7 October 2020
During last year’s annual conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, more commonly known as AWP (where did the other “W” go?), I participated on a panel called “Big Shoes: New Directions at Old Magazines,” which gathered new editors at established journals to discuss “the challenges and opportunities accompanying change in leadership” at a long-running publication. When preparing for the panel, I returned time and again to a train of thought that came out of the early days of the Asian American Literary Review (AALR). In 2010, Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis and I started AALR, a literary journal that declares perhaps all too baldly our focus. In 2011 we put out a special issue on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and we wanted to get it into classrooms. While working on the push, I wondered, What is the difference between an anthology and a journal? They are both bound volumes comprising works by several authors. However, one is a mainstay of the conventional curriculum, while the other can scarcely be found in a classroom at all. What gives?
The answer I’ve concluded for myself boils down to time, or, rather, the impression of time. The classroom values the anthology’s durability, if not purported timelessness. Conversely, it is the journal’s essential ephemerality that makes it anathema to the general expectations of the classroom. There is an undeniable air of permanence about the anthology. On the other hand, as Joanne Diaz and Ian Morris note in their preface to the edited collection The Little Magazine in Contemporary America (2015), “many scholars of the little magazine argue that such impermanence actually defines the format.” The “impermanence” here references the often-short lifespan of literary journals. But ephemerality works on an even deeper, structural level as the characteristic quality of the journal’s function and role in the greater workings of literature writ large. No matter how grateful writers and artists are to appear in your journal, each poem, story, essay, or image published therein aspires to find its final resting place in a book. For us too: no matter how much we love what is in a particular issue, each number’s ultimate goal, frankly put, is to compel you to read the next. It would be financial ruin to rest on our laurels. What I’ve concluded is that there is no pretense of immortality when working for a journal, a point I repeated more than once to the audience of that panel, banging the table with the latter iterations for increasing emphasis. Theatrics aside—no, no way to set theatrics aside when caught up in this mortal coil.
If, to take a cue from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, one’s vocation in periodicals bars one from the Celestial City, the job does not come without its own delights and values. When working for a periodical, salvation might be too far out of reach—out of sight, even—but one is immersed in the place of family and friends, community and society, the terrain on which one is driven from place to place by conversation. If it is the world of sin, it is also the world of decision and human forgiveness, justice, as well as movement, the world of parable and the knowledge of sin. I personally don’t mind being called to work in and for this world. If a relationship is simply an accumulation of experiences, then there is no venue with a greater potential for a literary relationship than the periodical.
Having written in our last volume’s “To Our Readers” that “print can seem like a slow medium these days,” I can’t sincerely designate “timeliness” as the salient power of print journals. Let’s, rather, take our word from poet, essayist, critic, and DIY editor/publisher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, when he discusses in Biographia Literaria how his discovery of William Lisle Bowles’s poetry ignited a lifelong commitment to literature:
The great works of past ages seem to a young man things of another race, in respect to which his faculties must remain passive and submiss, even as to the stars and mountains. But the writings of a contemporary, perhaps not many years elder than himself, surrounded by the same circumstances, and disciplined by the same manners, possess a reality for him, and inspire an actual friendship as of a man for a man. His very admiration is the wind which fans and feeds his hope. The poems themselves assume the properties of flesh and blood. To recite, to extol, to contend for them is but the payment of a debt due to one, who exists to receive it.
This comes from a nineteenth-century writer whose lectures on Shakespeare were as massively influential as his writings on his dear friend William Wordsworth, who was only two years elder than himself. When I brought this passage up over coffee with a friend who is a scholar of early American literatures, he noted that when someone reads work from a “past age,” the reader necessarily relies on reconstruction to judge the way the author represents the world he/she/they lived in. However, when one reads work by a contemporary, the engagement—whether congenial or contentious—essentially occurs over a world shared in some way. I personally have gone whole years without
the nourishment of “the stars and mountains” and whole other years without the inspiration of “flesh and blood.” As an ardent twenty-something MFA student, I once told one of my teachers with an ounce too much of self-pride, “I’m reading Oppen, because, you know, you have to go way back.” At that time, I didn’t register that my mentor’s career had already begun by that time “way back.” I’ve also spent a number of years immersed too exclusively in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature while working on a dissertation, with nary an admiration to keep my hopes as writer from flagging. It is from having wanted for each that I find it important to read from ages past and contemporary, to have literature inform one’s understanding, on the one hand, about what does and does not change as ages pass, and, on the other, that we share the world with others.
Contemporaneity in this sense is more a mode of reading than a historical fact. (Note the “as of” and the “assum[ption]” in the Coleridge quote.) Indeed, the common concept of the contemporary is especially problematic as a historical marker. Not only is it by definition whisked along by the current of time, its shape is decidedly vague, porous, and under contest, which leads to the characteristic “drift” of the contemporary, as critic Theodore Martin calls it. His Contemporary Drift: Genre, Historicism, and the Problem of the Present (2017) demonstrates that forms of media, particularly popular genres, are the primary means by which we—as makers and consumers together—make sense of our collective present moment at any given time. According to Martin, genre is especially suited to providing the “drag” to the contemporary “drift,” because “the accretive history of genre is a measure of both change and continuity, . . . pastness and presentness.” “Genre,” Martin concludes, “describes the incipient but shared conventions that make historical emergence visible and thinkable in the present.”
As much as this collective understanding works on the level of aesthetic forms, it can also work on the more intimate plane of location, with a periodical being one such place. The ongoing manner of keeping up with a journal is an accretive process always at the borderland between pastness and presentness, and the myriad conversations happening within and between the issues “make the historical emergence visible and thinkable in the present,” primarily through a shared space, rather than a genre, converting shared “conventions” to shared conversations, aesthetic and otherwise. We, of course, initiate the congregating, but publics can be made within publics. So we encourage you to find and make your own conversations as you read number after number of The Georgia Review, if you don’t already. In this issue, we have a long poem by the late Molly Brodak, annotated by her widower, Blake Butler, which offers a bracing exchange between poetry and prose, text and commentary, and, ultimately, lovers. The great Samuel R. Delaney has a story that is, well, written by Samuel R. Delaney. A must read. Meghann Riepenhoff inverts the model of the camera obscura to engage the natural world for photographically created abstractions that register the impermanence of this planet we call ours. This issue also features the winner of the Loraine Williams Poetry Prize, Hannah Perrin King’s “Transcript of My Mother’s Sleeptalk: Chincoteague,” chosen by Ilya Kaminsky, as well as three finalists we’ve decided to feature.
From around the office:
• The calendar year ends. 2019 is what I consider a triple crown year, in which we’ve received top-tier recognition in each of the genres. Moreover, we have earned recognition in both magazine and literary industries, and, most noteworthy to at least me, these accolades span the transition from one editor, Stephen Corey, to the next. Christopher Kempf’s “After,” (Summer) has been included in The Best American Poetry, Tiphanie Yanique’s “The Special World” (Winter) has been included in The Best American Short Stories, Janisse Ray’s “The Lonely Ruralist” (Fall) was awarded a Pushcart Prize, and Jacob Baynham’s “Jerry’s Dirt” (Fall) won a National Magazine Award.
• We will be participating virtually at this year’s AWP. Georgia Review Books authors David Woo and Hannah Baker Saltmarsh will also have panels. Please visit them as well as our virtual booth for sales and revelry.
• If you are reading this hot off the press, there is still time to take advantage of our gift campaign! $30 per subscription, whether it’s a gift to yourself or to a loved one. Visit thegeorgiareview.com before December 31 to find a way to share the experience of reading The Georgia Review.
When reading The Pilgrim’s Progress this year, a poet friend of mine shared in one of her letters a story about a college class that had Bunyan on its curriculum. This was an introductory religion class called “Faith and Doubt,” which she took her freshman year. When she was home, a home built on and stringently maintained by the word of Christ, her mother saw the book and asked, curtly, “are they trying to teach you doubt?” This friend still values Bunyan—learned much from him, thinks fondly of him to this day, and yet still attends church regularly and faithfully, even though she does not find her mother’s comment completely off the mark. And, in a bit of irony so thick with implications that any meaning is obscure to me presently, her paternal grandmother recently passed, and she bequeathed to her beloved granddaughter her prized volume of—you guessed it—The Pilgrim’s Progress. I’m at a loss to extract any coherent learning outcome from this delicious parable the world has given me. For now, I just want to pass it along.