It seems that all we hear about these days is how much trouble the print-publishing industry is in. With many major publications moving online (or at least developing a much stronger online presence), it seems natural to worry that smaller (and less wealthy) works like zines are going to have to adapt or die off. The zine-like literary journal The Toucan is at least a partial proof that print volumes can survive (and maybe the Internet is their salvation).
I’ll admit that I have a soft spot for submissions-based literary magazines. It’s nice to think that in the digital age (and the increasingly conglomerate-based publishing industry of today) that some people are still painstakingly choosing and collecting short stories and poems from aspiring authors and publishing them in zine form. Printed work has a way of feeling more personal, and when your reading material contains a variety of poems and stories by mostly anonymous individuals, the personal touch can be crucial. The Toucan retains this touch of intimacy, but the quality and variety of work is especially surprising in this little unassuming volume.
Issue 12 (Summer 2011) includes some really great pieces from writers and poets alike. Matt Morgan’s short story Doppelganger is a tense, twisty tale of a failed writer who becomes convinced that a successful lookalike is taunting him from afar. Paid in Full, a short story by Mike Tager, is a new twist on an old “crossroads deal with the devil” myth. Some works are stranger still; Ian Singleton concludes his blank-verse outtake from Shakespeare’s play in “The Villainy of Hamlet,” while Sarah Anne Stinnett’s standout poem “I Put the Ass in B(ass)” is two poems in one.
Even poems like “If Vegetables Had Skeletons,” by Brandon Amico, might not be for everyone, but many of these works feel like experiments or interesting digressions. Amico’s somewhat facetious poem wonders what would happen if all of our food had “ribs and teeth / beneath their flesh.” A few other works like “Playing Intergalactic Baseball” by J.J. Steinfeld or “Wedding Toast From the Best Man, Who Is Still Single For Some Reason” (also by Amico) provide levity and balance in a collection that sometimes becomes too navel-gazing for its own good.
For the most part, the works in this collection come off as assured and professional; their stories recall some of the more polished college creative-writing journals, and sometimes more mature publications. There’s not a lot in the way of formal experimentation; most writers diverge from the norm just enough to keep it interesting, but very rarely does the work feel particularly adventurous. On the contrary, this is the kind of literary journal that assures the reader that strong narrative voice and even blank-verse dramatic work will always have a place in print publishing, and will be appreciated.
The Toucan’s “Editrices Extraordinaires” Liz Baudler and Laura Rynberg are both Chicago natives and students at Columbia College, and their letter to the reader makes clear their intention to publish something that they’d want to read. On the whole, it feels like they’ve succeeded in creating a quality journal. The Toucan’s thirteen print issues include an impressive array of fiction and poetry, and although the magazine has moved most of its operations online, the journal lives on. In fact, the web edition allows it to live on and continue publishing new submissions; the move to online publishing has been relatively easy for The Toucan. However, I can’t help but hope that the print edition will resume someday and further prove the continuing viability of smart and interesting zines.