Sunday, May 20, 2018

On Existence and the Justification Thereof

Nature is. That is a complete sentence; nature exists. Further, nature does not tell us why it exists. It is a prerequisite for life, an unrelenting force, and an ineffable beauty. Without nature, there would be no man. Nature does not have to stoop so low as justifying its existence to we impermanent leeches, fattening ourselves with its bounty.

We at this journal have no such power, and therefore no such privilege. Hello! My name is Cory Willingham, and I am the new editor of Hawk and Whippoorwill. H&W is a simple journal with a simple goal: to provide exposure to figures concerned with the ever-relevant themes of "man and nature." In this post, I will make a first sally at justifying our existence.

It is becoming increasingly commonplace to say, "Our planet is not dying, we are killing it." This is a fair statement, but it perhaps distracts from the point with a sardonic rhetorical flourish-- our planet is dying, and we are killing it. I will not say that it is important "now more than ever" to be concerned with nature, but I will say that it is as important as ever. I was at a conference about a month ago, and one of the speakers (a brilliant professor of classics whose name I have unfortunately forgotten!) bemoaned the fact that we as a species have become more distant from nature, and as such we read nature poetry differently. The specific point was that we no longer immediately recognize the smell of donkey urine, but we shouldn't get bogged down in details. The speaker's point was much deeper than his casual tangent would suggest: we, as a species, simply don't think about nature as much as we used to. This is due in large part, of course, to wild urbanization, but there is another point which deserves scrutiny. We are, generally, separated from the world around us by a layer or two. I refer here to the ubiquitous presence of technology.

I don't mean to attack technology; I'm typing this post on a laptop which has provided me untold hours of entertainment, and using the Internet, a resource which has provided me with truly fantastic knowledge. My cell phone keeps me in touch with my friends across the world. Central air is cool. But the growth of technology, and specifically of screen-having-devices, has led to a decline in our collective connectedness with nature. While we know more, we have experienced less. I have seen marvelous rainforests, but I have not stood in their majesty. I have seen the peaks of tall mountains, but I have not breathed their thin air. I am content in my perceptions, erroneously believing them to be suitable replacements for experiences; because of them, I do not think about the natural world around me as much as I should. I do not give it the reverence it deserves

Beyond the obvious complaint that we mostly only touch nature to kill it, there is another complaint which ought to be addressed. So much great poetry has been written because of nature! Wordsworth, Hesiod, Vergil, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Akbar, Stallings, Bos-- these myriad poets have made art inspired by the natural world. But today, nature poetry is hardly the norm. We have poems of loss, of love, of atomism, of fear, and those poetic themes are all intensely valuable. Just as I don't mean to attack technology, I certainly don't mean to devalue non-nature-poems.

The problem is thus: nature is dying around us, and our nature poetry is waning as well. One or the other of these situations may be acceptable, but the presence of both at once presents an alarming concern. We don't think about nature as much anymore, and we don't write about nature as much anymore, and because we don't write about it as much, we don't think about it as much, and because we don't think about it as much, we don't write about it as much, et cetera ad perpetuum. We can't live inside our urban heat domes and leave our progenitor to wither away. Nature is like Tinkerbell. If we don't keep her in our thoughts, she dies. (I've never seen Peter Pan. Isn't that how it goes?)

So, I present to you: Hawk and Whippoorwill. A revitalized and reorganized magazine of nature poetry, designed to give people who write about nature or our role in it an opportunity to remind the rest of us, we world-weary urbanists, to call our mom. Let's get started.

Monday, May 14, 2018

An editor's reply to #MeToo in bookstores

What a relief to read that bookstores have at last assumed their proper role as censors and arbiters of public morals. Banishing Diaz, Alexie, and Wallace is, I assume, only the beginning. I mean, we all know about the Beats—Kerouac (misogynist), Ginsberg (Man-Boy-Love Association member), Burroughs (murderer). But what about Mailer, Bellow, Salinger, Updike, Hemingway, and that notoriously bad father, William Faulkner? Don’t forget antisemites like Pound and Eliot. And you know that Robert Lowell could be savage to people? If you stock Plath and Sexton, aren’t you glamorizing suicide? People say Mary McCarthy had quite a tongue on her. And what about cranks like John Milton—anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, pro-regicide….And please don’t get me started on Byron (incest), Shelley (cheating), Baudelaire (whoring), Rimbaud (gun-running). But these literary cats are the low-hanging fruit. Imagine the moral probity of those bookstores deciding not to stock the shelves with work by and about bona-fide mass murderers—not only the obvious ones, like Hitler and Stalin, but also our own men and women: Nixon, Kissinger, Johnson, the Bushes, the Clintons, Madeleine Albright, Janet Reno (Waco—never forget!)? Then there are lesser criminals like Martha Stewart, who will also need to be purged. But we’re just getting started, aren’t we? From here on, as in any self-respecting theocracy, shelf-space should be reserved exclusively for the works of bona fide saints. Here is where it gets tricky, though, because surely the Bible will have to go—what other book has led to as much bloodshed, from the Crusades to the present? Keep in mind how Jesus provoked a crowd to stone the adulteress: “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”

Food for thought. Another Biblical precept: "Ye shall know them by their fruits."

Sunday, March 4, 2018

"Thanks for the rejection!"

The subject of this blog post is not ironic or rueful. We actually do receive many notes of thanks from authors who, after having their submissions rejected by Clarion, find that they are nonetheless grateful that our editors took the time to reply thoughtfully to their work. Not everyone receives a page-long note, but anyone who specifically asks for feedback on their writing or for an account for our reason of rejection, gets exactly that. We'll talk about other venues they might wish to submit to, if their work is simply out of our scope; we'll mention other authors whom their writing reminds us of, and encourage them to seek them out; and we'll share whatever several points of technical feedback felt salient enough to pass along.

Here are a few messages we've received this year, from authors who took our rejection of their work in a very positive way.
  • Message from RD: "Thanks so much for your remarks. You are one of the VERY FEW who makes this effort, and from the void of bottomless submission piles it is both useful and appreciated. Again, many thanks."
  • Message from WC: "Thanks for the feedback on my story. I look forward to using your thoughtful input in revising and, hopefully, improving it. Once again, I really appreciate your time and consideration."
  • Message from GC: "I sincerely thank you for this kind rejection letter and the very helpful encouragement. I've reread my story and believe your readers are astute. I've re-worked the piece to rein-back the complexity of the language and create more consistent syntax. Thank you again for reading and taking the time to comment so specifically on my work. I hope to submit other stories to you in the future."
  • Message from AM: "I appreciate your comments and thank you for them. At some point I'll try you again with deeper characters and language."
  • Message from AK: "As a poet who has received many rejection letters, I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for your encouraging, positive, constructive response. It truly means so much to me. I will take your suggestions into account with all of my future work. Also, I'll remain hopeful that I may one day re-submit to your publication and then receive a response about publication! Again, thank you for your very thoughtful response. I know how many submissions you must receive, and your time is much appreciated."
All those sound like our rejection process is winning us new friends, not making new enemies.

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Our Clarion editors don't send out discursive, collegial rejection letters just to have something to brag about on the blog. We find that when people understand that our (unpaid) readers paid close and careful attention to their work, they feel valued. When they see that our decisions are made in a context of broad understanding of and appreciation for the contemporary field of small press publishing -- its diversity, its personalities, its opportunities and pit-falls -- they feel Clarion is a hive of knowledgeable operators. And when they see that a rejection isn't the end of their relationship with Clarion, but just the next step in an ongoing correspondence, they're so much more likely to look for our email updates, to follow us on social media, and to recommend our magazine to their fellow readers and writers.

Kindness, in short, is good business. Of course, we'd likely wish to make generosity, acumen and kindness our guidelines, even if it were NOT good business, but its fortunate for us and our goals that our temperamental inclinations happen to align with professional best practices. And we count ourselves generally fortunate that our editorial structure happens to allow for this kind of long-form feedback; not every lit mag out there can find the time to engage so deeply as we do.

Friday, February 23, 2018

All in the name of book-buying

In which our man in Nigeria reflects on the hustle of the local book-seller.
The man who sells second-hand books close to the University's gate, from whom I get most of my novels from, is in the habit of wanting to recommend books for me. 
Apparently, he has read a whole lot of them and feels he is in a better position to decide the best for me. I am often amused at this. I agree that I am quite terrible at making the right choices for commodities I need, but definitely not when it comes to books. I like to browse through and have a good look at them before I decide, and I like to make the decisions myself. 
The few times I decided to humor him so as not to hurt his feelings, and go with his recommendation, I ended up not enjoying the reads. The man is a fan of sci-fi. I hardly understand sci-fi (unless it has a touch of reality, as in Lesley's or Innocent's) and I have tried without success to make the man understand that I would rather select the books on my own. He doesn't even seem to notice I usually don't go with his recommendations, Oga would still jump up to select books for me the next time I drop by wanting to buy. And I observed that he sells far cheaper to me than to others. 
A few days ago, he asked me why I hadn't been coming to check out the books this semester. I thought of how he successfully led me to starve in Year 1 all in the name of book-buying, until I took on the form of a dehydrated okporoko.
In this season, who has that kind of money to spare? 
Chukwuebuka Ibeh is a stringer for New England Review of Books, studying in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A petition to convert Old Corner Bookstore into a Boston literary history museum

Boston's Old Corner Bookstore is arguably among the most important sites in American literary history. It turns 300 years old in 2018. And, at present, its first floor is operated as a fast-food restaurant. 

The Bookstore building is owned by Historic Boston Incorporated (HBI). Recently, HBI was asked to consider converting the Bookstore into a museum of the history of literary Boston. So far, HBI has been unwilling to approve a feasibility study that could produce a practical, long-term plan for this repurposing.

A group of editors, writers and scholars has created a petition to seek support for a change. Pen & Anvil supports this effort, and we're inviting you to show your support as well, by adding your name:

The petition, authored and coordinated by Paul Lewis, President of the Poe Studies Association, is supported as well by the presidents and executive directors of five other literary associations: the American Literature Association, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society, the Thoreau Society, and the Ticknor Society. The petition urges HBI to approve the feasibility study as a first step. We ask you to read the petition, and consider adding your name to the list of supporters if you think a museum of Boston's literary heritage should become a program priority for HBI.

Learn more about the Bookstore at Wikipedia, the website of The Freedom Trail, and this 2017 article from The Boston GlobeFor more information about the campaign, or to ask how you can be more directly involved, contact Paul Lewis at

Important: HBI does a lot of good work for our cultural heritage here in Boston. They saved the Bookstore building from demolition in 1960, and have been leasing out the space for commercial use since 2011 to raise money for other preservation work. Saving the structure was heroic, but it’s time now to put the building to a more appropriate use. The best way we can persuade them that the Bookstore conversion is a strong idea is by presenting ourselves as supporters, collaborators, and good neighbors. Find and follow them on Twitter @HistoricBoston.

If you're so inclined, please share the petition with others who might want to sign, by sharing this URL via email or social media:

Monday, November 27, 2017

The rhymes of terror

The editors of one of our Pen & Anvil journals recently received a submission which came prefaced with an unusual submission letter. Rather than speaking of the author's reason for submitting to this particular journal, or their experiences in writing and publishing, or the work itself, the author's note railed against free-verse, NEA-funded editorial debauchery, and the ascendancy of the MFA as a poetic credential.

The seven rhymed quatrains of the note made frequent allusion to the depredations of the French Revolution, with a high point of pique in this stanza:
Once marginalized, like frail Marat,
the marginalized now make the law
and journals like your magazine
send my work to the guillotine. 
This is not an author our journal had rejected, mind you; rather, this author was hoping to be published in our journal. Are we, unbeknownst to ourselves, more decapitating than captivating?

This method of introduction is not a way of putting one's best foot forward. Instead, it's rather like sitting down on a blind first date, and being harangued by our suitor for rejecting him before we begin any other conversation.

One supposes that this kind of irritated eruption originates in a history of rejection by other editors. Or has this been the author's modus operandi from the start of their career? Put some balm on that rash, buddy. We aren't the murderous tyrants you pretend us to be.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

On Friedmanese and brandnames in print

We love a good, sharp repudiation of Thomas Friedman's trademark style. From a review in Rolling Stone of his latest, Thank You for Being Late:
Friedman's great anti-gift is his ability to use many words when only a few are neccessary. He became famous as a newspaper columnist for taking simple one-sentence observations like, "Wow, everyone has a cell phone these days," and blowing them out into furious 850-word trash-fires of mismatched imagery and circular argument.
Phew! Few things in reviewing are as satisfying as a swift and deserved coup de grace. This review brings to mind another one by Taibbi, written back in 2005, for In it, he takes down Friedman's book The World Is Flat; we featured it on the NERObooks homepage on 08/22/17. Taibbi writes:
Friedman is such a genius of literary incompetence that even his most innocent passages invite feature-length essays. I'll give you an example drawn at random [...] On page 174, Friedman is describing a flight he took on Southwest Airlines from Baltimore to Hartford, Connecticut. (Friendman never forgets to name the company or the brand name; if he had written The Metamorphosis, Gregory Samsa would have awoken from uneasy sleep in a Sealy Posturepedic.)
Emphasis ours, to draw attention to another hobbyhorse of our: capital-letter Brand Names. Up with them we do not put.

Every week or so, it seems a blogger or columnist returns to the low-stakes question of how and whether writers should respect commercial brand names. "Use 'Kleenex' or the phrase 'facial tissue', not 'kleenex'", that sort of thing. "This easy-to-remember keystroke combination will allow you to effortlessly insert the essential symbols indicating copyright, trademark and registered trademark."

Officially, Pen & Anvil rejects this kind of etiquette. To our writers we say: Use Kleenex, kleenex, tissues or boogie-catchers, as the textual context calls for. As editors and publishers, we decline the invitation to serve as volunteer branding police. If a corporation wants our help in enforcing their preferred brand identity, they can make an offer! We'd be required to flag any such purchased copy as #sponcon, of course. Not that most marketing budgets would be able to afford our asking price...

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NB: NERObooks homepaged another Taibbi take-down of Friedman, featuring his review of Thank You for Being Late for Rolling Stone on 12/05/16.