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 NYPress.com. 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...

* * *

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.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

An honest reply to an unpleasant author

A real letter we sent to a real(ly despicable) submitter. Edited slightly for concision and to remove identifying information.
Dear AUTHOR
I'm writing to you as a follow-up to the message ("Thank you for your non-form letter response...") you emailed yesterday to one of our staff members. I wish to advise you that if by adopting an antagonistic and wanton manner, your intention is to attract attention to your writing, you should not hope for much success. 
In my experience such baiting will tend to work against you. (Happily, at the same time it works for the benefit of readers at large, for by such behavior editors are able to identify and ignore personalities who aren't likely to enter into constructive publishing relationships). 
I encounter many different sorts of folks in this line of work, and I instruct the editors and readers under my supervision to expect to encounter the same. We take people as they come, and are as glad to advocate for the writing of an abject asshole as that of the nicest kid on the block, if the work in our view deserves the attention. I explain this so that when I tell you that your submissions and correspondence are no longer welcome at Clarion or any Pen & Anvil affiliate, you won't misunderstand our reason. 
Your venomous message was abuse and vanity of so depraved a species that I find myself entirely uninterested in your experiments in literature. 
Though your email is entirely disagreeable, I will admit to finding a scrap of pleasure in it: I look forward to sharing your message with my colleagues elsewhere in the writing world. They're going to get a kick out of you, vile racist misogynistic enfant risible that you are. (Though, I don't believe you will have much to teach them, however much you think you "know more about writing than they have forgotten." I daresay they know the words "kike" and "cunt" already.) 
Should you require any clarification as to my message and meaning, feel free to look us up in Boston sometime. It'd be an additional pleasure to put a boot square on the flat of your ass. 
With sincere prejudice, and on behalf of the whole pissed-off Clarion family, 
Mr. Zachary Bos, Publisher

Edited to add a post-script:
People have asked, so here we offer one of the messages sent by this contributor to our staff member:
It's funny how starkly you can be reminded that society continues not to validate a woman. You don't have a right to professionalism... if you turn down a piece, you're a cunt.
Edited to add another post-script:

We shared this author's submission with one of Clarion's contributing editors. He writes:
Understandably rejected. I also make my works shitty on purpose and then, instead of spending time to make them better, come up with uncreative insults. I gather from the email address that he is a student. Hopefully he isn't studying creative writing.

Friday, October 6, 2017

On writing after tragedies

On the morning after the latest mass shooting, one of the largest in US history, a writer and an editor met up in a chat channel to talk through their feelings of disbelief, frustration, and wanting to do something constructive. The following exchange, edited for clarity, is a record of that conversation.

WRITER: I can’t believe this has happened again.
EDITOR: What has happened? You fell in love with an Englishman, but you play the fiddle in an Irish band?
WRITER: “At least 50 dead, more than 400 hurt in concert attack.”
EDITOR: Oh yes.
Our inheritance as a society, for being tolerant of our gun-nut uncles at Thanksgiving.
. . .
A senior citizen did this
WRITER: It’s not funny.
EDITOR: It isn’t. Nor was I making fun.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Using Goodreads to learn from bestsellers

This evening, I had a consultation with a young author, who'd asked for feedback on his novella in progress, a kind of bildungsroman in which a Boston boy tries to figure out how to be a man. Good pacing, realistic dialogue; not bad, all told!

I did encourage him to work on tuning his prose style, making it more specifically his own -- to shake off the generic. The narrative and the characters all work, but now the sentences need to be recognizably his.

I had the idea of calling up examples from some recent best-sellers, to show him how three authors who aren't trying to turn verbal somersaults nonetheless create effects that belong distinctly to the genre they're working in. For a touch of poetic flair, I told him -- look at Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. For a clear trade fiction style with a hint of noir, Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train. And finally, for a kind of unabashed sentimentality, Jojo Moyes, Me Before You.

Here's a trick of the trade, if you want to learn from the prose style of best-selling books that you don't happen to have on your shelf at this morning. Go to the Goodreads pages for each of the books you're interested in. There, you'll find there a compilation of reader-favorited excerpts.

Thanks to Goodreads, I was able to source a quick list of exemplary sentences for my author friend. I sent him away not just with recommendations that he check those three books out, but with a typed sheet of illustrative examples that he can readily look over and learn from as he prepares to go over his own book manuscript for an extra polish.

- ZB

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Regarding lit mag submissions and prior publication

This weekend I was at a reading for a group of plein air poets whose work had been gathered together for yet another chapbook by editor Susan Richmond. The poets had been invited to visit the orchards and sculpture gardens of Old Frog Pond Farm in Harvard, Mass., where each of them selected a spot to stand or sit, and in that moment take in the landscape, as a painter does when capturing a scene in the moment. The poems produced in response were each in accordance with this year’s theme: “memoir.”

(At the reading, many people said it was a perfect day for poetry, commenting on the bright sunshine, on the late summer gold in the air. I rather felt that this was a terrible day for poetry… A day suitable for a picnic, or sitting beside the beach, is not a good day for a poem. Snowy days, foggy days, thunderstorm days—any day you have to stay inside, that’s a good day for poetry reading.)

After the reading, we two dozen poets and sixty-something guests mingled on the grass beside the mill pond and ate canapés and drank lemonade while we chatted. More than once, I was asked about our new publication, Hawk & Whippoorwill. Or rather, not a new publication, but one renewed, for H&W was first published in the 60s, edited by August Derleth of Arkham House; and then again in a “new series”, edited by a group of Boston-based writers, about a decade ago. This latest revival is therefore the third life for the magazine.

Given that the order of the day at Old Frog Pond Farm was plein air poetry, it was natural enough that people wanted to talk about the new Hawk & Whippoorwill, the focus of which is poems “of humanity and nature.” It turns out that my call for submissions had been circulating among this crowd, and more than one person there had already submitted. And here is where I get to the point of today’s post.

More than one poet expressed concern that they had committed a faux pas by submitting material that has previously appeared somewhere, be it a blog, chapbook, or even, in one case, as a spoken word performance on the radio.

Here’s what I told them: They should not have patience, as I do not have patience, with publications that give a damn about prior appearances. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Recommended reading: Yukio Mishima

Have you read Yukio Mishima? He's certainly an interesting figure in Japanese literature. Rabid right-winger after the War, in contrast with the popular liberal attitudes of the 1960s. There's Hemingway comparisons, but I think such a likening is lazy. Their writing styles and philosophies aren't remotely similar. People link them because they're both "masculine" writers, who viewed their childhood selves as contemptibly weak, and who killed themselves. Mishima was amazingly prolific. Maybe check out with Acts of Worship (Mikumano Moude) a 1965 short story collection. John Bester did an English translation."

This recommendation comes from Jon Maniscalco a contributing editor to Clarion magazine, and contributor to New England Review of Books (both of which are published by Pen & Anvil). He has spent the last year teaching English in Japan.

Friday, July 21, 2017

"The Translator Vanishes"

Just now on BBC Radio 4's Front Row
Daljit Nagra reads a poem by Liu Xiaobo.
In English.
No mention of a translator.
Do they think Xiaobo wrote in English?
Did Daljit translate it?
Did the poem drift out of the air into English?
And yet the poem I heard was in English and it was a poem.
So what happened to the translator?
Have the police started looking for her?
or him?
Or indeed Daljit?

- George Szirtes




Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Let us remember translators who came before

In the following letter to the TLS editor, Hannibal Hamlin of the Folger Shakespeare Library corrects the record, affirming the need to remember that every age has had its translators, thanks to whose work those who come after may have more ready access to the literature of prior days:
In his review of Paul Davis’s Translation and the Poet’s Life, Henry Power writes that “the golden age of English literary translation stretched from the end of the Civil War to around the middle of the eighteenth century” (February 6), but this was surely the silver age. The golden age began a century earlier. It was not Pope’s but George Chapman’s Homer that sent Keats into raptures, and it was Arthur Golding’s Ovid that Ezra Pound called (extravagantly) “the most beautiful book in the language”. Virgil was translated by Gavin Douglas and the Earl of Surrey, Plutarch by Thomas North, and the Greek and Roman lyric poets by almost everyone. This was also the age that produced the English Bibles of Tyndale, Coverdale, and the translators of the Geneva and the “Authorized” Version, as well as the Psalms of Philip and Mary Sidney (among hundreds of others). Whoever among sixteenth- and eighteenth-century translators were literary giants and dwarves, the later writers were standing on the shoulders of their predecessors.
(Emphasis added.) A neatly packaged call to bear in mind that what writers do today is made easier and better by the labors of those who came before.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

On censorship in some countries of the Middle East

"In many countries in the Middle East, and this is changing in the wake of the Arab Spring, but for a long time censorship of books and film was a very big deal. There were books you couldn’t buy, things with political content would be censored, but there were some genres of books and film that the censors just didn’t understand. They didn’t understand that below these fantasy themes which they thought to be very childish were these powerful political messages. There were these English news journals and things you couldn’t get. Anything critical of religion, whether Islam or Christianity, you couldn’t find. No Christopher Hitchens. And yet you could walk into an English-language bookstore and find America Gods or the The Chronicles of Narnia. All they see is the surface metaphor. They don’t really get what these books are saying." // from an interview with G. Willow Wilson, author of Alif the Unseen.

Roth on writers resisting robustly

“Unlike writers in Eastern Europe in the nineteen-seventies, American writers haven’t had their driver’s licenses confiscated and their children forbidden to matriculate in academic schools. Writers here don’t live enslaved in a totalitarian police state, and it would be unwise to act as if we did, unless—or until—there is a genuine assault on our rights and the country is drowning in Drumpf’s river of lies. In the meantime, I imagine writers will continue robustly to exploit the enormous American freedom that exists to write what they please, to speak out about the political situation, or to organize as they see fit.” // source

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tale of the biblioklept, from American Gods

Now that American Gods has been turned into a television series, interest in the book is once again soaring. Not that it ever really died down; it's a marvelous novel, and enjoys a substantial reputation. 

Depending on which edition you have on your shelf, you may be enjoying a slightly different experience from your fellow readers. The following scene is one of those, and is copied here from the Neil Gaiman's blog. It doesn't appear in some versions, having been cut from the text among other sections, "oddments that [Gaiman] cut out because they interrupted the flow of the story, and it was just a little leaner and worked a little better without them.

In the scene, protagonist Shadow is visiting the library in the town of Lakeside, and thinking back to a library thief he'd known, a fellow prisoner.
He had known a man in prison who had been imprisoned for stealing library books. 
“Sounds kind of rough,” said Shadow, when the man told him why he was inside. 
“Half a million dollars worth of books,” said the man, proudly. His name was Gary McGuire. “Mostly rare and antique books from libraries and universities. They found a whole storage locker filled with books from floor to ceiling. Open and shut case.” 
“Why did you take them?” asked Shadow. 
“I wanted them,” said Gary. 
“Jesus. Half a million dollars worth of books.” 
Gary flashed him a grin, lowered his voice and said, “That was just in the storage locker they found. They never found the garage in San Clemente with the really good stuff in it.” 
Gary had died in prison, when what the infirmary had told him was just a malingering, feeling-lousy kind of day turned out to be a ruptured appendix. Now, here in the Lakeside library, Shadow found himself thinking about a garage in San Clemente with box after box of rare, strange and beautiful books in it rotting away, all of them browning and wilting and being eaten by mold and insects in the darkness, waiting for someone who would never come to set them free.
On the subject of  rare, strange and beautiful books -- check out this slipcase hardcover edition of Stardust, available for the persuasive price of only $120 or so. A steal! (Don't steal books. Well, steal this book. But not this one? This is complicated.)

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Annals of an Editor #74

The ongoing study of editors beset on all sides by personality conflicts, rights permission disputes, and editorial arguments in endless forms most awful. Authors' names have been removed, for the sake of privacy. Source texts other than the Editors' have been paraphrased, abridged and redacted for the sake of respecting copyright, and small changes may be made for the sake of clarity. 

In this episode of AOAE, we reproduce an email exchange between a young Author, and the editors of a literary magazine published by Pen & Anvil. For the sake of this reproduction, we will give this publication the fictitious name Betty Magazine.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Oduor Oduku on the perfect African novel

"It seems like the perfect novel, by an African, should be inert, nonpolitical, it should not be too much, it should be balanced, because readers of African novels are always looking how the sunny-side of Africa is presented. Is poverty in there? How much crime, drugs, war, prostitution, misogyny, patriarchy, feminism, name them. Are you pandering to Western audience interests? Who was your agent, your publisher? White people, right? Who are your friends? Have they influenced how you are presenting Africa to the world? Why is your imagination decadent? Your book should be banned. It is spreading immorality in Africa. Why is your language Christian? Your book must anthropological. Don't caricature us. We are good. It is a perfect world here. Africa is growing. Why are you dealing with old boring themes of poverty and strife? Poverty pornwe all agreed that novels from our 54+ countries should have none of that shit. Why are you only talking about middle class and wealthy people sensibilities? You are not capturing the ordinary lives of Africans. Do that in your next novel. That is why your current book is not selling. The proseah, make it short and clean. I'll send you the UN Convention against long sentences (PDF). Why are your stories experimental? The African novelist is a continental spokesperson. Never forget that."

Poet and critic Richard Oduor Oduku is a founding member of Jalada Africa, a contributor to Wawa Book Review, and Nonfiction Editor at Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. He blogs at https://richardoduor.wordpress.com and can be found on Twitter. This post originally appeared on the author's Facebook page, and is republished here with his permission.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

"Translation is always more problematic..."

"Translation is always more problematic and more simple than it seems. It is problematic because translation clearly cannot do what many people believe it proposes to do: it cannot move a linguistic something from one language and culture to another. It is not even a matter of losing something in the moving process — a 'noise' problem as information science would have it — it is a matter of losing everything in the process and they trying to reconstruct another language's and culture's impression of what the lost thing might have been. What is simple is that the translation is really a reading of a poem, a poem about a poem. 
"For this reason, an endless number of different translations are possible for any given poem—depending, of course, on what one wants to say about the original."
-- from Walter G. Andrews' Introductory Essay to Ottoman Lyric Poetry: An Anthology.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

9 Things 2017 Graduates Need to Get a Job in Publishing

Guest post by Cassandra Jones. Cross-posted from the Bonfire Lit mailing list.

The end of the spring semester is approaching, and with it comes Commencement at campuses all across the country. So many college seniors (myself included) are thinking about how to get from here to there, from recent humanities graduate to entry-level employee in the publishing cosmos.

If you’ve always been fascinated with book culture but now need to capitalize on your obsessive knowledge of writers and writing in order to pay the rent and afford the upkeep on your coffee habit, here are nine tips to ready yourself for the literary job market.

  1. Experience in collegiate literary magazines will give you the editing, formatting, and marketing skills you can point to proudly in an interview. You should understand how to take a project from nebulous idea to printed product. This process takes dedication, organization, and creativity—all qualities any future employer will be interested in, especially employers in the media and publishing industry.
  2. If you don’t have experience with lit mags, don’t panic. Use the summer to build up your CV. Submit to your school’s alumni publication or to any magazine of your choice—Duotrope, The Review Review, and NewPages are all places to find markets ready to ready your submissions. (Consider submitting to Clarion; even if they don’t take your work, they’ll give you good, actionable feedback, and recommendations for other venues.) If that’s not your style, begin a blog on WordPress or Tumblr. All this work will show employers that you are involved as an active participant in the publishing realm; so make your resume current!
  3. You don’t have to be a marketing master, but you should be informed about basic mechanics. Familiarize yourself with the concepts of inbound marketing. Inbound marketing is customer-centric marketing methodology which aims to provide content that will attract viewers. Outbound marketing, on the other hand, focuses on ‘interruptive’ methods (mass e-mails and TV ads, for example). Practice writing blog posts, tweets, LinkedIn, and Facebook blurbs that revolve around educating the customer—if you provide useful information, they will see you as “part of the conversation” instead of an isolated salesman. Use your marketing knowledge to generate content in newsletters or gain more followers on social media platforms—you’ll transform into an employer’s magic millennial dream. This kind of business-oriented knowledge is highly valued in all aspects of the cultural industry, including publishing.
  4. Be aware of social trends and cultural phenomena. Working at Aevitas Literary Agency in Boston has taught me to keep my ear to the ground. What have I seen in the news or in my friend group’s interests that would make a good book? What YouTuber or Twitter user could write that book, and what kind of content would their followers form a readership for? Introducing new ideas or book proposals based on your personal outlook keeps you passionate, and, more importantly, innovative. Parse out a few ideas of your own, and have them in your back pocket for an interview. (Here’s a freebie: “Donald Trump’s tweets turned into a children’s book à la Go the F*ck to Sleep.) Illustrate that you know how not only to conceive an idea, but how to work that idea up into book-form.
  5. Find a mentor. If there is a professor or administrator who facilitates the literary magazine at your college, contact them. Ask how they got involved in litbiz, what the greatest challenges of their publications are, and what advice they have regarding the publishing market. If you’re interning, don’t be afraid to ask your advisor many, many, questions. You work there for free (or not for free, if you’re lucky), and knowledge is the currency you should feel entitled to claim as compensation for your efforts. Ask about the roles of the professionals around you, about the process of book-making start to finish, of your supervisors’ own journey from student to their current role—really, just ask intelligent questions until you run out and then get back to work. Then, ask more the next day.
  6. Have a handle on the tech and relevant programs. No one will expect you, right out of the gate, to be the next Mr. Robot, but it will help you to have an understanding of the primary nuts-and-bolts of systems like InDesign, Photoshop, and HTML. Every hour of familiarity you have with these programs puts you one step higher on the learning curve.
  7. Keep tabs on the industry. If you have the cash, or are looking for a grad present to suggest to mom and dad, buy a membership to Publisher’s Marketplace. Here you can find books by ISBN codes, authors, subjects and other forms of sales data. You’ll be able see how they are selling, or not selling, what their price points are, and which house they were published through. You can also see titles scheduled for upcoming publication, members, and agents—all in all, it’s the ideal database for all things book-related, and a good place to familiarize yourself with (as the name of the site suggestions) the publisher’s marketplace. I also suggest Manuscript Wish List. This one is a bit less serious but still fun. Agents, Editors, Publishers, Literary Assistants, Editorial Assistants, and Interns gather here to throw out ideas for books they wish existed, and share requests for manuscripts. A visit here is good for a quick fix on trends.
  8. Diversify your search. There are many ways to be involved in publishing other than being an editor or author. Look into Design, Sales, Marketing, Production, Public Relations, and E-books. There’s also more employers than just “The Big 5”—Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster. Each of these huge houses has many small imprints, many of which operate with a degree of independence from the parent company; any could be a place where your resume would find a way in. Dig in, do some research, and look for the less obvious opportunities.
  9. Don’t give up. You’ve got your degree—likely a humanities degree—and you’ve got your passion and your ambition; but you’re not getting called in for interviews, and you’re getting tired of sending in applications. Don’t let yourself be weighed down with a chip on your shoulder. There are numerous ways to get into publishing, but not if you limit your choices lacking patience or perseverance. To get from here to there, just do what always works: capitalize on your assets, think outside the box, and stay resilient.
Cassandra Jones helps to manage the Bonfire Collegiate Literary Network, a joint project of Pen & Anvil and the BU BookLab.



Monday, April 3, 2017

Risks of graphomania; the truth about publishing

For your information and entertainment, we present a scene from the British comedy Peep Show, Season 8, Episode 2: "Business Secrets of the Pharaohs." In the following exchange, roommates Jeremy and Mark are discussing Mark's manic, up-all-night habits as a first-time author. Jeremy is concerned in a minimally-invested sort of way, whereas Mark is delusionally confident that his book is going very well indeed.
Mark: I've done 6,000 words since 6 PM.
Jeremy: Yeah, I know. You type like you're trying to massacre imaginary ants swarming your keyboard. 
Mark: I've had seven black coffees and I feel like I'm really nailing it. 
Jeremy: Mark, you're in caps. It looks like you've been in caps for a few hours. 
Mark: Caps still count! I've just drawn an irresistible comparison between Mentuhotep V and Branson. I'm thinking of drawing Branson as a hieroglyph. What do you think?  
Jeremy: I think maybe you should get quite a lot of sleep. 
Mark: I just need to hit a thousand more words, then a spell-check, then I'm done. 
Jeremy: Ah, don't worry about the spell-check, dude. 
Mark: You don't think?  
Jeremy: No. They'll have a big spellchecker with all the latest words. That's what publishers are these days: spellcheckers who take you out for lunch.  
Jeremy: (thinking to himself) "Yeah, keep killing those ants, Charles Dickens."
There is much which is inarguably true in this comic back-and-forth. For one thing, we all know a Dickens. (Don't be a Dickens.) For another, publishers themselves would generally agree that they are really nothing more than elaborate spell-check services with a penchant for expensed lunch-hour indulgence in martinis and club sandwiches. Truth in art.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

AGNI's Sven Birkerts on Derek Walcott

The following essay is from the editor of AGNI magazine, Sven Birkerts. It was sent this morning to subscribers via mailing list, with a subject line: ""We mourn a loss & celebrate a career."

We reproduce the text here since it is not otherwise available online.

No Man Loses His Shadow
by Sven Birkerts 


Derek Walcott & poet Katy Aisenberg in Cambridge 1980s
Derek Walcott died on March 17 at his home in Saint Lucia. The Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright taught at Boston University for several decades, starting in the early 1980s. He founded Boston Playwrights' Theatre, which continues to flourish and has been the site of AGNI's twice-yearly publication readings for many years now. He was also, along with Leslie Epstein, Rosanna Warren, and Robert Pinsky, a valued member of our Advisory Board.

These words feel very formal.
Until shortly after my arrival as editor in 2002, our office (singular) was a cluttered narrow room at Playwrights' Theatre, directly and audibly opposite the stage and rehearsal space, where Derek was often to be found, sitting off to the side with a sketchbook on his lap, drawing as he listened, and from time to time barking out a gruff admonition to the actors. 

Room 222
Though his advisory role at AGNI did not require much hands-on engagement, Derek's presence was pervasive, especially in his early years at BU. For starters, there were his regular poetry seminars in the legendary Room 222 at 236 Bay State Road - just upstairs from where our offices (plural) are now housed. This is the "If walls could talk" room, where Robert Lowell once taught Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and George Starbuck, and where Derek opened the doors to poets like Melissa Green, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and interested auditors like Askold and myself.

The literary conversations continued on in various eateries or at Derek's large apartment on St. Mary's Street, and the mix was made warm and rich - and antic - when his friends Joseph Brodsky, who was teaching at Mt. Holyoke College, and Seamus Heaney, recently arrived at Harvard, started coming by. AGNI could not but take energy and inspiration from its proximity to this convergence of master spirits.

Altogether, Derek's work has appeared in six separate issues of the magazine, starting with AGNI 15 (1983). In addition, he agreed to let designers Shawna Parker and Wyn Cooper create a broadside of "A Sea-Change," a poem that had first appeared in AGNI 67 and was later reprinted in The Best American Poetry.

AGNI's "A Sea-Change" broadside
But this still sounds like public reminiscence. I don't feel I'm really getting Derek the poet, the person, or the influence he exerted on our little world.

The poet ... I don't know what I can say that has not been said by the best critics in a hundred variations. Derek fully claimed - owned - his place of origin and, from its images and speech-cadences, created his own poetic idiom. His lines are utterly distinct from the lines of any other poets. They are sea-haunted, never losing the pulse of long waves; they memorialize the life of place. Mainly St. Lucia, but other places, too - England, Italy, America ... One of Derek's first celebrants, poet Robert Graves, wrote early on that he "handles English with a closer understanding of its inner magic than most, if not any, of his contemporaries." I understand that "inner magic" to be its music, and reading this I can't but remember Derek in that upstairs room insisting that we all enunciate words of the old song "Shenandoah," counting out its perfections line by line.

He was not, in the orthodox sense, a man for the classroom. He used no comprehensive syllabus, had no interest in laying out the standard takes on any poets. Like his friend Brodsky, Derek proceeded by way of an impulsive-seeming intuition, taking off from whatever happened to catch him - a student's poem, a classic - tracking rhythm, sound, and image, repeating and repeating, slowing things down to make sure we understood their sources in the body. He did the count, the beat, be it Tom O' Bedlam's "From the hag and hungry goblin / that into rags would rend ye" or Hart Crane's "How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest" - and each time Derek would show himself bedazzled anew as he underscored the emphases. His delight was a big part of his instruction.

Years passed and as time went on we all saw less of Derek. His Nobel Prize brought fame and travels and other teaching; he returned more often to Saint Lucia; his health began to decline. Still, now and again he would show up in his old haunts. I had what felt like a body shock one afternoon. I had taken the elevator to the fourth floor to pick up our AGNI mail, and when I turned back into the corridor, Derek was standing there. I hadn't set eyes on him for several years and right away I sensed a change, a new distance. I didn't presume much more than a nod and a greeting. He nodded back, friendly but not forthcoming. The man looked deeply tired. We passed those few seconds riding down together in an awkward silence. I suddenly recalled him telling a story at a party about being in an elevator in London and realizing that the man next to him was none other than Laurence Olivier. Well, I was not Olivier, but he knew me. I had written about his work - twice glowingly, then once with a few reservations. Was he remembering that last review? How egotistical of me to suppose I was in his thoughts at all just then.

Many of us knew for some time that Derek's health was bad, worsening. When news came of his death, it was not a shock. The first report came via social media, and right away the airwaves - the cyber galleries - were crowded with images, quotes from his poems, reminiscences. The public homage from all quarters was intense. It seemed the whole world knew and loved the poet. The adulation made it very hard to see the man I had known. But then - wonderfully, surprisingly - there were the lines and likenesses that registered, that threw open a door, put me in the presence, if only briefly, of our old friend. I recovered a taste of those nights - nights of irreverent hilarity, of jokes and jibes that can't be repeated here - and at the same time felt again the freshness and immense dignity of the work.

As he wrote in Omeros:

No man loses his shadow except it is in the night, 
and even then his shadow is hidden, not lost. At the glow
of sunrise, he stands on his own name in that light.

Derek stands there now. We miss him.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Derek Walcott, 1930-2017

The following testimony comes from the Jamaica poet and essayist Kei Miller. We share it here with his permission.

Walcott is one of only a handful of poets for whom the superlative will always be insufficient. He was, quite simply, the great poet of the Caribbean and then beyond. He once told me that poetry was not a democracy. It was, instead, a kingdom and not everyone could enter it. If that is true, we should fly the flag at half mast, because the king is dead. RIP Derek Walcott.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Angela Carter's force and form

This New Yorker review of the authorized biography The Invention of Angela Carter might itself be thought of as a pocket biography of the writer, a novelist and fabulist of great achievement whose recognition in life was never, we think, proportional to her talent. The New Yorker piece is a lovely long read, full of lovely toothsome bits of bio; here's a taste:
In 1976, she accepted a commission to translate Charles Perrault’s fairy tales. She had been back in England for four years, but she was still living off the psychological tank dive of her Japanese period. After the Perrault volume was published, she embarked on The Bloody Chamber, with her own, reconceived versions of Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. This is her great book, the one that only she could have written, the one in which everything that was good in her came to the fore and everything that had been bad became good. She was always best in the short form, as her friend Salman Rushdie noted. In her novels, he wrote, her voice, “that moonstone-and-rhinestone mix of opulence and flim-flam, can be exhausting. In her stories, she can dazzle and swoop, and quit while she’s ahead.”
Now, there's craft wisdom for you. Gem-work can delight but it can also dull its own dazzle with overdone. (Does this principle not seem related to the old saw quoted by Guy Davenport, "Every force evolves a form"?)

Whether your genre is long fiction or short, watercolor or marble, aphorism or treatise, you've got to know what works in those bounds, and what fails. Carter -- as any of her readers will tell you -- wrought wondrously when her forces were well-fitted to their form.

(Thank you to NERObooks contributing editor Jenna Bos for bringing this New Yorker piece to our attention.)

NB: If you like Angela Carter's fabulist short fictions, we advise you to take a look at Peter Caputo's collection Saint Medusa. Similar intelligence is at play there, working its magic upon similar source material.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Pushcart editor on The Right to Publish

The right to publish what you believe is an essential of any democracy. It is not to be denied by government, local censorship or publishing conglomerates. 

-- Bill Henderson, editor of Pushcart Press, in his Preface to the revised edition (1980) of The Publish-It-Yourself Handbook: Literary Tradition and Know-How.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Dialing up in response to Trump, The Baffler adds columnists

The Baffler is one of the finest intellectual little magazines published today, in the same class as The Hedgehog Review, The Point, and n+1. In their latest newsletter blast to subscribers, the editors announce the addition of a new team of columnists to help extend their coverage of culture and society in the age of ascending Trumpism, bigotry, and political oppression. Here follows the text of that email announcement. If the work they are doing stirs you to subscribe, you can do so by following this link. 

Dear friend,In spite of our despair, bewilderment, and precarious finances, The Baffler has assembled a team of new columnists to respond to the Trump era.Our focus is the grassroots political issues—the sort of issues whose mainstream neglect got us here in the first place. We’re also increasing our books coverage, in honor of our illiterate commander-in-chief and our vocabulary-challenged Secretary of Education.Here’s just a few of them:
  1. Sarah Jaffe will travel across America introducing us to the independent resistance movements—from economic solidarity organizations in Mississippi, to black youth activist groups in Chicago, to labor unions in Minnesota—that have cropped up against our new regime.
  1. Jessa Crispin and Siddhartha Deb will take turns unraveling the literary world’s political visions.
  1. Niela Orr will will cover what remains of pop culture in our current demagoguery.
  1. Hussein Ibish will track the august western tradition of Islamophobia.

As a newsletter subscriber, you know how (unfortunately) prescient The Baffler has been about downward civic spiral. With this new lineup, we’ll be able to keep you apprised of both the state of our kleptocracy and the movements and ideas working against it. We hope you’ll support us by purchasing a year-long print subscription to support this expansion.Subscribe today, and you’ll get four of our newly designed issues for $24 dollars. That’s a 20% discount on our standard rate.Each of our 184-page issues is absolutely free of liberal pieties and conservative rage. It’s one way to know what’s really going on.Click the link below to start your subscription.Best Wishes,Valerie Cortes
(Please note that neither Pen & Anvil nor the Boston Poetry Union have any business relationship with The Baffler or its principals; we share this news only because we find it laudable and noteworthy.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Photo from the NYPL Writers Resist Event

BUT ABOVE ALL THINGS TRUTH BEARETH AWAY THE VICTORY.

This quote is carved in stone on the exterior of the New York Public Library. Its source is Zerubbabel, a young bodyguard in the court of King Darius, in Esdras, an ancient Greek version of the biblical Book of Ezra. Chapters 3-7 tell of a contest during a feast between Zerubbabel and two of his fellow guards to see who could write the wisest sentence. The full text: "Women are strongest, but above all things Truth beareth away the victor."