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CalArts launches L.A.'s newest, nonconformist literary magazine

At times it seems that for every reader, there is born a literary magazine. There are venerated old guards such as Harper’s and  the  New Yorker, established university journals including Prairie Schooner and Agni, and scores of online-only upstarts with names like Animal and  the Boiler. But with the sheer volume of literary magazines perpetually pushing past overload, and with, happily, no end to the new stories, essays and poetry being published in sight, how does anyone decide what to actually read?

One approach: start local.

This February CalArts launched Sublevel, a literary magazine at “the nexus of literature, poetics, art, criticism, philosophy, culture and politics” that deliberately shirks the separation of high and low. Co-edited by Los Angeles writer and editor Janice Lee and 2016 MacArthur Fellow Maggie Nelson, Sublevel makes “no hard distinctions between creative and critical enterprise” and bills itself as “immersed in the world of art without being in service to it.” An insider-outsider perspective always appeals, holding the tantalizing promise that, as artists and critics, the bylines of Sublevel won’t be afraid to roil, push back and disagree. Its inaugural theme? “Contagion."

Visually graphic and well-designed (it is, after all, a CalArts publication), Sublevel has eight recurring features including Session, “a roundtable discussion bringing people from different fields into conversation,” and Exhibit, “a representation of a project that may or may not have taken verbal form.” This issue’s strongest work, however, appears in essay form and stands squarely in the present moment. (With one exception: a short, stream-of-consciousness piece written by Hilton Als in 2013, “Butt” takes as its subject the “magazine for homosexuals” of the same name and moseys through asides on the flatness of Mia Farrow’s behind as well as the choreography of Merce Cunningham.)

Sublevel, Nelson explains in the news release, “fills a certain void in the literary world … we treat writing as an art among the other arts, and we are concerned with both aesthetics and politics.” 

The standouts:

Caldera” by Aisha Sabatini Sloan

One of the functions of literary magazines is that they introduce readers to emerging writers. Thanks to Sublevel, I’ve added Sabatini Sloan’s latest and forthcoming essay collection “Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit,” which was selected by Maggie Nelson as the winner of the 1913 Open Prose Book Contest, to my list for 2017.

In this essay, the author hears gunfire while on a solo hike during an Oregon writing residency. “My mind flashed to the character in the narrative of Frederick Douglass,” she writes, “who runs into a creek to escape a lashing and somebody takes out a musket and ‘in an instant poor Demby was no more.’” After coming upon the hunter and his family — “the younger two generations … men in their thirties and boys under ten, would not make eye contact with me” — Sabatini Sloan listens to Beyoncè’s “Daddy Lessons” in her cabin. Her prose is straight-forward and affecting. “As I listened I realized that I had no idea what her daddy meant when he said ‘shoot.’”

Some Notes on a Fall in Los Angeles” by Litia Perta

“It is the Sunday after the election and I am at a yoga class in Hollywood.” It took me a moment to push past my own mingled shame and cynicism when I read that phrase — it’s close to cliché, the kind of thing I might actually do but never tell a New Yorker — and yet Sublevel favors work that deals in uneasy and revealing proximity.

A meditation, in part, on becoming a mother at the dawn of frightening political era, the depth of UC Irvine professor Perta’s work sneaks up on you. “We all begin as the other within,” she says of her unborn child. Structured with an elegant symmetry, the essay moves from the discomfort of being openly observed while in a yoga class (a place of ultimate privilege) to chanting “we see you” during a post-election protest outside of L.A.’s federal prison (a place stripped of privilege).

10 Things Simone White Recommends Right Now” by Simone White

Like Anne Friedman, the editors of Sublevel know the power of a newsletter, a round-up, a well-curated list. Program Director at the Poetry Project, White’s recommendations are wide-ranging and eclectic — Vince Staples and Michel Focault both make the cut — and it is refreshing to see not only hip-hop and critical theory given space in a literary magazine but to be given actual links.

White also provides a recording of Anne Waldman reading her poem “Fast Speaking Woman.” A rallying cry that, for my money, wipes the floor with the sentiment behind Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” in “Song of Myself,” the poem gains vigor and heft when spoken, what White calls “a model in sound and intensity.” Fortifying listening for fans of Elizabeth Warren, there is something about Waldman’s unspooling performance that persists.

Sublevel is worth reading in its entirety. I have high hopes that it will fulfill its ambition of “stretching beyond our locality,” but because of their sheer proliferation, literary journals need traction to reach past their immediate communities, and without a wide readership they don’t always stick.

agatha.french@latimes.com

@agathafrenchy

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