Destroying False Gods: An overview of the online magazine Squawk Back

Squawk Back front page

In an age where critics, writers, and businessmen are all announcing (and/or mourning) the death of print (and thus, the death of literature), there are some that will do all they can to prove that literary fiction and poetry can not only survive in modern culture, but thrive in it. The success of blogs like HTMLGiant and writers like Tao Lin prove that the future of literature is online, and that writers and readers have nothing to fear.

Squawk Back was formed in 2011 to publish a weekly online magazine of experimental fiction that doesn’t discriminate against any writer, regardless of age, sex, race, or social status. They are just as likely to publish a piece from an inmate or completely unknown teenager as they are to publish an established writer. In an interview with Xenith, Editor-in-Chief Zak Block says that not only does he love to challenge the publishing industry norms, but to “destroy false gods.”

What immediately stands out about Squawk Back is that it is released digitally every week with a new, retro-looking cover page. When asked about what sets them and their format apart, Block told Xenith that “as a weekly publication we can publish more consistently, hence establishing ourselves as a source of interesting ‘reading’ that can be consulted frequently, like any other blog.” So in establishing a format that is wedged firmly in between traditional literary magazines and modern blogs, Squawk Back has the chance to have a much more consistent, dedicated fanbase that knows they will have new content to read every week. No waiting for monthly or even quarterly issues to come out; each issue has just enough content to get readers through the week.

One flaw with this system is that, even though it allows more content to be published, it causes the magazine to lower the standards of acceptance. It’s definitely great for the writers, but not always fair to the readers that are accepting the cream of the crop. After reading through a few recent issues, I think the editors do a solid job of getting the best out of the contributors…but sometimes the bar seems a bit low. Some pieces give me the sense that the editors are willing to accept pieces simply based on experimental forms, the more ridiculous the better. This can be a good thing—if the piece itself transcends its form and becomes an objectively beautiful piece of art. Sean Schemelia’s piece “OnewOrd” from the June 24th issue was one of the pieces that seemed to be included on its form alone:

FliesHasaanHeisman,everclimbinglyalone,evermoreheisapointandiam            hisresevoirtipandiamhisworldwithoutend,orsohesays.orsohesaysors            ohesaysorsowehearwhatyouwanttohear,kindreader.alongwayfromh omelookingintoascreen.FUCKYOU

I found this to be the type of piece that sounds like a great, artistic concept, but in execution simply looks and sounds like gibberish.

One of the best pieces I came across while reading through recent issues is the featured piece in Squawk Back’s latest, “Prose Poem. What’s a Prose Poem? Kate Ellenberger Drinking Warm Beer By Herself.” by W.F. Roby. This is experimental literature that contributes with both its concept and its execution, splitting its form between a paragraph of prose poetry and a few short lines with the feel of traditional verse. Mr. Roby manages to craft his piece extremely well without sacrificing poetic sound or image:

Kate Ellenberger, your name is a Windsor knot all fallen awful. Kate
Ellenberger, the half-Windsor and a bucket of change would buy this poem under
glass in the afterlife. And whatever we break becomes what’s broken.

The figurative language mixes perfectly with Mr. Roby’s images, and provides a launching point for breaking out of the prose poetry format and into the final lines of verse:

                                                                            And whatever
we leave
out is the open mouth of the lion. So tomorrow,
when the third draft hits the fan mail express
and all the ponys line up in the shape of your dress
and all the letters of the alphabet pair off, possess
the gerund, which is noun and verb. Switch medicine
for thicker stuff. Act tough, the street lights all Edison.

Every issue has at least one excellent piece that deserves serious recognition, but those pieces are often surrounded by a few averages pieces and the occasional dud. Not to say the average pieces don’t show potential—many of them do—it’s just that they seem to be in need of a rewrite or two. Many of the pieces (especially poems) are very short, which is one of the reasons why they are focused on putting out weekly issues. But some of these pieces could probably be even shorter, such as “House Party” by Ayana Edwards. I would have liked to see a somewhat pared-down second draft of this piece.

I really appreciate Squawk Back as a whole, because they are contributing something very unique and special to contemporary literature. They want to allow any writer to have the chance to be published—if they have the quality. I do believe that most of the submissions are of quality, but in a normal, more selective magazine would have needed more revision before being accepted. Again, the magazine’s contributions to the literary world are numerous, from their revolutionary format to their willingness to experiment, and I expect great things from them in the future.

— Spenser Davis (

Spenser is a freelance writer from Fort Worth, Texas. He graduated from Texas Christian University, and his work has appeared in The Rumpus and TCU’s student literary journal, 1147.


3 responses to “Destroying False Gods: An overview of the online magazine Squawk Back

  1. Pingback: Review of “Squawk Back” « An Acrobat

  2. Thanks for the love, Spenser. As a fellow Texan, I can only imagine that something about my Texan-ness jumped out at you while you read over my piece at Squawk Back. Again, thanks for the shout-out. Interested in a collaboration?

  3. Squawk Back is the only magazine I’ve ever been “unpublished by”, and pulled from their archives over a year after they accepted and praised my piece. The e-mail was vague, unsigned and included an additional tiny font statement “p.s. i don’t like you”. It’s a “great” way to treat writers.

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