NYC Lit Mag Delivers Diverse Experimental Forms and Risky Words

Posted by on February 16th 2015 @ 8:35 pm

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originally published in The Review Review
Winter 2014

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Throughout the past decade, Epiphany – a biannual NYC-based literary journal — has built a somewhat rebellious aesthetic, playfully experimenting across all aspects of craft, including form and voice and style. Its latest Issue 14, titled “Risky Words,” produced by a small team of volunteers along with long-time editor Willard Cook, upholds that spirit over its more than thirty new pieces of short literature spanning fiction, poetry, nonfiction, memoir and graphics.

“Risky Words” contains such experimental forms as email correspondences (Abe Brennan’s “Submission”), psychological “personality inventories” (Karen Stefano’s “Undone”), and numerical lists resembling Harper’s Index (Diane Hoover Bechtler’s “Measures of Weddings”). The collection features an expansive scope of settings (from Afghanistan to China to a small Sweedish town in upstate New York) and narrators (the most memorable: a hip-hop-obsessed Vietnamese boy for whom rap verse serves as emotional oxygen) and literary allusions (Tia Clark’s “Like Real Women” reads as a re-incarnation of Raymond Carver’s eerie “Why Don’t You Dance?”). These stories teeter on the edge of familiarity, furthering Epiphany’s mission to publish writers who “explore new territory.”

This sentiment is reflected in the colored photograph printed across Issue 14’s cover: a stalled van in a remote parking lot, mountainous forests and electric lines receding in the background, the van doors flung open and serving as the congregation point for a dozen twentysomethings. The image of youth on the cusp of adulthood feels like a proper jumping off point for the issue. Many of the pieces follow coming-of-age storylines, characters who have for too long distracted themselves with fantasies and are finally reconciling with failed or unrealized versions of their past selves. These people have arrived at a crossroads where they must finally choose which of several possible fictions to believe about themselves. In this context, “Risky Words” are those incidental thoughts or utterances that spark such a personal reckoning.

“I think of the girl I was. Sometimes I see her up ahead of me crossing the field,” says the narrator of Stephanie Pippin’s “Marriage.” Lori Horvitz’s second-person memoir “The Big Smoke” ends with the line: “You knew the end of the story before it began, but perhaps you needed to get the details right.”

As these characters grapple with which potential narratives to assign themselves, the future can inspire in them either hope or dread.

“It’s useless to fall in love here, where no one thinks of the future,” says the narrator of Lucy Biederman’s “My Destructive Impulses.” In Andrew Grace’s “Self-Portrait as a Nail in the Bottom of a River,” a man helps his brother build a house “where [they’ll] make rooms in the dark… knowing the house will never be finished.”

While the pieces in “Risky Words” contain countless beautiful phrases (“dancing in the space rhyming made”), there seems an overarching lack of attention or care for narrative. In their quest to explore new territory, both psychological and physical, many of the pieces take on a kind of stream-of-conscious narration, which sometimes upholds a strong character study (e.g. Tally Brennan’s “The Original”), but more often muddles pieces with plot-driven narratives that are difficult to follow or fully enter (e.g. Christina Cooke’s “Down Down”; Austin Pick’s “The Acquisitions Department”). The pieces that do offer a clear and compelling narrative subsequently stand out among the pack (e.g. Rebecca Bernard’s “Openings”; Katie Cortese’s “Welcome to Snow”; Kate Moorehouse’s “Perseids”).

Despite the narrative-minded grievance, Epiphany as a whole stands out amongst the crowded field of literary magazines, not only for its superior overall quality, but because of its particular spirit. Few other magazines publish such an array of authors and styles and forms within the same bound issue, and the staff’s special love for language can be intuited through its numerous design and editorial quirks.

The spine of the book includes four of the issue’s more “risky” phrases (Climate Change; Lap Dance; Telekinesis; Lesbian Cinderella), and the back cover includes an index of selected words from the issue that are peculiar (“ghoul”), proper (“Cuban Missile Crisis”), or coincidentally appear several times across different pieces (“beer,” “bicycles,” “lunch,” “shadows,” “escape,” are each used over six times). Sprinkled throughout the issue are author interviews and notes reflecting on the inspiration behind certain pieces, and offering an insightful glimpse into the personal obsessions of each writer.

Most of the contributors to “Risky Words” are experienced writers with some kind of advanced degree (e.g. MA, MFA, PhD) and previous publications (many with one or several books), though the team remains committed to publishing new authors as well. Epiphany’s Facebook page explains how they have both “published a Nobel Prize winner and helped an unpublished writer become a National Book Award Finalist.”

Anyone should feel comfortable submitting their work to Epiphany, provided that they believe the writing is strong and by no means conventional. This includes international writers, as “Risky Words” features over a dozen translated pieces (the majority from Chinese). Epiphany’s team is steeped in the New York City literary scene, including regular debut readings at The Center for Fiction (videos available online). The journal serves as a welcoming and deserving home for great writing of all kinds, and could indeed provide a boon towards getting one’s work in front of a broader, and potentially influential, audience.

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