Key to long-term survival is constant renewal. At Reed Magazine, California’s oldest literary journal, mutability has kept the publication running for 150 years, with a rotating editorial staff of diverse backgrounds, educational experiences, literary tastes—even sentiment for the magazine.
“I don’t spend any time thinking of Reed’s legacy,” admits Anne Cheilek, the magazine’s Poetry Editor, seconds before Managing Editor Ryan H. Smith says: “I can’t help but look at the history––I get really invested in it.”
Having both perspectives keeps the journal’s content fresh while staying true to its roots. It has also vaulted the journal to new levels of recognition.
This June, Reed won its first Pushcart Prize, a national award for small presses considered “the most honored literary project in America.” The selected poem was “Father’s Belt,” an intense and emotionally complex work by former Onion and McSweeny’s writer Kurt Luchs.
“Father’s Belt” appeared in Reed Issue 153. Released toward the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown, with all content chosen in 2019, the issue serves as something of a “time capsule,” Smith says. Throughout 2019, Reed had made a renewed outreach to literary presences throughout the Bay Area, holding events with San Francisco’s Litquake and SJSU’s own Legacy of Poetry Festival.
“This Pushcart feels like all the work finally paying off,” Smith says.
Celebrating South Bay artists has also been a particular focus at the magazine. While the city’s reputation as suburban-wasteland slash cultural-little-sibling can be frustrating, Reed chooses to see it as freeing. The magazine’s team doesn’t feel tied to any set aesthetic, like the clean narrative style favored in East Coast publications, or the commitment to the avant-garde like in San Francisco and Oakland.
“People think of San Francisco and they know what San Francisco has,” Smith says. “San Jose you have to dig for it a little more. We’ve taken the proper steps to leave those breadcrumbs for people that San Jose really has this rich, thriving cultural arts scene and history.”
Staffed by a mix of undergrads and graduate students, Reed encourages a “big tent, eclectic approach,” Cheilek says. She describes issue 153’s poetry editors as a team “with extremely disparate tastes.”
“I had two members that agreed on almost nothing and I would often pair them up,” she says.
The awarded poem itself was unusual “in that everyone agreed it was really exciting, but expressed reluctance to publish it because it seemed like it was pushing too many boundaries—that it could trigger people and maybe be upsetting.”
“Father’s Belt” does carry some risk, playing out as a monologue from the point of view of the titular belt, spoken to children the reader can assume are the author and his siblings, detailing its personal relationship with their father as a tool for punishment.
Abuse is far from an uncommon theme in poetry, but the piece treats the subject in some complicated ways. Luchs avoids tragic or heartwrenching language—it is not a “correct” abuse narrative in the way culture expects a survivor to tell their own stories. Instead, the poem uneasily invokes humor, love, even sensuality.
“Then all at once I’m whistling / through the air, my flesh meets yours / in a mad rush, and there is joy in heaven, my ecstacy cannot be contained.”
The pandemic has carried secondary, more insidious plagues with it: a wave of relapses and overdoses, partners and family members trapped in harmful situations by mechanics of safety and resources. Although “Father’s Belt” is personal, it alludes to the isolation that turns human beings toward darker loves, ending with: “Do you realize, aside from him / you’re the only ones I ever get to touch?”
Our culture is undergoing a major shift in how we treat and discuss pain, and with that comes shifts in art and language. In the work they choose to highlight and pair together, journals and awards carry the power to provide a snapshot of our place and era—even its uncomfortable parts. In their upcoming issues, Reed says they aim to capture this era with honesty, wit, and tenderness.
“Reed is not afraid to publish strong, powerful, and controversial work,” Cheilek says. “I think 154 will draw several underlines under that point.”
Reed Magazine Issue 153