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Handmade Lit

The men behind the Tucson-based literary journal 'spork' seek to highlight the bittersweet

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For just a moment, I entertained the paranoid notion that Drew Burk and Richard Siken are the same person. It just seemed like something Burk would think up. When the co-editor of spork suggested I meet him alone, I became suspicious.

"Getting us both in the same spot might be interesting for comparison's sake," wrote Burk in an e-mail before we met at Grill to talk about the literary journal launched three years ago. "Richard will have intelligent things to say, and I'll sit there fuming and rolling my eyes, then I'll say some angry, borderline-incoherent things and Richard will smile and say, 'He's the genius here.'"

Indeed, Burk and Siken are two different people. A functional yin-yang symbiosis exists between them. Together, they churn out a collection of words--poetry and fiction by writers from Tucson and around the country--tucked inside arty, hand-sewn covers. It can't exactly be called a quarterly journal; they've produced about half the number they'd need to do so.

"It's our little poke at the social contract," explains Siken, at spork's unofficial headquarters, the Safe House Cafe. "They're a lot more flexible and liquid than people believe."

Sometimes the spork mavens slip in events in lieu of an issue, like last year's live radio play. But right now, their seventh issue is in the works. All the text and graphics have been formatted. When 100 books are sewn, they launch the issue and play catch-up making 400 more in Burk's studio. They distribute them locally at Reader's Oasis, Biblio and Safe House, and at a couple of bookstores in Portland and San Francisco.

"First, I have to say this: I loathe making the books, and God bless Drew Burk," announces Siken, when I ask if he participates in the binding of the journal.

While they both look over all the submissions and offer feedback to writers, Burk does the book assembling. He also "has keys" to the Web site and carries on a quasi-blog at sporkmag.com, where all of the issues are available for free. He'll make special editions, if you ask.

"It's important that we do every aspect for ourselves--on our laser printers and hand-sewn. Though maybe I'll get someone else to print them next time. It really doesn't take much creativity for someone to click the print icon," says Burk, who has no interest in making spork an online-only journal--a trend that many printed literary magazines have followed. "I like making books. Doing it online seems cheap and stupid."

The issues' interiors have a consistent style, but each spork looks very different on the outside--from hard, canvas covers begging to be kept free of cat hair to durable, floppy, oilcloth jackets. How it looks depends more on the mundane, observes Siken.

"Like we wanted to have a color insert on the upcoming issue. But that had to wait, because I needed a new radiator for my truck, and I didn't get overtime where I work. The fact that we lose about $100 on every issue doesn't bother me. I know photographers who spend way more than that on their frames."

The editors' goals have never been to make money or even to get sucked into the literary journal vacuum.

"When Drew and I met," says Siken, "we were both interested in making a venue and a scene. We sort of feel cheated. We want the big scene, like Paris. So spork is, in some ways, that scene."

Burk was admittedly naïve, too. "I didn't know not to seek grants. I did know that I wanted to do something immediate and not have to wait around for a lot of money."

Both editors are prolific writers, though they come from different backgrounds. Siken went through the UA's MFA writing program in the mid-'90s. Burk has been writing since 1993, when he had an olfactory memory of his surreal mistaken-identity scuffle with the law as a teen in Memphis. He has three unpublished novels and a fourth in progress. Siken's just won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets award for his book, Crush.

"I just turned into Drew's enemy," he says. "The refreshing thing about getting published is that my car still runs poorly, I still have my group-home shifts. Now, the only difference is that if someone wants to read my work, I don't have to go to Kinkos," Siken says.

Burk's take on the academy-molded writer is blunt. "I have no problem with someone wanting to get an MFA. I have a problem with their misconception that I'll take their work just because they have this degree."

So what kind of writing are they seeking?

"As the name indicates, spork is built on two things--a spoon and a fork," says Siken, as a two-pronged answer. "So many writers don't understand the bittersweet. Like when someone says, 'Remember that great day when we had the picnic after they bombed our village?' That's what we're looking for."

Burk resonates with crankiness. "We're not looking for writers who are making the rounds of the other journals. We're not in competition. Our journal is sitting on a shelf giving yours the finger."

He adds, "My motivation for doing spork was to show how Tucson rocks as a place of great writers. It wasn't. So we opened it up nationally, and it seems few people rock in the literary sense."

Siken announces with a serious grin, "We have a 500-year plan. We want everyone to step up, but we don't expect it in our lifetime. If what we end up with is figurative literacy, we're happy. We're in for the super long haul."

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