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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Review: Literary Critical Mass 12


The thing about literature is that the writer does half the work. It’s like building a screen, and then a reader comes and projects on it. Or making a vessel, and then a reader fills it up. It is one act of vulnerability for the writer to make the work and another to let the reader encounter and complete it. It is fundamentally partial and collaborative.

For Critical Mass 12, writers submitted work that had already been published, and others later confided that this was the first time anyone else had ever read these words. If this year’s literary arts submissions represent a kind of collective portrait, a snapshot of regional writing at this moment, let me witness with you what all that vulnerability has wrought.

Its scope was intense and massive: pain, trauma, struggle, distress, exhaustion, longing, ache and recovery. Writer after writer was confronting the overwhelming – mental illness, abuse, grief, erasure. The stakes couldn’t be higher: How do we hold on to our truths? How do we survive at all?

Within this urgency, all its rawness and sweeping language, there was also formal experimentation, and writers who had otherwise taken control found a way to look like they were having fun even when confronting the “depths of depravity” or lamenting the “uncertainty, anxiety, hopelessness, doubt” of our age of disconnect. There was time-travel self-help, a juicy noir-esque mystery, and even a poetic form the poet christened as “bloops.”

My literary instinct was to start sequencing an anthology or to pull these three writers and those five others into writing collectives because, obviously, there were conversations that needed to be had, some solace, unity or common ground that could be found.

Then, as I met these writers and dug into their portfolios, I was impressed by how many were established in other media and were now looking to incorporate or foreground or focus on the writing component. There is such rich potential in text, image and performance. It’s a kind of artistic openness I expect will bear fruit individually, but once again, I was asking how these fellow travelers could come to cross paths.

Sometimes intersection happens on the page itself. Sometimes, all you can do is try to keep picking up the pieces until they amount to something. This year’s literary Critic’s Choice, Callie Dean’s essay “The Improbability of Fossils,” patiently assembles fragments. A collage of memory and bedtime stories, news articles and picture books, the essay holds space for what it might mean to hope in the midst of crises stacking up like strata.

The essay delivers delicious, specific truths, such as “one in every billion bones becomes a fossil” and “it turns out extreme heat and drought can turn a cucumber orange.” For all the failures it witnesses, both personal and systemic, the essay persists in paying attention, in trying again and in noticing all that we stand to lose. It admits to the seduction of certainty, even as it is forced to give it up.

Trying on lens after lens, the essay is dogged, honestly does what it can, and commits to the gravity of what it has taken on. I think it deserves the last words here:

“In the midst of it all, I write: poems, paragraphs and stories, in short, scattered bursts on the Notes app of my phone. If humanity is indeed hurtling toward extinction, I wonder why I bother with these words I know will never last. But the alternative — to quit writing altogether — feels unfathomable.”


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