Phoebe Issue 51.1 Takes Flight

Timothy Johnson

Phoebe 51.1 is ready to read. It’s soaring through the air (and perhaps trans-continental fiber optic cables, a reference you’ll get if you read the issue) to your computer, tablet, or phone screens. The print edition is also on its way to contributors and those of you who purchased them (thank you; also, if you’re so inclined, you can purchase the print edition of 51.1 here).

As a reader, nothing drives me more than emotional tenor. For me, the true test of great literature is that it goes beyond the reader’s intellect, funnels down their spine, crashes into their heart, and burrows into the pit of the their stomach. Such a comprehensive effect on a human being is exceeded by perhaps one other thing: lived experience. I think phoebe 51.1 builds a bridge rarely seen in literature, and we did it totally by accident. As I said in a conversation with one of our contributors, it’s like we threw a bunch of puzzle pieces into the air and they came down assembled.

This issue begins with a gorgeous cover by artist Zev Labinger, which for us is a meaningful throwback to phoebe’s history in style and content. The acrylic painting evokes the covers of a decade or so ago, and the mischievous little guy, Mr. Fox, makes his return after we last saw him on issue 47.1 in Fall 2017. Titled “Nocturne and Fox,” the cover’s focal point is the warmth of the city lights on the horizon. Sometimes the simplest things carry the most weight, and part of why I think this piece works as this issue’s cover is because of the context in which we’re publishing this issue. 

We here at phoebe haven’t talked much publicly about the time we’re living through, because we believe in art’s ability to speak to and through any particular historical context and provide hope (there’s that emotional tenor again). Still, as we enter the third year of life in a global pandemic, our circumstances demand some sort of response.

I spoke with our cover artist, Zev Labinger, via Zoom, and I asked him about “Nocturne and Fox.” To my surprise, he began his response by talking about Covid-19 and the pandemic. He said because he was staying home much more in his Israeli village, he’d taken to walks at night, and the lights from the neighboring town (represented here in his piece) always inspired hope in him. Keep your eye on the blog for more of my conversation with Labinger soon.

When I look at this issue of phoebe, I see something similar to Labinger’s observation of the distant city lights, a confluence of content and context, an ebb and flow of almost burdensome despair that carries the reader into the light through playfulness. 

Our genre editors have each written about how they see content and context converging in this issue. 

Fiction Editor Kevin Binder and Assistant Fiction Editor Bareerah Ghani write, “One fascinating quality our fiction selections share in this issue is their exploration of the everyday through the uncanny, bizarre, or absurd. In ‘The Mother Compact,’ we found this in the way motherhood has been rendered in its chaotic authenticity, alongside the quiet tension of its surreal plot and the beauty of its language. For ‘Severance,’ it lay within the insight and depth that bubbled just beneath its absurdist humor, in a story that says so much about our society without a single human ever coming onto the page. What we loved about ‘Some Assembly Required’ was the insular space its quasi-speculative premise created for the exploration of a relationship, as well as the depth of its narrative within its loose structure and sharp prose. And when reading ‘Insecticide,’ we loved what its gut-wrenching scenes of small cruelties (some intentional, some accidental) reveal about the protagonist’s childhood across all the story’s loosely stitched scenes. Though it certainly wasn’t our intention to ‘theme’ the issue, this common thread speaks so much to the quality of these works, that their authors succeed in weaving stories so unique, so individual, and yet so universal at the same time.”

In nonfiction, the selections made for issue 51.1 provide an opportunity for journey and discovery despite the current global sense of lockdown. “All reading is an act of travel,” Nonfiction Editor Lena Crown and Assistant Nonfiction Editor Emilie Knudsen write, “And we are so grateful to have accompanied this issue’s writers on four distinct journeys. In ‘The City That Never Freezes,’ Kim Drew Wright seeks sustenance in mile-long drive-thru lines and in a sister’s love during the 2020 Texas power crisis. In ‘The Space Between,’ Michael Hahn pursues a new bridge between ‘Korean’ and ‘American’ after the abolition of one influential hyphen. In “Your Father’s Body,” Katie Bannon reconstructs a harrowing memory with her father, posing implicit questions about cruelty, love, memory, and inheritance. And in ‘An Unnatural History,’ Heidi Schulz moves through the museum of her childhood and adolescence, looking for herself. It is one of our quiet hopes that our nonfiction section will represent the vastness and diversity of the genre. The powerful work in 51.1 reminds us that the essay is not a form but a mode, one that opens us up to a whole constellation of possible approaches and structures and relationships to the truth. These pieces are narrative, argumentative, speculative, researched, wandering, expansive, and concise. They are incisive and empathetic and humble in the face of the unknown. The act of seeking comes alive on the page—in their examination of family, body, culture, language, politics, and place, they remind us as human beings to pay closer attention, to question and listen and question again.” 

And then there are the poems. As the issue represents an evolution or passage of time, the poetry section investigates transformation of the self. Poetry Editor Christian Stanzione and Assistant Poetry Editor Lloyd Wallace write, “‘To imagine the line, picture a knife,’ writes Aimee Wright Clow in ‘Stilts.’ This, to us, sums up the collection of poems in this issue of phoebe. The line is the border between the lyric and the narrative: narrative because of the act of the inner machinations of these poems center on the speakers’ movement through time, lyrical because these are all poems of self-revelation. Be it watching dog and birds, or riding an elevator into the only farm in Manhattan, these are poems where the speaker, literally or analogically, looks into their narrative and feels a new self taking the place of the old one. Like in real life, time and body are at odds; unlike real life, we can, thankfully, revisit these poems in their fullness again and again.”

And so, from the playful to the horrifying, from the formally and artistically clever and creative to the more traditional, Issue 51.1 brings us that ebb and flow of emotion, imagery, and contemplation that point to just how much this issue, especially, has come together with a deeper sense of purpose. I see this pattern in our art galleries, as well. Cecilia Prandi’s “Estructuras Insoportables” takes us from cool to warm. Ren Elizabeth’s weighty “Pleated Gentian” is counterbalanced by the light and airy “Pacific Trillium.” Camilla Taylor’s tortured “The Comfort of a Story Repeated” leads to the quiet, serene scene in “Reflection.”

I wish I could say we at phoebe intended all of this, but our humble ambition was merely to collect and showcase noteworthy literary and visual art. I think it is fair to say we succeeded. It is a joy to discover that, in the process of collecting and curating, we have produced something definitively more significant—the sum greater than its parts.

We begin this issue with one of the most emotionally complex and devastating stories I think I have ever read in “The Mother Compact” by Blair Hurley, and we close, quite literally, with “Pleasure,” by Kira K. Homsher, but the sentiment in that closing is far deeper and more self-referential than may be at first apparent to the casual reader. In carefully assembling this collection of creative works, we, too, have been reminded of the power of the simple things, especially in the face of our current time. Is there anything better than a moment of serendipitous joy? A surprise convergence of form and meaning, of content and context, with the power to speak both to and beyond circumstance? We don’t think so, and we welcome you to read this issue and find out whether you agree.

Thank you to all who have contributed to this issue. I hope you see it as I do: a special entry in the collective body of literature, and I hope you see you as I do: an important part of the literary community.

Timothy Johnson

is editor-in-chief for phoebe and an MFA candidate at George Mason University’s creative writing program. His writing has been published by Gamut, Crystal Lake Publishing, Deracine Magazine, and Inked in Gray Press. He lives and writes from outside Washington, D.C. Tweet at him @tim_the_writer. He will be delighted.

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