Introduction to Life in a Time of Contraction

In the first months of 2009, as we were pulling together our enormous tenth anniversary issue, it was becoming clear that the worldwide economic crisis was not going to be going away soon. We knew people who had lost jobs and homes. Even in the rural corner of Connecticut where I live seemingly free from the influence of Wall Street, businesses were closing their doors. My husband and I tightened our belt again, grateful that we’d always been savers and do-it-yourself Yankees. Yet we couldn’t help but fear that if the economic contraction continued, our lives—and the lives of people around the world, would change in ways we could not imagine.

How do we cope in a time of contraction, after a prolonged age of consumption? This was the central question behind our first themed nonfiction folio, Life in a Time of Contraction. We put out a call for essays of 1000 words or less, in any style, on this theme. After receiving dozens of submissions, we’ve chosen the very best. There are personal essays from across the U.S.: Cal Freeman’s “Some Notes From Dearborn Michigan” to Mojie Crigler’s “Tidings from Ballston Spa, Saratoga County, New York”, as well as from across the world: Celeste Hamilton’s “Back Dam” and Deepak Unnikrishnan’s “Abu Dhabi”. Stylistic variation is wide and welcome, ranging from Paul Stephen’s scholarly, “Imperial Panorama” to Paul Lobo Portuges’ moving and lyrical “Barrio Journal East L.A.: Living the Recession”. And because rules—especially at Drunken Boat—are made to be toyed with, we’ve included a poem as well. Jessie Carty’s “2nd Mortgage” arrived via general submissions and struck just the right tone—wry and knowing.

Our Life in a Time of Contraction folio also features visual work. There’s moving photojournalism by Jacob Kedzierski of New York City; Benny Doutsh contributed photos of the effects of flood in Bihar (northeast India); and Brandon Lingle’s photos of a boneyard of fighter planes give yet another view of the effects of war.

Alan Bigelow’s “I-Pledge” is an interactive piece which allows readers to write their own Pledge of Allegiance and read the Pledges of hundreds of others. We encourage you to join in the cacophony. And the expression of hope.

I met sculptor Laura Kaufman in December at the Vermont Studio Center. When she showed me a photo of a recent project, I felt struck in the chest. Kaufman has given us an unusual and very personal, take on the state of things. “The Weight of the World” achieves the goal she laid out in her artist’s statement—a kind of alchemical slipperiness. It moves between sculpture, political statement, jewelry and metaphor. It reminds us that the weight of the world is at once massive and personal, unknowable and carried on (and in) the body in this time of contraction.

~Leslie McGrath
January, 2010