The Power of Transgressing the Confines: A Review of Matchbook Vol. 4 from Small Fires Pressby
Matchbook Vol. 4 (Small Fires Press, 2017)
Guest edited by Jessica Elsaesser
Especially for poets, communicating ideas on the page often becomes the work of compression—beginning with multitudes of disparate yet interconnected images, and then paring them down to their essential elements. Typically, this process takes place on the blank field of an 8.5″ x 11” sheet of paper or its digital equivalent, but not always. Even a small shift in format can alter a poem’s structure and rhythm—composing in a small notebook or a phone, for example, will often produce poems with much shorter lines, less similar to the natural cadence of speech. At the very least, it will likely create visually fragmented phrases that naturally force the reader to break up the poem’s meaning into smaller units. The nuance and shades of emphasis that result from this can help form the “mystical” aspect of a poem—the indescribable something that moves us as readers, even though we don’t know why.
What would happen if this logic were taken to its extreme? Ciara Shuttlesworth’s micro-sestina comes to mind—a sprawling, intricately difficult form that she manages to reduce to a single word per line. It begins:
to . . .
to . . .
well . . .
What if there were a publication structured for just this sort of work? There is, and it’s published right here in New Orleans by Small Fires Press. Matchbook is a Lilliputian literary magazine bound into vintage matchbooks, publishing diminutive fiction and illustrations, in addition to poetry. Matchbook Vol. 4 is hot off the presses, literally—the art was rendered in a 6-color letterpress print by Small Fires Press founder Friedrich Kerksieck, and the text was printed by Joseph Makkos at CODEX Studio on St. Claude. When describing the genesis and inspiration for the magazine, the concept of ignition comes readily to mind—Kerksieck stayed up late binding books with strange materials, after seeing an exhibit and lecture by legendary book artist and publisher of Perishable Press, Walter Hamady. After inquiring how to go about creating a new book project, Hamady exhorted him to, “Just start.” Kersieck bound his first matchbook-book that very same night.
Each issue of Matchbook is guest-edited—Jessica Elsaesser chose the works for Vol. 4, a Brooklyn-based poet and book-artist who co-founded Wrecked Tangle Press. One of her many projects involved repurposing an old cigarette-vending machine to sell ‘loosies’—tiny letterpressed poems rolled up like cigarettes. (For anyone interested in the genesis of poetry-vending machines, Marc Awodey’s 95 Theses on Art & Machine is a must-read, and you can check out an interview with the Wrecked Tangle Press founders here).
Each copy in Matchbook’s edition of 500 is a unique objet d’art—mine comes in a royal-blue book bidding me to “Enjoy Life with SWEET LIFE Quality FOODS,” and also to keep the cover closed for safety. The matches have been removed, and in their place are a series of incendiary poems, restricted by a limit of 22 characters per line, maximum. The texts are punctuated by illustrations and comics by New Orlean’s own Caesar Meadows, of Krewe of ‘Tit Rex fame, who edits comics for Antigravity and FEAST—as well as Sophie Lucido Johnson, author of the forthcoming illustrated memoir Many Love, who is now based in Chicago.
The opening poem by Kristen Case immediately subverts the imposed 22-character limit, creating an intense, fragmentary sensation by refusing to break lines and stranding single letters and parts of words at the ends of lines as a result. Her deliberate style of fugue-like repetition heightens this effect, and also renders the poem more readable. What begins as a mysterious challenge to sense-making, resolves in the last three stanzas into a powerful opening salvo, almost a manifesto for the personal agency that can be found in brevity and “otherness of form”—
a burning woman say
s I am burning a
burning woman is he
r own meaning means
what she says what
she means is a bur
O small implements
o brief articulati
ons render me enoug
h for grammatical u
tterance render me
dislodge my name my
body my vacancy my
form my voice my lig
ht make with t
his counting some o
therness of form or
The range of the work included in Matchbook Vol. 4 is impressive—Kristen Case’s defiant, language-y opener leads into the more direct images of Patton Halliday Quinn’s ‘Transient’: I met a girl whod/smoke PCP and/urinated atop a/street fire. ‘Transient’ unfurls as a brief but carnivalesque rhapsody populated by ‘vagabonds,’ ‘raucous buffoons’ and ‘sinister gypsies’—a style that is echoed here and there throughout the issue. In John Kane’s ‘Phantom Junky,’ for example, the speaker describes the eponymous character by writing, he sits in my ear/whispers things like/you got the keys to the shop/take all the tools/and sell em. You won’t find any quaint or precious odes to pastoral beauty here, no plodding narrative poems of domestic memory. Small presses have always been the vanguard of more innovative, challenging work, and it is exciting to see such a tiny magazine packing the punch of a publication ten (or fifty) times its size. Even the more ‘conventional’ poems, like Andrew S. Nicholson’s ‘When Jeanne d’Arc,’ employ a palette of fresh language dripping with apocalyptic dread, a vision of house fires that ends, Ash me free. I am/silent and untremble.
One of the most striking poems in the issue is Alex Patrick Dyck’s ‘Everlasting Pea,’ where the speaker announces at the beginning of the poem, I sit at the table/bare beneath my Tartan/skirt/My fur is/dirty with your cum. This is not the typical fare of academic journals, and the power of transgressing the confines of ‘polite’ poetry becomes more apparent as the poem unfolds, juxtaposing (and redefining) the sacred and profane along the way. Aggressively fragile/The pierced clit/of an orchid bloom, she writes. Wildflowers on/the dashboard. Comprised of provocative yet fragmentary images, the poem dares us to attach a specific narrative to its world, where we can’t be certain if what’s taking place is violence or pleasure, or perhaps both—leading up to an italicized shift to direct address in the last line, the tender question, Wilt thou go with me?
But not everything in the magazine is experimental. The issue concludes with Karolina Pawlik and Miho Kinnas’ collaborative Renku, (the ancient Japanese comic form which eventually evolved into the traditional haiku) where multiple poets alternate verses. Knocked the moon/with a bamboo pole/I made you look it jibes, and then zig-zags through irreverent and deliciously modern images. I downloaded/the moon—/a cat on the roof comes on the heels of Discarded/clipped nail/parenthesis closed. The issue itself comes to a close with the appropriate, and touching, lines, A quiet parting/not followed/by a poem.
Matchbook is currently available for $6.oo (or $14.oo for a 3-pack) at www.smallfirespress.com, as well as The Stacks Bookstore at the CAC, the New Orleans Food Co-op, and the Rubber Library and Flower Bodega—as well as Berl’s Poetry Shop in Brooklyn, the Minnesota Center for the Book, and Burke’s Bookshop, in Memphis.
There will be a release party for Matchbook Vol. 4 at the Blood Jet Poetry Series on Wednesday, February 21, 8pm, at BJ’s Lounge, 4301 Burgundy St, with Michael Jeffrey Lee, Elizabeth Gross, Isabelle Whitman, and Andrew Nicholson performing.
Submissions for Matchbook Vol. 5 are currently open. The next issue will be guest edited by Michael Jeffrey Lee, author of the story collection Something in My Eye (Sarabande Books), and associate fiction editor of New Orleans Review.
BENJAMIN ALESHIRE is a writer and artist based in New Orleans. His work has appeared recently or will soon in Iowa Review, Boston Review, El Mundo, in Spain, and in NEON Magazin, in Germany. He serves as assistant poetry editor for the Green Mountains Review, and is the founding publisher of Honeybee Press, a letterpress book arts cooperative based in Burlington, VT. You can commission him at www.poetforhire.org.