Review: Ampersand Magazine’s Issue Two (aka ‘Janus Faces’)

I picked up this pocket-sized magazine with its ‘Penguin novel gone wrong’ cover not knowing what to expect apart from ‘good’.

It was better than good: I actually enjoyed all of it, even things I usually fail at like visuals and poetry.

The illustrations peppered throughout the magazine range from outsider art to portraits from military hospital archives to tourist pics of the Mexican-American border. There are various time travel advertisements by Simon Greiner that are interspersed with real ads, nicely complementing the text ‘A Time Traveller’s Guide’.There’s also a particularly disturbing series of ‘found photos’ by Erik Kessels, following one woman over several decades. In each photo, she’s holding the same pose, eying her target while staring down the barrel of her gun.

Erik Kessels' 'In Almost Every Picture: Found photographs of Ria Van Dijk, 1936-2008', published in Ampersand's Issue Two (Autumn 2010)

In terms of words, Ampersand Magazine is mix of non-fiction and the nonsensical. Its non-fiction reflects on fascinating subjects such as interstellar messaging, facial surgery in the early twentieth century, the invention of inflatable costumes, and the Rapture. Sometimes, I felt like I was reading a collection of How Things Work for adults. Of particular note, I thought, was Lisa Pryor’s ‘Twin Cities At War’. Tightly written, Pryor’s reflections, comparing and contrasting Australia’s and America’s insularity and the illegal immigrant situation, overturned my ennui towards ‘travel narratives’: it’s a highlight in a selection of very strong non-fiction pieces. Have I mentioned the review by Christos Tsiolkas…?

Nonsensical pieces are printed in portrait rather than landscape format: some playful poetry, a eulogy written in the first person, and a violent Bollywood soap-opera. There’s also an ‘Adventure Story’ by Jazz Andrews that comes across as veering left of normal. Think penises imprinted into tubs of ice cream.

Throughout Ampersand, there are rewards for the observant reader. Briohny Doyle’s footnotes are not to be glossed over: ‘Check out the Left Behind series of post-Rapture Christian bestsellers by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ and ‘Mum was right! Apart from Hobart, Melbourne is the most irrelevant city on Earth!’

The Ampersand index is often poetic:

life,

as affirmed by points of cruelty, 133

as a train wreck 52

as conveyed through a biopic, 29

as degraded by forms of cruelty, 133

as improved by moving to a first world country, 40-1

as scarred forever by seeing a naked man smoking and holding a knife in the supermarket ice-cream section when you are a kid, 105

that grief makes a warren under it, 51

And I had a giggle when I spotted the note under Abhishek Chuadhary’s bio: ‘Ampersand received this unsolicited submission from Chaudhary and was thereafter unable to get in contact. *Ampersand is not officially outsourcing content* – Ed.’

Anyhow, I am now approaching the 500-word mark. This review is getting hairy. I always preferred short and sweet rather than long and unkempt, so it’s time to cut it.

Ampersand is like a compact Lifted Brow. There’s a wonderful miscellaneousness to it. There’s also a willingness to look beyond geographical borders; the writing isn’t limited to purely Australian concerns or the Australian literary scene, which is rare for a local journal. Three cheers to Ampersand. Or three f@$%s for free, whichever you prefer.

Advertisements

Review: Voiceworks Issue 80 – ‘Missionary’

For those of you who haven’t already heard, Bel Monypenny is leaving Voiceworks and Missionary is her last issue as editor. Having only recently rediscovered Voiceworks, I am ill-equipped on comparing Monypenny with past Voiceworks editors, but Literary Minded describes her as ‘steer[ing] a less-showy ship, still understandably finding its path’ and choosing work that is ‘happily not as abrupt as pieces have been under previous editorship’ (24/6/09).

Missionary fits this description. The cover is a sleek black, white, and orange; the words inside are quiet yet articulate, barring the few shouts like ‘In the Name of the Father’ by Chancier Blame and ‘We’re Not That Bad?’ by Liam Wood.

Like its predecessor, Classic, Missionary has a strong selection of non-fiction and regular columns, and I found myself preferring these to the rest of the content. While fiction’s grasp on the theme seems tenuous at times—’Forrest Hump, Full Metal Jack-off, Missionary Impossible’ (Christopher Glenn’s ‘Typewriter: a Story in Four Parts’)—non-fiction seizes upon the religious, the ritualistic, the moral, and the ethical and plays rough like the Spanish Inquisition.

In ‘Videogames: a Virtual (and Violent) Reality’, Giles Fielke discusses how video games preach rule-breaking and the irrelevance of ethics, citing Rapeplay as an example (see Virgule’s excepts here). Liam Wood writes introspectively about being a white, middle-class tourist in Leonora, a (post) colonial frontier in WA. Claire Marshall recounts ritualistic shopping and the guilt that ensues at Arthur Daley’s Clearance House. These and other pieces are competently engaging like much of the fiction and poetry.

But it is Joseph Brennan’s ‘Not Before Dinner’ that eclipses all. Through prose bordering on poetic, Brennan replicates the reverence surrounding a dinner at Berowra Waters Inn, something that later is revealed as being quite ordinary. It’s a beautiful piece that marries fact with techniques borrowed from fiction and poetry, something that is often attempted but not always successful.

Overall, Missionary looks smart and its non-fiction is smart. It could have been smarter with more adventurous fiction/poetry cohabiting its pages, more of ‘In the Name of the Father’ which is full of contradictions like one particular religious text, but that would be bordering on miraculously smart and I am not one for miracles. Is it worth the eight dollars I paid for it? Hell, yeah.‘Missionary’ is available at the usual independent bookstores or you can subscribe to Voiceworks at their website here.

Review: Voiceworks Issue 79 – ‘Classic’

The last time I subscribed Voiceworks, I was twenty-four and spending most of my salary on clothes from high-end-fashion chain stores. When my subscription and my submission eligibility ran out, I bagged all of my old issues and donated them to a local high school. What was inspiring for other subscribers was depressing for twenty-five-year-old me: these ‘youngsters’ were creating work that I had no hope of emulating.

Two years on, and I’m ready to grapple this journal bitch. Lured to the Wheeler Centre by speak of a guest appearance from Nam Le, I went to the Voiceworks ‘Classic’ launch and picked up my copy of Issue 79.

In her editorial, Bel Monypenny writes about Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson and her failed attempts to mimic their bush poetry style. Issue 79 isn’t about reworking what has come before in style and genre, but more ‘classic moments made new and intriguing by fresh eyes, distinctive voices and unique perceptive detail’: ‘familiar moments—drunken teenage rebellion, questioning the life you’re born into, your first big night out, the death of a loved one.’ However, as I read through ‘Classic’, this theme did not seem present in any of the pieces, which suggests that Issue 79’s writers have managed to avoid what is easy and cliché.

There’s some striking fiction in this issue: Luke Rule’s ‘Pulling Down the Sun’ stands out as an example of literary speculative fiction; dealing with the supposedly banal themes of death, sex, and violence, Claire Marshall’s dark piece, ‘The Edwardians’, also grabbed my attention; and prize winner, Amelia Schmidt has created beautifully fluid, dreamlike work in ‘House-sitting for My Mother’—‘my mother and father disappear in an aeroplane and I pack myself into a suitcase’.

The non-fiction is also particularly strong: Michelle Walter’s ‘Getting Off the Staircase’ is evocative enough to work as either fiction or non-fiction/memoir; Sam Cooney’s column on writer workspace meanders from Roald Dahl to Jonathan Safran Foer, whilst Kate Leaver’s column tackles incest and society’s fascination with sexual violence.

What I enjoyed most, however, were the interviews. I’m not sure if this a recurring section, but Voiceworks talks to a few of its contributors in Issue 79. There’s also a conversation with emerging writer Jessica Au who discusses working on her novel, interning at Sleepers, and her writing process.

And so, despite its youthfulness, and my twenty-seven-year-old bitterness, I took a liking to Voiceworks or at least its current manifestation. ‘Classic’ is available at the usual independent bookstores or you can subscribe to Voiceworks at their website here.

Review: Peril Edition Eight

I’ve finally sat down and read ‘Why are people so unkind?’, Peril’s latest issue. For those of you who haven’t heard of the journal, Peril is an Asian Australian online journal on arts and culture run by the likes of Hoa Pham, Lian Low, and Tom Cho. It’s a bit patchy at times with editors choosing pieces that reflect the Asian-Australian experience over more polished prose. With the eighth issue, however, it seems that they’re finally finding a balance between the two. ‘Teh Halia’, a prose piece about an Indian daughter’s regret over cups of her father’s ginger tea, is touching and carefully observed, moving beyond ethnic literature into something more universal.

The non-fiction was particularly strong in this issue with many pieces focusing on gender identity: Owen Leong interviews two Japanese artists who both explore gender in differing ways, while Lian Low speaks to The Ladies of Colour Agency about sexuality, whiteness in political movements, and genderfucking. Benjamin Law’s article on Asian-American conservative Michelle Malkin is perversely entertaining:

…Malkin seems quite attractive. Even as a homosexual myself, I cannot take my eyes off her, partly because Malkin’s pretty, and partly because there’s some gland inside me that reacts to seeing an Asian—any Asian—with a broadcast media platform. It’s this same gland in me that’s triggered off whenever I see Penny Wong on The 7.30 Report, or old footage of John So cutting a ribbon in Melbourne, or watching Poh being interviewed on Masterchef.

There’s also a couple of opinion pieces on Indian-Australian relations from Amrita Dasvarma and Angela Dewan, discussing the ubiquitous exploitation of overseas students, and the pressure to assimilate as a migrant, as well as an interview with Kamal.

It’s hard to choose a favourite from such a strong collection, but Lily Chan’s poem resonated with me the most: ‘in my head i was scout finch / elizabeth bennet / nancy drew / stepped back, startled / from my own reflection’. In a few lines, Chan encapsulates an Asian-Australian girl’s experience: feeling white, being attracted to white boys, experiencing ambivalence to Pauline Hanson and guilt for having it ‘good’ compared to her brother. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Peril’s next endeavour will be about ‘creatures’, and I’m curious to see how this theme will be interpreted in an Asian-Australian context. For those of you who feel like submitting to Issue Nine, check out the journal’s submission page, here.

Review: Harvest Issue 3

Last week, I promised that I would start doing a 3000 Books with literary journals. For those of you who haven’t come across her blog, Textual Fantasies’ Estelle Tang endeavours to read 50 books per year: ‘…when I started this blog I was 23 years old. The life expectancy for an Australian female is 83 years. 60 reading years left x 50 books = 3000 books. Why yes, it is very literal. Some might also say it is numerical.’

Knowing me, it is unlikely that I will be able to match Estelle’s reading voracity/velocity, but I will try my darnest to get through my metastatic pile of literary journals. This week’s sacrificial maiden was Harvest Issue 3.

 

Harvest Issue 3 with random sweet potato (19/11/09). Sweet potato courtesy of housemate.

I’m a big fan of Harvest. Not only does it publish meaty literary pieces, it is also beautifully presented, attracting readers outside the usual literary circle. Sarah, my doctor friend, picked up Issue 2 at Readings and gave it to me as a gift. She didn’t recognise any of the contributors; she probably purchased the journal on aesthetic merit alone.

Issue 3 is of similar attractiveness with the front cover designed by Allison Colpoys. Fiction tended towards lyrical, somewhat traditional, not as punchy as I would have liked, though there was masterful use of language in many stories. Jessica Au’s ‘Old Man River’ is almost poetic, her flourishes are something I could never possibly emulate. Paul Dee’s ‘Murder in the Snow’ focuses on the mundane with microscopic detail, and is appropriately accompanied by Stella Kalaw’s  photos of shower taps and rusty oil fin heaters. Borrowing stories from How a Moth Becomes a Boat, Josephine Rowe tapers off sections elegantly with paragraphs like the following from ‘Hole’:

She’s out west now, you heard. Someplace like Yarraville. You kick soft dirt into the hole. See her sitting out there, nights, looking up at the lights along the West Gate. Making different escape plans. Small cat winding round her thin legs.

In regards to poetry, I particularly enjoyed the play of Michelle O. Bama’s ‘Can I Call You Barack?’ and Simon Cox’s ‘Fragments in Defence of The Latter Halves of Half-Truths’*; feature poet Kylie Rose also had some startling imagery: ‘…Mum resumes her pop-dance / over the stuck bubbles, / their ink tails scribbling back to the surf.’ 

Non-fiction had a couple of strong pieces like Greg Foyster’s ‘The New Generation of Readers’ and Lisa Mamone’s ‘In Defence of Wodehouse’, though I was disappointed with finishing on Belle Taylor’s ‘Even Serious Books Have Kissing in Them’, a two-page personal narrative which felt lightweight when read alongside the journal’s lengthier works.

While content was lyrical, entertaining, evocative, thought-provoking, and inspiring, Issue 3’s layout was a bit of a letdown. I got confused with the split in Foyster’s piece: I thought the article ended oddly after reading the first two pages, later realising that it continued on page 49. Admittedly I was tipsy and on a tram at the time of reading, but it would have been nice to have ‘Continued on page 49’ tacked on, in brackets, to the end of page 2’s last paragraph. Marc Martin’s artwork, ‘Bookplates’, might have been more well-placed near Belle Taylor’s personal narrative on book clubs. And Belle Taylor, why is your piece sandwiched between a Harvest advert and the contributor bios? Nobody’s going to read it there.

It’s a small criticism (okay, it’s a big criticism…biggish…) and I’m sure the Harvest team had good reason for making the layout choices that they did. There are only so many ways you can arrange the order of a journal, and sometimes all of your options suck. And bad layout rarely detracts from quality content. So no biggie, Harvest. There’s always next time. Thanks for publishing my poem by the way. It looks very pretty next to Irana Douer’s work. 🙂

Next review will be Lost and Found: Visible Ink 21. Expect it some time next week/month/year. 

*Cox also managed to sneak ‘Fragments’ into the October ’09 issue of The Diamond & the Thief. You can read it online here.