Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mag Watch: Fugue, Winter-Spring 2010

There's something going on in the woods of Idaho's northern panhandle.  That's where you'll find a reliable cadre of writers producing meaningful, quality fiction, essays, and poetry in an often-overlooked region of the Pacific Northwest.  Seattle and Missoula may have (rightfully) earned reputations as literary epicenters in the West over the past three decades, but they had better watch their backs because Idaho is fast becoming a more visible contender.

In Boise, you've got Anthony Doerr (Memory Wall), Brady Udall (The Lonely Polygamist) and Alan Heathcock (Volt); in McCall, there's Brian Hart (Then Came the Evening); and in Moscow, you'll find Kim Barnes (A Country Called Home), Robert Wrigley (Beautiful Country), and Mary Clearman Blew (Jackalope Dreams).  I'm sure there are others, but those are the prominent writers who spring to mind.

In the bull's-eye of Idaho's literary surge is Fugue, a biannual produced by the University of Idaho in Moscow.  Though it's been around since the 1980s, I had never heard of Fugue until Benjamin Percy happened to Tweet about one of his essays appearing in a recent issue.  As I turned the pages of Issue 38--which also happens to be Fugue's 20th Anniversary Issue--I grew more and more impressed by what I read.

Not all of the writers in this issue were from Idaho, but each of them wrote from a Rocky Mountain sensibility, while maintaining the kind of universality that could embrace readers from Dallas to Bangladesh.  This is writing that's as steadfast as a century-old pine and refreshing as a cold splash of mountain water to the face.

Here are some of the highlights from the 20th Anniversary Issue:

Three poems by Richard Hugo ("High Grass Prairie," "Trout," and "The Towns We Know and Leave Behind, The Rivers We Carry With Us"): As I've said before, Hugo is perhaps one of our greatest chroniclers of landscape--whether it's Montana, Washington, or Italy.  You can find these three poems elsewhere, but it's always good to have a daily injection of Hugo for whatever ails you.  I especially love the opening of "High Grass Prairie."
Say something warm. Hello. The world
was full of harm until this wind
placated grass and put the fish to rest.
And wave hello. Someone may be out there
riding undulating light our way.
Wherever we live, we sleep here
where cattle sleep beside the full canal.
We slept here young in poems.

On Language: A Short Meditation by Kim Barnes: This delightful essay reminds me I really need to read more of Barnes' books (I've only read her memoir).  Here, she struggles with conflicted feelings between her role of an academic and someone who still longs for the lost vernacular from when she was growing up in logging camps:
I'm a tenured college professor with three degrees in English, the author of several books, but it feels as though in attaining my educations and career I've lost some essential part of who I am, some last connection to the forces that shaped me.  My people's language was crick and ain't and every g dropped from ing.  We went huntin and fishin and shootin.  We drug rather than dragged our deer out of the woods and said of new stomping grounds that we'd never went there before.

In Two Nights, Anthony Doerr goes on a solo camping trip in the mountains near Boise and reflects on an inglorious battle fought between the Tukudeka Indians and the U.S. Cavalry in 1879 on the very ground where he's pitched his tent.  He's overwhelmed not just by history, but by the literal weight of the world:
       For me nothing is more compelling in this country than the night skies: on winter nights the stars flicker white and red and blue, twisting and glittering in their places.  In the same moment they can seem both astonishingly close and impossibly far away.  This is not typically comforting: you feel the size of the Earth beneath your back, which is massive enough to hold all of its cities and oceans and creatures in the sway of its gravity, and on the far side of the Earth is the sun, 300,000 times more massive than the Earth, and slowly your thoughts begin to bump up against the enormity of the Milky Way, in which our entire solar system is merely a mote.
       I close my eyes; I think of the brook trout in the lake beside me, quick and sleek, little sleeves of muscle suspended in the black water, their fins and bellies fringed with orange, their backs aswarm with patterns.  The snowy peaks gleam in the moonlight.  In a few days this lake will be frozen over, and I wonder if the fish turn up their eyes, if they watch the lights traveling through the sky, if they sense that this could be the last time they will be able to see them.

The New Frontier by Jess Walter: The author of The Financial Lives of the Poets is in fine fettle here in this hilarious short story (is it even possible to write about Walter without at least once using the word "hilarious"?).  Nick, the narrator, is coerced into going to Las Vegas with best friend Bobby in search of Bobby's sister who may or may not have been kidnapped and turned into a sex slave.  Much gonzo hilarity ensues (see? there it is again).

In Invasion, Benjamin Percy laments how his hometown--Bend, Oregon--has been infested with Pandora moths.  And Californians.
       In the late 1980's, the population of Bend was 18,000.  There are now, in the metro area, more than 200,000 people.  Some of them come from places like Portland and Seattle--but most of them come from California.
       The men wear Izod golf shirts and Ecco leather shoes with no socks.  They part their hair and stink of cologne and smile white toothy smiles when talking about how fast the greens are at Widgi Creek golf course.  The women wear white pants and bright blouses and carry small black purses from which they are constantly withdrawing pink cell phones.  Their brightly blond hair appears flattened out of gold.  All of them drive Saabs, Audis, Volvos, BMWs, Land Rovers that have never left pavement.
       Our parents didn't like the Californians, so we didn't either.  Our clothes and our cars didn't match theirs.  They brought with them wine shops, clothing boutiques, white-linen restaurants that served sushi and arugula salads that cost too much.  Golf courses spread into the desert like green oil slicks.

Kim Stafford could very well have been writing directly to those Californistas in his poem For My Friends, which begins:

When a river is a border on a map, and not a place to swim;
when a mountain is a postcard you could get;
when an otter is like music in a special on TV,
and not a whiskered stranger you have met;
when smoke from campfires is something known from books
and not a pungent remnant in your clothes;
when forests are but fables, and caves in fairy tales,
and deserts empty places no one knows;
when children learn from Mickey of the mouse,
and think they know the world but never leave the house;
when from busy cities the wilderness feels distant as a star--
then we have lost our treasure, and missed the means to measure
     who we are.

In Why I Stay, Brandon R. Schrand describes how as a young family man fueled by inspiration from Montana literary deity Rick Bass, he got a teaching job in Idaho and threw caution to the wind to move to a remote town nestled in "a verdant place of rolling hills and forest."  Schrand perfectly captures the feelings I once had as a young writer/father/husband:
       Becoming a a crackpot notion.  Something best left to madmen who are single, skinny, and who smoke a lot.  Sane people don't prod their families into the woods so they can become a writer.  Who was it that said, "I'm going to the woods with a typewriter and a gun, and it's going to be one or the other"?  So there ensued a war between the concerns and the daydreams.  The daydream itself would keep me from rooting around in parts of my head where logic took up residence and issued forth reprimands, reproaches, and recriminations.  Logic said that it would be easier to become a pilot, surgeon, or astronaut than it would to be a writer.  Logic said that I had a family to think about.  Logic said just getting one thing published would be next to impossible let alone a book, or many books.  Fools gold, pie in the sky, pipe-dreams, the lot of it.  Better to get a job and settle down.  Then if the fancy strikes, sharpen the pencil and amuse yourself with the little stories you'd like to tell.  Just don't make your family suffer while you chase rainbows.  That's what logic said.
      But the daydream arrives at night like a lover.  Like a drug.  Like hypnosis.  Before you know it, you're afloat in its crystal waters and you can see yourself.  Yes, you can see yourself writing in a studio tucked in a grove of ponderosa and throwing hunks of wood on the Bassian fire that fuels your wonder.

Perhaps Schrand should have cocked an ear toward Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping) who dispenses this advice to writers in an interview with Mary Clearman Blew:
Ignore eveything you hear about what is publishable and write from the center of your imagination.  Discipline your prose to make it clear and strong.  Do research--it will get you out of the narrow corridor of what has been your knowledge and experience.  Expect difficulty, failure and rejection.  They're just part of the life.

In a literary magazine full of fine writing, I think the finest I encountered here was by a writer named Joshua Foster.  His short story Inside Out was a taut stretch of fiction reminiscent of Annie Proulx, Richard Ford, and Andre Dubus.  The story is narrated by the son of a rancher and devout Mormon who skips church to help a ranchhand--an older boy with a swaggering reputation--round up stray cattle during calving season.  One heifer in particular seems to be having difficulty giving birth.
       The cow thrashed through the moldy straw and crashed against the walls.  She seemed gigantic and desperate in that small space, panicked and ready to eat us whole.  At the head catch, I pulled the rope and snapped the gate shut behind the cow’s ears.  She yanked back hard, stressing the wooden joists, and then stepped forward to take the pressure from her throat.
       Jarrett had his coat off.  He’d sweated through his checkered shirt.
       “Get her tail,” Jarrett said.  He rolled up his sleeve.
       I grabbed the tail and pulled it out of the way.  When Jarrett buried his hand inside the cow, her tail went rigid as a tree branch.
I'm loath to quote any more out of context because the story works so well as a whole and looking at its individual parts doesn't give you a good sense of its harsh beauty.  Do yourself a favor, read the whole thing HERE.

Elsewhere in Fugue, you'll find fiction by Pete Fromm and Bryan Di Salvatore; poetry by Robert Wrigley, Joy Passanante, and Ripley Hugo; interviews with William Kittredge and Thom Jones; and essays by Rick Bass, Debra Gwartney, Annick Smith, and Susanna Sonnenberg.  There's even a eulogy for an Idaho sportsman written by Ernest Hemingway in 1939.

But really, there's not a bad page in the entire issue.  And how many publications can boast that kind of per-capita quality?  This Idaho literary magazine stands as one of the tallest pines in the forest.

To order a copy of Fugue, CLICK HERE.

Cover art by Catherine Chauvin.


  1. Thank you for the wonderful review. It was a pleasure to work with the senior editors on this book, and it's such a delight to read your review. Thank you.

  2. Hi David,

    This is great--I'm going to mention this on New West. All these writers turn up regularly there.