Backwards City Review
Volume 3, Number 1
The Greensboro Review
In sports, the major and minor leagues are distinguished by the skill of the players, but the game is the same at both levels. It’s tempting to extend this construct to poetry, with traditional poets as the pros and experimental poets as the farm team. But the most cursory survey of modern poetry renders the metaphor specious, as it becomes clear that mainstream and underground poets are playing completely different games.
The traditional poets publish in university quarterlies if they can’t get into Ploughshares. They often have advanced degrees and regard poetry as a set of laws to be tested and reinterpreted. The experimental poets publish in online journals if they’re too weird for Fence. Some are credentialed, others aren’t; they regard poetry as an anarchic space on the fringes of language and culture. Imagine a basketball minor league where players dribble with their heads and you’ll be getting closer to the truth.
Both of these Greensboro-based literary journals lean toward the mainstream end of the spectrum: The Greensboro Review is explicitly linked to University of North Carolina-Greensboro’s creative writing program. Maverick publication Backwards City Review was founded in 2004 by five graduates of that same program, and its bio section brims with scholarly achievements.
If literary journals comprise a dialogue, one might bemoan a circumstance in which two publications speak in similar tones while the avant-garde languishes in silence. But invisibility is the avant-garde’s natural state, and poetry is infinitely graded. These two journals open a dialogue between two different styles of mainstream poetics, and both, in their unique way, are great reads.
Backwards City Review, along with the usual stories and poems, includes comics, as befits its informal style. The comics traffic in the sort of existential absurdity popularized by David Rees’s Get Your War On, and they often wind up stealing the show. In a Robert Sergel comic titled “The Saddest Day,” a solitary man rides a bicycle built for two.
The overstated resonance of the image doesn’t translate as well to verse, and the poems in BCR are often so overt that it seems like not enough time was spent working the message into the folds of the medium. But for casual or non-readers of poetry, this directness might be a boon, and accessibility resolves as an important facet of BCR‘s poetic ideology.
The stories have the same casual tone. They’re often based on absurd premises and rendered in chatty prose. The uproarious wit of George Singleton’s “Shooting Republicans” alone justifies the cover price. In fine, BCR has its finger on the pulse of an emergent breed of young Southern writer: one beholden to James Tate and Richard Brautigan, humble and clever, politically sophisticated yet historically nostalgic, and intent on palpating a vanishing Southern mythology through this conflicted lens.
The Greensboro Review‘s austere presentation, meanwhile, announces it as a voice of Serious Literature. This format has its ups and downs: GR lacks BCR‘s quirkiness and strong regional identity, since MFA writing workshops are more conducive to traditional polish than unique voice or specificity. While the writing is consistently exquisite, it’s weirdly univocal: If the poems and stories weren’t credited, one might wonder if they were all penned by the same author.
On the upside, the writing here is technically superior to that in BCR. The poems divulge their payloads gradually, with polished concision, and avoid the clumsy didacticism that sometimes infiltrates the poems in BCR. And the stories, with their inveterate realism and laconic, magisterial tone, are finely wrought, never failing to draw the reader into their tiny yet complete worlds.
This is to say that between these two journals, readers of literature in Greensborowhether they favor the elite culture of fine writing or the populist culture of idiosyncratic writinghave nothing to complain about. As for readers of truly experimental writing … well, there’s always the Internet.