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IN CIRCULATION : From A to Zyzzyva

June 11, 1995|DAVID EHRENSTEIN

With a title that refers, according to the table of contents, to "any of various tropical American weevils of the genus 'Zyzzyva,' often destructive to plants," and "the last word in certain dictionaries," Zyzzyva has over a 10-year run become one of the country's liveliest literary outlets. The anniversary issue provides a good example: attractively illustrated stories and poems from a variety of notable writers (Michelle T. Clinton, Barbara Guest, Mamoud Darwish and Czeslaw Milosz among them). Chloe Atkins' portraits of the "Drag Kings" of San Francisco is reason alone for purchasing a copy.

"Only four other literary quarterlies have lasted more than 10 years, have print runs of more than 4,500 copies, and are not in any way affiliated with a university," proclaims an editorial in the issue. Going on to cite BOMB, and the Hudson, Paris and Threepenny reviews as belonging to its select literary company, the piece concludes with the observation that "each, forgive me for noticing, is still being edited by the founding editor!"

"I should have added Grand Street to that list," Howard Junker, founding editor of Zyzzyva (pronounced ZIZ-zi-va), says by phone from his San Francisco office. "This magazine was created out of a need for a West Coast writer's showcase," explains Junker, a New York journalist who moved to San Francisco in 1970. "You know, a lot of important writers have moved out here recently. Pat Conroy is in San Francisco, Nicholson Baker has just moved to Berkeley. The writing being done out here is tremendously vigorous, varied and constantly surprising."

Two of the writers making their debuts in the anniversary issue illustrate what Junker is talking about. "Caring" by Dave Clark is a cooly laconic portrait of a straight San Franciscan suddenly made aware of the enormous number of gay friends around him who are dying of AIDS. ("Danny is tired of falling on his way to the john at night. He demands to keep his own place, his independence. I mentioned hospice only once. He said, 'Don't bury me yet.' ") "Girl on Fire" by Yxta May Murray is a similarly well-observed study of Latina "homegirls" and their highly circumscribed world. ("Sometimes when we all together, we'll smoke and watch the novellas. Stupid Old World love stories. We feel just like housewives. Should be wearing those little polyester dresses and crying over chicken dinners.")

Junker takes pride in the fact that Zyzzyva has been the first to publish writers who've gone on to later success, such as Po Bronson, who has recently published the novel "Bombadiers," a Joseph Heller-inspired satire of high-pressure business. Bronson's notebooks for this novel appear in the anniversary issue; a special issue of Zyzzyva, published in association with Harper/Collins West, which just hit the stands, is entirely devoted to such notebooks, offering the creative scribblings of Kathy Acker, Dorothy Allison and Maxine Hong Kingston.

"The most important new development on the West Coast scene is the emergence of Asian and Chicano writers," Junker observes. "To be alive here now is to have this wonderful smorgasbord in front of you. All this talk about having to 'search for diversity' is ridiculous. Diversity is already here, right now."

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