It hasn't taken long for Bill Henderson's annual gathering of selections from our "alternative" and "underground" periodicals and small presses to become both a critical and popular success, and an eagerly awaited event. The reasons are simple, and apparent: "Pushcart" pays its respects among established writers, "comers," and unknowns alike, and its editors (their names are all but legion) leave few timely topics unrepresented, while laboring to showcase products and virtually every geographical and stylistic territory within their reach.
As always, it's most useful to describe the volume's contents by division into genres. "Pushcart's" poetry comes from such eminences as Seamus Heaney, James Wright, Al Young, and john Hollander and from relative newcomers like Jim Barnes, Carol Muske, and Sandra McPherson. There are several amusing adaptations (or parodies) of conventional poetic forms (the wittiest is Thomas McGrath's "Trinc: Praises II"), and at last three superb poems: Janet Kauffman's lovely, understated picture "Mennonite Farm Wife"; Charles Simic's brilliantly deadpan "Suitcase Strapped with a Rope"; and Pamela Stewart's "The Pears," a ruminative intimation of a family drama, done through a progression of subtly linked natural images.
The fiction may be even better. Standout new writers include Barbara Grossman, who has produced an effective chiller called "My Vegetable Love"; Gerard Shyne (Henderson calls his "perhaps the most original black voice to arrive in years"); and Michael Brondoli, whose novella "Showdown" depicts disaffected and alienated youth with intensity. There is a fine new story from that "writer's writer" Gina Berriault. Cynthia Ozick's "levitation," and ingenious dramatization of the intellectual despair endured by a pair of husband-and-wife novelists, is one of the best things she's ever done. Elizabeth Spencer's haunting "The Girl Who Loved Horses" is a nearly perfect example of the short story that resolves itself in and through an epiphany.
The essays, as usual, feature criticism (michael Anania on literary magazines , David Bosworth on "The Literature of Awe"). Some of the more unusual pieces are more engaging. David Perkins looks, Wryly, at the brazen constructions ("wrapped walkways") of the sculptor Christo -- and concludes that the appeal of this "new art" lies where "the will to be charmed has replaced the urge to see." jan Carew's "The Caribbean Writer and Exile" is filled with meaningful, resonant historical detail. Lewis hyde's prescription for an alternative economic system (through "gift exchange") is perhaps the most innovative and challenging essay here. It might, in fact, almost serve as an emblem for the Pushcart Press itself: a boldly unconventional enterprise, deserving a whatever kind of support its admirers (and beneficiaries) can dream up.
A few words on another new Pushcart title. "The Art of Literary Publishing" assembles testimony from various hands variously involved (as editors, authors, and publishers) in the stimulating conflict between commercial necessity and the eternal wish to produce and promote good-quality literature. It isn't easy, in the age of Cartland and McKuen and Robbins -- as Joyce Carol Oates, Theodore Solotaroff, Jonathan Williams, Ishmael Reed, Anais Nin (and others) agree. But, as we also learn from them, editorial decisionmaking doesm take into account the fine first novel that's sure to lose money; small presses and publishing cooperatives do keep churning out issues; otherwise tough and realistic professional people continue to offer books aimed at "the potential literary audience." This is a fascinating volume, and -- against all odds -- even a heartening one, if only because it proves that Bill Henderson's Pushcart Press, far from being an aberration, is part of a stubbornly thriving tradition.