Dead or Mad or a Poet Issue 1
Edited by S.C.L. Amis
Reviewed by Erik Amundsen
Dead or Mad or a Poet is a new Pagan-themed magazine edited by
fellow Versifier Sara Amis. Reviewing this magazine’s going to be a challenge on a few different levels, some I anticipated, and some I probably should have anticipated, but didn’t.
On one level, one I did anticipate is the Pagan part of the equation. I’m not going to waste time being obtuse about the term – I am taking Pagan to mean the artistic and spiritual milieu around Neo-Pagan beliefs and traditions, taken in general (and in their vast and idiosyncratic diversity), and where that borders on the artistic traditions that inspire a lot of it, and where that borders on the speculative. That’s a very long sentence and a very broad and messy definition, one that doesn’t answer a couple of key questions.
The first question is, for lack of a better formulation, just how Pagan are we talking? Dead or Mad or a Poet goes in with the Faery tradition, which is one of the broader and more diverse traditions that I know of, and has a lot of eclectic elements. A Pagan themed literary journal requires a different set of eyes than a Pagan journal with poetry in it. The first issue of Dead or Mad or a Poet certainly seems to be leaning more literary than religious. I’m going to take it that way, which is going to make it a lot harder on the poems within, but the fact that I can make that decision is not inconsiderable praise.
The second level, the one I should have anticipated but didn’t, is that this is the first issue of a publication. That means I have nothing but what I see to go on in terms of editorial direction, and I hadn’t realized just how much I rely upon having back issues to look at until there weren’t any there. My biggest clue where this is concerned is an epigraph “Those who dare knock on hidden doors run certain risks.” A good notion for a publication, I think, especially in its first issue: knock on hidden doors, see what’s there. A good notion, but a risky one.
So, let’s see how the risk pays off.
Our first poem is Mark Saucier’s “Invitation,” and my first thought is that there really isn’t a pressing need for this poem to be center-justified, not when no other poem in the issue is. The lines are very short, some of them a single word, but the poems that follow are not significantly longer in line, so it just seems a little incongruous and distracting. And yes, my spending two sentences just on the layout of the poem is because I really don’t want to talk about the poem itself. It’s not very good. I’m not sure where it fails for me. Actually, strike that, I’m not sure where it doesn’t fail for me; repetitive, riddled with cliché and clunky phrasing, trying to find something in this to critique is proving to be extremely frustrating.
and when you yourself make the journey
to her court –
when you ride forty days and forty nights
and walk the middle path
all the way
to the other side of yourself –
I’ve got nothing.
Elinor Prędota follows with “Weather Magic,” which is my favorite of the poems in this issue. Prędota tells the tale of someone who calls up favorable weather for the sake of her herds and her farm, and does a good job detailing how you might do such a thing, what you need in the way of inclination, action and sacrifice. It gives a sense of setting, narrative and character, and while I wish that the language was a little tighter in some places, it works. It reads well, it tells a tale, and it feels Pagan.
The next poem is “Franz Marc” by Kerry Higgins Wendt. Named after a German printmaker from the early days of the 20th century, I was happy to discover that the poem does a very good job of describing his art. Unfortunately, that’s all it does, and now that I know of the artist who inspired it, I get a much stronger experience just looking at his work. Writing poems based on visual art is a deadly, tricky business, and I don’t fault the poet for trying, but she fell into the most dangerous trap that kind of poem presents.
The poetry in this issue rounds out with Ben Roberts’ “Temperance” and Kathryn Hinds’ “Pomegranate.” Roberts gives us a conversation with the eponymous trump of the tarot, which is interesting and not far off what I take the card to represent. Unfortunately, it runs into one of the dangers of making use of repetition, where the poet uses it to undercut himself, which weakens the poem somewhat.
As for “Pomegranate,” I’ve come to take it as an article of faith that every speculative poet has to write a Persephone poem. It’s like a rite of passage, and Hinds acquits herself really well. She’s stripped it down to a moment with the fruit itself, which, I think, was a good road to take with the subject matter. Hinds has the best command of language out of the poets here, and given my previous experience of her in Goblin Fruit for Summer 2011, I am willing to follow wherever she feels like leading in mythology.
Dead or Mad or a Poet also contains a novel excerpt and an interesting essay about Yeats and Primitivism, both of which I enjoyed. It suffers more from its success than anything; as a literary journal, it has potential, but will need to develop some to reach that potential. As a Pagan cultural and spiritual magazine, it is several cuts above, and, in some ways, is a victim of its high quality, being good enough that I can judge it with the standards I bring to reviewing professional poetry venues. If it’s taking a beating, it’s because it’s good enough to fight in a high weight class, and I am optimistic about what this magazine will become.