Old News, New Reviews

Squawk Back, online literary journal
Reviewed by JM Francheteau


Squawk Back is a kind of halflitjournalhalfblog from New York City. It describes itself as [click for word-salad]. Shorter version might be to say it looks for work steeped in alienation, be it from actual outsiders or outsider-y insiders. If you wanted to know whether it was worth your time to read Squawk Back, you might read a review. Conveniently, this is a review of Squawk Back.

Squawk Back: A review. Reading a single issue should take around 30 minutes, unless you are the sort of person who takes pride in reading very quickly, in which case it might take between 5 and 15 minutes, or you have been asked to write a review, in which case it will likely take between 31 and 47 minutes depending upon your level of conscientiousness.

Editor Zak Block has expressed the opinion that editors should not perform “the function of cogs in a meritocratic machine”; in other words, let the wild blind submission rumpus begin. This isn’t quite the same thing as downloading the role of evaluating open submissions to the reader, as Squawk Back does have a certain aesthetic cohesion. The editors seem to view their role as simply weeding out the insufficiently weird, allowing the reader suss out her own favourites from what remains. The result is that the average issue is of patchy quality, with the poetry in particular being often dire. You’re as likely in a single issue to stumble upon a piece like Andrew Harrell’s elegant and eerie “The Hole” as Matthew Harris’s homeless-man’s-bpNichol “numero” suite (both 10/20/2013).

If the tone of this review makes it sound like I dislike Squawk Back, that’s not the case. It’s simply that the total effect of its preferred aesthetic leaves me feeling oddly detached from the ingenuity of its better pieces and the verve of its editorial outlook. What I do think Squawk Back does that is interesting is map lines between contributors who are ostensibly “normal” and those whose experiences have been marginalized; there are contusions which are common across societal divisions, and in these stories and poems it’s possible to make out their purpled outlines. Very little of what they publish could be characterized as truly avant-garde, but if Squawk Back is not precisely ahead of the pack they are at least admirably indifferent to being in it.

In conclusion, the sentence of this review sufficient for blurbing is: Reading Squawk Back is better than not reading Squawk Back. Beyond this, your mileage may vary.

JM Francheteau is a rural transplant based in Ottawa, ON. His poetry and critical writing has or will appear in print and online in CV2Arc and ottawater. He’s not being paid for this review, but all of the current In/Words editors have at least bought him books or ice cream in the past.


4 thoughts on “Old News, New Reviews

  1. Well, I think your point is very, very well made from the point of view of rhetoric; but, I still think you very, very misunderstand the meaning of the mission statement, and are very, very mistaken in suggesting that it is a [adjective] [synonymous adjective] [mixed metaphor] of non-ideas.

  2. I could amend the review to read “Squawk Back is a kind of halflitjournalhalfblog from New York City. [Squawk Back’s mission statement is a clunky, overwritten traffic jam of non-ideas that tries very, very hard to make a simple concept for a journal sound complex, and I’m going to ignore it because it does the actual content of the site no favours].” But I think that would set the wrong tone for the piece.

    Re: Kool Keith, besides the play on the song’s title, I thought he fit the mood your journal put me in when I was reading.

    Re: Nichol: You seem to think I’m a bit of a prick, which is kind of understandable, but I genuinely think you might appreciate some of Nichol’s work; try not to let the source of the recommendation trigger your distaste. He’s probably Canada’s most highly regarded experimental poet of the last fifty years, doing innovative work in sound, concrete and graphic poetry forms, as well as a sprawling multi-volume long poem called “The Martyrology,” before his untimely death in the mid-80s. He had a loose, improvisational way with conventional language that Harris’ piece dimly reminded me of.

    In any case, if you found my review condescending that’s fine, but I stand behind it. You got your blurb anyway.

  3. Hey, I just read your review of my (the) Squawk Back and I had two things to say about it: you referred to my publication’s ‘mission statement’ on the Press page as “Word salad,” which Wikipedia defines as a “confused or unintelligible mixture of seemingly random words and phrases, most often used to describe a symptom of a mental disorder.”

    But if you go back and read it properly you’ll find that the paragraph-long statement is grammatically correct, and therefore not fairly described “as confused or unintelligible mixture of seemingly random words and phrases, most often used to describe a symptom of a mental disorder:”

    “A cursory glance at (the) Squawk Back suggests it is…”

    Meaning: [If you briefly glance at the contents of this publication, then you will be reminded of…]

    “…the bold, harebrained postulation of an arch Renaissance vivisector of live heretics”

    [you will be reminded of the now-debunked theories and practices of ancient medical practitioners]

    (then there’s a semi-colon…) “;” (…which means that another independent clause has been appended to the initial statement of [“If you briefly glance at the contents of this publication then you will be reminded of”], which is:)

    “…a wasteland of squashed old cars and toasters…”

    (in other words, If you briefly glance at the contents of this publication then you will be reminded of the work of ancient medical practitioners, but IN ADDITION to that (hence the semi-colon), if you briefly glance at the contents of this publication you will be reminded of a “wasteland” in which there are “squashed old cars and toasters…”)

    (The next clause proceeds to describe further characteristics of this “wasteland”

    “…but alive and teeming…”

    So bringing it all together: [The wasteland of squashed old cars and toasters (is still a wasteland) but (it is ALSO) alive.]

    [ALSO alive…] with glitches, beeps, blips and zaps,

    (new clause)

    “of lost robots”

    (who are making the glitches beeps blips and caps)

    “of fractured half memories,”

    [the robots’ memories are fragmented, and for this reason can they be described as…]

    “retaining only the commands yet not the merest vestiges of functions;”

    (then there’s another semi-colon) “;” (the reason for this semi-colon is to act as a kind of master-comma, because I want to continue adding clauses which describe the LOST ROBOTS, who are…)

    “overloaded with priceless, pointless information, endless strings and strings of bland and beautiful data;”

    [They (THE ROBOTS) are filled with meaningless information]

    (another semi-colon) “;” (this time because, in addition to producing various sounds, having fragmented memories, and being filled with meaningless information, THE ROBOTS are striving…)

    “…striving, through their painfully limited sensory vocabularies, to learn to feel…

    “and, in feeling…”

    (once they’ve learned to feel)

    (they will) “somehow forge a new imagined space for…”

    “free-range literary chickens to cluck,”

    [this is a metaphor: the chickens are the contributors to Squawk Back; I describe them as free-range because of their errant, outsider nature]

    “to squawk, if you will…”

    [again, another metaphor: they’re not actually squawking, like a bird might, but they’re publishing their writing, which, for a writer is a form of expression; much like for a bird (Or certain kinds of birds) a squawk is a form of expression.]

    I hope this has been helpful to you.

    P.S. A few questions: why is there a link to a Kool Keith song in your review… this seems to me like a “confused or unintelligible,” “random” action, which seems like a “symptom of a mental disorder.”

    P.P.S. I’m not familiar with the artist bpNichol. Can you name a few of your favorite poems by him so I can check them out? The reason I ask is, the allusion to bpNichol seems more like a pointed allusion than a “confused or unintelligible,” “random” action, which seems like a “symptom of a mental disorder.”

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