Reviewed by Juan Carlos Reyes
Content types: Poetry and Hybrids
Other formats: Short Prose
Why they stand out: A wonderfully extravagant format
Piece from the archives that everyone should read: “LIT MAG BOLD AS LOVE” by J. Morris
Why: A lively, sensual, almost sexual exchange between a fictional writer and a living lit mag, typical of the relationship the profiled journal ambitions to create between itself, the published writer and all readers
In full disclosure: the first outlets to receive my short stories whole-heartedly were online zines. Did it matter to me I could not flip through fresh pages to read my title? Sure—however, not to the extent it ruined my reading experience. Those initial publications in Tertulia Magazine were wonderful because the publisher Rosa Martha Villareal’s original .pdf quarterlies felt wholly physical: her graphic designer blended the visual and textual creating a frame not unlike an issue of Harper’s or The Los Angeles Review, offering the magazine’s published writers a sense of professionalism and a wonderful unity in an electronic setting—words that felt alive in a landscape that encouraged their vivid reading.
I knew then from writerly company it was no one’s preference to be read online first, if at all. After my third publication, however, I stopped caring, and despite my regular and unoriginal insistence to writer friends that print avenues only wanted to fit particular literary interests, few considered the electronic medium an acceptable format. Of course, today, in spite of the ongoing debate (a discourse Zine-Scene has taken up, asking questions and positing answers in discussions like Ashley Strosnider’s profile of Catalonion Review in which she considers, “Instead of asking ‘What can online journals do that print journals can’t?’ let’s try ‘What can online journals do that print journals can?’), the matter feels pretty much settled to me: e-zines have aims that fit the needs of today’s emerging writers; electronic outlets are increasingly plentiful and more available to the reading public; and, of course (lest servers crash everywhere in America, and all at once), literature published online is going nowhere.
Taking e-zines independently, then, with no comparison or contrast to their print equivalents, the most important matter to consider becomes maximized potential: how do e-zines meet it—how do their publishers create and effectuate an independent vision that allows its published poems and fiction to live in a vivid, tangible landscape?
In comes Cavalier Literary Couture, an e-zine that boasts one of the most elegantly extravagant presentations on the net. Recognitions of and ambitions for simplicity in e-zine design are great, and beautiful examples of it abound off every exit of the internet highway. However, for poets with no fear of a visual display that (though initially seems like it could contest the words) seeks first and foremost to enhance the pleasure of the reading experience, one is hard pressed to find a better online presence than CLC.
At first glance, the zine’s main page feels cinematic, a still life picture whose featured literature in roaming kites wave to you like an enticing welcome. Setting the tone is an almost other-worldly moon hovering over the European-like setting, a scene of rooftops and distant clouds, a night sky with trickling starlight. A Ferris wheel in the distance circulates its empty passenger cars as a woman in the foreground leans teasingly (in a burlesque cocktail dress) on the railing of her penthouse porch, seemingly mesmerized by a shadowy peacock perched on a neighboring ledge. The darkened flying kites, of course, take center stage, and each kite carries an embedded title—a poem or brief narrative—and a visitor can select any to bring up, on an interior browsing window with parchment design, the zine’s featured literature.
Browsing through CLC is not unlike strolling through a bazaar, a “free-wheeling, mysterious and fabulous circus,” if you will, as the journal’s July 24th e-newsletter so aptly noted. The online mag was established by a consortium of writers from both New York City and Washington, D.C., and it’s definitely no zine for those hoping to get their post-modern literature served on some plainer template dish. No: this here zine ambitions to take the graphic leaps its featured writers do lyrically.
The visual-textual marriage—a commitment editors hope to make a lasting one—creates a new vocabulary of relationships—like the juxtaposition of Peter Cooley’s “EN PLEIN AIR” with Bob Tomolillo’s “Purple Pen” (pub. July 28th, 2011) and the illustration of two women, skeletons exposed, bonded by their outstretched palms preceding Claire Askew’s poem “Little Sister” (pub. June 14th, 2011).
In an online literary environment dominated by straightforward presentation, a simplicity so pervasive as to incline towards the writerly no-no—the cliché!—Cavalier Literary Couture is a gutsy venture, and surely there will be readers who, in spite of their support, question the purpose of so much color—like Steven Riddle on his blog “A Momentary Taste of Being”: “Some things I saw there were magnificent and some made me wonder what was actually being purveyed.”
And, yet, the CLC vision feels as straightforward to me as any view outside my window: prominently, vividly, the exhibition on full display is the online reading experience. This ambitious e-zine model, like a carnival stroll, invites you to linger at each booth, get to know each framed poem and narrative by also embracing its visual partner. The journal itself is an elegant online performance, and it strengthens the literature it frames in much the same way a good reader changes one’s outlook on a poem at an open mic or poetry slam—the stuff being read simply becomes more physical in a playful space that encourages movement.
Interview with Cavalier Literary Couture Founder and Editor Christina Yu
Why did you start Cavalier Literary Couture? Were you hoping to fill a particular vacancy or meet a need in the literary magazine marketplace?
I started the magazine because I wanted to create the kind of place where the publication of each poem or story would be as much of an event as possible (hence the newsletters and work we’re doing with visual art). Having once been in the MFA world myself, I know what it’s like to be an aspiring writer (you try to build up publication credits and win prizes; you take it pretty seriously; you suffer through workshop, etc., and pretty soon you’re so wound up you forget the point). I’m not saying it’s bad to treat it like a career; it’s important to work hard and not be caught up in the mystique of being an artist (read The War of Art for more on that). But I wanted to create a place that brought visceral excitement and fun back to literary publishing. A place where it’s not about prestige, money, doing “good,” having the right politics, or any of the “serious” values that run the ordinary world—a place where it’s about “play” and exchanging “imagination for imagination.” A place where reading is illegitimately entertaining, not “good for you” in that boring way.
The artistic work that goes into running the magazine--the attention to design and detail, the work of juxtaposing visual art and poetry, the research and curation that goes into the newsletters, the discipline with which the internship program is run... all this energy and effort we exchange for the energy and effort of the artists we publish. So yeah, “exchanging imagination for imagination” is what we do.
And also, on a personal level, I’ve always loved organizations. Just think about everything you can do with a magazine or a small business! You publish work, you employ people, you give students opportunities, you mentor people, you bring people together... there’s so much surface area... Writing can be phenomenally isolating, especially with the winner-take-all aspect of success in the field. I wanted to help bring a sense of community back to the literary world.
Your online design is wonderfully extravagant and perhaps the most creative online setup I've seen. What was the inspiration for it, particularly the flying kites?
Well, I always hated the feeling of blogs. As a writer myself, I know how much energy goes into writing a poem or a story (it can take a few years of sporadic effort to write one really good twenty page story). If you put a literary poem or story on a blog, it just feels cheap; it doesn’t do justice to the work. I knew we would be publishing work online when we designed the site--and I wanted the experience to feel elegant and other-worldly. At the same time, I wanted a backdrop that would work with a variety of pieces. Ultimately I designed the site with certain writers’ aesthetic in mind. In particular, I was thinking of one of my favorite writers, Steven Millhauser. I also thought about two of my favorite movies--Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola) and Moulin Rouge. If anything, I just wish we could do more. We are constrained by resources, however. The toughest part of all this is not being able to fulfill all my visions. Very, very tough.
How did you go about choosing an editorial team? What were you looking for in your editors, and do you all tend to agree on aesthetic goals for the material you select?
I’ve established a solid recruitment relationship with my alma mater, Dartmouth College, where I get the majority of my editorial associates. Dartmouth has been so generous as to fund several interns and provide them with grants and fellowships to work with us. This summer, I’ve also had the pleasure of working with two RISD students. In the future, I definitely want to employ more visual artists; it helps to have visual art talent on board because of what we’re doing with arts & crafts, poetry “posters,” newsletters, etc.
I look for students I can trust who can really “own” their projects. Students who can take their projects from start to finish and bring something unexpected to the table. In terms of editorial work, I’m looking for students who have a mature sense of expression and a robust literary vocabulary. This summer, my team consists of the following students: Augusto Corvalan (who writes the newsletter and manages social media); Amelia Calsi and Kristine Rodriguez (who handle everything art and design related); Tyler Bradford (our resident PR & marketing guy); Duncan Bryer (who finds literary talent for us); Allison Malecha (who evaluates submissions and works out partnerships with artists); Ellie Sandmeyer (who writes copy for our site and brainstorms marketing ideas); and Christopher Walker (who is great with all things editorial).
What do you hope to achieve with the newsletter component of your venue?
Ecstatically ekphrastic. Our goal is to unite all the “makers” of the world. The fact that creative writing is a “craft” is taken as a given these days. Our mission is to take that old cliché and renew its meaning. We will be making crafts inspired by the pieces we publish; we will also be interpreting the spirit of our magazine through crafts and accessories; and showcase makers around the world who take “craftiness” to an extreme – who make extraordinary things out of ordinary materials, transform the world through their perception, and create spaces of strangeness and wonder. Words to describe us? Fabulous and stylized, savage and eccentric, monstrous and marvelous. In other words, we are looking to find and showcase artists you might find in the pages of a Nabokov, Millhauser, Borges, Kafka, or Ducornet story.
Why do you publish Cavalier Literary Couture online? What role do you think online journals play in independent publishing at large?
We publish it online because the online medium can be exploited in so many exciting ways. I’m only beginning to fathom the possibilities. (As you might know, I work at a tech start-up during the day, which has awakened me to a certain kind of potential.) We publish stuff online because it allows the project to be one long, ongoing literary extravaganza. We routinely feature archived work and every week, the summer associates look for visual art to match the pieces—and they don’t just focus on recently published stuff. So it’s not like you get published once and then your time in the spotlight is over once the next round of pieces is up. The pieces reverberate forever.
You publish a wide variety of work. Do you have any theories on what makes a piece a good online piece?
We’re trying to go primarily with poetry, prose poetry, hybrid pieces, and humor pieces. We’ll still publish the occasional long story.
Do you think that work published in print should be different in some way than the work published online? Why/why not?
Not really. Well, I certainly don’t think that online publishing is inferior in any way to print (running an awesome website.... running an awesome newsletter can be way more work and require more investment than printing a few thousand copies of something). That was a big mentality change I made when I switched from academia to the business world... the emphasis on technology and innovation can be liberating.
The future for Cavalier Literary Couture is bright. What's in store for readers and writers, alike?
Well, we have our newsletter, our visual art projects, our poetry posters, and our crafts right now. We will continue to explore the idea of “exchanging imagination for imagination.” Which is inspired by a Jeanette Winterson quote, about how the “currency of art,” the “moon metal” of the imagination, is never lost.
All this was always in the plans. It was just about having the manpower and talent to do it.