Until recently, the monthly journal Poetry (www.poetrymagazine.org) appeared pleasantly unaffected by the $100 million gift that its publisher, the Poetry Foundation, received from Ruth Lilly in 2003. Sure, a significant change was made to its masthead—Christian Wiman succeeded editor Joseph Parisi—but the look and feel of the magazine remained unchanged. It featured the same no-frills design that generations of readers had come to expect and, indeed, respect. But with the April 2005 issue, Wiman unveiled a redesign of the ninety-three-year-old magazine that is intended to “make the magazine as lively and contemporary in its look as it is in its content.” Along with the snazzy new look, the magazine launched a new editorial feature, “The View From Here,” in which writers from outside the poetry world discuss their personal experiences with poetry.
Another literary magazine showing off a new design is the Southern Review (www.lsu.edu/thesouthernreview), the quarterly journal founded by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks at Louisiana State University in 1935. Best-selling novelist Bret Lott took over as editor last fall, and his first issue features a redesign that is at once contemporary yet respectful of the journal’s history. Long-time readers will likely appreciate Lott’s decision to retain as a design element the “old live oak” that has been a trademark of the Southern Review for decades.
There is a great scene in Woody Allen’s 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors—this was back when Woody was still making funny movies—in which Lester, an obnoxious windbag played by Alan Alda, offers his formula for assessing humor: “If it bends, it’s funny,” he insists. “If it breaks, it’s not funny.” Applying Lester’s stress test to poetry, fiction, and essays, Brangien Davis edits Swivel: The Nexus of Women and Wit (www.swivelmag.com), a biannual journal devoted to women’s writing that displays a sense of humor. “My focus is on artfully crafted stories rather than carefully constructed jokes,” Davis says. “As a result, the humor in Swivel encompasses both the funny ha-ha and the funny strange.” Whether the writing in the Seattle-based journal bends or breaks is open to debate, but Davis, in her editor’s note to the debut issue, assures readers that her intention for Swivel is to “take funny women seriously."
Ugly Duckling Presse is perhaps best known for its beautiful chapbooks—recent titles include Novelty Act by Maureen Thorson, O New York by Trey Sager, and In Glorious Black and White by Steve Dalachinsky—but the Brooklyn-based press also publishes a literary magazine, 6x6 (www.uglyducklingpresse.org/6by6.html), that is worth considering. Published three times a year, each issue of 6x6 contains the work of six poets, each of whom is allotted six pages—hence the title. The magazine is assembled by hand in editions of six hundred. The letterpress cover of Issue no. 9, available for three dollars, features the words “becomes impossibly, stupidly hard.” Fortunately, the phrase comes from a poem by contributor Erica Weitzman and does not appear to be a comment on the production process of the unique magazine.
“Reading” is not the most accurate verb for what one does with an issue of Ninth Letter (www.ninthletter.com), nor is “literary magazine” the most accurate phrase to describe the biannual publication. Intended for “an audience that desires both beauty and logic, entertainment and thought, feeling and analysis,” Ninth Letter is jointly sponsored by the English department and the art and design department at the University of Illinois, Urbana. Like Black Clock (www.blackclock.org), the semiannual journal published by the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Ninth Letter benefits from the academic, literary-artistic collaboration. Recent issues have featured work by poets G.C. Waldrep, Mark Doty, and Tony Hoagland, and fiction writers John Haskell, Ann Beattie, and Adam Johnson. But the innovative publication offers artwork and plenty of cool extras—a free poster, a text by Ander Monson on microfiche, and an illustrated timeline of the life of the relatively unknown writer Harry Steven Keeler, among other oddities—to satisfy esthetes of any stripe.
Kevin Larimer is the senior editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.