Alaska Quarterly Review
Vol. 31, Nos. 3 & 4, Fall & Winter 2014
The new issue of Alaska Quarterly Review is out — as stunning as it's ever been in 32 years of devotion to the best of contemporary literature.
AQR, despite the "quarterly" in its name, comes out twice a year from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Each hefty volume typically includes a mix of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, often featuring a special section as well. Those who might assume the "Alaska" in its title implies content of snow and cold or any kind of provinciality should take a look. The Washington Post has commented, "That one of the nation's best literary magazines comes out of Alaska may seem surprising, but so it is." Well-known writer (and contributing editor) Stuart Dybek has similarly observed, "The magazine has a wonderful sense of place about it, and it conveys Alaska without being parochial." Work first published in AQR by editor Ron Spatz and his discerning team has been selected repeatedly for "best of" collections and won numerous awards.
The new issue (as always with a fabulous cover — this time a photograph of Fairbanks window frost by former Anchorage Daily News photo editor Richard Murphy) focuses on a dynamic selection of short fiction and literary essays, along with a special section titled "Out of Bounds: A Celebration of Genre-Defiant Work."
Stories that matter
The 14 short stories are remarkable in their quality, variety and inventiveness. These are stories that matter. The very first one, "Not Like What You Said" by Debbie Urbanski, is a long, haunting story from the point of view of a mother whose child has disappeared into a cult. This is fiction at its best, taking readers into a world we hope to never inhabit ourselves while illuminating the human heart. "Where You'll Find Me" by B. Boyer-White is a more experimental story told by the Wizard of Oz's scarecrow — only in a dystopian future where he has a brain and "Dorothy is a child of our world," where home is still the goal. One story, Sharon Solwitz's "Imposter," takes place at an ashram in India, and another, Mary Kuryla's "Ursus Americanus," a love story of sorts, surrounds the notes of a taxidermist in Michigan in 1932. These stories, and more, are all so very good, it's difficult to choose favorites.
Among the four essays, the one by Alaskan Eva Saulitis ("Third Person Displaced") is knock-your-socks-off. Or, to be more literary, recall Emily Dickinson: "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Saulitis, who is a poet as well as an essayist, employs a lyric form (in short sub-titled sections) to explore multiple displacements related to her immigrant parents and her visit to Latvia, with its complicated history involving "a people smashed between the tragic and the culpable." This is a work of art that begs to be read out loud, savoring every word, and then reread, thought about and talked about. It exemplifies what it means to "essay" — to try to understand our world, where we come from, who we are, what counts.
Art without borders
In the final section in this volume, contributing editor Elizabeth Bradfield, the author of two acclaimed poetry collections who teaches in UAA's master of fine arts program, has brought together six examples of literary art that extend our understanding of form. These are best described as graphic poems, interactive computer programs, performances and motivational posters. Most are collaborative. All invoke a spirit of play. And all are truly fun to read, view and contemplate. Each one begins with a note from its author(s) that's helpful to understanding both the process and the resulting art. For example, "Burning Questions for Burning Bushes" by Rachel and Sierra Nelson (as the Vis-à-Vis Society) are poems that answer questions put into a mailbox by audience members at an arts festival. The poems respond not to the questions but to dances improvised to embody them. The published piece includes photographs of the process and performance (in which the collaborators are dressed as bushes.)
Another, "Lines," is a collaboration of poetry, art, dance and piano, and on the page appears as performance notes and a "cross-stitched conversation" of lines of text and music. "Code poems" involves a computer program with elements of both chance and the "user's" inputs; AQR's website will allow actual collaboration between the programmer (B.J. Best) and anyone who wants to participate in the storytelling.
As Bradfield says in her introduction to the special section, she chose the term "genre-defiant" as a nod "to the rebelliousness that thrums behind each piece" by the pushing of boundaries. She also puts these "new" forms into historic context; Japanese renga (collaborative party poems) go back to the eighth century; Homer was a "mashup artist" who combined many retellings; and the French surrealists mixed visual art with text. "Art reinvents itself," she reminds us. In our modern lives we express ourselves in multiple modes every day, and collaboration with others can bridge isolation and be a source of creativity and joy.
Alaska Quarterly Review is currently being examined as part of UAA's budget cutting process. Let us hope that the decision-makers recognize the value this little journal brings to the university, Alaskans and the larger world. It deserves not just continuance, but a continued commitment to excellence.
Copies of the new issue can be found at bookstores, and subscriptions or selected back issues can be purchased through the university.
Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days" and "Early Warming." She teaches at UAA and has had several stories and essays published in Alaska Quarterly Review, as recently as the previous issue.