Poetry News

Garrett Caples Gives Mad Props to The Little Magazine

By Harriet Staff

Photo by David Highsmith.

At the City Lights blog, Abandon All Despair Ye Who Enter Here, Garrett Caples gives a rousing thumbs up (that's a plural: two thumbs) to the publications genre of "the little magazine" with a special emphasis on Volt and Hambone in particular.

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.

Abandon Despair thusly! At City Lights.