A Lit Mag Unafraid to Try Something New (and a Writing Contest for Teens!)
Review of Sierra Nevada Review, Winter 2014 by Laura Jean Schneider
If there’s a theme underlying the latest issue of the Sierra Nevada Review, it’s summed up well in a line from contributor Clayton Adam Clark’s poem, “Reverberations:” … “all things / have a pitch.” The intensity of memory, the complexity of ethnicity, the sacrifices of democracy and the definitions of family—weave subtly through this hard copy journal produced by Sierra Nevada College’s English Department and Low-Residency MFA Program.
SNR is not afraid to try something new or step on toes. I got the feeling that seems to be its point, to provide a place where things can both happen on the page, in print, and simultaneously within the reader. And it turns out they say as much on their website: “We publish writing that leans toward the unconventional, surprising, and risky.” In Francis Sanzaro’s fiction story, “Canyon Elsewhere,” the protagonist grapples with miscarriage in bizarre and disturbing ways. “Precious Blood,” a story by Christine Lasek, deals with a grisly suicide vehicle and the man who buys it secondhand–as is. Roy Scranton, in his essay “The Terror Of The New,” asserts “the whole of our parts is the so-called global war on terror,” while trying to reconcile events like 9/11 with the fact that “the new always demands not only the destruction of the past, but the annihilation of the present.” “As We Know,” an experimental poem by Amaranth Borsuk and Andy Fitch, uses scoring through as a type of erasure, and plays with punctuation and the placement of words on special lined pages.
I was impressed by the clean layout and ease of readability in Volume 25’s one hundred eighteen pages. I caught a single typo, and overall, it was clear this is a publication the staff takes great pride in presenting. And if a magazine takes itself seriously, I’m more prone to as well. This issue has a female writer majority with submitters from nineteen states (Florida was the top). There’s no interior artwork or photography, which was an issue for me until I ended up not missing it due to the quality of the written work. While there’s a wide variety of talent represented in the poetry (twenty-five pieces, some experimental), fiction (eight pieces, realist) and non-fiction (five pieces, less personal than analytical), most of the submissions were strong enough to hold my interest.
The opening story, “The Coin of Asgard,” by Elliot Sanders, sets the standard high, and remains the strongest fiction piece in this issue, with a consistent narrative voice, seamless movement, and clear, concise sentences like this one that arrested me on the spot: “While he is running, he thinks about Amaya, partly because she is beautiful, and partly because she doesn’t fit in with his vision of the world.”
Many of the characters I found in the SNR were also dealing with their visions of the world. I was particularly impressed with the array of talent and perspective represented by the SNR-hosted High School Writing Contest. 3rd Place Winner Hanel Baveja’s poem, “The Concavity Of Checkmate,” examines a friend with an eating disorder in a disquieting new light, ending with, “She would make any move to protect her queen.”
Non-fiction winner Jenny Jung’s “A Reality On a Friday Night,” examines her complicated relationship with an immigrant mother who cannot identify with either her home country or this new country her daughter navigates so smoothly. Again, it’s familiar territory, but Jung manages to state the facts without judgment or becoming precious.
Dalia Ahmed, the 1st Place Winner in Poetry, wrote her poem in the form of a lab sheet. Fresh from a fabulous lecture on using different forms to help achieve meaning, I was excited by the strength and creativity of “How To Mix Native Blood With Foreign Waters: A Lab.”
What wasn’t as effective? A few of the fiction stories had confusing time sequences, and anything that distracts from an engaged read is worth noting. The non-fiction felt more impersonal than I prefer, but it was consistently so, so perhaps that’s what the editors were aiming for. I would have liked to see writer bios included. Overall, I valued the sense of care and professionalism that went into Volume 25, and it had a distinct aesthetic that would appeal to an open-minded readership concerned with humanness and the complications that arise from conflicting feelings and ideals, however messy they might be.
Over and over, the idea of pitch, our own human frequencies, played out in the SNR. By the time I closed the cover on this journal, I was encouraged to keep examining what motivates us, what scars us, and how memory plays a role in all of that, with echoes of Megan Levad’s untitled poem lingering, “she’s replaced her old face / with a new one.” Maybe that’s what I left tempted to do, too.