troubledno scratch that, I hatethe consensus-building,
we're-all-in-it-together tone of most literary magazine editorials.
The pithy story of an idiosyncratic English department tradition in
Alabama is often told with the imperious use of the third-person plural
"we," which I assume is used to deflect any blame toward the teller
for imparting such a cheesy, writerly raison d'être at the beginning
of a volume.
It's a cashing in on a birthright, simple as that. To me, it's often
just the flashing-light indication that I'm not in on the joke. I've
also come to think it's time for the editor to step down after 15 or
so years of wheel-spinning and let some new kids run the place.
Don't get me wrong. I've written a couple of those intro tracts myself,
and so are a party to the very thing I criticize. But after much self-flagellation,
and after ducking the duty of an editorial in the last issue (I just
wrote one sentence, a promise I knew I would never keep), I feel I have
to get my predilection out of the way, right in my first paragraph:
Editorials, introductions, prefaces, whatever you want to call them,
when appearing in a literary periodical, rarely serve any purpose but
to give the frustrated editor-in-chief a soap box on which to pronounce
the politician's generalities, to thank whichever body of patrons led
to its printing, or to lament the untimely death of the 87-year-old
editor emeritus. Or, worse and most typically, to try to make a unified
theme out of a hodgepodge of accepted work.
And so for a couple of paragraphs, I'll riff, in a specific way, on
what I think about current writing. It won't change you're life, but
hell, let's talk for a while.
A funny thing about Web design is that once a certain "template" is
set into place, it's hard to change it. Rather than a bound book, which
can have differing elements on its pages, a Web literary magazine usually
works from the same boilerplate design. So when we talk about word processing
affecting the length of so many nonfiction tomes, for instance, we also
have to talk about the subjugated editor who, three issues into making
a curatorial statement, must justify his or her existence, yet again.
I suppose one could just place a childhood picture in the place of the
text as a sort of David Eggers method of rock-and-roll irony, but that's
just not my style. It should be nobody's style, really, but that's another
piece of wood on which to nibble.
Last issues' foray into irony, for instance, by publishing a haiku by
Rick Rockwell, had gone virtually unnoticed by literary folk. There
were no scandals started by the announcement of this editorial catch.
No one e-mailed protesting its inclusion. One person who joined the
e-groups mailing list made a crack about how long the bio wasa
mis en scene irony, truth be told, a send-up of long-winded bios, another
joke non-gotten. Most telling, many of the writers I spoke or corresponded
with simply didn't know who this minor celebrity was. But wasn't it
funny or telling or even poetic to have a real TV star write a poem?
thoughts sprang to mind as an explanation of the silence. One, writers,
real writers, don't watch TV, and so are blissfully ignorant of the
trash culture around us. That's the ex-Catholic explanation.
The real one, the one that makes me want to reprint manifestos pasted
on a tree in the "About" section, the thing that keeps gas in the tank,
the one that helps me put together issues of a literary webzine, is
that there are writers who, either in implied alliances or through out-and-out
reference, believe that what is happening now, rather than a museum-piece
notion of what writing can be or sound or look like, can actually be
made an aesthetic experience. Since the misreading of Wordsworth's notion
of tranquility, if we look at the past, say, 100 years of poetry, we're
looking at a lack of evidence of the culturenot only of Fox network
reality TV show in-jokes, mind you, but also of the irony used in painting
for the past century, of pop music in the past 50 years, advances in
science, phones, movies, even modern plumbing. All are missing from
literary writing, in particular poetry.
The critic Richard Poirier, examining Emerson's take on this 200 years
ago, sees our current love of glaring generalities as somehow beneficial;
how the desire for universals, in a sense, keeps our geniuses in check.
What a luxurious time indeed it must have been when, as he writes, a
"stylistic impulse that becomes especially evident when the writer's
rhetorical claim to ordinariness is coupled, as it so often is, with
rhetorical practices that give every indication of individual, eccentric,
and unique mastery ..."
Oy, vey. If only poets these days actually had an actual eccentric impulse
to keep in check, when the criticality of the present time on creative
writers has it in check all too neatly. What results from all this,
Poirier says, is a poet's "mythology of public philosophy and public
poetry," which, I would say, ends up demonstrating how opposed a writer's
desire is to individualized subject matter, and by extension culture,
and by extension the real world.
So when the poet sets pen down to paper, from theory to practice, Poirier
says, we are burdened by the ages to keep to an ersatz notion of ordinariness,
that of a gumshoe writing poems on an extended vacation from the real
world. The same can be said, I think, for literary fiction or even first-person
newspaper pieces. Any notion of particularity in this Balkanized post-Clinton
culture is suppressed by generations of misreading and misappropriations
of William James and Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Stylistically," Poirier continues,
these works "dramatize how difficult it is to use language when, if
one is to be true to oneself, it must presumably be at odds with prevailing
or accredited usages." Which, when one thinks about it, is one of the
major reasons poetry is written, as opposed to prose or ad copy. Frost,
another one of Poirier's favorites, used a single word for the antithesis
of this: "extravagance."
So when I say I don't like writing editorials, it's really from this
frustration of looking out at other literary magazines, opening their
pragmatic pages, and reading about well-wrought urns of backyard gardenias,
islandscapes afforded only by the genteel or pedigreed, or, worse, those
who do not have those experiences, can't afford them, but are motivated
by the writing establishment to write that way, in the faux-Cheever
swimming pools of non-reference, or as one poet once put it, "Frank
O'Hara in the suburbs." This is old hat, mind youthe McPoem, as
Donald Hall puts it. These are old axes to grind, and always sound much
too prescriptive for remedying a problem that, in many ways, cannot
be solved. But lately, with poets my own age buying into the idea of
pedigree and class and tastes in women and men and furniture and the
very tempo of their speech mimicking it, it's become more immediate
to me. Hell, it's made me turn to prose. Which, when you think about
it, has turned out to be the worst kind of poetic karaoke.
But La Petite Zine, I say to myself, inhaling and exhaling slowly,
is different. It is one of the best magazines out there, period. It
is extravagant. It has interesting prose. It has funny parts. It subjects
I think all editors have to think this way about their publications,
but I think, given my own dilemma about current writing, the situation
is all the more urgent. Perhaps more drastic measures should be taken.
But I've learned that now, after putting together three issues, that
simply saying that the poetry in this issue rocks is enoughfrom
Denise Duhamel's millennial sentiments to Angelo Verga's blotter technique,
to new (an indeed extravagant) East Bank editor Henry Singer's homage
to science fiction series Salvage 1. These are writers, I think,
who appear in the context of other journals and bookshelves as almost
token examples of how the real world can be engaged in song, but only
in LPZ can they actually preach to the converted. This is untrue, of
coursebut a little ideology goes a long way. Without the brand
of boosterism editors are merely adjuncts to shopping malls and colleges.
In these pages, there's allowing for, you know, negative capability,
throes of "un-/speakables" in Louis Armand, or what TV is like when
you're dead to poet and Internet publishing visionary Sal Salasin. All
referentiality, all non-referentiality comes naturally in a great poem,
a great story. As Brenda Hillman said last week at a reading here in
New York, and many others say as well, "all great writing is experimental."
As it should with great writers, and, as AC/DC says, for those about
to rock, we salute them.
It occurs to me, on the night before I try to make this page live, to
set the presses rolling, that I've actually gone and just written my
own brand of a hokey literary magazine editorial. Oh well. You can only
fight city hall so long. Enjoy the issue, and excuse my vehement love
for the specific.
Daniel Nester, Brooklyn,
NY, April 8, 2001