Spork in the Road

Tucson's newest literary journal doesn't just spoon-feed us.

Something important is happening in Tucson. I hesitate to utter those words, because I know one of the most efficient ways to suck the fun out of any truly inspired venture is to discuss how much "value" it has. But here, I'll say it: Spork is important.

There. Now it's said and I can talk about the book. Basically a literary journal ... . No, wait. Let's call it the machinations of a handful of obsessed and sleep-deprived individuals. Or maybe "a showcase of Tucson-based talent," a handy phrase for future grant applications. No matter what you call it, either of the two inaugural issues of Spork is a delight to hold in your hand.

Literary publishing is a rough beast--oddly put together and unsuited for its environment. Like the duck-billed platypus, it seems counter-evolutionary and you can't help wondering how it came to be in the first place. And how it persists in surviving.

Contemporary commercial publishing is a universe of entertainment conglomerates, bean-counting market specialists, monolithic chain bookstores and, I'm sorry, an increasingly sub-literate general population with shrinking attention spans. If you don't believe me just pick up any novel labeled "juvenile" from the early 20th century and tell me it doesn't challenge your present notion of standard written English.

Which is fine, however, because language is a living thing and needs to evolve. Otherwise how could I start a sentence with "which"?

Yet the fact is, it's a miracle that literary journals still exist, that people still bother to dream them up and proceed to go to such great lengths--in terms of time, money and energy, the crucial threesome of most brilliant ideas--to put them out.

Granted, with the advent of computer publishing programs and printers and copy shops, almost any depraved individual can produce a thing resembling a book these days. But I posit that beyond the self-aggrandizement or self-gratification of seeing one's name in print (because that don't pay the bills, babe), literary journals must serve some basic human need.

Literary journals are usually launched by writers. There's a clue. Writers need to write and writers need to publish. Thus, writers need a place to publish. It is good if this place has some modicum of editorial policy regarding its vision or quality, so that you don't have your work next to someone's scrawled-late-night-on-drugs diatribe graphically detailing the 50 methods of skinning a vole. There is something to be said for "legitimacy," if maybe only self-respect.

And here's an idea: Trot over to the UA main library, locate the literary magazines where they've been shelved as serious running linear feet of huge, hardbound, multi-issue tomes, and go back to something published, say, in 1932. You'll find the early works of some of our greatest writers: the stuff they wrote when they were sitting in cafés and living-room salons, drinking whatever, smoking too much and caring obsessively about the meaning of our existence.

When I think about the literary history of Tucson alone, I reel. Ironwood's 32 issues (spanning 16 years till its final issue in 1988), for instance, in which voices like Czeslaw Milosz, Tess Gallagher and Linda Gregg were first heard, make it clear, on a quantifiable level, why we need literary journals. Because before there was the marketable Czeslaw Milosz, Nobel Prize in Literature-winning poet, there was Czeslaw Milosz, the little-known Lithuanian-born Polish writer. And where does one read what the younger guy wrote to know he's good enough to deserve a Nobel? In the pages of a journal like Ironwood, ... or Spork. Every journey, one step ... you get the picture.

On the more elusive, qualifiable level, Ironwood was necessary because where there are voices, there are stories. And stories need telling ... and hearing.

So Spork was conceived, over the course of many late nights swabbing the decks at one of Tucson's humble all-night diners, as a collection of people's stories. I think the idea was partly Action Chat (à la Radio Limbo) meets reality TV meets literary publishing.

As with its namesake, that unlikely eating utensil we were introduced to through school lunches and convenience-store comestibles, the book itself is a beautifully executed example of vision marrying the practical: The design is handsome, technically sound yet brutalist enough to be a product of non-traditional publishing. It has a rather odd looking cover, a stunning supergraphic silk-screened onto canvas; the spine is blessedly flat and there's nothing weird sticking out to prevent you from putting it on the shelf like a normal book--I still can't figure out where to put those old Personas with the half-inch bolt bindings.

There's something about the floppy covers, the hale and hearty perfect binding, the not-too-thick-not-too-thin ample/essentiality of Spork. It provides a raw glimpse into the beautifully resourceful underworld of alternative publishing.

What I also like about Spork is the editorial/artistic framework in which the contributors' works are set. Each issue has a note from the editor setting a tone or theme or imparting some history of the particular issue--which is typical--and then there's a section in the back by co-deck-swabbie/visionary Drew Burk, "Notes on Construction," having to do with the actual physical object. Even if you've never read Jeanette Winterson's Art Objects essay "The Psychometry of Books," you'll be fascinated with what the Sporksters have gone through to bring you the copy in your hand. Giving blood is not an inappropriate image.

All of the above combines into a book designed to increase your appreciation of the text within. And that's the bottom line: Do you want to read the journal, will you slap your sawbuck down on the counter of the Safehouse and take home those hours of adventure?

In this case, yes, please do. With the work of such local authors as Barbara Cully, Boyer Rickel, Stacey Richter, Lisa Cooper, Joni Wallace and Elaine Romero, and illustration pages dedicated to such artists as Chris Rush, I promise you're getting more than the average pleasure cruise.

I knew I was in for something more like a Mongolian pony trek--with unlooked for challenges and rewards--when I opened my first issue to find a pre-printed Ex Libris, "This book belongs to ...," and I dutifully wrote my name. As editor Richard Siken puts it in his opening note to Spork's second issue, "great literature is not about its author, it's about its reader." Spork is all about you.

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