Chapbook Review: Yellow Fringe Dress

Yellow Fringe Dress
Written by Neila Mezynski
Radioactive Moat Press, 2012

Neila Mezynski’s chapbook, Yellow Fringe Dress, was released January 9th, 2012. It’s the latest electronic chapbook from Radioactive Moat Press.

Aesthetically, Radioactive Moat Press’ electronic treatment of Yellow Fringe Dress is fitting.  The chapbook is well-designed with interesting typography and a gorgeous cover.  It fits the fractured fantasy-esque dreamscape vibe of Mezynski’s poetry, and it showcases the potential of electronic publishing.  While I love print media, electronic publication has its own unique place too, and it can be an art form unto itself (when done properly—and Radioactive Moat Press consistently does it properly).  Though Mezynski’s syntax is experimental, the chapbook’s inviting aesthetic makes it easy to read.  The layout compliments the flow rather than hindering it; I wish more e-books featured this attention to presentational quality.

But enough about the design notes for this digital chap; what about Mezynski’s work?  The text is arranged in a hybrid prose poem state.  There is attention to structure, but many of the passages opt for less overt poetic structure in favor of a hybrid prose poem appearance—her work is one of the few examples of a true prose poem: lyricism embedded into prose.  There seems to be an overabundance of books/chapbooks that call anything short prose piece a “poem”–Yellow Fringe Dress is not one of these.  The collection is well-crafted, and it’s subtle arrangement ads minute layers of meaning to poetry that derives most of its purpose from syntactical variance and interesting word choice.

The chapbook’s plot is a postmodern type of anti-bildungsroman, with several instances of twisting plotlines that test the reader’s perception of what a coming of age story really can be and do.  The chapbook only stumbles moderately in its slow beginning.  If you can push through the first few pages, the latter half of Mezynski’s chapbook will surprise you.  Early on, there feels like a lack of movement, where the same themes are repeated.  Mezynski does this for thematic emphasis, yet it bogs down the reader slightly.  Once Yellow Fringe Dress picks up the pace, it hurtles at breakneck speed with vivid imagery and carefully planted sensory details.

Yellow Fringe DressThe experimental style may be hard for some readers to swallow, but the general storyline of Yellow Fringe Dress is beautifully summed up in the ending section.  The breadth of Mezynski’s piece is distilled in a minimalistic recap that can be transposed over all the preceding sections.  If you get bored or annoyed with the chapbook’s other experiments, just flip to part VIII as a cheat sheet.  You’ll miss all the detailed bridges between these fragmented, wispy little descriptors, but it’ll help you understand the central theme easier.  It’s a nice device that provides framing and closure to Mezynski’s well-told story.

At times, the text is wordy and could use some paring down to the bare poetic essentials.  But overall the piece is well-written, and Mezynski’s Yellow Fringe Dress provides a manageable foray into experimentalist syntax and imagery for audiences who might be new to this type of writing.  It is an accessible piece that gets you ready for more work by Neila Mezynski or similar writers—and after you read Yellow Fringe Dress, you’ll definitely want more.

You can find Yellow Fringe Dress at the following URL for free:

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2012, All Rights Reserved

Journal Review: Anobium 1

Vol. 1
Anobium Books
ISBN 9780615501062

Origin of Species

Anobium Vol. 1 is the schizophrenic brainchild of Benjamin Van Loon—and the schizophrenia thing is rather literal, seeing as the issue is officially headed by Mary J. Levine, a fictitious product of committee thinking.  Yes, the masthead lists an imagined entity.  Intrigued?  This simple quirk acts as a benchmark for Anobium’s ideology—the volume simultaneously takes itself seriously and has a good laugh. Think about it: a fake editor seems like an off-kilter joke for any self-respecting literary magazine, but in actuality it represents dedication to creativity and literary craft.  The masthead itself is a testament to Anobium’s charm—character development exists across every page, even “boring” credit pages.With Friend, Chimp in Lab CoatAnobium Vol. 1The first volume is wrought with humor, but it’s also enveloped in poignancy, incredibly well-designed, and meticulously edited.  The journal is able to successfully present a wide range of voices without losing the editorial tone, because it artfully shapes its tone as both the class clown and the chess club geek. Anobium reaches out to two extreme ends of the literary spectrum, and it does so brilliantly and without second-guessing itself.

Susan Yount’s “Hyperbolic Umbilic Catastrophe” and “Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking” present narratives as theorems.  Meanwhile, Stephanie Plenner’s “Instructionals” provides advice for literally burning bridges, cutting ties, and other idioms.  Plenner’s piece provides a smart, linguistic look at everyday human experiences through an intentionally flat affect.  It seeks to be staunchly rigid and serious as it deconstructs these idioms, and it does so in such a way that you can’t help but laugh (in a good way) and introspect.  Such experimental pieces abound inAnobium.

A series of pieces from Jonathan Greenhause hint at the contents of Sebastian’s Relativity, the first chapbook by Anobium Books, released this past November.  In these excerpts, Sebastian is tied to a restraint table by chimpanzee surgeons, watches visible syllables land in heaps on the subway floor, and more.  The magic realism of the pieces is intriguing, and each page-long entry has a distinct, microcosmic story arc.  Without having read Sebastian’s Relativity yet, I wonder if Greenhause successfully pulls these micro-fictions into a larger arc—as stand-alone pieces, these work marvelously, but even collections of stand-alone masterpieces need to  have a sense of continual movement through the pages.  I will say this: the teasers in Anobium Vol. 1 are enough to make me want to find out.

Anobium Vol. 1 is full of similarly dissimilar stories and poems, born from a contemporary, gritty version of The Twilight Zone on steroids with a Mensa IQ. Many pieces are remarkable in their uniqueness, yet they coalesce nicely as a collection.  Concerning the aforementioned need for a “larger arc,” Anobium has it in spades.  The selections and arrangements move through Anobium seamlessly, creating an even tenor to Benjamin Van Loon’s madhouse of literature.

With Family, Genetically Abnormal Deviant

However, the Managing Editor (and his Associate Editor cronies) can’t take all the credit.  A big part of what brings these different threads together is the volume’s artwork, designed by Benjamin Van Loon’s brother, Jacob Van Loon.  Think Coen brothers meet [insert more obscure brother duo here].

Anobium’s artwork isn’t just random flare pinned to the pages; it’s part of the main show.  Though Anobium bills itself as primarily a literature rag, it is fundamentally both a lit and art journal.  Each page of Anobium fits seamlessly together.  Big blocks of irreverent text sections off various elements of the issue, while black and white illustrations pop from the inner folds.  Anobium achieves an aesthetic more refined in its B&W pages than I’ve seen in some full-color journals.

And the Brooding Offspring

Anobium achieves excellence in its inaugural issue.  The literature is witty, and a large chunk of the writing pairs this with humor.  The artwork blends well and works as an actual, integrated part of the volume, rather than a tacked on extra. Essentially, it’s damn good.  Copies of Anobium Vol. 1 and Sebastian’s Relativityare still available.  Pre-orders are currently available for Anobium Vol. 2, releasing on January 31st, 2012.

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2011, All Rights Reserved

Journal Review: Eunoia Review

Eunoia Review

Eunoia Review provides a twist on the usual electronic literary publication.  This website doesn’t serialize its offerings; instead, two new pieces of writing are posted every day.  As such, I can’t offer a review of a specific Eunoia Review issue or volume.  The entire publication is one long, continuous edition.  What I can offer, is an overview of the publication concept and a cursory review of the site’s literary work.This is hardly the first time the “story-a-day” or “poem-a-day” concept has been utilized, but this website stands apart from imitators (or forerunners) through its timely, well-organized editor.  Ian Chung is the architect of this project, and he provides a sleek site without the constant self-promotional clutter of some projects run by a single editor.  He isn’t doing this for recognition or propagation; Ian Chung just wants to read, review, and perhaps publish your writing.  In his 2011 Duotrope interview, Chung says that on most days, he checks for new submissions right after rolling out of bed.  This guy is dedicated.

The editor of this project genuinely wants to read your writing; he cares, he’s interested in craft, and he’s busting his ass to put out new work every day.  This makes Eonioa Review very approachable.  Duotrope’s submission tracker reports just over a 50% acceptance ratio as of November 21, 2011.  Among the Eunoia Review archives, there are hundreds of excellent literary works.  However, a several published pieces could use polish here and there, but that’s okay because Chung’s publication gives new authors a fighting chance.  I’m not going to beat down a journal that has so many good vibes coming from its concept, editor, and writers.  Chung’s approachability and speedy response times to most submissions make this electronic publication is the ideal market for any emerging author.

Eunoia Review’s wide tent is perfect for almost anyone.  Beginners and seasoned hands will find an inviting atmosphere around the site and its cordial editor.  Additionally, avid readers will revel in its daily approach to publishing.  Each time you slide open that laptop lid, you are greeted by two new daily poems or stories. It’s a good concept, and it comes together seamlessly at Eunoia Review.

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2011, All Rights Reserved

Journal Preview: Line Zero 2.1

Line Zero
Vol. 2. No. 1
Pink Fish Press, 2011
ISBN 9781453876886

The Skinny
I have my mitts on an advanced proof of Line Zero’s fifth issue (vol. 2, no. 1).  The issue releases on November 22nd, 2011.  In a word: it’s good.  Pre-order quantities are still available for purchase at The Pink Fish Press store.

The Sinew

Line Zero CoverThe editorial and journalistic content is useful for writers everywhere.  Pieces like Nathan Everett’s “Publish or Perish: Organizing the Author Tour” give practical advice on the economics of writing and book promoting, while other pieces delve into elements of craft.  While most of the editorial articles target the writerly community, some pieces are more broadly relatable to different demographics.  Appealing to other readership cliques are book reviews, album reviews, and a reprinting of the Virginia Woolf piece “Professions for Women.”  Line Zero seems somewhat confused as to who its core audience is at times, but most of the content meshes well enough.

The Membrane

I tend to think of the poetry and prose as the guts of a literary magazine, but Line Zero is one of those publications that pairs literature with artwork.  So maybe the artwork is the membrane surrounding the vital organs?  A cheerful image for the artists in the issue to contemplate.  I mean no disrespect from one body part to another.

Unlike some of Line Zero’s contemporaries, the images are relegated to a separate section.  This design a good choice considering Line Zero‘s full page spreads.  By separating the images into their own little area, it doesn’t create flow issues elsewhere.

I have mixed feelings about a few pieces artwork in the issue, but most pieces shine. Sarah Page has a downright outstanding photograph on page 81.  However, her image on page 80 seems under-exposed and lacking compositional direction.

So goes the artistic content as a whole: there are a couple other pieces that seem a little rough, but most are amazing, and I recognize and appreciate the raw artistic effort that went into these more experimental pieces.  As aforementioned, the artwork blends well with the magazine’s design scheme, and it feels at home among the eclectic poetry and fiction of the issue.

The Guts

On to the guts, or perhaps—out of solidarity to Line Zero’s literature contest winner—the bones.

Bryan Berge’s “Ribcage” took the prize this time around.  Over Line Zero’s 180 pages, there are plenty of stories and poems to look at, but I can’t touch on them all in this preview.  Suffice to say, the editors made a good choice in selecting this finalist for the fiction crown.

The single-sentence teaser for this piece might read: a boy with an odd cellular condition has the capability to grow an embryo.  Yes, the main character has some sort of totipotency condition that causes his cells to split and grow into the elements of human life.  But there is more to it than that—the protagonist has his own set of struggles and situational conflicts operating outside of this delightful and bizarre premise.  Hopefully the teaser is enough to hook you, because I am not in the habit of divulging plot points during reviews.

From a craft perspective, “Ribcage” has disjointed ebb to it, but it seems purposeful and works most of the time.  The author has woven snapshots of the character’s life seamlessly into a deliberately fragmented story arc.  As I said, this is a deliberate device, and it works—most of the time.  The flow does break from its cadence occasionally when seemingly important events are only given a quick glance, but then addressed later with royal carpet treatment.  It seems a little incongruent—but only during a small number of sentences—most of the story has a near-perfect flow.

Here’s how Berge’s flow works: there are many scenes where the precursive dialogue builds to only a short description of a larger event.  These short descriptions act like punctuation on the rising action, giving a unique twist on the typical rise, crest, and falling action of a story.  In theory, this is an excellent approach for Berge’s fiction.  But as mentioned, there are a few times when it doesn’t work.  The intense scenes work well as a minimalistic stopping point if the author moves past them, letting the brevity of the situation fuel the infinite possibilities brewing inside in a reader’s head.  Berge achieves this throughout the story, but there are a few minor instances when the prior events are referenced chunkily.  For example, in the case of a minimalistically defined tragedy, a later paragraph recalls the event, discussing “grief.”  Using “grief” as an emotional descriptor only works if the reader has felt the grief.  If the minimalistic closing lines are intended to give way to a deeper visceral response, the author needs to build from description to emotion.  In short, the story sometimes breaks from that beloved adage: show, don’t tell.  Then again, instances of this disruption are negligible.  This is a good story.  And this is a good edition of Line Zero.

When “Ribcage” stumbles, it is only briefly, and only a picky reviewer like yours truly would care.  It is well-written, and it explores new structural ground.  While the syntax is classical, the subject matter is inventive and the narrative arc is interesting.  The story treads new literary ground, for an inviting and thoughtful read.

On the whole, the issue is full of similar well-written pieces of fiction and poetry, and resonating with the level of quality exhibited throughout Line Zero vol. 2, no. 1.  There will likely be one or two small sections that irk you or seem too overtly targeted at the wrong audience, but the bulk of Line Zero is a work of universally applicable art that writers and readers are bound to enjoy.

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2011, All Rights Reserved

Journal Preview: The Portland Review Fall Film and Video Issue

The Portland Review Fall Film and Video Issue
Sneak Preview Edition

I hold in my hands a sneak preview of The Portland Review’s “Fall Film and Video” issue, distributed to readers and reviewers at last month’s Wordstock festival.  It contains a smattering of prose and poetry by Rochelle Hurt, Dennis Hinrichsen, Sean Bernard, and J. Bowers.

The Physical Construction: Delinquently DIY
The advanced preview of this fall’s issue is understandably low-budget, which is fine; I don’t mind a low-budget.  Our small press is no stranger to limited coffers.  And in previous small press gigs, I worked on plenty of stapled zines made from cardstock and pilfered library printer paper.The sneak preview is basically a saddle stapled zine with 14 pages of internal content to choose from.  Unfortunately, as far as zines go, it’s not that well constructed—unaligned pages, copy grade paper cover, and a single staple with teeth facing outward for a nasty prick to the fingers.  But then again, it’s a promo piece, and I have to give them props for making use of the centerfold pages for a large, landscape piece of black and white artwork.But enough about the physical appearance—the final Portland Review issues are always beautifully assembled, with great artwork, perfect binding, and attention to detail.  I just like to address the volume’s physical quality, because layout and design is an important part of book production, even if it’s DIY-style.  DIY books can be beautiful when done with care and craft; I’ve seen other low-budget zines do a lot more with lot less.

The Writing: Humor and Humor Attempted

So let’s talk about the innards.  The preview issue opens strong with a delightful poem by Rochelle Hurt.  Her work is subtle, makes good use of perception shift, and has touches of humor.  I’d highly recommend finding additional work on her website.

After this strong opening, the preview takes a bit of a nosedive.  The Sean Bernard piece adopts a relatively unique tone, indicative of strong writing, but this excerpt from California doesn’t work well as a standalone piece—cleaved from its whole, the excerpt lacks decisive purpose or direction, and it feels unfinished.  Of course, excerpting can often lead to a feeling of absence, but a well-selected excerpt should generate some of its own gusto even in isolation.

The interview with Mike Grey, star of the Comedy Cellar Network show The Troupe, falls a bit flat too.  The interview has a punch line that tries to incorporate some humorous existentialist remarks, all swirled around repeatedly asking if it’s okay to light up a cigarette.  This premise sounds nice, but the entire exchange feels like a failed Abbot and Costello routine.  The Troupe may be a laugh riot, but this interview just didn’t do it.

Other selections in the preview were also okay, but lacked the “oomph” of Rochelle Hurt’s opening piece.  In the few days prior to reading this preview edition, I had found a better assortment of outstanding work on The Portland Review’s poetry blog, though most of these poems were obviously not suited for a “Film and Video” themed issue.  Regardless, The Portland Review has better writing currently relegated to the blog burner.

Overall, the preview has some polished text, but not much of a wow factor.  I wasn’t as impressed with this preview compared to what I know The Portland Review can deliver.  However, maybe I’ll still head to Powell’s and page through the full issue; maybe some more pieces like Rochelle Hurt’s great opener will find their way into the finished product—the poetry blog gives me hope.

Review by James R. Gapinski
© 2011, All Rights Reserved