by Megan McDowell
For readers just starting to explore what’s available in the diverse world of small press publishing, there are a number of good places to look. The Small Press Distribution catalog, for one, or their website (www.spdbooks.org); another is the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (www.clmp.org). Both of these organizations’ sites list or connect you to much of the small magazine and book publishing taking place in the United States. This review will look at two such publishing ventures worth your attention. Both Duration Press and 3rd bed give useful insight into the writing being done today both abroad (Duration) and in the United States (3rd bed).
Duration Press is notable both as a publisher of international poetry and as a website (www.durationpress.com) that provides an on-line “meeting ground” for a number of small poetry presses working in international and/or avant-garde traditions. Duration was founded in late 1997 to publish chapbooks of contemporary poetry in translation; its founder, Jerrold Shiroma, wanted to “add something different to the various discussions taking place about ‘what is experimental poetry,’ or ‘what constitutes an avant-garde’ by helping to internationalize the issue.” He cites the conventional way of looking at “avant-garde” poetry as descending from a culturally specific lineage, and thus insulated by its original language from international dialogues. Shiroma planned to disrupt this divisive view by treating translation as an integral part and extension of a work of poetry. The first chapbooks of the Duration Series of International Poetry appeared in 1999, and have since included Americans such as Rosmarie Waldrop, Julianna Spahr, and Gale Nelson, alongside international writers from countries including Mexico, France, Algeria, Romania, Japan, China, and Russia. In the meantime, Duration’s website has grown into a hub for international poetry. By providing hosting services to small publishers on its site (Shiroma designs the presses’ sites himself for a small fee), durationpress.com has become the home of a consortium of small publishers of books, chapbooks, and literary magazines, and one of the most comprehensive resources for small press poetry in the U.S.
The first version of the website was uploaded in early 1999. In 2000, Shiroma decided to put the catalogs of publishers Burning Deck and Paradigm Press on Duration’s site, a decision that came from his belief that small presses should have some kind of Internet presence “beyond the random blurb and selected title list to be found on most websites.” After that, other presses began to be included, and Shiroma decided to find a way to provide full, virtual hosting services, which seemed to him to be the best way for presses to establish and maintain their own Internet identity outside of Duration; today, he provides hosting services to well over 50 small presses, magazines, and poetry organizations.
Shiroma’s conception of Duration was influenced by the importance that poetry in translation played on his own developing reading interests, and he modeled the project on the work of other poet-editors for whom he has a “profound respect”— Jerome Rothenberg and Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop among them.
In November of 2002, Duration’s website underwent a reorganization, and it now has a new design that’s easier to navigate. In addition to the chapbook series and hosting services, Duration also puts out-of-print works of poetry into downloadable PDF format, and for the moment at least, the site is the only place to find works like “Lawn of Excluded Middle” by Rosmarie Waldrop, “Moon Bok: Petition, invocation and homage” by Michael Basinski, “Fifth Season” by Pierre Joris, and “To Speak While Dreaming” by Eleni Sikelianos.
Duration’s newest project, which Shiroma says will be a focus of his in the coming months, is an E-book series that offers free, downloadable works of poetry by primarily younger American authors. To date there are works by Patrick Durgin, Rachel Levitsky, Brian Strang, Elizabeth Treadwell, and Rick Snyder; soon to be added are works by Heather Akerberg, Taylor Brady, and Marcella Durand. Ordering and subscription information for the Duration Series of International Poetry chapbooks can also be found on the site.
3rd bed is a literary magazine started around the same time as Fence and McSweeney’s, although as editor Vincent Standley says, it “entered more like the lamb than the lion.” But the work in 3rd bed has proven consistently varied and interesting, so that the magazine has built for itself a readership and an identity as a publisher of new, often first-time writers whose aesthetics fall in the category Standley calls “writing against realism.” While 3rd bed remains relatively low-profile compared to the two magazines mentioned above, it’s nonetheless become a destination for younger writers (and some not-so-young), and readers interested in unconventional writing. 3rd bed’s fiction, in particular, is regularly good, and distinguishes it from comparable magazines.
Like many young journals, 3rd bed was conceived in reaction to something—in this case, to what the editors saw as a lack of openness in more established literary magazines. Standley cites Conjunctions and Grand Street as journals he admired and emulated, but because both publications have been around for years and developed a stable of writers, he didn’t see them as approachable. 3rd bed was started “to create a journal we’d like to see our own work in” and that would feature largely unestablished writers.
Despite its openness to new work, 3rd bed clearly has developed an aesthetic; the type of work that it publishes tends to blend the strange and surreal with more traditional narrative forms. In general, the pieces demonstrate an awareness of the traditions they are building on, and with echoes of everything from fairy tales to postmodern art, it’s no wonder the images are often startling. The work does not stray too far in the direction of either the absurd or the conventional, and the result is a kind of thoughtful madness, an informed inventiveness. Take for instance the first paragraph of a piece in issue #5 called “Widdershins” by Bryson Newhart:
There was a time when my internal language was muddy. It was hardening into walls that I needed to attack and break down. To the accompaniment of flute music, I got busy with tonics and sumac. One morning I rigged a strappado device that was to be operated by a team of kittens. It was a contraption designed to break my own arms. It was surprisingly effective!
The story goes on to tell of the masochistic narrator losing his job for exposing himself to his colleagues, and searching for Irene, the world’s tallest dwarf. This story, like many in 3rd bed, seems to have an explicit intent—to break down the hardened internal walls of language—that it addresses through the absurd.
Not all of the writers in 3rd bed are newcomers; a few of the more familiar contributers include Michael Martone, Robert Coover, Stacy Levine, and Brian Evenson. Issue #7, which has recently been released, includes work by Diane Williams and Christine Hume. It seems the magazine is in the process of exploring and defining its artistic mission, and will perhaps someday have its own stable of writers; but thus far at least it has maintained its openness to new work, and has published writing that is consistently good and interesting.
As for Standley’s plans for 3rd bed’s future, he says, “I would like to see how eclectic the journal can become, while still remaining recognizable and relevant.” Like a number of literary magazines these days (all, it seems), 3rd bed has also recently initiated a book publishing project, with the publication of Gary Lutz’s Stories in the Worst Way. It maintains a website (www.3rdbed.com) that includes ordering information, content from the print magazine, and a hypermedia gallery where many of the pieces are visual extensions of works in the journal.