Straight Out of Memphis--Creative Nonfiction, Visual Art, and More
The Pinch District was one of Memphis’ earliest communities, home to Irish immigrants and Jewish merchants. “Pinchgut” was the nickname given to malnourished Irish railroad workers. An area neglected for the better part of the 20th century, it has recently resurrected as a historic landmark and cultural hub.
Ever hip to their history, the University of Memphis has borrowed this name for their literary journal, published twice annually. Featuring fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry, color photography and visual art, The Pinch assembles a variety of voices; though a glance at the bio page may reveal an academic bias - the majority of contributors being either teachers or students. But perhaps this is merely a reflection of the increasingly concentric circles of art and writing within academia – one of literary journals’ few consistent audiences.
In an interview with Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, Assistant Professor and Director (respectively) of the MFA program at the University of Mississippi, the couple sounds off on collaboration, teaching, truth, zombies, and crowded rooms of aspiring writers. Says Franklin: “I’m less interested in stories and novels where almost nothing happens. In fact at Ole Miss, I kept reading so many of those stories in my workshop that we had a zombie workshop. Students had to write stories with flesh eating zombies in them…We all want to be literary writers, but nobody buys their books.” Fennelly puts a more humanist spin on it: “…there is an essential human need for stories. We’re put on Earth in this flux, we’re confused about what we’re doing here, and we need to look at the world and find a narrative arc to shape our experiences.” As working writers and teachers, Franklin and Fennelly provide a perspective from within academia that feels a little like one part smile and two part sigh.
While Peter Stenson’s essay “Because Life Hasn’t Always Been This Good” does not feature any flesh eating zombies, it does feature a blood-drinking young couple trying to escape their drug-addled pasts and initiate love in a new way: “And then it was me pressing the knife to her thigh again. I pressed harder. She gasped. My penis was still hard. I pressed and ran the eight-inch blade and the red came out quick and it trickled down her leg.” The dangerous and experimental nature of their young love is juxtaposed by the final scene of them in bed as a married couple years later – safe, sterile and “…not touching, not even our feet.”
Julialicia Case’s story “Bigfoot” was the creative nonfiction prizewinner in the University of New Orlean’s Writing Contest. Set in a divided Germany, “Bigfoot” is a day in the life of her childhood as an American military daughter. Instructed by her teacher to take on a project about a myth of the homeland that she knows only vaguely beyond the gates, walls, guards and passports of war-torn Germany, she carries her “Bigfoot” – a modeled head constructed by her father after her own aborted attempts – throughout her day, feeling protective and suspicious. A telling line sums up the deep feeling of being “unknown” that lies hidden at the girl’s core: “This dance is something, too, that we do not have to own. Whatever and whoever we are, we know for certain this dance has nothing to do with us.”
Meagan Cass’ fictional “Calling All Soloflex Men” is an ironic expose on modern addiction and suburban sadomasochism. One man’s resolution for fitness becomes a religion that blinds him to reality: “Cheesy and macho as it sounds, the next morning, during my workout, I felt like the whole house was balanced on my Soloflex, me the steady Atlas holding us up as we turned, gradually, painfully, willfully into this next part of our lives.” As his relationship with his wife and family unravels with frightening speed, he acknowledges the deeper truth of their condition: “…we breathe in and breathe out and try not to jostle the hunger or the desire or the anger or the lack that is not banished, is not transmuted, is simply shifted to another, less obvious place inside us.”
“Arkanov’s Stairs” by Kathryn Lackie was the fiction prizewinning story. In it, an astrophysicist writes letters to her dying father, reminiscing about her childhood while also questioning the curious lack of feeling in her adult life. Having only learned to speak in the language of stars and galaxies, she describes a male colleague: “He had black hole eyes…I was aware of him sitting behind me, affecting like dark matter”; she chides herself: “It’s very womanish to remember.” Through the format of letters, Lackie exposes a woman at odds with her admiration and anger for a scholarly father who taught her all she thought she needed to know. Though he may never see her words, they are startlingly poignant for the reader, ripe with untold fear and feeling: “I’ve been thinking about God lately. Not about doctrine but of the fantasy of omnipresence. I think I’m finally lonely enough to wish there was someone always with me.”
Poetry packs surprise and nostalgia as well – Weston Cutter’s “Independence” recalls a childhood summer spent constructing a stone wall:”…we pocketed rocks and flashed them, bragging whose would better fit in the wall, whose would make it strongest and nothing was the only answer we shouted to questions about what we were doing at the street’s end”. The poem’s stacked and indented lines, sentences linked by colons, creates a structure similar to that of the kids’ project. In Brian Barker’s “Blindfold” a grandson takes blindfolded aim at his birthday piñata as his grandfather recalls a prisoner who had been under his watch during the war: “Each day when he tied the blindfold, he watched the tendons in the prisoner’s neck grow taut as the head strained to escape the body.” In “Simple Graffiti”, Jen McClanaghan reveals how the silent presence of graffiti becomes a daily presence in another’s lonely life.
Between prose and poetry, glossy full color art is a treat for the eyes, and The Pinch offers a generous sample of the work of five artists. Bo Bartlett is a realist painter who captures commonplace moments that have the flavor of some more extraordinary force at work. Whether it is a chair that appears to be levitating just outside of the frame or a person on a lawn in an animal crouch, Bartlett’s images are full of questions. Jean-Pierre Arboleda is an Ecuadorian artist who creates images with mythic creatures full of eyes in otherworldly light. Stawberries, Legos, and Candy Apples, Margaret Morrison’s paintings are large close-up images, glossy with the sweet and stickiness of childhood.
What sets The Pinch apart from other journals is its dedication to providing equal space for creative nonfiction and visual art. Many of the literary journals I am familiar with focus on fiction and poetry, with the occasional personal essay or memoir thrown in on the side, so it was to my surprise when I kept flipping back to the table of contents to find out that many of the tales I was reading actually had basis in real life -(Blood suckers! Bigfoot in Germany!) This, along with a diverse portfolio of visual artists (in color!), were the details that made The Pinch truly shine.