The small magazine tradition sails along Down East

Posted Oct. 16, 2011, at 2:59 p.m.

OFF THE COAST: TAMING THE TIDES, VOL. XVII, SUMMER 2011 edited by Valerie Lawson and Michael Brown; Resolute Bear Press, Robbinston, Maine; 72 pages, trade paperback, $10.

For the uninitiated, Off the Coast is one of Maine’s many independently edited and produced small literary magazines, a publishing tradition that reaches several decades back into the 20th century. “Independent” means without affiliation to a college or university. Limited-run literary magazines around midcentury were not uncommon in literary communities (though literary communities, at least in public profile, were not exactly numerous in the U.S. compared with today). And then from about the 1960s on, the weedlike growth of college creative writing programs spawned many academy-affiliated magazines of the same ilk. The ilk, in general, being saddle-stitched or perfect-bound collections of literary writings, sometimes with reproductions of drawings, paintings or photographs.

How many little literary magazines have come and gone in America in the last 50 years is anybody’s guess. Thousands upon thousands, no doubt. That’s a lot of poems, stories, essays and reviews, probably millions, all undigitized until 10 or 15 years ago. Some of these magazines ran one or two issues and then packed up for lack of funds or interest, and their editors moved on to careers in insurance, Amway or teaching. Others, like Off the Coast, persisted. It began, according to its website, as an organ of the Live Poets Society in Rockland in the early 1990s, was publishing three issues a year by Y2K, and in 2008 transferred stewardship to Valerie Lawson and Michael Brown who moved the operation to Washington County and worked it into a quarterly.

The Summer 2011 issue contains prototypical small-magazine offerings. A lot of poems, some of them, like Leah Stetson’s “The Shark & the Mermaid,” charged with a certain leashless energy, others not so much. There are reviews of books you might want to read, most of which you’ll never hear of again. Translations of Rilke (a CW workshop favorite) and of haikulike verses from Serbia. An intersprinkling of black-and-white photos, some of which are not done justice in the format. There is, by tacit small-magazine convention, no editorial welcome, introduction or guidance — the page after the table of contents says only “Poems,” and we dive in.

In recent years, little quasi-formal writers groups and communities have been forming and persisting more numerously than ever in the U.S. and Maine. A lot of them publish their own little collections or maintain contact with local literary vortices like Off the Coast. Off the Coast, not uniquely, attracts submissions from all over the world. The present issue contains writings not only by Mainers such as Robert Chute, Gerald George, Carl Little and Stetson, but writers and artists from England, Salt Lake City, Vancouver, Ukraine and other places exotic to Down East Maine.

The number of people writing poetry (not to mention literary fiction, nonfiction, etc.) seriously enough to submit their works to these multitudinous small magazines is startling. If you start doing hypothetical arithmetic about them, it quickly becomes very hard to figure out why local bookshops struggle to stay open and Borders went out of business. If there are this many writers and yet an apparently shrinking market for books, you have to wonder who’s actually reading the magazines.

“Some people condemn anthologies,” Gerald George leads his review of an anthology from New Hampshire, and I gather from his tone that he normally sympathizes with that sentiment, though he ends up praising the anthology at hand. I guess I’m rowing the same boat, and encourage readers curious about what’s going on in small-press literary scenes to pick up a copy of Off the Coast and actually read it. It is quintessential small-magazine fare. You can get it through their website, off-the-coast.com, or by writing to P.O. Box 14, Robbinston 04671.

Dana Wilde’s collection of essays, “ The Other End of the Driveway,” is available electronically and in paperback from booklocker.com.

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