Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Recent Reads: Touch the Donkey (Issues 3, 2 & 1)

(Also available with an above/ground press subscription)

For years I’d been planning to “get into” experimental poetry. Perhaps this sounds familiar. I had not circled a date on the calendar, nor browsed excerpts from celebrated masters of the avant-garde. Truth be told, I hadn’t moved an inch on the subject until Touch the Donkey’s third issue appeared, as plainly and mysteriously as the previous two. (For 90s inclined music fans, we can just as well refer to these as we do Weezer albums; the "blue issue", the "green", etc.) I recall feeling deflated in April when flipping through the debut, quietly bemoaning my indifference. But with July’s follow-up I found some energetic pockets, and then October’s release clicked more often than not. Let's rewind, re-assess.

Has each Touch the Donkey issue improved by leaps and bounds? Possibly, although it’s just as reasonable to suggest that I’m now jumping with the text, instead of panting against each abstract hurdle. If we opt to credit any learning curve, we’re obliged to discuss above/ground press’ subscription service, the caravan by which many a Touch the Donkey issues have found readers. Inserted with bundles of chapbooks, the literary magazine’s kinship goes beyond the aesthetic, featuring many familiar above/ground alumni. But its platform for experimental poetics, which also includes writers brand new to me, is paving a left-field expanse for publisher rob mclennan and company to explore unfettered.

third issue,
Since the issues haven’t relied on theme or more than eight contributors a piece, it’s no surprise that much of the reader’s enjoyment will rest on each writer’s style and subject matter. The third issue has so much going for it precisely because the roster feels stacked and in a generous mood. derek beaulieu's conceptual piece “one week”, which collates violence in the middle east, unfurls with the grace of a pillow-case full of hammers descending the stairs. Emily Ursuliak’s “Tourists”, presumably taken from the same project as Braking and Blather, finesses themes of otherness and sexism into the minutia of a roadside stop. But the real surprises come from authors I haven't read before. The lack of punctuation and twitchy enjambments in Susan Briante’s “THE PHYSICISTS SAY CONSCIOUSNESS” make for a deep reflection that halts as much as it flows. Two poems by D.G. Jones are also powerful, in particular the way “goldfinchen” feeds us tightly wound tangibles that piece together a small moment.


greedy guts, again and again, stack
the feeder
the snow-rain-snow end
of May with
                       their flashy

some of it
mint fresh

                   silly coin – the cardinal
interrupts them like
  a sin

second issue,
If some hidden comprehension key helped me enjoy Issue Three so, it must’ve started turning in Issue Two. Susanne Dyckman’s “Across the Street” and David Peter Clark’s “On the Way to the Tranzac on March 7, 2013” peer out from under streetlights with different surrealist takes; Dyckman reconstructs the spatial relationship of architecture and the moods that weather it, while Clark trips over an intentional blurring of memes, alley cats and distractions as digressions. Both held my imagination, though as Dyckman brought me closer via her whimsical logic, Clark’s self-satisfied cleverness kept me at a distance. His scattered line-breaks and narrative inconsistencies fashion a convincing stumble but Clark’s checking-in on the reader – whether we’re following along, whether we looked up how to pronounce a particular word – reaches into the obnoxious side of inebriation, making me sort of wish he’d stayed at home.

In acknowledging a distaste for this tongue-in-cheek breakdown of the fourth wall, I’ve likely tapped a vein in my own subconscious bias against the focus of some experimental writing. I sense a similar disconnect with Catherine Wagner’s “Notice”, which in a dry third person tone, reads like a pamphlet on who does and doesn’t pay for her poetry. Still I cannot criticize “Notice” for the specialized audience it seeks (namely, other writers), nor pinpoint weak spots in clarity or form (it’s quite readable). The versatility of voices arguably works more to Touch the Donkey's advantage than its audience's, aiming at a brave readership while exposing the casually curious to new forms. In other words, it comes with the territory that less adventurous readers should expect peaks and valleys, throughways and dead-ends.

first issue,
Does my learning curve in reverse cast a more generous light on Issue One (the “beige issue”…)? Actually, yeah: Pattie McCarthy’s “from wifthing” (which some totally academic, online research defines as “an affair connected with a woman or wife”) gets by on envious layers of mystique that wrestle new love, post-family. Alternately I’m reminded that the first batch of Gil McElroy’s project Some Doxologies, which gains new traction after enjoying Issue Three’s helping, and rob mclennan’s “Acceptance Speech” were noteworthy the first time around. An excerpt from “wifthing”:

keep the wolf from
the door her lips
numb   bored like
every drag of a cigarette
after the headrush
practically deranged with need
congratulates herself for not
devouring you in front of all
assembled       patience
figure in a taxicab crossing
& now I’m lying in it

As someone who enjoys going into a text blind, I've delayed mentioning Touch the Donkey's digital side, which compared to the sleek, minimal design of the card-stock journal, is crammed with supplemental interviews. Despite the technological divide, the process is fluid: each poem acts as the foundation for an interview discussing the poet's approach while also linking to other recent work. It's like speed-dating for new titles and authors.

In stripping back my expectations of what Touch the Donkey should be, I’ve uncovered a better idea of what it is: a margin, fortified and flipped horizontally, gloaming the trespasses of expression I was too intimidated to venture into alone. Three books in, Touch the Donkey has graduated from perk-status to a mercurial entity all its own. 

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