I've had the recent pleasure of poring through 80-plus issues of 44 small-press literary magazines, and I return from the experience impressed - and chagrined. How do they manage, on minuscule budgets, invariably understaffed and overworked, to orchestrate the variety and confusion of free-lance contributions and the convolutions of postal delivery?
The answer, I suppose, is that there are a lot of stubborn idealists out there - people who really do believe that contemporary writers must be given a forum, no matter how great the expenditures or how small the returns. It would be appropriate to salute them all - but I'll have to settle for paying special attention to five, which I've rather arbitrarily chosen as ''the best.''
I've written previously in praise of the well-edited, modestly priced Georgia Review - and recent issues give me no choice but to repeat myself. The high quality of Georgia's poetry may be glimpsed in Baron Wormser's adroitly eerie ''Werewolfness'' and in Mary Oliver's wonderful visionary poem about a Florida animal park, ''At Loxahatchie.'' Its fiction has a partial Southern slant - examples are recent stories by Barry Hannah and Ernest J. Gaines. Of the essays, I especially liked James B. Twitchell's amusing ''Frankenstein and the Anatomy of Horror,'' Arno Karlen's ''The MacGregor Syndrome and Other Literary Losses'' (revaluations of several ''unjustly ignored'' books), and a selection from the book reviews by the late Flannery O'Connor.
The Iowa Review is notable for its periodic ''Small Press Review'' and for general book reviews that are often agreeably unconventional and combative. A similar eclecticism shows up in the essays: It is seen in: Clark Blaise's pungent memoir of a cross-cultural childhood, ''Tenants of Unhousement,'' and a feature on W.S. Merwin that comprises an interview; an excerpt from Merwin's family memoir, ''Unframed Originals''; and several poems, including the moving verse short story ''The Houses.'' Iowa's fiction seems concentrated on adolescent and young-adult coming-of-age experiences (Denny Hoberman's ''A Line of Light,'' Erin Jolly's ''The Keepers''), and its poetry displays both ingenious uses of colloquial speech (Ron Block's ''Ballade of the Back Road,'' and lyrical pieces such as Sandra McPherson's ''The Anointing'').