Slim Pickings and Thin Skin

Iron Horse Literary Review, Open Issue 2012


Before I go any further, let me say I admire anyone, or any group, that manages a literary magazine. It’s hard work, often thankless, and under-appreciated. Having said that, there are a good many litmags that seem to underachieve, and I’m not the one to say why or under what conditions. Perhaps the problem with some is the quality of submissions, with others the editorial abilities of the magazines’ staffs – their abilities to see good writing among the chaff.

Whatever the underlying reasons, IHLR isn’t a favorite of mine. Still, decent writing does seem to surface in even the least enthralling of such magazines, as it does in this issue of IHLR. One such piece is  a story by Mary Jo Melone, The Girl Who Lives Here. Another is a poem by Charles Hughes, The Settlement, 2001. The stories in this issue are otherwise written in decent prose, but the story arcs seem rather flat to this reader, as if they were, to paraphrase Seinfeld, stories about nothing. The poetry is a bit better, but most of it strikes me as rather trite and less than inspired.

One interesting tidbit that may put my comments here in perspective, is found in an editorial piece called Bits and Pieces, in which the editor takes Duotrope to task for calling IHLR a “slothful journal,” meaning they’re slack time-wise in reading manuscripts and replying back to writers. There are always naysayers about almost everything these days, and you’d think IHLR management would know that, that such comments, correct or not, should be blown off, corrections made to their process, if needed, and the whole thing forgotten. That IHLR chose to spend a whole column on this says something rather revealing about the litmag along the lines of thin skin – and literary insecurity – revealed.


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Promising Writing


One widely read litmag from the South is a publication of Georgia State University, New South – – Georgia State University's Journal of Arts and Literature. After reading the winter 2012 issue, I'm heartened somewhat by the quality of writing coming from the creative writing mills of the U.S.'s universities.

This issue – like many of its kind – is heavy on poetry. Much of what I've read in this issue seems well crafted, with attention to rhythm, imagery, and word usage. 

The prose? Not so much. One piece I won't name hit one of my sore spots in that it's written in first person, present tense. While this is perfectly acceptable, it's often misused, as it seems to me here. This combo of tense and person is supposed to create the illusion of reader-protagonist intimacy, but when overused, it has a dreamlike, distancing feel. However, many of the other prose pieces are well written with attention to voice, character and – to some degree – story arc. If these prose pieces suffer from anything in general, it's that they're too long, given the story and its arc. 

Still, these pieces bear the marks of workshopping and advice from MFA writing coaches and teachers. As such I found the who issue readable. And there's a very nice photo essay by one Kathleen Robbins that serves as a center section to this issue. NewSouth is promising big plans in the coming months. I think this issue is a good start.


Short Prose and Long Poems

New South, Ga. State University, Winter 2011


I wasn’t familiar with this litmag before it appeared in my mailbox, but I suspect that previous issues were of the popular thematic sort. For this one, though, the editors have chosen an interesting juxtaposition – short (less than 1000 words) prose pieces, and the longer (two page limit) poems.

What makes this an interesting collection is that the short prose pieces demand economy of words, via tools such as allusion and metaphor. The two-page limit for poetry allows the writers to stretch a bit toward the prosaic. But does this editorial experiment work?

Yes, to some extent. When, for instance, Gregory Fraser’s long poems are compared with Stacie Evans’ short, short prose, we see (Fraser) a vignette of a couple attending a party buried in an elliptical poetic dance of images and wordplay against (Evans) short story built of staccato sentences simulating poetic rhythms. Still, the poetry emphasizes rhythm and a collage of imagery, while the prose emphasizes story – much as we’re accustomed to see.

Of the pieces included, the poetry seems much stronger than the prose. But what does this imply? In this reader’s mind, a skillful poet, in composing extended pieces, has much greater tools at his/her disposal than does a prose writer committed to extremely short pieces. 

I find the strength of the pieces included uneven in skill and talent, from the excellent to the clumsy and sophomoric. Still, this is a worthy collection, based on the contrasting of poetry and prose, and I would recommend it as worth an hour’s read.  


Not Rated




Bluestone Bests Most

Of the occasional litmags I receive, The Bluestone Review proves to be the most unusual – and the most interesting.

But an aside: I had been asked by writing friend Addie Davis to submit something to them, and not knowing much about the magazine, I submitted three pieces of poetry I'd written a couple of years ago, and three prose sketches that subsequently resulted in short stories. They accepted two poetry pieces. 


The Bluestone Review is published once a year and bills itself as "a community arts collective published by Bluefield College." And this West Virginia publication lives up to that billing. The writing throughout (including, I suppose, my poetry) is of the decent, journeyman sort, but its subject matter is what's most intriguing. 

Time after time, I find in this the 17th edition of The Bluestone Review subjects ranging from family life to the Afghan war and back to introspective topics. But invariably these works transform to statements about the natural world. The implication here is that the human experience – despite our technology and our metaphysical tendency to divorce ourselves from nature – seems always to return to native earth.

This sort of editorial posture makes of Bluestone what litmags were meant to be, I think, instead of showpieces for academic literary technique and style and dumping grounds for the "in" academic writers.

Kudos to editors Marland Funk and Jackie Puglisi and faculty advisor Rob Merritt for bringing the world of litmags back to earth.

Assaying the Litmags

The Gihon River Review
– Spring 2010/Volume 14


I used to find literary magazines in my mailbox regularly,
and I don’t anymore. That’s a shame. For the world's struggling writers,
litmags are bread and butter. Or, more properly put, they’re our likeliest outlet.
While they don’t often pay, they offer most of us the only shot we have at
publication, outside of self-publishing ventures.


However, litmags also afford us the opportunity to be read
(mostly by other aspiring writers), and some in the pub industry regularly read
these publications, too. In fact, an agent contacted a writer friend of mine,
offered her a chance to submit a novel, because he’d liked what he’d seen of
her writing in litmags. Admittedly, that’s a rare occurrence, but it does


A couple of weeks ago, the Gihon River Review landed in my box. I was knee deep in preparing
for a writer’s conference presentation, and with a stack of books to read
already growing, I found myself reluctant to dig into Gihon.


But I’m glad I did. Gihon
publishes the usual fare – a few short stories, even more pieces of poetry, and
one non-fiction piece. It’s part of the writer’s game to try to figure out what
litmags prefer in the way of tone, point of view, and subject matter. Gihon is harder to pigeonhole than most:
other than an obvious preference for first person point of view pieces, the
work they usually take is varied in tone, subject matter, and voice.


I haven’t reviewed a litmag in a while; when I have in the
past, I gave my wildly personal opinion (with no apologies) on which piece in
each writing category stands out. So I’ll do that again here. But keep in mind, such
preferences are more nearly what causes your own juices to flow, i.e., what
you’d probably write on your own, and how you’d write about it.


Non-fiction usually gets something of a pass in the critique
department; the story’s already there, probably the tone as well, leaving it to
the writer to add voice and a few structural flourishes. So it shouldn’t
surprise that Lucille Lang Day’s piece, “The White Swan Motel,” stands out.
Something of a surreal mystery, akin to gothic Southern writing, it doesn’t show its mystery until the end, and in an effective but offhand


I enjoyed the three fiction pieces in this issue – that’s a tribute to the editors, I think. So it was harder to pick a favorite.
After a few hands of rock-paper-scissors, Richard Jespers’ “Ghost Riders” won
out.  The piece’s presentation was
flawed a bit by some odd typos, surely from software translation. Jespers
handled with tact and literary grace the story of an idealistic preacher who confronts his congregation  – and his family – over the presence of
a child molester in their midst.


One poem, with the sort of overlong title I can do without,
“A Poem From The Vandalized Blackboard Age of Western Civilization,” by Ken
DiMaggio was far and away more mature in voice and subject that the rest.


All three of these writers are seasoned, with significant
credits on their resume. Talent is most often, as I suspect it is with these
writers, a matter of perspiration over inspiration, mileage over brilliance. Gihon’s editors should be applauded for
sniffing these out.


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Holly Iglesias

The rule of thumb is that poets have a temperament problem. Not Holly Iglesias. She's a softspoken, gentle, and helpful teacher of creative writing, who always seems to have a cheery word for you.


Holly Iglesias is the winner of the 2008 Kore Press First Book Award. She is a poet and translator whose work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Prose Poem, Arts & Letters, Barrow Street, Margie, Crab Orchard Review, Massachusetts Review and Spoon River Poetry Review. She has been awarded fellowships by the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Edward Albee Foundation. She is the author of two chapbooks, Hands-on Saint andGood Long Enough, winner of Thorngate Road’s Frank O’Hara Prize. A critical work, Boxing Inside the Box: Women's Prose Poetry, was published by Quale Press. She teaches at University of North Carolina-Asheville and at Warren Wilson College.