Books

Too Many MFAs Spoil the Zine

Niqui Carter's "A Train to Far Rockaway" (all photos of the artwork by the author)

Birdsong, the local Williamsburg zine now in its 15th issue, is a blend of short stories, poems, drawings, collages and photographs: it is primarily a literary magazine that features artwork woven between each written piece. Birdsong’s appeal can be summed up nicely by the resumes of the artists and writers who contribute to it:

Cat Glennon makes books and drawings and bangles and t-shirts and delicious snacks, Megan McHugh recently purchased a soda stream machine so she can have soda water ad infinitum, Joey Parlett makes several different flavors of popcorn as well as drawings, Geoffrey Jason Kagan Trenchard writes stuff and says things.

Birdsong #15: Turn

The combination of so many MFAs with so many tongue-in-cheek personas makes the zine a collection of unique personalities trying to produce authentic work. Though the magazine appears to be trying a bit too hard to sell its lack of ownership, authority and branding, it’s refreshing for exactly those reasons. Like the contributors themselves, the work itself is playful and engaging, raw and uneven.

The 15th issue titled “Turn” — “to cause to move around; to reverse the position or placement of; to render or make some change” — has five contributing artists whose artwork covers the playful and engaging spectrum of the issue.

From the forlorn, gauche landscapes of Julia Norton, that describe “no place in particular,” to the bizarre, cigarette ridden collages of Cat Glennon, the pieces have a narrative all their own. Four photographs by Niqui Carter, woven throughout the issue and taken from her urban series titled Postcards, establish on the very first page that Birdsong’s artwork is not illustrations for the text, but rather artworks by individuals. Much of the artwork captures the feeling of being a scribble, doodle, or the type of illustration you might find in the margins of a writer’s notebook.

The black, white and gray contour drawings of Danny Coeyman, are portraits of everyday people described through shaky lines, layered atop one another. Joey Parlett, in a series of cartoonish and childlike drawings fitted with humorous descriptive text, exemplifies the style of art that is expected to work well alongside words. I appreciate the overall quality of the artwork, but wish it were less obligated to match the text. Like the writing featured in Birdsong, the artwork should also be free to push the boundaries of each issue’s topic.

Cat Glennon's "Existential Queries Require Cigarettes"

The writing in “Turn,” seemingly much weaker than the artwork of the same issue, with too many vague and obtuse stories full of lines like, “the static cling fabrics of our lives,” is still appealing because it is raw, honest and (at best) unpretentious. Leaning heavily toward the personal and self-referential, a few poetic short stories and meandering poems succeed in becoming endearingly universal. In the delicate poem “For Want,” Nikki Burst captures the everyday nuances couples experience with each other though passages like, “if then you give me that, I will undress for you this, let’s not exchange terms, although my vocabulary is breeding.”

Joey Parlett's "Lil Rascal" (click to enlarge)

Invisible Man, by Pedro Ponce, is a wonderful short narrative that perfectly captures a child’s imagination, completely unhindered by reality. Dreaming of a cereal box ring designed to make a child invisible — “the marsupial on the cereal box promised invisibility” — Ponce describes a little boy’s ability to escape his parents, the dinner table, and a stifling home to become truly invisible outdoors. The uneven nature of the writing, however, does not work well for the magazine as a whole. Though the few stand out pieces capture the unique nature of the magazine, the majority of the writing forces you into remembering the long, dreary days of art school rhetoric, where creative writing meant learning to be confusing and difficult.

Independent magazines, like pop-up galleries, collectives, and other alternatives to the creative world’s exclusionary mainstream outlets, serve the necessary purpose of giving a voice to those writers and artists who haven’t yet found another outlet, or who don’t wish to. Zines like Birdsong are usually the product of the young, and are read mostly by their peers; they are produced for the few. Like the free copy of One Story handed out at my subway stop in Brooklyn, or the Yes Men’s New York Times I chanced across on a winter morning, the surprise and power of finding an unexpected gem of effort is priceless and powerful. It’s a fantasy to think that art can be practically shared in such a way as Birdsong promotes, to imagine that small presses and unheard voices can change the cacophony of the overheard and over-promoted, but sometimes, every once in a while, that is the reality.

Birdsong‘s Turn is available at independent bookstores and on their website.

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