Being Schooled in the Un-normal

The Normal School - September 2010 IssueThe spring issue of The Normal School (TNS) arrived in my mailbox yesterday and it was all I could do to keep myself from screaming with delight and jumping for joy right there at the end of my driveway...and then run into the house, lock myself in my bedroom with a bottle of champagne and a package of Pringles, and spend the evening with every single word on every single page. If you haven't guessed by now, I am a HUGE fan of this new literary magazine published by The Press at California State University, Fresno. And when I say new, I mean new, as in this is only their fourth issue. But the quality of this ingenious work of art, because that is what every issue is, has anything but a learning-to-swim feel to it. No. No. No. Every issue feels like a well-aged bottle of wine whose exquisite and unique flavors come from a winemaker who knows how to work with his ever-changing fields and barrels and bottles and corks to produce magic on the palate. In other words, they know their shit. If the cover art alone of each issue of TNS doesn't catch your eye, then you have to be blind because no one with even a sliver of light in seeing capacity could deny themselves a second look. The same cover artist provides illustrations throughout the magazine, weaving a visual story that permanently affects the way you dream. While the inside of TNS is black and white (but somehow doesn't feel like your standard black and white), they shoot the wad, so to speak, on full-color front and back covers with incredibly rich tones that are irresistibly inviting (I always succumb to the desire to delicately run my fingers across the covers...I truly can't help myself). I like that TNS only features one artist throughout an entire issue, and, it's my understanding, that the work is created just for that specific issue. Other literary journals I subscribe to usually accept art submissions rather than solicit or commission an artist. While this exposes me, the reader, to a diversity of artwork, I feel like I'm only getting part of the artist's story. I don't want to say I'm left feeling empty, but I certainly don't feel fulfilled the way I do after experience the artwork in TNS.

And that leads me to the design of TNS, which comes under the brilliant skills of Joan English Wood of Letterdress Designs LLC. (Joan, I don't know who you are, but if I were a lesbian and single, I'd ask you to marry me just to see what kind of wedding invitations you'd create for us). If all that filled the pages of TNS was dummy copy (lorem ipsum, as they call it in the graphic design world), I think I would still be in love with it. Sadly, TNS doesn't identify the individual typefaces it uses but it is a stunning combination of serif and sans serif, contemporary and classic, edgy and warm, crisp and wistful. Other tools, like the use of boxes, borders, pull quotes, blocks, and reversed text, make reading and page turning effortless yet still part of the entertainment quotient. And then there are times the stories themselves are artistically laid out to complement (without distraction) the storyline. For example, in this issue there is a piece called "Album" which is anchored at the side edges of the layout by what looks like a vinyl record and the copy is laid out as it would be on the inside dust sleeve/album liner thingie. How fun is that? The only other literary journal that rivals TNS's design is Tin House. But what gives TNS an edge in my book is its appealing smell. Their printer, Printcrafters, Inc., must do something mystical with the ink and paper because even my letter carrier's smoke break doesn't penetrate the essence of a TNS issue the way it does my junk mail. Bottle it, please. I love the earthy, dry leaf, farmer's-field scents that waft about me as I hold it.

But ultimately what makes this literary magazine orgasmicly pleasurable is the writing. They publish poetry, fiction, criticism, and nonfiction that push the boundaries of prose and genre and subject matter. I'm continually surprised and dazzled before being sent twirling in whatever word-fueled direction their contributors decided to send us readers. When I read through an issue, I gasp, I laugh, I cringe, I sigh, I get choked up, I am in awe, I am intrigued. I fawn over sentences and swoon over paragraphs. Well known writers' works stand beside lesser known and unknown, seamlessly, effortlessly and without burden on the reader. I have yet to be disappointed by the quality of writing in a single piece. Everything I've read is solid and strong, even in the chaos of blazing new literary trails.

The single disappointment I have with TNS is that is is only published bi-annually. Such a shame. Knowing I won't get my next issue until fall is already sending me into hyperventilation mode. It's just not fair.

If nothing I've said so far has convinced you to subscribe to The Normal School, try this on for size: a two-year subscription (four issues) is only $20! TWENTY DOLLARS, PEOPLE! You can't get a one-day pass to Disneyland for less than $80 and The Normal School is a billion-kazillion times more thrilling than anything Disney has to offer. Plus there's the added bonus of not having to pay for parking, stand in line, or wear mouse ears. Unless you want to.