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Backwards City moving literature forward

by Amy Kingsley

Journalists are taught that three examples make a trend. With that rule in mind, I’d like to propose a hopeful corollary for literary magazines asserting that four issues shall from here on out equal an institution.

If that’s so, then the editors of the Backwards City Review are in a position they never intended to occupy. The fall issue of Greensboro’s most unique literary magazine is the fourth installment in a series that has appeared twice a year since 2005, which is a feat given its origin as the brainchild of creative writing students eager to offer literature fans a product more readable than venerable.

The contrast between Backwards City Review and its local predecessor the Greensboro Review is obvious before you even crack the spine, according to Gerry Canavan, a former MFA student at UNCG and founding editor.

“They’ve had the same cover on their magazine since 1942,” he said. “They’re kind of straight and we try not to take ourselves so seriously.”

In issue number four, the first blush of idiosyncrasy comes in the form of a cover collage by Seattle-based artist Michael Collelo. Pages of cartoon panels interrupt the lit mag requirements of prose and poetry (and even the occasional prose poem). The five comics featured in the fall issue range from the long-form nonfiction meditation “100,000 Miles” by Tomasz Kaczynski to the amateur line drawings and everyday absurdities of Drew’s “Toothpaste for Dinner.”

Canavan described “100,000 Miles” as one of the journal’s strongest illustrated stories. In it, the driver-hero contemplates what happens when the motorization of society reaches its logical conclusion: a traffic jam so complete it suspends cars like amber.

Among the non-illustrated offerings are several culled from the second Backwards City Review fiction and poetry contest. Jessica Fjeld, a Brooklyn resident who won the 2006 New York Chapbook Fellowship from the Poetry Society of America, took top honors in the poetry contest for lines like these from “Mesopotamia Suns Itself on the Upper Deck”:

Light a candle and I’ll turn the lights on;

No one has ever accidentally

blown up a chewing gum factory.

For months, I have been looking

for this particular shade of orange.

Yes, you

The longest piece in the issue, a story clocking in at some 24 pages, is the same one that won the award for fiction. The author, Jennifer F. Estaris, is also New York based, but her story is set in an unnamed land marked by the amalgamation of first and third world cultural signifiers. As the character Jovito struggles for survival in a prison camp, he reminisces about the pull of twin youthful impulses – violence and lust.

Poems, including award finalists, fill out the bulk of the volume’s 108 pages, including a four-page preview of Jennifer-Chapis’ “The Beekeeper’s Departure,” winner of the first Backwards City Review chapbook contest.

Sheryl Monks, one of the finalists in fiction and a Winston-Salem denizen, represents for the locals with a tight, melancholy tale of cruelty, faith and black magic in “A Girl at his Show.” Monks is not the only local writer to make an appearance among those from more cosmopolitan locales.

The editors themselves are much less local than they used to be. Canavan relocated from Greensboro to Durham to pursue graduate studies at Duke, Patrick Egan moved to Brooklyn and another co-founder recently put down roots in Seattle. The internet makes communication between the organizers easier than one might think; it’s the day jobs that often get in the way of the magazine.

“It’s becoming a very time-consuming hobby,” Canavan said. “We’ve been getting lots of submissions.”

Day jobs or no, the magazine is still moving forward, faithfully printing issues in February and August. Those starved for new material between release dates can visit the website backwardscity.net for more writing and comics.

The website also provides an outlet for those who would like to do more for the future of Backwards City Review than simply dictating unfounded corollaries – a PayPal link.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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