Guide to Urban Reindeer by Kate Partridge @EssayPress

Content Warnings: none

Kate Partridge’s latest work, the chapbook Guide to Urban Reindeer, is a 32-page work published by Essay Press Groudloop Series in 2017. The Groundloop series is “we seek to bring together authors exploring diverse subjects through loud, innovative architectures.” Essay Press fills a niche in publishing:

We are interested in publishing pieces that are too long to be easily published in journals or magazines, but too short to be considered book-length by most publishers.

That’s one of the great things about small-press publishing: they do what mainstream publishers won’t do. Some, like Press 53, focus only on short stories because it is a neglected genre in the Big Publishing Houses. I love novellas myself. Right now, I can only think of Nouvella, which is dedicated solely to novellas, but they haven’t published since 2015.

Partridge’s addition to the Groundloop is #89 in the series. In her introduction, the author explains:

Guide to Urban Reindeer is a lyric prose sequence, an excerpt from a longer project that responds to photographs from the construction of the Alaska Railroad during the 1910s. . . . this project layers the federal experiments of settler life and agriculture in the North against contemporary Anchorage.

There are six photographs in the 32-pages. Paragraphs are spaced out in brick shapes with blank white pages between each. The paragraphs are numbered, ending on 69 (a coincidence, I’m sure). The title connects to the writing in that a celebrity reindeer named Star lives in Anchorage. At times, Star is walked on a leash. Surprisingly, Star is one of many in a series of Stars, making her common, not unique, gaining a specialness only because people grant it to her. Early on, Partridge acknowledges that she’s from Ohio, not Alaska, thus she looks in as an outsider. What she notices are small things, giving readers a slant glance at the city and being our “guide.”

urban reindeer

 

Partridge analyzes sounds that would be commonplace to Alaskans. She notices:

The keynote sounds of a landscape are those created by its animals, birds, climate, weather, geographic features: starting points. The sounds that intervene — say, a train whistle — these are signals.

Partridge addresses a study by Murray Schafer, who asks, “which sounds do we want to preserve, encourage, multiply?” For instance, dogs barking at the start of a dogsled race contribute to a “soundmark: a sound exclusive to a particular location that merits preservation.” People are currently trying to save sounds that will be lost — dialing up for the internet, turning the wheel on a disposable camera, that beautiful phrase “You’ve Got Mail” — but it goes beyond old technology. Urban sound artists capture dump trucks and car horns and people prattling on cell phones or ordering at bakeries. Partridge explores this art form in Guide to Urban Reindeer in an unlikely place. When people hear “Alaska,” they think “Peace and quiet and nature.” Yet, Anchorage has a noisescape all its own to consider.

The majority of Partridge’s work is the juxtaposition of the 1910s and present. A description of boys performing a flag drill on the 4th of July in 1916 is found on the same page as Partridge checking out her neighbors’ attempts to contain nature: “. . . huts to keep snow of garbage cans, fenced compost bins, greenhouses, a coop.” Funny enough, nature can’t be contained, we learn, when Partridge sees two chicks jaywalking.

While Guide to Urban Reindeer is an interesting experiment, I wanted Partridge to push harder and dig deeper to compare and contrast her experiences with life 110 years ago. Furthermore, the photos she included were fairly nondescript: a map with illegible words, a hill, another map, a distant photo of a house with a small garden (and we’re told there are three people, “two of the three clutch[ing] kittens to the their chests,” though I could only easily make out one person). Instead of information about the photos underneath them, the info appears at the end, requiring a lot of flipping around.

I’m ambivalent about what readers are meant to take away from Guide to Urban Reindeer, but I think you should check it out yourself, especially if you’re a history buff. The 32-page project is available for free as a PDF.

I want to thank Kate Partridge for sending me a copy of Guide to Urban Reindeer to be reviewed honestly at Grab the Lapels.

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13 thoughts on “Guide to Urban Reindeer by Kate Partridge @EssayPress

  1. I love the idea of recording urban sounds – it’s one of the things that very definitely differentiates one place from another and yet tends to get overlooked. I reckon if I was put blindfold into the middle of Glasgow, London or Paris (the three cities I know best) I could tell which was which from sound alone (excluidng the obvious accents)… or maybe even smell.

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  2. I think I’d be most interested in the historical stuff, but it sounds like there might not be enough of it. And the photos don’t sound overly enticing. But I agree with FF – exploring urban sounds is a cool idea!

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    1. One the students at my college is from Anchorage. His mom missed him so much she eventually moved her. Well, I saw her at the men’s basketball game last night (her son is on the team), and I asked her about Star the reindeer. It sounds really depressing! Her comments made me want to know loads more about this interchangeable reindeer in a pen in the middle of a city.

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    1. A really, really good novella is like a whole novel condensed down. You care about the characters just as much as if they were in a novel. My favorite novellas are in one book called Drought & Say What You Like by Debra DiBlasi.

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  3. I really liked the cover too! But I hate the fact that they included the descriptions of the photos at the end, there is nothing I dislike more than flipping through pages, I just want to read it front to back, once!

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  4. I love it when you review chapbooks. This is such a new and exciting space for me! One of these days I’ll finally pick one up. Seriously. Some day…

    The idea of exploring sounds through the written word intrigues me. I appreciate what Partridge brings to the table here– I honestly don’t think about sounds in writing very often. But I wonder how effective I would find it. In the quote above, Partridge addresses ” animals, birds, climate, weather, geographic features…” but what actual *sounds* do those make in Alaska? I can’t imagine how the words would help me process and compare my experiences to those with Anchorage. Or perhaps I’m missing the point of this section?

    I am also someone who likes the details readily available. Such as with those photos– I would want the details right in front of me, not having the flip to the back constantly. Perhaps Partridge felt the details of the photo might have distracted from her narrative?

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  5. So intriguing, I love the idea of working the history, photos, noises together. Even if it didn’t all work quite as it might have, the creative process sounds so interesting, and your descriptions make me want to see the different elements – am definitely going to check out the linked pdf.

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  6. Ah, now I see what you were talking about when you wrote that comment on my blog about Novella month. I am, sadly, quite discouraged from short stories… I get attached to characters and I just can’t get invested if I know it will end soon. Which is why I don’t normally end up reading shorter stuff than your usual novels 🙂

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