Geoffrey Bent’s “The Virtuoso” is a compelling study of Italian painter Caravaggio, “the greatest painting virtuoso in history.” Robert Zaller’s piece, “In the Hall of German Memory: Kiefer, Sebald, and the Road from Auschwitz” is a fascinating account of German artwork post-WWII. Here Zaller discusses how the Nachgeborenen (Germans born in the midst of and after the war) “began to break the silence of their fathers and to confront the existential question of what it meant to be a German in the wake of the Nazi legacy.”
While Jean McGarry and William Black’s essay “What’s the Story Behind the Story?” does not deal with European themes, the essay does have a heft and gravitas evocative of century-old architecture. Part craft-advice, part literary-criticism, McGarry and Black look at the ways in which personal experience can inform and enrich one’s writing. In particular they discuss how Nabakov, Joyce and others drew upon their private experiences to create fiction with universal and transcendent appeal.
At street level—along the more contemporary section of this broad avenue—we encounter Anis Shivani’s essay, “Creative Writing is Therapy, Even if the Pedagogues Won’t Admit it”. Shivani is best known for his online essays decrying MFA programs and the writing generated therein. Here, Shivani takes on writer-teachers such as Dinty Moore, Diane Donnelly, and Tom C. Hunley, who failed to address Shivani’s concerns outlined in another article, “Can Creative Writing Be Taught: Therapy for the Disaffected Masses.” (In response to this latter piece, some writers created a Facebook page called “Ignore Anis Shivani”.)
In the Boulevard essay, Shivani aims to show how creative writing workshops are less breeding grounds for innovation, rigorous criticism, and creativity, and more like therapy sessions. “What results is not art, but…very mediocre material that may possess some of the trappings of art…“Workshop [is]…a perpetual vacuum where literary criticism and judgment go to die.”
Shivani is right in that there is plenty in common between therapy sessions and creative writing workshops. Yet for us avid workshop participants and instructors, this is far from news. The bigger flaw in Shivani’s essay is that the writer offers no evidence to support any of his bold and critical assertions. Why, for example, should we believe the writing of today’s “masses” is any more mediocre than the writing of the masses fifty or a hundred years ago? Shivani offers no samples of text from a work-in-progress, no quotes from an actual writing workshop, and no anecdotal evidence from workshop participants. Nor does he offer comparisons between material generated in a therapy-like workshop and work generated within an alternate workshop model. Thus he fails to prove any causal relationship between today's writing workshops and what he deems mediocre writing. While the essay is certainly entertaining, as are all of Shivani’s emotionally charged pieces, more evidence is required to prove any deleterious effects of writing workshops on today's literature.
But back to that broad avenue with the beautifully classic architecture. Within this issue’s fiction, readers will find a blend of the venerable and the newly emerging. Joyce Carol Oates opens the issue with “Anniversary,” a taut and suspenseful story about a woman teaching writing in a prison. The story is classic Oates, touching on issues of class, race, and criminality while an eerie dream-state hovers along the story’s edges. Though the story is engaging from start to finish, readers might find the ending a bit unsatisfying, as the story’s climax occurs within a hallucinatory fantasy.
Michael Nye’s “A Fully Imagined World” reads like a sturdy, well-constructed edifice, each detail accumulating to beautiful effect. Here we encounter Kyle, a lawyer who has been recently laid-off from his firm. Taking on the duties of child care while his wife continues on as the family breadwinner, Kyle’s place in the world feels increasingly precarious. He pines for an old lover, but more so, he pines for his youth, a time when he felt certainty in his choices and confident in his life path. This piece will resonate with any reader who has felt the weight of economic uncertainty upon one’s sense of self.
Among the more aesthetically inventive stories, we find John Matthias’s “Westmont and the Bear.” Here an archivist who has been pilfering Faulkner manuscripts encounters a lawyer who speaks to him like a character out of a Faulkner novel. The story is a delightful read, and will appeal particularly to Faulkner enthusiasts. William Hastings’ “Where the Smoke Runs to the Sky” is a refreshing slice of noir, set in Bahrain. Hastings’ prose dazzles here as he captures the spirit of a world-weary, emotionally tormented traveler trying to seduce a prostitute into running away with him. “I had been riding a fine nightshade haze,” says the narrator, “right down at the bottom of something and wanting more of it.”
Other short stories in this issue include Emily Howorth’s “The Sintering,” a compelling story about a woman whose husband has left her for a younger woman, and whose actions lead to a dramatic, incendiary climax; Colin Fleming’s “Sega Man,” a story which explores the relationship between the gaming console and its owner, from the point of view of the gaming console; and five moving short short stories by Daniel Grandbois.
Poets in this issue include Billy Collins, Albert Goldbarth, Daniel Hoffman, Miriam Kotzin, Wayne Miller, Lloyd Schwartz, Matt Sumpter and Charles Harper Webb. Each of the poems here is lovely and memorable. A notable standout is Matt Sumpter’s “Late-Night Viewing” where the speaker compares the crevasses of a glacier to his mother’s aging skin, his mother “dripping down the slope of years, each grinding inch.”
Chalres Harper Webb’s “Explanations” is another treasure, a sensory feast as he imagines how we’d interpret the world if we lacked scientific explanations. “If we’d never heard of gravity, would we say,/ The apple falls when Earth calls her child home?” and “The sun as God’s eye; the yolk of the sky-bird’s egg,” and “that fire is sunlight trapped in trees”.
Billy Collins has two poems in this issue, the latter of which, “After the Funeral” is just plain fun. Collins writes, “When you told me you needed a drink-drink/ and not just a drink like a drink of water,// I steered you by the elbow into a corner bar,/ which turned out to be a real bar-bar…” Though the title evokes a somber mood, the wordplay here is clever, sweet, and light.
For writers looking for a home in this journal, you would do well to keep the aforementioned works in mind. Does your poem have a narrative quality? Is it conventionally structured, i.e. no wacky spacing, no experiments with punctuation, no uneven margins? Is the conflict of your protagonist clear? Is s/he a richly developed character? Does the story move from beginning to end in a linear way?
As for nonfiction, the work here seems to lean toward accessible historical accounts—think academic but without footnotes. This issue featured one short personal essay, “Time Crystals” by Frank Wilson. But the bulk of the nonfiction is fact-based and aimed at educating the reader on some facet of art and/or literature.
Of course, lit mags are not a perfect science, and issues vary season to season. Who knows--your non-linear, ampersand-infused, fractured enjambment prose poem might just become the exception that proves the rule here. (But probably not.)
Overall what you’ll find in Boulevard is a mix of the old and the new. You’ll find literary heavyweights flush against new up-and-comers. You’ll find some stylistic innovation, but mostly the tried and true of narrative tradition—rich characters experiencing interesting, relatable conflicts within fully realized settings. For those of you looking for a sense of the classic blended with the modern, Boulevard is a fine wide avenue for your strolling pleasure.