SJSU’s Reed Magazine Wins Pushcart Award
BELT HOLDER: The poem “The Father’s Belt” by 2021 Pushcart Prize winner Kurt Luchs appeared in issue 153 of Reed magazine.
The key to long term survival is constant renewal. At Reed Magazine, California’s oldest literary journal, mutability has maintained publication for 150 years, with a rotating editorial team of diverse backgrounds, educational backgrounds, literary tastes, and even feelings for the magazine.
“I don’t spend time thinking about Reed’s legacy,” admits Anne Cheilek, the magazine’s poetry editor, seconds before editor Ryan H. Smith said: inside.
Having both perspectives keeps the journal content up to date while staying true to its roots. It also propelled the journal to new levels of recognition.
Last June, Reed won his first Pushcart Prize, a national award for small presses considered “America’s most honored literary project.” The poem selected was “Father’s Belt,” an intense and emotionally complex work by ancient Onion and McSweeny writer Kurt Luchs.
“The Father’s Belt” appeared in issue 153 of Reed. Released near the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, with all of the content chosen in 2019, the number serves as a sort of “time capsule,” Smith explains. Throughout 2019, Reed had renewed his literary pursuits throughout the Bay Area, hosting events with San Francisco’s Litquake and SJSU’s own Legacy of Poetry festival.
“This Pushcart makes it look like all the hard work is finally paying off,” says Smith.
Celebrating the artists of South Bay also received special attention for the magazine. While the city’s reputation as a cultural little sister can be frustrating, Reed chooses to see it as liberating. The magazine team doesn’t feel tied to any defined 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 a little deeper. We have taken the necessary steps to leave this breadcrumb trail with people that San José truly has this rich and flourishing cultural scene and history.
Made up of a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, Reed encourages an “eclectic, big tent approach,” says Cheilek. She describes issue 153’s poetry editors as a team “with extremely disparate tastes.”
“I had two members who agreed on next to nothing and I paired them up a lot,” she says.
The award-winning poem itself was unusual “in that everyone agreed that it was really exciting, but expressed reluctance to publish it because it seemed like it was pushing too many limits – that it could trigger people and maybe be overwhelming ”.
“The Father’s Belt” carries some risk, playing the role of a monologue from the point of view of the titular belt, spoken to children whom the reader may assume to be the author and his siblings, detailing his personal relationship with their father as a tool of punishment.
Abuse is far from a rare theme in poetry, but the play treats the subject in a complicated way. Luchs avoids tragic or heartbreaking language – this is not a tale of “correct” abuse of the way the culture expects a survivor to tell their own stories. Instead, the poem apprehensively invokes humor, love, even sensuality.
“Then suddenly I hiss / in the air, my flesh meets yours / in a mad rush, and there is joy in the sky, my ecstasy cannot be contained.”
The pandemic took with it secondary, more insidious scourges: a wave of relapses and overdoses, partners and family members trapped in damaging situations by security and resource mechanisms. Although “Father’s Belt” is personal, it alludes to the isolation that drives human beings towards darker loves, ending with: “Do you realize, other than him / you are the only ones could I ever touch?
Our culture is undergoing a major shift in the way we deal with and discuss pain, and with that comes changes in art and language. In the work they choose to highlight and associate, reviews and awards have the power to provide insight into our place and time, 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 this point.”
Reed Magazine Issue 153