Highs and Lows in this 40th Anniversary Edition

Review of Rip Rap, Spring 2018 by Trina Drotar


After 40 years, and 40 editions, I expected a little more out of Rip Rap. The cover of the 40th-anniversary issue is pretty cool, a red on black maze with the journal’s title boxed and centered. But beyond that, everything falls a bit flat - a disappointment from a journal with such an interesting name and long tenure.

Submissions are accepted for a little more than three months during the fall. Perhaps this short submission window, and the timing of it contribute to an average feel from the quality of the work. And there’s nothing wrong with average. After all, average is great in baseball, for income of a specific job, and with measuring a person’s height. Average in literature is just fine.

There’s nothing significantly different in this issue from what can be found in many journals, whether produced by MFA students or a publishing house. The 40 poems here are somewhat enjoyable. The seven flash fiction pieces are a bit longer than one might expect from flash fiction. The creative nonfiction provided a glimmer of hope, as did the fiction. What stands out most in this journal, however, are the two interviews. And the artwork.

That said, there are some outstanding writers in this issue, especially in the poetry section. Darren Donate’s poem, “Noah’s Raven,” greets the reader as the first piece in the journal. Fifteen lines total, including two blank lines, say far more than several of the longer pieces. Donate is a recent graduate of Long Beach’s program, but he clearly pulls from outside the English canon as is evident from his use of language and fresh imagery. This is a poem that begs to be read several times and dives deep into the loss of lives that few know about. The poem is one of the strongest in the journal and builds to its power in the final two lines “‘The names Juan, Miguel, y Raúl / are just footprints baked into the earth.’”

The transition from Donate’s haunting, thoughtful, and well-crafted poem to Natalie Solmer’s “My Baby Daddy Has Become the Rain in the Street” lacks forethought. It’s not that Solmer’s poem is poorly crafted. It is not. Rather, it is like a crash that comes when you least expect it. It is longer, the language harsher, and it takes the reader into a different area than he or she may have felt prepared for. The poem is solid. Solmer provides new images, but this second poem in the journal should have been placed a few more pages in to allow the reader to work up to it.

“Sunset District from the L” is Christopher Hewitt’s haunting poem that also begs several readings. The editors, however, placed it in front of “Mary, On the Brink of Neutral,” by Stacey Park, a fast-paced, almost frenetic piece. The rest of the poetry section moves along this way, placing a standout in between others that jolt the reader. It is as though these thoughtful poems, often with fresh imagery, don’t belong in this issue. They are the exception, not the rule.

The Flash Fiction section has more interesting art than writing. Sarah Davis’ “Bearded Succulents” is appropriately paired with Jose J. Prado’s flash fiction, “Why I Hate Beards,” which is, in this reviewer’s opinion, felt too long. The next selection, “Nirvana,” by Jacques Debrot, seemed more promising as a shorter flash fiction story even though it consisted of two quite lengthy paragraphs. It’s difficult to tell whether the writer intended the story of about 750 words to be published in only two paragraphs or whether the editors failed to suggest additional paragraph breaks. It might be important to know that Debrot is not a new writer. His stories have been widely published, he has received awards, but this story becomes difficult to read and could have benefitted from more breaks.

Prison turned up a second time in the creative nonfiction section. Rocky E’s “‘Do you know what they do to guys like that in prison?’” is a well-crafted creative nonfiction piece that tackles the subject of pedophilia. The creative nonfiction piece is engaging and a fresh take on a topic that is difficult to tackle without relying on stereotypes. Characters are developed well from the opening line, “I’m thirteen years old and my father is driving me to middle school: wild-eyed and high, he zips through the winding hills of Orange County like an escaped convict mid pursuit.” This is one of the strongest stories in the journal.

Rip Rap 40’s editorial staff must be applauded for not shying away from “hot button” topics: illegal immigration, pedophilia, self-harm, history, domestic violence. These topics are spread throughout the issue in poetry, visual art, flash fiction, creative nonfiction, and fiction. Laura Zapico’s “Recuerdos” examines the father-daughter relationship through the fictional tale of Lola, her sister Mayra, and their father who can no longer care for himself. This role reversal of child caring for the elderly parent is an important issue in today’s society and a difficult topic to cover in fiction, but Zapico turns out a poignant piece.

For writers looking to be inspired, the interviews will provide some insight. Gail Wronsky’s interview examines LA poetry, her new poetry collection, the role of spirituality in her works, and the duties of writers. “‘Writers have a duty to write,’” according to Wronksy. Chris Kraus discusses her biography of Kathy Acker, her other books, and ends the winding interview with advice for writers. “‘It sounds really corny, but – persist!’”

Persist is exactly what Rip Rap has done. Forty years in and many years left ahead as new student editors take the helm. And Kraus, near the end of the interview reminds us that the values of the writer will “‘be manifested in their work.’” This can also be true of the editorial staff. This journal will persist; it will change every year as new writers are published by fresh editorial staff from different backgrounds, each with different personal reading lists, and each with his or her own ideas of what constitutes good writing.