Archived Reading Room

Oxford American: The best magazine ever

There aren’t many things that cause my weary heart to quicken. The local bookstore, Netflix, rain crows and, yes, the Oxford American which is “proudly published by the University of Central Arkansas.” I’ve stuck with them through bankruptcy, inept leadership, and a series of in-house disputes because, regardless of the management, this quarterly is one of the best publications dedicated to promoting, explicating and celebrating what it means to be “Southern” (that includes “Appalachian”).

One of the writers for this issue, a young man named Matthew Vollmer from Andrews, N. C., made me salivate when he describes how a misguided attempt to create a huge sensory deprivation tank morphs into a reincarnated soda fountain from the ‘50’s. This drug store specializes in egg creams, grilled cheese sandwiches (ten different cheeses), buttered popcorn and grilled peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, bisque soups and milkshakes (everything has lots of sugar!) When customers over-indulge, they sometimes get silly and irrational. The manager of the soda fountain, armed with squirt-gun water bottles to keep everybody in line.

I remember thatI was skeptical when I got my first subscription to Oxford American. I expected something academic, Faulknerian and obscure. But, then, they published a recipe for possum stew, did a wonderful article on Jerry Lee “The Killer” Lewis, published humor by Roy Blunt, book reviews by Hal Crowther (Lee Smith’s husband) and essays by Barry Hannah. In the early years they sent me a free record with their “music” issue; now they send a DVD! They publish remarkable short stories (Ron Rash, William Gay) and poetry that I cut out of the magazine and paste on my bathroom mirror.

I save every issue and they are stored and cared for as if they were illuminated manuscripts. I’ve been thinking about having them bound, and I often go prowling through them looking for that memorable article written by James Dickey’s daughter or that essay on “The South in Cinema.” It is all here: art, fiction, food, theater, film, essays, poetry, “personalities,” etc.) Probably what is most important is, it makes my gears spin and engage, makes me think ...and makes me want to write.

This issue is devoted to “Odes to the Best” and is filled with memorable quotes. George Singleton, who just won a Guggenheim, said that the hardest part of writing is “not being distracted by email and other forms of techno-procrastination.” (I have some friends who should mull that one over.) There is a wonderful ode to “Mandingo,” the best “bad” movie about slavery in the South; a recipe for pimento cheese which should be “spread on a gridded hamburger;”a poem by Billy Collins, and a marvelous article on lawn-mover racing in Ellebee, N. C. where an old NASCAR track has been given a second life. This “working man’s racetrack” complete with “souped up lawnmowers” caters to “stock” and “modified” mowers with the blades removed. The races create screaming fans, boiling dust (winning purses up to $200), and a growing number of “drivers” who are becoming local heroes. Not surprisingly, lawnmower races are spreading to other North Carolina towns.

A disturbing “Ode to Southern Highways: recalls scenes of night-time terror and violence throughout the Southeast. (For example, there was a night in 1947 near Greenville, S. C. when a convoy of 37 taxes escorted Willy Earle who had allegedly stabbed a taxi driver up highway 124 to his lynching. The writer, Alan Grant, visits bridges, wooded tracts and riverbanks that are “haunted” with tragic memories.

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Daisy Dodge’s “Ode to Coming Home,” made me get all misty-eyed:

“It will be very happy to see you, son.

It will look how much you’ve grown

It will look how far you’ve come.

It will always, eternally, love you.

...It will make sure you’ve eaten.

It will make sure you’ve slept.

It will make sure you’ve passed a good time.

It will not let you go.

It will not let you go back out into the cold.”

There is also a poignant ode to a BBQ funeral (the deceased had prepared the meal before his death and stored it in a freezer). Hal Crother’s essay “Home From the Hills,” explans the current mountaintop removal crisis. There is a much-deserved tribute to James Harold, a North Carolina outsider artist, who killed himself in 1999; David Taylor’s visit with James Harold echoes another interview conducted by Jonathan Williams some fifteen years ago when this gifted folk artist was vibrantly alive.

Even the advertisements are entertaining: recording artists from Appalachia, new novelists and poets with provocative titles. The promotion blurb for one old Delta blues musician says: “He’s never lip-synched, trashed a hotel or demanded a larger dressing room. Let’s give him a hand.”

Check this magazine out!

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