New Lit Mag Seeks to Create Space for the Provocative

Review of Profane, Fall 2014 by John Shortino


What does it mean for literature to be profane?

In the introduction to the first issue of Profane (November 2014), editors Jacob Little and Patrick Chambers say, “We wanted to be open to the profane. We wanted to offer a space for work that was brave or daring or provocative.” There are a few pieces in the inaugural issue that manage to meet all three of these criteria, to use imagery and language in ways that were truly surprising, and often uncomfortable. The problem I had with the journal as a whole, however, was that even a slim collection (101 pages) of work striving to be provocative can quickly become dull. Blood and guts and masturbation and needle marks become a lot less shocking when they’re sandwiched between more of the same.

Profane is a new annual featuring works mainly by established writers. Most of the contributors have at least one book published, and writers’ other works appear in a number of journals. There is only one debut writer in the issue, and her piece is one of the most challenging and formally interesting in the collection. In addition to publishing a print annual, Profane also features an online audio component, where writers read their work aloud and the editors interview them about their contributions.

There are a few standout pieces here, including poems by Nikki Allen and Becca Barniskis. Allen’s “mother” imagines absence as a menacing figure: “Waiting grew teeth / waiting set the table / cooked us til meat / fell off bone.” This poem appears early in the issue, and its imagery and themes resonate through the issue. There’s a kind of visceral physicality that unites a number of the poems, even as their subject matter varies. Several of the poems have sinister undertones, echoes of loss, moments of hinted or explicit violence. Barniskis’ “I Assist at an Explosion” is narrated in the immediate aftermath of one such moment: “There were shells on the ground and an old keg / of powder. I knew nothing / of anything save suddenly / my head was up in branches.”

While this issue featured a number of memorable poems, the fiction left a lot to be desired. There are three pieces, the best of which is Devin Murphy’s “Sad for Who I Am,” which follows a self-deluded father who kidnaps his estranged daughter, fully convinced that he’s fulfilling his duties as a father. The narrator is clearly unreliable and possibly dangerous, but the story manages to elicit some sympathy for him, even as his behavior becomes more and more unhinged. The other two short stories in the issue didn’t work as well for me, with Alec Cizak’s “Trouble at the Renoir” depicting an uptight teacher at a porn theater, and Benjamin Drevlow’s “Ina-Baby” following a young girl who writes a pornographic story and shares it with her class. In “Trouble at the Renoir,” nothing much seems to happen, and the nothing much seems at stake for the protagonist, while “Ina-Baby” tries too hard for cleverness and ends up treating its characters with condescension.

The issue is rounded out by two pieces of nonfiction and an interview with Maggie Nelson, author of Bluets and The Art of Cruelty. The interview has some interesting exchanges, especially about obsession and bad writing, but I wish the editors had found a better place for it in the magazine itself. It’s only a few pages, and buried between other works alongside the issue’s featured poet. I think an interview like this would have had more of an impact at the end of the magazine, especially as a way to re-examine some of the journal’s other works.

There are two nonfiction pieces in this issue, both of them pushing the journal’s theme in unexpected directions. Lissa Mae’s “Contagion” unfolds in eleven short paragraphs, each a small burst of information that asks the reader to draw connections that are not immediately apparent. It begins with an account of Chinese nurses selling placentas before moving onto ideas about a person’s essence being spread like a disease. Other paragraphs explore placentophagy and the transmission of spirits, moving between historical facts and lyricism to explore the physical and the spiritual and their connection.

The other essay, Deborah Thompon’s “Merengue to Namaste,” did not initially seem to fit with the rest of the issue’s contents. I found myself wondering what, exactly, was profane about the writer’s account of a group of older women taking a Zumba class? The more I considered it, though, this seemed like a natural inclusion to a journal that intends to explore uncomfortable subjects. It’s an essay about the loss of youth as a physical process: “When you age, your tissues lose elasticity, the menopause books all report.” And later: “What makes middle-aged flesh so unsightly? What is so wrong with sloshing love handles?” This confrontational turn was the element I wished had been in more of these pieces: Thompson interrogates standards of beauty and our discomfort when a body deviates from the ideal.

Maybe the reason “Merengue to Namaste” succeeds--at least in terms of being profane--more than other pieces in this inaugural issue was because the editors’ definition of the word is too inexact. On the journal’s website, the editors say, “Not every piece in our journal may epitomize the "profane," which to us represents that highest degree of confrontation,” but I wish more of the works did present this sense of confrontation. “Profane” means more than simply provocative. To be profane means to oppose something sacred, and many of these pieces, for all of their provocation and daring, rarely seemed in opposition to anything. I would love to see future issues further explore this aspect of the journal’s title.