A Read of Slag

Slag Review – a journal of art, literature, and metallurgy

Issue #8

Spring 2018

Slag, the material, is a by-product of steelmaking, a process that also renders an easy and accurate analogy for the work featured in Issue #8 of Slag, the Review. Not that the fiction and poetry is a junk by-product – far from it. But, thematically, many of the selections in this edition hang together as examples of a balance of process, between what becomes and what remains. That includes a recounting of experiences of emotional marginalization; sharp shards of disquieting imagery; and scenes that are peeled off the everyday yet still hang over it like a gauze of spectral light refracting on what is left behind.

In “The Man and His Till”, Annie Blake offers a mostly straightforward recounting of a college student’s part-time job and a study of her employer. It unrolls like the narrative is a finger slowly tracing the outline of a silhouette – until the almost literal explosion of colour at the anti-climax.

On the other hand, Brad Liening’s haunting, multi-part poem “Visible Cities” abruptly stands up a nightmarish metro-scape, where a city’s populace has been freed from the corporeal bonds of law and order, and where one may find oneself “holding a gun/and you’re waiting/for just the right moment/for your life,/your real one,/to begin”.

Somewhere inbetween is the quasi-inspirational “Rolling Your Guts”, DS Maolalai’s poetic exploration of how a wretched experience produces a more wretched (and wretching) by-product that the reader witnesses “propelled/by pressure from the centre”. But it’s one that also produces an ultimately regenerative wave we watch “returning to the sea”.

To dive back down the analogy-mineshaft, if metallurgy is the process the separates the more valuable metals from their basic foundational ore, the work within Slag neatly reproduces that cleaving, as the mystical and the spiritual are contrasted with the rote and the physical. It’s a process that deconstructs our reality, but also infuses it with more spirit, energy and mystery.

Join in here.

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A Read of Armstrong’s Orphaned Words

Orphaned Words: Forgotten Poems from a Haphazard Life

By RD Armstrong

247 pages

2018

Lummox Press

Lurched at one end of the barstool-poet spectrum, the Charles Bukowskis rage in blood and booze for all the attention in the room. The John Yamrus-types efficiently go about their business at the other, dissecting experience with lean verse (like the architecture of poetry has been stripped down to a drafting sketch) and spitting their epithets off with tobacco-spite. Closer to the middle whirl the RD Armstrongs, with casual lyricism that captures a fuller internal life, richer tapestry of images, and more contemplative moments.

Armstrong’s verse includes everything from the honest melancholia of ‘Have I Told You About the Rain’, to the blues riffing of ‘Cool Blue Walls’, to more intense meditations like ‘Ignorance,’ where he explores the lost innocence of a whole generation in a compact string of far-reaching stanzas. He even throws in a visit to the ancient Muses (while still cut in his trim contemporary wit) in ‘Odysseus Returned’. His work generally carves slices of insight off the whole gamut of experience (life, love, the pursuit of more resources), but he can also offer quick gems of unexpected imagery that “dart past…like a startled mouse”.

Armstrong’s work is always intense and intimate, even with these “orphans” that were left out of previous collections – and which he has revisited because, as he says in the intro, “you never know what the reader will latch onto, be it your best or your worst”.

And there is plenty of the former to adopt here.

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Take the Berlin-Warszawa Express

Berlin—Warszawa Express
By Eamon McGrath
98 pages
2017
ECW Press

Constant acceleration may be the gateway pace to spiritual illumination, but it’s also an eventual route to physical burnout. Hooked on (and hanging on for dear life) to that Beat Generation tradition, Eamon
McGrath relates a rabid hobo quest for experience in Berlin—Warszawa Express.

Instead of poets bumming from Times Square to New Orleans or into the mountains of the North Cascades National Park, McGrath gives us indie punk grebos stumbling through Eastern Europe – and mainly Berlin to Warsaw. (The titular Berlin-Warszawa Express is a cross-border train route that, well, goes between Berlin and Warsaw in about 6.5 hours.) The scraggly milieu that McGrath travel-logs about (in what is a fictionalized account of the indie-rocker’s own touring life with his band and as a solo act) is a sub-culture that is ravenous for new experience but never satisfied with what it hunts down. The novel has a frenzied narrative to match, with McGrath burning from one gig to the next, one bar to the next, and one country to the next, with an insatiable appetite for fresh encounters.

Like the best work of the early Beat writers, the narrative action here is grounded in – or ungrounded
with – that constant need for movement. But McGrath’s prose is neither a big Kerouacean religious
meditation on transience, nor a deliberative John Clellon Holmes-like study of art and popular culture. It
is a sleek and efficient account that greases his thoughts and keeps them rolling at maximum speed along with the geography of the journey.

And, to McGrath, everything may ultimately be just about the journey for the sake of the journey, with
no transcendence available. Even when he returns home at one point to undertake a mini-tour through
Canada, he realizes that “all I could think about was how much I wanted to return to Europe.” While
McGrath never defines what he is looking for past the searching itself, that conundrum gives him pause for
consideration. At one point, encountering a “punishingly loud three-piece free jazz band from Warsaw playing at a breakneck volume” and drowned in this tsunami of sound, he experiences his own satori:

Amid this cacophony, I knew that I was in a place where no time existed. I was a prisoner of my own chains, I had lived my life trapped by confines that I had created. True freedom existed somewhere and at this point in my life, in Berlin, I was as close to it as I would ever be, or at least had ever been. All this would fade to memory in seconds, but there was something that felt so violently everlasting in that big, circling noise.

Along with music, booze is a key driver here – a travelling partner, a fuel, but also as great a risk to the
body as restlessness may be to the soul. A hangover leaves McGrath feeing pinned down with “the
familiar feeling of weight…It’s like all your thoughts are pained and clogged, and goop flows through your existence – the kind of viscous, molasses hangover where everything is slow. Then we got on the train and we went to Austria.” The artificial joy is both a stimulant to the journey and an entropic drag.

Still, McGrath continues to offer the reader beauty with the ruin, as the rush of the poetry of his language mimics that restless, relentless travel:

Cars race by on the Gürtel, laughing drunk brutes come and go from the doorway of Thaliastrasse U-Bahn station, and as we hear the hum of Vienna rise up in a soothing roar, Esteban and I both laugh and drink and know that amid all this trash and unhindered humanity is something beautiful that could only be birthed by the mother that is the tender
warm hands of the night.

The quest for new experience is certainly a Sisyphean journey for McGrath – but it’s also a thrill ride for
the reader.

Hop onboard.

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A Few Snapshots

The most direct and simple poetic forms, like haiku and tanka, offer the means for direct and simple moments to touch the eternal. They combine subjective observation with objective imagery that hooks brief moments into universal, repeating cycles.

The challenge for working with these forms and making them relevant to a modern reader is the quaint view many of us have of their inherent Muse: that is, Nature. Readers are more likely to recognize simple truths through a pop culture meme than the weather on Mount Fuji.

The UK-based Snapshot Press takes this as a challenge, offering explorations of small slices of modern life through compact traditional works, from the haibun to the haiku. Their publishing schedule includes a yearly contest that results in a trove of echapbooks that yield a variety of answers. In the 2017 batch, tanka and haiku offer sharp moments of emotional and/or philosophical revelation. Some of the collections are familiar, grounded in flora, fauna and reflection; others reveal more inward gazes and sombre sighs.

The most markedly contemporary is A Dawn of Ghosts, in which Thomas Powell combines the power and familiarity of the short line with a modern vernacular, as he observes “the darkness beneath/pond skaters” or “the wool and bones/of a passing winter”. His are enriching examples of how language can make form relevant and contemporary.

And all are examples of how to find the eternal in the briefest, most transient snapshots.

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Try a Read of Try Never

Try Never

By Anthony Madrid

50 pages

2017

Canarium Books

Try Never actually tries a little bit of everything in its 50 brief pages. As a result, they are overflowing in poetic styles, allusions, music and imagery. Whether voiced out loud or sung in your head, Anthony Madrid’s collection presents a rhythmically diverse and dynamically alive universe, but one in which consciousness is trying to grasp identity in an ultrafast, cluttered, post-modern existence.

Rhythmic and rhyming (whether internal, end, or otherwise) poetry can easily trip into sing-songy triteness. But Try Never is built on a solid frame of verse that still flexes with enough rhythmic variance to keep up a challenging, sometimes syncopated, beat. 

The stanzas are drum-tight, with rhyme, half-rhyme and alliteration pounding out the syllables. In a poem like ‘Quinacenera’, the rhymes also tumble from one verse into another in a continuous rhythmic cartwheel. The effect can be like listening to a virtuoso guitar player who thrumbs a steady bass-line on the bottom strings with his base digit, while the rest pluck up and down the frets of the four highest ones. 

Think of a truncated Gerard Manley Hopkins mixed over a slighly funkier Tuck Andress.

In content, Try Never is not narratively cohesive. The poems present a multitude of ground-level snapshots of a sort of apocalypse of the mundane: a “Boarded-up shop” faces a “Severe terror rain”; a “basketball held underwater/Wants violently to come up”. You may have to piece meaning together out of the disparate images throughout the poems, but once you do, you get a full view of quiet desperation. 

Try Never delivers a blurrying amount of potential significance in the rush of imagery. But the repetition, rhyme and rhythm keep it all in focus. 

Try it right now, right here

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Dusting Off: Borb

Well, not quite dusting off (Borb was published in 2015 by Uncivilized Books) so much as catching up with a unique work in the line of Orwell, Bukowski and Jackson that’s also a tragic poem in graphic novel form. Woven from a collection of self-contained comic strips that could have been clipped from a few months-worth of newspapers, Jason Little’s dialogue-light panels recount the drunken very-misadventures of the alcoholic and homeless titular character. Each strip is a verse in the overall tragedy, superficially echoing a variety of down-in-the-gutter literary works, but completely devoid of any (even bleak) romanticism. Borb is still compassionate, if clinically so: Little’s vision is a surgically precise imagination of the anti-life of Borb, bleakly-lyrical as it presents the flaws that led to his downfall, the physical toll that alcoholism and homelessness wreaks on his body, soul and mind, and the lack of responsibility on the part of the modern polis that pins him tight in the gutter. And the narrative cycle of the book, starting in medias res and leaping back in time to the edge of Borb’s fall, threatens to implicate the reader in the whole process – proving no one gets out of this gutter unsullied.

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A Literary Listen to Chaos & Star Records

Beautiful Children With Pet Foxes: The Single, by Jennifer LoveGrove, Christine Fellows and John K. Samson

Rich & Poor: The Single, by Jacob Wren and Andrew Whiteman

Vinyl Recordings/MP3 Files

Chaos & Star Records/BookThug Inc.

2017

Serious artistic collaboration between writers and musicians has a rich history in North American popular culture, reaching back at least to Jack Kerouac riffing his poetry in a spontaneous call-and-response jazz improv with saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. While that musical partnership served to accentuate an existing text, the goal of BookThug’s new recording imprint is to produce condensed, fresh artistic creations (along with a little commodification) through blending the talents of indie music artists with indie literary writers.

The results are more like “So There”, the B-side to Mercury Rev’s 1993 single, “The Hum Is Coming From Her”. The avant-rockers teamed with poet Robert Creeley to build an amusement park soundscape beneath a flume of Creeley’s wandering words, turning the poem (originally published in 1976) into an entirely new dramatic work.

These two 7-inch singles from Chaos & Star (solid samples from its continuing series) are meant not just to excerpt existing works and touch them up with a soundtrack. Rather, the intention is to grow new self-contained pieces, through a words-and-music-mash-up that creates dynamic meaning in the closed space of a pop song time-limit.

But the most immediate reaction the music will evoke is that it isn’t pop. For example, Beautiful Children with Pet Foxes contains excerpts from LoveGrove’s poetry collection of the same name, set to abstract, ambient sounds that morph the poems into dark lullabies. They will not remind you of John K. Samson’s work with The Weakerthans. The sparse undercurrents feature lightly plucked and bowed strings that gently urge LoveGrove’s slow, deliberate delivery forward, knotting music and words into a series of hypnotic tides; or tapped keys that float through and between the words, buffeting, and occasionally coarsening, the poems.

Rich & Poor moves from sparse, classically influenced music, to a bit of Philip Glass, to industrial stamping that fuels the rage inherent in Jacob Wren’s novel about a man plotting to kill a member of the rich elite in a self-styled revolutionary act. The shift of musical genres paints an aural portrait of class difference, ranging from smooth aesthetics to rhythmic, guttural rage. And that’s just the A-side. The flip plays like an extended remix, one that pumps up the industrial angst while more explicitly underscoring the not-so-simmering anger that is inherent in today’s growing economic divide.

In the playlist ecosystem of the contemporary music industry, the single is king. Similarly, in the information world, the bite-sized chunk is the preferred serving for digestion. Chaos & Star Records isn’t trying to transform literature into a series of playlists or twitter-essays. This format offers a bit of a modern choice for the literary and/or music-minded to consume their art in – even if the vinyl option represents a bit of a hipster throwback.

Flip through the new arrivals here.

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