Sometimes it seems that for each reader a literary magazine is born. There are revered old guards like Harper’s and the New Yorker, established academic journals like Prairie Schooner and Agni, and dozens of online-only newcomers with names like Animal and the Boiler. But with the sheer volume of literary magazines perpetually exceeding overload, and with, thankfully, endless new stories, essays and poetry being published in sight, how does one decide what to actually read?
One approach: start locally.
Last February, CalArts launched Sublevel, a literary magazine that “connects literature, poetry, art, criticism, philosophy, culture, and politics” that deliberately avoids the separation of top and bottom. Co-edited by Los Angeles-based writer and editor Janice Lee and 2016 MacArthur Scholar Maggie Nelson, Sublevel makes “no sharp distinctions between creative enterprise and criticism” and presents itself as “immersed in the art world without to be at the service of it”. An insider-outsider perspective always appeals, holding the tantalizing promise that, as artists and critics, Sublevel signings won’t be afraid to hustle, push back and disagree. Its inaugural theme? “Contagion.”
Visually graphic and well-designed (this is, after all, a CalArts publication), Sublevel has eight recurring features, including Session, “a roundtable that brings people from different fields together in conversation,” and Exhibit, “a representation of a project that may or may not have taken a verbal form. The strongest work in this issue, however, appears in essay form and is set squarely in the present moment. (With one exception: a A short stream-of-consciousness article written by Hilton Als in 2013, “Butt” takes as its subject the “gay magazine” of the same name and goes aside on the flatness of Mia Farrow’s behind as well as Merce Cunningham’s choreography .)
The sublevel, Nelson explains in the press release, “fills a certain void in the literary world…we treat writing as an art among other arts, and we are concerned with both aesthetics and to politics”.
The stars :
“Caldera” by Aisha Sabatini Sloan
One of the functions of literary journals is to introduce readers to emerging writers. Thanks to Sublevel, I’ve added to my list for 2017 Sabatini Sloan’s latest upcoming collection of essays, “Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit”, which was selected by Maggie Nelson as the winner of the 1913 Open Prose Book competition.
In this essay, the author hears gunshots while hiking solo at a writing residency in Oregon. “My mind flashed to the character in the story of Frederick Douglass,” she wrote, “who rushes into a stream to escape a whiplash and someone pulls out a musket and” in an instant, poor Demby n was more “.” the hunter and his family — “the two younger generations… men in their thirties and boys under ten, wouldn’t look me in the eye” — Sabatini Sloan listens to Beyoncè’s “Daddy Lessons” in his cabin. His prose is direct and touching. “As I listened, I realized I had no idea what his dad meant when he said ‘shoot’.”
“Some Notes on a Fall in Los Angeles” by Litia Perta
“It’s the Sunday after the election and I’m at a yoga class in Hollywood.” It took me a moment to get over my own mixture of shame and cynicism when I read that sentence – it’s close to cliché, the kind of thing I could do but never tell a New Yorker – and yet Sublevel favors work that deals with uneasy and revealing closeness.
A meditation, in part, on becoming a mother at the dawn of a frightening political era, the depth of UC Irvine Professor Perta’s work sneaks up on you. “We all start out like each other on the inside,” she says of her unborn child. Structured with elegant symmetry, the essay shifts from the discomfort of being openly observed during yoga class (a place of ultimate privilege) to chanting “we see you” at a post-election protest outdoors. from the LA federal prison (a place stripped of privilege).
“10 Things Simone White Recommends Right Now” by Simone White
Like Anne Friedman, Sublevel editors know the power of a well-organized newsletter, summary, list. Program director at the Poetry Project, White’s recommendations are broad and eclectic — Vince Staples and Michel Focault both feature — and it’s refreshing to see not only hip-hop and critical theory having space in a literary magazine, but be given real links.
White also provides a recording of Anne Waldman reading her poem “Fast Speaking Woman”. A rallying cry that, for my money, wipes the floor with the sentiment behind Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” in “Song of Myself,” the poem gains vigor and weight when spoken, what White calls “a model of sound and intensity”. Fortifying listening for Elizabeth Warren fans, there’s something about Waldman’s unbridled performance that lingers.
The sublevel is worth reading in its entirety. I am hopeful that he will realize his ambition to “expand beyond our locality”, but due to their proliferation, literary journals need traction to reach their immediate communities, and without a large readership, they don’t always stick.