Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine

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The Golden Child: Seven Literary Editors Pick Their Favorite Issues

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Writing about literary magazines in 1930, Ezra Pound noted that “The work of writers who have emerged in or via such magazines outweighs in permanent value the work of the writers who have not emerged in this manner. The history of contemporary letters has, to a very manifest extent, been written in such magazines.” Such a pronouncement is equally true of the present: many of our finest contemporary writers made their debuts in these “little magazines,” and many continue to publish new and exciting work in these publications.

Travis Kurowski, one of the foremost scholars of this literary world, posits in Paper Dreams that “literary magazines, due to their subject matter and even the smallness of their production,” might “create a somehow more significant and longer lasting community than larger circulation magazines and newspapers.” Online and print literary magazines capture and document the literary moment.

Editors serve an essential role in that process. My years of working with editors as a contributor have taught me that they are passionate, discerning stewards. It is often a thankless job to cull through thousands of submissions and deliver far more rejections than acceptances. Yet editors love the opportunity to make discoveries, to champion work, to shape and finally share an issue with readers.

Since they are so devoted to their publications, I asked editors of seven great literary magazines to select their favorite issues. Here are their choices.

1. Poetry – Don Share, editor – February 1931

Like any editor, I’m humbly obliged to feel that the best issue of Poetry is the one I’m working on now, but literary history tends not only to humble, but lay low, most editors: think Thomas Wentworth Higginson, somehow failing to publish Emily Dickinson.  So my choice will have to be our so-called “Objectivists” issue of February 1931.  It was guest-edited for Harriet Monroe by Louis Zukofsky. Zukofsky had been a contributor since 1924, and at Ezra Pound’s urging (they’d met in 1927), Harriet agreed to let Zuk put together an issue of the magazine.  It became something of an albatross for him later (apologies for that metaphor), but the issue was a great success for Poetry.  Featuring such later luminaries as Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, George Oppen, Basil Bunting, William Carlos Williams, and Kenneth Rexroth, among others, it became a kind of blueprint for Anglo-American modernist poetry; and “objectivism” is in all the literary history books now.  An unfortunate and conspicuous aspect of this is how white and male the table of contents is.  Still, it was our most influential issue.  Despite its indisputably legendary status, it also featured work seldom spoken of today: a poem by Whittaker Chambers, who would become infamous later with the Alger Hiss trials; a long-forgotten Imagist poem by Martha Champion, who was a student at the University of Wisconsin; and a statement on poetry by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler so mystifying and obscure that it required a further statement by Zuk and then a rebuttal to that from Ford and Tyler; alas, it’s been that way for poetry ever since. Above all, I love Zukofsky’s frustrated account of the editorial process, for as it turns out, there was no such thing as objectivism:

“Harriet Monroe at the time insisted, we’d better have a title for it, call it something. I said, I don’t want to. She insisted; so, I said, alright, if I can define it in an essay, and I used two words, sincerity and objectification, and I was sorry immediately. But it’s gone down into the history books; they forgot the founder, thank heavens, and kept the terms, and, of course, I said objectivist, and they said objectivism and that makes all the difference. Well, that was pretty bad, so then I spent the next thirty years trying to make it simple.”

Most Poetry readers will have heard of Pound’s dictum to “make it new,” but in reality, this issue of the magazine may well have taught many the virtue of keeping it simple.

2. West Branch – G.C. Waldrep, editor – Spring/Summer 2015

One issue!  So hard, even in the handful of years since I took over West Branch in 2011 — all the children are exceptional, and all of them are deeply-loved.  That said: for me, one of the joys of putting together an issue of a journal is trying to imagine lines of coherence between, across, and among different works.  I spend hours ordering each issue, thinking about these lines, imagining how different works interact with one another.  In that sense, my current favorite is WB 78.  This issue was, for me, grounded in two great short stories — Benjamin Parzybok’s “News of the Week” and Victor Robert Lee’s “Border Control.”  They’re very different, but each time I read them I feel a slug of adrenaline enter my system, and I feel extraordinarily honored to have been the one who brought them to a wider audience.  Each is obsessed with the gaps in desire — the dead zones in which desire, through its absence, bides its time.  There are other echoes throughout the issue:  Parzybok’s taxidermied gorilla echoed in Charlie Clark’s poem “Elegy to a Black Bear Head Poorly Stuffed and Mounted;” the body augmented by damage in Patrick Roscoe’s dreamy story “Beggars” and Roxane Gay’s “Ugly Love,” and again in Brian D. Morrison’s poem “A History of Biting Circa 1599.”  Kasey Erin Phifer-Byrne’s circus poems imagine fire-eating, lion-taming as more ways the body expresses its own insufficiency.  “I can / look away from you whenever I want,” Corey Van Landingham’s speaker asserts in “Exegesis” — but in the end (of the following poem, and otherwise), it’s the irreducible body of the other, its incompletion, its hunger:  “To drink the same milk as a boy / in the city, never considering his mouth.”  His mouth, like the white polar bear you can no longer not imagine.  Yes.

3. The Iowa Review – Jenna Hammerich, deputy managing editor – Fall 2009

My favorite issue of The Iowa Review is our Fall 2009 river-themed issue. In 2008, the Iowa River and its tributaries flooded so badly that FEMA pronounced 85 of Iowa’s 99 counties disaster areas. As a nation, it seems, we tend to use our rivers and forget them, though they’re as essential to our identities as they are to our ecosystems. As our then-editor David Hamilton put it, “We all tend toward belonging to a river.” A collection of carefully curated essays, stories, poems, drawings, and photos of/about rivers, our Fall 2009 issue offers “our representation of River.” In it, artists and scholars from across the country consider rivers’ environmental, industrial, and psychological importance, their various histories and roles in our lives, and the lamentable condition of so many of them. Frederic Will, Fleda Brown, Laura Sayre, and David Wagoner elegize/analyze the rivers in their lives; Amy Leach and Ashleigh Pedersen imagine new rivers, new responses; Anat Pick articulates a river via sound poetry. I’ve never learned so much from one of our issues or been so grateful to have had a hand in publishing it.

4. New England Review – Carolyn Kuebler, editor – Summer 2015

I’ve never been comfortable with the word “best,” but I can’t resist the chance to think about what would make one issue of New England Review better than another, or at least to say what makes an issue — any issue — good. Better. Best. “The China issue,” as we call it around the office, comes to mind both for aspirational reasons and for what it turned out to be. We aspire to publishing more international writing, in a more deliberate way, and putting together this issue taught me how to do that; but it also taught me how, despite their obvious similarities, the China-related writings were just as varied and fit just as well (often better) with their English-language neighbors as with each other. In Vol. 36, #2, Summer 2015, we published reverent, mysterious poems in translation by Ya Shi that seemed to speak intimately with poems by David Baker and Bruce Bond. More politically edged poems by Xiao Kaiyu complemented Wendy Willis’s thoughtful essay about the artist Ai Weiwei, which paved the way for Jeff Staiger’s brainy David Foster Wallace critique. Yin Lichuan’s pop sensibility closed out the issue on the heels of Michael X. Wang’s short fiction about a rural Chinese village, its straight-shooting storytelling power reflecting that of Ed Skoog’s unsettling poem, which preceded it. An essay by the inimitable Marianne Boruch about, as she says, “poetry as diagnosis,” deepened the conversation inwardly, while Camille Dungy’s essay about a trip to Maine showed us how the most superficial of kindnesses reveal something of our racial history. Now, looking back on the “China issue,” I marvel at how it also includes a high-voltage story by Steve de Jarnatt, subtle and gorgeous fiction by Carla Panciera and Sharon Solwitz, James Naremore’s thoughts on Orson Welles at 100, and haunting love poems — if they can even be called that — by Kazim Ali and Vandana Khanna. So, yes, 36.2. Now that was an issue.

5. Brevity – Dinty W. Moore, editor – Fall 2015

It is of course excruciatingly difficult to pick out one favorite issue after 18.5 years, and the truth is, usually the upcoming issue is the real favorite, the one that the editors are most excited about.  That’s how it should be, if the magazine is thriving and growing.  But to say “the next issue is my favorite” would be a cop-out, so I’ll pick our 50th issue, from Fall 2015, for a few excellent reasons: (1) The issue features two of our most frequent contributors, Rebecca McClanahan and Diane Seuss (and they are frequent because they rock words); (2) We finally snagged a writer I’ve long admired, River Teeth editor Joe Mackall, after years of begging him to send something along; (3) The issue is truly international with work by Shahnaz Habib, an Indian writer eating in a Yemeni restaurant, Lina Ferreira, born and raised in Bogota, Colombia, Cary Tennis of Salon fame, now living full-time in France, and Matthew Komatsu, an American but writing about his stint in Afghanistan; and finally (4) All the work is solid, surprising, and strong.

6. Tin House – Rob Spillman, editor – Fall 2007

How can you possibly have a favorite amongst your children? In my case, 67 children or issues of Tin House? The most fun and rewarding, though, might have to be Issue #33, in the Fall of 2007, called “Fantastic Women.” It sprung out of conversations I had with Rick Moody, where we tried to grasp a certain moment we were noticing, that there was something going on with women writers who were pushing the speculative envelope, that their work was distinct from their male colleagues, weirder, more hybrid. I enlisted Moody to help us put together an issue completely devoted to these women (still the only issue of Tin House that has had a guest co-editor). We were blown away by the contributions. It was a thrill to unleash fierce new work by writers like Aimee Bender, Kate Bernheimer, Lucy Corin, Julia Elliott, Samantha Hunt, Shelley Jackson, Stacey Levin, Kelly Link, Lydia Millet, Alissa Nutting, Stacey Richter, and Julia Slavin. It is still one of our most talked-about issues, and one we have subsequently anthologized and expanded into book form.

7. Shenandoah – RT Smith, editor – Spring/Fall 2010

Since a group of Washington and Lee students, including one T.K. Wolfe, founded Shenandoah in 1950, the magazine has published over 200 issues, either in paper or online, so it’s nearly impossible even to contrive a method for selecting the “best” issue — the one with a Seamus Heaney essay?  the Ha Jin story? the Native American issue?  issues with James Merrill poems or Marianne Moore poems?  the issue featuring Richard Wilbur’s essay “Poetry and Happiness?”  Instead, I’ve simply chosen my personal favorite, Volume 60, Number 1-2, perhaps due to the work involved and the pleasure I have derived from editing it and re-reading it.

The Spring/Fall issue of 2010 is a bright red, perfect-bound book of 264 pages adorned with a print of Barry Moser’s woodcut “Mrs. Cope’s Nemesis,” an illustration for the story “A Circle in the Fire.”  Inscribed in yellow are “60th Anniversary Issue” and “A Tribute to Flannery O’Connor.”

Not all the 20 poems are as directly Flannery-related as Claudia Emerson’s trio of character portraits (of Red Sam, LucyNell and Hulga) or Rita Mae Reese’s “Apocrypha: Flannery and the Book of Tobit,” but verse by Rodney Jones, Charles Wright, Dave Smith, and Betty Adcock fan the flames of gothic wit and regionally-sown universality.

And there’s much more to savor — Flannery essays biographical, theological, geographical, anecdotal, and feminist; fiction (by Ron Rash and Joyce Carol Oates) directly referential to the Georgia’s National Book Award-winning Flannery, as well as more obliquely related narratives (by Starkey Flythe, Fred Chappell, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers), photos of the O’Connor farm Andalusia, cartoons, collages, letters from the peacock-loving author to Shenandoah editors.

And I wouldn’t want anyone to miss LaWanda Walters verse homage “Piano Legs,” which brings Glenn Gould and Johann Sebastian Bach to “Good Country People” and the Misfit in that infamous parrot shirt.  Nor Marlon Barton’s moving story “Pasture Art,” which is a visceral account of human suffering and the wishful near-miracle of “a hay dragon spitting red-tin fire” to animate and complete a collection of folk art.

No one could bring to the mysteries of airy nothingness a local habitation and a name better than O’Connor, but those who have followed the trail she blazed have kept the spirit alive, and this issue of Shenandoah, I think, has done a respectable job of compiling and packaging some of the artifacts.  Fortunately, we still have 50 or 60 copies for sale.


Pop Lit: Literary Magazines in Film and Television

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“Small Magazines,” Ezra Pound’s 1931 appreciation of literary magazines, contains a confident proclamation: “the history of contemporary letters has, to a very manifest extent, been written in such magazines.” Commercial publications “have been content and are still more than content to take derivative products ten or twenty years after the germ has appeared in the free magazines.” Pound bemoans that larger publications are unable to “deal in experiment.” Instead, these commercial magazines poach from “periodicals of small circulation,” those “cheaply produced” in the same way a “penniless inventor produces in his barn or his attic.” Thus was created a romantic refrain: modern American writing has its foundation in literary magazines.

Only one of Pound’s favorite magazines still publishes: Poetry. It might be difficult to call Harriet Monroe’s concern a “little magazine”: in 2002, philanthropist Ruth Lilly gave $100 million to the Modern Poetry Association, the publisher of Poetry. That organization has since become the Poetry Foundation, and, according to The New York Times, Lilly’s gift is “now estimated to be worth $200 million.” The gift has lead to an excellent website, interdisciplinary events and readings, television and radio promotion of poetry, and educational outreach programs. But how many readers outside of the traditional organs of American literature — aspiring and published poets, students in secondary classrooms and college campuses, and critics — know of, or read, Poetry?

That might not be a fair question to ask. Literary magazines, by form and function, might require narrow focus. Narrow does not mean niche. Literary magazines have consistently enhanced and reflected larger literary trends without being as noticeable as those wider trends. Experimental publications helped spread Modernist writing and thought. As Travis Kurowski writes in the introduction to Paper Dreams, his comprehensive anthology of literary magazine history and culture, Modernist literary magazines “gave people a tie-in to an imagined community of readers.” Kurowski does not use “imagined” in the pejorative sense. Rather, he speculates that “literary magazines, due to their subject matter and even the smallness of their production, create a somehow more significant and longer lasting community than larger circulation magazines and newspapers.” Note Kurowski’s valorization of community over circulation. I might add further qualification. Literary magazines are uniquely important in observing the ripples, fragments, and failures within trends. They give readers and researchers the ability to see the flash beyond the snapshot, and in doing so, document moments in American literary history with more nuance than what is gained by only cataloging single-author books. Take Granta: 8, Summer 1983: the “Dirty Realism” issue. I once argued at Luna Park that it was the best single-issue ever of a literary magazine. The process was a thankless exercise, but I was attempting to make the point that even an individual issue of a literary magazine offers a complex cultural sample. Editor Bill Buford explains his collection of a strand of American writing marked by concise prose, destructive relationships, and a particular pessimism. The single issue contained writing by Raymond Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips, Richard Ford, Frederick Barthelme, Tobias Wolff, Angela Carter, Carolyn Forché, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Elizabeth Tallent. Not a bad snapshot and flash.

But I’m writing these words as a lover of literary magazines, an affection that was instilled in me at Susquehanna University. The Blough-Weis Library subscribed to Poetry and The Missouri Review, but also gems like Beloit Poetry Journal, where I finally read a poem — “Trout Are Moving” by Harry Humes — that connected me to the genre. If I held a collection by Humes, my 19 year-old mind might have lost interest after a few of his Pennsylvania-tinged, domestic elegies. Instead, I bounded to work by Ander Monson and Albert Goldbarth. Literary magazines made writing manageable and approachable. Our workshop professors used those publications as part of the curriculum, and not because they thought we could publish there. At least not yet. The point was that an awareness of contemporary publishing is necessary, particularly for undergraduates who think the only words that matter are the ones that come from their own pens.

Now when I receive a review copy of a short story collection or purchase a new book of poetry, I immediately turn to the acknowledgments page. And this might be a personal quirk, but I try to find the original issues in which the pieces appeared, and read the work there tucked between writers both established and obscure. I loved Jamie Quatro’s debut, I Want to Show You More, and it yet it felt more personal to read “Demolition” in The Kenyon Review. Literary magazines are the legend to the map of American letters. Yet I worry that this appreciation reveals me for who I am: a writer who submits to these magazines, who uses them in the classroom. This cycle does speak to the insular world of small magazine publishing.

Does anybody outside of our circle care? What is the wider cultural influence of literary magazines? To be certain, I am not sure there needs to be one. An insular economic system will likely fail, as evidenced by the graveyards of defunct magazines, but that does not mean an insular artistic system is inherently bad. Nor should we assume more literary magazines fail than niche publications or commercial releases. Here’s a better question: if for those of us in the circle — writers, readers, editors, teachers, and professors — literary magazines are a mark of credibility and authenticity, what are they to those on the outside? Do these publications carry any particular signification or importance within popular culture?

It would be incorrect to simplify popular culture to film and television, but it is a useful place to begin this consideration. I recently wondered if and when literary magazines have been referenced or included in these visual mediums. I began with two examples that stuck in my mind. In the “Christmas Party” episode of The Office, Mindy Kaling’s character, Kelly Kapoor chooses a “book of short stories” during Michael Scott’s ill-advised game of Yankee Swap. At least to my eyes, that book is an issue of The Paris Review. A more direct literary magazine reference is in the 2007 film Juno, when the titular character says jocks really want girls who “play the cello and read McSweeney’s and want to be childrens’ librarians when they grow up.” The reference was probably lost on many, but on a small but aware crowd, it did its job. Even if that job was simplification.

I couldn’t think of any more examples, so I went to that pop culture land of crowdsourcing, Facebook, for help. My literary friends delivered. What follows is a sampling of some of the most interesting occurrences, with original contributor citation in parentheses, plus my own investigations.

1. In Cheers, Diane receives a form rejection from West Coast magazine ZYZZYVA. Sam writes a poem that is later published in the magazine (Martin Ott). This appears in the “Everyone Imitates Art” episode, which originally aired on December 4, 1986, during the show’s fifth season. Diane enters the bar, overly excited about a letter from ZYZZYVA. Sam asks: “Who’s ZYZZYVA?” Diane responds: it’s “not a who. It’s a new literary review. Dedicated to publishing the prose and the poetry that’s right on the cutting edge.” The magazine was founded in 1985 by Howard Junker. Diane has submitted a poem, and received an extremely swift two-week response. Frasier Crane takes a skeptical look at the letter, and concludes that it is a form rejection. Diane disagrees, saying that it is a “soon and inevitably to be accepted later,” reading that “your work is not entirely without promise.” She proudly says they are “almost begging for another submission.” Sam agrees that the response is a form letter, and boasts that he could submit a poem that would receive the same type of response. The episode breaks, and when it returns, Diane asks about Sam’s poem. He points to a magazine on the bar, and tells her to open to page 37 and read “Nocturne”: by Sam Malone. She drops the issue and screeches. Diane thinks Sam has plagiarized the poem. She vaguely recognizes the overwritten lines. Somehow, in the span of three weeks, ZYZZYVA has received Sam’s submission, responded, and published it in an issue. Writers everywhere roll their eyes. Frasier tries to console Diane: “this literary magazine’s circulation must be 600.” Diane delivers the ultimate literary magazine rejection rant: “The original 600 readers drop their copies in buses and taxicabs and doctor’s offices and another 600 people pick them up and take them to the airport where they go all over the country. Then they get taken on international flights: Tierra del Fuego, Sierra Leone. All the remotest parts of the world. Soon, I defy you to find a house, a hut, an igloo, or a wickiup that doesn’t have a copy on the coffee table. Then, then, everyone in the world, every living thing will be laughing at me because he got published and I did not!” More sting arrives later, when Woody sends in a poem of his own and receives the same form rejection as Diane. Dejected, Diane vents to Sam, who has created this mess. Sam finally admits that he copied the poem from Diane’s own love letters to him. She considers herself published and validated. In the words of Howard Junker himself, Onward!

2. The Paris Review is mentioned in the 2000 film, Wonder Boys (Neil Serven). Grady, a struggling novelist, talks about one of his students: “Hannah’s had two stories published in The Paris Review. You’d best dust off the ‘A’ material for her.” With no further explanation, the reference is an accepted barometer of literary quality. Yet for a magazine quite aware of its social status, the review’s cultural capital seems localized to the literary community. We might be stretching the parameters a bit too thin here, but co-founder George Plimpton appeared in the “I’m Spelling as Fast as I Can” episode of The Simpsons (Aaron Gilbreath).

3. We could spend years arguing whether The New Yorker should be considered a literary magazine proper, but it does regularly publish fiction and poetry, so it merits mention. The magazine appears in the film 42nd Street (1933). Dorothy Brock, played by Bebe Daniels, holds an issue of the magazine with Eustace Tilley on the cover (Win Bassett). In The Squid and the Whale (2005), Laura Linney’s character, Joan, is published in an unnamed literary magazine, and later appears in The New Yorker (Neil Serven). That more prestigious publication is revealed in a scene at a restaurant. Bernard, Joan’s estranged husband, is surprised to learn that an excerpt from her forthcoming novel appears in the magazine. Another character, Sophie, says the story “was kind of sad, but really good.” Bernard changes the subject. Later, their son Frank’s inappropriate behavior at school prompts a meeting with the principal, who, at the end of the conversation, says that she read and enjoyed Joan’s story in The New Yorker: “it was quite moving.” The magazine also appears often in Adaptation (2002), with the identifying “sprawling, New Yorker shit” (Alex Pruteanu). An early scene occurs at The New Yorker magazine office, where writer Susan Orlean — author of The Orchard Thief, which main character Charlie Kaufman is attempting to make into a film — discusses going to Florida to write an essay for the magazine. Kaufman is having trouble due to the “sprawling” nature of the book, hence the magazine reference as literary code. Kaufman first uses the word “stuff”; later, The New Yorker style is “sprawling…shit.” The magazine, with work by Orlean within, appears open and at a restaurant table in the film. Later, Kaufman watches Orlean, seated alone, reading another magazine. In Kaufman’s voiceover: “Reads Vanity Fair. Funny detail: New Yorker writer reads Vanity Fair. Use!” And the magazine’s cartoons were lampooned in “The Cartoon” episode during the final season of Seinfeld (Tim Horvath). The New Yorker’s Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff had some fun analyzing the episode here and here.

4.  In Mad Men, the character Ken Cosgrove has a story published in The Atlantic Monthly (Brenda Shaughnessy). The publication occurs in episode “5G,” the fifth episode overall of the series. The story is titled “Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning.” His contributor bio is as follows: “A graduate of Columbia University, Kenneth Cosgrove has lived in the New York area for most of his life. Working for the advertising firm of Sterling Cooper puts Mr. Cosgrove in a unique position to observe and study the trends that shape America today. This is his first story to appear in The Atlantic.” Pete Campbell, jealous, longs for his own fiction to appear in (you guessed it) The New Yorker, but is disappointed to learn that the piece only makes it into Boy’s Life Magazine (James Chesbro). The Missouri Review’s Managing Editor Michael Nye has a nice reflection on this episode, and the writer archetype in film, here.

Can you add to the list in the comments?

Image via Nigel Beale/Flickr

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