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These are the Terms

Terms and Conditions: The Graphic Novel
By R. Sikoryak
107 pages
2017
Drawn & Quarterly

Satire can be a very serious thing.

Often found wrapped tightly in layers of meaning and texture, be they comic or otherwise, satire is worked at from within a much denser medium than the cheap laughs of farce and with more complex literary weapons than simple ribaldry or puns. It can reflect the world back at us in extra dimensions; advocate for a specific point of view while excoriating others; and inform while entertaining. From John Dryden and Alexander Pope to Kurt Vonnegut and Flann O’Brien, up to latter-day practitioners like T.C. Boyle, satirists are experts at confounding and amusing simultaneously.

Juxtaposition is a tool that offers a way to exploit sensibility and subjectivity through making fun of opposing viewpoints, while also pointing to some sort of resolution of the opposition. And pastiche is juxtaposition’s key ally. It’s a smarter version of imitation that does not simply rip off another writer or make fun of a target (as with simple parody) but creates new, slightly warped versions of reality.

R. Sikoryak’s Terms and Conditions is an audacious epic of juxtaposition and pastiche that tackles one of the behemoths of modern culture: Apple Inc. Sikoryak takes the ‘terms and conditions’ that we all automatically agree to, almost on faith, when we sign up for the cornucopia of the Apple ecosystem (including but not limited to iTunes) and uses the graphic novel form to flesh out and delightfully illustrate every section and sub-section. He does this via slightly skewed versions of well- and less-known scenes and characters from the history of comics and graphic novels. A variety of versions of Steve Jobs is integrated in each, appearing as hero or villain or stooge. Here: as part of the gag in an Archie strip; there: cued up with The Walking Dead crew.

In Terms and Conditions, the esoteric legalese that consumers gleefully ignore like the calorie content fine print at the bottom of a burger menu is mashed-up against a breezy rainbow of action-packed illustration. The panels reflect the banal obsequiousness of the ‘terms and conditions’ through a Garfield strip in one instance. The demanding nature of their restrictions is accented roughly as Beetle Bailey is berated with them in his barracks in another. They are rendered absurd when jammed into the narrative of the primitive “Albert and Pogo” strip (from way back in 1946) to outline the consequences one faces when opting into the “Popular Near Me” feature. Sikoryak brings it all to a close as a contemplative Jobs-i-fied Ziggy watches the sunset at the beach, while gently informing us of the last time the terms were updated.

The joke and overall point turns on this invasion. Steve Jobs and Apple infiltrate the history of popular culture much as, in the real world, the tech giant absorbs the marketplace for everything from books to games to TV shows – and then turns around and mediates consumers’ access to their content through an evolving rights landscape they don’t bother to map before-hand.

What does it say about us? The target of the satire is our essential irresponsibility, as we trade control of aspects of our lives and actions to satisfy our immediate desires. But, on the bright side, the way Sikoryak livens up the terms and conditions actually offers a way for us to start engaging more responsibly in the consequences of some of our most basic, and frequently occurring, consumption choices.

Agree to the Terms & Conditions.

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A Fix of Coffee and Truth

I’m Antisocial – Coffee Never Lies

By Mallory Smart

96 pages

2016

Bottlecap Press

This (to borrow from Jerry Seinfeld) is Poets in Hyper Urban Settings Getting Coffee.

Okay, more specifically, it’s I’m Antisocial – Coffee Never Lies, in which Mallory Smart takes the well-worn cliché of poet as ‘artist-in-residence of the coffee house’ and plunks it down in a contemporary context where the artist remains fairly anonymous; sometimes by choice, sometimes not so much.

The context is a modern urban café complete with free wifi and a cast of biz suits & hipsters. The point is a bit of drama on the role of the artist in a post-Pandora’s Box society in which everyone is a visionary, but where those visions are mainly myopic.

It’s also a place for Muses and Musers to zone out together in the kind of lounge chair set-up where with “a book, or/headphones, you can usually/avoid the awkwardness/of others.”

The brief narrative that underpins the book’s theme of disconnection is a scene Smart repeats from a number of angles: an anonymous businessman picks up her copy of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun and begins to lecture her on it, despite his obvious lack of familiarity with the novel. This awkward moment illustrates the casual disdain of art and lack of respect for the artist (and maybe for expertise of any kind) in a world that artists are still trying to express some meaning into.

If the setting of the collection is monochromatic, the verse that spins inside is kinetic – a caffeinated mix of short syllables and prose-based bursts in a variety of thick fonts, along with a carnival of cartoon imagery (added by illustrator Joey Grossman) in the margins that accents the playfulness of the text and frustration of the situation. It’s a situation in-line with Smart’s lamentation of a life in which “every morning we would make neither love,/nor war, but coffee./neither would change things/but I still need a fix”.

Which is what those who crave a good dose of lyrical cynicism and brutal truth still search for in poetry. And who can find a nice quick fix here.

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Dusting Off: Love Minus Zero

A delete bin’s worth of autobiographies released over the past decade by ex-punkers who have settled into memoir age hasn’t necessarily made for collective appraisal beyond a garage-tinged look at the sex, drugs, slam-and-roll counter-culture of their youth. Love Minus Zero, Lori Hahnel’s 2008 novel based on her role in Calgary’s first female punk bank, The Virgins, is poignantly different. Set in the late 70s/early 80s First Wave of punk in which fictional all-female Calgary band Misclairo briefly rise, it is a sombre exploration of the personalities that drive counterculture and what happens when the initial energy fades. 

Misclairol and associates quickly experience the smoulder-out of their own movement as it provides the kindling for a more violent and less-inclusive hardcore scene. Subsequent forays into reality and adulthood for the band and scensters means an uncomfortable normalcy for some, or following the nihilism to its logical end for others.

Hahnel’s writing style is suitably punk rock, in the First Wave sense. Rather than an anarchic hack at narrative that draws more attention to technique than substance, she uses straightforward, unadorned prose that, like the music, is all about getting to the throbbing heart of the matter.

Join the pogo here.

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Clean Up Your Reading

Dishwashing Event Part Two: Ontario

By Sacha Archer

20 pages

Puddles of Sky Press


2016


The companion piece to Sacha Archer’s Dishwashing Event Part One: Tianjin, China, this chapbook is a simple and complicated paean to daily physical chores, turning the mindless and the mundane into a thoughtful exposition of language. It’s also the literal transcription of the sounds of Archer’s daily dishwashing, picked up by a voice analysis program and fed into Microsoft Word to produce sound poems that translate both the psychological banality and physical intensity of the act into something like a series of spontaneous literary grunts. A little outside the soap box, maybe, but it works.


The poems are short, and either monosyllabic, prosey and urgent, or stuffed with definite and indefinite articles and stuttered conditional clauses that repeat in increasing frequency and agitation until grammar degenerates into a full-blown riot. The role of the reader is key: the act of reading becomes an attempt to translate the ambiguous signs back into the essential world of the physical act and restore some order: Does this multiple repetition of ‘if’ represent a particularly hard de-scouring of a greased pan?; Does this grinding of grammar into pure onomatopoeia equal the rinse?


The process, technique and results are certainly going to scramble your sense of what a poem should be. But while Dishwashing Event Part Two might sully the coherence of language, it invites you to clean up the mess again.


Get to work here.

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A Read of Kaaterskill Basin Lit Journal (with all the lights on)

​Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal

Issue 1.4 (Fall 2016)

94 pages

Modern horror is less a genre than a feeling: you know what it is when you see or read it, but can’t necessarily describe it (certainly not as traditional eerie suspense). Horror can be a detailed study of the mutability of the flesh – usually into many bloody pieces. It can also be a psychological work, wherein the nature of reality is revealed to be grown from just as delicate tissue as the body. Or a bit of fantasy. Perhaps some speculative fiction as well?

The pages of the Fall 2016 issue of Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal, wrapped around a horror theme, are full of all, but focused through subtler, more ‘L’iterary lenses. Such as through verse.

Poetry on horror themes can be tricky. One can easily pit-fall into melodramatic goth, or take too much of a staid, serious and lukewarmly academic approach to generate any chills. While the most easily identifiable mode for poetry of a terror-filled kind is narrative that is derived, forevermore, from Edgar Allen Poe, the best poems in Kaaterskill are crafted from short, condensed stanzas and feature modernist, imagistic flavours. (Think William Carlos Williams producing Saw rather than writing Paterson.) For example, Gayane Haroutyunyan’s “Pain” is the quite sharp, literal dissection of an oddly ‘giving’ relationship. Larry D. Thacker’s “Respect”, where “bones in the yard…float up out of the black dirt” is an ode to the buried history of small town secrets, like what you might see if Stephen King had co-written the lyrics to Nebraska.

The short fiction contains much of the mutability aspect. Both “The Creature from Flathead Lake” by Theodore Carter and “Feeding the Fish” by Bron Treanor illustrate the inner transformations of characters through very similar physical mutations, but with different, though equally grotesque, outcomes. There is also the more cut-and-paste (or hack-and-graft) transformation in “Gin Stitches” by Daniel Lynch, which kicks off with the beautifully deadpan and irony-spattered, “Jack has identity issues” and goes wonderfully off the rails from there. 

The horror includes the more fantastical variety, too. “Mute” by Timothy Day is a dark, sci-fi mind-bender that shares space with some of M. John Harrison’s latter work. “Creeley’s Drop” by Ethan Leonard suggests Kathe Koja-edged Alice Munro; that is, an unsentimental portrait of innocence outlined by existential menace and dread. Leonard’s story in particular demonstrates the other strength of this themed-issue: Kaaterskill isn’t simply interested in delivering hardboiled horror. The theme may be raw genre, but the writing is precisely cooked, as Leonard demonstrates via such passages as the beautifully circular:

“It was easy to keep the bottomless pit a secret. Once a person stood at its edge, there was no way to put it in words. The new girls on the track team came to me, in the locker room, and I saw what they’d seen reflected in their eyes, so I started talking.”

Oh, and it makes for a pretty good set of page-turners, too.

Peek over here, if you dare.

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Ringing Out the Bones

Ring out the bones of the old year with the medullan melodies of Rob Plath’s Skeleton Sutras (40 pages, Epic Rites Press, 2016), a wickedly entertaining series of grim anti-fairy tales/parables. One of the sharpest collections you should have read all year, Skeleton Sutras pulls beauty from ruin in blunt, finely carved prose poems in which Plath chisels language (excuse us) right to the bone.

Start the New off with the Old.

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A Good Read of Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine

Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine

By Diane Williams

131 pages

McSweeney’s 

2016
‘Flash fiction’ can mean anything from a few clipped sentences to a few short paragraphs to a few brief pages, with narrative as the clearest literary line separating it from prose poetry. Flash fiction means there is still a story, no matter how short and sharp the arc may be. It could be the span of a life jammed into the tight jar of a paragraph, or the climax sliced from a larger backstory and spread out on its own, or a sprinkling of scenes. But the reader will still get some open and closure, implied or otherwise. The author will still work with imagery and rhetoric to suggest actions, ideas and consequences beyond the air-tight strictures.

The flash fiction of Diane Williams in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine showcases all of these traits. But her stories somehow manage the weightier task of also being character-driven.

Many of these characters remain nameless, as if caught in tableau. Sometimes, Williams will peg an identity to them, but more for tone and colour than symbolism. Almost all are at a sudden point where they face a marked change in their lives. Some adapt as quickly as the word-count ends while others seem set to struggle far beyond the time it will take for the page to yellow. The reader may not know much about them, but will witness the import of their key moments and situations. This is flash fiction as the drama of epiphany.

“Specialist” presents the ultra-condensed ‘life-flashing-before-the-eyes’ of a very self-wrapped consciousness condemned to a fresh hell of external-awareness. “The Poet” evokes a surreal tragedy in two packed paragraphs. “Perform Small Tasks” is a mini-masterpiece of obfuscation, where drama is hidden behind a mind fussed with daily minutiae. “Girl With a Pencil” is a creation myth sketched with short strokes as the main character’s dark self-prophecy is shaped by a stark maternal presence.

Behind numerous facades (of forced passion, rigid consciousness, contrived fashion) everything is, of course, not fine. The thread that joins the stories is, in fact, threads coming unwound: relationships ending (or never quite weaving together), lives snipped short with unanswered questions and unresolved issues. The false declaration of the title, that sounds like a petulant child giving in with reluctant pout, melds with the overall, overwhelming effect of the relentless narratives. The substantial amount of character and drama that Williams packs into the book can overwhelm the reader, as the number of small tragedies add up to the emotional weight of an epic.

But, while brief, remain profound snapshots of life where things can change in a flash.

Snap to it.

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