Rowan started Golden Handcuffs in 2002 because "no one else was doing it"--meaning, no one else was publishing old-guard experimental writers (many of whom had been blackballed by the big publishing houses in the '70s) next to work by younger, relatively unknown talents. The first issue, to Rowan's surprise, was held together thematically by lots and lots of kinky sex. (That hadn't been his intention.) In "The Wedding of Lucky Pierre," a short story by Robert Coover, two prepubescent children engage in their first sexual experience:
She takes it in her soft childish hand and bends it this way and that as if trying to see where it came from. It's so tiny! she exclaims.
--Well, I'm still just a little boy.
--But it's very pretty. It looks like a little rubbery clothes peg. She thumbs the head of it test its resilience, making him jump and giggle. May I kiss it?
It is particularly apropos that this story of young, experimental sex appeared in the first issue of the nascent Seattle-based literary magazine. Starting with sex was the safest thing Rowan has done for his magazine, and since the first issue he has taken increasingly large risks within its pages.
In a city defined by an almost complete lack of good literary magazines, Golden Handcuffs Review attempts to do what many literary magazines in Seattle, and around the country, are afraid to do: collect experimental and difficult works and publish them in a high-quality format. "'Experiment' means that you're finding something new," says Rowan, adding that he wants to allow writing to be difficult because that encourages intellectual growth.
In the second issue, Rowan included a short piece entitled "Sous l'etoile du chien" by Bernard Puech, and declined to translate it out of its original French. ("To attract a more international audience," he explained.) The layout mixes prose and poetry, and the last third of each issue is usually dedicated to responses from other writers to the works inside. This allows Rowan to hedge a little. If the pieces are particularly difficult (for example, a stanza of Robert Mittenthal's "Diseconomy of Scale" reads: "In Curtis' theatre--a policeman sings figures of disgust. The velvet tropes of vaudeville--courtesans of memory under conical hats"), Rowan includes a reflection on it by someone else at the back of the issue. Laynie Brown untangles Mittenthal's poem thusly: "This work comments aptly upon signs of cultural decay, or lack of substance in what often stands in for wakefulness." Having built-in commentary makes the magazine more accessible, but, since the comments are generally written by other experimental writers, they are often works of art themselves.
Although politics was not at the forefront of Rowan's mind when he started the magazine, he acknowledged that art and politics are often inextricably linked. Read all at once, the issues--now four in all--seem to have become increasingly political, grumpy, and cynical. After one critic of the magazine accused Rowan of publishing a "political" journal (in the second issue Rowan included a poem that made reference to Kandahar), Rowan wrote an editorial titled "Our Foreign and Military Policy" in response. His acknowledged cynicism increasingly permeates the magazine. The sex is still there, but in the more recent issues many of the characters involved are jaded and wounded. In "Running on Empty," the first of three posthumously published stories by Robert Sukenick in the current issue, the narrative shows a grown-up self-awareness--no longer innocents at play. The stakes are higher. The risks are larger:
The apartment consists of one large impractical room, painted black from ceiling to floor, a hooker's fantasy of a glamour pad. The woman he moves in with likes it, she has strong hooker fantasies. Maybe more than fantasy, her solo expeditions in the city, he doesn't ask. Maybe it turns him on.