Stories (and Art) Without Shame
The July 2012 issue of Under the Gum Tree, the journal’s fourth installment, includes work from professors, writing teachers, journalists, MFA students, photographers, publishing professionals, workshop leaders, food stylists, and visual artists. It is a beautiful object, well designed and printed, and despite its “micro-magazine” status, it feels substantial. It has presence. The reader will want to linger.
Under the Gum Tree exclusively publishes creative nonfiction and visual art, because, as the editors put it, “we strive for connections through vulnerability.” The writing in magazine is largely confessional, and the editors look for stories with which readers can identify. As Janna Marlies Maron explains in her editor’s note, “The best part of reading submissions is when I come across a story and instinctively say to myself, ‘I know exactly what this writer is talking about—I have so been there’”. The editors encourage writers to share difficult stories, and the published work suggests a focus on memory and reflection. Under the Gum Tree, with the tag line, “tell stories without shame,” celebrates personal experience.
Nearly all of the writers included in the fourth issue are women, and several pieces address experiences of gender expectations. The first piece, by Elaine Gale, called “Breaking Up with Feminism,” considers learning to balance what Gale calls Feminism and the Feminine, after her experiences with waiting to have children and subsequent difficulties. Gale’s work becomes especially striking as she articulates her realizations about the power of the Feminine during a trip with the Achuar, an indigenous tribe, into the rainforests of Ecuador. There, Gale is confronted with a ritual reserved only for men, but comes to understand that “the Achuar women don’t take this plant medicine because they don’t need it. Women already have the arutum inside of them...It is men who try to get closer to the arutum through ingesting the plants because they don’t have that power on their own”.
Invisible Girl Stuff, by Nicole Maron, recalls becoming an overwhelmed fan after hearing a new band, an unusual experience since, as she puts it, “all my life, I’ve had friends in bands”. Maron is suddenly star-struck, but also she feels deflated and ignored once someone points out the band’s “insta-groupies.” She becomes the outsider she has always dismissed, facilitated, at least in part, from her perspective, by her enthusiasm, given her age and gender: “I don’t know if I can describe exactly what it’s like to become invisible in the presence of twenty-two-year-olds when you are only thirty-three”. And yet, Maron recognizes something of herself in the behavior of the twenty-two-year-olds, who only laugh when she tells them they’ve been called “insta-groupies.” “They of course just laughed,” she writes, “partly at me and partly in delight at being called groupies. Because they were twenty-two, and that’s what we do at twenty-two”. Gale doesn’t overtly delve further into the why of “that’s what we do at twenty-two,” but questions of age, gender, and identity, both in and out of the indie music world she reveals, resonate and stay with the reader.
Overall, Under the Gum Tree looks for work in a variety of “departments,” including writing that has a focus on food, music, and film. Since much of the work is relatively similar in mode, given the goals of the publication, such departments help create an interesting variety of subject matter.
Likewise, this fourth installment of Under the Gum Tree also includes work in a variety of forms, which is exciting to see. “Lushies,” by Chris Wiewiora, incorporates several forms, including a recipe, numbered and dated individual scenes, and footnotes. There is also a “flash feature” from Kate Asche called “Four Elegies,” delicate prose poems with heightened sensory details and strange, compelling images, including moments like, “Puff, puff: the little flame. It takes you higher, makes you smaller until finally he wonders, down there on earth, if you were ever here at all”.
While all of the written work here is strong and compelling (Kirsti Sandy’s “Close Reading” is particularly striking), as a reader, I want even more, more that I suspect is coming, as Under the Gum Tree continues to gain momentum. Perhaps the occasional longer essay (all of the work in this fourth installment somehow feels relatively short), as well as work that more consistently peers deeper into the complexities it addresses, even beyond or through or extending the personal into cultural and social contexts, might further strengthen the publication. I look forward to future issues, which I am sure will continue to build on the extraordinary collection established so far.
Where Under the Gum Tree is already a leader is in its publication of visual art. The highlight of the fourth issue is the art, which is varied, surprising, and overwhelmingly excellent. The issue contains stunning pictures of vibrant summer treats, including ice cream cones and popsicles, in various stages of melting, from Monica and James Pierini. Mark Lanning’s photo essay, “Des. 1,458: Scenes from Minnewaukan,” explores the community of Minnewaukan, which has been particularly affected by the raising water level of Devil’s Lake in North Dakota. As Lanning explains, “Residents have been moving structures, one at a time, away from the approaching waters, and soon the entire town may need to be relocated”. His photos offer insight the community’s relationship to the waters through residents, remnants, and the quickly changing landscape. The issue also presents stills from Mikko Lautamo’s animation art piece, Hero, which is a generative software piece that explores the relation of the individual to the group, led by a leader or a hero of a given type. The constant evolving, revolving and dissolving of collectives gives the piece the impression of many concrete narratives happening simultaneously, but with no discernible beginning or end to the aggregate story of the piece.
All of the visual work, varied and complex as it is, suggests an attention to detail and an acute awareness of the interaction(s) between subject, artist, and viewer.
The editors of Under the Gum Tree have created lovely space for creative nonfiction and visual art, prioritizing connection between artists, readers, writers, between people. It is the kind of publication that makes you feel, and allows the human experience, in all its variety, to coexist in these pages, as well as in the space between these pages and the reader, and in doing so, makes something beautiful.