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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sidebrow Anthology #1, reviewed by AD Jameson

Sidebrow Anthology #1
Sidebrow, November 2008
Anthology, 235, 7 x 9 perfect-bound
ISBN: 0-9814975-0-0

Reviewed by A D Jameson

Fifty-odd years ago, John Cage—whose influence remains contradictory and very much misunderstood—sought to expand art’s material by allowing in noise, but he is mainly remembered today for having championed chance operations as valid working tools. A little while later, Donald Barthelme’s claim “Fragments are the only form I trust” (later repudiated) broke off from its original story and gained stubby legs of its own, providing a piquant slogan for a shaggily-assembled avant-garde: Language Poets, New Narrativists, Avant-Pop, hypertext, plus their progeny and post-permutations. Those writers, aligned not with one another but against their common enemy, Grand Narrative, used randomness and fragmentation to battle hegemony, patriarchy, tradition, late capitalist ideology—and simple writer’s block.

Today, randomness and fragmentation are easier than ever—partly thanks to technology and our accelerated pace of life, and partly because the practitioners’ of chance-based fragmentation have widely disseminated their methodologies. Websites will cut up your texts for you; Babelfish will gladly render any writing charmingly incomprehensible. Spammers will send you found poetry 24/7! And that’s if you’re looking for more open-ended, dis-integrated work. Everyday life, filled in by ad-creep and ubiquitous media, provides a steady onslaught of bits and memes without any effort on any writer’s part. In short, the current infrastructure encourages such work. Word salad becomes commonplace.

I find the omnipresence of—and the unquestioned insistence on—terse, haphazard work fairly maddening. Even over on the realist, “perennial” side of things, the vaunted return of the short story spawned flash- and micro-fiction. More recently, 250-word blog posts have been chopped down into tweets and Facebook pokes. A fragmented, chance-generated postmodernist malaise has settled in, to the point where even TV sitcoms are collaged, alienated bundles. Irony’s easy, it’s vogue not to care, commitment is for chumps. Parataxis rules triumphant. Our modern world is random-tandem, loosey-goosey, disconnected.

In such a sea/desert/swamp of disembodied, disjointed content—fragmented ruins drifting farther from the shore—the drawing of connections and the synthesizing of disparate information is necessary and valuable work. Other fields understand this: the New Urbanism seeks to contain sprawl, and to encourage integration and reuse. Politics has seen the rise of the grassroots and Obamamania, both of which spring from a widespread desire for synthesis and collective meaning—connections that don’t erase difference, but that hold despite it. Contemporary literature’s most pressing challenge is how well we, too, can learn to reconnect. In the absence of large presses and arts funding—even readers—can writers and editors provide pathways for meaningful communal experiences? And will those pathways still allow for aleatory sprints through the hedge maze? Can we prop up the crumbling infrastructure of our art with stairwells and ramps leading elsewhere without shutting out those who want to go on walkabout, or on a dérive?

Sidebrow is one young journal attempting to map out different trajectories. Starting from the foundation of their website, its editors have established seven different ongoing projects (epistolary; post-hole; mother, i; page 24; litopolis; our fathers; and ghost). Each project was initially rooted in a single work by a single author, which contributors were invited to respond to. Writers have been responding since 2005: they have been revising, replying, continuing, messing with, and detourning the original works—or submitting unrelated projects that the very act of inclusion redefined. They have been making connections, and over time, the seven projects have grown into sprawling, multi-author collaborations.

Take, for example, “post-hole.” The seed story, Derek White’s “Post-Holing to the Flesh Temple,” has been followed by fifteen other works. These additions are not strict continuations of the original story, but alternate versions, possible sequels, even revisions and contradictions. They are separate works that ask to be read together, inviting the reader to imagine connections between them. Thus, White’s crazed physics professor and chess master Dr. Slatoris, “convicted of a crime against reality,” and who stabs holes in a blackboard with a pair of scissors, later rambles on congenially to a grocery delivery boy in Norman Lock’s “The King and the Cotter-Pin.” The Dr. Slatoris of that story explains over cookies that White’s narrative is just a story, and that “stories are the least real thing in the world.” Later still, in a contribution by A.K. Arkadin, the doctor is supplanted by Robert Blake—an actor famous for having been tried for murder (though not convicted). But Arkadin’s Blake is an abusive father who threatens his son with dismemberment unless he delivers notes to attractive women at parties, and who “gave me a walkie-talkie when I was 7 and made people talk to me only through that until I was almost 12.” Surely, then, this depraved man is White’s Slatoris, after all, “kibitzing a divine source we could not see”! All three stories are enriched by these fanciful connections.

The “page 24” project (itself a spin-off from “epistolary”) “aspires to create a chapbook-length work comprising single-page contributions, each of which will be numbered page 24.” (This good-natured purposelessness is indicative of Sidebrow’s attempts to keep the proceedings coherent yet accidental, not to mention fun.) The editors proceed to note that “the concept is open to interpretation,” only one of which is for a contributor to submit the actual 24th page of his or her book or manuscript (as some have done). These pages lie scattered throughout the anthology, like interruptions or regressions, but frequently making an odd, accidental kind of sense. A poem by Daniel C. Remein in the “mother, i” series ends with the image of “cross-teamed horses with light”; the next work, Sandy Florian’s “24,” begins: “for example, turn more quickly than horses, horses more quickly than stags, […]” The continuation invites the reader to wonder whether Remein’s poem is also a page 24. (Furthermore, its title, “Film Professor with Beautiful Hands,” echoes an earlier “page 24” work, a story by Amina Cain featuring a character who’s apparently missing a hand.)

Sidebrow, obviously, is not adverse to randomness or to fragmentation. (I should clarify that neither am I.) However, as the above examples show, Sidebrow follows guidelines, and is curated. This powerful basic concept allows contributors to experiment and take great liberties with the original works, and with what has grown and is growing from them—but the project as a whole can be shaped and coaxed in different directions. To date, the most random, most open-ended Sidebrow project might be “epistolary,” which thus far has been characterized by teasing responses from one collaborator to the next. About this project, the editors have stated: “we aim to cull from submissions a somewhat manageable set of characters, themes, settings, & time lines to provide shape & direction to the collective work. As these pieces fall into place, we will post excerpts & will provide parameters on which to base future work.” This potential is built into the overall project’s structure.

Nor is the enterprise in any way shy of employing new media (which has been sold to us, remember, with the promise that it will orient us, network us, keep us in constant touch). The “litopolis” project uses Google Maps to affix fragmented texts to specific urban locations, slowly peppering the streets of San Francisco and New York City with scattered impressions. At the moment it resembles a more avant-garde version of Yelp. However, later on, the project can be re-imagined, its resonances and overlaps teased out and given further coherence and direction: “Once a sufficient number of Litopolis entries have been cataloged, efforts will be taken to engender new literary works based on the established map & catalog.”

Sidebrow began as a website, but late last year it produced its first print anthology. This handsome volume collects all of the writing from the website until then. Unlike the website, it’s fixed, sure, but it’s also portable, and easier on the eyes than any computer screen. It invites you to pick it up, to read and reread it in different ways. You can carry it around the streets of SF and NYC, bringing it to the spots marked out in “litopolis.” It encourages slower reading and digestion than the online edition, and a deeper exploration of connections real, accidental, and imaginary—to which end, it’s rigorously cross-indexed in a fashion simultaneously practical and whimsical.

Meanwhile, the original site remains online, Google-searchable and hyperlinked; it continues to publish new installments in the still-growing seven projects (work that presumably will be published in Sidebrow Anthology 02, 03, and onward). More and more words will gradually accrue there, fragment by fragment, connections sparking by chance—but also guided, accidentally or purposefully, by gentle nudges.