One comforting thing about working for a pittance in an undervalued field at a besieged bastion of higher learning is that we’re not alone. In fact, we are legion (if the AWP registration figure is any indication), which means that even though we may never attain fortune or fame by any worldly standard, we do have a lot of friends. Little known fact: Lit mags don’t compete with other lit mags. We root for each other. We learn about staffers at other journals and consider them our brethren and, uh, sistren. We eagerly look through the exchange issues we receive and exclaim over shared contributors or cool artwork. We even stage photo shoots when we discover that one of our staff bears an eerie resemblance to the figure on the cover of the new Southern Review. Another little known fact: Michael Griffith and Nicola Mason especially look forward to receiving their quarterly issue of SR because . . . they started out there in the late 1800s as, respectively, humble assistant editor and grad assistant. And SR and CR also share a designer, the fabulously talented Barbara Bourgoyne (of Jeopardy fame—nah, just kidding, but for a second there we had you). However, the reference leads to a for-real fun fact. Michael’s second cousin, Thomas Horn (of Jeopardy fame), is the young star of the film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. That means someone with a eensy smidgen of Michael’s genetic makeup actually knows Sandra Bullock personally. We leave you with the following caption for the photo above: Matt O’Keefe, about to crack open a new issue of The Southern Review, pauses to contemplate the insulation fluffing through the gap in our ceiling.
Archive for January, 2012
We’re thrilled to announce our latest arrival: Issue 8.2! Although slightly overdue, this edition of the Cincinnati Review is chock-full of good literature and art; the extra gestation time was worth it. Though we can’t throw a cigar in with the journal (media mail regulations and all), it’s headed out to you via the United States Postal Service! (If you’re not a subscriber, you can become one here). Issue 8.2 includes Steve De Jarnatt’s award-winning story “Mulligan,” art by Antonio Carreño, and poetry by Ngo Tu Lap, Kevin Prufer, and G. C. Waldrep, among others.
Stay tuned for our Game of the Month, which is likely to involve a blue pencil . . .
We’re trying something new and different—a collaboration with the amazing online magazine Soapbox.
Soapbox tells the new Cincinnati story—a narrative of creative people and businesses, new development, cool places to live, and the best places to work and play. And each month, Cincinnati Review will contribute some of the best lit—poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—in the country. The full text of a poem or story will run in Soapbox, and we at Cincinnati Review will post on our blog “bonus material” in the form of comments from the writer and our staff, including the editor who accepted the piece for publication.
Our first collaboration features a poem that appeared in issue 8.1: “For I Will Consider” by Terese Coe. If you don’t have a copy on hand, you can read it in Soapbox by clicking here. Look for our next feature—a fiction selection—in February!
Terese Coe’s poems and translations have recently appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, Ploughshares, Threepenny Review, Poetry, Agenda, New American Writing, Orbis, and Cyphers, among numerous others, and will soon appear in Alaska Quarterly Review and The Connecticut Review. Her first collection of poems, The Everyday Uncommon, won a Word Press publication prize and was published in 2005.
Terese Coe: Normally I don’t care to track how my poems were written, but this case is different. It came to me suddenly after rereading Christopher Smart. The lines flew off my pen. There were more than twice as many as now. At first it was a straight intuitive/objective exploration of the individual, a loading of facts and now and then an attempt at reasoning them out. Smart’s “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry” is partially a search for cause and effect, as in the Psalms, but for me that search emerged more clearly in the writing process. I put together a list of one cause that lead to another—as if it could make sense, or explicate existence. But nothing can make sense of existence. Nothing can make sense of the outlandish crevasse between life and death.
Some months later I began trying to reorder the lines, cutting whatever seemed out of place and trying different permutations. I did not add; I simply cut. I knew the poem needed gravitas. I wanted irony only at the end.
It is a story told in the form of litany, or dialogue with oneself, which makes it essentially dramatic. I find the lines are more open to variation in performance than I had expected, and that is characteristic of drama. The meaning varies according to vocal inflection, tone, and mood variations, like dialogue. Of course, it is also a dramatic monologue in which the lines have immediacy and flexibility. And the poem is peculiar in that it doesn’t seem to matter that most of the lines are quite unlike contemporary dramatic dialogue. Smart’s style adds something enigmatic to the subject/protagonist, and that produces a counterpoint to his evident interest in nature and the natural.
Lisa Ampleman, Assistant Editor: Although the long lines and anaphora of Coe’s poem may call up Walt Whitman’s ghost for some readers, “For I Will Consider” is more directly indebted to Christopher Smart, an eighteenth-century writer best known for “his reckless drinking and spending habits” and “religious mania” (as the Academy of American Poets puts it)—and for writing a poem celebrating his cat, Jeoffry.
That poem (link: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15798), from Jubilate Agno, captures the cat-ness of the cat as he “sharpens his paws by wood” and “can catch the cork and toss it again.” This cat, however, also is “hated by the hypocrite and miser” and “knows that God is his Saviour”—atypical feline traits.
As we read Coe’s poem, we think about how Shay seems cat-like: fishing is his way of nourishment, he needs little to survive, and he sleeps on the carpet and is pleased. However, he is also one with his dog and tinkers with the Kawasaki—things Jeoffry would be unlikely to enjoy.
Matt McBride, Associate Editor: I like to think of poems as perpetual motion machines, little Rube Goldberg devices of language that accomplish the impossible—they add up to more than the sum of their parts; they make something out of nothing. The most engaging thing, for me, about Terese Coe’s poem is the way it generates itself, the way it pushes itself along by its own momentum.
Coe does this through the use of repetition. By beginning each line with “For,” Coe sets us up for a poem that will be nothing more than a list with each object weighted equally. However, we quickly see that is not the case. Repetition inherently lends import. This import, though, can quickly become hollow, a weight without substance (see for example every political slogan ever). Coe prevents this by subtly raising the stakes as the poem progresses, matching the poem’s content with the power generated by the repetition, so the “For at the first glance of a girl in his direction he worships dutifully” becomes, a few lines later, “For thirdly he works not upon relationship but extends himself quietly.” The “For fishing is his way of nourishment” becomes “For the sea is in him” in the next line.
And this is what makes this piece so beautiful for me, the way it accrues. Coe’s poem is like snow, or the Dirty Harry films. Any single discrete part of the larger whole is not in itself amazing, but somehow these seemingly unimpressive parts (though many of the individual lines do have a kind of beauty in their sentiment and expression) add up to a value larger than the constituent elements.
Don Bogen, Poetry Editor: Back in Issue 4.1 (Winter 2007), we published Terese Coe’s “Boy Hustler”—a smart, tough sonnet spoken by the title character—and I was delighted to have another rich and energetic piece of work for the latest issue. Except for the fact that they are both young men, the figures the two poems present have little in common. The forms of the poems are different as well, but in both cases Coe really livens up the conventions. Those lines about the cat Jeoffry from Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno are among my all-time favorites, and (full disclosure) we’ve had a cat in our household for many years now, so I was skeptical at first that Shay could live up to his illustrious feline predecessor. But, as Lisa mentioned, the young man has a certain cat-like mixture of grace and separation from the world that is immediately appealing.
Coe’s variations in pace, tone, focus, and line length keep the poem and the figure at its center constantly shifting and developing. I suppose one key challenge in a “perpetual motion machine” of this sort (to use Matt’s term) is how you get it to stop. Coe’s last line is a quick jolt off in a new direction that caps the poem perfectly. What moves me most in the poem, though, is the depth of characterization embodied in the details—Shay’s take on girls, on the outdoors, on needs in general, and, my favorite, on self-defense: “For when attacked, he will grab the other’s wrists and hold them tightly rather than fight. / For I have seen this twice and was glad of it.” The observation is sharp, the character distinct, and the feelings of both mother and son rendered brilliantly.
The force of the thunderclap that woke us this morning at 3 a.m. heralded good news: two more of our contributors have been chosen for two great anthologies!
Don Russ’s poem “Girl with Gerbil” (from Issue 8.1) has been chosen for the Best American Poetry 2012. He joins other contributors Julianna Baggott, James Kimbrell, and Dean Rader whose poems from The Cincinnati Review were also chosen for that edition.
Here’s what Don had to say about that poem (and another) from 8.1: “I’ve come to think that anything looked at closely enough becomes everything—or at least begins to reveal kinship with everything—in my world. Both ‘Girl with Gerbil’ and ‘Reunion’ grew out of autobiographical material I’d earlier recorded in notebooks. When at some point I sat down to think and to try to make it into a poem, each episode eventually began to breathe my deepest preoccupations: childhood and identity, relationships, questions about the very nature of reality and its relationship to human perception and creativity. To some degree they both became poems about art, about poetry itself.”
Also, Steve De Jarnatt’s story “Mulligan,” which appears in Issue 8.2 (to be released any day now!), has been chosen for New Stories from the Midwest 2012, guest edited by Rosellen Brown.
Steve had this to say about his story: “A real situation inspired this story—an ill-written law that for a brief time allowed parents to jettison children (even much older ones) in Nebraska. It’s pretty daunting to try to humanize people who would choose to do that, but hopefully some clues are given as to what brought them to the brink. I didn’t research much, just tried to imagine the chaos of how this might go down out in the boonies of the west end of the state. I was born in a little town just across the border in Colorado and was fortunate the law wasn’t in place back then. One character—a kid, butt naked, save for cowboy boots, smashing in windows with a hammer is something from my hellion youth.”
Though we think the heavens could thunder with applause when we’re not dead asleep, we’d thrilled for Don and Steve!
Our regular blog-readers (whom we casually yet affectionately refer to as bloggulers) are already familiar with Don Peteroy’s recurring feature, in which our volunteer-cum-inquisitor poses a single, and singular, question to a hapless group of innocent wordsmiths of his choosing. (He likes them—a lot—though sometimes it’s hard to tell.) Don is also a musician, a fictionist, and he takes a whole lot of vitamin E for reasons unknown to the rest of us (probably to give people the impression that he’s healthy when, actually, his diet consists of blue Jello sprinkled with either Corn Nuts or black olives—depending on his mood). Anyway, this time around, Don takes his questions—and his choice of “writers”—to a cosmic level. We casually yet affectionately refer to it as the “Whoa, dude” level. As for Don, we refer to him as Jasper. (We like to keep him guessing.)
Adrian Matejka is the author of The Devil’s Garden (Alice James Books, 2003), Mixology (Penguin USA, 2009), and The Big Smoke (Penguin USA, forthcoming 2013). He teaches at Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville, where he serves as Poetry Editor for Sou’wester and as Co-Director of the River Styx at Duff’s Reading Series. You can find him at www.adrianmatejka.com or on Twitter: @adrian_matejka.
Question: At a reading you gave in Louisville, you mentioned that at one time, you were a huge R.E.M. fan. I was too. Like many long-term R.E.M fans, I’ve often wished that they’d return to their old sound, the beautiful music they made between 1982 and 1989. Let’s imagine that we can alter history. Let’s say that a new old REM album could suddenly appear. Let’s put it between Life’s Rich Pageant and Document. It’d be full of great songs. There’s a cost, however. You will have to give up your favorite poem; that is, erase it from existence. Would you be willing to do this, and why/why not? Screw it, let’s keep this going. I know you like funkadelic. How about we add another twenty minutes to Hazel’s solo in “Maggot Brain” for your next five poems? How about we give Public Enemy another album, between It Takes a Nation . . . and Fear of a Black Planet at the cost of every poem you’ve written in the last two years.
AM:It’s great that you asked about R.E.M. because I was just reading an interview with Michael Stipe this past weekend. In response to a question related to what he would miss about performing live, Stipe said: “I have to give everything I have for every song or I’m just that sad guy that’s in his 40s and holding onto some teenage dream. We didn’t move through the last decade with that feeling at all. I gave everything I had.”
I think there is a direct connection between my drive to write poems and my own “youthful dream” of leading the Africa 70 or spitting rhymes over a 9th Wonder beat. The drive could just be a function of having failed as a musician, but I’d like to think it’s also part of the mechanism we employ as writers of poetry. As Ezra Pound wrote, “Poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.”
Or maybe the “teenage dream” is really about audience or artistic relevance or social impact. I mean, music is the universal and can made with an ear toward a community of listeners that has the potential to be very large. It is a social construct as well as an artistic one. Especially now, with so many avenues for musical networking and the shift in the ways music is distributed.
The thing is, poetry doesn’t have the same kind of social permission or potential universality as music. Partially because of its self-referential nature, poetry is written with an ear toward an already-established (and very small) audience. But even with that limited audience, poetry is the closest thing to music we can make with our words, and it can alter the way a listener/reader interacts with the world.
I’m thinking of how Pablo Neruda’s Love Poems reify our perception of what “love” is. Or the way Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Amiri Baraka’s “Black Art” cause us to reevaluate the intersections of poetry and politics. Or how Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “the mother” works in a space that was so ahead of its time that the always-incendiary Richard Wright suggested she take the poem out of A Street in Bronzeville.
I doubt anyone has this kind of life-altering experience reading or hearing my poems, but I know people have been changed by R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe.” So no question, I’d go for the transformative and trade poems for another R.E.M. album. Not only that, but I’d feel like the Yankees swapping cash for Babe Ruth when I did it. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’d like to see somebody write a book of poems that’s the equivalent of this lost R.E.M. album. I don’t have the chops to do it, but I bet someone else could.
Greg Benjamin lives in Ohio with his wife and children. He has written a critical line of business software for the medical, financial and public industries. He’s written seven novellas in invisible ink. He is writing next-generation mobile applications software for his start-up, Fourth Landing. He ’s always available for lease and can often be found maundering near local airports and museums.
*Interviewer’s note: You might be scratching your head right now, wondering what, exactly, Mr. Benjamin has published. The fact is, Mr. Benjamin hasn’t published a thing, and he has no interest in writing fiction or poetry. He writes code. He’s proficient in many computer languages. Does that qualify him as “a writer”? I’m inclined to say yes.
In 1997, when I wanted to be a poet, a friend loaned me a poetry collection by Jackson Mac Low. Mac Low used “non-intentional” composition methods to construct him poems: random number generators, computers, algorithms, and so on. The poems were beautiful. Check him out: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/maclow/
Here’s the question: Can something be considered “art” if it’s essentially machine gibberish? Better yet, does something cease to be “art” when it serves a practical purpose (like Mr. Benjamin’s computer code compositions)?
My answer: code is art.
Question: Why do you eat things?
GB: I have no idea what the hell that means. Right now, as I sit here in front of an LED screen, debating the effect of crossing parallel polarizers—which, of course, are oxyrepublican lunch boxes of ionic compounds and double refraction properties—it occurs to me that the sitcom pilot always crashes and burns upon departure.
I could get into a fist fight at a local bar, have my face bashed in, my lungs collapsed, and my spinal cord contorted just enough so that I can be intravenously fed the delectable goodness of the finest university hospital. But I’ll do nothing of the sort. Speaking of sorting, there’s a certain melancholic sway that comes with each beating compression of a keyboard. I liken it to the comfortable uneasiness you get when returning to your desk after your car stalls in the ladies restroom and you tap out your pass phrase only to realize a second too late that you did not scrub your paws with the office hand sanitizer and your fingerprints recede into seclusion and your skin takes on the grainy white reflection of southern Kentucky mash, and right there you have it: without eating things, I’d have nothing in my stomach. I write 479,133 lines of zero’s and one’s when 11 lines will do the trick. I’m saving the world, one keystroke at a time.
You know how sometimes you can tell something about a person just by looking at her? For example, the staff here at CR can tell you nine times out of ten what color a person’s hair is with little more than a prolonged glance (the tenth time we get tripped up by the nuances of shades—dirty blond? Dishwater blond? Dennis Rodman blond?). Anyway, here are some facts we’ve gleaned about CR volunteer Laura Thompson—all just by looking at her!
—She has, at some point, eaten a peanut butter sandwich for lunch.
—She’d rather write poetry than scour her bathtub.
—Having grown up near a dairy farm, she is a savvy evaluator of ice cream quality (she kind of hates to break it to you, but Edy’s isn’t as good as you think it is).
—She has some variety of blond hair (we think).
—She’s drawn to unusual pets, having once fostered a retired medical leech. Next up: a hedgehog (okay, this one she actually clued us in on—but it was on the tips of our tongues, we swear).
—She kindly wrote an appreciation of one of the poems from issue 8.2. Here it is:
Laura Thompson: Whenever I read a poem that explores a subject I know well, my expectations are twofold. First, I want the poem to confirm what I already know, demonstrating the poet’s knowledge and awareness. Second, I want the poem to tell me something I don’t know, revealing the poet’s unique insight and perspective. Catherine Arnold’s “Horse” fulfills on both counts.
The poem contains many images that equestrians will find familiar: the “sweet, fermenting” aroma of the horse, the sensation of one’s legs pressing against “the warm moving back” and the “tightening and slackening” motion of the animal’s gait. The author also captures the emotion of a child’s first ride: her initial anxiety evolving into a sense of awe and empowerment.
The poem, however, does not stop at the universal or generic. The riding scene becomes a means to explore identity and family dynamics. While most riders are shaky their first time in the saddle, the speaker feels off balance on the ground; when she mounts the horse, she is “already accustomed” to riding because she has “assumed it all,” imagining fully the physicality of the experience.
The speaker takes her first ride seated before her mother, who is “bracing” her body and making her feel “whole.” Meanwhile, her father is nearby, his deep-voiced presence providing both “weight” and “certainty.” The long lines and dramatic spacing illustrate the speaker’s discovery of the “strong unhurried length” of her own body, even as the poet skillfully, gracefully leads us to understand how becoming one with another creature can paradoxically help us define and secure our boundaries.
We are exceptionally thrilled to congratulate three of our contributors whose poems (all from Issue 7.2) were chosen by Mark Doty for the Best American Poetry 2012!
Julianna Baggott, “For Furious Nursing Baby”
James Kimbrell, “How to Tie a Knot”
Dean Rader, “Self-Portrait as Dido to Aeneas”
Greatest congratulations to them!
Below, we’ve posted some comments they’ve made about their prize-winning poems, to whet your appetite for the collection, which will be available in September. If you can’t wait that long, you can order a copy of Issue 7.2 or any other back issue here (other than Issue 2.2, which died a watery death in our storage room years ago).
Julianna Baggott: Look, I’m charged with this particular poem being selected. Its title is “For Furious Nursing Baby.” There’s always a lot of conversation among women poets about writing on the subject of motherhood. I came to these discussions late—I wrote my first collection fairly isolated from the larger poetry community. And so I was dismayed by the idea that women poets—in quiet discussions among themselves—noted that they really wouldn’t or shouldn’t or couldn’t write about motherhood—for fear of being seen as … what? Weak? Writing about those flimsy women’s issues … I was dismayed, too, because I’d already done it. My first collection is titled This Country of Mothers. I thought that the women poets fearing backlash or, worse, having their work ignored were wrong. But over time I saw it happen—in reviews and in comment boxes. I read a review that called a memoir about giving a child up for adoption at 16 “womb gazing” (the memoir is by Karen Sayler McElmurray—and fantastic); I saw comments that claimed a certain female poet was “milking” her motherhood for poems. Is this said of Pinsky’s poems about jazz? No. And so this feels good. A vindication. Maybe those days are finally, mercifully passing us by. I’d like to think so.
James Kimbrell: I began “How to Tie a Knot” several years ago during a brief stay on St. George Island, not far from my home here in Tallahassee. I could only afford to stay there during winter, when the island is largely empty but for some die-hard fisherman and a few misguided German tourists. I wanted to write a poem grounded in a very real situation that gave voice to a more or less spiritual dilemma without simplification and, especially, without resolution. A line or so from the last section of Robert Duncan’s gorgeous poem “In the South” makes a cameo, but mostly what we have here are the musings of someone who is busily acting out a desert-island scenario in which half the day is spent searching for a poem while the other half is spent loosing bait. Amen.
Dean Rader, on “Self-Portrait as Dido to Aeneas”: My book Works & Days poses a lot of questions about identity. One of the ways it does this is through self portraits that are not traditional portraits of the individual self but rather the self figured through a series of dialogues between other people like Hesiod and Dorothea Lange, Frog and Toad, Michael Jackson and Robert Hayden, and as is the case with this poem, Dido and Aeneas (which is the most shamelessly earnest of the bunch). So, all that is going on thematically, as they say, while formally, I wanted to create something lush and maybe even sensuous. I hoped couplets would, of course, connote a couple and coupling, and I hoped the long lines might suggest the lengths we go to for love (or despair) as well as how long love (or despair) stretches. I also just really like Dido, and I wanted a version of the story where she makes him doubt every future decision, where she gets her say, where it’s her words (not his deeds) we remember.
Any day now, we’re going to receive a number of large, ridiculously heavy boxes full of Issue 8.2. As we wait, we’re doing core-strengthening exercises and reminding ourselves to lift with our legs. Managing editor Nicola Mason leads us in calisthenics to start each day, periodically shouting: “Knees higher! Come on, people, an ampersand has better form than you!” We’re also checking every entry in the subscriber database and periodically sandpapering our fingerpads to encourage calluses. Fun Fact: the manila-envelope papercut rates a 10 on our papercut scale (whereas 60 lb. white offset comes in a weak 6) and surprisingly produces a larger quantity of the red stuff than the occasional, accidental letter-opener incident.
Before we shed blood to bring you great lit, though, we want to look back wistfully at a strong issue, 8.1. For one last time, we take a closer look at what some contributors had to say about their pieces in that issue. In fact, we’ve waxed enthusiastic on all three of these pieces in our “Why We Like It” feature!
Steve Amick: Initially, I was asked by the writers Keith Taylor and Laura Kasischke to write a contemporary Michigan “ghost story” for an anthology they were editing for Wayne State University Press—Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them. But I was more interested in doing something that could also be explained as just a psychological glitch. Harry Bennett was very much real and lived (before I was born) in a “castle” about a mile from the house where I grew up. Yet I had no idea, till I did much more research than I probably needed (I even spoke to an elderly woman who babysat for his kids), that he was born in Ann Arbor and had what one might consider fairly “enlightened” influences in his early years. The layers made him infinitely more interesting to me, and I am now working on expanding “Not Even Lions and Tigers” into a short novel. As a villain, his union busting is of course incredibly timely today. Michigan’s new infamously anti-union governor even lives in a high-security mansion in the very same small township as Bennett’s Castle.
CR volunteer Brian Trapp’s take on “Not Even Lions and Tigers”
Julie Funderburk: These two poems, “Landscape of the Young” and “Landscape of the Careful,” belong to a series of landscape poems. I was happy to discover this structure, because it enabled me to embed narratives, widen the poems’ sense of relevance, and speak authoritatively through imagery, which is perhaps what I seek to ultimately do when I write poetry. I found the titles could give the poems immediate purpose. The structure even became an opportunity to breathe new life into some temporarily abandoned drafts that did not function well as more straightforward narratives. Once I had the right abstraction in the title, the hard part was done, and I found much pleasure in crafting the images.
Associate Editor Matt McBride’s take on “Landscape of the Young”
Laura Eve Engel: I have a terrible memory, but I recently discovered that if you ask me about where I was when I wrote what draft of which poem, I can tell you exactly. The first line of “Reciprocity” arrived in its entirety as I was falling asleep, so I got out of bed and typed it. I do this a lot, but I get distracted or choose sleep instead, and the lines end up lost in a graveyard of untitled documents. Maybe it’s the way this particular line began with “and” that made me want to follow it somewhere; all I know is this time I stayed up until I’d done something I liked with it. I think I’d just read Chelsea Minnis’s Poemland, which has, if I remember rightly, many sweet drinks. It’s likely I’d been realizing again, too late, that I was disappointed in something.
CR volunteer Nick Story is a fiction writer. But of course! you say. With a name like that, how could he be anything but? Well, the story (pun intended) isn’t as simple as you’d think. Even though he sprang from his crib waxing eloquent on his eternally spinning mobile—and as a second-grader wrote a forty-page account of what the backyard looked like from the cat’s point of view, it turned out that spinning a good yarn wasn’t Nick’s only talent. For example, he could actually spin yarn: By the age of twelve, he was known as the best poncho weaver in the county seat. He could also yodel and mambo (both, at the same time!) and was a whiz with a yo-yo. He did a frighteningly good impression of a dolphin, and he made the meanest Tofurky sandwich that you’ve ever tasted. In fact, he was really good at a lot of things. It’s not easy, turning away from ability like that. But eventually he caved, and continued further along the literary journey he’d started so long ago—for Nick could no longer deny his own story.
Here’s Nick on one of the essays from our upcoming issue:
Nick Story: On February 19, 1982, an obscure post-punk band called Section 25 began their set at Danceteria in New York City with the song “Trident.” In June of the same year, the General Dynamics Corporation announced a successful test run of the first ever nuclear-powered Trident submarine, the deadliest of all Cold War gadgets, capable of remaining submerged for months at a time and of launching missiles that could simultaneously strike numerous sites in the USSR from the bottom of the ocean, killing upwards of ten million Soviets with the push of a button.
It is between these two “Tridents” that Joshua Harmon situates his essay, “The Annotated Mix-Tape #17,” a fascinating hybrid of music criticism, Cold War history, and memoir. The fun of reading it for me was seeing how these three threads interweave. I found myself again and again surprised by the connections Harmon draws. He shows us how the paranoid gloom of post-punk lyrics was also reflected in the discourse of American admirals and military analysts. He points out the similarity of the mechanics of ICBMs and Atari 2600 gaming consoles. He describes the link between a kid in the 80s who is just beginning his listening life, and the band, Section 25, that best expressed his fear of the imperfectly understood geopolitical situation of the day and served as a bridge between his psyche and the world.
It is this last detail that interested me the most. Harmon captures perfectly that early period when a person is just beginning to grasp the seemingly infinite possibilities of music. This is a period avid music fans look back on fondly, with pangs of nostalgia for a time when our tastes were less “sophisticated.” Harmon evokes this nostalgia, but he also qualifies it by placing it within the context of 1980s Cold War America, when nuclear catastrophe seemed, for many, terrifyingly imminent.
In doing so, Harmon makes an excellent point. He drives home the importance of music in a climate of fear—whether that fear is of the Bomb or the Terrorist. It is appropriate, Harmon seems to say, to wake up to art at the same time that we wake up to history. The former helps us cope with the latter. It is a powerful message delivered evocatively, and this is why I like it.