December 21st, 2010 / 2:00 pm
Literary Magazine Club

{LMC}: Considering The Collagist as Collage

I decided to take a look at The Collagist as a whole—or, rather, a whole created by the sum of its parts, the magazine as collage that lives so smartly up to its name.  It’s true that perhaps any literary magazine could be considered a sort of collage, as it layers story and poem and visual and sometimes sound to produce a bigger picture. And yet not many literary magazines choose their pieces with the consideration a collagist uses to cut out his shapes, to determine the colors of the paints she’ll layer. The Collagist is one of my favorite literary magazines because the choosing is intentional, is meticulous, is precise. The chosen few pieces generate an intentionally tight edit. The name of the magazine, I’d guess, was not chosen on a whim, but as a sort of statement of purpose. The Collagist’s contents are widely varied in style and substance but are not random; like the best collagists, I believe editor Matt Bell uses every story, every review, every poem and excerpt and reprint and even the bios as a layer to build, to create something greater than the pieces themselves. The magazine as the work of art.

Many of my favorite artists worked with collage at some point. Georges Braque, Robert Motherwell, Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Nevelson, Marcel Duchamp—they all created work that was layered, that intensified as it grew and spread and collected and fragmented and shifted meaning from piece to piece and space to space. With wood, with paint, with newspaper, with found objects, with paper, with photos—and in the case of The Collagist, with words. Like collage artworks, each issue of The Collagist seems to swell and grow, the consequence of addition. The thread running through is not a theme per se, but a meaning you build yourself. A customizable puzzle. Deliberate yet obscure, fuzzy as close-up pixels in its larger clarity.

I like puzzles. I like detective work, mystery stories, solving for x. So I decided to try my hand at building a meaning from the current issue. And what I built was, by coincidence or maybe not, an echo of the method itself: the December issue, when layered together and pasted with patience and fortitude (and a little bit of stretchy stuff like rubber cement balled together) is a larger picture of the need for collage in solving for the x of humanity.

What makes us people? Add up the missing pieces, cut pinwheels from long lives, paste newspaper print into shorter ones, swap this nose for that one and paint the whole thing red and herehere is what being people really means. It’s not an easy solving. You have to do the thing where you sort of slide your eyes sideways and pretend to not be looking while your vision catches the meaning for just a second. You can’t quite swear you saw it. You can’t quite find it again. But you saw it anyway, like the ship in the Magic Eye picture.

This is my own meaning, my own collage built out of The Collagist. So you may think I’m full of shit, and fair enough. Go and make your own meaning. You should. But here’s mine. Susan McCarty’s wonderful story is itself a collage piece, layering an emerging story through fragments and objects and blood alcohol levels.  Brian Kubarycz’s “Landolfi’s Skin” is a story of parts—of skin and blood and bone and tissue and how to replace what’s missing. Mike Young’s great story decomposes into pieces of a life, leftovers, and how what goes in must come back out. “The Way of the Rider” by Jarrett Haley grabs at and refashions a piece of the past that never quite was,  an elegant half-truth to finish our history.

The Monkey House by Rachel Yoder is a nonfiction piece, but not so straight forward as it first appears. It becomes a sort of story with holes, a story that needs its missing pieces found and filled in. And the poetry continues the building, the layering. Keith Montesano’s gorgeous “Stargazing” left me filled with regret for the missing, for our own fears and our relief that we are not they. It made me think of all the lives missing this year, all the pieces we’ll never see or touch or taste again. Language and blood hidden forever. “Oracion por Tim Cook” by Justin Bigos gave a whooping and hollering picture of a short life lived loud, reminding us we can miss the snakes along with the angels. The life in Bigos’ poem is so large the pieces seem to bleed over, to help with the dark holes left by the missing in the first poem.  By contrast, Bruce Cohen’s poem has his narrator and companion discussing the relative emptiness of their lives, hollow and without accomplishment. This piece of the collage is a negative, a blackness to pull down the bigness of humanity into something more mundane–but more honest, perhaps. Finally, Jenny George’s poems are about pigs rather than people, but of course pigs on their way to the slaughterhouse, which says just as much about us, about pigs in the wild, the absence of people—says all kinds of things about people in the way we have always connected ourselves with swine. In description, in literature, in insults, in compassion—pigs in metaphor are nearly always us and what about us is missing that we need to substitute pigs? What does the last layer that is not quite human help us to understand about human beings?

Even the reviews and excerpts in the magazine are never just incidentals or add-ons.They’re out front and center, parts of the whole as well. Often, for instance in the November Issue, Matt Bell includes a reprint of a classic story. Amy Hempel was featured in November: a breath-holding good story introduced in a celebratory way by Blake Butler. These pieces contribute to the thread. They paper over and under the parts as well. They are the sticks and twigs that fill in the gaps in the middles and sides. They are the fibers that anchor the weaving, that help make order of the chaos and build the foundations of trust.

None of us lives a totally full life. None of us lives all lives. We are all of us missing; we are all pieces and parts knocking around and trying to come together. The December issue of The Collagist seems to me a story by story, poem by poem, piece by piece way of knitting tight that together path, of constructing a new sky with a new set of constellations to interpret for a broader kind of humanity. A past and future woven together with story and word and what’s missing, as much as what remains.

Read it and draw your own conclusions. Build your own solution to the mystery of the collage. Put your faith in a name.

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  1. My Post on The Collagist as Collage at HTMLGiant « Amber Sparks

      […] go over there and read it, if you’re a fan of The Collagist, and maybe also comment if you feel so […]

  2. Jimbo Chen

      Matt Bell wouldn’t know a collage if Robert Rauschenberg glued a picture of JFK onto his forehead…twice.

  3. Jimbo Chen

      Matt Bell wouldn’t know a collage if Robert Rauschenberg glued a picture of JFK onto his forehead…twice.

  4. Mike Meginnis

      I like this. I think it’s worth noting the importance to The Collagist of the relatively small number of pieces published per month therein, which means that you can actually legitimately read the whole thing together if you want, which makes it feel (to me) more deliberately arranged and like more of a unified thing, or, as you say, more of a collage.

  5. Sean

      Sure, it has the term as its name, but I’m not sure its that much more “collage-like” than many other online magazines. I wonder about meticulously playing one piece off another–would that be after all pieces are accepted? Or would that go into the editing while reading?–I need this one piece to complete the collage. I don’t know.

      I would think you could create a collage out of many online mags. Like the current elimae. yes, it has 30 texts (compared to Collagist 18) but, in actual word-length, the same or less content. In fact, this might argue even more for elimae, more color swatches/images to bounce off one another.

      What I like about Collagist is its simplicity to read, the clean font, the navigation. And obviously the quality.

  6. Jimbo Chen

      Matt Bell wouldn’t know a collage if Robert Rauschenberg glued a picture of JFK onto his forehead…twice.

  7. Amber

      Yeah, I’m not sure about the actual intention behind what’s published–definitely that’s not for me to say. I just liked playing the game that the name suggested could be played. It was kind of fun–and as Mike suggests, could be made easier by the small number of pieces.

      But it could also be interesting to do this with elimae, definitely, or a few others I can think of as well. Diagram, for instance. Smaller shorter pieces layered might prove really interesting and revealing as well.

      And yeah, the quality above all is the best thing about the Collagist, no question.