“…as she lies there, / the way the fire waits inside the match.” —Daniel Langton, The Woman I Bed, from the New Orphic Review, Spring 2012
If the current issues of two Nelson-based literary magazines are anything to go by, literary culture is thriving in the West Kootenay. This month sees the release of the Spring 2012 issue of the New Orphic Review (NOR) as well as the launch of the print edition of Elephant Mountain Review, formerly Horsefly Literary Magazine. Both are an excellent rebuttal to the notion that the literary centres of the universe in Canada reside in Toronto or Vancouver. (NOTE: The Elephant Mountain Review launch at Nelson’s Self Design High, 402 Victoria Street [the Legion building] has been postponed due to a breakdown at the printers. Date to be announced.)
The independent, DIY ethos of the Kootenays is well reflected in both publications. If what makes an ecosystem strong and healthy is a highly diverse web of species, then the same could be said for literary culture. Rather than the seamless literary voice consistent with a particular school of writing, we have a “literary gift box,” to quote Ernest Hekkanen, of kaleidoscopic variety.
1. The New Orphic Review
The NOR, currently in its 15th year, is one of the few literary magazines in this country to rely solely on its subscriber base, with no help from funding agencies. Chief Editor Ernest Hekkanen is the ultimate literary outsider. He has managed to sustain a writing career on his own terms, with a prolific output of plays, novels, novellas, essays and poetry. Associate Editor Margrith Schraner has been an invaluable contributor to the NOR’s vision and a fellow literary traveller. Hekkanen’s editorial direction results in a magazine that avoids passing schools of literary fish. He simply publishes what he finds most stimulating and well-crafted. That’s refreshing at a time when so many literary journals publish increasingly insular, opaque writing—clever, but bordering on unintelligible or simply unremarkable. Poets have only themselves to blame for their lack of audience.
Instead, as Hekkanen writes in his editorial, we have a “literary gift box” well worth reading. Poet Robert Cooperman returns to the ancient theme of Ulysses (Odysseus) and his heroic quests, with a fresh take on this often retold story. Cooperman powerfully revisits the theme of transformation in Selax, One of Odysseus’ Crew, is Turned into a Leopard by Circe: “At first, I pleaded in my strange new voice / that roared so fiercely it frightened me.” The deep-set fear of physical violation is gradually overcome by the realization that it’s “far better to remain a leopard” and immerse himself in the bard’s music, stimulating pleasant forgetfulness of his human past. In Leonides, Bard of Ithaca, Asks to Hear the Sirens’ Songs, he captures succinctly the way the poet’s mind works: “You fighters wield swords, but I’ve only words / and songs, and my brain that leaps from one image / to the next like an ibex on rocky cliffs.” Cooperman’s poetic phrasing remains consistent to the mythic voice, soaring beyond the inward-focused mumble of so much current poetry. As I wrote in The Charlatans of Paradise, “In the trajectory toward the universal, contemplation of the self is only going halfway.”
The featured poet in this issue of the NOR is Linda Crosfield, whose poems are prefaced by her essay, Poetry as Conversation. It has been said that poetry is a ‘conversation between the poet and god,’ along with a few eavesdroppers. Crosfield muses on the fact that some people, like one of her oldest friends, seem to have a ‘resistance’ to poetry. Not surprisingly, this resistance is often fuelled by negative experiences with bad English instructors in school. Yet for poets—and that seemingly rare breed, poetry readers—a single intense experience of poetry at an early age can spark a lifelong passion. This transformative spark seems to lie in what Crosfield describes as “an alchemy of assonance, rhythm, rhyme and metre, (and) becomes a means of communication between the poem itself (as opposed to the poet) and the person reading or hearing it.”
Crosfield then offers the reader a fine six-course meal of poems that demonstrate a broad grasp of poetic craft, from the meditations on writing poetry in How Poems Come to Be—How Come, written in haiku-like stanzas; to a single extended meditation on the theme of death in Ten Ways I’d Prefer Not to Die, written in 10 concise, sometimes disturbing verses; to the stream-of-consciousness imagery of Salty Meringue Madness and the Travelling Fair, and other sundry lyrical delights. Once again, as with Cooperman, Crosfield captures the gist, the star-fired furnace that drives the poet to write: “No stampede by crowd nor beast / will crush the air from my lungs / erase the light from my eyes.” (Ten Ways, stanza ix.)
John Laue’s Flow, Big Mind, Jazz, Poetry and Me is a kind of poetic internal dialogue from a writer struggling to balance his work as an English teacher, his own creative work, and a bipolar disorder that makes his grip on reality tenuous. Formerly a student of jazz, he employs its non-linear logic to explore the fine line he walks between multiple worlds. Laue alternates between prose and poetry, turning his disability into creative ferment. It’s a fascinating journey through ‘a beautiful mind,’ to recall the film about mathematical genius John Nash. While his poetry tends to be somewhat prosaic, Laue reveals a mind that is erudite, spiritual, highly intelligent and utterly fearless in the face of great odds.
Being far less qualified to comment on fiction, I’ll skip lightly over the NOR’s selection of prose, though here is where Hekkanen’s editorial hand is typically at its strongest. Often I lament the tyranny of Hemingway’s short, sharp prose over current schools of creative writing. To my writer’s ear, writers like Dickens, Hardy and Aldous Huxley hit the pinnacle of prose in English. It’s an imaginative eloquence I see far too seldom in fiction these days, unless one is reading magic realism (AS Byatt, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, some Salman Rushdie, etc.).
But while most of the NOR’s current prose offerings tend to favour simple, straightforward language, the stories are compelling. Stephen Howard’s Cane Wood is a tautly written, quietly moving story of an elderly man’s final excursion beyond the borders of terminal illness, and the friend/nurse who helps him break out of infirmity one last time. Joan M. Baril’s The Prisoners of War risks venturing into the over-written territory of the World War II story and manages to succeed with a story about German POWs in Canadian work camps. (To mention only two examples.) Having written some 40 novels himself, Hekkanen has a sharp eye for the story that pulls us in and won’t let go.
2. Elephant Mountain Review
I never was comfortable with Horsefly as a name for a Kootenay-based literary magazine. For one thing, we have no such creature here. For another, the ‘stinging words’ metaphor it suggested seemed a bit hackneyed already by the time the first issue was produced in 2001. When I volunteered as an editorial assistant for the third issue in 2003, I argued for a name more quintessentially Kootenay. But already the challenge of ‘re-branding’ with minimal resources seemed impractical. The name stuck.
Originally a product of the Kootenay School of the Arts late lamented Writing Studio, its inception was suggested and fostered by writing instructors Tom Wayman and Verna Relkoff. The remnants of KSA’s writing program reconstituted as the Nelson Fine Arts Centre, but lack of funding also reduced this effort to ashes. Horsefly has since stumbled along purely on the sheer goodwill and energy of its volunteers, publishing mostly as an annual rather than the traditional literary quarterly. Many of the perennial names in Kootenay writing surfaced in Horsefly: Nicola Harwood, librettist for KHAOS the Opera; Linda Crosfield; Jonathon Deon; Tom Wayman; Jenny Craig; Margaret Hornby; Jane Byers; Clay McCann, and many, many others. The gut-busting editorial team over the years included Jen Bredl, who served four terms; Timothy Shay, Jonathon Deon, the late Richard Carver, Colin Payne and myself, among others. Regardless of funds, a professional result was always the goal and I was proud to have my own work represented regularly in Horsefly.
With the Nelson Fine Arts Centre another casualty of the cash-starved arts community in BC, Horsefly became mobile, moving with whoever was willing to take it on. The last issue under its original name appeared in 2010, with Nelson Daily News reporter Colin Payne taking on editorial duties. When the NDN became the victim of yet another corporate takeover, he found himself out of work and having to start a new business. So Horsefly languished, missing its first year ever in 2011 after a decade of publishing.
Then another group of volunteers formed, including Horsefly contributor Margaret Hornby, and decided it was time for a change. Eventually poet and author Doug Wilton ended up in the editorial chair and the new name Elephant Mountain Review (EMR) was settled on. Having spent a good part of my life in the shadow of that dominant, seasonally shifting Nelson landmark, I liked the name immediately. Wilton, who had briefly published his own journal, Rift magazine, at first concentrated on the web version, Elephant Mountain online (elephantmountain.org), to introduce Kootenay writers both known and unknown.
Online contributors to EMR have been selected to appear in its print version. Among them is Bree Switzer, sister of musician Aspen Switzer. Bree shows great promise as a poet, with well-crafted, lyrical cameos. Longtime Nelson writer Sandra Hartline contributes a wistful poem to her musician father, and Phil Mader—another Horsefly contributor—muses in his poem Email Brothers on strained family relations and poverty. Mark Mealing’s poem Late Snow recalls the tranquil elegance of ancient Chinese culture. I eagerly anticipate new work by Pippa Bowley and a diverse line-up of other writers, including novelist Caroline Woodward. Bowley’s modesty restrains her from the kind of self-promotion many poets feel compelled to engage in. It’s both a credit to her character and a shame she isn’t better known—her poetry over the years has been consistently excellent. She too regularly appeared in the pages of Horsefly.
Another longtime Kootenay resident, photographer Fred Rosenberg, contributes a photo essay of Nelson characters in classic black and white. The man has a preternatural talent for capturing people in defining moments. Rosenberg’s work has become the iconic record of Kootenay culture in all its ragged, kaleidoscopic, dynamic and diverse glory.
Writers are encouraged to submit to both publications. The New Orphic Review has been listed in Poet’s Market, Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, The Journey Prize Anthology, The Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories. To see the full line-up in the current issue of Elephant Mountain online, visit http://elephantmountain.org/2012/03/. To find the New Orphic Review Google it or visit http://www3.telus.net/neworphicpublishers-hekkanen/b)%20New%20Orphic%20Review.htm