What’s Big in Littles

by Garrett Caples

Scholar, author, editor David Calonne, with whom I’ve worked on three volumes and counting of uncollected Bukowski for City Lights, recently sent me the poet’s contribution to Mainstream’s 1963 symposium on little mags, those perfect-bound literary journals whose ranks have thinned considerably in the Internet age. In the midst of a drunken rant foul enough to provoke a nervous disclaimer from the editors, Buk writes:

Little magazines (and I wish to god they wouldn’t call themselves “little” but literary; it is a mind state that builds smallness—let’s use the good words) tend to start well if they are going to start at all, but it is not long before they begin to be formed by pressures, the pressures of opinions and other editors, critics, readers, writers, printers, street car conductors, lady friends, university libraries, eunuchs, soothsayers, subscribers, punks, dilettantes, clowns, fame-seekers, and the steam and stench and grip and strappade of going down to the heavy Voice of the Thing Outside telling us what to do. Eventually the average literary magazine becomes the front room of one group of tea drinkers.

To me, these make an interesting pair of sentences, precisely because they depict a causality opposite to the one I observed as a poet in the late ’90s or early Aughts. For while it was true that a perfect-bound magazine might initially give off an air of aesthetic purpose and editorial discrimination through a limited roster of friends, fellow travelers, and whichever heroes responded to a youthful summons, the inevitable outcome of the very real sorts of “pressures” Bukowski outlines above wasn’t so much “the front room of one group of tea drinkers” as it was a blandly inoffensive, flavorless concoction with no raison d’être. Being “the front room of one group of tea drinkers” at least implies a distinct vision and purpose wholly alien to most of the avant-garde littles I encountered during my poetic youth. For if it gained any traction at all, a magazine inevitably began to receive submissions from poets its editors were either too polite or flattered by or afraid of to turn down, even if the poems those poets submitted were lousy or, worse, had nothing to do with the editorial vision of the magazine as conceived by the editors at the start. As a result, there were few perfect-bound magazines I admired and wanted to read or submit to, and I grew more enamored of the stapled ’zine, where real editorial personality still seemed to shine through.

Today, of course, while the cheap stapled ’zine still florishes, the overhead-heavy perfect-bound little mag is almost an anachronism, as its ambitions have migrated online. As Andrew Joron wrote on the Poetry Foundation website in 2013, “In twenty-first-century culture, what’s virtual is what’s real. A literary magazine or publisher that lacks a website runs the danger of becoming invisible to readers, most of whom have forsaken print for digital media.” This is not to suggest that there isn’t much to admire online; sites like thevolta.org and the Poetry Foundation itself are great in part because they’re so ecumenical and comprehensive. Their vastness is suited to the format, and they offer multimedia possibilities undreamed of by the perfect-bound. But when it comes down it, I’m still fundamentally unable to enjoy actually reading poetry online. I want to stretch out somewhere and contemplate a printed passage, not simply consume poetry as I do news or gossip or commentary. And so naturally, after a good dozen or so years neglecting them and as they decline in number and vitality, I find myself nostalgic for little mags.


Over the past year, two of the best single little mag issues I’ve read—both, curiously, with cover art by painter/poet/musician Brian Lucas—have come from long-running veteran publications. My poems appear in neither, though I confess I had not so much a hand as a finger in their contents. With Hambone number 20, I helped prepare a batch of previously unpublished poems by Philip Lamantia, prior to their appearance in his Collected Poems (University of California) late last year. With Volt number 18, I helped arrange for the publication of some poems by erstwhile Rexroth circle poet Richard O. Moore, in anticipation of his upcoming book for Omnidawn, Particulars of Place. Otherwise, however, my hands are clean, and my testimony here can be taken as reasonably objective.

Andrew Joron wrote a nice appreciation of Hambone 20 at the Poetry Foundation, from which I quote the following extract: “Noted poet, fiction writer, and essayist Nathaniel Mackey has been editing Hambone for over thirty years. Appearing at irregular intervals, the issues have, rather remarkably, maintained the same look (same trim size, same typeface) over the years; likewise, their contents reflect not so much the trends of the moment but the steadfastness of Mackey’s editorial vision.” This vision is imbued with the Afro-surreal—Will Alexander, Ed Roberson, Kamau Brathwaite, Fred Moten, to name a few—but by no means reducible to it, and Mackey’s purview extends to a post-Guestian experimentalist like Susan Gevirtz or a Catholic mystic like Peter O’Leary, as well as to surrealist or surrealist-influenced poets like Lamantia, Joron, or Lucas, among many others.

Volt, meanwhile, founded and edited by poet and translator Gillian Conoley, is published annually by Sonoma State University where she teaches; for its first 14 issues, it appeared in an astonishingly oversized format—8.5” x 14”!—in order to give the poet maximum scope, though, in the face of increasing bookstore refusals to stock so unwieldy an item, the last four issues have been reduced to a comparatively compact 9” x 12”. I liked the old look of Volt, but the new version is so much warmer as an object—from its off-white paper to its textured cover—I confess I prefer it, and it’s begun, in any case, to assert its continuity with this fourth number. I’m not as familiar with Volt’s roster as Hambone’s, but I think it’s safe to say Conoley’s editorial vision encompasses a broad range of the contemporary feminist avant-garde, from Elaine Equi’s modernist revisionism to Laura Mullen’s post-language lyricism to Carmen Giménez Smith’s fractured interrogation of identity. Yet too, the magazine is open to diverse other poets like Moore and Lucas, refusing, like Hambone, to fall neatly under one category.

As two longtime Northern California magazines—Mackey taught at UC Santa Cruz for many years and this is the first issue since he relocated to Duke in Durham, NC—Hambone and Volt have had plenty of poets appear in both, even as their editorial emphasis could be no more distinct; there’s no confusing one with the other. In the particular case of Hambone 20 and Volt 18, Brian Lucas is the only poet who appears in both, in addition to having painted both covers, a coincidence that prompted me to wonder what, in fact, the mags do have in common, in the broadest editorial sense. And I think it is this: the afro-surreal and the feminist aspects of their editorial practice indicate avant-garde perspectives that also contain a critique of the avant-garde, a critique that is by nature romantic and affective. Without such a critique, avant-garde activity grows sterile and reactionary like Italian futurism or the current conceptualist dorkfest. This critique is, moreover, why these two mags continue to have vitality long after others have withered. The “trends of the moment,” as Joron wrote, can’t outpace the “steadfastness” of the thought Mackey and Conoley have put into what a poetry mag should be.

There’s a third little mag, more recent than either Hambone 20 or Volt 18, which I wanted to mention here, even if, in this case, Brian Lucas only painted the back cover, the front going to hermetic, Gloucester-based painter Thorpe Feidt. Unlike the aforementioned long-running journals, The Emerald Tablet is meant to be a one-off. If I recall correctly, it was initially supposed to be a stapled ’zine, but the project continued to grow until its editor—poet, visual artist, and co-publisher of Bootstrap Press, Derek Fenner—eventually decided it needed to be perfect-bound, in an attractively odd, not-quite-square 7” x 8.5” trim-size. But the main innovation here is this: instead of printing up 500 or 1,000 hard copies, Fenner manufactured a scant 175, giving each contributor 4 copies to distribute to interested parties back in December. Then, last month, he made available a print-on-demand version through Lulu, in a slightly larger format due to the company’s trim-size limitations. This innovation mirrors the method of some recent indie rockers in the age the iPod, in which a musician will release a microrun of printed vinyl or cds before or simultaneously with making the work available digitally. At length, I believe, he will probably post it online as a pdf or in some other format.

I feel somewhat more “involved” with The Emerald Tablet, so you can take or leave these opinions as you see fit, though credit is all to Fenner; I was merely one poet on an initial solicitation list last year that included the title of the magazine, the information that “emerald” was Pantone’s color of the year for 2013, and an attachment of Hermes Trimegistus’ alchemical text known as The Emerald Tablet, along with sundry other documents. All of this was a prompt rather than the assignment of a theme, yet the number of poets who wrote more or less deliberate “emerald” poems is inspiring: Nora Almeida, Geoffrey Dyer, Patrick James Dunagan, Sirama Bajo, Ryan Gallagher, Jai Arun Ravine, Andrew Schelling, and Geoffrey Young. This is why Fenner’s so good an editor, for he knows many poets in whom he can strike an obscure but sympathetic chord.

Other poets responded to the editor himself more than theme, like Dana Ward invoking Fenner’s origins in Kentucky or Nicholas James Whittington his present location in Oakland. Still others, like myself, did the next best thing, which was hunt around for something already written but seemingly in the spirit of what Derek was seeking. In my case, I was feverishly finishing a forthcoming book of prose for Wave called Retrievals, so while I had no poems on hand, I did have an unpublished excerpt on Pamela Colman Smith which intersected with Emerald Tablet’s esoteric and color scheme rather neatly; her own little mag and press were called The Green Sheaf and she traveled in Rosicrucian circles with the likes of Yeats and Aleister Crowley. Finally, there are odd coincidences, like Alli Warren using lines from David Rattray as an epigraph while Brian Lucas independently dedicates a poem to one-time Oakland resident and Rattray’s close friend Alden Van Buskirk. All of this gives the magazine a palpable ambiance in which Fenner can display otherwise unrelated contributions from likeminded fellow travelers like Micah Ballard, Cedar Sigo, Sunnylyn Thibodeaux, Christina Fisher, Julien Poirier, Gerrit Lansing, and James Dunn.

There are few little mags I’ve ever sat down and read cover to cover, but The Emerald Tablet is one. The editing is that good; it’s like a book you want to read beginning to end. It’s divided into nine sections, each preceded with a sentence from a particular version of The Emerald Tablet that William Blake might have used. I feel like I have insight into the editing process from the section I’m in, for the prose on Pamela Colman Smith is grouped into a section under the sentence Thence proceed many marvelllous adaptations which were established in this wise; Smith carries the emerald theme, as it were, and lends that color to some wonderful poet’s prose on a pair of poets in a section the Tablet announces as translations and homages, for Fenner follows my essay with a beautiful reminiscence of Michael Gizzi by Geoffrey Young and a meditation on Robert Desnos by Rod Roland, ending with Rod’s admittedly non-expert translations of some Desnos poems. But Fenner caps the entire section with what I think is a translation of Dante by Sara Larsen, thus mirroring the concluding Desnos translations and giving the section a chiasmus-like structure. Such forensic accounting of Fenner’s editorial process may be completely fictional, but as a fellow traveler and poetry editor, I think I can say I discern the genuine determination and intelligence here at work and I tip my hat to it. THIS is what little mags, ideally, are all about.

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