Peek Inside This Wonderland: A Journal That Wows
I’ll say it with no hesitation – The Normal School is one of the best literary magazines I’ve ever read. With support from Cal State, Fresno’s English department, this biannual – Fall and Spring – failed not once in Volume Four, Issue Two. Each of the 27 writers burned a little hole in my brain and I’m happy to announce the wind that now whistles through those holes echoes the brilliant sound of each of these stories, essays and poems. The last few weeks of reading The Normal School has fairly revived me after a stretch of reading lit mags that left me a little flat.
The writers range from relative newbies – Nicole Comstock with her delicious fiction about the famous gurgitator Takeru Kobayashi; Brian Hoover with his tender essay/ love letter to his baby girl deconstructing ‘The Hoppity Song,’ a twee number on the kid’s album For the Kids – to the well-established – Stephen Dobyns and his poems ‘Wisdom’ and ‘Stars’ bookending childhood and adulthood with chilly poignancy; Guy Tirolien (‘Invitation to Drink’) and Aimé Césaire (‘Quake’), exceptional, lyrical Caribbean poets (Guadeloupe and Martinique), beautifully translated by Peter Thompson.
The first experience I had as I thumbed through the pages of this hefty, perfect-bound gem was utter delight at the design. It is clean and neat without being boring, jam-packed without feeling overstuffed, and devoid of pretentiousness. It runs the gamut from what readers will recognize as standard (but exceptionally well-written) fiction and poetry – Benjamin Percy’s muscular and big-hearted tiny story ‘Wanting Only to Be Gone’; Bob Hicok’s twin mother memory poems, ‘The Unadorned Life’ and ‘Small Measures’; Robert Wrigley’s painful, cringeworthy ode to work, ‘Mishap with A Nail Gun: An Explanation’ – to the odd structured – Erin Murphy’s stupendous and strange seven-part poem ‘Debriefing: A Poem in Parts’; Joey Franklin’s riveting account of the theft and eventual recovery of his Ford Escort ‘Grand Theft Auto.’
There are 18 other pieces in here and I want to pull you beside me and discuss every one but, alas, I’m a bastard and have just given you the gateway drugs, the peek inside this wonderland, the waft of a home-cooked meatloaf coming out the neighbor’s window as you jog the pounds away and your stomach knots up in hunger as quickly as you stop to breathe in that baking meat.
I recognized about half the authors – a fact that thrills me when I open a new journal. I tire easily of opening magazines which contain solely the work of writers who, as talented as they may have once been, now are actors in a literary dog and pony show used to say, ‘Hey, we are a legit mag.’ I read some or all of at least 50 journals a year and wonder how they can justify the exclusion of young, beginning writers in favor of creaky old recognizables.
I know it is commerce and we must show some leg to draw in the potential suitor, but dozens of times over the last year I have read a story written by a big name writer that fails so miserably I wonder how tomato-faced he or she must be when the final copy arrives in the mail and they see their half-assed, unfinished, unedited and unlovingly written stories or poems stain the pages of that magazine.
Other than the poetry – which we should all recognize as such – the pieces in The Normal School are unlabeled. Fiction and essays appear one after the other and they are not noted as Fiction or Essay, either in the contents or inside the pages. This might be my favorite aspect of the magazine. Along with poetry, I read fiction and essays with equal love. And I have always been of the mind that good fiction or essays should live equally alongside one another in literary journals and not be skipped over by readers who think they don’t like one or the other.
This journal has also made an editorial choice which I think is refreshing. The well-deserving winners of the magazine’s contest, The Normal Prize – Kristen Cosby, Justin Quarry and poet Erin Murphy – are duly noted in the acknowledgements but not separated within the magazine either by lumping them in the back together, like odd stepchildren, or even on their title pages being noted as Prize winners. This one fact alone shows that The Normal School holds good writing to be paramount and gives each of these writers the respect they deserve to stand on equal footing as their better known colleagues.
The Normal School is, in the end, this: an outlet for writers who take their craft seriously and readers who inhale good writing, whether it comes via poem, story, recollection or a hybrid of the three. And all readers worth their salt understand, like The Normal School does, that all great poetry tells stories and all great stories and essays are poetic.